Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics


These are serious times, or so our governments keep telling us. Strangling economies with their austerity policies, they assure us that they have no choice.

In a world where “there is no alternative”, how do you dissent? Once upon a time, graphic designers would have made political posters and typeset manifestos. Today, protest has new strategies. Enter the internet meme. With its Darwinian survival skills and its viral potential, the meme is a way of scaling up protest. Hackers and activists have learned to unleash the destructive force of a Rick Astley video. They have let slip the Lolcats of war. Pranks have become a resistance strategy. As the rise of Beppe Grillo in Italy testifies, this may be the hour to fight nonsense with nonsense. Jokes are an open-source weapon of politics, and it is time to tap their power.


Metahaven is an Amsterdam-based design collective specialising in politics and aesthetics. Founded by Daniel van der Velden and Vinca Kruk, Metahaven's work reflects political and social issues through research-driven design, and design-driven research. In 2010, Metahaven published Uncorporate Identity, a design anthology for our dystopian age, with Lars Müller Publishers. Vinca Kruk teaches editorial design at ArtEZ Academy of Art and Design, Arnhem. Daniel van der Velden teaches design at Yale University, New Haven, and at the Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam.

Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? Memes, Design and Politics

I’m sifting through a bunch of old records, and the smell of dusty cardboard and vinyl, softened by the summer heat, fills the decrepit record store. Passing through the same old Michael Boltons and Ultravoxes, I pause at an album by George Clinton, the legendary founder of Funkadelic. The album title is Some of My Best Jokes Are Friends. It was released in 1985.

A few hours later, I’m browsing the internet looking for evidence of political reform in Europe after the financial crisis. There is almost nothing; it’s the same old system obsessively staring at its own growth, or the lack thereof. Except for Iceland. Its constitution was rewritten by “crowdsourcing”–a trendy word for getting direct input from as many people as possible. The country brings its own corrupted bankers to court, where it has some trouble getting them convicted. The mayor of Reykjavík, Jón Gnarr Kristinsson, is a comedian; his party, the Best Party, became popular by parodying ruling politicians. In a pleasant combination of dispassionate rationality and raving madness, Iceland – a state with the population of a small city – seems a laboratory for reinventing politics. In Italy, a new kind of populist movement is gaining ground, headed by the comedian Beppe Grillo. His slogan Vaffanculo (“Fuck off”) has hundreds of thousands in its grip; his performances are entertaining political rants that promote self-organization and human values. Grillo is against Italy’s participation in the euro currency and, by virtue of that position only, fits into Europe’s centrist-totalitarian media discourse as a “dangerous” politician. His weapon is comedy, and what makes it effective is its natural juxtaposition to both the pompous “common sense” of technocratic bailout rule and the perverted, corrupted oligarchy of Berlusconi. Yes, Grillo is a merciless populist; but that’s not why he is popular – popular enough to come third in Italy’s February 2013 elections.