“This post aided me on my journey to personal wealth and happiness,” reads the hover text on the upvote button. “This post is unprofitable and thus useless,” reads the text on its counterpart.
Welcome to /r/LateStageCapitalism, a Reddit page where even the content rating system is a satire of the constant monetization of our daily lives. It’s one of many online forums where a leftist brand of humor can flourish, composed of anticapitalist memes, caustic jokes about current affairs, and a sprinkling of underreported news stories and research papers.
When content on LateStageCapitalism achieves a certain level of popularity, it can break out to other subreddits or even the homepage, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. And beyond merely bringing socialist humor to a wider audience, this means the left is starting to gain ground in the meme wars — a battlefield the right has been dominating for a long time.
As commentators have observed, humor is a tool that has been explicitly adopted by far-right groups as a way of smuggling extremist ideologies into the mainstream. In a comprehensive report into online media manipulation, Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis of the Data and Society Institute outlined how online communities like 4chan, originally known for generating offensive content simply for shock value, have increasingly been co-opted by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists as forums in which to openly discuss ideas that are far beyond the political pale.
But by the same token, the radical left — a movement often portrayed as humorless and overly sensitive (sometimes justly, other times for refusing to see the funny side of rape jokes) — is waking up to the fact that humor can be the secret sauce that makes challenging ideas more appetizing to the mainstream palate.
Members of the alt-right are certainly under the impression that their efforts have reshaped the political landscape: “We memed him into the presidency,” one man told a reporter from This American Life after the election of Donald Trump. (This would seem self-aggrandizing if it weren’t so apparent that, post-election, the president himself really does pay attention to some of the most fringe voices in American media.)
So, in light of what we’ve learned from Pizzagate and Pepe the Frog, another question arises: If the alt-right can build political presence on the back of meme culture, can the hard left do it, too?
Memes about socialism and, more broadly, progressive politics have had a growing presence in online spaces over the past few years, beyond just the channels of the partisan left. The proliferation is partly caused by increasing adoption of social platforms — in absolute terms, memes of all kinds are produced and shared more quickly as social media use continues to rise — but more specifically, because the past decade has seen a number of galvanizing events for the left: the Bush years giving way dramatically to the election of Barack Obama, the heavily digital organizing of protests during the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement of 2011, which in turn created a climate where Bernie Sanders could almost clinch the Democratic nomination as a socialist candidate.
During the time of the Vermont senator’s campaign, Bernie Sanders’ Dank Meme Stash was a hotbed of recaptioned pictures and MS Paint masterpieces dedicated to #FeelingTheBern. After Hillary Clinton’s subsequent win — and then loss — the mantle was taken up by Sassy Socialist Memes, a Facebook group more than 1 million members strong, presided over by a banner image of a hipsterfied Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Browsing the page, it’s clear that the focus is on jokes rather than critique. Even so, the group, which is the largest of its kind, functions as an accessible entry point into socialist thought that still manages to reference a large cast of historical revolutionaries and workers’ resistance movements.
In contrast with the levity of Sassy Socialist Memes, the humor of LateStageCapitalism is much darker, a cynicism that oscillates between biting sarcasm and a need to laugh at adversity. The rules spell out that this is a place for “the horrible things that the capitalist system forces people to do in order to survive within it” as well as “zesty memes, videos and GIFs that critique the social, moral and ideological decay of western capitalist culture.” The forum is not so much socialism played for laughs as capitalism mined for the little absurdist joy it can provide us, and this tightrope act between laughter and despair is part of the fascination.
“Marx once said that the great events and people in history happen twice: first as a tragedy, second as a joke,” the moderators of the subreddit tell me in a joint statement. “That’s where we come in. We view the fracturing of our world through a comedic lens, while knowing that the end is also the beginning. Our tone is a pessimistic one, for sure, but it’s the pessimism of someone who knows we can fix the problem.”
Socialism has always been a heavily charged topic in American public life. In the wake of the Cold War, it became toxic by association, banished to the fringes of mainstream politics, championed by labor unions or campus clubs but seldom by mass movements. Slogans and viral images did not by any stretch bring socialism back, but for a younger, digitally connected generation, they function as a gateway into centuries-old traditions of leftist thought. “Obviously memes aren’t the be-all and end-all of political engagement, but they can often help explain and engage young people in a discourse that they get shut out of,” an 18-year-old student told Broadly in a feature on how meme culture is getting teens into Marxism.
It is also safe to say that socialism is much more appealing to young people in 2018 because capitalism has so manifestly failed to deliver tangible benefits for millennials. As a recent Huffington Post article illustrated with devastating clarity, the generation born between 1982 and 2004 has been caught in a perfect storm of rising house prices, increasingly casualized labor, skyrocketing tuition fees, and often an early employment history scarred by the financial crisis of 2008 and the ensuing recession. But it’s not just the younger generation who have been let down.
“There is a secret shame hovering over all of us in the 21st century,” writes the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. “The feeling is rooted in a profound sense of disappointment about the world we live in, a sense of broken promise — of a solemn promise we felt we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like.”
Paradoxically, the power of capitalism to improve the lives of ordinary citizens was at its zenith when the system of capitalism faced its greatest threat. In the early Cold War period of the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy was urging Americans to choose sides in an “all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity”; over the coming decades, the U.S.-Soviet rivalry would see proxy wars fought between the two powers across the globe — but also a flurry of technological advances that would transform daily life. In the 40-year period from 1950 to 1990, consumers were introduced to the microwave oven, color television, ATM and credit card, contraceptive pill, cellphone, and personal computer, and, in 1989 — the year marking the fall of the Berlin Wall — the World Wide Web itself was invented.
Observers concluded, accurately, that communism had failed to deliver comparable material benefits to the lives of citizens of the Soviet Union, yet during this period, the mere existence of the communist alternative served to restrain the worst excesses of capitalism and force the corporate world to give at least some consideration to the public good.
Besides the smartphone (which is ultimately a miniaturized computer plus the internet), there have been very few inventions in the nearly three decades since the fall of communism that have so fundamentally changed our lives. Like a business entity that has achieved a market monopoly, once the ideological fight against communism was won, capitalism could stop delivering anything but the most superficial improvements to the lives of everyday people and concentrate instead on entrenching the power of corporate structures of control.
Which brings us to the specific aesthetics of one of my favorite Facebook groups: Boring Dystopia II.
Boring Dystopia II is the sequel to Boring Dystopia, a now-defunct Facebook group that was the brainchild of the late political and cultural theorist Mark Fisher and served as a mood board for real-life illustrations of the premise put forth in Fisher’s work: The imaginative vacuum created by the triumph of capitalism has engendered a society that is not only dystopian and authoritarian, but also exceptionally dull.
Despite their modern medium, the images in BDII frequently reflect the old metaphor of the iron fist in a velvet glove, as they point out rules and systems that curtail individual freedom and enforce behavioral norms while disguised in the bland, inoffensive language of corporate ad-speak. Policing and crime prevention are recurrent themes, as are publicity campaigns that attempt to package invasive advertising or surveillance technology as a normal part of human life. After a few pages of scrolling, one has the impression that the true image of authoritarian power is not, as Orwell wrote, a boot stomping on a human face forever — it is a laminated sign requesting that we smile as the boot comes down.
Part of the allure of Boring Dystopia comes from the specificity of the content, and the ambivalent emotional affect that it produces. It is undeniably bleak in a way that Sassy Socialist Memes is not, but it is also far more incisive in the way it articulates a critique of the current social and political order through a series of disjointed images.
One recent picture shows an ATM beneath a sign proclaiming “Bank Machine Welcomes You to Gatwick Station”; another shows a row of anti-terrorist bollards decorated to look like Christmas trees. An older post shows an airport’s biometric scanner that has been molded into a humanoid shape, leaving passengers to stare into a camera tucked inside the figure’s huge, grinning mouth.
“Boring Dystopia is a product of not knowing what to do, of being very lost with a communication tool [like the internet],” says Ruairi King, a 24-year-old barber and one of the moderators of the group. “It’s also a product of the society of the spectacle, of being overwhelmed by imagery, overwhelmed by the sense that you’re being advertised to, and that the images in front of you have been carefully selected to promote certain ideologies and modes of thought.”
The problem, he says, is that we have unwittingly arrived at a kind of “decentralized authoritarianism,” where the ability to shape civil society has been transferred from the central government — which is at least nominally accountable to the democratic process — to for-profit corporations, which certainly are not. The members of this group are bound by a desire to highlight the evidence and consequences of this restructuring of power.
And yet, by exposing the mechanics of our new society of control, are these members performing acts of resistance or simply reinforcing the idea of the hegemonic inescapability of advanced capitalism?
“We’re approaching the end of the ‘end of history’ period,” says King, referencing Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 pronouncement that liberal democracy represented a terminus in the evolution of human society. “Now leftist ideas can be considered seriously again, and a big part of that is easily digestible information, in the same way that posters were a big part of leftist movements in the past.”
Using this reading, the newfound prominence of socialist memes and pop-culture communism is both a barometer for political change and a channel through which this change can be expressed, like groundwater seeping to the surface under the pressure of surrounding rock. Decentralized authoritarianism can, perhaps, be countered by the decentralized networks of 21st-century digital culture, which has put the tools of accelerated image creation and dissemination at our fingertips.
Movements aren’t built on memes alone, but political change is always multifaceted. It would be nice to think that in hindsight, the socialist meme explosion of the 2010s will be seen as emblematic of its time, analyzed in the same way that we think about 1960s anti-war art or the 1990s rave protests of Reclaim the Streets.
And if not, at least now we know that Marx would have looked damn good in shades.