Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Left activism and the culture of seriousness

The Democratic Socialists of America is experiencing a period of historically unprecedented growth - so much so that even major media outlets have begun to take notice. And while much of this has to be credited to the wild success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and understood as a reaction to the ascendence of Donald Trump, it's clear that the proximate cause of much of its recruiting success is the DSA's active social media campaign.

Central to that campaign, of course, has been the outreach efforts of folks like Larry Website. Along with other media stables like Chapo Trap House (and to a lesser extent, I dare say, the Matt Bruenig Election Team), Larry and his colleagues have worked to build a fun, accessible culture meant to welcome the public into socialism. Their jokes and memes are decidedly blue-collar, revolving around tropes like sports, junk food, animals, pop culture, and so on. They are, quite deliberately, less esoteric and inaccessible than irony Twitter, and less crass and controversial than the Dirtbag Left; they are, quite clearly, running a public relations campaign, and it's working.

A line of criticism has lately emerged that sees these efforts as unbecoming of a serious political organization, and possibly even counterproductive - but I think there are two good reasons for the DSA to stay the course.


First, theoretical: as the Soviet philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin argued, the culture of seriousness is always the culture of entrenched power. Consider, for example, his analysis of medieval ideology:
As we have said, laughter in the Middle Ages remained outside all official spheres of ideology and outside all official strict forms of social relations...all these elements determined this tone of icy petrified seriousness. It was supposedly the only tone fir to express the true, the good, and all that was essential and meaningful. (Rabelais and His World, 82)
In opposition to this regime, irreverence played a decidedly revolutionary role:
Lower- and middle-class clerics, schoolmen, students, and members of corporations were the main participants in these folk merriments. People of various other organized elements which belonged to none of these social groups and which were numerous at that time also participated in the celebrations. But the medieval culture of folk humor actually belong to all the people. The truth of laughter embraced and carried away everyone; nobody could resist it... (Rabelais, 82)
Under capitalism, prevailing norms about what is "respectable" and "proper" express bourgeois ideology. If such norms are at odds with the imperatives of capitalism, capitalism systematically wipes them out. This is why, for example, it is considered a grave breach of professional etiquette to call someone who destroys the welfare state a "scumbag", but silly and forgiveable for a rich public relations operative like Ben Dreyfuss to wish death on his trolls. Rules of seriousness and professionalism have of course always been implicated in racism, which is why Allen Iverson is forced to wear suits and why Bill Cosby blames the economic oppression of black Americans on their dialect.

It is the Very Serious pundits and politicians who, because they cannot appeal to people through their personal and material interests, must rely on optics and gimmicks of presentation. These are the people who, with as much somber gravity as they can muster, give themselves titles like Fellow or Visiting Scholar, put on a suit, and then solemly explain that we can only fight income equality by eliminating the capital gains tax. Bourgeois ideology teaches us to regard arguments made in this tone with reverence and respect, and to dismiss the Twitter troll who meets them with the reply they invariably deserve: LOL.

Proletarian culture is inherently subversive. It is funny. It reveres equality and comradery; everything else, as a matter of principle, must be subject to question and open to ridicule. It insists that, no matter how serious and prestigious capitalism appears, and how silly and frivolous socialism appears, capitalism has no right to prevail; socialism must win, not because it is serious, but because it is moral and correct and inevitable.


The second reason for DSA to stay the course is practical: as already mentioned, this strategy is working. There is a long and glorious history of socialists voicing dry, academic critiques of capitalism, or putting on suits, showing up at presidential debates, and being turned away at the door; if what you want is a humorless prestige left, there is no want of opportunities already available. There is, on the other hand, very little history of Larry Website tweeting GIFs of riding mowers rocketing over rooftops and getting thousands of DSA recruits in the process - and I think this has everything to do with socialism creating a welcoming culture for people who enjoy jokes and having fun. Until this approach starts showing diminishing returns, I see no reason to abandon it.