Politics & Media
Oct 26, 2023, 06:27AM

The Work of Extremely Online Politics

Extremely online politics, like politics in general, isn’t “all one thing”—it’s everything.

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The American political discourse has increasingly been distilled into binary options—Left or Right, Democrat or Republican, for or against a particular issue. Yet, the situation’s far more intricate and paradoxical than many are willing to acknowledge, particularly for those who pivot from one ideological camp to another in a dramatic fashion. Take the so-called "post-Left" figures who found their way to various Right-affiliated spaces. These individuals didn’t merely switch allegiances; they adopted views they’d once mocked, like religious conservatism (some even going so far as to articulate positions they might’ve found risible years or even weeks earlier, like heavy metal being “satanic”) or firm anti-abortion stances, all in the name of their "frens” and the associated in-group identity politics.

On any given Twitter session, you can find thousands of examples of extremely online “cradle Leftist” figures now chasing clout all day by espousing a brand of post-Left turned based-Right politics that can be aptly described as both extremely online and hyper-activist (i.e., “slacktivist” or “keyboard activist” or, more crudely but perhaps more appropriately, “engagement driver”). These individuals possess the characteristic “lumping never splitting” activist mentality, an all-or-nothing approach that dismisses the complexities of issues, thereby contributing to an unending cycle of family feuds, internecine squabbles, internal division, and brand splits. This brings to mind an image that vividly captures this divisiveness: the "screaming soyjack," a meme that caricatures the perpetual outrage and emotional volatility attributed to such keyboard activists.

But the reality is that the Left and Right aren’t monoliths. Each camp has always contained a mixture of identity politics and class-centric views—viewers forever in a state of simultaneous unity and discord. This isn’t just because of the current zeitgeist but is rooted in the historical and systemic realities of deliberately slow-moving and coalition-based American politics. Further complicating matters is the phenomenon of social reproduction, a concept that academics, theory junkies, and other nerds have long pondered. In essence, both sides are subject to external conditions that influence their capacity to sustain their ideologies and agendas over time.Then there's the issue of what could be called democratic efficiency. In a landscape where the opinion of the majority often rules, political stances become less about deeply held beliefs and more about achieving that magical “50 plus 1” in public opinion. The famous "the dress" debate—where people couldn't agree on the color of a particular dress—serves as a perfect metaphor. In this continuous loop of information, misinformation, social pressure, and public display, everyone becomes an à la carte selector of opinions, constantly adjusting their stances based on an ever-changing array of variables. Which of these selections, when deployed as aspirational marketing language that may never be operationalized much less actualized, can get one’s party across the finish line?

This makes for a discourse that’s incredibly dynamic but also frustratingly volatile. It's not merely a battle between opposing views but a labyrinthine webintersecting beliefs, motives, and external influences. For those inclined to reduce it all to a simple left-right dichotomy, the true complexity of the situation can be confounding. However, dismissing this complexity with blanket statements—like some banshee-king poster directing their “simps” and “paypigs” to label the people she dislikes as anarchists, totalitarians, narcissists, “discourse jannies,” and sometimes all of the preceding terms at once—does a disservice to the intricacies of political thought and the genuine debates that can arise when we acknowledge them.

The American political landscape isn’t a two-dimensional plane but a multi-dimensional space, rich in history, fraught with internal contradictions, and subject to an array of influences that can't be easily categorized. The idea of "cancellation" within this modern political discourse goes beyond the surface-level ramifications of social media ostracism; it's a sort of erasure, a negation of one's "Self" within the sphere of politics. This is particularly problematic in a democratic system that ostensibly prioritizes the role of the individual—each as a voter, a participant, or what some theorists refer to as an "elector" in the “fourth sector” of a republican democracy. The issue arises when individuals participate solely through the lens of identity—"as a worker," "as a transgender person," "as a young woman," “as a based trad,” “as a brony,” or "as someone with college debt." Such an approach minimizes the scope for meaningful engagement or exploration of complex issues.

If your involvement in politics is solely contingent on a particular identity, then you're essentially boxing yourself into a narrow segment of discourse. This stifles any opportunity to challenge or evolve one's perspectives, trapping you within pre-set boundaries that are often dictated by the loudest voices in your chosen social or political group. Furthermore, this approach turns you into a well-greased cog in the machine, reinforcing existing ideologies and stymying the potential for transformative dialogue.

Contrast this with intellectual traditions like Marxism or the Right-wing (and Marxist-lite) James Burnham's notion of the "managerial revolution." These ideologies, though different in substance, share a common focus on analytical dives into the structures, systems, and patterns that shape society. The goal here isn't to inflate the analysis with personal biases or a constantly changing list of private views. Alas, the late American public intellectual Sam Francis provides a cautionary tale of how one can veer off such a course; Francis initially embraced Burnham's managerial theories and produced some interesting work expanding on them before descending into identity politics-based “wignat” extremism.

That said, ideological edifices like Marxism or Burnham’s work aren’t without their issues. They’re often formulated in ways that are purposefully vague and "fungible," allowing them to be adapted or twisted to fit various narratives. This raises questions about the very nature of political ideologies in a republican democracy. Are these ideologies, with their expansive, malleable frameworks, actually designed to function and indeed thrive primarily as marketing methodologies that reshape branding and advertising discourse in a system of constant conflict and competition?

Herein lies the crux of the problem: The hyper-specificity of identity-based politics and the nebulous, free-floating nature of broader ideologies each have their pitfalls. The former restricts the discourse, making it shallow and reactionary, while the latter can be co-opted, its interpretative openness rendering it vulnerable to manipulation. As such, the discourse seems trapped—between the rigidity of identity politics and the vagueness of sweeping ideologies.

Where does that leave us? The answer is far from clear-cut but necessitates a willingness to navigate the complexities of both identity and ideology without falling into the traps of either. This requires a balancing act, one that respects the role of the individual "Self" in democratic participation while also acknowledging the need for in-depth explorations of our political systems and structures. We must acknowledge that we don't live in some transhistorical vacuum or intellectual laboratory isolated from the currents of time. Rather, we exist within a complex interplay of market forces and material culture where the concept of the "Self" has taken on an unprecedented importance. Today's society has been intricately engineered by the finest consumption facilitators who ever lived to cater to individual needs, wants, and desires. From personalized marketing algorithms to consumer goods that promise to express the minutiae of one's identity, we’re constantly encouraged to focus on ourselves. This tailoring of experiences to individual preferences has far-reaching implications, many of which remain unexamined in the context of wider social discourse.

Take the widespread disdain for the "pink-haired looney liberal on TikTok." The same market forces that make this person's expression possible also perpetuate a societal obsession that goes beyond mere annoyance, bordering on fixation, with their excessively optimized consumption of “Self”-oriented products and discourse. This can be viewed as part of the larger phenomenon of a declining birth rate in contemporary America. What's the connection? The issue lies in an increasingly atomized society where individual interests are elevated above collective responsibility—essentially the stark thesis of Bowling Alone, whether Robert Putnam chooses to embrace it as such or not—or even basic compromises that are essential for sustaining communal life, all because individuals are much better consumers than collectives (communities like the Amish, for example, might buy some expensive tractors and other Section 179 goods, but they’re completely resistant to direct-to-consumer marketing).

The contemporary American repeatedly demonstrates a marked incapacity for making the kind of sacrifices that are essential for a pluralistic and challenging existence—a marriage, raising children, or living within a community. Can’t we just be happy now, with all of our direct-to-consumer products and branded identities? The consumer’s always right! However, this isn't just about personal choices or lifestyles. It extends to the public sphere, to divisive issues like abortion and taxation. The intolerance and inability to compromise, in the family unit or in public policy, are two sides of the same coin.

It's a troubling sign that we've arrived at a juncture where individual wants take precedence over collective needs to such an extent that it's affecting demographic trends and social cohesion. This particular mode of individualism is less an expression of liberty and more an outcome of a consumer culture that prizes customer satisfaction above all else. The forces shaping this individual-centric model are systemic, driven by market logic that’s been years, even decades, in the making. A culture that elevates the "Self" to this degree cannot be easily dismantled, but recognizing its limitations and destructive potential is a critical first step.

Finding a way out of this labyrinth of individualism and fragmentation necessitates an approach that’s nothing if not multi-pronged. It calls for a recalibration of public discourse, where a complex balance must be struck between the essential need for individual self-expression and the collective welfare of society. Yet the dialogue required for this is itself imperiled by the state of our public squares, now dominated by social media platforms designed around algorithms that prioritize divisive or sensational content. These algorithms, driven by the same market forces that glorify the "Self," stifle constructive debate and incentivize the sort of petty, pointless squabbling that drives engagement.

Moreover, we must be willing to critically examine and challenge the consumerist ideologies and market mechanisms that have propelled the "Self" to an almost divine status in our contemporary culture. This entails questioning ingrained societal values, from the worship of material wealth to the notion that personal happiness is the ultimate life goal. Yet, it’s here that we confront a particularly daunting roadblock: the corporate entities that stand to profit from a self-obsessed culture have immense power and influence over political processes, policy formulation, and even academic research. They’re not likely to willingly participate in, much less initiate, any action that would disrupt their profitable status quo.

Finally, this complex issue requires a level of societal self-awareness and collective will to examine its far-reaching implications. This is not merely an abstract discussion; it has real-world impacts on public debates on contentious issues, demographics, family structures, and indeed, the foundational principles that govern our communal existence. Yet, the trends indicate a society moving in the opposite direction. Polarization is increasing, birth rates are plummeting, and social cohesion is deteriorating.

It is here, regrettably, that the argument takes a turn for the jet-black pessimistic. Despite the pressing need for change, our current trajectory suggests that a collective reevaluation is unlikely to occur. The institutions that could traditionally serve as catalysts for societal change—governmental bodies, educational institutions, or the media—are themselves entangled in the same systems that perpetuate individualism at the expense of collective good. Furthermore, the rapid advance of technology, for all its benefits, has made it easier for individuals to live in innumerable echo chambers, shielded from viewpoints that challenge their own and able to consume content at will.

The reality is we’re already past the point of no return, with any public intellectual or Substack guru claiming otherwise merely “selling you a bill of goods.” The societal structures needed for such a comprehensive overhaul have been eroded by the very issues they need to address. “This Whole Thing Smacks of Overdetermination,” a 2023 version of the poster @dril might tweet (the work of dril, and similar algorithm-chasing “weird Twitter” comedy accounts, is among the easiest content for ChatGPT to reproduce, its facility at doing so a reminder of how slavishly market-oriented even these posters are).

Here, then, is a catch-22 situation of the most debilitating kind, one that indicates not just the magnitude of the problem but, more depressingly, the improbability of its resolution. Thus, while the need for a multi-faceted approach is clear, the likelihood of such a comprehensive transformation appears almost nil. That said, the “business of America”—which is, of course, business—will remain the same: pursuit of the dollar, using whatever discursive tools are ready-to-hand to peddle our award-winning products and best-in-class content.


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