Tag Archives: anti-capitalism

Notes from a Millennial: In Defense of Decency

Note: This article refers to “millennials” repeatedly. While the name for any generation is always going to be broad terminology, there are many differing opinions on who exactly is a “millennial.” The following article presumes them to be Americans born between 1982 and 2004, as per the more common definition of “millennial,” but again, this terminology is loose and should not be considered definitive, even within the context of this article.

Second Note: I’m not going to even bother addressing the hypocrisy of many of the criticisms against millennials in this article. There are matters re: millennials that I desired to address, and I think the aforementioned hypocrisy is self-evident (and if it isn’t, give some consideration to the fragile emotional constitution of the Tyler Durden-idolizing man-children who first spread “snowflake” as an insult).

“Forced worship stinks in the nostrils of God.”

 – Roger Williams (1603-83 C.E.), Founder of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1636-776 C.E.)

A state religion is nothing out of the ordinary in human history, and even if a nation does not have a state religion de jure, they will almost certainly have one in practice. This applies even to supposedly secular societies, even the society administered to by the “world’s first secular government.” In America, however, a different worship took root: in a land made secular in order to accommodate all the religious beliefs of its populace, many of them religious pilgrims, a unified religion came to be understood by Americans, one defined by indulgences specifically proscribed against by their “true” faiths. Golden calves were erected; divinity was invoked to justify imperialist expansion into the western parts of Northern America; Americans worked on Sundays, seeking to satiate the capitalist god they held before their true gods; we coveted our neighbors’ goods. The ’80s came and the Reagan gang took power, and a predisposition in American culture toward crude materialism became a crass classism, and pretensions that the ideology that “anyone can make in America!” was meant to be uplifting were increasingly dropped in favor of a reading of social Darwinism into that same ideology, and beyond that, even mainstream apologism for eugenics.

For a country that prides itself on being so exhaustingly Christian, America’s culture is markedly shaped by a sternly resolute contempt for the poor. And so we face the timeless panic about The Kids These Days, who, to establishment culture’s dismay, are not ones to regularly associate themselves with organized religion, systemically racist institutions, or patriarchal politics, and who by overwhelming margins are rejecting capitalism and professing an admiration for anything ranging from a European-style mix of capitalism and socialism (more common) to full-blown communism (less common, though substantially more common than in prior generations). America watches in horror as the young turn to the writings of Karl Marx, even though America never even understood what Marxism is. The nation shields its eyes, shuddering to watch the carnage of a generation of Americans who believe god is dead or never existed, and simultaneously wagging a finger at them for wanting to help those who cannot help themselves, the central tenant of the belief system laid down by their own god; the very same whose rejection they bemoan. Millennials have rejected not just the mainstream religions from which the god-fearing populace picks and chooses their beliefs, they have, more problematically to the American establishment, also rejected the false gods of consumerism and the accompanying notion of “ethical consumption.”

There are regular articles which trot out polls detailing how millennials are incredibly socialist and really hate capitalism, but also millennials don’t understand what socialism is and also like aspects of capitalism. We get it, man. You want us to think millennials are dopey. They don’t even know what Betamax was; how ignorant! Except your polls don’t offer the option of a mixed system, and typically, when you look at the other generations polled, they know even less about what any of the political systems actually are. So the narrative is that millennials are vapid, ignorant, self-obsessed children in adult bodies, except apparently everybody else is even more vapid and ignorant. If millennials are self-obsessed, our adoption of the baffling insult “social justice warrior” as a golem for our political beliefs is, at the least, a strange way of expressing self-obsession. Millennial-bashers, blind to the juvenoia that they suffer like every generation before them, will look for the opening here and say that the millennial desire to support those who are disregarded is out of a selfish need for self-affirmation, the product of a culture where losers get trophies. Of course, it was these same critics giving those trophies who created that culture (if participation ribbons even had a significant impact on culture at all, which seems dubious), but this paradoxical critique of millennials’ competitiveness has already been hashed out millions if not billions of times on the internet, and at any rate, even if self-affirmation is the objective, if the means to that end are the establishment of a compassionate society, who even gives a fuck?

zizek would prefer not to

Pictured: Millennial expressing feelings on participation in capitalism.

The last of the so-called “millennials” will cast their first ballots in elections in 2022, and you older generations (and self-hating millennials; don’t worry, we won’t forget you when the guillotine blades are being waxed) are probably praying for a reprieve, but you’re not going to get it. Generation Z, our little brothers and sisters and our sons and daughters and nieces and nephews, are even further left, and they will cut you if you don’t respect which gendered pronouns someone wants to be referred to with. As someone who idled away many a teenage afternoon listening to the likes of George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock, etc., I know I’m supposed be all bent out of shape about this for some reason or another, but none of those reasons really resonate with me. I get that people like to be edgy, but there’s two types of edge: the edge that makes you uneasy because the government might try to censor you, or corporations might try to use their leverage against you, and the edge that makes you uneasy because you know what’s being said is harmful to someone. One is punching up, one is punching down. When Lenny Bruce used racial slurs, he was demonstrating the ghastly language that could be used in the presence of police offers in attendance at his comedy shows, ostensibly to put a stop to “profane speech” that might come out of Bruce’s mouth. Bruce could say “nigger” and “kike” all he liked, but the second he used a Yiddish word for cock, the handcuffs came out and flexed the power of what truly was then a “nanny state.” That, state-enforced regulation of speech, is “political correctness run amok.” Society responding as it will to ignorance is not. Millennial culture’s greatest crime is desiring that those with their hands upon the levers of power be punched at as opposed to those crushed by the gears those levers operate. That doesn’t make it wrong to laugh at a joke that punches down; laughter is mainly involuntary, and can be triggered by surprise or the release of tension just as easily as by genuine humor. But is there impetus upon the speaker not to offend?

Jerry Seinfeld moaned that he won’t play colleges anymore because they’re too politically correct. Really? What jokes is Jerry Fucking Seinfeld doing that are going to cause him to be driven off of a college campus like a philistine, and if his act does actually reveal him to be a philistine, why should I object when a bunch of arts and humanities majors, whose money paid for the privilege of him speaking before them, tell him to shut the fuck up? In short, no, there is no impetus upon the speaker not to offend. But there’s also no impetus upon the audience to listen, or not to yell at him or not walk out, or even give him a platform to speak from in the future. Just as there’s no impetus for comedy club owners in multicultural population centers to book a comedian who screams racial slurs and death threats at black patrons. Free market, amirite motherfuckers?

big lebowski assholes

“Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. ‘Asian-American,’ please.”

The final primary line of attack against the culture of millennials seems to be that their concerns are petty, and that while this makes them obnoxious, and possibly dangerously inert to the whims of society as a whole, their political capital is wasted on things like the aforementioned gendered pronouns, and they are essentially helpless to impart real change upon the world. This is a highly flawed reading of the situation. To my specific example, having society respect your desire to be referred to as a man or a woman specifically might not seem like a big deal, but if you were transgender, you would probably think that it’s a pretty big fucking deal. The fact that you perceive the group concerned as ancillary suggests that majority rule justifies bigotry against minorities, and forgets that all of the groups that you consider “ancillary” combine to form an incredibly large segment of society. Unconsciously, you reveal an “us or them” division in your social ethos that ultimately only distinguishes in a coherent way the difference between the majority and everyone else. As to the view of millennials being doomed to ineffectuality, the irony is that those holding this opinion are doomed to political and social obsolescence by it. No one can deny that American culture is undergoing an upheaval, and anyone who denies that the so-called “P. C. Culture” of the millennials is one of the two major adversaries is fooling themselves. None of this is to say that millennials are without opposition; there is, of course, the other side, the people who went to Trump rallies (but perhaps not the economically-disenfranchised who didn’t but voted for him). But the fact of the matter is, American culture is seeing a wholesale rejection of its ingrained norms, customs, and mythology, and the “social justice warriors” are one of the two main groups fighting that battle. To consider millennials ineffectual is laughably obtuse, and, perhaps worse, deliberately ignorant. If anything, millennials are the ones who should be cocky, as thirty years from now you will be dead, and they will hold most of the seats in Congress. Burying your head in the sand has never been considered a wise tactic, and certainly, to discount the scope of a major social force dooms those who do so to irrelevancy.

I couldn’t be any happier with that.

The Dialectic of Nostalgia and Irony

In putting together a dialectical analysis, casting the roles of thesis and antithesis is perhaps the single most important action taken. The rest just sort of follows; the dialectic being a template to overlay on phenomena to tease out the shapes of their interaction in the larger world; where they’re headed, and what will replace them.

With the release of the new Star Wars film, talk of nostalgia, already a thing much more discussed in this country than would seem proper were the country not in a state of decline, is at an all-time high. Articles are being written left and right about this and that; every bit of historical, speculative, and other minutia that could be dredged is being rolled out into the digital sphere like so many wooden clocks shaped like animals at a craft fair, and, dragged along with the pettiness of discourse that unfortunately marks the internet periodical culture, considerations of what this nostalgia constitutes; what it  indicates; what the actual thing being wistfully remembered is can’t help but amble around the fitful mind of a man with no emotional attachment to Star Wars whatsoever, a man such as myself.

I suppose the poles of the dialectic I’d like to analyze, the two discursive threads running through the culture at large that have been snowballing into a confrontation, the two things that seem to be the dominant tones adopted once the internet opened up and everyone had a platform to say whatever was on their mind with no editors are the cultural threads of the “ironic” and the “nostalgic”. Which is the thesis and which the antithesis I can’t say, but the culture of omnipresent irony and the culture of tone-deaf nostalgia interact as dialectic; neither should be trusted on its own as both sides are ultimately things drawing one in directions that don’t lead to destinations; each only seems to derive its claims to the authentic or worthwhile through constantly underlining the distasteful excess of the other.

Of course, positing the two as being dialectical oppositions to each other is in itself somewhat problematic as, being secret lovers like any two culturally opposed ideas, we find them folded over each other more often than not.

Let’s explore an article that was picked up by a couple other publications when it was posted that works as a kind of brilliant picture of the emptiness the constitutes the center of the image of the two threads circling each other. The article, titled “This Private Garfield Facebook Group Is the Last Irony-Free Place on the Internet” is a terrific sleight of hand; a false nostalgia for a time and place on the internet that never existed that’s not even backed up by the screenshots in the article; a thing that wants to imagine there was a pure ur-state, an Edenic cyberspace where people could appreciate things like the inexplicably long running comic strip Garfield without people pointing out that it is a bit strange and unsettling to discover middle aged people aggressively fixated on a cartoon cat who hates Mondays and loves lasagna. In the appreciation of Garfield and the unease at the unironic appreciation of Garfield exist two things that in and of themselves aren’t horrible and are understandable. It would take an absurdly authoritarian worldview to say “No! People shouldn’t enjoy Garfield!”, at the same time it would take a self entirely numbed to any sort of hopes or dreams of human progress or there being anything more to life not to be at least a bit disturbed by the soul-crushing display of fatalistic mediocrity inherent in relating to a lazy cartoon cat that does nothing but eat, complain, and be a dick to Odie, especially by people who are presumably old enough to have seen some of the world.

Of course, both positions ignore the larger point that unless your name is Jim Davis, Garfield itself is irrelevant to pretty much anything. Fixation on the irrelevant is, however, one of the few true growth industries this country has. Neither nostalgic beatification nor ironic detachment are actual engagement; while more “serious” publications might take that realization as a call to start admonishing people, I’d like to consider the practical reasons why people on the whole would rather defend their moral right to enjoy Star Wars than the ideals of parliamentary democracy, economic justice, cultural progress, or pretty much anything else. They exist.

That the US is in transition, or, if I’m not being diplomatic about it, decline, isn’t really news. I think most people in this country, even if they don’t grasp the finer cultural or economic points of why it’s in decline, have at least some intuitive notion that shit is not getting better. The distribution of wealth is not any more equitable and is in fact less equitable than it has been since the Great Depression. Etc etc. Read any article about domestic politics that’s run in Counter Punch since like 2008 and you should be able to get the broad points of that story.

It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to say that the primary pivot point of human psychology is the creation of the simulacra of a sense of control over one’s surroundings. This is not to say a person wants actual control over their surroundings but, in a way, to say the exact opposite. The mind is not a mechanism especially concerned with its own internal coherence; it wants to have its cake and eat it too; why wouldn’t it? It wants control without the responsibility that comes with said control, it wants to perform control; it wants to toil away in the low-stakes and trivial as much as possible the same way the body would usually rather store up fat in case of a threat of starvation than work itself into what is in theory a healthier condition. The trivial gives both the sense of control and the comfort of knowing that a lack of results doesn’t actually matter.

There are many examples of people whose first actions upon finding out they’d gone suddenly bankrupt was to treat themselves to an expensive and fancy meal or spend whatever’s left on drugs instead of essentials. The tendency was perhaps most memorably immortalized in fiction in the character of Hurstwood in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. Though this is probably the last thing the person should do logically, it makes a good deal of sense; it creates the environment of normality or even prosperity, of comfort. It’s a symbolic revenge taken against the money for its sudden betrayal; a nonsensical leap of faith forces the individual to shun the money the way the money shunned them. The thrill of a large purchase, of buying a boat or a fancy car, is to proclaim, accurately or inaccurately, power over the money and absolute faith in one’s future prospects. The need to state such things would seem to exist in direct inverse relation to how true they are; the loudest public pronouncements an individual makes are usually made primarily for their personal benefit; they’re ways of screaming down the voice in their head saying the opposite and the tangibility of the object purchased, the presence of witnesses who saw them purchase it, reinforces the ironically false notion that by this enactment of ritual their financial success and security has been actually accomplished. Of course the boat or whatever usually gets repossessed by the bank a little while later.

So the performance of capitalism, having been stripped of its practical and linear, logical dimensions since industrialization reached the point it could feasibly provide living essentials for everyone, lives on in an increasingly symbolic and religious form centered around self-flagellation in the face of its entertainments and conveniences. The state of uncritical fandom is in substance a stance of the esoteric; the ecstatic; the excitement and joy at what are visibly mediocre, manipulative, cynical and calculated works like Star Wars needs to be performed repeatedly in public as a ghost dance to hide the emptiness and dissatisfaction that increasingly lies at the heart of American capitalism. We are judged on our ability to consume in a state of ideological or spiritual purity even by the ostensibly well-intentioned and progressive voices increasingly taking various entertainments to task for their sexism and racism. While such an appraisal of mass entertainments is long overdue, the satisfaction with pandering sloppy works that repeat themselves and their cultural assumptions but with the Madlibs style insertion of figures of different groups doesn’t address the underlying problems of self-satisfaction at imperialistic attitudes; of our desire to play out with purity and fresh naive excitement the act of being duped and pandered to, of our deadly attraction to a form of congealed capitalism that grows increasingly toxic.

The nostalgic stance is problematic insofar as it holds close like the memory of a beloved parent an object that more actually resembles an inflamed appendix; a part of the person that is nonetheless toxic and should be extricated. The purely ironic stance is perhaps helpful to balance out the waves of toxic omnipresent nostalgia that grips the culture whenever something like a new Star Wars film is released but at the same time only has the sum effect of making the person question or double down on their commitment to keeping the inflamed appendix. As anyone who’s had appendicitis knows, the only thing that solves the problem is to remove the appendix entirely, even if it requires some time in the aftermath to recuperate.

Nevertheless the image returns again and again, outside comic-cons, outside movie openings, when new Iphones are released, every Black Friday at shopping outlets around the country, this strange inverted parody of either the Great Depression era bread line or the true believers lined up to kneel at Mecca, consumers who prove the purity of their devotion to the experience of purchasing an item through their will to suffer and inconvenience themselves for it; who sit through 18 hour film marathons and spend countless hours fashioning homemade outfits to celebrate their buying a movie ticket to show that they are the genuine ecstatics, that in a world increasingly cynical about the act of buying stuff they can still believe simply like pilgrims.

And so, to return to the initial question of the dialectic between the resistant ironic and the embrace of the nostalgia object, it should be pointed out that a synthesis has already been come to in the form of what I would call “high kitsch”, the embrace of the garish and hideous specifically for their being garish and hideous. While it resolves the intellectual problem I put forward at the beginning of this essay, it doesn’t solve the larger problem of the embrace of the consumer identity as that of a religious pilgrim, with purity displayed in blind love in the face of product, in capitalism and representative democracy as ideals that we perform increasingly magnificent and decadent ghost dances around because we no longer actually believe in them.

That’s a big problem. I’ll explore it here in further essays.