I’ve been surfing a lot recently–I know, a very cool guy thing to do. I go with some of my best friends who are around my skill level, which is to say they suck. Our “sessions” are just a series of falls, slams, slips, and tumbles. The waves throw me into the sand, spinning underwater as I try to breathe, completely unsure of the direction of the surface. If you are even remotely online, especially on Instagram, you’ll know what I mean when I say my feed is like being held-under. Inundated with takes, the more overt politics and rhetoric, seemingly a diversion from more subtle aesthetic signaling has illuminated a predictable flaw in online social justice: information overload.
Slideshows, dubious Change.org petitions, and quickly crafted — but surely confident — tweets have more or less become THE discourse. And not to get on my high horse; I’ve fired off some Instagram stories into the void myself. It’s just too easy. We can represent our politics however we want, completely detached from action, and access more credible arbiters of the same take almost instantaneously to affirm and move on. Even more encouraging for us lazy political posters, it all disappears in mere hours. Contrary to your mom’s warning of, “what goes on the internet stays forever,” the Instagram story attention economy allows for seamless revision. You can delete whatever you’ve said, upload a flagrantly contradictory post, and avoid consequences entirely– who’s to say you can’t grow, learn, “do the work!” This even assumes any of your followers, overwhelmed by hundreds of minutely different posts, give enough of a shit or see any hope of dialogue in calling you out.
The most shocking effect of this phenomenon to hit my Instagram timeline, as a well-off left winger, has been the embrace of radicalism by a primarily liberal and private-schooled follower base. Future partners at KKR or Bain citing the works of Angela Davis. Angela Davis! An orthodox communist that supported the East German political project! Of course, centrist social democrats have a lot to learn and enjoy in a Davis text, and political agreement isn’t a prerequisite for academic engagement. However, the recommendation of Are Prisons Obsolete? as a way to understand the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and countless others, or calls to defund the police are without a doubt revolutionary prescriptions. Not just in the carceral sense, but against capital and its violent enforcement. And again, this wouldn’t be the first historical occurrence of a decently popular bourgeoise critique of “the powers that be.” But an embrace of the left (in aesthetic, to be clear) from the wealthiest Americans speaks to a certain weakness in working class organizing specific to this era.
With the huge popularity of a legitimately left-wing candidate in Bernie Sanders came many eager to harness his energy. Socialist messaging has been cheap and popular so that executing ages-old electoral field strategy with a veneer of revolution was easy. The thing is, Bernie had credibility in his decades old record and rhetoric, where newer candidates benefitted from the same Insta-leftist culture discussed earlier, without a nasty history of working-class politics sure to scare the new generation of corporate progressives. The most famous candidate of this approach, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, became the most recognizable politician in the country by outright using the socialist label. Unfortunately, though, her time in office has paid few dividends to this branding. Poor commitment to anti-imperialism, lack of clarity in policy around progressive taxation, and collaboration with the Democratic Party’s most corporate personnel has rendered her a run of the mill “progressive” with the occasional tweet about Jeff Bezos being bad.
Most demoralizing for the left though, is the integrity of its infrastructure beyond electoralism. Cortez was backed by what is considered the largest left-of-liberal organization in the country, Democratic Socialists of America. While its membership is rising, its activities continue to drudge through organizational roadblocks and dispersed visions for what building socialism actually looks like. With union membership continuing to hit annual record lows and global fascism annual record highs, leftist organizing is seeing most success, pathetically, on Twitter. And however painful it may be to communist posters online, eager to dunk on consultant-activists or AOC, it’s hard to see why they too are not just liberals playing pretend. Social media would have you believe we are on the precipice of revolution. With no need to credibly commit to your Pol Pot quote post, it’s hard to take the noise seriously.
I’m not completely doom-and-gloom about it. Attending protests, working with pertinent organizations in my home city of San Francisco, and talking to peers interested in politics beyond the internet, I see the contradictions of capitalism getting to people. When revolution happens though, it won’t be with a turquoise graphic posted in the window of an Austin coffee shop. And until then, arrest the murderers of Breonna Taylor, a victim of brutal liberal militarism, not the martyr for an Instagram story campaign.
*An earlier version of this article stated “[Angela Davis] assisted in the August Coup.” In fact,
the opposite is true. She broke ties with the American Communist Party over their support for
the August Coup. This does not erase, though, her history of support for Soviet Communism
evidenced by her writings, support for Eastern Germany, and influence in communist activities
with The Black Panthers.