Virtual Insanity: A Freak Show for Left Media
20 March 2023
Recently my neighbor — podcaster and author Ben Burgis— watched one of my favorite movies, Decline of a Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years. The movie, juxtaposed with its predecessor, Decline of a Western Civilization, is quite different in tone and commentary. The original is about the rise of hard core punk music in Southern California as well as the violent and nihilistic scene that accompanied it. It presented the music and the lifestyle as a bulwark against a conservative movement brought on by the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the Thatcher regime in the United Kingdom. The sequel is quite a different ride.
While slightly more comedic (whether accidental or on purpose) the movie is a wonderful journey into the decadent 80s and the “if you believe it you can achieve it” mantra that we’ve come to adopt in books like the Secret. The Metal Years portrays the people in the scene 7 years deep into Reaganism and the neoliberal hustle mindset. In the original Decline, the scenesters and artists interviewed displayed a visceral disdainful frustration at the coming conservative movement of the 80s. By the time Spheris makes The Metal Years, there are no sceneters, just aspiring rock stars. The Metal Years was shot between 1987 and 1988 so, like its predecessor, the Hollywood Sunset Strip was the background for the movie. However, where the 1st showed young bands struggling to be heard, and fighting back against what they saw was an unjust system, the people in the sequel weren’t fighting anything but each other for a quest for cliched rock n’ roll, sex and drugs excess. They all spoke as if they read magazine articles of their rock n’ roll heroes and followed it as if it was manual to success. When asked the question “what are you gonna do if you don’t make it?” Or , “Why do you think you’re going to be successful?” They never cite their musical abilities. It’s their relentless drive, or their passion for success that will in turn lead them to the fame they long for. They copy the looks and sounds of whatever is popular and then go on gorilla marketing campaigns until a record label acknowledges this hard work and the fact that they’ve checked all the boxes rewards them with a record deal. They have the look, the stage show, the drug and alcohol habits, the obnoxious misogynistic behavior that is championed in this genre, all carbon copies of their hair metal chart topping contemporaries.
The hustle culture attitude portrayed by the people in this 1988 documentary is very similar to what I see in the world of online media. It is hard to break out and make yourself heard in the sea of voices online. There are thousands of people fighting to ‘make it’. Yet, in the current marketplace of left media neither talent nor professionalism matter. It is outrageousness that gets attention. Even in the small corner of the internet reserved for left media creators, there is no escape from this foolishness which tries to disguise itself as genuine knowledge and passion for a better world. Speaking “truth to power” looks more like TMZ left on left media drama than it does exposing the oppressive nature of capitalism. If you’re not reporting on what podcaster “he said, she said” they maybe you’re trying to create a meme or hashtag that will pierce through the tabloid-like discourse into the mainstream. You just have to believe. Much like the aspiring hair metal artists in The Metal Years, you follow the script: you have the look, you say the words (anti imperialism) you have the iconography (a hammer and sickle replace teased hair and spandex) and you have a slogan.
My good friend Ben Burgis recently debated internet streamer, and ambassador of the marginal and strictly online meme that is MAGA Communism, Infrared Haz. When I heard that this debate was happening I immediately recalled another such “debate” that this Haz character had with another friend of mine, Dr. Asatar Bair. Thus, I wasn’t particularly hopeful that the outcome would be a respectful discussion e. Rather, I suspected that this would be merely meaningless grandstanding with faux outrage and insults. So, I reasoned: “Why even bother?”
Ben and Dr. Bair are professors, teachers, and socialists. Thus, they want to engage with ideas, challenge them, and be challenged. They see these public engagements as opportunities that could sway people to a socialist position.
But, the battle of ideas in an online space has limited returns, as this isn’t a classroom, but rather the modern marketplace. All ideas are turned into easily digestible and twitter friendly slogans, and if you’re lucky you’ll be able to market them for mass consumption. Think Trump’s “M.A.G.A.” brand. What did it mean? When was America great for ALL Americans? When government spending and social welfare programs and tax rates were at an all time high? Is that what it means? Neither Trump nor Reagan spoke about revamping the New Deal even though it was through the New Deal that the Trump real estate empire was born, and the Public Works helps the Reagan family escape crippling poverty.
MAGA is whatever you want it to be. It could be a call to hate ethnic minorities, a longing for a return to an imagined “white America'' that is being “replaced” with foreigners? Is it actually a call for a healthy welfare state like we the promoters of it benefited from? The genericness of MAGA allows people to read into the slogan whatever they wanted to. However, for Trump MAGA is less a political movement but more of a branding tool; the “Just Do It” for politics. It worked for Reagan in 1980, but no one knows about the marketing prowess in the political arena like Donald Trump. This is where we are in this current epoch. Making hashtags marketable and saleable. So, if Donald Trump’s name still conjures up media interest, why not mix it with another catchy media buzzword that stokes the ire of pundits of all political varieties on mainstream and independent by adding COMMUNISM in front of it. It is the perfect meme, the most ludicrous combination of words imaginable. In the context they’re used in, they stand for nothing, but if yelled loudly enough, if spoken with confidence, they allow you to create an online following. But is it a real movement or simply a quick way to become a big virtual fish in a small small left online pond? Is this nothing more than a passing fad or the predatory behavior of online thought vultures trying to take what’s left off popularity and energy of the carcass of the Sanders and Trump campaigns?
Smoke And Mirrors
The internet is unfathomably large conduit to knowledge. It increases our capacity to engage in global politics by being a 24 hour hub of information. But there is one thing that doesn't change regardless of our engagement, and that is our ability to affect change through our singular online voices. We can tweet outrage at ineffective government leadership, we can call out the injustice of the capitalist system, and sometimes we can have people with a louder megaphone champion our contempt with a retweet or a like. We can have hundreds or even thousands of virtual attaboys, giving us a certain sense of validation. We’ve been heard and we are not alone in our despisement, but does the capacity to foment outrage constitute a movement?
It’s no secret that sites like Facebook and Twitter operate off inciting rage in their news feed algorithm. This imperative promotes a language of righteous indignation and absolutes. Your character count is limited, so context be damned. It’s about being listened to in a sea of frenzied rage, so you have to be succinct and catchy if you want your Wilhelm scream to reach the masses.
This is where something like MAGA Communism comes into play. MAGA Communism, an offshoot of the now defunct hashtag meme, Patriotic Socialism (yeah, you read that correctly) is simply a marketing slogan. MAGA was never really defined as what it was supposed to envision. It was simply a way to sell cheap red hats and t-shirts made in overseas sweatshops to a frustrated mass of people. To actually think that the creators of this word goulash was trying to do anything other than trend on Twitter is a bit silly. Much like the people in The Metal Years, they DON’T have to be talented to be heard, JUST OBNOXIOUS.
The image of an imagined perfect America plays well into the ideals of American Exceptionalism that is the core of what the contemporary MAGA audience looks back to. The contemporary MAGA person also has political goals that are antithetical to that of a communist and attempting to unite these two ideological polar opposites is a fool's errand. Yet, if your goal isn’t truly about organizing and movement building, it’s a perfect slogan to be deployed on the online battlefield for quick internet success. The hashtag is so ludicrous that it trends as a joke, and before you realize, the MAGA. Communist foot soldiers are in your twitter mentions trying to send you to the online gulag. You can try to counter their online attack with logic, but the folks that take this type of thing seriously are about symbolic online wins. So a discourse of ideas isn’t really in the cards here. At a certain point you may find yourself not wanting to talk to the virtual wall of ignorance, so you block them, or “quit”. But “quitting” or the silencing of their attacks is a victory for MAGA Communism. You can’t lose if you don’t quit! So I ask, what’s the point in engaging with these people?
There is a feeling of solidarity in the retweeting and heart barrage of sloganeering online. That online comradery can feel like a force that is actually capable of substantive real world change. “Ratio-ing” someone or getting them to “rage quit” an online debate can give the illusion of an actual movement. The more you pushback, the more they engage, the more they engage the more the internet troll army feels real. Are you really being “owned”? If enough people tell you that then maybe they’re right? Are these online losses going to have a negative effect? What do these people actually win? What does a victory against an online troll army look like?
In this current epoch, it’s hard for many of us to admit that influencer culture is the dominant. But, Twitter and Instagram are filled with people that can’t wait to become human billboards for products. Monetizing hashtags is a common goal for those that are trying to make it in the online marketplace of ideas. Everyone can’t trend on Twitter but it’s the goal.
Here I should circle back to The Metal Years. The bands interviewed all believed that they were going to make it. They all had a scheme, and they were all shameless in their failed, venal attempts at stardom. But what really constituted making it for these people? For most, it was simply the very soulless American lust for fame. In the end, only one band portrayed had any success, Vixen and even their time in the spotlight was short lived. They were products of an era where big hair and a big sound dominated radio and MTV. Once that trend was over, so were they. The rest of the people portrayed (outside of Megadeth who were relatively large at the time) remained unknown. Their drive, their unethical tactics to survive in Los Angeles were all for nought. If that film had come out now, we’d be seeing a reality show following the talentless try-hards down the path to rejection and failure. It's sick what constitutes entertainment sometimes, but that's what capitalism does. It will always find meat to grind.
The spectacle of MAGA Communism, or Patriotic Socialism, or Anarcho-Bidenism is performative. It’s simply a language of indignation without action or an actual physical movement able to truly challenge power. Ignore it, it will fade away in an ever changing media landscape that is tracking everything, everywhere all at once.