The Grifters: The Capitalist Realism of Left Media
May 15, 2022
The Grifters: The Capitalist Realism of Left Media Jason Myles 17 July 2023 The Grifters is a 90s homage to the film noir of the 50s. The sexy thriller centers around three lifelong con artists. Anjelica Huston and John Cusack play an estranged mother and son, while Annette Benning plays Cusack’s adorably conniving girlfriend. A morbid tale of seduction and murder in which the double crossers ultimately get double crossed, The Grifters speaks to the Reagan-Bush era nihilism that possessed the soul of a generation. While the characters are, without question, morally repugnant, after thirty years of neoliberal hegemony they are oddly sympathetic. They each live lonely lives, characterized by transactional relationships that only served to nurture their distrust of all who crossed their paths. Their first-hand knowledge of the cruelty that befalls their victims does not lead them to empathy but rather works to fortify their emotional bulwarks separating them from human kindness. And, although the damage they inflicted upon their marks was detestable, their disregard for the lives of others was, on some level, an expression of the self-imposed Hell to which the grifters were consigned. Recently I moved to Rosarito, Mexico. While the community and town are a welcome change from northern California, I frequently find myself overwhelmed by the wide array of peddlers that dot the landscape of this beautiful, sleepy border town; barking strip club doorman selling exploitative sexual fantasies, doe-eyed children hawking everything from sweets to song, and, of course, the lowly beggar who seek to elicit the guilty sympathies of the tourist and townsfolk alike. Much like the characters in the movie, the hustlers and street vendors of the downtown boulevard are isolated in their manipulative milieu. Other than the satisfaction of divorcing a mark from his or her money, what can one truly feel when all emotions are manufactured as part of your con? Whether it’s the humble peasant with filthy hands stretched out asking for a pittance, or the adorable child with heart melting charm, it’s all a façade — even if there is a reality of economic desperation and utter privation driving these performances. In the left podcast sphere and twitterverse, the term ‘grifter’ is becoming a commonplace accusation directed at anyone deemed to have strayed from leftist orthodoxy in order to obtain commercial success. In music we called them ‘posers’ in the early days of hip hop we called the sell-outs, but the sentiment is the same regardless of era or genre. The figure — once admired for their ability to present themselves as the vanguard of revolutionary thought — becomes a niche internet celebrity. They become a stand in for revolutionary progress, presenting angry customers with a copy and paste critique of the two-party duopoly or, sometimes, the barbarism of capitalism itself. While the sentiment and anger might be valid, this politics of outrage is no more than a series of ‘fire tweets’. It’s the language of the left political influencer. In the world of the left influencers, context and nuance are not just bad words in this space, but evidence of a lack of authenticity as counterculture rebels. Many people want action and, more importantly, they want solutions. Indeed, at a time of disorientation and confusion, the rise of figures like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US gave hope to a frightened generation, who are becoming more inclined towards left-wing politics. However, hope was not enough and both figures were crushed by the forces of reaction. To make matters worse, we are facing a pandemic that has killed over 773,000 people in the United States alone. One of the outcomes of this is that social media engagement is up, so rage peddling becomes a part of one’s “doom scrolling” routine. Making outrage the centerpiece of your politics isn’t new, the right has been doing it for decades, but now the left has taken that ball and they are running with it. This is the politics of the influencer. However, the objective seems to be less about advancing a cause or creating any sort of real movement and more about selling a product — namely the politics of rage. Unlike my Rosarito story, this is not a culture of survival con games. Most of the online left Breadtube world are middle class; very few (if any) are born into such abject poverty that they have, from childhood, been pimped for a few dollars here and there. Nor should one condemn the rise on the online left in its entirety. This new generation of cyber-leftists are both a mix of a small cadre of brilliant content producers that bring political education and awareness as well as an endless sea of blowhards that use YouTube as a vehicle to monetize their ‘fire tweets’. The internet brings out both the best and the worst. Moreover, the online left is not simply a mirror image of the online right. Alex Jones yelling that chemicals in the water are turning frogs gay and that every school shooting is a ‘false flag operation’, all the while hawking his vitamin supplements, is not the same as Jimmy Dore screaming about forcing a congressional floor vote for Medicare for All. While Jones has created a character and sells paranoia to whomever is buying, Dore seems to truly be the passionate everyman that has found some success as a leftist commentator. Unlike a real newsroom where you are constantly getting fact checked and have a producer that may actually have veto power over some of your stories, Dore is going to dictate the content, truth be damned. His passion for a worthy cause will outweigh the minutiae of the details. Dore led the charge in the online #ForceTheVote campaign. For a short time, this hashtag was a trending online phenomenon that dominated the discourse of the Breadtube world. This is where the influencer and the grifter line can get a bit blurry for some. Social media engagement is fed by negative interactions. Algorithms of anger. When you have a divisive subject like #FTV it is one of those things that triggers people in a similar way to the way in which right wing carnival barker Alex Jones does with his false flags and gay frogs. The heated debates drive engagement and people become emotionally invested, a tendency made worse by the parasocial relationships that many enjoy with their favorite content creators. From the perspective of the content creator, views are going up. Maybe they’re even getting people sending in ‘superchats’ just to tell them to fuck off. This back and forth and increased viewership are not the motives of the con artist as much as it is the results of a successful influencer campaign. There is no rouse, the sometimes-passionate exchanges are genuine, but who’s really hearing the message? Thus, while Alex Jones has created a character and has admitted in court that his show is purely entertainment and not news, the Dore’s of the world can get a bit confused over where they fit in the world of online media. Internet influencer is a bad word, and online muckraker sounds foolish, but those are more apt descriptions of what someone like Dore is. When words like ‘nuance’ and ‘context’ become pejoratives in your politics of rage, then all you do is create an echo chamber of angry noise that offers no solutions to material conditions. At the same time, you build an intellectually dishonest form of distrust of institutions through oversimplifying complex issues. Like many other product selling influencers, the political influencer also is adept on getting other influencers on air with them to engage in self-congratulatory love-ins rather than having hard conversations about where they might have good faith disagreements. There is not much to gain from this type of content in educational terms and financial gain from this type of content is small and short lived. Maybe there can be a bit of an intra podcaster ‘beef’ that can arise from these types of shows, but again, even that agitation, while at times can seem petty and juvenile, is authentic and not manufactured. As these types of internet beefs pop up with more regularity and they create more views and attention, the left twitterverse and podcast will shout ‘grifter’ from the rafters, all while ignoring how popular ‘beef’ is in the world of online media. It becomes the perfect content for the short attention span modern consumer who is all too familiar with this type of content. The vast array of influencers that want in on the trending scuttlebutt waters down the content and quickly substantive discourse starts to resemble TMZ or Worldstar fodder for budding leftists. The idea of the ‘leftist grift’ is one that does not consider the reality that financial prosperity does not await the aspiring con artists. One may strike it rich, but that is the exception rather than the rule. If one wishes to be a political grifter, the money is on the right — hence people like Candace Owens and Dave Rubin may very well deserve the ‘grifter’ moniker. The far right’s ahistorical talking points are always a good way to earn a couple bucks. There is a built-in media infrastructure and financial backing on the right to spread propaganda and insulate them from any real criticism that could affect their right-wing con. The right has the budget that out spends any sort of subversive project on the left to counteract it. Prager U’s following dwarfs that of its leftist rival The Gravel Institute. In short, if you’re going to be doing this just for the money, the left podcast space is not the way to go. If Gen X was born into the concept of brand awareness and brand loyalty, millennials and Gen Z are less skeptical about the idea of constantly being marketed too. The 80s and 90s was a time of anti-politics, the television often called the “idiot box” by the counterculture figures of that era, television was unfortunately the medium to which many of my generation were wed too for better or worse. The computer and the internet were thought to be a new frontier of free thought and for some an extension on the 60s revolutionary counterculture. Technological advancements can have revolutionary potential, but capitalist realism has the power to circumvent any sort of counter to capital’s hegemonic project with swift financial co-optation. The internet and social media like everything else under capitalism has been commodified. The influencer isn’t just a carbon copy cut out of an attractive aspiring starlet selling make-up or streetwear fashion. They can be more seditious and peddle political engagement. With the rise of reality television and social media influencer celebrity, everything is a market to be exploited. No matter how small or niche. Another very important aspect to this paradigm is the fact that knowledge about a topic becomes second to passion and outrage. You no longer need to have experts on to discuss a topic, or even read a book! You can just call yourself a Marxist, a Socialist, or a progressive. Ultimately these are just titles that do not mean anything more than Democrat or Republican. I do not expect the average self-proclaimed Democrat to know every bill submitted to Congress from their party just as nowadays don’t expect the average self-proclaimed Marxist to have read all three volumes of Capital. These people have mistaken “followers” for a movement, indignation for revolution, and intra podcaster beef and internet drama for news. Monikers like ‘Progressive’ or ‘Marxist’ are simply names you can call yourself that do not have to be backed up by understanding dialectics, policy, or historical context for which thoughts come from. At this point it is almost like being a gang. Blood, Crip, ML, Progressive, Liberal, the online flame wars are ripe with sectarianism. Is this the language of the defeated? Most of the rhetoric is ensconced in an anti-establishment sentiment. While I can only agree with much of the critique of the establishment, as I have my own as well, when all you have to say is ’America bad’ or ’Democrats bad‘,what do you really have to offer after saying “no”? Another sad reality to this politics of outrage is that you can cement your ’activist’ or ’revolutionary’ credentials in the spectacle of ’direct action ‘aimed not so much as drawing attention to a cause or threatening the establishment, but more of a brand exercise. Having a march or rally with no real goal other than to be seen doing it reminds me of those videos of people filming themselves giving homeless people money or food to show the world what a good Samaritan they are. In the world of leftist online branding, you are constantly trying to separate yourself from the podcaster pack. Have yourself filmed with a bullhorn and now you’re an organizer, activist, and socialist rebel rouser! You can now embody all the qualities that one can define as counterculture, all while being just another cog in the influencer culture machine. Your activism does not have to produce any sort of material wins or even attach itself to any real local movements, you just have to stream it to your followers. If the 60s anti-war movement is memorialized in defiant images of a collective of people fighting an imperial power taking part in a bloody unjust war, how will we remember the era of the political internet influencer? A screenshot of a group of people talking into the void about the mythical rebellion that will be led by their very own hashtag army, with a highlighted chat message echoing the empty insurrectionist fantasy filled sentiments. This being said, the existence of a cohort of left internet influencers with a pugnacious disposition mistaken for radicalism, in my humble opinion, is not a grift. It is just the current paradigm we exist in. The capitalist realism Mark Fisher wrote so presciently about has sadly taken over much of the air in the leftist media space. If socialized single payer healthcare is a policy we demand on the left, we are not going to stream our way to victory. As good as the “fire tweets” feel and as much as many who feel the same way will prop up our egos by retweeting our indignation, we are not going to tweet our way to capitalism’s end. The politics of outrage can only take you so far. Once the rage is gone what do you have? What is the end goal? What is your plan to achieve the material benefits that will improve people’s lives? Is just yelling at the establishment from your basement on a zoom call revolutionary? While all these futile acts disguised as rebellion may seem to some of their detractors as dishonest, I do not think they are. The desire for a better world is honest. The frustration of capitalism failures is sincere, but with the influencer there can be an intellectual dishonesty in the framing of certain issues. Distinction does not sell like a vehement disdain to the status quo to the content consuming audience. These people are not grifters, they are internet influencers, just like Kim K and anyone else you think is a vapid tool of the establishment. Instead of Sketchers, they just sell you the idea that you and the influencer are a part of the online revolutionary vanguard. Cyber Leninism indeed.