Monday, January 12, 2015

Could Facebook handle Karl Marx? (Some thoughts on doing politics on social media.)


This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Why not socialism?” To listen, click here.

Political activism in America has been usurped by Facebook. The website has made outrage into entertainment and political argument into branding. In a certain sense, this is not new. French existentialists once roamed Parisian cafes performing their political views, and American hippies used their picket signs to troll for sex, but Facebook has made these behaviors immeasurably worse. It is a platform fueled by emotional game playing, not political argument, and its endgame is well-known: when you link to that blog, photo, or pictogram that angers your friends—not your parents, not the establishment, not even “the man,” whoever that was—but your friends, when you find that link that inspires them to be publicly petty and respond with virulent diatribe, then, well, you win. Nothing happens next.

People will claim that they post on Facebook to educate their audience, but “awareness,” as it has come to be called, is not an end in itself. Knowledge without action is of little use to anyone, and conviction without participation only strengthens the status quo. The more people actually feel as if they are doing something by posting on Facebook, the happier those in power are, because Facebook politics is not a threat to anyone. All it is, is revenue-generating clicks for a major corporation. Every instance of social network vitriol makes someone money…someone other than you.

The commodification of dissent is a fairly new phenomenon; it is a product of the second half of the twentieth century. It reduces moral claims to t-shirts and political ideas to Instagrams, replacing action with advertising. But there’s one person social media aren’t prepared to deal with: Karl Marx. I don’t mean, of course, Marx’s face, or a select few quotes, I mean his body of work, his lengthy, complex, sometimes even obtuse analysis of the modern world. How do we know this? Because the language of Karl Marx is now regarded as insults to throw at those who believe in his ideas. In America at least, to be a socialist is to be naïve; to be loyal to a union is to be corrupt; to challenge capitalism is to be traitorous.

I am surprised by how little I see Marx’s words on the Internet, even from my most left-wing friends. And when they do show up, I’m always disappointed to see how many people breeze by them, making them powerless through disregard. You’d think we’d all have realized by now that the most potent injustices and the most dangerous ideas, are the ones we don’t talk about, not the ones we plaster on our walls for all to see.

My claim is not that Marx was always correct—although when he was and when he wasn’t will be one of the major topics of today’s episode—but rather that Marx’s depth and insight is beyond what our culture is prepared for. There is no way to reduce his critique to a Facebook post, because he offers volumes of evidence, and there are few ways to use his claims to refute a blog entry, because taking any of Marx out of context, without detailed explanation, disarms its power. Facebook and other social networks lack nuance. They don’t have the tools to argue against Marx, nor do they have the complexity to present him. He just gets left behind.

In fact, the only place where Marx is taught with any regularity is in literary criticism. Class-based analysis of novels is still standard fare in English courses, and is influential enough to beget feminist critique, ethnic studies, and all manner of cultural critique. But Marx is only allowed when we talk about fiction, and only when he is reduced to simple formulas for producing a literary critique.

But genuinely encountering Marx changes people. The experience stays with them, even when it means devoting much of their energy to proving him wrong, as with the Republican Party. The American Right is always against him, and always accusing others of being his agents, so they are never without him. President Obama is as far from a socialist as a modern politician can be—most Democrats abandoned allegiance to the Marxist ideal long ago—but you’d never know that from listening to the conservative majority in Congress. According to them, everyone else is a Bolshevik in disguise.

So, why not socialism? Why not give it another look, another thought, another test run without assuming its danger or falsity? To do so is the purpose of today’s episode. Just the fact that we are taking Marx seriously may infuriate many in the audience, but others’ anger is no reason not to engage with ideas that have already changed the world. Our job, as thoughtful people, is to understand first and challenge second. If some of what we encounter sticks, we have to have faith that we’ll be better off for it.

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