A mild sigh of irritation greeted the arrival of a new ‘Socialist’ on social media feeds recently: not another fresh faced, overly keen member of the Democratic Left, but a new app that claims to ‘help you create, collaborate and share lists all in one place’. There is a knowing irony in their logo, which is a red book, and a particular historical triumphalism in the promiscuous appropriation of a term for a form of social egalitarianism for a phone app that defines sociability through consumerism. Before we shrug off the Socialist app with annoyance, here are five things it can tell us about capitalist appropriation:
1. Irony is Dead! Long Live Irony!
Capitalist culture has long adopted the language of anti-capitalist movements to achieve its goals. Take for example, the slogan ‘Another World is Possible’, popularised by the alter-globalisation movement in the 2000s, which was soon spotted decorating Coca-Cola vending machines around the globe; Marx’s face is emblazoned on a credit card in Eastern Germany and an anti-consumerist message helps sell mobile phones in Thailand. Socialist is part of an unconscious, omnivorous lunge to consume and utilise all material that can deliver the ‘virility’ of youthful rebellion to otherwise bland and unremarkable products.
The creators of Socialist are not master semiologists; their choice of the name is purely practical – driven by the desire to associate their product with something slightly edgy and alternative – not a conscious awareness of the irony it invokes.
2. Revolution still sells.
The appropriation of the image and language of revolution and social movements (however superficial) reveals the continued popular appeal of images of resistance and protest – think for example how Levi’s or Jay-Z and Kanye West utilised the energy of the Occupy protests to sell their products. Yes, it is depressing that even our dreams of breaking free of capitalism are sold back to us, but it also points to how these dreams continue to be valid and resonant.
Right wing fantasies tend not to sell so well. ‘Fashism’ – a ‘safe space to get unbiased, excellent advice on fashion and beauty choices’, naturally – collapsed after only four years.
3. Appropriation can work both ways.
While the internet has increased the speed at which the recuperation of social movements can take place, it has also created new opportunities for realising dissent. Corporations and governments have begun to feel the effect of a new demographic: young, angry and social media savvy, those who employ basic image editing skills and sometimes savage humour to undermine, ridicule and counter dominant representations.
The generation and reproduction of memes – ideas, catchphrases or media that spread spontaneously in a decentred and horizontal way – can damage and derail government PR attempts and corporate branding exercises and disseminate counter-hegemonic ideas instantly.
These days, subversion can be accomplished without the risks associated with ladders, paint and defacing private property. A contemporary UK example occurred when the Conservative Government released a digital poster during the publication of this year’s budget, which announced a small reduction in the taxation of beer and bingo. This was understood by some as a cynical ploy to attract working class votes at a moment when budgets for national healthcare and welfare were being slashed.
The patronising tone and the clumsy slip of ‘they’ in reference to ‘hardworking families’ was immediately detected and within hours hundreds of parodies were being circulated on Facebook and Twitter, which further underlined the distance between the privately-educated politicians in government and the ‘hardworking families’ they claim to represent.
These methods are not exclusively used by the Left, but they do favour grassroots and horizontal actions and present a useful tool in undermining the power of institutions. By utilising popular cultural forms and subverting their meaning, this kind of politicised meme culture represents a way of countering the misappropriation of radical culture by those who seek to profit from it.
4. The idea of socialism will survive a silly app.
Words can be purposed in the struggle over signification: the reclamation of the word ‘queer’ for example in the LGBTQ community, or the recent positive revival of the word ‘communist’ – if only the Socialist creators had known!
The new app can use the word – it is not the word itself but what it signifies that belongs to the shared heritage of all those who struggle for a better society. Time will tell whether Socialist will outlive ‘Fashism’, but while it is unlikely the app will be around in years to come, the ideas of social equality and fair distribution of wealth and power will continue to persist until everyone has everything they need.