Memes, Teens, and Dreams: The Inspiring, Infantile, and (very) Online New American Left
A New Energy
There’s an undeniable new wind inspiring hope within the US left. Amidst the ascension of a clownishly right-wing global icon as commander in chief, and rising against the increasingly obvious disintegration of the neoliberal conservatism offered by the Democratic party, an energy of reconstructive optimism persists. It is a heterogeneous leftist energy that captures more than the electoral spectacle that many consider ‘politics’ in the US, but it neither ignores the goings on in Washington.
When considered against the older, localized in physical space, horizontally organized, and often art-oriented collectivist spirit that predominates Amsterdam’s alternative leftist circles, the emergent American energy seems combative, sometimes even archaic, and often ignorant of the world around. Conversely, that Amsterdam culture might appear almost quaint to those in the states desperately rallying around hope for a political revolution that responds to their enormous medical and student debt burdens. Basic values of shared good, cooperation, and antagonism to the greed and violence of 21st century global capitalism unite diverse international communities which demand and create alternatives while the world smolders into climate catastrophe. Here I’d like to explain and explore a bit of the nascent, (super) online, and often infantile new American left energy, before pondering its possible ties to communities in Amsterdam. It’s important to acknowledge my limitations in fully encapsulating either scene, especially considering my mere 6 months as a resident of this city. But nevertheless, I hope it finds interested readers this explication of a simultaneously serious and goofy political movement around which I’ve come of age.
Describing this Particular US Left
Before illuminating what is new, let’s acknowledge what is not.
Despite their relative impotence, anti-capitalist critique and political action have always existed in the United States. Further, anarchist influenced and artist collectivist energies have devoted unshakable commitment to community-building in major cities (and sometimes remote communes) in the US despite social exclusion, aggressive institutional revilement, and pessimistic outlooks throughout decades of Reaganite economic policy. Often these efforts coincide with centers of queer identity and expression. Admiration for this courageous work can also include recognition of the particularity of this current moment. Now emerges a truly national network of those committed to building alternatives to commercial, profit driven, and growth dependent economic systems. And, despite its problems and peculiarities, for this development to occur in the nation that epitomizes and symbolizes imperialism, hypercapitalism, and neocolonialism, is inspiring and must be appreciated.
Let’s begin by explaining my intent behind the descriptors of nascent, online, and infantile. Though seemingly of similar connotation, nascent and infantile refer to distinct qualities. It seems infantile when two anonymous online agitators despairingly argue over the irreconcilable differences in their self-identified commitments to anarchism or communism, as if they were Star Trek and Star Wars acolytes battling it out on an adjacent Internet forum. Meanwhile, this new left is inspiringly nascent when it reflects on its incredible organizing growth, in even just 5 years time. Especially in response to Trump, extensive urban and rural organizing networks have rapidly formed. With the aid of digital communication, insurgent political campaigns and direct action groups have emerged as powerful new voices. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be the most famous among the radical new representatives, but local figures like Lee Carter, state representative in Virginia, also provide cause for hope in legislative structures. Adding pressure from outside of those institutions, are organizations like the Sunrise Movement which commits to direct action for climate advocacy. These successes are crucial in tempering the more pessimistic factions within the movement, which flirt with ideas of violent revolution.
Already you may notice the third quality: online. To highlight this characteristic is to point out the viral potency of creating new discourses on the Internetthat reach national and global audiences. These audiences then rapidly share information and shape strategies for creation and political action. Online is also where the movement indulges in its charmingly goofy qualities of layered irony, quickly united demagoguery of neoliberal political icons and billionaire oligarchs, often by way of meaning-making memes.
Often communicating via online forums and social media platforms, the new American left connects and organizes in ways distinct to the 21st century. While suspicion is warranted for a potential detachment from real work, and resignation to the atomized expression of ideology without means or infrastructure to build something on the ground, this online character also presents opportunities. Perhaps an antidote to the alienation of US suburban and rural life, many otherwise isolated young people are able to find welcoming digital spaces for their, for instance, trans identities, struggles with mental health, or social challenges like autism-spectrum disorders. Alongside substantive economic critique, these social subjects are common to see in online spaces. These communities sometimes inspire solidarity projects that promote mutual aid to online leftists struggling to meet their basic needs. It is also in these online spaces where participating individuals express their distinct attitudes to artistic expression.
Often suspicious of much of the visual arts world as co-opted by bourgeois sensibilities, online American leftists trade in memes so contextually contingent they seem indecipherable to outsiders. Mirroring the broader US appetite for entertainment, lefty Youtube streamers and “brocialist” podcasters eek out livings catering to this online community’s demands for programming which responds both to their despair and sense of irony. For all its potential pitfalls, notably the risk of a placated group of ideologues content to political commentary from behind a screen, these online qualities certainly allow for a rapid growth of left committed energy previously unseen in the United States.
Given the national context in the US-- decades where any remote critique of capitalist greed is met with accusations of the worst failures of totalitarian socialism-- the new left movement is still in development. It is still discovering itself, asking questions, and of course arguing about everything imaginable. It’s impossible not to mention the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders; a predominant, but certainly not unanimous, notion sees hope in a previously unheard of Social Democratic platform presented by a self-identified Democratic Socialist, who ultimately wishes to take the reigns of an imperial infrastructure. This candidacy prompts questions: can the United States transform into a progressive project? Can US electoralism be saved? How can we, in our small-scale organizations, begin to create something new? The fragility that comes with this movement’s youth demands some acceptance of difference in ideological spectrum. And so, despite deserved suspicion of hierarchical electoral politics, many gravitate towards a Sanders organization and movement so distinctly “radical” in US context, it may only find parallel in socialist movements prior to the Great Depression. What comes next, as is often the case, may appear as a frightening unknown. But it seems this undeniable energy cannot dissipate while economic and climate crises persist.
Finally, it’s necessary to acknowledge this new left movement’s most childish aspects. One often encounters a more nihilistic despair in these circles. While imagining a utopian ideal of some future anarchocommunism, many seem content not to work towards building anything at all. Instead, some seem resigned to pervading violence amid incoming climate catastrophe and languish in morbid, though not completely unwarranted, ruminations on the greatest depravities of US intelligence and military agencies. With some sympathy, I note these darker expressions as exemplifying a subcultural character of this new movement. For some it seems this is an identity more than a course of political action or a way to live. As the movement grows, I hope it can instead become all of these things and continue to direct its potency towards constructive measures.
Directions for Cooperation
So, how might it all compare to the happenings in Amsterdam’s leftist circles? There are certainly some obvious differences. Here there is a continuous history that informs the present and future. That history has distinct ties to longstanding anarchist and squatting movements. Though it is of course not monolithic, here horizontal organizing is predominant and functions with the benefit of decades of experience.
Organized around physical spaces, and the perpetual fight to maintain them amidst urban commercialization, Amsterdam’s communities build collectively owned spaces that promote alternative ways of living together. The context is, of course, much different: where decades of neoliberal economic consensus do slowly erode public good, there is more substantial public good to target. Given a context where access to basic medical care and education is still largely taken for granted, perhaps Amsterdam’s greater embrace of intellectual dialogue and visual artistry makes sense.
Again, it’s important not to erase the parallels of Amsterdam’s scene to those similar which have maintained themselves particularly in places like New York and San Francisco. These movements have long been internationally oriented and continue to be so. Take, for example, Extinction Rebellion which sees support and cooperation with many of the communities in Amsterdam. While XR sees frequent criticism in American leftist circles, it also has a substantial presence in many major US cities. So, while distinctions can be made, one must always acknowledge connections and diversities.
Nevertheless, I think the palpable energy and enthusiasm of a youthful new left in the United States is something to be celebrated-- it is inspiring to many. I hope this piece can play some small part in opening dialogues and mutual learning between this new and weird movement in the US, and the culture in Amsterdam that I’ve only begun to understand. Afterall, the bleak fears induced by climate emergency and global capitalist machinations are universally felt, and our attempts to build another future require international cooperation.