RE: America, the commercial republic.
A scathing teardown of fandom culture and a call for people to grow the fuck up.
This is a full response to the guest feature on Default Wisdom entitled America, the commercial republic. I was moved to pen it after I went out to enjoy my usual drink bar surf downtown, unfortunately bombarded yet again by a very particular variety of adult children who seem to think the world has a lot more in common with a sitcom than it actually does. I’m sick of this, and you’re about to find out why.
We think about the American culture wars wrongly in two ways. The first treats culture war as a kind of dodge.
Going to break into this mid-paragraph just to point out that this is corrosion: ‘the culture wars’ are not actually real. Unless, of course, you’re an unwitting participant in them. The value of the thinking is so profoundly marginal, and it becomes a huge drag in any situation where reality is calling.
Rather than substantive politics that could challenge the political economic order, we get drag queen story hour, land acknowledgments, etc. The second misconception sees culture as upstream from politics. Control the major cultural institutions and you capture the discursive context in which politics plays out. Both of these miss something crucial about how the culture war has shifted since the dawn of the internet and how that shift interacts with the structure of American political institutions.
So far this is a pretty sober explanation of the kind of Gen X psychopathy that has arrested most institutions in the Anglosphere. Corrode language, and you can puppet the unwitting masses, or so the logic goes.
The internet has never been the libertarian dreamscape its boosters promoted. Zeus-born from DARPA’s forehead, by the 1990s it became an archipelago of forums and message boards built around common interests. Businesses quickly discovered that target demographics self-corralled themselves there and incessantly confessed everything from their darkest secrets to their most mundane consumer preferences. The internet is about two things: commerce and preference signaling. Socially, it’s about fandom.
Towards the end is where we hit the reduction. Skimming into this part and I knew pretty much immediately that this person was lobotomised by Tumblr. What most online women (and men who think like women, in the case of the author) forget about the Worldwide Web is how functional it can be, and this is the central theme that is conspicuously absent from the entire post. Ask me how I know. This is all veggies, no meat.
The cult of fandom holds for Berners, MAGA Chuds, Twilight enthusiasts, renewable and nuclear energy advocates and so on and so on. Fandom has particular dynamics that make traditional political coalition building difficult—it’s self-balkanizing, it’s dematerialized, and it’s more about individual and group identity formation through the production of fan content. These dynamics take precedence over intellectual content itself.
This is a very flattering way to describe what was once well known as ‘the cancer/AIDS that is killing the internet’. Thanks to social media it’s practically become a taboo to say this, but since my whole deal is being rude for the right reasons, I’ll say it: this is nothing more than a gigantic wad of internet faggotry. It’s just faggotry man. A bunch of people with Unwarranted Self Importance who have hypnotised themselves with the computer out of an escapism from the objectively horrible real lives they would have otherwise been living. It bears repeating: the Internet is not real life. No, really. Everyone in these so-called ‘fandoms’ are faggots, and you’re also a faggot for taking their existence seriously. This is not who these people are. It’s fake.
Let’s take an example. The other day, a friend sent me what she found to be a baffling interaction between American leftists. The original poster, who I’ll refer to as Leftist A (LA), tweeted a critique of “degrowth”—the fashionable idea among some environmentalists that we need to produce and consume less, thus “degrowing” the economy, to spare the planet—as an elite ideology dedicated to depriving the poor of access to goods and services.
Leftist B (LB) responded that this was a misunderstanding of degrowth, which is not zero-sum. A government could degrow its military spending and reallocate that capital, thus growing the economy in a different way. To construe degrowth in any other way, LB continued, was to strawman it.
LA assented to this and pointed out that military spending could be diverted to green energy initiatives that would turbocharge the economy. This LB and LA agreed, was degrowth. So, my friend wanted to know, was LA pro-degrowth or not? And what does degrowth even mean in this context?
The truth is that it doesn’t matter. That’s not what that conversation was about. Really, that was a social interaction about whether or not the participants in the conversation were left wing. It was about the fandom of leftism. This becomes clear if we replace the discussion with, say, Harry Potter.
Imagine that this conversation is taking place on Tumblr and LA is saying they think Severus Snape is “queer-coded” and that those who disagree are homophobic. LB responds by saying that it’s not zero-sum. In fact, in some people’s “head canon”—“ideas held by fans of series that are not explicitly supported by sanctioned text or other media. Fans maintain the ideas in their heads, outside of the accepted canon”—Snape is a deeply heterocoded character. LA responds to this by saying, “Yes, of course. In fact, Snape could be heterocoded but trans, thus allowing for a polymorphous kind of queerness.” LB agrees.
So, is Snape queercoded or not? Again, it doesn’t matter. This imagined interaction was about making sure everyone is operating within the fandom even while taking their own liberties, because fandoms are mutually agreed upon signifiers that bind a community together. The content’s substance is secondary to how the content is used. There’s no “stable reality,” there’s just the work of maintaining and shaping the fandom.
Left and right versions of this exist—just scroll through “trad” Twitter. Even “mainstream” politics plays this game. Consider Kamala Harris’s use of the color palette from Frantz Fanon’s iconic The Wretched of the Earth book cover and the fan-generated Trump memes that bubbled his body with rippling muscles. You only need functioning eyeballs to recognize that what these aesthetics depict is merely “headcanon.”
This is a great crash course for those of you who have been surfing under rocks in what is known as online tribalism. It’s really sad when you think about how much time this kind of feudalistic fealty-affirming horseshit consumes when there are so many other productive and emotionally fulfilling things they could have been doing instead.
I’m just gonna say it simply: the simulation of group dynamics on the internet is disgusting. It’s all premised on convenient falsehoods by cowardly liars who have no real lives worth living and opportunistic psychopaths who take advantage of the lack of emotional leakage inherent to text, and it’s a tremendously, uniquely awful part of human existence today. This is not what message boards were created for.
Fandom interacts with American political institutions in curious ways. We don’t have political parties in the traditional sense. There’s no membership. For voters, the two parties are more like abstract containers that reflect back to them their desires than entities over which they can exert noticeable and direct control. The reactive passivity engendered in this relationship nicely parallels the relationship between fans and content producers. Someone else generates it, the fans/voters respond. And the fact that there are only two parties exacerbates this dynamic. The parties have to somehow reflect the desires of groups who would otherwise not truck with each other. There’s simply nowhere else to go. False promises and advertising become necessarily synonymous.
This is of course where we depart the lagoon of analytical sanity and finally stretch the analogy into the impossible. I don’t even know where to begin with this. Just the whole mass of it, from stem to stern, is all projection.
On top of this, the American political structure was built on the assumption of resentment and animosity between the government and the states, and between the states themselves. It was constructed to slow things down, to be a frustrating process that requires incredible consensus to get anything accomplished. Partisanship divide in both impotence and extremity is not an exceptional problem, but an abiding feature of American political life encoded in its founding documents. What Madison describes as the “friendship of the states” in the Federalist Papers was, well, headcanon.
If we add to this civil society’s shift from membership organizations to donor-funded interest groups, we have yet another abstraction away from direct political control by the demos. These groups, left and right, create political fandoms while generating white papers and doing the work that would otherwise redound to the electorate itself. Thus, incentives are created to broadcast the most divisive signals in order to garner attention and nurture those political fandoms around which NGOs can gather data to convince donors of their successes in order to fundraise so that they can churn out policies elected officials might pass.
In this light, the world of political commentary and cultural criticism can be more helpfully understood as free-range focus-group testing for political aesthetics and ideas. Dissidents left and right would then be avant-garde imprints offering unique fandom experiences rather than distinct political coalitions. Their status as junior partners to the larger and more powerful factions and interests is more like the difference between a major record label’s subsidiaries. It also explains why these aggressive critics of the establishment exert zero disciplining power on the status quo--they have none, and they rely on the status quo for subsistence, anyway.
So, it’s not that culture war is the green curtain behind which the Wizard of Oz hides, nor is it the river that flows into the tributary of politics. Culture war is simply how American politics works at an intimate and structural level.
America has been vulnerable to this since its inception because for its first hundred years it was a localized, fragmented political community that lacked centralizing structures. The Civil War and industrialization began to change that. It wasn’t until late into the New Deal that the American federal government inserted itself into American life in a way that would be familiar to Europeans. So small was the American state, that when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the FBI drove President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Senate in Al Capone’s recently confiscated Rolls Royce, having no bulletproof car of their own.
Bereft of central political institutions and too dispersed for cultural unity, America was a commercial republic with few formal unifying traditions to pattern social life. As corporations and advertisers began to grow in the Gilded Age, the collapse of politics and culture into each other began. It was in the market that Americans found the central myths around which our country began.
An early example stands out. In the late 19th century, animus for imperial violence as a regenerative process was in the air, co-created by American artists, its politicians, and its corporations. General Custer’s demise at Little Bighorn served as a focal point. Teddy Roosevelt saw Custer’s death and defeat as “a shining light” to America’s youth. “By the 1890s, [Custer] had achieved iconic status, as a lithograph by Otto Becker of ‘Custer’s Last Fight’ (based on a painting by Cassily Adams) hung in thousands of saloons courtesy of Anheuser-Busch,” writes Jackson Lears. “A reigning imperial tableau was set in place: innocent representatives of civilization, surrounded by screaming savages and soon to be massacred altogether--a set of images that called for vengeance.” It’s only a short step from there to “you can pick your politicians the way you pick your fridge.”
Commerce, culture, and politics have been closely coupled in America for longer than they haven’t. The New Deal rolled out a consumer politics of its own, as did the post-war consensus, as did the cultural revolt of the 1960s and 70s, as did the neoliberal era, and now the social media era has a version of this all its own--fandom.
Again, what otherwise might have been an interesting theoretical analogy has been ridden too far and turned into a psychotic projection onto the public. The author keeps alternating back and forth for several paragraphs here, almost like an attempted hypnosis of the reader into accepting their insane framing as reality. It’s actually a little disturbing to read back.
Since this shit is impossible to sanely address as a whole, I’m going to nitpick sentence-by-sentence instead, because there are a lot of blatant falsehoods here ironically constituting a ‘headcanon’ to borrow the author’s words. I consider it more of a grand delusion, but whatever.
On top of this, the American political structure was built on the assumption of resentment and animosity between the government and the states
No. I don’t know where the fuck you heard this, but this is just wrong.
It was constructed to slow things down, to be a frustrating process that requires incredible consensus to get anything accomplished.
Again, wrong. Perhaps they are confusing the Constitution for the Articles of Confederation? Someone really didn’t pay attention in high school history class. I know they covered this.
Partisanship divide in both impotence and extremity is not an exceptional problem, but an abiding feature of American political life encoded in its founding documents.
Just tell me you know fuckall about 19th century American politics without telling me. Or how the party shift that happened in the 1960s is structurally impossible to explain or even acknowledge the existence of in your model. It’s almost like until lately, politics was rooted not in parties, but values.
This is something our society is atrophying hard with the rise of all of this psycho-consumerist hogwash. People don’t have values anymore. All they care about is money and validation. The loss of intrinsic value and motivation is a huge touchstone in our culture right now. Everyone can feel the decline, the absolutely clinical levels of not-giving-a-shit. You are out of your mind if you don’t notice this.
If we add to this civil society’s shift from membership organizations to donor-funded interest groups, we have yet another abstraction away from direct political control by the demos. These groups, left and right, create political fandoms while generating white papers and doing the work that would otherwise redound to the electorate itself.
Well, this one accurately describes the anatomy’s beast, but gets the intention completely wrong. You do not need to give these people so much credit; they are just committing a mass form of fraud. There is no structural beauty or positive intention at hand here when the bureaucracy debases and mortgages its flock. It’s just mass slaughter in slow-motion. More mortgages for me, more rent for thee.
America has been vulnerable to this since its inception because for its first hundred years it was a localized, fragmented political community that lacked centralizing structures.
No, actually that’s the reason this wasn’t a problem sooner.
Did you know that scalpers bought up water bottles in East Palestine, Ohio after the train derailment disaster and are marking them up to sell it back to the public at insane markups?
Do you know what makes this kind of thing possible? Centralisation. Walmart doesn’t give a shit who buys water bottle pallets, or how many. They’re not keeping track. Any local shop on the other hand would have had the two brain cells needed to figure out what these people were doing and tell them to go take a hike. It just wasn’t structurally possible to fuck the public over this easily until now.
It’s only a short step from there to “you can pick your politicians the way you pick your fridge.”
This is amazing. Just beyond wrong, to so thoroughly misunderstand Custer in this way. No, you idiot, Custer was an emblem and icon of cultural values.
Commercialism was not the ethos of the land. Commerce simply existed. People still tithed to church, remember? If there was anything to believe in beyond God, by golly it was not gold and silver, or what kind of car you drove. That is a totally modern malaise that did not set in until the 1980s.
The upshot is twofold: first, fandom is the structure of American politics. Thus, American intellectual, cultural, and political life—from academia to the internet—has become content creation for the major political parties, churning out IP headcanon for political fandom communities. This is true for Tumblr and 4chan, Bennington and Hillsdale, Jacobin and the National Review. Second, our system is designed for this kind of turbulence and polarization.
No. The system is not designed for this. No one in their right minds would create a society this greedy and self-abandoning.
So, everything is working as it’s supposed to; things are more stable than ever.
Have you looked around outside at all, lately? Like, forget about the left coast hellholes. Yesterday in Raleigh the entire NCSU student body had their phones going off nonstop overnight because there was some shooter at large in the streets downtown. We’re an extraordinarily safe and clean city and we’re still getting these vagabonds from yonder. Our police still give a shit, and we’re still fighting for our lives out here.
Have you ever been through Austin and notice that 6th Street is filled with the same kinds of homeless people that you run into in the Tenderloin? Don’t you see that there is something that we are doing that is, in effect, causing all of this horrible, godawful shit to crop up?
Maybe you don’t realise that homeless people in cities, even in America, isn’t actually normal. We don’t have them here in Raleigh. Maybe you’re too stuck in your own little world, more comfortable and stable than ever, doing things like we do on the Internet where we bitch and block anyone who tries to falsify our shitty, self-serving worldviews, no matter their intention.
Maybe that’s why all the homeless people can come in such force. It’s honestly my leading theory for this decline and decay – people are shotgun-married to their lifestyle of not giving a flying rat’s ass about others, and they’re not about to back down on that just because those others are suffering or even dying. They’ll sooner change the channel, because it’s nothing more than an idiot box for them at the end of the day.
Again: all veggies, no meat. And we’re collectively shitting ourselves to death doing it.
This is what I’m sick of. This thinking. This dog-rotten mindset. We need to completely foreclose on it, and we need to start that process today. No more shitting your pants in public. No more enabling grifters and vagabonds. No more blind celebration of ‘getting the bag’ or whatever selfish ends others have. This is not working. Divest and check out if you want to have a life worth living in the end.