The left is fighting a meme war on the ideological battleground online
Thursday 28th September 2017
ASTRID JOHNSON speaks with the artists kick-starting class consciousness and spreading socialist values on social media
ONLINE memes are difficult to define by their varied nature, but by far the most common and popular medium of meme is that of the funny picture, often with overlaid text.
They can cover a vast range of topics, adopt countless cultural in-jokes and range from the beautifully intricate to the hilariously mundane. But whatever the variety or the form, one thing is certain: memes dominate the internet, and have done for as long as many can remember.
For around the past five years, there’s been a rather unfavourable group of individuals exploiting the popularity of memes as a recruitment tool: the alt-right, a loosely-defined movement aligned with the right wing, fascism and white supremacy.
Spreading like a virus through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and lurking in internet forums like Reddit and 4Chan, the alt-right is orchestrating the distribution of dog-whistle phrases that mask genocide advocacy, and call for the formation of a white ethno-state.
But they’re being met with a fierce opposition from communists, socialists and anarchists. And they’re pretty good at making memes too. Indeed, left-wing memes have existed for about as long as memes themselves have in general. But in recent times, they’ve experienced a boom in popularity and production to spread class consciousness and fight back against the oncoming tide of fascism both online and off.
“I fell in love with socialism at a young age. It just seemed like common sense to me,” says one of the administrators of the Facebook page Labourwave on condition of anonymity.
Labourwave — which writes its name in a mixture of alternative characters not dissimilar to replacing an ‘e’ with a ‘3’ in a password — publishes online what some have called works of art.
After taking courses in graphic design, the site’s administrators began to fall in love with vaporwave, a counter-culture art and music movement that critiques capitalism with ironic idolization of 1990s consumerism aesthetics. “I loved the almost dystopian, anti-capitalist message.”
But as the alt-right began to expropriate vaporwave from its original community, Labourwave decided to start creating unabashedly socialist imagery, and in creating their Facebook page became part of a movement that’s seen success in making people more aware of their political options.
“I’ve seen many people say that leftist memes are what radicalised them … Memes are just modern entertainment, so it just seems logical to me.”
Labourwave thinks that, similarly to alt-right memes, art from them and others like them might be a more effective means of convincing people of left-wing politics. “Leftist memes are much different since they promote, mostly, positive messages about overcoming injustice and oppression.”
Regrettably, the left-wing community suffers from a lot of in-fighting, and this is something that can’t be escaped when making memes online. “Anarchists and authoritarian communists hardly ever get along, but that’s why I like to make a lot of left unity memes.” And Labourwave isn’t the only one trying to unite the masses.
“We don’t really like to discuss our specific ideologies,” says an admin for Sassy Socialist Memes, one of the most popular socialist meme pages on Facebook with a following of over 965,000 people.
“The strength of this page is that it acts as a broad church for leftists of all types, and that is why we can post memes about both anarchists and Maoists.”
Despite its huge success and wide reach, the people behind Sassy Socialist Memes never really intended to make something big out of their page. “It started as a fun inside joke between friends and just kept snowballing as more and more people joined the page.”
But through its success, many have begun to consider left-wing politics with a greater degree of interest. “We’ve had fans message us saying that our page got them interested in left ideology. We also have people ask us for reading recommendations or ask us questions about theory.”
At the end of the day, Sassy Socialist Memes isn’t looking to trigger any large social change through their actions. “We mainly just want people to enjoy our stuff. Anything extra is a bonus.”
However, the admins do think that if the alt-right are appropriating memes as a means of recruitment, then perhaps the left would also do good to do the same. “The alt-right uses memes as an ideological gateway, so one can say the left can do the same.”
The Labourwave Politburo of Agitation and Propaganda take this sentiment one step further. The creator of the page embraces the propagandistic, recruiting nature of socialist memes. “I hope that my work directly facilitates a revival of the ideals of the USSR. Original Soviet propaganda posters are great both artistically and at visually conveying socialist principles.”
It sees memes as a very palatable and approachable medium, and believe that this makes them perfect for sharing socialist sentiment.
“Memes can transform the essence of dense Marxist literature into an easily digestible format. Though reading theory is important, not everyone has the time.
“I have seen so many people say that they only got into it for the memes at first, but then over time they realised there was much more to it.”
The Politburo, based in the United States, has good reason for its passion, and the conviction of its views. “I was drawn to left-wing politics after watching the carnage that the great recession inflicted on the working people of this country…
“I’ve now seen the Pulse nightclub massacre in my hometown. I’ve seen Donald Trump lead a rally at my university, where he asked his supporters to swear allegiance to him.
“The only chance that my generation has is if the working people of the United States, as well as the working people of the whole world, create truly just governments based not on greed and death, but on equality and hope.”
And it is for these reasons that the Politburo does what it does. “Marxism is the ideology that supports this worldview.
“It has been responsible for near miraculous leaps in democracy and progress in the past.”
I asked the creators behind the Politburo what inspired them specifically to make the art that they do.
They shared with me a quote from the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, that I think quite effectively conveys the intention behind not all but many of the countless socialist meme creators online: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”