The internet has an extraordinary ability to cater for every niche and to express things in ways previously not possible. The Facebook page ‘Humans of Late Capitalism’, posting since October 2016, is one development using political satire as its weapon of choice.
Although the Facebook page is the most popular facet of the project, its completely anonymous creator also runs a Tumblr and Twitter under the same title. Not putting all its eggs in one basket is part of an entirely necessary initiative for the project’s survival. The controversial group was censored and temporarily removed by Facebook for the entire month of December 2016.
Since this brief hiatus, the page has gone onto develop a following of almost half a million people.
It takes aim at the ruthless forces of the free market, the breakdown of master narratives, the commodification of everything and the rise of individualism and mass surveillance. It is especially interested in challenging late capitalism’s representation of itself, exposing absurdity and extremes. Each picture has some kind of new contradiction to be worked out.
For instance, labourers installing a statue of Karl Marx:
An advertisement that unknowingly seems to capture an extreme reduction of the principles of capitalism:
And this, which doesn’t need explaining:
The term ‘late capitalism’ has become increasingly popular in mainstream usage. It was popularised in the academic circles of the 1980s by American theorist Frederic Jameson, who used the term to describe the economy since the 1970s, which was characterised by increasing globalisation, deregulation of the free market, consumerism and technological acceleration.
Last week, The Atlantic published this video about the term. It is quite significant that a mainstream media company has given the term attention:
We might well argue that late capitalism is incapable of dealing with the problems that it creates, such as climate change and inequality. Not only that, but it also tends to disguise its problems in the process of production. In that sense, it deprives us of the everyday evidence that would be needed for us to address and critique its issues.
This is the void that Humans of Late Capitalism tries to fill. Its ‘no comment’ style looks to expose the irony of the world we live in by giving it to us on a daily basis in the form of memes. It challenges the mainstream media dominated representation of our world, which aims to normalise certain behaviours whilst placating the masses.
Humans of Late Capitalism takes particular aim at the hugely popular Facebook page ‘Humans of New York’, in which portraits with people on New York’s streets accompany snippets of text about that person’s life and problems.
Humans of New York aims to say: we are all inherently good-willed individuals enduring our own personal struggles. It encourages empathy for the stranger on the street. Its message is positive, and it is often a warming read.
Humans of Late Capitalism strikes a rather complementary tone to Humans of New York. It is its antithesis: it sees us all as inherently confused about the forces that surround and deceive us. At times, it is disturbingly refreshing. Rather than specific individual struggles, Humans of Late Capitalism looks at the problems common to the collective.
The page’s guiding star is the Slovenian Hegelian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. One of the left’s sharpest thinkers, Zizek is a darling among Guardian readers. Zizek’s critically acclaimed film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, explores the hidden ideological subtext behind Hollywood’s representation of society. The lens with which he looks at the world is much the same flavour to that of Humans of Late Capitalism.
What Humans of Late Capitalism is essentially circulating are memes. Memes generally aim to evoke one specific emotional response, usually that of laughter prompted by some relatable experience. Humans of Late Capitalism’s memes aim to evoke the same emotional response each time. But that response is hard to characterise in words. Sometimes it is bitter laughter similar to the kind warranted by dark humour; others it is horror and disgust.
New methods of image distribution made possible by the internet have given rise to a world in which protest and activism is more efficient and effective. Nowadays, such methods are particularly effective forms of consciousness raising when they are embodied in a social infrastructure like Facebook. People can easily build a meme page or group around a theme and attract lots of attention. There is usually a curator/editor who administrates the page, posting only the memes that they think will be popular.
During the 2017 UK election, I was surprised by the level of activity generated on Facebook to propel Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in groups such as ‘June 8 Shitposting Social Club’. The seemingly mundane everyday activity of liking and sharing memes suddenly became part of the process of meaningful political action. Meme groups exist on the right as well, with groups such as ‘Reem memes with a right wing theme’, albeit these have a much smaller following.
But what many of these politically-motivated meme pages and groups have in common is bringing politics to everyday life. If one of your friends ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ on a meme, you will see it in your Facebook feed regardless of whether you have ‘liked’ that page or not yourself.
Here, my characterisation of Humans of Late Capitalism as ‘satirical’ needs further explaining. Henri Lefebvre wrote in The Production of Space that the ideology of capitalism conceals truth in the process of production–and that ‘for those who accept the practice of which [the ideology] is a part it is indistinguishable from knowledge’ (Lefebvre, 1974, 9).
I would argue that Humans of Late Capitalism aims to reveal what is concealed: it uses the very representation of late capitalism against itself. By existing on Facebook, and mocking Humans of New York, Humans of Late Capitalism’s form of satire is in fact a form of action.
It is my guess that pages like Humans of Late Capitalism will gain ever more relevance in the increasingly absurd world we live in.
Read my latest blogpost about a climber who goes to great heights to tell stories: The creative who climbs London’s skyscrapers.
I believe it is making less and less sense to talk about art in clear cut terms. In this blog, I talk about art and culture in terms of the process of creativity rather than the value of objects.