That joke isn’t funny anymore

wolfie smith

I was planning to post this along with the notes from our recent talk on comedy, but Keir beat me to it. Timing is everything, apparently…

It’s the third section of that talk – the one on the hyper-ironisation of contemporary culture – that’s been nagging away at me. In one sense it feels self-evidently true: the hollow laughter of the cynic has largely taken the place of meaningful political action. Bantz, trolling, 4chan, doing it for the lulz… And it’s not hard to understand why when the times we live in are beyond satire.

But we need to unpack this a little more. Keir talks about the posture of cynical irony as a “mode of protection against risk” and I think there is a link to the collapse of collectivity. Over the last thirty years the deterritorialising impulse in capitalism has run riot: virtually everything that is solid has melted into air (or been melted down for cash). In the face of such enormous dislocation, holding fast to anything is suicidal. It’s easier and safer to let go of all certainties and try to go with the flow, even though that means losing our collective grip on what’s going on. It’s a vicious circle: we lose power, we’re atomised, we lose the capacity to act…

Collective depression is the result of the ruling class project of resubordination. For some time now, we have increasingly accepted the idea that we are not the kind of people who can act.

Cynicism is one way to deal with the idea that we are incapable of acting collectively and changing our world. It’s one way of dealing with the historic experience of defeat (even if we don’t see it in those terms). It’s a retreat. But being a full-time cynic is exhausting and ironically demands an impossible level of commitment. Like ‘cool’, irony offers the user a little armour and so functions in a way to make the cynicism more palatable.

In some sense then, this pose of cynical irony can be understood as a sort of psychic survival strategy. It’s a matter of ‘getting by’. But of course it has pretty lethal consequences for any collective project to change the world. It’s utterly bound up with an individualist perspective, one that fits perfectly into neoliberalism’s denial of society and collective agency. It’s Portlandia versus Citizen Smith

It’s important to recognise that this isn’t just about a change in the way we see the world, as if we could somehow ‘snap out of it’ by undertaking mass CBT and so start to see things differently (that would be just another variant on ‘magical voluntarism’, the idea that it is within our individual power to be whatever we want to be). There are material foundations to this. For all its talk of freedom, neoliberalism is a regime of regulation, and the last thirty years have seen a growth in managerialism, bureaucracy and surveillance. That culture of monitoring has tangible effects on the modes of political expression and action that are available to us. If you commit to a position, you have to be prepared to face a shit-storm on Twitter (or worse). If you declare yourself a ‘feminist’, you risk being outed as a TERF. The end result of course is a sort of paralysis, an impotence – which takes us right back to the experience of defeat.

How do we get out of this mess? Fuck knows, but did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Welshman and the Irishman…

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.