The idea that socialism could be made into a brand or marketing demographic seems ridiculous. Socialism is, after all, usually defined by its advocacy for the end of capitalism and establishment of a system that makes as its basic goal fulfilling the needs of people. And yet, here we are. Socialism™ is now a reality.
Today, expressions of opposition to the system have themselves become a part of it. Socialism becomes something to identify with through the medium of commodities: merchandise, streamers, influencers, and so on. Radical politics, or at least their aesthetics, are introduced to market relations and dynamics on a mass scale.
Among examples of how this brand behavior ends up manifesting are: Complete identification with historical projects (such as the Soviet Union or anarchist Catalonia) rather than commitment to innovation, parasocial relationships with “leftist” political influencers, and a broadly subcultural trend where the focus is on being part of a clique in a market of competing cliques rather than concretely transformative politics.
Instead of placing the key focus on building momentum for a total reorganization of society, participants focus on mere cultural subversion and contrarianism. Ironically, just as was the case with punk rock half a century ago, they simply end up being a commodified version of subversion and rebellion. They emerge as a fully distinct marketing demographic, not as anything holding serious radical potential. Punk rock in itself does nothing to fundamentally challenge the existing social relations of capitalism, nor does this apparently “revolutionary” subculture.
Genuinely revolutionary politics, on the other hand, do not focus on turning a purely aesthetic forms of politics into identities, or marking oneself as part of a subculture. Rather, the key concern is how theory can aid us in an understanding of our situation, and therefore become a weapon of transformation. Turning dogmas into brand identities is counteractive to this. Revolutionary politics must be innovative to succeed, as the existing system and its various arrangements are themselves innovative. We can’t afford to fall behind or to be absorbed into the system as its loyal opposition.
Unlike in pre-capitalist societies, where the market was a component part of society, or a mediating link between social units, our modern society is the market. The Marxist concept of commodity fetishism points us in the direction of understanding how this behavior arises in such a system:
“A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour.
This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things.
But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things quâ commodities, and the value relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things.
In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race.
So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.”
[Karl Marx, Chapter One: Commodities, “The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof,” Capital, Volume One]
To put Marx’s point simply, where in past arrangements of society social relations were simple and direct (person-person), today they are mediated through objects (commodities), mystifying the links that bind us through a new arrangement (person-object-person). This social arrangement contributes to a view of the world that is extremely atomistic and individualistic.
Other people appear as a homogenous, unfamiliar thing, as threats, competitors in a market, as strangers whom one can only relate to through common consumer interests. It becomes harder and harder to think of every individual as tied together in a social whole, as nodes in a web rather than disconnected atoms. As a result, freedom, self-determination, etc. are thought of as freedom from others.
People come to believe that the most radical political project must be based on the old liberal maxim of “let people do what they want as long as they don’t hurt others.” Subtly, society is portrayed as outside of the bounds of freedom, freedom being understood as a pocket of fresh air to breathe away from the restriction of being in society. Apparently, the social and historical basis of how the individual views the world, sees themselves, desires, and behaves are not relevant.
In our society, where billions of dollars are spent on advertising, what the individual sees as their “authentic desires” that they must be free to pursue are time after time expressions of capitalist ideology and social relations. What they want, what they identify with, are often consumer brands, or are expressed in the terminology of consumer brands. Community is defined as evaluating others based on how many consumer interests you share: Music, TV shows, videogames, fashion, food, cars…
In the West, especially in the free market system of the United States, we have a civil society that is saturated with the engineering of social behavior through the dynamics of commodities. With instant coverage of news through the internet, and the mediation of this news through profit-oriented media, we now have a 24-hour media cycle based on playing to consumer behavior. For example, some outlets cater to conservatives, other to liberals. Some, like Al Jazeera, are now trying to appeal to both through separate sub-outlets.
Increasingly, the internet, social media, news outlets, and other media formats are dominated by the same handful of monopolies, such as Amazon. This means that the information that shapes our common worldviews is controlled by a smaller and smaller clique. These big capitalist monopolies don’t only use advertising to encourage people to engage in simple consumption of products. They also structure social media in order to perfect a system of social engineering where people think almost entirely in commodity terms, including themselves behaving as entrepreneurs of their own brand images.
As with other capitalist markets, this also includes competition between “brand” groups, and the exponential growth of power for the biggest “brand” or “sub-brand” influencers. Thus, discourse on the internet is limited by this market logic, and is co-opted to the system of capitalism. Even the peddling of anti-capitalism becomes a part of this brand market.
Collective action is only comprehended by these brand-brained individuals as acting along brand lines, mediating one’s relations with others based on this. Just as some might befriend others based on both enjoying the same television shows or liking the same brands of clothing, these individuals might befriend people off of a similar “fashion” in the form of toothless, aestheticized, individualist “communist” brand identity.
With the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, many people are spending more time than ever before on the internet. Many exclusively access their social interactions by medium of social media, which means that their only contact with others is in the form of market behavior. To some of them, the internet appears to be the whole world, while those not participating in social media brand wars become invisible to them. As people lose any real-world perspectives, they become more fully absorbed into the system of commodity identity.
Brand behavior, perhaps in many instances by design, kills possible outgrowths of revolutionary momentum. Behavior replicating market competition among brands means that coalitions become unimaginable, brand groups define themselves in opposition to other brand groups rather than focusing primarily on rooting themselves in communities, and competition lends itself to increasingly non-pragmatic, disconnected analyses that focus more on meeting an abstract idea of what would fit a brand identity rather than on transformative politics.
This can only lend itself to frustration, burnout, and atrophy rather than helping people to build their skills and consciousness in the course of working toward a popular movement. Being fully absorbed into the ideology and dynamics of capitalist markets is what kills movements, making the clout of the individual more important than the ability of a collective to keep its stability and direction.
The way the co-optation of opposition is carried out through media, or the modern “culture industry,” was once described very aptly by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer:
“It is still possible to make one’s way in entertainment, if one is not too obstinate about one’s own concerns, and proves appropriately pliable. Anyone who resists can only survive by fitting in. Once his particular brand of deviation from the norm has been noted by the industry, he belongs to it as does the land-reformer to capitalism. Realistic dissidence is the trademark of anyone who has a new idea in business.
In the public voice of modern society accusations are seldom audible; if they are, the perceptive can already detect signs that the dissident will soon be reconciled. The more immeasurable the gap between chorus and leaders, the more certainly there is room at the top for everybody who demonstrates his superiority by well-planned originality. Hence, in the culture industry, too, the liberal tendency to give full scope to its able men survives.”
[Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment]
The aestheticization of politics, replacement of concrete analysis with advertiser-produced instinct, gut feeling, and mindless identification with brands is a significant medium by which modern capitalism controls us. This extensive consumer culture isn’t common to capitalism across the world. Rather, most of the world must have value extracted from it to subsidize the system. Consumerism first began to emerge in the West in the early 20th century, and fully solidified in the post-WWII era.
The cheap products which a segment of Western society consumes are produced through the superexploitation of workers in the Global South. That consumer system is meant to produce some semblance of affluence and complacency with the existing order, something the US government and bourgeoisie encouraged by promoting white migration into segregated suburbs. The entire thing depends on people apathetically and passively latching onto the “aesthetic” life of consumerism, not concerning themselves with the global system which their living standards are tied to nor how sustainable it truly is.
Apathy manifests itself in brand politics in the form of disconnect from the concrete concerns of working class people. “Essential workers,” as the media has taken to calling them, are ignored in favor of brand wars. The proletariat, especially the lowest strata of it in agriculture and domestic labor, becomes invisible where they are not major participants in these brand wars. This is very dangerous for anyone trying to build a communist movement, especially when we aren’t able to communicate to these people and help them understand their lives in the midst of the decline of US living standards.
In the 21st century, we are witnessing the decline of US hegemony. China, a major source of cheap labor for consumer products, is increasingly geopolitically independent from the US, US-backed coups in countries like Bolivia and Venezuela have failed, and multipolarism is superseding the post-Soviet hegemony of the US Empire. The direct link between our style of life and Empire will only become more evident as the former decays with the challenges to the latter.
This makes it all the more urgent for communists to be able to point people in the direction of social revolution to establish a truly sustainable form of life rather than continue to depend on the superficial consumer system. The alternative is that people will turn to fascism and extreme expansionism in order to subsidize the quality of life they are used to, without fundamentally challenging the system of capitalist private property. Such an outcome is more likely as long as we remain a tiny, subcultural movement that does not come off as viable to regular working class people.
Therefore, it is necessary to break free from the all-devouring culture industry if we are serious about building a movement toward another world. First and foremost, this means breaking away from individualism. Individualism is fundamentally harmful to mass movements, as an atomistic culture makes it extremely difficult to engage in discipline collective action. An especially harmful iteration of this is the modern form of fractured individualism, where people literally do not comprehend themselves as part of a social whole but have tunnel vision limited to brand identities.
To supersede individualist brand tendencies in behavior, we need to approach the internet in a collective way. We do not need to stop using it entirely, as this is unrealistic and cuts us off from an important and efficient means of spreading messages and information. Instead, we ought to remove the element of the individual being able to win clout to their name, and promote in its place acting as a coordinated group. For example, publishing for a media collective.
Rather than focusing excessively on market competition, critiques of other brands, responses, directionless debates etc., we need to focus on theoretical clarity. We need to teach political theory in an accessible way, and make it clear to people how it relates to their everyday lives. Brand behavior does not and cannot do this, as by the very structures it is produced by, it focuses more on competition than clarification.
Hopefully, the Western left can get back on its feet and return to its former prestige within our lifetimes. With the rise of fascist movements in the West, the need for a revolutionary movement only becomes more urgent. It would be catastrophic if a large share of young radicals became bogged down in a dead end culture instead of realizing their true potential by bringing to life a new socialist movement.