Memes and malaise
Bad social media posts might just suggest a way forward for social democracy
“So, what job are you guys going to have under communism?”
Variations of this question are posted, with apparent sincerity, on a regular basis on Twitter. Users with a hammer and sickle in their display name will weigh in, talking excitedly about how they’ll sit in a forest and write poetry. Nobody ever replies to say they want to empty the bins in the park.
For that matter, nobody ever says they want to be a low-ranking party functionary who sometimes gets to organise struggle sessions, even though that might at least represent an achievable ambition. Nobody ever thinks they’ll be identified as a kulak and persecuted, starved into submission, or sent to a forced labour camp, either. It is hard to reconcile the respondents’ understanding of what life under communism would look like with the actually existing examples we have to work with.
Switching from Twitter to Facebook, we see a different form of meme. Instead of longing after some imaginary future where everyone is free to pursue their interests all day and no-one ever has to sweep the streets, over on Facebook the tendency is much more towards mad rose-tinted reactionary nostalgia. Here’s a really horrible poem to illustrate the point.
Nostalgia often gets used as a weapon against the young; with spiking energy costs in the news recently, it wasn’t difficult to find social media users talking about how they grew up in homes with no heating or insulation, homes with windows which would ice over on the inside when temperatures dropped, and so therefore people should stop complaining.
It’s a bizarre response, to say that because something was worse in the past we shouldn’t complain about things in the present. It’s also an odd deployment of nostalgia, which tacitly accepts that the past actually wasn’t great at times, but then uses that to condemn the younger generations today as not having the fortitude to cope with much lesser inconveniences. The poem above does the same; you don’t know you’re born, we coped with greater hardships, shut up.
The popularity of both of these memes is something that interests me from a socio-political point of view. I don’t think the wannabe communists or the nostalgists would really welcome being lifted out of 2020s Britain and dropped into Stalinist Russia or post-war austerity. But I do wonder if the durability of these online tropes can be traced back to the same source; perhaps a lot of people are just quite unhappy, dissatisfied with the hand modern capitalism has dealt them, and these bromides are trite expressions of a deeper discontent.
It isn’t difficult to understand why younger generations might feel this way. Conservative governments over the last decade have first and foremost prioritised supporting pensioners. This is a case of Tories knowing which side their bread is buttered I suppose, but it has meant the under 40s have found the playing field tilted more and more against them.
People in their 30s today are the first generation to earn less than those ten years older than them since the 1930s. Record numbers of young people live with their parents. Clobbered by the credit crunch, a decade of flatlining pay, a housing market which seems impossibly out of reach, and then the pandemic, the young genuinely have had a tough time of it. And whilst the majority aren’t interested in revolution as much as they want the system to work for them too, perhaps it’s hardly surprising that memes about some communist utopia where we all spend our days finger-painting on the beach have started gaining some traction.
It’s harder at first to ascertain the source of the nostalgists’ unhappiness. One of the more common nostalgic tropes is a claim to a greater resilience in previous generations, a claim which rather rests on the fact that life wasn’t better fifty years ago at all. A poem which dreams wistfully about foods which are still widely available today, pushing women out of the workplace, and smacking kids doesn’t really represent a set of demands which anyone should be indulging.
But maybe there is a deeper need which we can address. Research suggests that nostalgic thinking performs very important psychological functions, including social connectedness. Tim Wildschut, Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Southampton, says that nostalgia has numerous benefits, including fostering sentiments of being protected and loved, and that nostalgia can be triggered by feelings of isolation and loneliness. It is therefore surely not a coincidence that Facebook feeds filled up with nostalgic memes during the pandemic; this was a psychological coping mechanism for some incredibly trying times.
Even before coronavirus, Britain was struggling with social isolation. Dubbed Europe’s loneliness capital, Britons were less likely to know their neighbours than anywhere else in Europe, and a high proportion said they had nobody to rely on in a crisis. Perhaps nostalgia memes are a by-product of social atomisation, the result of a society which has become more individualistic.
In their own ways, both communist and nostalgia memes suggest a feeling of disconnectedness, and an unspoken need for belonging. Maybe we can’t build a society where everyone can write poetry all day as per the communist respondents, but we could use funding to make poetry groups more available and accessible. Supporting such groups could also bring the benefit of stronger community ties. What if government set up a fund for local authorities to invest in community spaces, and subsidised evening or weekend classes for adults wishing to get involved in local community activities?
One way to head off loneliness would be to make it easier for people to pursue their interests by joining local groups of like-minded people; subsidies for yoga classes, or language lessons, or creative endeavours would forge social links as well as providing a space to follow one’s hobbies.
Perhaps we can think more broadly about localism and community. The government could work with employers to consider how to make use of the opportunities afforded by remote working; could shared public workspaces be an answer? If people are commuting far less than previously, could smaller towns benefit from offering remote working centres in their high streets, alongside support for local businesses and public transport? Could more flexible working hours free up time for people to spend doing the things they love, and to play a part in their community?
It feels like we are at a political inflection point of late; many of the old assumptions of the last forty years are being upended, just as they were in the run-ups to 1945 or 1979. There is an opportunity for social democracy to discover a more community-minded, local, interventionist politics, to try and address some of the inequalities and opportunity gaps across the UK; yes, between rich and poor, but also between the young and old, between home-owners and renters, between towns and cities.
The aim should be to give everyone a stake in society, and whether it is young people feeling that everything is weighted against them, or the elderly feeling isolated and cut off from their community, it feels like there could be an ambitious programme here for social democrats to get behind, if we can be brave enough to think big.
As a bonus, if it succeeds, we’ll never have to see horrible poems about corned beef ever again.