Weekend At Bernie’s
Author: Dom Rottman
26 January 2021
The other evening, my friend remarked that he felt the latest wave of Bernie Sanders memes has softened the blunt and disruptive nature of his ideals and campaign, diluting his image enough to be absorbed peacefully into our neoliberal hellscape. My feeling was that his continued existence as a meme was a good thing, as it signifies that he, and therefore his ideals, still live on in our collective political memory regardless of their apparent “failure” in the past year.
I was wrong.
NBC, KFC, Smile Direct Club, Amazon, Shopify, and god knows how many other large capitalist entities have literally used Sanders' image to advertise on social media platforms. I have always held a great disdain for corporations' social media departments and their managers, but now I question how these people–people who I imagine, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make all that much and would likely benefit from Sanders' proposed programs–can do their jobs with as much self-awareness as the inanimate commodities they peddle.
No, Bernie Sanders is not totally antithetical to the capitalist mode of production per se. No, unfortunately, he had no intention of totally turning over the means of production to the workers. Yes, there would still have been millionaires, perhaps even a handful of billionaires (with less billions). Amazon and other mega-corporations would have perhaps come under fire for anti-trust issues, but there’s no reason to believe that corporations would be stopped in trying to screw consumers at every turn. To put things in the simplest of terms, an ideal Sanders administration would have seen the power of large corporations reduced, and the power and well-being of the lower and middle classes increased. Nowhere on the agenda was “destroy capitalism.” Maybe put it in handcuffs, but that’s about it. Bernie Sanders is completely and totally compatible with capitalism.
I bring this up because as disgusting as I find this recuperation, its occurrence is not totally outrageous. We might remember how Nike was happy to take on Colin Kaepernick’s image to sell more shoes–bastardizing his cause in the same manner. Che Guevara, who makes Sanders look like Mitt Romney, might as well be selling Coca-Cola at this point. The social order, whether It comes under the guise of capitalism, the state, the culture industry, or whatever, has no bounds as to what it can recuperate and absorb into the zeitgeist and reify it into ideology. Dr. King, no friend of the state in his time, yet whose national holiday we celebrated last week, is a perfect example of how this happens over several years. That Bernie Sanders, a statesman and public servant, was recuperated in a much shorter period, is not all that surprising. It is, ultimately, a poetic fate. In giving liberalism one last chance, in an effort to offer its best to the American people, Bernie’s memorial was to be absorbed by the zeitgeist of liberalism itself, in the more sinister and everyday form that we encounter it. Live by the sword, die by the sword, as the saying goes. This is why ideology, currently our liberal ideology, cannot be given a conscious inch. Sanders' endeavors, if noble, were foolish. In a world that loudly proclaims that rational individuals act in their self-interest, why would the most violent and powerful institution allow for meaningful disruption? Bernie Sanders and his brand of “democratic socialism,"–or rather, social democracy, since there is nothing about worker ownership of the means of production–is a pill that the capitalism and state can swallow. If it wasn’t, he wouldn’t be used so liberally (pardon the pun) in advertisements. There is no success in purification or reclamation, and no substitute for disruption. Liberalism cannot be cleansed from within, only destroyed from within.
And yet, one cannot hope but feel slighted, that this is a cheapened legacy. Liberalism, for all its faults, beyond the corrupted, wretched wraith it is now, did offer us nice ideas. It was a political philosophy that claimed, if only nominally, that all humans, by virtue of being human, were sacred or worthwhile. It celebrated the power of the individual, without which collective power would make no sense. It is the original ideology of freedom; it’s called liberalism for God’s sake. One man decided he was going to take these principles to their logical conclusion for the modern era, and he ends up photoshopped sitting in some sterile non-existent office or grabbing someone’s breasts. The only solace that can be taken is that, thankfully, people are seeing such advertisements and manipulations for the bullshit that they are–or at least those people are very loud, and rightfully so. While I would argue that all advertisements are inherently political, one doesn’t need to have a particular political position to know when something sounds like Steve Buscemi in overtight clothes asking: “how do you do, fellow kids?”
There’s a reason why, nine times out of ten, whenever a company’s social media co-opts a meme, it comes off as disingenuous and transparent–because it is. The primary motive of capitalist entities–to profit–is far, far too obvious to hide behind some funny jokes and white lies. The most a social media manager can do is to lampshade the profit motive with a thick layer of irony (you know what helps with crippling debt and precarious health? A Crunchwrap Supreme™!), which also has long odds since that violates the immutable property of their employment contract–to suggest anything but the truth.
Just like the famous comedy, Bernie is having his literal body paraded around the internet as a lifeless husk completely removed from the life, energy, and ideals that motivated and inspired his campaign and its followers. Though his project was doomed from the start, recuperation is always a kick in the face. Even Kaepernick’s case of selling out is tragic in the same way, it saw a movement and person defanged to sell commodities. Recuperation is always a total victory for capitalism and a defeat of its precarious subject. Like weapons on a battlefield, cultural artifacts, regardless of their origin, can be used to assault either the masses or the social order against its freedom, to either dispense ideology or to critique it. We can take fictional characters and make them into a champion of the dispossessed, and corporations can take memes and use them for advertisement. Use and intention matters more than production.
Thus I do not believe that cultural artifacts, memes among them, have any, in deontological terms, negative or perfect duties, what we might call “ought nots.” There is no such thing as “taboo” because all it takes is one person for something to be in some sense “bad,” whether its universally disliked, disliked by me, a specific group, or someone else. But while cultural artifacts do not have any limits in terms of content or affirmative qualities, and thus will never be immune from critique, they can themselves critique not necessarily because of the content itself but by what the content does. Satire is perhaps the most common example of this because it takes aim at, appraises, critiques, and mocks something. South Park would not be nearly as funny, (in)famous, or dare I say, good, if it was based only on the quality of its animation and toilet humor. Therefore, we might say that cultural artifacts do have “oughts,” positive duties to critique, to bore through the order and ideology from within.
That Bernie Sanders wearing mittens became a meme is no great sin on his part or the meme’s creator. That it has been successfully recuperated is indeed a sin of social media managers and their corporate puppetmasters, and reveals also the meme’s weakness as a weapon. As much as I still want to believe that the image of an old man resigned in a comfortable posture, dressed in simple clothes and handmade mittens, is a memorial to his impact on a political reality, there is no substitute for impact itself–and even then, it was not, and is not, enough. The last bastion of liberalism was not fated to crumble against a furious assault, but to corrode into toxic air; such that there are no ruins to cling to, only a passing cloud.