Electoralism Won’t Shift the Overton Window On Socialism: Art Will

*This contains minor spoilers for “Sorry to Bother You”

By Jibran M

The Democratic Socialists of America are currently at a curious cross-roads. As membership numbers swell along with nominally socialist politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets mainstream attention, what role should DSA play in endorsing, running, and electing candidates? As Kim Moody has already argued at length, “The specter of the past that haunts DSA, however, remains the Democratic Party.” As a socialist, and as an anti-capitalist, I fervently believe that we must revolutionize politics from below. Socialists must prioritize building power amongst the working class; not by endorsing the power structures that inspired our action in the first place.

As any cursory search on Twitter can tell you: a big reason people are excited about these mainstream candidates endorsing socialist policies (but equivocating on socialism itself) is that it “mainstreams” socialist ideals and shifts the “overton window,” that is, the window of discourse that is perceived as palatable within the public sphere, towards a more palatable socialism. Although it might seem cool that “socialism” is getting air-time on the likes of CNN, is the working class truly in possession of the discourse? Proselytizing socialism requires our collective attention. We must seize the means of the production of those ideas themselves.

Leftist ideals can and should permeate not through the mouths of elected officials that are easily bullied by bourgeois machinery, but through empowering the discourse itself through revolutionary art and culture.

Paul Klee: <i>Angelus Novus</i>, 1920
Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a favorite of German Marxist, Walter Benjamin and the subject of his 1940 essay, “Theses on the Concept of History

While we cannot create an objective science of art, we can discuss how art can be a vehicle for ideology; it is therefore subject to its own scientific critique. French Marxist Philosopher, Louis Althusser once argued, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.” If we are to define art as an artist’s representation of an idea (their subject) then we can follow that we are the subject of an ideology, which the bourgeois has spread through art and propaganda. For centuries, the elite have interpellated their subjects with their own ideology. From ideology that justifies the continued imprisonment of Palestinians, to memes that legitimize atrocities towards “illegal” immigrants, the elite materialize ideology - through the power they wield - to maintain authority. In fact, bourgeois philosophy and art itself continues to live through denying the status of any alternative:

The real question is not whether Marx, Engels and Lenin are or are not real philosophers, whether their philosophical statements are formally irreproachable, whether they do or do not make foolish statements about Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, whether their materialism is or is not pre-critical, etc. For all these questions are and always have been posed inside a certain practice of philosophy. The real question bears precisely on this traditional practice which Lenin brings back into question by proposing a quite different practice of philosophy.

This different practice contains something like a promise or outline of an objective knowledge of philosophy’s mode of being. A knowledge of philosophy as a Holzweg der Holzwege. But the last thing philosophers and philosophy can bear, the intolerable, is perhaps precisely the idea of this knowledge. What philosophy cannot bear is the idea of a theory (i.e. of an objective knowledge) of philosophy capable of changing its traditional practice. Such a theory may be fatal for philosophy, since it lives by its denegation (emphasis mine).

Louis Althusser, 1971 – Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays

In other words, the denial of status of Marxist thought is crucial for the survival of the ruling class. Elite capitalists sees their own world view as universal. Things that are accepted as universal - such as the Earth being a sphere - are beyond partisan reproach and ultimately, beyond scientific analysis. Unlike the dimensions of the Earth, ideology isn’t objective. Because of this, any attempt to meaningfully critique a bourgeois ideology is met with ridicule and sometimes, violence.

How often have we seen films such as Mission Impossible: Fall Out, that glorify the exploits of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)? What about documentaries such as Ken Burns’ Civil War that attempts to rehabilitate Robert E. Lee’s reputation from someone who had virulent views toward black people to a kindly, conflicted war hero? If you dug really deep into my own Tumblr archives, you could see that even I admired Lee thanks to what I saw in the Ken Burns documentary at the highly impressionable age of 18.

It’s clear that the bourgeois has been able to permeate its ideology through art and culture. However, if art is a vehicle for ideology, and if we are subject to the ideology embedded in the art we consume, the bourgeois are only in control of that vehicle for the moment. But, if socialists can engage in their own promulgation of truly revolutionary art, then there lies hope to truly shift the “Overton Window” into a more favorable direction.

We’ve already seen success with this through the smashing success of self-avowed communist, Boots Riley’s groundbreaking work, Sorry to Bother You. It is absolutely crucial that political movements have their own signifiers. And, as Briahna Gray stated so succinctly for The Intercept, “The connection between art and a political movement is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel revolutionary.”

Riley, in an interview for Vulture, discussed how his entire movie “deals with performance.” This is painfully evident in a pivotal scene where a white audience yells at the protagonist, Cassius Green (played by the remarkable Lakeith Stanfield) to “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” as the CEO of the richest company in the world glares at him.

What Riley is trying to highlight with this scene is that in America, we are subtly coerced through philosophy, through ideology, and through art to perform for the benefit of those in power.

Sorry to Bother You – with its critical and commercial success – gives people an opportunity (just look at the people Boots Riley is retweeting), to perform anti-capitalism. Through a medium such as blockbuster art, Boots Riley has equipped people with a framework to discuss the everyday societal ills reinforced by capitalism such as isolation from our loved ones thanks to professional stress, the tension between solidarity with our colleagues and striving for our own individual success, and the fact that maybe we can, in fact,  strive for fair wages for all.

Sorry to Bother You, hopefully, is but a small yet deliberate ripple. As socialists, and as good comrades, we must do our best to champion - whether it be through RTs on Twitter or through Patreon support - art from our peers that is beyond culturally significant, but revolutionary.

Mass Movements aren’t built through personalities but they are built through symbols. Revolution is not built by milquetoast platitudes such as “all men are brothers!” but through forceful memes. Here’s one you might be familiar with, “Workers of the world, unite!”

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