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the rising role of the agitariat
the pathway of the selfish meme finds confluence with a post-modern need for external validation
“make a copy of me and pass it on.” this is the sole objective and the stern discipline of the selfish gene.
it is also the pathway of the selfish meme.
this has found confluence with a certain subset of society: those who base their identities upon external ideologies and who have become not so much people who have ideas but people who ARE their ideas and lack both substance and substrate without them.
this has in many functional regards, rendered them memes themselves.
the emergent properties of this combination are manifold and it appears that this new group that i shall term “the agitariat” is going to be a potent and durable feature of the post modern political and social landscape.
many have marveled at the speed at which the covidian clamorers have pivoted to war frenzy. it was near instant, like some sort of phase change, a sublimation straight from solid to gas.
but this is no marvel nor is it, in fact, even a state change. it’s just a property of the new class of society that spends its lives in and derives its identity from its constant state of aversive arousal and agitation. this tribe is always and everywhere at war because its identify is rooted not in self but in “against.”
this is the agitariat.
we like to imagine ourselves as people who have ideas. this is a healthy structure. but for many, this is less and less true. many have become their ideas and woven their externalized values so deeply into the marrow and integument of their identities that the two become inseverable. the inherent tendency of social media to devolve into tribes enhances and perhaps even requires this.
i suspect it comes down to simple human drives to be perceived as virtuous (however such is currently defined) and for status (a similarly fluid hierarchy). but in a post-modern age, the path to such things becomes slippery.
in an age of moral relativism, objective virtue is rendered impossible and subjective virtue derives from a consensus that is an inherently inconstant function of tribalism.
all notions of “this is truly moral or good” become matters of subjective debate and deconstruction to the point of pixilation. there is no foundation upon which to build an objective basis from which one might claim “this is good/moral/ethical/civically minded.” anything can be picked apart. the perverse offshoot of this onetime deconstructionist parlor game is that the only enduring path to status that remains is aggrievement.
you have oppressed me, therefore i claim the moral high ground.
in a pinch, alliance with the aggrieved and championing them against others while engaging in performative self-flagellation and the “checking of privilege” will do.
this tends to evolve into all manner of theatrical farce and silliness, but that’s not terribly important. in many ways, the more absurd and rarified it becomes, the more potent the signaling. the very arbitrariness and nonsensicality of it is a feature, a shibboleth to show the depth of allegiance and currency with the predominant mode. it must be learned. it cannot be derived. team allegiance is entirely performative. and this is where we start to get into a new kind of trouble.
the path to such claims lies in the fight itself.
you have to be out showing your colors and waving the flag. you need to be in opposition because your status and virtue are established by that which you are against rather than having emerged as internal properties of character.
“i am kind” cuts no ice with those who demand that you demonstrate loyalty to a performative cause. “all lives matter” becomes a heretical utterance, proof that you are racist. this is a weaponized evangelical set of doctrines carried by weaponized evangelical people who must always divide the world into a fight between “us” and “them” in order to preserve personal meaning and coherence. that is the nature of deriving one’s sense of self from oppositional external validation.
this process interacts with external memes in a new and dangerous fashion. the signaling becomes the substance and all sense of proportion or irony is lost. it’s a form of cargo cult. this becomes something altogether new in the face of the current evolutionary gradient and selective pressures driving meme evolution.
the modern informational sphere is one of near immediate memetic feedback. some memes are ignored, others amplified, but it is the speed, magnitude, and precision that is new. the instant feedback of likes and shares and retweets and forwards has changed everything. it determines the shape and the content of our media and our perceptions in a manner never before seen. that which you tend to spread rapidly becomes all that you see. the problem is that that which we spread is that which is worst for us.
i have spoken in the past about the holy trinity of clickbait: “fear, anger, and self-righteousness.” generate one, and you will click. generate all three, and you will forward. that’s simply how it works and if you pause to assess yourself, you’ll near instantly realize that this is true.
how many times have i forwarded something that evoked fear, made me angry, and appended to it a set of acerbic commentary about “can you believe how stupid these people and someone ought to sew them into a bag of rats and toss them in the river!”?
a fair few i would wager. we all do it. we’re hardwired to do it. and this whole system has evolved to prey upon this fact. social media is the emergent all singing all dancing engine of aggrieved anger and agitation that we have made for ourselves and it will continue to become ever more incendiary as we try to resist it for so long as we rely upon external rather than internal validation.
every day, this pernicious pachinko machine spits out perfectly optimized memes to make you furious by their very existence and smug in your opposition of them. it is the very fact that they are stupid that makes you pass them on, so stupid becomes the signal. nuance and balance are lost in the noise. the entire purpose is to find your last nerve and grate on it. that’s the memetic spread optimization function.
did i make you mad? do you want to tell everyone how stupid i am? how about now? no, how about NOW? i can do this all day…
and this is generating a systemic effect.
“identification by opposition to” morphs into endlessly shifting forever war. the anger, the conflict, and the interactive (but depersonalized) nature of the conflict takes it fully hot. people interact on social media in ways they never would in person. it’s a sociopath’s medium: there is no biofeedback when you hurt others, just cheering from your team.
the public square has become a gladiatorial arena, and those whose validation resides outside themselves are spoiling for a fight. they are caught in a perpetual loop and that loop comprises a deeply negative sum game.
the foment of the perpetually agitated class who cannot withstand the predation of the social media engine of fear and righteousness is going to be one of the great social forces of this age.
the agitariat has arisen.
here is something scary. you need to be angry about it. and look how stupid those who are not afraid and angry are! you need to tell everyone and demand that “something be done.”
what people miss is that it’s near perfectly content agnostic.
this has nothing to do with the issues themselves. that’s just post facto rationalization of the emergent system. pestilence, war, climate, social justice, or the terrible mischaracterization of pollywogs in 16th century ranine poetry, it really doesn’t matter.
you pick the fight, then you generate a reason for having picked it.
this switch has infinite dimensions.
all that matters is that when you wind down and are not currently vibrating in opposition to something, any passing meme can flip it again for you and move you on to the next outpouring of outrage as identity.
from the outside, this can look like spontaneous state change, but no state is really changing. you’re just acquiring a new pretextual payload to keep doing what you were doing, defining yourself “in opposition to.”
you’re simply filling the slot with a new meme already A/B tested to near perfection by the rarefication engines of social media.
such people have come to constitute the endlessly agitated class and they are very, very dangerous to live near. they comprise top test dragster fuel for demagogues and a societal WMD for the rest of us.
the speed with which they jump from pretextual payload to pretextual payload is dizzying and their perceptions are near perfectly malleable.
a week ago they all claimed to know a child who died of covid. now they all know a brave ukranian who stopped a tank with his bare hands.
last year no sane human would take trump’s bleach-based poison. today you’re a subhuman horror for refusing the beneficence of the “fauci ouchie.”
last week only the most avowedly anti-social and callous would countenance a child attending school without a mask and next, off little becky goes to third grade with nothing but a designer lunch box full of “freedom focaccia.”
this has absolutely nothing to do with the underlying causes: it’s entirely about status and identity.
this is why they can all flip so instantly from one cause to another. the covid narrative is in tatters. having supported lockdowns and masking and vaccine mandates is increasingly low status. you look like a loser. you look wrong. and that is NOT a pleasing basis for an identity for those who generate their sense of self from their performative political takes. so you jump onto the first high status looking bandwagon that rolls by.
this has several weird, non-intuitive effects.
old causes suddenly vaporize and are gone from all memory. remember when i told you there would soon be a time when you could not find anyone that admitted to having been pro lock down, mask, up, and close the schools? well, this is how that works. the switch flips, the virus is gone, and we have always been at war with russia.
new causes suddenly explode. all this energy has to go somewhere and the need for new identity is acute and so new fights are entered into with the zeal of the freshly converted and the evangelism of those desperate to carve out new space and paper over what they were saying last week.
this adds a certain amount of full blown randomness to predominant social memes. had the ukraine war been this time last year, they probably would not have cared. they were still happily ensconced in branch covidianism. just about no one even noticed when chemical weapons were used in syria. there was no call to defend the “brave kurds.” it’s not racism. it’s just that the “jingo” slot was already full. there was no room for the meme. ask the uighurs about that one…
this means there will always be something. there is no climbdown, no cessation. this energy cannot be destroyed or dissipated because the need to put oneself in opposition as an act of self-definition is persistent. something must fill the void. they were all doing the same stuff pre-covid too.
wanna try a fun project? see if you can find anyone on twitter with pronouns in their bio that opposed lockdowns and masking. it’s all the same desire to create an identity suitable for ennobling the desire to bully as civic and personal virtue. it’s all the same people, over and over.
and that means that the clever demagogue can get in front of these issues and, at least to some extent, steer this energy. you dial back the CDC and the states out of political exigency and then immediately replace it with another meme that is fully orthogonal. covid gone. war, front and center. you hide your climb down and draw attention away from the coming news of how pointless and harmful everything you spent the last 2 years imposing was. the economy is not bad because of bad covid policy, it’s from the war! the very people who demanded that you surrender your freedom to invasive technocrats now champion freedom for ukrainians. there is so much tail to wag, it’s not even clear there is a dog in here at all anymore.
this is the great internal problem with defining yourself by and deriving a sense of virtue from what you fight: you constantly, desperately need to be at war, all the time.
this makes you perilously easy to manipulate.
if you were not at war, you might cease to exist. (or worse, actually have to get to know yourself at a real level…)
the war on covid, on climate change, on racism, on inequality, or on russia, it does not matter. they just want to be in righteous conflict at all times because that is what gives them meaning. and because the memes this generates spread like wildfire whether you agree or disagree with them, these heated conflagrations become the whole of the informational agora, crowding all else out and sucking the oxygen from the room. the high status meme becomes instantly and utterly dominant. all else is forgotten.
it’s an evolved orwellian masterpiece. and no one built it.
the whole emergent system is a helluva thing. there truly is no obvious way to oppose it from inside the system. even fighting against it winds up fueling it, generating outrage and a villain to oppose.
donald trump was the king meme of this genre. he either called you to action against those he hectored and how stupid they were or the act of his hectoring made you so furious that you had to forward his message to tell everyone how angry he made you and how stupid he was. during the 2016 election, he became the entire media. no one else even got to speak. this was a truly cafeteria wide food fight.
it drew both sides and the middle into the fray for while the agitariat has a certain set of permanent denizens, we ALL get pulled into it sometimes. we fight with it, against it, for a faction of it, but we fight. it’s like braer rabbit punching the tar baby. you wind up hopelessly stuck to a mindless thing because you’re too irate to stop hitting it.
getting tangled up in the silly virtue signaling just makes it worse.
it’s just feeding a need that the systems of modern media have become wildly adept at cultivating and never satisfying like some sort of odd food that makes you hungrier the more you eat.
and, of course, the first rule of agitariat club is:
it’s always someone else. it’s them, not us. “we’re opposing them because they are the crazy ones!”
see the nasty little trap there? it’s like a hall of mirrors.
nearly all of us get sucked in and spit out from time to time. it has become devilishly difficult to avoid and the sense that if you fail to fight, they will run you over is ever-present. certainly, the idea that you could sit back out of the fray and let this burn itself out worked poorly for those hoping covid would not get too crazy.
i fear we’ve reached a point where enough of the tribe is always at war that we all have to be. this is how a civilization tears itself apart.
i often imagine a set of unseen alien anthropologists looking down upon our shiny blue and green marble in space and saying “damn. they developed social media. no species survives that! and they were only 25 years from finding FTL travel, too….”
what a terrible answer to the fermi paradox THAT would be…
we need to find a better way.
i suspect this lies in stepping back a level and divorcing our ideas from our identities.
therein would seem to lie the only way to disengage the cycle of media enabling and inflammation.
it seems to be that this and only this could provide the societal inoculum required to render a sufficient portion of the crowd immune to post modern media predation and demagoguery.
it is our philosophy that must change. we silence the rage monster by becoming internally self sufficient and self confident in an objectivist fashion.
i have some thoughts on that that i will try to lay out in a companion piece to this one.