These past years, I have been witnessing a strange thing. A hidden subculture that shaped me and my friends, our politics and entire worldview, has been discovered and embraced by a new class of people. There’s no other way to put it: tryhard latecomers, second and third-generation zealots, late-adopters, everywhere. People who the day before yesterday were politically-speaking, babes in the wood. They have quickly picked up the appropriate subcultural language and learnt to weaponize the language of identity. In the darker recesses of the recent past, when it was all being formulated, these are people who just weren’t there. And all these decades later, they’ve turned over a rock and found a thriving little ant colony, and they’re amazed. But they don’t act amazed; they act as if they are now and have always been.
Only the weary old weirdies who have been around the block long enough to get a bit tired—who now look and talk the way they, the fresh converts, used to look and talk—take notice. And who would listen to them anyway? Like Narodniks who stayed in the village too long, they were changed by the mass, rather than the other way around, as they had intended. They fell into the gravitational pull of common life. They have families. They wear white t-shirts and watch football. By contrast, the latecomers seem and look so much more like the rebels now: they talk and act and dress in the appropriate way. It’s incredible, really. They caught up, finally, and blended in, and only an asshole would point out that they were drawn mainly by the subcultural magnetism—society had to get to a certain point for them even to consider it as a possibility for themselves, you see, these latecomers.
And yet, it is annoying. They talk loudly, saying things that you’ve heard a million times before. Talking loudly and not thinking deeply, they quickly ascend to leadership positions, and have the same immediately fall into the same battles that have been occurring for decades. The old guard linger bitterly in the backs of the rooms or at home, having their lives, preferring not to have the same debates and fights they’ve already been through with a new generation.
As Jenny Holzer put it: chasing the new is dangerous to society.
They have been drawn into the tractor beam of something that was not theirs; they are new and they have that new sheen of self-righteous dogmatism because they discovered it just yesterday. Time hasn’t yet worn out the novelty of this new plaything for them.
They are not tired, because they were late. They were late because they were not on time. For whatever reason, they were politically and developmentally delayed. Being late is not a crime. They were somewhere else: working, paying off debt, a libertarian party, campaigning for Hillary, in the army, in the church—just being a person in this world. There is no shame to just being another person in the world.
Then the world changed and all of a sudden they saw the Pauline light. And the light is brilliant and blinding.
Of course, any decent person's first reaction should be: “Good! I’m glad our ideas are contagious and peoples’ consciousness is changing, the more the merrier—we wanted to be a mass movement all along.”
For these fresh recruits, this plaything is so exciting. A whole new language. A whole new world of decolonizations and pronouns to correct and power to deconstruct and redirect into horizontalist non-hierarchical autonomist insurrectionary peoples movements. So many Verso books that must be read. Uncovering a new hidden world to get absorbed in.
While there is nothing wrong with being delayed with finding your true calling, it is extremely annoying to be very late, and then be shouting from the hilltops. There is a reason Jesus's Twelve disciples were the Twelve disciples, and the Old Bolsheviks were the Old Bolsheviks—they were there when it was difficult, when they were persecuted for being what they were, through thick and thin, from the beginning.. When the situation becomes clear and a winner becomes apparent, the opportunists pile in: they want to be Christians now, they want to join the political party that will clearly predominate.
Like living, breathing human beings, ideas and movements have a childhood and an adulthood. They start out as larvae, enclosed in a safe cocoon, and one day emerge out into the mainstream. This process can take months, years, or decades. In the larval stage, ideas are nourished in small, supportive microcosms. This is called subculture. The ideas forged in subculture are often years or decades ahead of their time. The participants are below the radar. They know they are ahead of the curve. They are marginal, yes, but this superfluousness gives them a sense of superiority.
The subculture is ahead of its time and is aware of it. The subculture does not want to subordinate its will to the majority. It wants to pursue its own quixotic independent path, forging ahead, far ahead of everybody else. That's its preferred state.
The anarchists, always being young and ahead of the curve, have always been the advance guard of society. They push the farthest, adopt the earliest, take to the farthest periphery. Long before Me Too, before “accountability,” before “Latinx” had been incorporated into the mainstream liberal framework…long before “trans rights” or “transphobia” had become household words, the anarchists built callout culture from nothing—they built it to protect their own world from cops, womanizers, manarchists, crypto-fascists, careerists, and police agents.
Today, your average former liberal has learned to speak anarchist, without even knowing they’re speaking anarchist—these ideas have flumed up from deep underground. If you had told them “in fifteen years, Hillary Clinton will be talking just like you,” they would have laughed in your face. The legitimate world didn’t care about this stuff. The bad things you “couldn’t say” within anarchist communities in the late 90s and early 2000s—you can’t say them now if you’re a CNN host or a Kentucky Republican. Poor whites, completely outside this world, are caught on social media and judged based on this now-dominant framework. Its a framework that dominates the great Western cities. It’s a remarkable achievement of “hegemony.” You would think the anarchists would be happy.
But like anyone who is before their time and doesn’t get full credit for it, they are mostly bitter; besides, being anarchists they’re constantly on the move, they’ve already moved on to the next thing. The indignities that those before their time have to suffer are endless. There is no benefit for those who shout, “we were quietly way ahead of our time!” No one cares. It’s mostly a psychological strategy for combating irrelevance. People don't care who was first, they adapt begrudgingly to what is.
The old guard never coalesced, it dispersed into a diaspora and went back into the normal world of jobs and life and became more normal and mostly ceded the territory—aside from a few of the most committed elements which have clung on like barnacles to give a sentimental education to the new recruits. The old guard—not just the particular generation I feel affinity with, but also the silent old weirdos from the 1940s, the 70s, the 90s—have a similar outlook to that Viktor Frankl noticed among his fellow concentration camp survivors: “We dislike talking about our experiences. No explanations are needed for those who have been inside, and the others will understand neither how we felt then nor how we feel now.”
A box of unique generational experiences, locked, chained and cast into the sea., Because of the shame of being involved in a lost cause, a dissipated and ineffective prequel to the far more impactful future events. It would lead any humble person to silence.
Its a tragic fact that in politics (just like in love), people are irresistibly drawn towards elusive objects of desire—they always want what they can't have. For the cubicle-bound professional class, the anarchists exuded a persistent cool and mysterious and sense of being ahead of the curve in all things. As they they do, the liberals—mostly online professionals working in culture industries—fastened onto what the anarchists had built, a little too late, and fetishized what was marginal. They secretly felt like losers, who had ventured in the labyrinth of bureaucracy and compromise, and wanted to be as cool as the anarchists, but did not have the courage to live their ideals the way the anarchists did—for whatever reason, their lives had forced them to watch from the sidelines. They came to represent the elusive object, the path not taken.
They picked up through the anarchist leftovers with ardor, five or seven years too late, and like vultures devouring entrails. They embraced what they found there: call-out culture, trans liberation movements, cultural anarchism in the vein of Chris Kraus and zines. These latecomers birthed a new liberal call-out culture and wider cultural program that was not entirely understood, but having been vetted by the professionals, was then embraced by the Democratic Party, which knew which way the wind was blowing. Whatever plays to the kids. Whatever the liberal leadership's PMC sons and daughters informed them was going to be the Next Thing.
Before the first Bernie campaign, socialists and communists were considered the leftover dregs of a previous era, so obsolete and marginal as to be a joke. A nursing home. Anarchists were still considered the icebreakers of all social progress. But the tractor beam of the Bernie campaign shifted the terrain—socialism was in, electoral politics was in, pure anarchism was out. Both the old anarchists and the new PMC former liberals ventured into the cool new “socialist tide” moving it in their direction with a hodgepodge of tendencies and deviations that they brought with them into the big-tent of "socialism."
And that’s how the ultras have become superimposed on the media and culture mood, and influenced the political left and center. Being normal, sublimating oneself to the vast mass of humanity, is far less appealing than assuming an exciting new identity as a rebel. The complicated, subcultural worldview is built to be unappealing to the vast majority of people—it tends to repel the reasonable-minded and uncommitted—but it attracts intellectuals, grad-students and other marginal, cottage-industry types who find themselves almost instictively drawn toward what is small, hidden, obscure, or unpopular. Its like catnip for the fully-invested, freshly minted "radical" who is looking for a way to define themselves personally and socially through politics, in opposition to the embarassing masses of humanity they just escaped from. That's the paradox: the people from the masses of humanity are flowing into ultraleftism or "anti-fascism" to escape their blendedness and anonymity, and lots of the old guard has left the subcultural realm of political work and disappeared into the realm of normal working people. And so you have people looking to actually disconnect from their class or previous community to join a subculture, coming in the in door. They see being strategic and normal or "being popular" as a pivot toward the center—the place they are running from—they are looking to let the flag fly. They have no interest in making their ideas palatable to vast numbers of people. To do so, they would have to admit the unpopularity of their ideas, which they refuse to do. They think they're right, and the framing is fine, which it is, among the set of people they run with and regard as valid and legitimate. Its hard to remember that its never the forerunners or the old guard or the embittered and weary who are the most zealous and sadistic. Its always the tryhards…the second-generationers latecomers who truly missed the boat, and feel they have something to prove, who end up being the most dangerous.