The occupations, hipsterdom, and the resexualization of radical politics

Voices in mainstream media debate whether the American occupation movement is or will become a bona fide national political movement. Predictably, many sympathizers on the left do not hesitate to call it such, while critics, mostly on the right and mostly those who have the most to lose from a serious resurgence of militant democracy, dismiss our present insurrection as child’s play. Is it the 99% not yet fully organized, or less than one percent pretending to speak for the masses? From the loosely ethnographic perspective of a reflective participant (in Occupy Philadelphia), I would like to relate a set of observations that speak powerfully in favor of the long-term and revolutionary potential of current developments. Additionally, I would argue these observations portend a radical coupure in American political culture the logic of which I will articulate from an informally game-theoretic perspective.

It has been a commonplace for decades: we live in a post-political age. Daniel Bell, 1960, The End of Ideology. Fukuyama via Hegel, 1992, The End of History. So on and so forth. No ideology has more effectively repressed revolutionary desire, especially in one of the cohorts from whom it often explodes in radical public protest—the youth and young adults—than this ideology of the end of ideology. For my whole young adult life—I am 25—politics has been more or less implicitly prohibited from the conversation of young, educated, urban, hipster milieus. Familiarity with current events and a vague leftism have always been a plus, of course, but the idea of, say, inviting a good-looking and fashionably-dressed young woman to a political event has never really been, let us say, socially feasible. Because everybody knows that politics is dead, because everybody knows protests don’t work, overly explicit and overly sincere identifications with serious political change in the United States, let alone with radicalism, for as long as I can remember have been perceived by the bulk of even privileged-but-disillusioned young adults as just corny anachronisms for political nerds. All of us coming of age after the fall of the Berlin Wall have been drinking that Kool-Aid since birth, especially the most socially-savvy, the most fashionable, the handsomest!

That is, the coolest, most fashionable, and sexually-prized individuals of the urban hipster milieus across our country have earned their positions at least in part by internalizing and restylizing the ideology of post-politics so successfully. And insofar as post-political position-takings have accrued cultural capital, there have prevailed strong incentives internal to youth culture that reinforce political apathy.

It is worth noting that the alignment of socio-sexual desirability and political apathy is not by any means normal: it’s an historical anomaly. It is not a coincidence that in the 1960s, Mark Rudd and Bernardine Dorhn in the U.S., Daniel Cohn-Bendit aka Dany Le Rouge in France, and Rudi Dutschke in Germany were all babes, sex symbols of modern student resistance in its prime. Clearly, no cultural context is more likely to keep young adults politically complacent and pacified than ours, that in which the hippest, most socially and sexually desirable young adults tend to be paragons of post-politics, a situation that has prevailed since I can remember.

However, using my own experiences as examples, and the logic of political science as a guide, I can demonstrate how one of the occupation movement’s most politically radical achievements in the U.S. might very well be to break the decades-old, silent complicity between the ultra-conservative ideology of post-politics on the one hand, and socio-sexual desire on the other. If correct, this will suggest that the occupation movement will not only become a true national political movement but that it may mark a watershed in the long-run political subjectivity of American youth and American political culture more generally.

From some basic principles of political science we can outline a simple model.

  1. Before Occupy Wall Street, the ideology and norms of “post-politics” had a captive audience; if one wanted to sleep with hip people but also happened to be more politically motivated than hipster norms permitted, there was no viable strategy for “going it alone,” and trying to make politics hip through the old trick of starting a trend by stylishly violating an old one. There would have been a special conundrum about such a strategy in the case of post-politics, namely that to succeed in bucking this trend one would inherently need enough hipster-turned-comrades to avoid furnishing proof for the cynical trope that “protesting never works.” And of course, to organize such a critical mass by getting individual hipsters to defect from post-politics, one would need to already have the critical mass! (For it to be socially worthwhile for any individual to defect.) It was a very steady equilibrium.

  2. The emergence of Occupy Wall Street was what we could call an exogenous shock: something outside the system capable of disrupting its equilibrium. All of a sudden there was a place where young adults could go at any time, for obvious reasons unmolested by cynical post-politics, and just hang out. At first, this would mean that maybe only the most privately, politically-motivated hipsters (those who are most oppressed by having to censor themselves in non-political social contexts but do so because there’s just no other way to meet and sleep with hip people) go and occupy or otherwise participate variably. But because a public occupation is a focal point that draws in people from any of the areas surrounding it, an occupation could draw as few as two hipsters from each major neighborhood in the city before all of a sudden there is a handful of fashionable good-looking kids being political in a high-visibility public square, now receiving media attention, no less!

  3. So these first few hipsters are disalienated and nourished by the newfound release from what they only now see, in retrospective contrast, as the repressive post-political norms of the old, inert hipster groupings. All of a sudden they are thinking, developing, and speaking exciting ideas they maybe never even knew they were capable of having. But in addition, they are doing it with at least one or two actually attractive, actually hip people! The hitherto unknown combination of exercising political will alongside legitimate and exciting sexual prospects means that these hipsters have no reason to return to the old, larger post-political hipsterdom. The occupation offers nothing less than a viable strategy for a potentially permanent exit from post-political hipsterdom.  (Of course, there have always been radical political projects such as Food Not Bombs where a hip kid could possibly meet another good-looking hip kid. But my impression—right or wrong and probably wrong—was always that these projects attracted mostly “crust-punk” or similar styles only on the fringes of what is already the fringe of mainstream culture. For this reason, these projects or movements have never been able to attract a mass exodus of defectors from the bulk of middle-of-the-road hipsters. And, furthermore, they could never offer a 24/7 hangout spot literally open to all.)

  4. Meanwhile, the still currently dominant, currently post-political hipsterdom is itself in a state of crisis. Or, at least, it is at a point of stagnation that is highly dangerous for a system—not unlike modern capitalism itself—that requires perpetual innovation and novelty. The crisis has to do with the information environment.

When I was in college, it was sufficient for both guys and girls to don a pair of tight black pants to effectively signal to anyone in sight that they were of the same ilk, that they generally hated the same things, generally liked the same things, vaguely rejected mainstream culture and bourgeois expectations, were vaguely leftist, etc. My cohort of hipsters now have what in game theory is called a “signaling problem.” Wearing tight pants six years ago was not exactly radical, but was rare enough that the decision to do so was a commitment to incur opprobrium or derision at least from some bourgeois superiors. It didn’t take a Sid Vicious to wear tight-pants, but it was socially “costly” enough that those who adopted the style could be trusted to have honest counter-cultural commitments; they wouldn’t incur the costs if they were just disingenuously affecting a counter-cultural demeanor to get laid in hipster circles. Over the past few years, as happens to all things once the privilege of cool innovators, basically everyone and their mother have come to wear “skinny” pants and associated styles. Tattoos, similarly, are quickly becoming acceptable in more and more social contexts, and therefore losing their signaling power. My cohort’s counter-cultural fashion sense has not kept pace. Our eyes are still trained on skinny pants and associated styles even as they continue to lose all association with actual counter-cultural commitments held by those who wear them.

Thus, there is right now an exigency internal to the real, authentic, counter-cultural substratum of the larger, now falsely-inflated hipsterdom, that perhaps explains the timing of the occupation movement’s capacity for resexualizing radical politics. That is, I am effectively arguing that over the past few years there has been a speculative bubble in hipsterdom—more and more people buying stock in hipster lifestyle (e.g. clothes) not because of actual counter-cultural commitments (real value) but only hoping to sleep with cooler people (speculation). And as in most speculative bubbles, an exogenous shock was required to break the reinforcing circularity of confidence and (falsely) rising value. That is, we probably excused and permitted bourgeois folks sneaking into counter-cultural milieus because we were like the holders of mortgage derivatives early in the housing bubble: in our beds we might have known we were holding worthless pieces of clothing but we did it anyway because at the time we could all pretend we were just rich with counter-cultural babes. The occupations are for reasons outlined above (their physicality, perpetuity, and openness) the first viable counter-cultural egress from the hipster bubble.

The mortgage crisis and subsequent recession were one cause of Occupy Wall Street, of course, but that Occupy Wall Street should take off at the present juncture and not, say, at the beginning of the recession or at the time of the bailouts is explained by the fact that the speculative bubble in the hipster lifestyle sustained false confidence in the ideology of post-politics. Financial and emotional confidence in post-political hipsterdom was still perfectly stable in 2008. Financial and emotional confidence have been lessening steadily since then—the first because of the recession, the second because of the signaling problem befallen authentic counter-culturals within hipsterdom today.

  1. A secondary effect of the stability and satisfaction the occupations provide to the first few hipsters is that it will permit them to draw lines between themselves in the occupations and their former friends in the old hipsterdom. All but the most politically radical have never been able to really draw political lines between themselves and others in American urban centers without choosing a life of isolation on the fringe. Now it is possible to do it with confidence in a political project that does not forgo a large, exciting, social life. This ability to draw lines and burn bridges if necessary will lead to an increasingly clear demarcation between the radical hipsters and the apolitical hipsters. As the occupations pull like magnets the true, authentic counter-culturals out of the hipster bubble, the brightness of the line they will now be capable of drawing between themselves and the post-political will further reinforce the next, final implication.

  2. The final and most significant implication of an emergent political wing in contemporary hipsterdom exiting the speculative bubble of post-political hipsterdom is that radical politics will once again emerge as an attractive, fashionable lifestyle for young adults. The occupation movement will indeed continue to develop as a national political movement because all of the conditions are in place for a steady resexualization of radical politics in the United States. Two nights ago, the General Assembly of Occupy Philadelphia was deliberating on a high-salience proposal concerning whether to comply with city requests to move location or refuse and prepare to resist eviction. Without having paid too much attention to where in the mass of bodies I placed myself in the assembly, at one point I noticed that to my immediate left and right were all of the hippest-looking and (from my perspective) most attractive occupiers in Occupy Philadelphia. Some of them were groups of friends, but some of them were connected only by the political and essentially socio-sexual bonds of shared youthful exuberance, by the situation of a certain organic, sociological convergence of desires in which I had never before been personally implicated. We were all in favor of resisting eviction, and why wouldn’t we be? We’re young and attractive and fashionable and together: what is more revolutionary? Or consider the emergence of a popular blog entitled “Hot Chicks of Occupy Wall Street: The Sexy Side of Protesting Corruption,” simply photos of beautiful woman, many of whom appear young, hip, and radical.

Everyday moving forward, a few of the old hipsters will catch on and see that radical politics is simply on the rise across the whole horizon of their social lives; they will cease to associate their sexual desire with apolitical DJ culture and the false promises of “indie” and “alt” culture, just as we long ago ceased to associate our political desires with Congress and the false promises of Presidents. We hipsters have been lied to, and we’ve been lying to each other; there is nothing “indie,” “alt,” “counter,” “experimental,” or deserving of the term “hip” in our post-political hipster culture. More and more of us will continue to realize that in more ways than one our post-politics has become a “toxic asset.” Many may join the occupations for what some would call the “wrong reasons,” in other words, just to be cool. That might well be true, but it doesn’t matter.

Once we are all there, all the conditions that define us, including and indeed especially our unjust and unearned privileges—our level of education, the degree to which our country has betrayed us, our computers and iPhones, our energy—as well as the promises we’ve been made, the futures we’ve been robbed of, and the natural and honest solidarity we will learn to share with the least privileged communities, and not least of all our good looks—all suggest we could very well become the most dangerous political force our dead democracy has ever had to deal with. We won’t be nice like the hippies and we won’t go into hiding like the Weather Underground and we won’t be killed off like the Black Panthers because not even a racist and classist society can tolerate jailing or killing off the whole lot of its defecting progeny.

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Murphy, Justin. 2011. "The occupations, hipsterdom, and the resexualization of radical politics," (December 14, 2018).