Performative Militancy of Mass Consumption
Social networks, which feed off visual content, provide fertile ground for the development of performative militancy
By Pablo Viana
The advance of postmodern culture and the growth of social networks have brought about a form of advocacy in which what matters is not solutions to problems, but rather finding very theatrical ways of expressing them.
Political militancy is not a new phenomenon. It is, or at least tends to be, a phenomenon present in all societies with any degree of development and freedom. Though the reasons for militancy have been and still are quite diverse, they are generally characterized as attempts to articulate some problem of society and make it more visible, seeking to bring it into the public forum and make the political class take it up it to reach a solution. This last point – the solution – is the important one.
Nevertheless, the meteoric rise of social media and the growth of postmodern and post-Marxist thought have altered the nature of this dynamic. On the one hand, rational and materialist thought that spoke of causes, effects, and solutions is replaced with a story logic in which an intersubjective history is constructed, a history in which the symbolic is most important. Profound study and serious solutions leave the scene, and the performative goes into action. Likewise, social networks, which feed off visual content, provide fertile ground for the development of performative militancy.
So what is performative militancy? It is a militancy that emphasizes the symbolic and interpretative action of its story, rather than a programmatic, practical, and rational demand. The why of the manifestation no longer matters as much as the how. The most important part is how to make the advocacy more visible, more striking, more “trending.” This is why performative militancy has become more complex: it has specific colors, a specific wardrobe, specific vocabulary, and even carefully rehearsed choreography.
Third-wave feminism and the LGBTQ+ movement are instances where performative militancy has developed most strongly. “Inclusive language” is one of their preferred performances. It has become customary in recent years to see constructions such as increased deliberate use of singular “they,” or words such as “Latinx.” Based on the notion that language forms our reality and is consequently another cultural and political battlefield, some organizations have advanced along this path. But is there any kind of demonstrable and quantifiable benefit for women? Has it reduced the rate of murders, violence, or economic and social problems that many women face? But it is even more interesting to ask whether these people use this vocabulary in the private sphere, in daily conversations with family members and friends? It is difficult to imagine they do, precisely because it is performative. It’s enough to act it out, pretend, get attention in the public eye for their cause. Surely the most striking example of performative militancy has been the interpretation and choreography of “A Rapist in Your Path.” Again, acting without clear demands or real consequences.
Environmentalism is another field of performative militancy. Though it’s true that the environment is suffering because of human activity (the contamination of the oceans is the clearest example), social movements in this field do not seem to be giving serious solutions. Instead, they are acting with concern. The most notorious case is that of Greta Thunberg. The young woman became famous for her anxiously repeated refrain, “How dare you?” and for traveling without using airplanes. It is striking to see a 16-year-old girl reproaching an assembly of diplomats, but it is an act completely devoid of consequences outside the realm of communication, just like sharing content on social media.
Animal-rights movements are also engaging in this practice. Though there may be real demands, their action also acquires a performative character. Whether it be bursting into stockbreeders’ fairs like La Rural in Argentina or Expo Prado in Uruguay, or accompanying animals to the slaughterhouse in a visibly anguished way, militancy in this field is increasingly concerned with the visual.
What has definitely taken place in recent years is a shift towards acting in advocacy and manifestation. What used to be a means to an end is now an end in itself.
Readers have probably also noticed that in recent times, prominent international brands and companies such as Gillette, Coca-Cola, Colgate, Claro, and others have become protagonists in the novel of social demands.
In 2018, Gillette aired a commercial seeking to highlight toxic masculinity. Sprite did its own work in South America, developing a campaign that accepts and promotes LGBT advocacy. In 2016, Colgate promoted an ad celebrating gay marriage. Coca-Cola is the most recent addition to this campaign. In a new television ad, Coca-Cola appropriates all currently trending political and social causes: homosexuality, climate change, and feminist marches, using actors that embody the typical image of such marchers. And in case the message isn’t clear, the ad ends with the phrase “we are woke,” referring to their awareness of the supposed privileges and inequalities that afflict society. This catchphrase echoes among the most left-wing segment of American society. Fashion companies have also embraced this tendency, marketing t-shirts and fashion accessories with diversity slogans.
These advertising and business decisions are entirely legitimate: they are within the purview of free expression and free enterprise. But the fact that brands appeal more and more to these agendas clearly shows that there is market demand for it because the militancy of these causes is not only acted out, it is consumed. It’s reasonable that when acting, one should make use of certain material resources. The biggest contradiction is that these causes – which always have an anti-capitalist streak in their rhetoric – have at their service multinational corporations providing products and services that promote the cause. Moreover, these causes obviously resonate with a middle and upper-middle class that has consumption capacity, since those are the people that buy such products.
Pablo Viana is a young Uruguayan entrepreneur, former Director of the Instituto de Estudios Cívicos, Montevideo, and recently elected to the Uruguayan National Congress for the National Party.
Published by Fundación Rioplatense de Estudios (FREE)