Irony, Narration and Zeitgeist

I have good news for the left: the contemporary Zeitgeist finally favors it. If progressive politicians repeat the mistakes of their predecessors from previous decades, however, it may soon start favoring populists—who already know how to use it better.

1. It started, like many events on the Internet, from an event so insignificant that it was difficult to imagine that it would have any longer impact. In October 2019, one of the users of TikTok (an application peopled not even by Millenials, but rather by representatives of the Z generation, and not yet colonized by advertisements of large corporations) posted a video in which aggressive complaints directed at the youngest generation by a sixty-year-old man were commented on with the inscription ‘ok boomer’ running across the screen. The phrase itself was not new: its first traces can be found on 4chan in 2015.

It was in 2019, however, when if reached mass attention, and commentators of serious newspapers “The New York Times”, “The Washington Post” who published fuzzy texts about it, wondering if politics will be led according to its message in the 2020s.

I will try to answer: it will, and the left will make use of it this time, if it does not make some mistakes. Before I say why this will happen, I will explain what ‘ok boomer’ is actually about.

In short, it is a phrase to comment—while at the same time ending the conversation—on the political views of the older generation (baby boomers, i.e. those born in the post-war years), the representatives of which reject issues which are important for the youngest generation such as global warming, growing income inequalities and the question of where sexual harassment begins. This means that the commentator does not even want to deny the interlocutor’s arguments, because he does not consider them arguments at all; to put it in other words, he throws them beyond the bounds of rationality, in which certain matters are already concretely resolved.

A series of accusations were immediately raised against ‘ok boomer’—first of all about ageism. The conservative American radio presenter Bob Lonsberry stated that ‘boomer’ is the new ‘n-word’.

A series of accusations were immediately raised against ‘ok boomer’—first of all about ageism. The conservative American radio presenter Bob Lonsberry stated that ‘boomer’ is the new ‘n-word’, while in Poland the liberal writer and journalist Piotr Bratkowski said that it functions today like ‘Jew’ in 1968. Not without significance for these accusations was the behavior of the youngest generation, such as the song entitled ‘ok boomer’ (which premiered on TikTok, as the original video),sung by a 20-year-old American student, with the chorus “You are all old and racist”. Those who used the phrase—for example, a 25-year-old New Zealand parliamentarian named Chlöe Swarbrick, who did this during a public debate—argued that you can be a boomer regardless of age, because it is not the date of birth, but the set of political views that makes you one.

Swarbrick, a member of the New Zealand Greens, is—next to her compatriot Jacinda Ardern, the American Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Pole Adrian Zandberg or the German Kevin Kühnert—a representative of the youngest generation of politicians whose views could not be more different
from those of the stereotypical boomers—at least today. In the past, it was those people whom the youngest generation called by this phrase who believed in what Ardern, Ocasio-Cortez or Zandberg believe in today.

2. In what specifically? In a nutshell: leftist values. The story about how their beliefs did not translate into political representation is a great lesson for the modern Left, which is growing in strength all over the Western world. If the Left wants to learn from the mistakes of previous generations, ‘OK boomer’ will be the symbol of its Zeitgeist. If not—populists will gladly take advantage of it.

Jonathan Russo in “The Observer” noted that if the Western millennials and representatives of the Z generation were to be placed next to their peers from the 1960s and early 1970s, they would get along very well in terms of political matters. In Woodstock, it was quite acceptable to identify as gay, black or transsexual; no one ranted against abortion. Ecology, the food industry and its impact on the welfare of our planet? In 1971, a bestseller in the US was the book by Frances Moore Lappé Diet for a Small Planet, in which the author argued that humanity should switch to a vegetable diet, because it is better for the natural environment. The issue of income inequalities? In the 1960s, students were grabbing the books of Marx and Marcuse. Racism? In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was born. Pacifism? There is no need to mention the demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

Of course, it can be argued that this comparison works only in the West, because in the countries of the former Communist bloc the 1960s looked different. I will refute this argument in two ways. First, at least the Polish 1960s were leftist—let’s take the Open Letter to the Party by Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski. Second, the inclusion of the former Eastern Bloc into a global, Internet village equates the past of former communist countries with the past of the Western ones: the dominant one becomes binding.

If the Left wants to learn from the mistakes of previous generations, ‘OK boomer’ will be the symbol of its Zeitgeist. If not—populists will gladly take advantage of it.

Politically, the 1960s revolution was a defeat: as Jenny Diski wrote, when that decade turned into the 1970s, the meaning of words such as ‘freedom’ favored by the counterculture, had been reversed. ‘Freedom’ began to mean economic freedom and a capitalist understanding of individualism. This was apparent in the 1990s, when the baby boomers took power in governments around the globe: Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, Tony Blair, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Gyula Horn. They all came from parties with a left-wing provenance, but they were left only in name because they had fallen to liberal positions.

And then, history began to happen.

The Left will not turn out to be left only by name, but will return to the ideals of the 1960s, and make liberal consensus not even its enemy, but will ignore it, and use it to build a siege mentality among voters.

3. When exactly? Slavoj Žižek would probably say that in 2011, in the “year of dangerous dreams”, when Occupy Wall Street began. I do not agree with this answer. History began to happen when populist-connotated right-wing politicians took power in Europe and the US.

It was then, when in the political sphere—not in its margins, but in the center—opinions were voiced aloud, which until then were beyond what those who are today called boomers thought and think of as a liberal consensus. Throughout the 1990s and the beginning of the twenty-first century, someone who expressed similar views excluded himself from the rational debate. It is the experience of this exclusion (not necessarily factual) that is something that meets the Left today and what, when properly used politically, can help it in gaining power. By proper political use, I mean that the Left will not turn out to be left only by name, but will return to the ideals of the 1960s, and make liberal consensus not even its enemy, but, first, will ignore it, and secondly—use it to build a siege mentality among voters.

The populists built it by using irony. One would have to agree with Jakub Dymek that what presaged the revolution of Donald Trump and the alt-right was the activity of young Americans on Internet forums, where—during the so-called gamergate—they mocked the liberal consensus by posting memes and accusing liberals of succumbing to left-wing influences (e.g. through submission to feminist groups).

This was, of course, a lie, but it made it possible to create a strong narrative that described a world seduced by voters by this very description. This narrative began with wit, frivolous treatment of the opponent—which ultimately helped to make him completely invalid, with arguments considered to have come from outside any order that is worth taking into account.

Let us now look at how the Left behaved at that time—for example, on such occasions as Occupy Wall Street or Central European demonstrations against the adoption of ACTA (also in demonstrations against changes in the judicial system in Poland). Its representatives tried to talk—first to representatives of the liberal consensus, then to the right—and use arguments, thus indicating that what the other party has to present is worth talking about. In this way, the Left did not create a narrative that would address the possible voter as a vision of the world order, but which reacted to the one proposed by the liberals and the Right.

Having won the elections thanks to their narrative, the right-wing populists did one more thing that the Left can learn from them today: they did not present themselves as winners but as victims, at least on the level of public discourse.

The one—at least in the Internet world—the Left has conquered (after all, the video described at the beginning of this text was displayed on TikTok several million times). There is something else acquired, however, a world outside the Internet. According to the principle: the worse, the better—it favors the Left. The siege mentality, which was used to build popularity by the right, is not only a mentality in the case of the Left, because the threats it points to—especially the impending climate disaster—are very real. That is why I claim that the Zeitgeist favors the Left, and the use of irony previously associated with the Right—which is represented by the phrase ‘OK boomer’— helps it to use this historical moment to gain political influence.

Irony helps to conceal things, which from a liberal consensus point of view, seems radical: a claim to tax the richest or to take far-reaching measures against climate change.

4. Irony helps to conceal things, which from a liberal consensus point of view, seems radical: a claim to tax the richest or to take far-reaching measures against climate change. At the same time, it deprives the set of these views of its radical nature, because it annuls those which make them seem radical. Deprived of the odium of radicalism, they can be presented in the political forum—as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in the US during the interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg, in Germany Kevin Kühnert at the SPD congress, in Slovakia Zuzana Čaputová during her election campaign and Jacinda Ardern as the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In this way, a strong narrative that was born as a witty disregard for the views of the other party becomes simply a strong narrative.

Is there anything that could menace the Left in such a situation? From the outside: no, because it is difficult to expect the Zeitgeist to change, income inequality suddenly disappeared, and the summer months ceased to be the hottest in history. The real threat to the Left comes from within and lies in the fact that left-wing politicians can repeat the path of the activists of the 1960s. In a word -they may want to fall to liberal positions, giving up irony and masked radicalism. Political change, which may be just beginning, is not—unlike Greta Thunberg stated in the UN—inevitable and will not happen regardless of whether politicians of the generation and views of boomers want it or not.

What then? The Zeitgeist, which can help the Left, will be used by populists—the only party except the Left, which remain capable of building a strong, trustworthy narrative; liberals have not had this skill for a long time. The problem is that for populists the goal remains what for the Leftists is the means: total domination of the discourse in which the liberals ruled as long as their Zeitgesit lasted. And in such a dominated discourse, the chief enemy will be the Left, which—if it misses the chance it faces—may not get more like it.

Wojciech Engelking

Wojciech Engelking (born 1992) is a Polish novelist and publicist, and a permanent collaborator with Liberal Culture weekly. He has written three novels, most recently “Nowhere Man”; his articles and essays were published i. e. by Newsweek, Gazeta Wyborcza, Tygodnik Powszechny, and Pismo.

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