As a millennial who’s publicly posted about the perils of capitalism for years, Laura was used to guys sliding into her DMs to debate free healthcare for all. But recently, the influx has been noticeably higher. Over the past year, she’s seen a similar sentiment all over dating apps. Men will consistently use lines like, "Let's make sure we're on the same page about capitalism” and jokes about Jeff Bezos are frequent. One date complained, "All girls on Hinge are communists." The same rhetoric also exists on Raya, an exclusive dating app that costs $9.99 per month and is frequented by the likes of CEOs, hedge fund managers, and the odd confused celebrity.
The joke writes itself: People who want to eat the rich are paying the rich a small monthly fee to use an app that’s only popular because other rich people use it. But the discourse on dating apps is merely an extension of discourse that is proliferating on social media in general. On TikTok, teens are hearing about Marxist theory amid easy-to-replicate dances. On Instagram, it’s memes. In mid-2020, cute pastel infographics about billionaires started going viral, sharing stats such as the fact that 650 people in the US got around $1.2 trillion richer during the pandemic.
It seems dismantling the system is in vogue. Everywhere you look, people want to abolish billionaires, eat the rich, and redistribute wealth. Sounds great, right? But is this truly fostering social change, or just inflating our daily screen time?
The changing tide has been years in the making. Before the pandemic, people were noticing the widening gap between rich and poor — even those at the very top of the food chain. In 2018, Josef Stadler from the Swiss bank UBS, told The Guardian that his billionaire clients were aware of the widening divide. But instead of wanting to fix the situation, they feared that people might rise up and take direct action against the rich.
Then came COVID-19 and with it, a global reckoning spanning race, class, and privilege. Wealth, power and celebrity became a hot topic during global lockdowns, when those privileged enough to continue living their lives as usual, did. Kim Kardashian’s lavish 40th birthday trip to Tahiti in October 2020 was held up as an example of late capitalism gone awry and seemingly more people than ever began questioning why we live in a world which allows a select few to thrive while the rest of society struggles.
There are two ways of being anti-capitalist and unfortunately, most people are anti-capitalist in theory, but not experientially.
Celebrities aren’t the only ones faltering under the changing tide. Influencers too are confused about how to reach an audience who, less than two years ago, happily celebrated them flaunting wealth, designer clothes, and luxury holidays. Until recently, it was far more important to worry about how your grid looks, rather than what your captions say. Now, if influencers don’t publicly voice their opinion on political and social issues, they run the risk of being cancelled.
It’s always been important to tap into digital trends to remain competitive in the attention economy, but in 2021 that means encouraging followers to get vaccinated and take note of colonialism or class-consciousness, rather than merely a debut of the latest Bottega Veneta pouch (or sometimes, confusingly, it’s both in the same week). The scramble to keep up was noticeable recently during another escalation of the Israel-Palestine crisis where many influencers, brands, and indeed everyday people rushed to declare their opinion as illustrated Instagram carousels were shared far and wide. Some famous people, like Kendall Jenner and Paris Hilton, swiftly back-tracked on their pro-Palestine posts, however.
You could be forgiven for wondering if some people of clout are using post-June 2020 progressivist, anti-capitalist language and rhetoric to boost their followers and sell themselves, effectively capitalising off anti-capitalism.
This commodification of social justice by the market is nothing new. In the mid-2010s as Instagram boomed, the “influencer-activist” market — people who built their following off the back of their politics — did too. These influencers raised awareness for causes while simultaneously making money through either selling their own books and merch or brand partnerships. Business Insider reports that brands will spend up to $15 billion on influencer marketing by 2022 and, following stiff competition from TikTok, both Instagram and Facebook recently announced plans to spend $1b on paying influencers.
New York-based creative and podcaster Bobo Matjila has built a loyal following for not just posting about anti-capitalism, but for practising what she preaches. Among other things, Matjila practises veganism and Nichiren Buddhism. Both, she says, help to combat the cult of individualism (capitalism’s best friend; see also the concept of main character energy), by forcing you to focus on things outside of yourself. Matjila has “absolutely” noticed the influx of conversation surrounding “eat the rich” language, and like many others, is cynical about how much change it’s actually making. “There are two ways of being anti-capitalist and unfortunately, most people are anti-capitalist in theory, but not experientially,” she says.
When everything matters, it’s a lot like nothing matters.
It makes sense to be wary of the recent enthusiasm for burning billionaires. In today’s digital age, attention spans are waning. Like kids on a sugar high, we’re almost encouraged to jump from one cause to the next. We get outraged, we share badly-made Canva graphics to Instagram, and the cycle continues. We read up on defunding the police while posting about the need to #FreeBritney. And the cycle continues.
Very quickly these days, our attention is lost. We scroll and scroll until these real-world issues blur. And when everything matters, it’s a lot like nothing matters. While we, the people, share quotes and graphics about the issue of the day, a billionaire flies to space in a penis-shaped rocket and gets more media coverage in one day than the climate crisis got in all of 2020.
Beyond Instagram, there’s more anti-capitalist literature on the market than anyone could read in a lifetime. And if you’re too busy to read, there’s always anti-capitalist merchandise. Progressive congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez recently released a line of t-shirts, including one which reads ‘Tax the Rich’ (they cost $78). On IG, one of the most popular ways to make positive social change is to “support small business” and be a patron of brands and products that “stand for something”. Buying power is increasingly becoming central to activism in online discussions.
Anti-capitalism has arguably become packaged up and sold back to us. “One of the interesting things about capitalism is that it finds a way to cannibalise everything in its sight, including activism”, Matjila continues. “I think when we retweet an infographic, or we buy a t-shirt that says ‘Eat the Rich’, it releases the same amount of dopamine as if we had actually done something effective. Therefore, it’s much easier for people to buy into capitalism, insofar as consumerism is concerned, as opposed to actually dismantling capitalism. Because you get the same amount of dopamine without actually having to do anything at all.”
Despite what we’re projecting to the world via our Instagram story reshares, dating app profiles and fashion choices, the reason why so many of us are guilty of this pattern (i.e. posting one thing and doing another IRL) is simple: we’re part of a culture just as obsessed with wealth as we always have been. The successful return of Gossip Girl, a show about the daily lives of rich teenagers living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side — albeit with a more diverse cast — is proof that, 14 years after the show’s initial premiere, not much has changed except optics. We’re still glorifying money and consumerism as a path to self-actualisation. Even the new Cruella movie begins with a young, punk Emma Stone working to tear down a rich and powerful capitalist, but ends with her realising that power and money feel, well, quite nice actually.
Though we might hate the rich, it seems nearly all of us still quietly want to be rich. Or at least, not poor. In fact, some experts suspect the reason socialist-leaning politicians like Bernie Sanders have trouble convincing the US population to tax the rich is because many average workers still believe in the American dream they were raised on; that one day they’ll be the rich.
After spending 25 years meticulously documenting unbridled capitalism for the documentary Generation Wealth, photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield came to the conclusion that people’s desire isn’t even about money anymore, it’s about chasing something we think will bring us true happiness and fulfilment. “That’s part of the mechanism of capitalism; if you were satisfied you wouldn’t buy anything more,” she said in 2018.
The stark contrast to what we’re saying online versus how we’re living in reality has been pointed out on social media. As one Twitter user put it, “‘Eat the rich!’...Tweeted from an iPhone 12. From their five-bedroom house. With three cars in the driveway. In the middle of Central London.” Another posted, “eAt ThE rIcH, JeFf BeZoS iS tHe VillAiN…,” accompanied by a screenshot of a stat revealing Amazon Prime has over 200m subscribers, 147 million of which are based in the US.
The reason socialist-leaning politicians like Bernie Sanders have trouble convincing the US population to tax the rich is because many average workers still believe in the American dream they were raised on; that one day they’ll be the rich.
As a Kiwi who’s currently living in London, I’m not proud to admit that during the city's four-month lockdown, I personally contributed to Jeff Bezos’ wealth by paying £7.99 a month to have products delivered to my doorstep via Amazon Prime. I also had meals delivered via Deliveroo, for which I paid a further £7.99 per month to have the delivery fee wiped. It seems millennials like me want to change the world without changing anything about the way we live our lives. We talk about tearing down capitalism while buying expensive skincare owned by conglomerates in the name of self-care.
But living in a consumeristic, individualistic culture means living with contradictions. As they say, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. Unless more of us start a commune and live like a trade-based, pre-commodified Burning Man (which in itself belies the privilege of ‘running away’ instead of helping change things), we have to engage in the system we were born into.
‘Capitalist realism’ is a term British philosopher Mark Fisher came up with to describe the widespread notion of the inevitability of capitalism: we might not like it, but we’re in so deep that the majority of us now think there’s no alternative to it. As writer Haley Nahman wrote in her newsletter Maybe Baby, “We simply accept it, the way five-year-olds accept the existence of the tooth fairy. We accept the competitive job market and the concept of unemployment; we accept the 40-hour work week and the existence of billionaires. We become so inured to the strictures of capitalism we forget they’re all up for debate.”
The truth is, there are a myriad of other options available to us.
“The answer is very hard but extremely simple,” Matjila says. “The answer is to actually abolish capitalism and its subsidiaries, which is white supremacy, patriarchy, and, first and foremost, individualism”. Just don’t expect billionaires, Silicon Valley execs, brands, influencers — or for that matter, pretty infographics and black squares — to lead the charge.
Thankfully, there are people willing to put their money where their mouth is. Millennials will soon be the recipients of the largest generational shift of assets in history, dubbed in finance 'the Great Wealth Transfer.' Tens of trillions of dollars in the US alone will pass between generations in the next decade. As a result, socialist-minded young adults are getting creative. For example, take Resource Generation, a non-profit wealth redistribution organisation created to help rich kids give their inherited money away to social justice movements.
So, back to Laura. Would she date a rich person? “Extremely rich? No.” But if they’re a member of Resource Generation? “Yes…if they’re cute.”