The Political Utility of Guilt, The Political Impotence of Shame
Sometimes, feeling bad is good!
I think one of the most underrated words in discussion of contemporary politics and culture is smarmy. The self-satisfying smirks of Saturday Night Live Liberalism, the condescension of endless Instagram Infographics telling you the last Instagram Infographic you posted is actually un-woke, the Oberlin-Graduate-esque tone of each Twitter thread justifying the Radical Queer Possibilities of Buying From Shein.
In the aesthetic of smarm, nothing matters more than the circularity of discourse. Every political (or personal) argument is dissected for not accounting for every possible nuance or bad faith reading. Issues like veganism, COVID, media representation, and plastic surgery are a handful of topics in which it feels like online discourse rarely aspires to solutions but instead to conversations in which the goal is to feel Correct, to be the person with The Best Politics, to get the One-Up Of The Day over someone else. These conversations are almost always insular, lacking in any larger perspective, and above all else: boring and annoying.
There is no ethical consumption under late-stage capitalism! becomes the rallying cry of popular Western liberal social politics, the national anthem of our cultural State of Smarm. It’s an appropriation of Marxist sentiment, reshaped and recontextualized to take on almost its exact opposite meaning. When deployed by social media commentors or Fashion Nova brand influencers, what they mean to say is “because corporations do the bulk of damage to the environment and workers, we shouldn’t feel guilty about buying their products because individuals cannot change large-scale policy”. There’s some truth embedded in that sentiment, certainly the acknowledgement of the systematic nature of exploitation by businesses and states should not be ignored, but more often than not it is used to assuage the conscious of not just the consumer, but the Consumerist. The original usage of “no ethical consumption under capitalism” was to provoke the opposite response—to have consumers question the so-called ethical company and to recognize that “profit” only exists as a result of wage theft and that good intentions do not negate the stolen surplus value of workers.
I find this anti-guilt faux-woke discourse nowhere more pervasive than in the way we discuss fast fashion. I think there’s a broad consensus that fast fashion certainly isn’t good, but publicly critiquing the choice to purchase clothing from fast fashion has also become a social ilk. Like every issue, there are nuances that cannot be accounted for in a single sentence. “Fast fashion retailers are some of the only retailers that create clothing for plus-sized people” is true. “Not everyone can afford slow fashion” is true. “Buying clothing second-hand is a good general rule of thumb, but sometimes poor people just want to own something new that is totally theirs” is more than fair. But these arguments rarely come from any of the affected groups, instead, they’re recited by a hive of straight-sized middle-class Americans who already own wardrobes full of clothing. They bring up the complexities (and inherent failings) of the clothing industry not to seek justice for marginalized groups, but to shut down criticism of their own choices by recalling socio-political plights they do not experience. More than anything, it is an attempt to shift guilt from the person making the choice to knowingly participate in a harmful system to the person attempting to examine and question said participation.
I am on the record as a staunch believer in historical materialism, and that justice must not come from abstract aspirations towards abstract ideologies but instead from an examination of material need and physical conditions. But we cannot reach a historical materialist mindset if our psychology is deeply intertwined with individualism, consumerism, and personal entitlement. When discussing fast fashion, no one seems to want to engage with the idea that people don’t actually need most of the clothes they buy. We come up with excuses as elaborate as Rube Goldberg machines as to why everyone should be able to change their wardrobe seasonally, talk about online cultures of shame and why they’re harmful, but these too serve as little more than artifacts of commodity fetishism. In creating scenarios in which every person has justification for why their $500 Shein haul isn’t actually a morally compromised choice, we have shifted the emphasis to the guilt of the consumer rather than the reality that fast fashion is fundamentally the product of slave labour and that clothing is made by workers whose exploitation is far more real than the liberal guilt of someone who feels entitled to a Lirika Matoshi dupe that they will wear exactly once. The same discourses surround other commercial entities like Amazon, Walmart, and Nestle, and extend far beyond textiles and fashion.
What I mean to say is this: guilt is a human emotion. People deserve to be happy and to make choices that feel good, of course. But if we can acknowledge that systems and structures are corrupt, we need to acknowledge the human impact that harms real people. Guilt should be a manifestation of our humanity and empathy, a way to recognize that labour is the result of human action and that the commodities we interact with are not things that appear out of thin air but things that are made by people, from incarcerated Americans to garment workers in Cambodia. While we cannot spend every second of our day paralyzed with the anxiety of operating in an unjust world, we also must not become desensitized to the choices we make and the way that they impact other human beings.
And yet, while we shy away from the productive guilt endemic to human empathy, we also become victim to the Shame of the Spectacle. Since the early twentieth century (and probably before that, too), cultural theorists have been writing about the Specticalized world. We are presented with images and ideas and news that come together to form cultural moments. To feel connected to the culture (and therefore each other), we believe we must interact with these cultural moments as they happen. Media becomes more easily accessed, speeding up the cycles at which events occur and die out, and we are anchored to our phones. The phrase “24-hour news cycle” began with coverage of the OJ Simpson trial in the mid-1990s, but it seems that even the 24 hour news cycle is obsolete. Andy Warhol’s famous proclamation in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes now extends beyond the individual momentary celebrity and to the broader coverage of geopolitical events and happenings.
In October, 2013, one of the most important media innovations in popular communication was released: the Snapchat story. Its premise was simple: you could post an image (or series of images) attached to your profile that would last exactly 24 hours before disappearing forever. In 2016, Instagram did the same. Most social media platforms would later follow with some sort of adjacent feature, from Twitter’s Fleets to Linkedin’s now-defunct Stories feature. The Instagram story was the standout product; an alternative to the hyper-curated “grid”, permanent and always viewed in its entirety, the story allowed for contextual posts without worry about the clutter or social obsoletion of a permanent grid post.
I think we’re due for an intense research evaluation into the effects of Instagram Stories on political discourse. I am open about my contempt for the Canva Activist, the aestheticized call-to-action whose pastel colouring and sans-serif font are supposed to give some sort of unilateral legitimacy to whatever baseline liberal politics are being shared, all without compromising the personal brand of whatever vaguely liberal 18-year old will share it to their audience of people who already share the exact same political and ideological leanings. But I think that specifically the limited-run-ness of the Instagram Story is also part of its fundamental political operation. “Why aren’t people talking about this!” becomes the modus operandi for each spectacle or event, where one must educate themselves about an issue and then recapitulate its nuances and call-to-actions before the stories expire. Reposting a particular screenshot or Instagram post becomes not only political but also social currency and the failure to participate is also seen as an act of intentional ignorance. Tragedies, disasters, conflicts are then shifted from actual things that happened to pieces of social currency that are exchanged as empty symbols of having the “Right” politics by people unaffected by the realities of the events they share and comment on.
American artist Brad Troemel’s satiric series, Trepanation (2021)
As the Russian military invades Ukraine, my social media timelines are populated with two types of posts. The first being Americans trying to figure out a way that they can make an issue in Eastern Europe into an issue about them as individuals (while still failing to address the role of NATO and the actual ways in which the United States impacts global affairs) and the second being the simple take that All Of Russia Is Bad And The State of Ukraine Is Good. I don’t claim to be an expert in global politics and particularly not Eastern European politics and won’t comment particularly far beyond thinking that imperialism is bad and should always be opposed, that there is a difference between states and their civilians, and that support for the people of Ukraine can be addressed without promoting Ukrainian nationalism. As quickly as events occur, they are soon thereafter boiled down and reduced into the Shareable Narrative with the Good Guy and the Bad Guy, a streamlined Call To Action, and a sense of social urgency: Share This Now! The results of this participatory politic are not simply unproductive, but actively harmful. The desire to erase all nuance and fully embrace the military of Ukraine ignores its ties to thriving Nazi militia groups like the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi militia in part funded and trained by the United States Pentagon. Rather than wanting to understand, we want to Participate, global politics are seen as plot points in the imaginations of Westerners as opposed to actual things that are happening to real people.
Both the aversion to shame in favour of consumerism and the usage of shame to encourage spectacle politics have the same route: centring the ego of the individual above any sort of collective conscious. Individualism will not save us. Contemporary digital communication structures work to detach humanity from policy: we should never feel bad, especially about the things we buy, unless that feeling bad serves to reenforce our social standing or pity some abstracted Other. Instead of wanting to learn, wanting to grow, or wanting to make sacrifices that are personally inconvenient in service of broader political liberation, we are told to numb ourselves from the pain of empathy. We must not see commodities or events soley as abstract representations of our socio-political egos, but as artifacts of human interaction. It is only then that we can begin to dismantle the systemic injustice of capitalism in favour of a conscious, collective world.
 I will readily admit to my own predilection for buying second-hand clothing; my own overflowing wardrobe populated by every funky and strange garment I have seen at the estate sales I frequent.
 This is not to say that choosing to be neutral, particularly in issues of social justice, is anything other than thinly veiled conservatism. Rather, that taking time to actually understand what is happening around you is more important than “appearing” to have the right politics for the valorisation of your own ego.
amazing!! sharp, witty, and insightful writing. i really really enjoy it; was directed to your substack from rayne fisher quann's "the spring digression"
off i go now, to read the rest of what you've published :))))
Im slowly making my way through your writing, and you word my frustrations so well. My own frustration with the nature of “discourse” these days is with as you mentioned “the centering of the ego”. The idea that people cant even acknowledge that perhaps their own feelings, their own desire to feel valid and assured in their choices, does not in fact come before the material conditions of others. But ofcourse that is frowned upon, so the alternative becomes moralizing their stance. The discourse becomes about something completely different, its no longer about consumption and exploitation of the global south, which should be the main focus of the conversation, its about barriers of access to fashion, or depop sellers ruining thrift stores etc. the evasion is less than subtle.