Joshua Citarella: IRONY POLITICS & GEN Z

In observing the online content teenagers produce, we can see that Gen Z has learned to expect less than earlier generations. Given that real wages have been stagnant for nearly forty years, life expectancy is declining, and the environment is collapsing, this makes sense. Things are getting worse. […] To insulate ourselves from these seemingly guaranteed failures, Millennials, and Gen Z after us, adopted irony as a cultural strategy. Irony allowed us to continue life under late capitalism while psychologically sheltering ourselves from the demoralizing reality. […]

Before the context collapse of large scale networks,4 shitposting performed an important social function within small scale message boards. Within these communities, indeterminacy was essential to the process of meaning making. Shitposting was a way of proposing ideas that existed potentially outside the bounds of the Overton window and whose delineation helped to define the moral and ethical codes of the collective. Often uncertain of what they themselves believed, users would push an idea to its hyperbolic extreme in an attempt to find their group’s collective limit. Once breaching the consensus codes within their community, they would privately scale back to calibrate where they in fact stood on the issue. […] Shitposting is also a way of re-asserting individual freedom within online collectivities. The power of any one individual to derail a thread reaffirms the autonomy of all individuals within the group and subsequently gives value to the instances where users do cooperate. […]

Since teenagers rarely have much interaction with government, they tend to understand platforms, the media, and even the entertainment industry as a single homogenous ruling order. Reinforcing this is the fact that many came into their early adult awareness during Obama’s presidency, a time when Democrats, the media class, and tech platforms were seemingly immutable allies. For many in Gen-Z, this perception has crystalized into a progressive neoliberal establishment toward which they now direct all of their frustrations. Young people’s lack of historical awareness and well founded anxieties about the future make them especially vulnerable to the charlatan tactics of right-wing culture warriors. […] As the failures of neoliberalism become clear, young people attempt to distance themselves from the culture that they, in some ways correctly, understand to have robbed them of their future. […]

A youth movement signaling away from liberalism is significant because it reveals the center establishment’s lack of a real vision for the future. Under the mantra of demographic change (an ever increasing population of young people and growing racial diversity), liberal Democrats have assumed they can wait out the inevitable victory over aging white conservatives. This faulty assumption has prevented much of the liberal Left from considering the true appeal of their message. Failure to present a compelling political option will lose increasing numbers of young people to nihilism, to the Right, and ultimately to fascism. Public wealth is the only real solution to our crisis.