How The West Has Become Post-Socialist

 

Donald Trump wants to have a military parade. Inspired by a military parade more based in tradition than a show of strength that he had attended in France, Trump would like to remind the world that America has a military and he is a mental case, so don’t push his buttons. “Executive time” is just long enough for Trump to get bored and start the world’s short descent into absolute annihilation. In 2018, one can no longer be sure if half the world will still exist when taking a flight without wi-fi.

What appeared absurd to everyone about the fact that Trump wanted to have a military parade was not both the perverted vanity of it or the militarization of public space. Everyone knew Trump was insecure. Rather, it was so in keeping with his dictatorial behaviour. No longer is it a stretch comparing him to the likes of Saparmurat Niyazov and Vladimir Putin. Along with his attacks on the most marginalized members of society, he has showcased the certain predilections shown by male dictators that are overwhelmed by the depth of his power but equally concerned about losing it, so they have an insistent need for validation. His demand for a military parade just follows a long pattern of similar behaviour of other dictators, like his emphasis on being applauded, overstating his popularity, that hair, and “alternative facts.”

It would be easy to dismiss this behaviour as a byproduct of Trump’s own warped narcissism, but the reality is that it reflects a broader trend in American and Western European society. Trump’s erratic populism holds tremendous popularity among large sections of society. While the average liberal individual may dismiss him as a man who has lost the plot, his crassness has been interpreted by some sectors as a show strength. For them, “he tells it like it is.” Not only because of his position of power but the manner in which his brand of corrosive populism has become part of broader English-speaking discourse speaks more to where society is than just a fluke election that brought him to power. He is very much symptomatic of a broader malaise in Western society, where large segments of society look to reconcile themselves with growing inequality, disenfranchisement, and cultural stagnation caused by neoliberalism.

Looking to find similar circumstances to Trump’s rise, there were numerous comparisons to the collapse of socialism during the early 90’s in Europe. Trump’s capacity to tap into the insecurities of working-class individuals yet subvert their interests has been compared to the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Before and after the election, a host of articles were released speaking about the United States had entered into a stage in its history similar to the post-Soviet years – where economic inequality, pyramid schemes, and poverty drove working class individuals towards religious extremism, authoritarian populism, and chauvinism. The stagnation that has emerged in late capitalism in the West has led to a similar epistemic break like the collapse of socialism, which has led to something far more uncertain allowing for the circumstances for someone like Trump to come to power.

While greater parallels have been drawn between contemporary politics in the English-speaking world and the collapse of socialism in the early 90’s, there has been a sudden surge of interest in a host of cultural areas in the former Soviet Union, Balkans, and other post-socialist countries. In the same year of Trumps election, Highsnobiety named 2016 ‘the year of post-Soviet fashion’. With their early 90’s inspired fashion, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia have become the designers defining fashion in the second decade of the millennium. The internet has become littered with social media pages like Squatting Slavs, celebrating every aspect of Gopnik culture, with Westerners contorting their bodies so their heels touch the ground while squatting. Within the past number of years, travel has exponentially grown in locations like Hungary, Croatia, and Georgia, spurring hundreds of WordPress blogs with titles alluding to being off the beaten path. There has been a host of new English-speaking journals driven by Westerners regarding the post-socialist region, including this one. Concepts like “Post-Soviet” have become very much part of the broader Western cultural discourse in the post-2008 recession years. Post-socialist aesthetics and imagery have become one of the defining styles of this decade.

Interlinking all these different spheres of interest in the post-socialist region is an emphasis on living among destruction. Whether it is the kitschy aesthetics that Demna Gvasalia celebrates or the suburban hooligans in Adidas tracksuits, the fixation on post-socialist culture has been based on the period of turmoil and societal uncertainty. However, it is difficult to ascertain why exactly the ex-socialist countries have suddenly become the source of interest for Westerners. One of the popular theories is that the first generation of individuals from the post-socialist region to grow up during capitalism are coming to age, and within an ever-evolving cultural appropriation industry in the West logically led to post-socialist cultures to become a zeitgeist of the current period. However, I believe the rise of Western interest in ex-socialist countries speaks less about Eastern Europe than it does about a Western society lost in late capitalism.

The appeal of post-socialist culture to Westerners has always been mythical. In contrast to other cultures that have captivated Westerners (Japanese anime, Jamaican reggae, etc.), the immigration from ex-socialist countries is more recent and has less of a cultural imprint. There are no defined EU-era Polish immigrant neighbourhoods in Dublin, akin to how Caribbean cultures defined places like Bristol, or the Koreans in downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps due to easier travel between countries and technological changes, the majority of post-socialist immigration has been more dispersed, leaving a smaller footprint. As such, the fixation with the culture of post-socialist countries has come largely from social media, as opposed to face-to-face interaction. For most Westerners who have limited interaction beyond periodically travelling to these countries, ex-socialist culture has been a truly post-modern experience: all style, no body. The prevailing image of what is the post-socialist aesthetic is a construct of the West through a host of different narratives that proliferate through memes, reports of Romanian welfare recipients, Instagram fashion influencers, and videos of Vitas.

In constructing this evolving otherness, Westerners look not only to project their unconscious sexual desires and aggression upon ex-socialist countries, as Žižek says. The context of Western cultural hegemony slipping away, a chronic boom-and-bust economic system, and the reality of undeniable oppression has rendered Western confidence disingenuous and void. An uncertain anxiety of the old dying and the new yet to be born manifests itself in celebrating crumbling housing estates, the revival of Kappa, and squatting. In embracing post-socialist aesthetics, Westerners co-opt the imagery of the collapse of socialism for their own epistemic destabilization. The post-socialist aesthetic with its emphasis upon destitution, disorder, and crumbling spirits and infrastructure provide a far more literal imagination to the sustaining facade of American stability. These aesthetics showcase a lost future in their ruins that to date remains behind closed doors in Western society. They provide an imagination for Westerners contending with their own lost future.

Despite the influence of American and broader Western culture diminishing, this co-opting of post-socialist aesthetics reflects a familiar colonial approach to culture that has long existed. Men with skinheads wearing tracksuits and Kardashians wearing Soviet jumpers isn’t much different from white guys rocking dreadlocks and Environmental Studies undergrads wearing henna. Nonetheless, the roots of this sudden interest in post-socialist cultures – reflected in rich suburban kids sporting PACCBET and Trump’s rise to power – are grounded in a less than certain future for neoliberalism. At least in embracing post-socialist aesthetics, there is at best a reference point to make sense of this vague future.