‘Millennials are, potentially, a great revolutionary force,’ writes Helen Razer in a key passage of her latest book, Total Propaganda: Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young (Allen & Unwin, 2017). She goes on to explain why, using the materialist logic that makes her a standout cultural commentator:
First, many of them have inherited the useful parts of so-called ‘identity politics’ and so have a basic understanding that their experience of the world does not precisely match everybody else’s – they know that racism is an everyday burden that some bear, and others do not. Second, many of them have acquired what we call class consciousness. It would be quite difficult to be young in this era and not sense that the greater part of your effort, both in leisure and in work, is in the service of somebody else’s profit.
So, there are a group of kids as frustrated with the intolerance of cultural indifference as they are with their own exclusion from a capitalist society’s false promises. Unlike their Leftist Boomer predecessors, who enjoyed relative abundance, they face the very real possibility of poverty … For this reason, they are, in my crusty old opinion, poised to become more authentically Marxist than any previous generation.
The data seem to bear her out: polls tell us a majority of young people now reject capitalism. Young voters largely powered the astonishing electoral successes of democratic socialists Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélanchon. Since the disastrous election of Donald Trump, 25,000 people have joined the Democratic Socialists of America, increasing their membership by fivefold; the vast majority of those new recruits are under thirty-five.
Let’s set aside objections to the generational discourse. No, the young aren’t woke by nature; and being a boomer doesn’t guarantee genteel wealth – far from it, as more than one third of Australian pensioners are in poverty. Razer is the last to uphold such essentialist stereotypes anyway. She’s simply reminding us that things are crap for younger generations, and getting more crap. That’s undeniable, but still refreshing to hear from someone of her vintage, especially in the mediasphere she inhabits and stalks – a mediasphere obnoxiously fixated on blaming millennials for all of our problems. Real wages have been declining for forty years. Housing affordability is a joke, or an ancient myth, something that no longer exists for most people. Jobs are increasingly casualised and insecure in the brutal ‘gig economy’. Grimmer statistics lie behind these ones: life expectancy in the US is now declining. Poverty in the UK is increasing.
As Razer argues throughout the book, materialism – the Marxist theory that material production and material concerns such as food, shelter and safety are fundamental in shaping history – tells us that because of these shithouse conditions, we can expect many more young people to be angry, and to try to do something about it. We might even expect some of them to come to revolutionary conclusions, and join together to stir things up in ways not seen for at least half a century, since the tumultuous events of 1968.
‘Marx, the historical materialist, tells us that particular economic conditions can create a particular political response,’ she writes. ‘He is fucking right.’ In Total Propaganda, Razer explicitly sets out to help youngsters to have those revolutionary epiphanies.
The book is subtitled Basic Marxist Brainwashing for the Angry and the Young. I’m increasingly the former, certainly no longer the latter (I’m a couple of years younger than Razer, who enjoys depicting herself as ancient), and the sly way the subtitle hedges its audience cracked me up as I devoured the book. You don’t necessarily have to be young to be angry. For whatever odd reason, as I’ve gotten older I’ve only gotten more mad at the world. I discovered Marx late, and it seems that’s the case with Razer as well. Thus her book spoke to me every much as the angry and young people it’s primarily aimed at.
Total Propaganda is a strange artefact. I bought it not at a Marxist bookstall in Newtown, nor from some dark leftist recess online, but at Berkelouw Books & Cafe at the mall in Hornsby. The lone copy was sitting on the ‘Politics’ shelf next to books by Hillary Clinton and John Howard. It’s a short, lightweight volume with cheekily brash cover art that looks and feels like a self-help book. One wonders what the retired denizens of Waitara or Asquith who might have randomly picked it up to skim over their lattes on a Tuesday morning would have thought of it. Within this deceptively slim volume a reasonably well-known Australian media veteran expounds fearlessly (and with hilariously foul language) on historical materialism and capitalist ideology, and fawns glowingly over Marx, Lenin and Gramsci.
In a sense it is a self-help book, but one in that, instead of inspiring the reader to feel empowered, encourages her to get woke and realise how little power she actually has as an individual in this society. After all, combatting the sort of individualism you might find in bog-standard self-help books about mindfulness or getting ahead in business is one of Razer’s main objectives.
Why a book like this, why now? You can get all this stuff in the pages of socialist publications like Jacobin and Red Flag – not to mention the original sources; the budding revolutionaries whom it might resonate with most are probably already onto Marx and Gramsci. Who is this book for?
That Allen & Unwin were willing to publish it probably says a lot about our era of tremendous political upheaval and cultural ferment. As Trump rampages on the world stage and late capitalism staggers to its catastrophic death like a rabid Allosaurus, leftism and specifically Marxism may well prove ever more appealing to masses of young people. In that event, pop culture should prepare itself for an invasion of left-wing politics. Maybe the massive support for overtly leftist athletes like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, the popularity of ‘Dirtbag Left’ podcasts like Chapo Trap House and even the warm reception for Raoul Peck’s wonderful biopic The Young Karl Marx are harbingers of a thrilling future of leftist pop music, videogames and Netflix series. And maybe we’ll be seeing more books about Marxism in the popular press. For now we have Total Propaganda.
Razer is as good a candidate to bring Marx to the masses as any, since her main gig is critiquing pop culture from a sneaky Marxist perspective on mainstream channels. Maybe more importantly, she’s relatively new at this.
I saw Razer give a freewheeling, funny talk at the Marxism conference in Melbourne a couple of weeks ago. I was surprised to hear her say it’s only within the last decade that she’s rediscovered Marx and become much more committed to his philosophy. With typically grim humour, she also confessed that her newfound awareness of how fucked capitalism is gave her mental health issues. ‘I was was depressed, I was genuinely depressed, and I’m still completely medicated,’ she says of the aftermath of her ‘summer of Marx’ binge-reading. ‘When it comes to you all at once, this realisation that social relations are relations between commodities, that everything capital touches it changes… I think that’s why I was quite depressed.’
It’s Razer’s willingness to admit, as she also does several times in the book, that her Marxism is a journey and something she’s still grappling with, that make her very sharp if eccentric takes on it so relatable and worthwhile for newbies. She offers a clue to my own midlife Marxist crisis.
I still can’t get over how this seasoned arts and culture columnist gets away with it all, using her platform in the liberal media to torch liberal ideology and the not-very-useful parts of identity politics so consistently and so mercilessly. Especially to someone who’s relatively new to Australia and missed out on much of her long and chequered career, she’s a baffling and wonderful presence.
As Razer often points out, she doesn’t make much money doing this – she calls herself a ‘cheap and nasty media whore’. She claims her annual earnings are $50,000, the same as the median income in Australia, a figure she uses to make shrewd rhetorical points about the exploitation of labour. She’s a freelancer, like so many young people today (and like me), lately most often writing for independent outlets like The Saturday Paper, Crikey and The Daily Review since her fall from grace at institutions like Triple J, the ABC and Fairfax Media. So she has to write a lot to stay afloat.
But boy does she make the most of it. Any given week you might find her advocating communism in a gushing tribute to Mariah Carey, encouraging readers to see #MeToo as a labour movement, dragging liberal darlings like Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep (‘Is there any person more devout in her own nobility?’ she asks of the latter) or – most often and most vehemently – exposing the hypocrisy of corporate ‘Lean In’ feminism. (She recently tweeted that the best way to spend International Women’s Day would be ‘defecating in a bank.’) Razer is a Marxist media assassin with the style and wit of a salacious gossip columnist.
She does weave a fair bit of pop appeal into Total Propaganda – reinforcing a point about economics and culture by citing Aretha Franklin, the White Stripes and Detroit techno; quoting Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman to chastise the Democratic Party – but in large part Razer steps away from the culture wars to take on Marx directly. The difference, especially for those of us who don’t watch much TV, is refreshing. Since Razer’s plunge into Marxism was so recent, it feels like she’s doing this digest version for herself as much as us. There’s a hell of a lot of passion and inquiry in this book.
On a basic level it’s just a pleasure to read. Razer untangles the profound concepts she’s tackling with lots of style, her tendency to get very personal (mostly) doing justice to her objective. Her famously filthy humour is in top form (in a passage about sexist ideology she calls Gwyneth Paltrow a ‘douche-selling douche’), and her loopy way of dancing around a point like a featherweight boxer as she hammers it home keeps the pages turning.
Razer begins by addressing the shitstorm we find ourselves in here at the start of Trump era (the bile she continually spews on forty-five is memorable; she labels him a ‘broken toilet’ and a ‘tangerine fuck-ball’ and a ‘circus bag of peanuts’), and invites us to admit how miserable we all our in our jobs and our useless political systems and our decaying biosphere. She goes on to tie many big issues of the day together with a Marxist through-line, giving ringingly clear perspectives on just how much neoliberals like the Obamas and the Clintons are part of the problem (she says she lost Facebook friends for saying that, something many of us can relate to), and how the ALP’s small-l liberal ideology betrayed Aboriginal Australians.
Total Propaganda isn’t only for beginners. Razer’s diatribes are potent enough to earn the admiration of veteran comrades, and her freestyle takes on Marxist theory and tradition will provoke thought and debate. She’s particularly lucid and incisive on the ‘long and troubled relationship’ between Marxism and feminism. Her feminist critics (if they’ve made it this far) may be surprised when she details why she in fact doesn’t think patriarchy is caused entirely by capitalism, nor does she think the coming revolution will entirely do away with women’s oppression. ‘Marx can’t repair everything that is rotten in this society, and he never claimed that he could.’ Her riffs on Marx’s theory of alienation and how automation spells doom for capitalism are also nimble.
Still, the book is aimed squarely at the next generation; her uncondescending affection and respect for the kids are palpable and contagious. (With admirable honesty she admits she ‘loathes’ millennials’ music and memes – but the point is solidarity, not sucking up.) She decries our own Generation X for ‘wasting our youth in unwitting service to neoliberal policy,’ and advises, ‘We are not permitted to grumble about The Youth but we are required, if we retain our interest in a better future, to support their efforts.’
I do wonder how many youth she’ll reach. True, I saw several young comrades at the conference reading her book between sessions – that alone is probably a sign of its worth, considering most of them could probably run circles around us latecomers in analysing classic Marxist texts.
I think some in her target audience may not go for her Gen X gonzo style and woke aunty schtick. In particular, her over-the-top attempts to appropriate youth slang (one chapter is unfortunately titled ‘Bro Marx Loves the Ladies! Or, As You Young Moderns Perhaps Know Them, ‘The Sister Powers!’ LOL’) and to quote memes from a decade ago (‘You cannot haz,’ she says of a revolution without working-class solidarity) often land with a thud despite the clearly intended irony.
I’m also a bit dubious about the cover art’s currency. It’s the kind of pop-art detergent-box culture-jam that was the prevailing style of rave flyers and Madchester album covers circa 1991. Overgrown raver that I am, it’s definitely my thing – but I have a feeling that young cultural observers will find it as dated as Razer’s meme references.
As Razer admits from the start, perhaps the book that eventually reaches masses of young people to spread the gospel of Karl will be written by a young person. Someone who can speak their language; someone who can quote somewhat more up-to-date memes.
Despite these fitful objections there’s great value in Total Propaganda for anyone, young, old or angry, who gives it a chance. Razer really is quite good at propagating these teachings from the better part of two centuries ago, making them fresh and attainable for ordinary baristas and IT workers and Uber drivers, communicating the urgency of our need to get rid of capitalism with practical examples anyone can relate to. Everyday objects such as the three-dollar T-shirt that she says is all she can afford, and a smartphone cover shipped from Singapore, illustrate potentially dry and abstract Marxist doctrines such as the labour theory of value and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. She brings wonderful clarity to our interconnection to workers on the other side of the planet, how much capitalists extract from us all and our lack of agency in this system. ‘A T-shirt is a harness with a worker at both ends,’ she says.
What Razer is up to here is more like un-brainwashing, it’s so effective at penetrating the fog of capitalist ideology – which, of course, most of us don’t even see as ideology – so we can ‘un-fuck ourselves from inside’. Prominent in her sights are the all-pervasive twin syndromes of idealism and individualism; the beliefs that ideas such as morality are more important than material conditions, and that individuals can be held accountable for systemic problems. The pernicious notions that keep us scrambling to compete with each other, and blaming each other for our difficulties, instead of looking at the catastrophic flaws of the system as a whole. ‘A Marxist, who is a materialist, will say that workplace bullying exists because what the shit else would you expect when labour conditions are so unequal,’ Razer writes. ‘History’s conversation between the worker and her workplace conditions produces the bullying behaviour. History’s conversation between the material and the idea is what can produce a fascist like Trump.’
The early-twentieth century American unionist Big Bill Haywood famously said, ‘I’ve never read Marx’s Capital, but I’ve got the marks of capital all over my body.’ Razer has read Capital, or at least Volumes One and Three (she says Volume Two is too daunting and full of equations), but the way she illuminates capitalism’s devastating effects on our bodies, our mental health, our well-being and our hopes and dreams is entirely in Haywood’s spirit.
‘It’s now up to us to find a cure,’ she says near the end of the book, ‘a task you may find, as I do, both thrilling and fucking exhausting.’
Beneath the pop-culture quips and crass humour, this is an earthy, tormented yet defiant and audacious look at Marxism that’s worth your time. Do yourself a favour and open your mind to Razer’s propaganda.
Image: Marx / 21centurymanifesto