The Legacy of Mark Fisher in the Meme Era

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When the leader of the Wagner Group—Yevgeny Prigozhin—began his march on Moscow, the internet lit up like a Christmas tree. It didn’t matter that Prigozhin had been in bed with Vladimir Putin for twenty years running. In the 00s, Prigozhin’s catering company served Putin food. In 2014, Prigozhin put down one butcher’s knife and picked up another. Now his private contractors serve Putin slices of Ukraine. But for the good people of the internet this history was unimportant. By leading a rebellion against Putin, Prigozhin became the prince that was promised, the revolutionary figure who would transform Russia and finally bring the conflict to a close.


Prigozhin was not a mercenary or a liberal—he was from the very start an integral part of Putin’s inner circle. His feud with the minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, escalated to the point that the two men no longer felt they could get along. Each tried to get Putin to remove the other. The only question was who would overtake whom. The ministry of defense ordered the Wagner Group to subordinate itself to the Russian military by the end of June. Prigozhin refused to sign the deal. He accused the ministry of defense of attacking his forces—something western sources have yet to confirm—and began his march on Moscow.


Ultimately it was the president of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who persuaded Prigozhin to go into exile. Like Prigozhin, Lukashenko has been a personal friend of Putin for decades. When the news dropped that Prigozhin cut a deal with Lukashenko, all the enthusiasm online evaporated. Prigozhin was no revolutionary. He was in a no-win situation. If he subordinated the Wagner Group to the MoD, those incompetent buffoons would give him suicidal orders. If he persisted in refusing the MoD’s orders, the MoD itself would have him arrested or killed. He rebelled not to revolutionize Russia but to save himself and his men from a defense ministry he doesn’t trust with his life or theirs. Once he realized he could get out of Ukraine and make himself safe in Belarus, he jumped at the chance to stay alive.


This was intensely disappointing for the terminally online westerner not just because the westerner cares about the fate of Ukraine and despises Putin. It was disappointing becausefor a fleeting moment, Prigozhin raised their hopes that revolution might be possible. In Prigozhin, the internet thought it saw the kind of historical figure long believed to be extinct—a man with armed followers and a revolutionary consciousness. What’s more, this man was not from Cambodia or the Congo. He was not associated with political Islam. He was a white man speaking a European language.


The online westerner could identify with this revolutionary figure without themselves having to do anything revolutionary. Safe behind the screen, the revolution could be watched and enjoyed without any of its attendant dangers. Unlike say, January 6th, the westerner was free to support this rebellion without incurring any moral censure. For the liberal centrist, nationalism is verboten—unless it is nationalism on behalf of Ukraine. In the same way, revolution is an assault on all the institutions we are meant to hold dear—unless it is committed in Russia against Putin. When discussing Ukraine—and only when discussing Ukraine—the liberal subject is free from the straightjacket of having to be a liberal, able to endorse all of the things that in any other context cannot be tolerated.


Prigozhin’s personal background had to be ignored so that it was possible to imagine oneself at his side. His Wikipedia page was, at every moment, there available for the online westerner’s reading pleasure. But reading it—or taking it seriously—would ruin the fun. This felt like history, and these days history is such an infrequent visitor that it feels like a missed opportunity if you turn it away.


Deep down, the online westerner pines for revolution in Russia in part because we no longer believe in our own system. Yet, at the same time, we cannot imagine another political system that would be worth dying for. Our faith in the capacity of human beings to build better societies has been ground down by the experience of failed revolutions. So, a revolution in Russia gives us what we want in a double sense—it allows us to have the revolution we can no longer have for ourselves, and it reinforces the sense that the western system is inevitable, that all other systems eventually succumb to it. If our system is inevitable, it doesn’t matter how many legitimate criticisms we may have of it—we have to tolerate it. Any alternative we might cook up must immediately be likened to the phantoms of the past—the Soviet Union or the Third Reich—and thrown in thetrash can of history. But we are allowed to enjoy the fall of alternative political systems, to enjoy the process of political and economic homogenization as it unfolds.


What will happen if we get what we say we want, and all the countries of the world become liberal capitalist democracies? Who will have the revolutions for us? Who will let us imagine that history might yet come to someone’s dinner table again, if not to ours? In this period where our system seems inevitable but is not yet truly universal, the dying alternatives delay our confrontation with the reality that our own system prevails only because it is the most competitive. The rich liberal capitalist democracies endure because they have the most competitive militaries, the most productive workers with the greatest propensity to consume. They don’t prevail because they are happy societies full of mentally healthy people.


On the contrary, people like Putin consistently underestimate the western states precisely because these states are so visibly miserable. Our states can no longer raise enough tax revenue to adequately fund our public services. Increasingly our people struggle to secure the basics. Housing, healthcare, and education grow ever more expensive, even though you can now buy a 4k television at Costco for a clean $300. The jobs we do feel so pointless that we would gladly root for artificial intelligence to rid us of them, were these jobs not our only means of paying rent. We increasingly scream at one another about every cultural issue under the sun rather than deal directly with any of our economic problems, because deep down we know we can’t use capitalist democracy to make our lives better. In Russia, this level of visible misery would have to come alongside revolution. It astounds the Russians that our system can just go on like this. And yet, it can and does, in part because of their example. They are the rotting corpse of the Soviet Union, and we do not want to end up like them. We’d just like to watch their revolution on Twitter.