How Meme Culture Is Getting Teens into Marxism

On social media, youths are seizing the memes of production to prove that continental philosophy isn't just an academic abstraction.

Hannah Ballantyne

Images courtesy of Facebook/SassySocialistMemes

During his final year of high school, Myles was voted "Comedian of the Year," an accolade he received for being an admin on his school's Facebook meme page. Under his careful curation, inside jokes and gossip ran rampant, earning him the title.

Now 18 and studying journalism, Myles is a part of the growing movement of teenagers worldwide creating and sharing their own esoteric, leftist political memes on Facebook, Reddit, and Tumblr. "I love the way memes can brilliantly explain a huge political issue in a simple way," says Myles.

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"I mean obviously memes aren't the be-all and end-all of political engagement, but they can often help explain and engage young people in a discourse that they get shut out of. I once saw this great meme from Sassy Socialist Memes that epitomized a really thoughtful criticism of economic rationalism.

"It was one of those 'funny because it's true' moments."

There is much dispute and criticism around the use of so-called dank memes in the political arena; some feel they are overbearingly layered with irony, or prone to re-appropriating theory out of context. On the flip side, as Myles points out, they make political theory digestible. Memes are also undeniably accessible and democratic: memers make content on their own terms, and in doing so seize "the means of production."

Images courtesy of Facebook/SassySocialistMemes

"A lot of people don't have time to write a whole article or make a whole stand-up special really getting into the grit of political conversations," agrees Susie, 18, an English Literature student and LGBTQ activist. "But most people have time to make a meme.

"Also, a lot of political meme culture I follow incorporates stuff that I already know about, or values I already have, so it's nice to have like an in-joke with a lot of people—which is where a lot people find the fun in it."

"Like the political cartoon, which goes back two centuries to Punch magazine in the 1850s, political memes are a way for people to look at politics but to look at it askance, a little bit off centre, and that is pleasurable," writes Professor Marshall of Deakin University. "They offer a sense of personal connection and a way to instantly show your interest in an issue from a slightly removed point of view."

James*, 27, is an admin for Crunchy Continental Memes, a Leftist philosophy meme page. "If there's a takeaway for young people or activists looking at our page, it's that that continental philosophy isn't just academic abstraction," he says. "It can inform and reinforce leftist political practice in a really vital way."

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The whole thing does sometimes conflict with his worldview, though. "The problem with being an admin is that you end up seeing other people less as individual comrades, and more as potential engagements with your content, so the 'average' memer you see fades into an amorphous multitude whose only function is to reward your toil with precious likes."

Susie (not an admin) isn't worried about that. "Tagging a mate in a meme helps ease into a chat, you know?" she says over Facebook. "Memes are the opener now I guess lmao but that seems pretty good to me."