Artillery Row

Ironic fascism

Taboo-breaking counterculture paved the way for the return of the very fascism it claimed to subvert

Starship Troopers is all over Twitter, whether you wanted to think about schlocky 90s sci fi movies or not. Why things go viral once had a certain humanistic mystery to them — why did this gesture or that funny video catch the imagination of people at the time? Now, in the depressing age of algorithmically manipulated outrage, something goes viral because it gets people screaming at each other.

Made in 1997, the film caused controversy at the time, with defenders, including its director, Paul Verhoeven, trying to claim it was a satire of fascism, whilst critics suggested that it was in effect a straightforward celebration of militarism, intentional or not. Imagining a future society besieged by insect-like aliens, in which citizenship was premised on military service, matters were further complicated by the film’s original subject matter — the book of the same name by Robert Heinlein — being a solemn critique of the moral decline of American society. The controversy around the film was revived in the past few days, but with a twist: right wingers were pushing death of the author theory to claim it as a celebration of lusty martial values, whilst left wingers were sneering ferociously at all the right wing chuds missing the point. 

Starship Troopers is the perfect fodder for our cynical digital culture war, because it serves as a kind of Rorschach test, like the infamous dress, that appeared to half of viewers as blue and black, and white and gold to the other. In 2015, this was basically fun and silly, nothing rested on the dress, no moral judgement, just comically fierce disputations about our not-so-shared perception of reality. Now, memes take off by perfectly bisecting audiences along culture war lines, stirring up mutual political denunciations, and creating two rival versions of reality. 

So is the film a satire? In one sense it hardly matters. The point of such viral moments is to stoke division and attack the other side, feeling the warm glow of tribal unity in the process, with a joyous kick of schadenfreude at beating up the opposition to go with it. If you’re looking for an allegory of totalitarianism, you need look no further than people (on both sides, for the avoidance of doubt) participating in a two minutes hate courtesy of modern social media. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, and neither side can be allowed to win.

Part of the problem, of course, is our sliding definitions of fascism. For left wingers far from swift to denounce Soviet totalitarianism, straightforwardly identifying it with oppressive, irrational autocracy was unappealing, and provided little ammunition for attacking conservatives basically wedded to liberal democracy. A plausible line of attack was excessive glorification of the army and police; but this swiftly morphed into much vaguer critiques of masculinity, honour culture, paternalism, religion and capitalism as inherently oppressive and fascistic. 

The silliness of modern anti-fascism is evident in the film itself, which involved a highly gratuitous co-ed shower scene, defended by the director as a satire on fascism: “The idea I wanted to express was that these so-called advanced people are without libido. Here they are talking about war and their careers and not looking at each other at all! It is sublimated because they are fascists.” 

Whilst sophisticated literary treatments of totalitarianism — such as Brave New World and We — rightly see sex and pornography as potential tools of social control, directors keen to push boundaries have seized on the idea that sexual “repression” is a form of fascism. And if this is so, extreme sexual content is some kind of liberatory inoculant against authoritarianism. An explosion of fascination with psychology, and pseudoscientific ideas such as “the authoritarian personality” added fuel to the fire. Centuries old taboos and laws around sexuality were overturned in the name of expunging a 20th century ideology that, ironically, itself trampled over religious and sexual norms. 

The explosion of on-screen sex and violence … has acted as a social opiate

Filmmakers, like Verhoeven himself, who directed the infamously explicit (and infamously bad) film Showgirls, relished the opportunity to sell sex in the name of vaguely subverting or satirising authoritarianism, fascism, and capitalism. Though Verhoeven sniffily complains Americans are shocked by nudity whilst revelling in violence, he’s happy to dish out ultraviolence too, in the name of irony — a cinematic strategy much admired by the equally crass Quentin Tarintino. 

The explosion of on-screen sex and violence, which has shifted increasingly from film to TV, has not created sharp-minded, critical audiences capable of confronting or deconstructing ideology. Instead, predictably, it has acted as a social opiate, leaving audiences more, not less, open to propagandistic messages and media manipulation. A generation of young men who have grown up consuming the sort of media produced by Verhoeven and Tarantino are ripe for ideological reprogramming. This has taken the form of a hyper-consumerised population — the “soyboys” — addicted to Marvel movies, fast food, pop culture and porn, but also, in the supreme irony, a rebirth of fascism. 

In the absence of any serious left wing critique of a hypersexualised and individualistic culture, authoritarianism has obvious appeal

Wrapped in irony and camp as thick as any dished out by Verhoeven, the world of chuds, chads, trads, incels, frogs and groypers is a mess of ideologies, stewing in a broth of extreme content. Whilst the high-brow taboo-breaking of progressive artists is sold as serving anodyne liberalism, a subterranean world of young men online pursue, quite naturally, ideological taboo breaking. By repressing ideology in the same way they accused conservatives of repressing sexuality, they paved the way for fascism to remerge as a countercultural force, concealed and coded by the cynical and nihilistic irony promoted in subversive art.

Ironic internet fascism is not going to usher in the real thing anytime soon — which after all tended to rely on military officers, industrialists and millions of politically organised workers, not teenagers lying around in their pants — but it doesn’t make it harmless. In the absence of any serious left wing critique of a hypersexualised and individualistic culture, authoritarianism has obvious appeal. 

Liberalism as a system of virtues and ideals is fast being killed off. It survives as a procedural system to manage a society fractured along lines of race, class, sex, geography and religion. With classical liberal idealism dead on both censorious left and populist right, expect more gaming of the system, more rhetorical abandonment of unwritten niceties and norms, more wielding of the administrative state against political rivals and foes. The post-modern embrace of totalitarian aesthetics won’t serve to resurrect the dead ideas of communism and fascism, but it will help authorise and accelerate the adoption of an increasingly totalitarian fusion of liberal state and market.

Missing in the current reception of Starship Troopers, both sincere and satirical, is Heinlein’s original message — republics live and die by the virtue of their citizens. Fantasies of violence, sexual solipsism and pervasive cynicism are poison to this project. Democracy may not fall in our lifetime, but the liberal republic is already on its way out.

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