Hipster Irony and Capitalism

Hipsters are (really annoying) people too

by Anne Russell

Any attempt to write about what hipsters are will inevitably risk being regarded as a hipster-ish exercise. There’s a scholarly sense of superiority involved in taking the time to write about what is usually seen as one of society’s more superficial aspects. An atom has some mass, but is mostly empty space with the appearance of solidity, due to how fast its electrons spin. The same is true of the hipster: there are particular parts of a person’s character that mark them as hipsterish, but it cannot constitute a solid identity. In fact, the hipster is not a subjectively chosen identity. It exists mostly in the eye of the beholder, and once recognised as being an individual human with a complex identity, and the usual insecurities and aspirations, an accused hipster ceases to exist. N+1’s book What Was The Hipster? A Sociological Investigation admits this to some degree, opening with: “All descriptions of hipsters are doomed to disappoint, because they will not be the hipsters you know.”

Where did all it begin? Marty Jezer described the postwar hipster world of Kerouac and Ginsberg as being “an amorphous movement without ideology, more a pose than an attitude; a way of “being” without attempting to explain why.” This poseurish quality is why “hipster” is usually a pejorative term, and why most people do not self-identify as hipsters. After all, who could witness their own full and chaotic internal life, and then join an identity group that fundamentally lacks substance?

Although people understood to be hipsters may experience fleeting discrimination to some degree, the structural oppression and subsequent community required to create a subculture is absent. Studies do not show that hipsters receive 12.5% lower pay than non-hipsters, and thus hipster rights movements do not need to exist. Trayvon Martin and many others were shot for being black, but it’s unlikely that anyone will be shot for having an indie record collection; so, no Hipster Power group has risen. A cultural movement like punk rock at least nominally tends to associate itself with explicit anti-establishment ideology, including anti-capitalism, but, when political at all, hipsters tend to express their politics through product purchase. Privilege is central to being a hipster, yet it manages to masquerade as a subculture. As a friend put it: “We’ve finally managed to turn middle class white kids with good educations into the subaltern.”

This misunderstanding of hipsters as part of a subculture has led to the specious hunt for who is or isn’t a hipster – as though any hipsterish person will put up their hand when asked. But the indignant cry of “I’m not a hipster!” resembles offended responses to being labeled a misogynist or a racist. Those wishing to deconstruct ideologies like misogyny do not start with the question “Who is a misogynist?”, because doing so would merely usher in vague descriptors of people who talk over women, and who make sexist jokes. For that reason, in her article on hipster misogyny, Natalie Reed argues that it is a mistake to label anyone A Sexist—by definition this would mean that some people are Not A Sexist, and therefore immune to perpetuating sexism:

There really isn’t any such thing as “sexists”, “transphobes”, “racists”, etc. There are only actions, statements and beliefs that are sexist, transphobic, racist, etc. And we’re all susceptible to them. Likewise, sexism is not a social problem that can be located, isolated, quarantined and then eliminated. It is an emergent system of attitudes about sex and gender that derives its power from the bottom up, from all corners of our culture.

Are we therefore all hipsters, until none of us are? Are you talking to me?

Although most find it difficult to qualify exactly who is or isn’t a hipster, there are certain actions and statements that people recognise as hipsterish when they see them. Thus it would appear that there are causes that result in hipsterish behaviour, and hence the presence of hipsters in our culture. As with most things, the explanation is part social, part economic.

Context can be provided by comparing the emergence of hipsters in the 1940s-50s—as exemplified by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg etc—to contemporary hipsters, who reached their peak around the late 1990s to early 2000s. (Let’s call them Early and Late Hipsters.) Although Early and Late hipsters were quite different in their style, both share some common socio-economic ground. Both incarnations emerged during post-war periods in the US: the post-WWII period for early hipsters, and the post-Cold War period for late hipsters. These wars represented defeat not merely of countries but – at least nominally – of ideologies: fascism in WWII, and communism in the Cold War.

The subsequent periods were characterised by a frightening lack of ideological debate. Capitalism, with the United States as its champion, had won both the physical and the abstract battle, and its increased dominance over economic, political and cultural life seemed unquestioned. Indeed, in some ways, capitalism looked relatively functional for many Westerners at those times: the post-WWII economic boom and the housing bubble at the end of the 20th century provided a platform of economic privilege for many people.

Capitalism and its marketing is a defining feature for the Late Hipster period in particular. It’s no coincidence that people are often labelled as hipsters because of their physical appearance and their purchases; expensive clothing, vinyl record collections, kitsch accessories and so on. Fashion is a key part of being a hipster—being into a band before they became popular, and then frantically moving onto the next obscure musician—but it is also a reflection of capitalism’s drive to keep people purchasing new things. In a world dominated by commerce, the only way people are permitted to express their interests and beliefs is through their purchasing power. Everyone is now a potential customer, and everything must go.

Where once the commercial discourse openly encouraged social conformity—buying certain products to fit in with a group—advertising currently tells consumers to stand out from the crowd, to represent their individuality via consumption of particular mass-produced products. Irony, a hallmark of hipsterish behaviour, significantly comes into play here, where advertisements offer up a sort of self-deprecating look at traditional cultural tropes while flattering the viewer that they are clever enough to see through it. (Where advertising once shouted its message to everyone, now it nudges and whispers to the select few.)

Lewis Hyde once wrote that “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” The hip, world-weary dominant use of irony as a form of rebellion – e.g. Burger King adverts that say “Sometimes you gotta break the rules”—mean that what was once a tool for subversion now effectively insulates power structures. Dominant society has discovered an alarmingly effective defence mechanism, since while irony still carries an illusion of rebelliousness, it ultimately serves to stultify socio-political discourse. Anything that looks like old school prejudice—jaunty Decemberists songs about women being raped, for example—is now supposedly a knowing hark-back to those strange, olden days when bigotry overtly existed. Concerns that the ironic joke looks identical to the bigotry it is supposedly denigrating are easily dismissed as prudish or backward—you just don’t get it, honey.

If objection to existing prejudice is too uncool to voice, no alternative ideal is safe, either. A utopian picture of enlightened humanity without class divisions is an ideal shared by many progressive movements. As such, it has proved a very useful marketing demographic. Companies will co-opt almost any ideology if slapping on an anti-racist, environmentally friendly, fair-trade, feminist or pro-LGBT sticker will get the product sold. Benevolent capitalism’s appearance of progressivism says that if prejudice is over—as much of the dominant cultural discourse claims is the case— then all symbols of oppressed cultures are now up for grabs. That’s only fair, right?

True, some forms of oppression have been lifted, at least on a surface level. (Anti-Semitic remarks on television will get disapproving looks, and stickers that say “rape is not OK” are readily available for purchase.) But in the supposedly egalitarian global marketplace, the rich white man still somehow manages to buy the minorities’ accessories (commonly rendered as kitsch) first, and then re-appropriates them as chosen. The anger from minorities at flagrant misuses of their symbols still bemuses many hipsterish people. After all, they aren’t your extremist bigots, but are interested in that subculture, to a degree; they are a self-proclaimed ally. But again from Natalie Reed:

The more socially aware we become, the more we understand how bigoted we’re capable of being, and how far we have to go to be able to consider ourselves anywhere near past it. But when you know just enough to fancy yourself more aware than others, and fancy yourself incapable of fucking up, but not enough to understand just how incredibly capable you actually are of fucking up, you become even more of a problem than the totally ignorant.

Slam poets point out the contradictions of hipster racism.

The point may seem obvious, but the people labelled as hipsters generally bear a semblance of rebellion against cultural norms – one which is immensely irritating because their privilege is precisely what enables them to rebel. Jack Kerouac’s On The Road paints his adventures as a daring breakaway from society—but in a time of high unemployment, such romanticised nomadic experiences are even further from the reach of most citizens. Kerouac moved through American society as one permitted to forget that he has a body; he did not have the difficulties of navigating public space that those targeted by casual street violence—ethnic, gender, sexual minorities and so forth—must consider when travelling. Moreover, his choice to be on the road, rather than simply being homeless and/or permanently nomadic, is not available to many. Similarly, buying fair trade or vintage clothes is a privilege; only the contemporary middle class and upward are able to showcase their personal identity via products.

Although hipster privilege is easiest to spot in hipster racism, sexism and the display of wealth, it also applies to the hipster penchant for nostalgia. The past is easy to wax lyrical about, because you can never return to it, and its history is written by the victors—as such, the past is arguably an underprivileged subgroup, unable to ever fully speak for itself. Thus, the vinyl record collections of young people are hipsterish only because hipsters have an option to buy records or not, while people in the initial era of vinyl didn’t have access to mp3s. Being a hipster begins and ends as a consumer choice.

All that being said, however, the levels of wrath that hipsters receive often seem unwarranted, or misdirected. Acting hipsterish—perpetuating hipsterdom, let’s call it—tends to be a temporary behaviour for most people. Those who come across as hipsters in social situations are often just shy, unsure or merely introverted people. Our society has convinced insecure people to project coolness and a sense of superiority at all costs, which in capitalism’s current incarnation means standing apart from the very crowd that could help to ease their insecurities.

The contradictory nature of hipsterdom—racism posing as interest in other cultures, sexism in the guise of ironic self-deprecation, conformity presented as individualism, expensive clothes that look shabby etc—is similar to the contradictory nature of much of capitalist marketing. (Show your support for conservation with mass-manufactured Save The Planet T-shirts, etc.) In particular, hipsterish social insecurity masked as a superiority complex—a calculated and encouraged distance in communication—fits in neatly with the individualism and personal isolation necessary for capitalism to function. Moreover, capitalist marketing only fosters sub-cultural identification on a surface level; fuck the system, but not too much, or only in an ironic (non-threatening) fashion. Ultimately, acting like a hipster and capitalism can both be malignant addictions; they exacerbate real problems for people, while packaging themselves as the very solution to those problems.

One by-product of the 2008 recession has been to somewhat lessen the feasibility of capitalism and hipster consumerism as a sustainable ideology. The numbers of people benefiting from this economic situation are growing smaller and smaller, as high unemployment forces the middle class to join the lower class, and the upper class secedes from the rest of the population. Moreover, climate change is steadily ensuring that no one will remain part of a privileged class. Thus, the hipster’s twin essences —self-expression through product purchase, and an apolitical, ironic distance – are slipping out of reach for increasing numbers of people.

As a reaction, the past two years have seen huge waves of different kinds of activism around the world, which have given new political identities and genuine subcultures to belong to. This is not necessarily always a positive change—better that a person remain a hipster, I would argue, than to become a fascist—but it nevertheless represents a general decline in hipsters, at least in the West. (They are, however, thriving in places like South Africa and Berlin, areas which have recently experienced some economic growth.)

For the meantime, hipsterdom will remain an attitude to which everyone is susceptible. Capitalism may be growing increasingly senile, but income inequality remains a daily reality for the 99%. That group is no homogeneous mass either; its members are not rendered free from critique about other forms of privilege simply because they have some consciousness of oppression. As long as privileged people exist, and take a cursory interest in subcultures, hipsterdom will endure. And probably, many people will continue to hate hipsters. Whoever they are. I’ll know a hipster when I see them – but equally they will know that they are not a hipster. My perception of the hipster and the accused hipster themselves are icing without cake, pose without conviction, substance made mostly of empty space.