“If this post gets 10,000 upvotes, I’ll get Mutti tattooed on my ass!” announced Reddit user Errk_ fu in June, linking to a portrait of Angela Merkel.
In the r/neoliberal subreddit, “Mutti,” the German word for mother, has emerged as an affectionate shorthand for the embattled chancellor, a European centrist. In the months since Fu issued his offer, he’s easily raked in more than enough upvotes—27,000 in total—to seal his fate. Right now, he’s drumming up support on a GoFundMe to finance an extensive, uniquely globalist posterior portrait. “$500,000. Full butt piece, neoliberal memes throughout,” to include “Bernke,” an in-house nickname for former American Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, an illuminati eye, and taco trucks. For $1,000,000, he’ll add a “highly explicit (in good taste) portion devoted to Trudeau and Macron.”
This is the kind of excess that gives r/neoliberal its character. Fu’s butt tattoo is the most horrific and high-effort example, but as always, shitposting contains multitudes. In a single week alone, you can find a repurposed Tyler, The Creator tweet decrying rent control, a Spongebob meme translating the established market’s dread as Bitcoin spikes in value, a haughty webcomic comparing kids getting seduced by socialism to moths buzzing towards a kill-lamp, and a starter pack for anarcho-capitalist goons.
One of r/neoliberal’s favorite targets is another subreddit called r/latestagecapitalism, where Howard Zinn-reading teenagers bemoan the shortcomings of the American healthcare system and the federal minimum wage. For example: Mr. Krabs losing his mind over the anniversary of Castro’s death. Or Karl Marx wiping the sweat from his brow as he stares down at two buttons: one labeled “capitalism doesn’t work because people are selfish,” the other, “people will work for the common good in a socialist society.”
Aesthetically, these jokes are right in line with the gleeful zealotry found elsewhere on the political spectrum—part of an aggressive partisan shift that was only exacerbated by Trump’s rise. Many of these movements use similar sensibilities to communicate their political stances online. It’s in rosebud-adorned Left Twitter and Chapo Patreon comments, where freshly-minted radicals have established a new language for a generation raised on memes. Its far-right analog lives in racist Discord channels, generating white nationalist Pepes. Frankly, it was only a matter of time before the perturbed neoliberals wanted to have the same fun.
“Neoliberalism” is a famously abused term, but fundamentally it refers to the bipartisan laissez-faire economic standard embraced by every U.S. president in recent memory. Neoliberalism favors an unburdened free market, austerity measures, privatization, and globalized trade deals—all of which make it less of a sectoral party preference, and more like a late-capitalist operating baseline. That wasn’t always the case; there was a time before the Reagan ‘80s where neoliberal policy was considered genuinely extreme. Today it’s more of a shorthand for a privatization-friendly status quo.
The Neoliberal subreddit itself has existed for years, one of the thousands of barren, long-abandoned forums on the internet. Its boosters have rarely needed a staging ground or a place for solidarity, and that probably would still be the case if Hillary Clinton were president. Unfortunately for the neoliberal base, Hillary Clinton is not president. In 2016 the “globalists cucks” were handed an earthshaking defeat, and the building blocks of neoliberal philosophy are under attack from both the Breitbart and Bernie wings of the political landscape. And those supposedly fringe alternatives have energized a huge swath of young people who’ve been left cold by the traditional conception of western economics.
It’s hard to stand toe-to-toe with the newfound fashionability of socialism, but r/neoliberal is doing its damndest to make globalism cool again.
MrDannyOcean, one of the subreddit’s moderators, knows what he’s up against. He’s not the first or the last person to try and re-normalize a civic culture that’s gone haywire. “If there’s going to be a bounce-back” to neoliberalism, “it will probably have to brand itself as a ‘return to sanity’ or something similar,” he explains. In the past, invoking a “returning to sanity” would constitute a bipartisan caucus or a Jon Stewart-ordained rock concert. Now, the neoliberals are embracing the language of politicized memes.
The resuscitation of r/neoliberal began in earnest this past February, shortly after the Trump inauguration, when a small cadre of self-identified neoliberals requested access to the subreddit’s moderation tools. The goal was to turn the dead forum into the foremost symposium for centrists around the world—the alleged silent majority of internet lurkers who felt alienated by both Jeremy Corbyn and Steve Bannon.
One of those interlopers is MrDannyOcean, who first made his name on a different subreddit called r/BadEconomics, where “an economics-grad-student-ish crowd” wields the piousness of the free market to scorn bad math on the extreme right and left. They will lampoon a poorly calculated argument against corporate tax cuts; they will demonstrate exactly why a border tariff does not (nor ever will) add up to Mexico paying for the wall.
Ocean, who asked to be quoted as his Reddit moniker, explains that he had a distinct vision for r/neoliberal’s rebirth. The term was thrown around so much after the election, why not lean into the momentum? “The goals were multifaceted,” he says. “First, to have a place to joke around and have fun, but also to have a place for serious discussion of politics, policy, and empirical research.”
By the spring of this year, the subreddit had emerged as the de facto online water-cooler for young people who still put their trust in the dominant 20th-century economic policies. When Ocean and his posse took over, r/neoliberal had less than 100 subscribers. Today, that number has spiked to 25,000. The moderators keep the community lively and well-stocked, with a curated schedule of discussion topics and an online book club. (At the moment they’re reading The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford.) To a certain extent, Ocean’s approximation of the subculture he’s fostered is correct. His forum is an environment where defused, collegiate economic dialogue can take place—like this thread in support of the Labour Party’s land value tax.
But the most popular posts, and the ones that routinely make it to the front page of Reddit, are the memes. They mimic the humor you’d find on the far right and left—almost as if they’re a plea that neoliberalism can be just as funny and energizing as the ends of the ideological spectrum. That’s not an accident, says a 27-year-old frequent contributor with the Reddit username Bropeth914. “When [the subreddit] started, it was a parody of all those other groups,” he explains over the phone.
This makes sense when you consider how blurred the boundaries between parody and earnest political commentary have become in 2017, as with the @dril-indebted discourse that’s sprouted out of the Democratic Socialists of America base. Insanely, an efficient way to describe your political allegiance is through a meme like milkshake duck. An adjacent force turned Pepe from a cartoon frog into an international hate symbol in a short few years.
R/neoliberal, on the other hand, was birthed after the alt-right and Twitter’s endless news-cycle ascended, and it comes off like a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek response to those trends. As a political platform, neoliberalism doesn’t carry the same venom or rage, as, say, the eternal labor struggle in the U.S. Sure, you can find some craven neocon shit, but there’s also plenty of platform #resistance-howling that’s just as tiresome as what you might find on your aunt’s Facebook page. (“It’s Mueller Time!”)
It’s only natural that a neoliberal take on online dada-ism would come off a tad hollow and borrowed. And Ocean himself regards the memes as little more than a strategic gateway to welcome newcomers to the more serious economic threads. It’s a typical neoliberal gambit, really: finding a niche and exploiting the market.
“We want to use the jokes and memes to get attention and draw others into the subreddit, and then hopefully educate and promote serious discussion once they’re here,” he says. “The goal is to keep a good balance of silly and serious.”
It’s fascinating that as the American political spectrum feels more volatile than ever before, with a newly impassioned base organizing around a federal living wage and single-payer health insurance, there is still a population of 20-somethings among us who feel compelled to fight for corporate capitalism. This is a cause Ocean takes very, very seriously. Beyond the memes, beyond the boneheaded economic debates, and beyond any lingering shreds of irony, he tells me his collective maintains an unshakable faith in neoliberalism.
“The last several hundred years of capitalism based on markets and private profit has produced the greatest leap forward in human history,” he says over email, annotating each of his points with hyperlinked statistics. “World poverty rates have plummeted for 200 years straight, by whichever definition of poverty you choose. While national inequality has been increasing and is troubling, global inequality has decreased greatly. We live in the healthiest, richest, most educated, most democratic time in human history. We fundamentally believe that the capitalist neoliberal paradigm works.”
All bold claims, when the one-percent claims ownership of half the world’s wealth, and when U.N. officials are touring across Alabama to investigate the state’s vast economic disparity.
But for the first time since the end of World War II, the neoliberals are out of power. The president of the United States ran on a platform of tariffs and isolationism, and the Clinton Democrats are in a shattered disarray. You sense a righteous conviction in Ocean’s words—for the first time, he’s been forced to make an argument for centrism. That’s a tall order, because as he admits himself, neoliberalism is kind of uninspiring.
“There’s a sense in which it’s easy to market yourself when you’re towards the extremes on any side,” says Ocean. “It’s much harder to market the idea that the world is a complex place and sometimes policy involves tough trade-offs.” It’s not “sexy or attention-getting,” he says, to point out that the world is “getting better”—“but not for everyone, so we should make some technocratic adjustments to X, Y, and Z programs which we think research suggests would fix the problem.”
“You fell asleep halfway through that sentence,” he observes.
Maybe someday the country will come back around to Ocean’s thinking. In the meantime, the neoliberals are planning Merkel tattoos and trying to meme back the status quo.