Tuesday, June 24, 2008


This word has come to mean a quirky or pithy, or otherwise temporarily engaging, idea that gets passed round the internet, like naming the music you most recently played, stating why you are or are not an atheist or Marxist, or opening a book at random and copying out a paragraph.

In other usages, it has come to be used disparagingly as a synonym for received wisdom or for the ideas of one's opponents. Dismissing something as a "right-wing meme", for example, helps avoid the tiresome task of constructing arguments powerful enough to overcome those of your opponents; it suggests that a meme is a lesser thing than an idea.

Of course, both usages are wrong. Memes aren't particular types of ideas. Memetics is the study of human culture - thought, ideas, behaviours - using analysis derived from the study of evolutionary biology. Memes are the basic units into which culture can be, arbitrarily, divided. In broad terms, it's illuminating, in detail it gets into difficulty - the units into which culture can be divided are arbitrary in a way that cells, or the body of a complex animal, are not. In short, it's a metaphor, but a very useful one.

For example, Richard Dawkins, the originator of the idea of memetics, has used it as an approach to analysing religion. Religions are complex organisms. Most have failed and are not even remembered, let alone followed; the ones that have survived have developed something comparable to an immune system. Religious belief and the power structures that have developed within religions are very vulnerable to analysis and criticism. Religions have therefore developed mechanisms for suppressing criticism.

A recent, and illuminating, misuse of the word meme can be found in this Chris Dillow post:

In many ways, it is the right’s preconceptions that are still hegemonic - for example, its use of “middle class” to mean rich, or its stigmatizing of single parents, welfare claimants, trades unionists or public sector workers.
Which raises the question. Shouldn’t we try to start an alternative hegemony?
This would not consist in more than just challenging the above preconceptions. Indeed, merely to challenge them is to lend them credence. To say “welfare claimants are not scroungers” is like a man saying “I don’t beat my wife.” It doesn‘t establish his innocence, but draws attention to suspicions.
No. What we need is something bolder, alternative memes.
I offer this as a mere start. We can never tell which memes will take and which won’t, so it’s best to spread a load of them and see what grows.
The point of these, though, is not to be explicitly “radical“ or “transgressive.” Instead, it‘s to claim that we should take for granted certain things, which only idiots or extremists would challenge; this is how the right regards the above-mentioned claims.
And don’t be hung up by the “truth.” After all, the right wasn’t when it began those successful hegemonic memes.
The point about hegemonic memes is not that they are “true“: no simple statement about people or society is ever wholly true, a fact which usually only the most fatuous pedant points out. Instead, they act as default positions - things that are believed as a matter of course by many people, and whose challengers are regarded as marginal or eccentric.
So, what will be the new hegemonic positions?
Chris does touch on the true situation with memes when he wrote, above, "We can never tell which memes will take and which won’t, so it’s best to spread a load of them and see what grows." But he's missing the broader point with the ideas he advocates. They have been around for a while. People have tried to establish cultural hegemony for them. But these attempts have failed, not because there's a vast right wing conspiracy, deliberately hatching baby memes and shooing them out into the world, but because these ideas, when viewed using the metaphor of memetics, can be seen to have been evolutionary dead ends. They haven't succeeded because they are wrong.

Not all wrong ideas fail, of course. But these ones, the particular ones mentioned by Chris, face the "your lying eyes" problem. Take the case of welfare scroungers.

I don't often regret not having thumped someone, but an exception was a bleach-blond beach bum living on the dole in Brighton, topped up by a monthly bung from his wealthy parents, who told me during a conversation about the conditions I was seeing in Glasgow's estates in the 1980s - 80% unemployment in some of these deserts of hopelessness - that things were tough down south too. Is there any way in which that twat could not be seen as a scrounger? What Chris misses, I think, is that "welfare claimants are scroungers" is not shorthand, for most people, including conservatives, for "all welfare claimants are scroungers" but rather for "some welfare claimants are scroungers" (that is, it is right to take action against those who abuse the welfare system). And some are.

Today, there are big Portuguese and Polish populations in the part of England where I live. That's great, I choose to socialise as much with them as with the English residents and they give a lot to their adopted home. But what about the English here who are on the dole? There's clearly work for many of them. I've made a point of asking questions about these issues of people in those circumstances, for a couple of decades now. During the 1980s things were different, and in Glasgow's Easterhouse estate I expect they still are, but today there's a cheerful admission from most that they are scrounging. That's not quite how it's put. It's more that if there's free money on offer they'd be mad not to take it.

Nor, incidentally, is this attitude limited to people on benefits. In a group of people here with whom I most recently had such a conversation, one person was fronting a business for his father, who declared himself bankrupt. The approach to being able to write off loads of debt yet carry on as before was much the same. Businessmen are just as prone to scrounging as anyone else. That's why we have the concept of corporate welfare.

But the point is that Dillow's "meme", which is shorthand for "no welfare claimants are scroungers" (that is, it is wrong to suggest action against those who abuse the welfare system), isn't going to take off if not even the claimants of benefits believe it. The meme is unsuccessful not because it has been pressed with insufficient enthusiasm, but because it is wrong enough of the time to be unconvincing as a generalisation.

But, as I mentioned earlier, not all wrong ideas are unsuccessful. Given enough power behind the message, given sufficiently robust suppression of dissent, wrong ideas can come to dominate a society.

That's really the problem with Chris Dillow' post. He's saying, in effect, we've lost the argument, so let's try to steamroll society into acceptance of our ideas by other means. Indeed, let's refuse all debate in the most uncompromising and dismissive terms.

That's the immune response being manifested at the moment by Islamic countries in the UN. Does socialism need an immune system? From the point of view of its supporters it does, for the same reasons as do religions.

To that extent, we can see the suggestion of Marxist memes not as a confident assertion of a view, but rather as a dying gasp.

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