On 10 February 2021, Gina Carano—a former MMA fighter best known for her role in the Stars Wars spin-off The Mandalorian—was dealt what looked like a death blow to her career. No longer would she be part of the cast of Disney+’s flagship sci-fi western. The cause? Her social media posts, which since her hiring by Disney in 2018, have embraced a range of controversial positions (anti-trans, antisemitic, anti-mask) with a jouissance that often verges on Trumpian. Appropriately, given her background in Muay Thai, Carano struck back quickly. She confirmed within twenty-four hours that she’d been axed by Disney. But this was just a prelude to a new stage in her professional life, which would kick off with a new film project bankrolled by the right-wing Ben Shapiro soapbox The Daily Wire. For Shapiro himself, the deal with Carano was, among other things, about the free market: about the need to provide an “alternative” to “consumers” chagrined by Disney’s decision.
The firing of a minor actor is of little importance in itself. But the speed with which Carano’s career was recycled into the right-wing media matrix can tell us something about the way that cancel culture functions. Over the past few weeks, so we’re told, cancel culture has experienced an upsurge in the form of a second round of #MeToo oustings. But amid all this a subset of public figures have succeeded in capitalizing on the accusations levelled against them—or have at least avoided being dropped into the void. Staff at Jordan Peterson’s publisher Random House Canada issued multiple complaints about the publication of his new book, Beyond Order. But teary accounts of their radicalized relatives did nothing to affect the publication of Beyond Order—except perhaps provide a proof of concept and thus a PR boost. Donald Trump continues to enjoy the support of the vast majority of Republicans in spite of his racist outbursts and strongman antics—or, more probably, because of them. And Gina Carano has a new film deal. Taken collectively, these episodes suggest that cancel culture is only as effective as the consumer markets that support it.
Cartographies of Cancellation
To understand why cancel culture cuts unequally it helps to understand what it is. Néstor de Buen’s article “An Alternative Take on Cancel Culture” draws on Marxian theorists like Fredric Jameson and Mark Fisher to argue that cancel culture is not a fad but inherent to the structure of contemporary capitalism. The less pervasive capitalism of the past permitted a division between one’s public and private lives, in which the latter was regarded as irrelevant to value accumulation and thus off limits for criticism. Today’s total subsumption of reality by capital means that this divide is no longer tenable. If one breathes, one is accountable to capital. With Carano, Disney made a simple calculation: that her conservative free speech was likely to do more to erode Disney+’s 94.5 million-strong subscriber base than to grow it. And so she got the boot.
De Buen’s article is essential reading. But he does not follow his thesis through to its logical conclusion. If cancel culture reflects the desires of consumers, then it follows that it is not as monolithic as it is often presented—that the imposition of standards upon the behaviour of public figures depends on the size of the consumer base that supports those impositions. The liberal arts-educated middle class professionals at Penguin Random House in Toronto may squirm at the prospect of publishing Peterson’s new Nietzsche-citing self-help book. Drawing attention to the dangerousness of his views, however, won’t make an iota of difference: this is his entire brand, on the back of which Penguin stands to make millions. Donald Trump does not work in the private sector, but he does come from it, and his success in politics owes much to the consumerization of political discourse. As his political image presupposes opposition to liberal elites, the supposed architects of cancel culture, he is effectively uncancellable. Carano’s career, by contrast, is quite precarious. She rose to fame as an appendage of Disney, not because of her willingness to defy the rules of liberal decorum. Nevertheless, a string of bigoted tweets have caused her to be seen not as a lone individual in need of discipline, but as someone with the potential to appeal to an (in Shapiro’s words) “alternative” market.
American consumer society is comprised of many markets based on age, race, gender, class, etc. Politically however, America has only two major markets. One of these is relatively liberal, woke, urban, multiracial and well educated. The other is relatively right-wing, anti-woke, rural, white and poorly educated. Certain cultural mediums cater more to one or the other. The consumer base of country music or professional wrestling, for instance, falls into the latter category, while that of indie music or literary fiction falls into the former. Many of the biggest mediums are difficult to pin down with respect to this partition: take Disney films or hip-hop, which have attracted significant derision from both sides at various points.
Which political market a cultural producer depends upon has a great impact on what they can say. When the Dixie Chicks declared that they were “ashamed” that President George W. Bush is from Texas, they were instantly blacklisted from thousands of country stations, and their ticket and concert sales nosedived. Similarly, the backlash against Jordan Peterson has less to do with what he says than the context in which he says it: an academic setting that is liberal both in terms of its “consumers” (in the arts, mostly female students from upper-income backgrounds) as well as in terms of the personnel who staff it. Within this context, Peterson—a man whose academic bona fides are rather slack—would probably not have been elevated to the scholarly star circuit. His commercial masterstroke was to find an audience elsewhere—among millions of discontented young men, who reliably fork over their hard-earned cash for his books and lectures.
While America has two major political markets, they are not equally powerful. The most privileged producers and consumers of culture tend to err on the liberal side—something which generates a disconnect between domestic markets and media representation. It is often bemoaned that America was so baldly racist in the early ’80s that videos by blacks artists were blown off by MTV prior to the arrival of the physically and commercially transracial phenomenon of Michael Jackson. Less remarked is that country music was subject to a similar marginalization, having been excluded from the Billboard Hot 100 and having had its sales serially underestimated by record store owners prior to the mainlining of the quasi-scientific metric of SoundScan. Second, while the conservative side of the American market partition exerts a great deal of power in America, the sorts of mediums that unambiguously belong to it tend to lack popularity abroad. Indeed, in many ways the partition between left and right, international and national political markets is only fully realised as a consequence of globalization. For the expansion of international markets put the American cultural industry in a position where it stood to make a great deal of profit—provided it pitched to an international audience (think Michael Jackson recording songs in Spanish or French, or Disney’s multicultural turn with films like Mulan and Aladdin). One consequence of this is that the right-wing side of the American market was able to capitalize on the neglect of certain images and motifs by more internationally minded cultural producers, and position themselves as purveyors of particularly American products.
The Bourgeois Dissensus
The gravitational pull of the international market, and the need to maintain a cosmopolitan image to appeal to it, means that when compelled to choose between the two political markets—as Disney was with Carano—companies tend to opt for the liberal, international one. Yet this raises the question of why it has so often been the case in the past few years that companies not known for their pontification on political matters have been forced to make these choices: why the culture war has reached such a fever pitch. The sharp partition between right and left cultural markets of late is not suggestive of an apocalyptic struggle between good and evil (cancellation is “helping us build the X-wing to take down their Death Star,” Shapiro said of Carano’s firing by Disney). Rather, it reflects a dissensus amongst the American bourgeoisie. Since the advent of neoliberalism with Reagan, the tech and finance sectors have increasingly used the rents they suck up from all over the world to push American policy further in the direction of globalization. Still, not all of them wish to continue unreservedly in this direction. Heavy industries unable to outsource large numbers of jobs to China or Mexico have suffered due to the influx of cheap goods from abroad. Natural resource industries are existentially threatened by the possibility of international action against climate change. And the military—America’s most important welfare program—has had its purview reduced by austerity policies introduced after the end of the Cold War, even as war continues to be an inexorable part of American life.
Both Republicans and Democrats are responsible for the implementation of pro-globalization policies. Nevertheless, the particular genius of Donald Trump was his ability to exploit the rift between the Republican Party’s pro-internationalist stance and the nationalist, Yankee Doodle (or Dixie Doodle) rhetoric it regularly employed. The term cuckservative, often lobbed by Trump supporters at his conservative opponents means one who talks populist, but legislates globalist. For decades prior to his election, Trump insisted that the globalizing policies pursued by US administrations were “killing” US firms. Not until after the sustained economic crisis that kicked off in 2007–08—and the related closure of large numbers of domestically centralized enterprises—was Trump able to construct a political coalition to support this agenda. This meant, on one hand, lobbying companies to his side who were opposed or at least lukewarm to the impact of accelerated internationalization, and, on the other, attracting voters who had suffered economically as a consequence of it—or at least felt that they had.
Trump’s success in 2016, of course, didn’t just have to do with policy details. It also had a deeply cultural aspect. Republicans in the past had willingly taken advantage of the fissure separating right and left political markets. In the ’80s, Ronald Reagan styled himself as the political counterpart of quintessentially American beefcakes such as Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Springsteen (inadvertently drawing the ire of the latter, a lifelong liberal). While earlier Republicans had always stopped short of criticising global elites, for fear of derailing the political status quo upon which they depended, Trump blew gleefully by that line. There are two kinds of Americans for Trump—those who prefer the white mythology of Gone With the Wind, and those who prefer the demi-Marxist Korean art hit Parasite. That Gone With the Wind is far older than Parasite, that it has attracted virulent criticism in recent years for its celebration of a vanquished Southern slave-owning paradise, is decisive to this equation. Trump’s marketing pitch is fundamentally aimed at the losers from globalization, those losers who would be winners if not for a world in which topsy-turvy standards prevail. Trump’s status as a winner and a loser at the same time, his grotesque wealth magnified by grotesque behaviour that makes him anathema to liberal aesthetes, also left him ideally poised to lead this coalition. Trump is both ego-ideal and object of embarrassment—a “self-made businessman” who hails from the super-rich and won’t abandon them, as well the openly chauvinistic relic of an imagined past many of his supporters are eager to reclaim.
Partitions such as these are not uncommon. In the 1930s, the Nazis were able to exploit the rift between the manufacturers of the Harzburg Front and internationalist firms such as Siemens to catapult themselves to power. But Trump is not a convincing full-blown fascist because American global capital is far more developed than German global capital was after World War I. From 2016–20, Trump was therefore forced to comply with many of the diktats of the pro-internationalist wing of American capital, while simultaneously positioning himself as an advocate of the more nationalist one. Fossil fuel firms were rapturous when he withdrew from the Paris accords, just as the tariffs he slapped on China were a boon to domestic manufacturers. These sorts of actions also explain why tech firms, which are deeply international in character, didn’t mind censoring Trump. Just ask yourself: is Mark Zuckerberg closer to or further from accessing the Chinese market than he was before Trump’s sabre-rattling with the Middle Kingdom? Still, Trump’s unwillingness to discipline firms like Amazon that erase jobs while offshoring their fortunes and his hollowing out of the Dodd-Frank Act show that he knew the limits of his nationalist uprising.
The Blind Spot of Cancel Culture
Trump didn’t fundamentally change American society: he just disturbed its status quo enough to receive a great deal of pushback. Sometimes, this pushback came from internationalist firms. At other times, it took the form of a more generalized opposition to individuals who could be tagged with the kinds of synonyms—sexist, xenophobic, homophobic—that Trumpism seemed to represent. Nor is it a coincidence that cancel culture rarely succeeds in cancelling actual conservatives. Those who dwell within the right-national political market aren’t nearly as conditioned as those in the left-international one to find fault with the expression of patriarchal prejudice. This means that attempts to cancel conservatives tend to come from the outside—from liberals who take issue with their actions. But attacks levelled from the outside aren’t likely to achieve their desired effects, as they don’t excise the offending individuals from the market upon which they depend.
One of the ways in which liberals have attempted to deal with this conundrum is by portraying the values that cancel culture seeks to impose as beyond ideology—as issuing from a common decency that people of all political stripes can and should support. This idea fits well with the fact that those cancelled are rarely conservatives, for lack of market support. If the left is willing to try to cancel Woody Allen or Al Franken, so the line goes, then why won’t the right jettison Jordan Peterson or Donald Trump? The universalist narrative lacks overall credibility, however. Cancel culture has sometimes been weaponized to advance an agenda beholden to capital (consider the ridiculous attempts by Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren to impugn the anti-sexist credentials of Bernie Sanders). Its preoccupation with questions of race and gender, coupled with its unconcern for economic inequality, also betray an adherence to an unspoken axiom of the neoliberal left: that one can speak of gender or race, but never of social class. Or as Slavoj Žižek has asked, why is Louis C.K. roundly sanctioned for having shown a few women his penis, while the serial evasion of taxes by U2 has no impact on their public profile?
This blind spot is in a way understandable. Cancel culture depends largely on the adjudication of social justice by self-interested private firms. So it’s far from clear that it could commit itself to addressing economic inequality—what is Disney’s board of shareholders going to do, cancel itself? Yet perhaps this impasse attests to the need to rethink the activist commitments of the left. Cancelling racists or sexists in high-profile cultural fields might make the environment more hospitable for the women or minorities that toil within them. But it’s not likely to alleviate the excess unwaged labour women are compelled to perform, or enlarge a black middle class that hasn’t grown since the mid-’70s.
By focusing on rectifying individual wrongdoing at the expense of redistribution, the left doesn’t just deprive itself of the means to tackle the root causes of racism and sexism. It also risks looking indifferent to the obstacles confronted by most Americans. The right knows this, of course—hence the constant refrain that liberals are out of touch elites. If the left persists in ignoring class, cancellation will continue—but it may boomerang, and the cancellers may become the cancelled.