• Benjamin Miller

Is Capitalism Really the Virus?

I love stickers on lamp posts, posters on bulletin boards, and graffiti messages on concrete walls. From the conspiratorial to the inspirational, few things embody the grassroots intervention individuals can make in the public square like these pithy messages that sometimes reach thousands.

What's more, they're every bit as susceptible to long-term rhetorical analysis as other more expensive and apparently "sophisticated" communications campaigns. So I don't know why it has taken me so long to write a blog post about a sticker I have long seen around my neighbourhood.

The sticker I'm thinking of says "capitalism is the virus" and shows a COVID-19 molecule and a needle.

Here are my initial thoughts about why this sticker teaches us clumsy ham-fisted rhetorical strategies can be useful sometimes.

At first glance, I thought this was a terrible sticker. It seemed opportunistic and ill-fitted. What specifically about a virus were they analogizing to capitalism? Furthermore, why analogize it to a virus? A virus calls for particular kinds of social response, most notably giving central importance to medical decision-makers. Was the anti-capitalist author really trying to channel this response? The answer is "probably not". Basically everything distinctive about a virus seems irrelevant. At least to the lay audience, there appears to be no obvious analogy in the alleged problem or possible solution presents itself.

Seems like a poor use of the normative force behind virus.

I was left with the feeling the author was just bandwagon jumping. If there is a more subtle point then probably a sticker wasn't the right medium in the first place. So why bother analogize with the virus at all?

At a simple level, it seems to me the equation must be something like this "virus=bad" we want people to think "capitalism=bad" therefore "capitalism=virus".

It's easy to turn up your nose at this kind of ham-fisted communications strategy. It's much more elegant and targeted when you can use "the whole word" as opposed to just one aspect of it. But the thing to remember is that things like slogans and stickers succeed not necessarily because of the quality or precision of their argument but how quickly and easily they can be repeated. The ability to quickly associate any hot button issue with capitalism eventually impresses on people the feeling that all problems can be traced back to capitalism. And this is a goal I'm sure the author had.

I have recently gotten the feeling that certain kinds of rhetoric can become like public slush funds when they gain a lot of attention and public support quickly, the pandemic and anti-racist language are two great examples of this lately. Everyone from genuine activists to opportunistic companies dip into them more or less appropriately to accomplish whatever other purpose they had in mind. It's like people were waiting outside Troy trying to get in every way they can when someone came rolling down a hill in a big wooden horse on the way to some other war. They figure, "ah there's momentum behind that horse! We may as well borrow it."

There may of course be social costs to using certain rhetoric when the link really feels forced, but if the goal is just to keep your issue on people's minds then a curious and anonymous association could be just what you need to turn heads (at least this one! ... though I'm hardly a representative sample.). So even if it might seem super obvious what you're up to, go ahead and jump in the horse when you think the time is right.

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