One of the most consistent themes through the works of Ludwig von Mises is the role ideas play in shaping society. As he wrote in Theory and History:
“Thoughts and ideas are not phantoms. They are real things. Although intangible and immaterial, they are factors in bringing about changes in the realm of tangible and material things.”
How those ideas are transmitted has changed dramatically over time: from reliance on the spoken word, to the spread of print, to the rise of television, and to today’s digital word. Even within each era, new forms of communication have arisen. For example, print transformed from a privilege of noble elites to a medium created for the masses. Today’s age of digital communication is one that is constantly changing, but there is one phenomenon that may be particularly useful in the battle of ideas: online memes.
While by now most people are familiar with the word “meme,” there is still some misunderstanding on exactly what one is.
The term “meme” actually originated with the work of Richard Dawkins on human evolution, though the phrase took on a life of its own in the age of the internet. Memes are images created with the purpose of communicating some sort of idea, whether trivial or profound. While the targeted audience of a meme can be broad, the images often require some sort of pre-existing knowledge of a pop-cultural reference or trope. Like other forms of comedy, a meme also has its own form of internal logic. Just as the iconic cartoonist Chuck Jones constrained himself to a certain set of rules when creating Bugs Bunny cartoons, a successful meme often follows a recognizable pattern in order to make a point.
By building off these understood formulas, memes even have the ability to transcend cultural and national barriers. As the third example demonstrates, one can understand the political message being made simply by recognizing the image’s format.
Online viral images have been around as long as there’s been an internet, but the past few years have seen them become increasingly important in political movements. Most notably, memes became a particular source of pride among the alt-right, which provided an online activist wing to Donald Trump’s campaign and other nationalist movements across the globe. As Trump continued to find shocking success in American politics, this online community began describing their efforts as “meme magic.” In spite of the name, there is obviously nothing supernatural about this phenomenon. What we are actually seeing is simply a new form of warfare in the battle of ideas.
While the success of Trump’s campaign made meme magic famous and brought forth an entertainingly convoluted internal narrative, it is not the only political movement to be impacted from memes. Bernie Sanders gained national headlines thanks to the work of his own “memelords.” Other politicians have actively sought to “ban” them. While memes have also been used to promote libertarian ideas such as “taxation is theft” in America, they seem to be having an even greater impact in areas such as Latin America. Reason’s mini-documentary on Brazil’s libertarian movement touches on the power memes have had in spreading the ideas of freedom in traditionally leftist countries, something I’ve heard frequently when talking with South American students during Mises University.
There is a key common thread with all of these and other examples of particularly potent political memes: the ideas being communicated are outside of the mainstream. After all, the best sort of memes tend to be those that trigger some sort of reaction, which is difficult to do by restricting yourself within the confines of common thought and opinion. There was not much demand for memes promoting Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush even when we were being force-fed them through the mainstream media. Meme culture has become largely defined by its hostility to political correctness, sometimes with real life consequences for their creators.
This actually fits in with Ludwig von Mises’s understanding of the impact of ideas in society. As he wrote in The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science:
“The ideas that change the intellectual climate of a given environment are those unheard of before.”
While in the book he is specifically talking about original ideas, the repackaging of thoughts long outside of the mainstream can have a similar impact. After all, some of the Austrian school’s most radical insights were the rediscovery of truths understood by ancient great thinkers. So for memes to be effective, they don’t have to contain original thoughts, they must simply be effective in communicating the sort of ideas that won’t be seen in more traditional mediums.
As such, it is not surprising to see memes being the medium of choice for online reactionaries, anarchists, and others whose world view stands athwart the status quo. It also explains why the Austrian school’s monarch of memes is the one least discussed by the various libertarian beltway organizations: Hans-Hermann Hoppe.
In conclusion, while it is easy to dismiss much of the trends the internet has created, it is important to recognize the impact they do have on culture. We have already seen social media play significant roles in toppling standing governments, and the visual use of propaganda is obviously nothing new. As Mises understood, the hope for a freer future depends on winning the battle of hearts and minds:
“Everything that happens in the social world in our time is the result of ideas. Good things and bad things. What is needed is to fight bad ideas.”
In today’s world, that would include meme warfare. So to speak.