The New Wave of Satire for Our Morbid Political Landscape
Satire's not dead, but it is increasingly niche.
Image via wintmp
Greg thinks of his parody Twitter account as a coping mechanism. "It's probably the only thing that's stopping me from losing my mind," he tells me. "When Twitter first started it was just a place to do silly puns and the dominant voice was comedians. Now, because of events around the world, my timeline is a rolling hellscape of despair. The dominant voice on Twitter is now the journalist."
It's hard to find a better-observed, more caustic satire of that "dominant voice" than Greg's creation: Simon Hedges (@Orwell_Fan). Presenting himself as "the authentic voice of sensible Labour" and a "Quality Journalist", Hedges is a fictional composite of broadsheet commentators who consider themselves the last voices of reason in a society polarised by extremes.
I asked Greg, who works in what he describes as "a normal office job", how he would describe his character to someone who doesn't spend their time down the rabbit hole of political Twitter: "Simon is a middle-aged newspaper journalist who still lives with his mum and hates the fact that there are left-wing people in the Labour Party and is absolutely furious that one of them is leader. In fact, he hates the fact that lefties exist at all. He thinks that they're all just pretending."
Hedges loves craft ale, George Orwell, JK Rowling and Dan Jarvis – the former paratrooper and Blairite MP about whom he's written a fan-fiction script, in which Jarvis frees the far-right cause célèbre Marine A from prison. In Hedges' mind, dealing with the dysfunctional nature of finance capital and the disintegration of Labour's voting base simply involves turning back the clock to 1997.
"These are people with no ideas, no analyses, no real policies," says Greg. "It's a shallow-minded Aaron Sorkinesque [the West Wing creator] view of the world, where the smart sassy people turn up and make everything OK."
One of the things that makes Hedges the perfect satire for this moment in time is that he lives in the same space as the people he's parodying. It's not a pastiche column in your copy of Private Eye, separated from the real news. He's right there on Twitter, following Sports Direct and enthusiastically responding to the New Statesman's Twitter account when they promote their latest cover.
This is partly what gives the account its teasing sense of credulity. A few people think he's real: Hedges gets a lot of "anti-Blair flak" from "mainly well-meaning people who think [he's] just another dickhead journalist". The people on Twitter who really get Hedges, Greg tells me, are usually "under 40, on the left, have at least critical support of Corbyn and the Labour Party and, most crucially, they know the types of Twitter personas Simon is meant to be satirising".
The creation of Simon Hedges figures into a convention within political satire – an exaggerated character, representative of a new, ideological class, like Alan B'stard in the New Statesman (the programme, not the magazine) – and it comes at a time when pretty much everyone has been questioning whether the genre is dead. Satire, the argument goes, has been rendered toothless by this period of political crisis, which itself has become indistinguishable from parody. What use is The Day Today when a former leader of the Conservative Party talks up the prospect of war over Gibraltar during an interview on The Daily Politics? What aesthetic function could the puppets of Spitting Image fulfil when the President of the United States is a living, breathing grotesque? Even Armando Ianucci, the most effective satirist of New Labour's moral depravity, has joked that he wouldn't know "how to respond to the situation in America right now".
Often, satire is less a thorn in the establishment's side than its wry conscience. It relies on a set of assumptions about how the world ought to be, which it contrasts with the way things are, producing humour from the inevitable incongruity: "politics should be principled and democratic, whereas in fact it's like this..." There is something inherently conservative about this, and at a time when society seems to be at a loss about what the world is supposed to look like – when the senselessness of events eclipses our capacity to appreciate them – some traditional forms of satire do seem useless.
But social media is encouraging strange new forms of political takedowns:
The creator of wint MP has some difficulty explaining why the account has been such a success. "I have no idea why it works," Tom Dissonance (a pseudonym) tells me. "It's like that theory about bees – that they're not meant to fly. It's very much that kind of account."
He thinks some more: "The only thing I can conclude is that it works on different levels: there are people who get the in-jokey references; there's a broader level of people who get politics and dril, and understand the significance of one commenting on another; and beyond that there are people who just appreciate an official figure in a suit saying something ridiculous. It's an onion of silliness."
If you tend the pastures of weird/left Twitter then you're likely familiar with Dissonance's creation (@parliawint – 14,000 followers). It's a satirical account that surfaced in late 2015, responding to the unpredictable developments that have come to characterise British politics.
Each post follows the same formula: a screenshot from BBC News, usually depicting a politician or journalist, accompanied by fake subtitles, the text of which is taken from another Twitter account, belonging to @dril. If you're not familiar with Dril's tweets, the best thing to do is read them. He is the petulant prince of "weird Twitter" – a subculture that eludes definition through its glorious stupidity.
Dril reads like obscene nonsense verse – the syntax mutilated, the humour irredeemable – and it corresponds perfectly to candid scenes from Westminster. Wint MP's subtitles are rendered so accurately that you can imagine seeing the images on a silent TV, waiting in line at the bank.
Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a rally surrounded by placard-waving supporters, his face locked in an expression of committed sincerity: "please do not say 'top notch' to me unless you want to spend hrs explaining what the fuck these notches are & who determines their hierarchy". Nigel Farage gesticulates in the European Parliament in a speech that was gushed over by the right-wing press: "yes,. i;m the guy who eats handfuls of salt to dry myself up so i never have to wipe my ass, and yes, there are several wars declared at me".
Wint MP stands out from traditional forms of satire because it has no normative force. It recommends nothing about the way things should be. The political field it presents is slack-jawed, demented, putrid and amoral – there is no value beyond the scope of its image.
Dissonance, who lives in Glasgow and works a technical job in the television industry, has been immersed in the "absurdist, hyperbole" corner of Twitter since at least 2010. Although he resists generalising about the community, he hazards that it has a core demographic of "young, smart, disaffected guys in dead-end jobs".
He has tried other satirical side projects, but none have taken off like wint MP, which started as a frustrated response to another tweet. "One of the jokester lads on Twitter had been putting out shots of fake subtitles of the Houses of Parliament saying things like 'posh booing noises'. And I was getting annoyed because the subtitle font wasn't even accurate. I was like, 'I can do better than this,'" says Dissonance. "When I was thinking of the stupidest thing to put as fake subtitles, dril was the answer that presented itself… I was surprised that such a niche thing seemed to get so popular. Then again, I always say that it's not hard to be funny if you have dril as your writer."
He keeps a Notepad document on his computer desktop with every appropriate dril Tweet, and the opportunities to use them "present themselves pretty serendipitously". Sometimes he'll screen the final posts to his friend Jess before publishing, especially to make sure posts featuring women politicians can't be accidentally read as misogynistic, but he generally acts on instinct: "The ones that are always good are the ones where, as soon as I think of it, 'I think this one's going to get me into trouble.' That is when you know to post."
"The turning point with wint MP was the night of the Brexit vote," Dissonance says, referring to the moment when the account's images would have appeared on the timelines of many for the first time. "I stayed up all night watching the carnage with everyone else. Basically my motivation for this is getting through all the politics. It's a way of coping with the never-ending politics of June. It's a survival mechanism, a tiny form of revenge." Just like Greg's Simon Hedges account, political satire becomes a form of self-care for its practitioners.
While the effect of Simon Hedges and Wint MP is to produce a lurid pleasure in the collapse of what was once considered common sense, other accounts are doing the same from what remains of the centre. You can see this in the proliferation of accounts that take the piss out of Momentum.
Maomentum (@Maomentum_), which has almost 10,000 followers (and is, neatly, followed by Simon Hedges), parodies the grassroots Corbyn fan club. Its tweets, written as if they were an official Momentum account, belie an obsession with ideological purity, a desire to sabotage the Labour Party, and a commitment to foist an unpopular programme onto an electorate who, stupidly, haven't reached revolutionary consciousness.
The best jokes target Corbyn's tactics, as in the suggestion that rather that "instead of knocking on voters' doors we should hold mini-rallies outside their houses".
Although the people behind the account claim they "can't really" give me specific information about who they are, they said that they started the account soon after John McDonnell threw a copy of Mao's Red Book at the then-Chancellor George Osborne in the House of Commons.
"Most of what we write is just repeating what we hear from [the people who have taken over the Labour party]," they said to me, over direct messages. "They are pretty funny actually in a tragic sort of way. Politicians and the people around them should always be laughed at [when] they are silly. Twitter's pretty good for that."
Again, Maomentum engages with the specific ideological spaces opened up by recent crises. One of these is the Corbyn-left's critique of the Labour Party as an "electoralist institution, to its marrow", and the demands from the party's right-wing that the left compromise "in the name of electoralism". This is the idea that the Labour Party's obsession with winning elections – which during New Labour arguably meant abandoning principles to keep power – is simplistic. It ignores the changing historical conditions that allow elections to be won, especially by centre-left parties, and the other forms of local and direct power that political parties can exert without being in government.
Or as Maomentum would put it:
Although this brief survey of the satirical landscape on Twitter suggests some continuity with more traditional forms – especially its domination by men – there are differences. For one, it is a de-professionalised field: the people behind the best accounts aren't doing it for money but as a coping mechanism, often using the spare time offered up by under-employment. Perhaps this is what contributes to its second quality: a ruthless, almost nihilistic bent.
It is also very niche, the references as fragmented as the political and media sphere it seeks to describe. There is, generally speaking, little hope to be salvaged from its content, which zooms in on new phenomena – centrist journalists throwing their toys out the pram; a political class whose pronouncements have taken on the quality of the surreal; a Labour Party divided between its leadership and MPs – and produces the image of a society in terminal decline, succumb to morbid symptoms.
I asked Tom Dissonance what he made of the way politics seems to be going, and his response chimed with the world conjured up by wint MP's Tweets. "Well, globally, you have on the one hand these rambunctious, evil fascists, and on the other side the mainstream liberal parties who only have their technocracy – this 'but who will pay for this?' thing, and it's impressing no one," he tells me, his voice coloured with despair. "I look at the situation and I don't see that much hope – which is good fuel for the account, I suppose."