how it started vs how it's going & the fantasy of liberal progress

why progress under capitalism is fake

Click here to read this essay on Substack.

How It Started vs How It’s Going and American Individualism

If you haven’t encountered the “how it started vs how it’s going” meme yet, it goes a little something like this: on the left hand side, the user posts an image from the past that is either sad or incomplete, and then on the right, they post an update, to show their current success, happiness, or contentment. According to the ever trusted calculations of Knowyourmeme.com, the trend was first created by user @vjillanelles on September 23rd, when she posted two consecutive images, one of a DM conversation and one of her and her partner, alongside the caption “how it started, how it ended.” The tweet gained over 25,000 likes in two weeks and inspired other people to make similar posts. At first, the format was mainly a way for couples to show the progression of their relationship––the tentative “how it started” conversations versus the comfortable “how it’s going” couples photos. But as the trend gained popularity, people used the meme format to showcase progress in other areas of their life as well, broadcasting career goals met, growth on artistic projects, long lasting relationships with their pets, and more. On the whole, the trend was wholesome: a way for people to celebrate success or joy during these endlessly shitty times. But, like most sweet things the internet gives us, the meme was eventually corrupted.

On October 16th, Duke University posted a (now deleted) version of this meme: on the left hand side was a single house, and on the right hand side was Duke’s sprawling campus. Clearly, the meme was meant to celebrate Duke’s progress and growth––look at us! We started as a single building and now we’re huge––but users were not having it. “How it actually started: slavery,” one person commented, while another person suggested the University “might want to sit this one out.” That same day, Emirate Airlines also posted their take on the trend, sharing an older, black and white image of Dubai versus a colorful, contemporary image of the city with the tagged location “visit Dubai.” Users were similarly outraged: “all it took was indentured servitude,” one person pointed out, while another insisted, “show the slave labor.”

It is easy to understand why this meme format instantly became so popular: in the West and in America especially, we are obsessed with the idea of a linear success story. Predicated on the ideals of the “American dream,” we are drawn to the rags to riches narrative, the notion that someone can start from nothing and still achieve all of their goals. When we see images of individuals who, against all odds, found the perfect relationship, job, or lifestyle, we are comforted, reassured that even if our lives today feel shitty, we have the ability to turn things around. But when institutions like Duke or Emirates use the same format, similarly attempting to evoke feelings of nostalgia or pride for the underdog, we are instantly turned off, quickly recognizing that the progress that universities, businesses, or other corporations have made throughout the centuries was not done ethically, which calls into question whether “progress” has been made at all.

The “how it started vs how it’s going” meme conforms to traditionally accepted liberal notions of progress by reinforcing that an individual's material conditions can change or improve through time, luck, or hard work. Liberalism, or a political philosophy that promotes individual rights and civil liberties under a given government, is a political doctrine concerned with the individual rather than the collective. Liberals prefer to work within a given system––in America, the system being a “democracy” founded on racism and capitalism––rather than break away from it, in the hopes that their individual needs might be met, even at the expense of others. Leftists, on the other hand, a group which generally includes communists, socialists, and other anti-capitalists, aim to divest from or abolish our current systems when fighting for change, believing that our current capitalistic ecosystem cannot be reformed. When confronted with images of formerly single people in happy relationships, or those who have worked tirelessly and finally achieved their dream job, liberals feel vindicated in their belief that individual happiness or success is possible to attain regardless of what government or institutions currently hold power. But images of liberal institutions similarly showing their so-called growth over the years furthers leftist’s argument that no true progress can be made while operating within or under a corrupt and violent system, such as the American plutocracy. This mixed response calls us to wonder, can progress be collective rather than just individual? And under capitalism, is progress possible at all?

Fuck Reform: Circle Theory, Explained

My fifth grade history teacher was a white woman named Deborah who read every Percy Jackson book the night it was released and wore a turquoise crochet glasses chain around her neck each day. On the right-hand wall of her classroom was a poster that read, “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it’s mistakes,” and every time she taught us a new lesson on America’s evils––watered down stories of slavery, civil wars, systemic racism and misogyny––she would grab her little neckless, push her glasses up the bridge of her nose, and point wordlessly and dramatically at her poster, as if to say, told you so. In college, I took a Philosophy course where my professor, who was not a white woman but had a similarly lovable flair for the dramatic, had another take. “Revolution is a re-evolution,” she would often say while moving her hand in a wide, revolving motion. “We have been fighting the same fights for thousands of years. We are moving in a circle.”

These ideas may seem identical but the difference between them is crucial. Deborah, a stereotypical white liberal, clearly subscribes to Americanized notions of progress: something bad happened in the past, we learn from it, and we move on. My professor’s logic on the other hand illustrates how the vast majority of historical atrocities are systemic, which complicates the liberal belief of linear progress. In fifth grade, Deborah taught me that our founding fathers owned slaves, had a moral reckoning, and then moved to abolish slavery. Meanwhile my professor was more inclined to believe that after slavery was technically made illegal, America found a new way to dehumanize, torture, and ultimately enslave Black people: the prison industrial complex. Like Emirate Airlines and Duke University, liberal institutions and individuals like to feign glossy images of progress while supporting and repurposing the same systems that ensure we cannot move forward.

The differences between my two teacher’s beliefs mirror one of our dominant political conversations today: reform versus abolition. Discussions of reform have been rampant since May, particularly conversations in liberal spaces about whether we can or should “reform” the police. Leftists have been adamant about the reasons why police––as well as many other institutions in America such as the electoral college and prisons––cannot be reformed, and I find my Philosophy professor’s “circle” metaphor a helpful illustration to understand why. The over-policing and mass incarceration of Black people in America are products of systemic racism. This sort of racism is in and of itself a circle, because different iterations of the same problem return century after century, haunting low-income Black people for generations to come: slavery returns as the prison industrial complex; slave patrollers themselves become the police, and so on. A look into the material conditions of Black people today further dispels any liberal myth of progress: as of 2010, Black Americans made up 13% of the population but had only 2.7% of the country’s wealth. About one in four Black men will be arrested at some point in their lifetime, and because of continued laws preventing formerly incarcerated people from voting, about 13% of Black men today are denied the right to vote. Clearly, although slavery was made “illegal” in 1865, America has still found ways to intentionally strip Black people of their wealth, rights, and humanity. Because this racism is systemic, built into the very fabric of the institutions that govern us, there is no way for it to be reformed: how it’s started and how it’s going remain exactly the same.

The Myth of Progress and The Media

If we agree the course of history is moving in circles, then this begs the question: what good is the news? Even at its best, the media is reactive, reporting on situations after they’ve already occurred. And if we accept, per the Circle Theory, that every contemporary human rights violation is merely a replica of some past injustice, then journalists are covering “news” that is actually not new, and has happened countless times before. As journalists, we are taught to abide by and cater to the 24-hour news cycle, language which further denotes that we are moving in circles and suggests that people should only read or care about an issue for approximately one day. While twenty four hours may be a slight exaggeration, it’s undoubtedly true that the news cycle breaks and moves on from stories faster than the public can keep up. According to 2018 research from the Nieman Lab, a typical big news story lasts about seven days until both news outlets and the public move on to cover a different topic. If we think about the big stories that have broken most recently, I believe this math checks out: on September 14th, a whistleblower came forward about ICE officers performing forced hysterectomies on migrants in Georgia; a few days later, the story had all but disappeared from the news. On September 27th, The New York Times broke a massive story about Trump’s taxes; almost exactly a week later, on October 3rd, the Times reported that Trump had tested positive for coronavirus, completely shifting the narrative of the news cycle and pushing the taxes story into obscurity.

Not only is the news a cycle itself, journalists have historically covered particular events such as protests, racial injustice, or human rights abuses in exactly the same way for centuries, further impeding readers from having progressive viewpoints or developing new opinions on a given subject. Vicky Osterweil writes about this at length in her recent book, “In Defense of Looting.” The book, which was written in response to the Ferguson protests of 2014 but is maddeningly relevant during the Black Lives Matter movement in America today, is a poignant reflection on how the US government and media work together to paint looting, rioting, and other “non-peaceful” forms of protest as heinous and uncivilized. “No matter how ‘peaceful’ a protest is, the dominant media will always push the police talking points and white supremacist agenda,” writes Osterweil. “If we riot, they will slander us. If we behave politely, peacefully, legally, they will simply return to ignoring us.” Though certainly not an excuse for siding with the police, journalists have several incentives for pushing a white supremacist agenda in the media. Firstly, most media is owned and funded by the white ruling class––The Washington Post, for example, is owned by Jeff Bezos––which immediately only allows a particular sort of voice or viewpoint in the news. Further, journalists who divest from a white supremacist, capitalist lens when reporting, particularly those covering issues related to race, have historically been killed by the state. After journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia released the Panama Papers in 2016, documents which conclusively proved that thousands of wealthy people across the world were avoiding paying taxes by offshoring their money, she was killed by a government car bomb.

Circular conversations about current events, particularly when it comes to race, happen not only by those who write the news, but those who read it as well. As the Black Lives Matter protests began in earnest in May, many remarked that the conversations being had about race, policing, and riots were eerily similar to 2014 conversations in the wake of the Ferguson protests. Even the social media response felt cyclical: a video of Black death is posted, angry articles are circulated, there’s a rush to donate to mutual aid and bail funds and then silence, until another video surfaces a few days later. Despite the lack of real legal or systemic action taken by our government in the wake of George Floyd’s death, many liberals would be quick to argue that a summer of non-stop protests is proof of progress, as people of different races banded together day after day to support Black lives in a way previously unseen in America. By some measures, they would be correct: in July, The New York Times reported that by many calculations, 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests have been the longest sustained movement in US history. But in September, data from Pew Research Center painted a different picture. According to their research, support for the Black Lives Matter movement has decreased 12% since June among American adults, with every racial group giving less support to Black Lives Matter since the summer except for Black Americans. This data suggests that for liberals, Black Lives Matter, like the ICE hysterectomies and Trump's taxes, was too a product of the news cycle, a story for a moment, and then quickly forgotten.

To Break The Circle, We Must Abolish Capitalism

The “how it started vs how it’s going” meme is such an excellent metaphor for liberalism because it preys on the fantasy that anybody can improve their life or material conditions regardless of their race, class, gender, or other identities or lived experiences. If you don’t have a glowing “how it’s going” photo to post, it’s solely on you. Liberals love to proudly distinguish themselves from Republicans, conservatives, and fascists, proclaiming they are fighting for arbitrary, state-defined goals such as “rights,” “justice,” or “liberty,” while conservatives are vying for the opposite. And yet, a deep dive into past liberal-conservative oppositional struggles in America indicates that this distinction liberals often make doesn’t actually exist. Earlier this month, journalist Gabriel Rockhill wrote about this issue at length for Black Agenda Report. He argues that historically, liberalism and fascism have functioned in tandem to manipulate the masses, following the police interrogation tactic known as “good cop versus bad cop.” Fascism, the bad cop, is a tactic typically used to govern those who are poor or radicalized. Under fascism, capitalism is imposed by force, and often through violence. Meanwhile liberalism, the good cop, promises citizens freedom and the protection of the state––as long as they agree to participate in a capitalist economy and bow down to a pseudo-democractic government. Together, liberalism and fascism work to ensure that no true political or social progress is made. When fascism brutalizes people to the breaking point, liberalism will swoop in to save the day; and if people are not hoodwinked by the false promises of the good cop, then the liberals’ partner in crime is on call to beat them into compliance. “What a materialist analysis demonstrates is that liberalism and fascism, contrary to what the dominant ideology maintains, are not opposites,” Rockhill said. “They are partners in capitalist crime.”

Rockhill’s good cop versus bad cop metaphor directly illustrates the issue with liberal institutions using the “how it’s going” meme to measure their so-called progress. Despite what Duke University might want people to believe, the school started as a racist, classist, gentrifying institution and remains exactly that today. Too, though Emirate Airlines is using this meme to suggest that their presence in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) helped “develop” the city, the truth is that the country was able to amass wealth off of the unpaid labor of low-income and immigrant workers, and by denying citizenship to many of them as well. Words like “development” are often used by liberals to denote a sort of progress that allows people, places, or institutions without wealth or privilege to enter into white spaces––in this case, the UAE has joined the global economy. But if it got there through xenophobia and wealth exploitation, has any development or progress really occurred? Universities often use a similar framework to imagine “progress,” showing off increased diversity statistics to prove their school is more inclusive today than in the past. But what does this matter if the school is only educating wealthy people, or if the campus itself is disrupting the community where it resides? These tactics once more illustrate liberalism as the “good cop”, using glossy images and buzzwords to distract us from a lack of progress or systemic change.

Though I’ve spent a good deal of this essay critiquing the “how it started vs how it’s going” format, I don’t really have a problem seeing the meme on my timeline. If people feel successful and want to celebrate that, they absolutely should, especially right now. But at the same time, it’s crucial we remember that so much of what we think “success” and “progress” look like has been defined by capitalism, and in order to truly feel fulfilled, we must learn to redefine these things for ourselves. Despite what liberals may want us to believe, true progress is often not linear. It is not always meme-able or photogenic. It can move backwards, in circles, or even skip time. In America, I am not sure what real progress looks like; when I think of the future, for myself and my community, things often seem murky and unclear. But what I do know is this: there is no such thing as progress under capitalism, no matter who is president, no matter where you went to college, no matter what city you live in, no matter what anyone tells you. To break out of the Circle and to truly make change, we must not only abolish capitalism as a system, but also destroy any internalized capitalist fantasies that cause us to desire a linear, picture-perfect, personal success story, even at the expense of another’s well-being. We must embrace the messiness that comes with real change.

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*Art by Yume Murphy.