Escaping the Revolution Industry

Justin Aukema
20 October 2022

An infinity mirror via Wiki CC

The “revolution industry”

Over 100 years ago, V.I. Lenin opined, “It is more pleasant and useful to go through the ‘experience of revolution’ than to write about it.”

Perhaps. But then again, Lenin never lived to see the 21st century. Today, one almost must write and consume “revolutionary” ideas as a prerequisite for acceptance into many social circles and participation on social media.

“Revolution” in this sense is many things. It is a cultural simulacra, it is a performance, it is an identity. But, ironically, it very rarely has anything to do with class struggle. Instead the art of revolution seems to denote simply carrying the “current thing” to its most extreme pole.

In this way, the trivialization of “revolution” and its kitsch pantomiming under the watchful eye of Big Tech has turned Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s notion of a “Culture Industry” into a highly profitable “Revolution Industry” (RI).

The RI refers to a conglomerate of mass-media, internet personalities, and big-business marketing schemes all designed to make ruling-class ideology appear instead as its complete opposite; that is, to make their ideas seem “revolutionary” and thus palpable to mostly affluent Western Leftists.

As such, the RI coincides with the corporate embrace and coopting of a host of social issues, and their reorientation for PR purposes, including gay and trans-rights (rainbow washing), environmental issues (green washing), and workplace diversity issues. But it also extends a step beyond this to include the commercialization of the notion of “revolution” itself.

The main peddlers of the RI are a motley crew of dissenters, activists, and academic “radicals.” The power of this group lies not only in their mainstream acceptance – and indeed their ideas, despite their claims otherwise, are the accepted ideas – but also their unshakable zealotry. They are utterly convinced that they are the ones most concerned about the planet or about equality and so on. Moreover, their ideas are impervious to challenge since they are generally unaware of their true bourgeoise function. It is the mystification or naturalization of ruling-class ideology at its finest.

It should be reiterated though that the RI does not refer to actual action undertaken by any of its main proponents. This is because the industry itself is fundamentally anti-materialist and thus antithetical to real-life action. Instead, the role of the corporate suppliers of RI thought is to provide the fixed capital for a platform and a space in which its unwitting peddlers and performers can act out their revolutionary fantasies. This platform is nearly always controlled or run by Big Tech or other vested interests, and is stamped with the seal of approval by leading Western universities. These groups act as the gatekeepers of and set the boundaries for what they deem to be “acceptable” behavior. This means, of course, behavior which, again, appears revolutionary but which in reality supports the newest, most “progressive” forms of capital accumulation.

Promoting rights and saving the planet

Examples of the RI at work are too numerous to fully detail here. So, suffice instead for some representative examples.

Take for instance the issue of climate change. The transition to the “green economy” is none other than a shift to the next mode of capital accumulation. Let’s call it the Green Mode of Accumulation (GMC). The GMC both builds off our current neoliberal paradigm and advances it. Put simply, it entails vast amounts of corporate investment and hedge funds being poured into new and enticing sources of profit: the renewables industry. From the perspective of global-historical capitalism, there is nothing really “new” about renewables. They are simply another way to make money. And lots of it at that. By one account, the global renewable energy industry was worth$952 billion in 2021 and is expected to grow to $1,998 billion by 2030. Furthermore, in accordance with monopoly capitalism, the foundations of which were always compatible with neoliberalism, the industry receives strong state support and subsidies.

Meanwhile, the role of the RI in this regard is to provide moral and ideological support. Renewables are clearly the way of the future. Never mind the fact that the outward forms of energy production in no way affect actual underlying capitalist social relations. Other problems like the clearcutting of entire mountain ranges or forests to build giant solar farms are also deemed to be an inconvenient truth and thus are swept under the rug. In lieu of real intellectual critique, the academic-activist class instead continues to gleefully promote giant corporations’ and monopolistic-imperialist state efforts to “decarbonize” on the one hand, while damning their political opponents, generally the working class, on the other. Anyone still driving a gasoline or petrol car at this point is basically a neanderthal, for them, while performative token symbols like paper straws, throwing soup cans, or taxing cow burps are all applauded.

The same could be said for issues of equality and identity. The problems here are almost too murky and nebulous to even begin to wade into. But suffice to say that issues of race, nation, and identity have long been promoted by the ruling class as ways to divide global workers by taking the focus off their shared class status. This is why corporations have jumped on board to embrace mandatory diversity training or to promote ideas of inherent or inherited “privilege.” By inserting rifts between workers, management and shareholders can take the focus off themselves.

The utility of equating “equality” entirely with gender or diversity issues is apparent in that their inevitable outcome is always token forms of neoliberalism such as the promotion of female, non-white, or LGBT CEOs and management rather than the actual material improvement of the lives of average workers. Corporations embrace of “wokeness” or their use of virtue signaling through the promotion of trans- or other rights in this scenario thus is simply a PR campaign and part of doing “good business” and which does nothing to change the fundamental inequalities of capitalism. And once again, the radical-activist class in this scenario, too, acts as the corporate thought police and neoliberal vanguard. “Revolutionary action” is thus again relegated entirely to a performance of waving flags, wearing T-shirts, or sporting pronoun pins and profiles, not to mention working at cross-purposes with class emancipation.

The revolutionary hero

Who is the revolutionary hero in this milieu? In fact, it doesn't really matter. This is because the RI is and always has been entirely based on representations and images. It is all about appearance and totally devoid of any substance. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” stated Marx, referring to capitalism’s perversely unique ability to commodify and thus to profit off nearly anything and everything. This includes not only critiques of capitalism itself but also its revolutionary critiques.

The image of college kids wearing Che shirts from Hot Topic instantly springs to mind for anyone born in the 1980s or 90s. But the contemporary RI has advanced so far beyond this type of representation that it almost seems trivial and benign by today’s standards.

The performativity of the RI, acted out generally by the Professional Managerial Class (PMC) and academics with adequate job security and in the capitalist “safe spaces” of Big Tech platforms, necessitates not only the social acceptance and rehabilitation of past “revolutionaries,” but also their complete whitewashing as stand-ins for contemporary revolutionary desires.

To illustrate this, let me refer to a recent example from my own field of expertise, modern Japanese history. This has been the online acceptance and promotion of former Japanese Red Army (JRA) leader Shigenobu Fusako in some Left circles. It is generally acknowledged that Shigenobu was involved in various acts of international terrorism such as the 1972 Lod Airport Massacre in her capacity as JRA leader. In that attack, three JRA members including Shigenobu’s husband indiscriminately attacked airport travelers with machine guns, killing 26 mostly Christian pilgrims.

Now, I should not even have to explain why indiscriminate murder is a bad thing. This is not to mention the deleterious and antithetical effects of the JRA from a class perspective, most obviously that not only were most of their victims average workers, but also that they indefinitely and irreparably alienated much of the Japanese and Western working class from Left-wing causes in general.

Nevertheless multiple articles attempting to absolve Shigenobu of wrongdoing or even portray her as a pacifist, humanitarian, hero were recently published in Left magazines on the event of the 76-year-old Shigenobu’s 2022 release from Japanese prison.

The articles, mainly written by academics but which also included pieces by Shigenobu and her daughter, Mei (May), were mostly revisionist and positive. All seemed to downplay Shigenobu’s violent history or her connections to the Lod Airport Massacre, while Shigenobu and her daughter even implicitly justified it and expressed sympathy and solidarity with the attackers.

What benefits would anyone gain from writing or sharing such pieces? Well, from the perspective of the RI and capitalism in general, lurid stories of sex, guns, and drugs have always been more marketable and thus desirable than patient analysis of the unfolding and evolving nature of class exploitation. In this regard alone, simply perpetuating images of a controversial “revolutionary” could provide ample click bait and prove someone’s “radical” credentials.

But on top of this we must remember that the RI itself always operates on a superficial level and is mostly devoid of content. The “revolutionary hero” simply functions as a mirror for contemporary aims and desires. It is likely therefore that much of Shigenobu’s newfound popularity was due to her purely outward appearance as a strong, non-white, non-Western woman, much in the same way that her struggle was partly reframed as a battle against patriarchy rather than the bourgeoisie. After all, what else could explain the dissonance between her portrayal as a pacifist and the widely circulated image of her wielding a kalashnikov? It is hard to imagine that a gun-toting white man from rural America with a similar aim of overthrowing the state would have received the same positive reception.

Escaping the revolution industry

Can we escape the RI? I would argue yes; it is difficult but not impossible. There are three main hurdles to see through the smoke and mirrors.

First, the primary difficulty for many of us is to escape our own class biases.

This is because the general problem as I have outlined it here is that what many of us have been led to believe is “revolutionary” is in fact not so at all. In many cases it is simply bourgeois ideology masquerading as something radically new or better.

A second problem is that, insofar as such “revolutionary” thought aligns with bourgeois ideology, we are actively encouraged to participate in it. This is because again such performance in fact reaffirms ruling class interests and capital accumulation.

The third problem is that the RI is fundamentally anti-materialist and thus antithetical to real action. This relates back to Lenin’s quote at the beginning of this article. Lenin was articulating a basic principle of historical-dialectical materialism that our actions and material circumstances shape our consciousness and not vice versa. In other words it is always better to actively do rather than to passively observe. But by making the performance of a particular identity, in this case the revolutionary, its primary aim, the RI actually discourages action in the real world. This is reinforced by the RI’s main ideological arenas, Big Tech social media and the metaverse.

But there is a potential way out. Following Lenin’s formula we can reposition our focus on actual rather than symbolic action. In the case of the RI this is relatively easy since it is comprised mainly of images circulating in a closed ideological conveyor belt.

John Prine once famously sang about blowing up our TVs and moving to the country. Although simplistic, this might constitute and important first step. Namely, we could ditch the smart phones and constant online presence in favor of patient contemplation, real informed discussion and debate, and occasionally reconnecting with nature. To cite a personal example, my own encounter with the negative aspects of renewable energies came from my experiences hiking the forests of Japan and seeing the destructive effects of mega solar there.

A walk in the woods or getting to know your neighbors might not seem revolutionary, especially due to the desensitizing effects of the RI itself. But it is infinitely more radical in a materialist sense than retweeting the latest meme or embracing the next current thing.


My article, “Escaping the Revolution Industry,” explores the contradictory nature of “revolution” in the contemporary Western Left. Lenin once said it was better to participate in a revolution than to write about it. But it seems that today the opposite is true: an entire industry has been made from writing about, representing, and performing “revolution.” In this milieu, being a “radical” or a “dissident” pays, at least online and in many social circles including academia. Yet this kind of radicalism is not the class politics and warfare of Lenin’s day. Instead, it seeks to advance various causes such as climate change action or identity issues through increasingly dramatic performative spectacles. Although such revolutionary action presents itself as being antagonistic to authority and capital, it is in fact completely complimentary to both.

I am currently an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Osaka Metropolitan University. Some of my recent and relevant publications can be found at Global Voices, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, and New Multitude.


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