No Lames: A Vibes-Based Theory of Power Politics?
Vibes are crucial to social interaction. They're what makes or breaks a job interview. They're what makes songs memorable. Your friends are the people you vibe with. But how do we think about vibes and power politics?
In the most recent episode of the pod, I had a delicious conversation with Dr. David Parsons, an American historian who hosts Nostalgia Trap. I think you’ll find the episode really entertaining, in part because he’s a funny, charismatic dude with a rich life story. In our meandering chat about academic precarity and ‘90s pop culture, we talk a lot about vibes and politics. Here’s a short clip from that convo:
David’s point, and a sub-theme of his book, Dangerous Grounds: Antiwar Coffeehouses and Military Dissent in the Vietnam Era, is that the antiwar left was most successful when it owned cool. When the culture is on your side, the political wind is at your back. One of the problems with the harder-edged left today is that it’s overly didactic, and perhaps overly critical of the cultural tastes of the majority of folks (something in evidence in my last post about Andor).
It reminded me of a time when DMX explained the secret to a hit song—the beat is everything, he said. Whack beat; no listens. If the beat has a good vibe, then people might catch the hook of the song. If the hook of the song was catchy, then it might linger in peoples’ minds enough that they’ll stay for the lyrics. But if you don’t have the beat and the hook, you can’t get people to hear your message.
In political theory, there is a discussion about vibes as an on-ramp to mass political mobilization, but also vibes as a trap—the Democratic Party, the thinking goes, gives black people and minorities vibes of equality without any material follow-through.
In international relations, I don’t think we’ve really allowed for thinking about vibes. We have a literature on affect and emotion, but it’s heavy on individual-psychological explanations that are just not satisfying.
In some of my recent and forthcoming work, I’ve started deploying the concept of valence—the idea that relational ties have an emotional color and can be coded a certain way that starts to matter structurally as ties with a certain valence accumulate or diminish. I’m still thinking through this so I can’t say much here, but this might be the crucial concept that unlocks an entire universe of theorizing about peace and war. It’s certainly crucial to how certain segments of the left think about security.
Anyway, I think cultivating cool vibes is a pathway to political organization and collective action. How you cultivate cool vibes is easier said than done, but an obvious shortcut is influencers and celebrities. And with that I leave you with a tweet that I keep thinking about, from the great Jake Grumbach (pronounced like Tupac):
(we talked about this tweet in an episode of the pod back in the day)