Cupcake Fascism: Gentrification, Infantilisation and Cake by Tom Whyman

Eliza Koch

The Cupcake as Object

The cup­cake is barely a cake. When we think about what “the cake-​like” ideal should be, it is some­thing spongy, moist, char­ac­ter­ized by ex­cess, col­lapsing under its own weight of gooey jam, me­ringue, and cream. It is some­thing sickly and wet that makes your fin­gers sticky. The cup­cake is none of these things; that is, it pos­sesses none of the ideal es­sence of cak­i­ness. The cup­cake is neat, pre­cise, and uni­form. It is dry, po­lite, and low-​fat. It is defined by its shape, not its taste, and the cake-​cup limits any po­ten­tial ex­cess. The cup­cake is largely aimed at the sort of flat-​stomached people who think con­suming sweet things is “a bit naughty,” and who won’t even permit them­selves to go over­board on their binges. The cup­cake is vin­tagey and twee. It in­vokes a sense of whole­some­ness and nos­talgia, al­beit for a past never ex­per­i­enced, a more per­fect past, just as vintage-​style clothing harks back to an ideal­ized image of the 1920s through 60s that never ex­isted. The cup­cake ap­pears as a cul­tural trope along­side the drinking of tea and gin and the lisped strum­ming of ukuleles.

The con­stel­la­tion of cul­tural tropes that most paradig­mat­ic­ally mani­fest in the form of the cup­cake are as­so­ci­ated in par­tic­ular with in­fant­il­iz­a­tion. Of course, looking back to a per­fect past that never ex­isted is nothing if not the pained howl of a child who never wanted to be forced to grow up, and the cup­cake and its as­so­ci­ates market them­selves by ca­tering to these never-​never-​land adults’ tastes. These products, which treat their audi­ence as chil­dren, and more spe­cific­ally the chil­dren of the middle classes — per­fect spe­cial snow­flakes full of wide-​eyed wonder and pos­sib­ility — suc­ceed as ex­pres­sions of a de­sire on be­half of con­sumers to al­ways and forever be chil­dren, by telling con­sumers not only that this is OK, but also that it is, to a real de­gree, possible.

It’s an un­der­stand­able urge, given how ter­ri­fying and con­fusing the world is at present. But it is, of course, the wrong re­sponse. Infantilized pos­sib­il­ities stand in a strange re­la­tion­ship to what we might call pos­sib­ility as such. This is be­cause, to ac­tu­ally be alive and able to take up pos­sib­il­ities in a genuine way means being able to take a crit­ical and thus trans­form­ative stance to­wards one’s en­vir­on­ment; it is to really be a fully cog­nitive adult. Thus, the pos­sib­ility of al­ways re­maining a cog­nitive child must in­volve the elision of the ap­pro­priate ori­ent­a­tion to pos­sib­ility. Taking up this par­tic­ular pos­sib­ility (to re­main a child rather than be­come adult) means shut­ting the pur­suit of all other pos­sib­il­ities down.

Hence, we see how the re­strictive shape of the cup­cake, its cold and uni­form neat­ness, matches up with the in­fant­il­izing ele­ments of twee cup­cakey tropes: it is only pos­sible, as an adult, to re­main a cog­nitive child if you are a child without sticky fin­gers, drily con­forming to a pre­scribed set of rules.

“Keep Calm and Carry On”

Something be­came clear to me in the af­ter­math of the London riots in 2011, when I saw thou­sands of people take to the streets with brooms at the in­stig­a­tion of a twitter hashtag (#ri­otcleanup), and “clean up” the ef­fects of the anger of the ri­oters, which was already in the pro­cess of being dis­missed and de­mon­ized in the media as op­por­tun­istic looting long be­fore the po­lice would find a way to have their murder of Mark Duggan leg­ally de­clared as its op­posite. This real­iz­a­tion was that if you wanted to found a fas­cist reich in Britain today, you could never do so on the basis of any sort of ideo­logy of ra­cial su­peri­ority or mil­it­ar­istic im­agery or any­thing of the like. Fascism is, if nothing else, ne­ces­sarily ma­jor­it­arian, and nowadays ra­cism is very niche-​appeal (just look at how laugh­able every EDL march is, where the anti-​fascists out­number the al­leged fas­cists by a ratio of more than two to one). But you could get a huge mass of people to par­ti­cipate in a re­ac­tionary en­deavor if you dressed it up in nice, twee, cup­cakey im­agery, and per­suaded everyone that the bru­tality of your ideo­logy was in fact a form of nice­ness. If a fas­cist reich was to be es­tab­lished any­where today, I be­lieve it would ne­ces­sarily have to ex­change iron eagles for fluffy kit­tens, swap jack­boots for Converse, and the epic drama of Wagnerian horns for mumbled dit­ties on ukuleles.

Fascism is, prop­erly un­der­stood, a cer­tain sort of re­sponse to a crisis. It is the re­ac­tionary re­sponse, as op­posed to the rad­ical one. The rad­ical re­sponse is to em­brace the new pos­sib­il­ities thrown up by the crisis; the re­ac­tionary one is to shut these pos­sib­il­ities down. In bour­geois so­ciety, thus, fas­cism will al­ways mean the as­ser­tion of middle-​class values in the face of a crisis. Because this as­ser­tion must mean shut­ting cer­tain other emer­ging sets of pos­sib­il­ities down, it will al­ways in­volve a sort of vi­ol­ence, al­though this vi­ol­ence can of course be merely passive-​aggressive.

The 2011 riots were a sort of re­sponse to the present global fin­an­cial crisis, and one more rad­ical than re­ac­tionary. They were dir­ec­tion­less, yes, but they were the product of a summer of sim­mering ten­sion pro­duced by the aus­terity meas­ures the gov­ern­ment had im­posed as its own re­ac­tionary re­sponse to the fin­an­cial crisis, which threatened and still threatens to elim­inate the fu­tures of every young person in Britain, es­pe­cially those from poorer back­grounds — the ma­jority of the ri­oters. Against the pos­sib­il­ities thrown up by the riots (if nothing else, the pos­sib­ility of ex­pressing real anger), the par­ti­cipants in #ri­otcleanup passive-​aggressively as­serted the very same middle-​class values that in­formed the im­pos­i­tion of austerity.

There is no better ex­pres­sion of all this than in the phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On,” which of course ad­orns everything cup­cakey (“Keep Calm and Eat a Cupcake” is al­most as pre­valent a poster as its ur-​meme ori­ginal). The as­so­ci­ation is a pro­found one on many levels. The “Keep Calm” poster was ori­gin­ally de­signed as a pro­pa­ganda poster during WW2. It plays on sim­ilar ap­peals to vin­tage nos­talgia that the no­tion of “having a cup­cake” does. It ap­peals to an ideal­ized past that was never ex­per­i­enced by the longer-​afterer. It is also a past that never could have been ex­per­i­enced, since the “Keep Calm” poster was never ac­tu­ally used. It was re­dis­covered in 2000 and was quickly found to have a vast ap­peal based largely on how much the slogan co­hered with an ideal­ized image of the 1940s. In fact, the poster had never been used be­cause it was con­sidered by those who saw it at the time to be patronizing.

Thus the form of the slogan is a per­fect ex­pres­sion of the in­fant­il­ized subject’s ori­ent­a­tion to­wards reality. The same goes for the con­tent. The idea that the best re­sponse to any situ­ation is just to ac­cept ex­isting con­di­tions, swallow your anger, swallow your pride, and con­tinue as best you might is an ex­pres­sion of a sort of ideal Britishness, the “stiff upper lip.” But stiff upper lip is, dia­lect­ic­ally speaking, nothing more than a form of cow­ardice; less a level-​headed stoicism than a neur­otic un­will­ing­ness to con­front an un­just reality. Many of the par­ti­cipants in #ri­otcleanup also par­ti­cip­ated in an­other riots-​era hashtag, #OperationCupOfTea, which im­plored people not to go out ri­oting but rather, to stay in­doors and “have a nice cup of tea.” These nice white middle-​class boys and girls out early clutching brooms were all people whose in­stinctual ori­ent­a­tion to­wards a hos­tile world is to cover up, hide, and thus main­tain that world in its hos­tility without con­fronting it. Images from the #ri­otcleanup could only seem as if they were from a polit­ical rally, for the as­ser­tion of this cow­ardice as a polit­ical force.

Gentrification

There is now such a crit­ical mass of in­fant­il­ized sub­jects in our so­ciety that we see their tropes at work every­where, ag­gress­ively. Typically, any middle-​class man or woman up to their forties is an in­fant­il­ized sub­ject nowadays. This means a ma­jority of con­sumers. Thus every ad­vert­ising cam­paign launched by a major cor­por­a­tion and every gov­ern­ment public ser­vice an­nounce­ment proudly pro­claims that the ideo­logy of cup­cake fas­cism is ap­pealing to them.

It is every­where, from the most trivial ex­amples: a waste bin with a little pic­ture of a sad puppy on it and the line “It’s not my fault my mess doesn’t get cleaned up,” or a napkin dis­penser that says on it, “Please Only Take One of Me,” (this latter is, in­cid­ent­ally, some­thing I once saw in the House of Commons cafet­eria; even those in po­s­i­tions of what in some lights can look like ac­tual power are in the grip of in­fant­il­iz­a­tion). All the way to massive, block­buster in­stances of the phe­nomenon such as the re­cent Coca-​Cola #ReasonsToBelieve cam­paign which was full of such ob­vi­ously in­si­dious ex­pres­sions of cup­cakey pos­it­ivity as “For every tank being built … there are thou­sands of cakes being baked,” and “for every red card given … there are 12 cel­eb­ratory hugs.” The ad­vert also fea­tures a scene in which a man high fives a cat.

All of this has an ef­fect on our cul­ture that we can un­der­stand as being a sort of gentri­fic­a­tion. The cup­cake has al­ways it­self been a gentri­fying force: after all, the “pop-​up cup­cake shop” is the paradig­matic pop-​up shop. But what all these things do is as­sert the in­fant­il­ized values of an in­creas­ingly in­fant­il­ized middle-​class world on gen­eral so­ciety. This is how the passive-​aggressive vi­ol­ence of the in­fant­il­ized twee fas­cist mani­fests it­self: moving across the world with a cup­cake as a cow­catcher, shunting out everything that does not cor­res­pond to the values mani­fested within it; a much more ef­fective way of sweeping up the sort of (poor, working-​class, black) forces that in­formed the 2011 London riots than any broom. Not un­co­in­cid­ent­ally, #ReasonsToBelieve in­cluded footage of said riots labeled as an “ex­pres­sion of hatred,” to be con­trasted with the wave of love ap­par­ently un­leashed by a long-​overdue gov­ern­ment re­cog­ni­tion of gay unions.

Niceness

It is in some sense a con­tra­dic­tion to think of cup­cake fas­cism as both an ag­gress­ively as­sertive move­ment vi­ol­ently im­posing a par­tic­ular set of bour­geois values on so­ciety and also the ex­pres­sion of a de­sire on the be­half of an in­fant­il­ized popu­lace to “go into hiding” from the world. But these two things only ap­pear in con­flict pending the as­sump­tion of the right per­spective on the matter.

Cupcake fas­cism as­serts it­self vi­ol­ently through some­thing the in­fant­il­ized sub­ject holds deeply as an ideal. This ideal is nice­ness. On the one hand, nice­ness is just what the in­fant­il­ized sub­ject thinks is lacking from the world she is hiding from. In the first in­stance, the problem these people had with the London ri­oters was that they were not being nice enough. If the ri­oters had just sat down with a cup of tea and talked their prob­lems through with their op­pressors, the in­fant­il­ized sub­ject thinks, then there would have been no need to re­sort to dam­aging private prop­erty. The sort of nice­ness I mean here is pre­cisely that em­bodied in the figure of the cup­cake: neat and pre­dict­able, un­dan­gerous and healthy, redolent of a per­fect past that never was. In a nicer world, everything would work as it should, the good and hard-​working would get ex­actly what they de­serve, and everyone would be­have properly.

This last as­pect of the in­fant­il­ized subject’s vision of a “nicer” world is the most telling, for on the other hand, nice­ness is also an in­junc­tion from above. “Just be nice!” is some­thing a parent or teacher would tell a way­ward child. The in­junc­tion to be­have prop­erly, to smile and get on with it, is pre­cisely a way of shut­ting down any form of so­cial res­ist­ance. People are con­di­tioned to be nice from the very start of school, and it is the ef­fect of an in­fant­il­izing gentri­fic­a­tion that this in­junc­tion is fur­ther spread by those who have most ef­fect­ively in­tern­al­ized it. These people are the middle classes. To be nice, to “be­have prop­erly,” is simply to be­have like an in­fant­il­ized middle-​class sub­ject. Thus every mar­keting cam­paign or gov­ern­ment public ser­vice an­nounce­ment that passive-​aggressively preaches nice­ness is really a vi­olent en­force­ment of re­ac­tionary values that serves to pre­serve a crisis-​stricken status quo.

The Radical Possibility and Cake

If we see the paradig­matic mech­an­isms of so­cial op­pres­sion op­er­ative today in the form of a cup­cake, then the clue to the over­throwing of these mech­an­isms ex­ists also in cake, al­beit of an en­tirely dif­ferent kind. It is pre­cisely in the truly cake-​like, the spongy and the moist and the ex­cessive and the un­healthy. Against the aus­terity of the cupcake-​form, we need to re­cap­ture, in our so­cial reality, a sort of joy: the joy of being open to genu­inely al­tern­ative possibilities.

Another way of looking comes when we ex­amine the way in which an in­fant­il­ized adult is pre­cisely not a child. A child cannot re­main a child; a child is on the way to be­coming an adult. When a child does child-​like things, it is in order to ex­plore the world in a way that equips it to one day con­front that world for what it is, as what the child will be as an in­di­vidual. So the child is open to pos­sib­ility. And the child al­ways has sticky fin­gers, and jam around its lips, and does things that no one would ever think are in its best in­terests. The in­fant­il­ized adult, by con­trast, be­cause it is neur­ot­ic­ally trying to re­main a child, must shut down pos­sib­il­ities. It cannot en­gage with the world in a way char­ac­ter­ized by the joy of pos­sib­ility. In order to ac­tu­ally live the pos­sib­ility of re­maining a child, the world that the in­fant­il­ized adult en­gages with must al­ways re­main “safe” and coldly uni­form: the cup­cake as op­posed to the messy and col­lapsing sponge-​cake.

Thus, if we want to be less in­fant­il­ized, we have to be­have more like chil­dren. If this seems like a paradox, it must mean that you are just not thinking about the matter dia­lect­ic­ally enough.

Originally pub­lished by Full Stop. Illustration by Eliza Koch. See more of Eliza’s work here.

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