18 AUGUST 2021

2021 saw “return to monke” memes surge in popularity, as they directly take on the absurdness of augmented survivals and exploitations of capital.

The meme materialises in various forms, originating in 2019 with a photograph of an orangutan holding a spear, with the caption ‘Revolt against humanity / Return to monky’. The subtle anarchist messaging embedded is accompanied by primitivism, which is conveyed through an intentional misspelling of “monkey” and a visual ironic “ugliness” – conceptual choices on aesthetics that will help to popularise future versions.

Fast forward to 2021, new editions show thematic continuations of the original meme, with an explicitly anticapitalist tone. A common format is a three panel conversation between a human and orangutan. Visually they embrace primitivism further, with the comic style reminiscent of the shaky, crude lines of


Paint drawings, and text continuing to employ intentionally misspelled words. In one meme, the conversation in the panels goes:

Another one:

A general Marxist analysis reveals the political bases of the meme. The conditions that we exist within, having to pay for absolute necessities for survival, while there is an abundance of them,  sharply communicates the absurdity of ‘augmented survivals’, which Debord (1994, pp. 20-21) expounded. ‘The pseudo-nature within which human labour has become alienated demands that such labour remain forever in its service; and since this demand is formulated by and answerable only to itself, it in fact ends up channeling all socially permitted projects and endeavours into its own reinforcement. The abundance of commodities – that is, the abundance of commodity relations – amounts to nothing more than an augmented survival.’ Since basic survival needs are met, capital requires new territories to expand itself onto as a method of preserving and reproducing itself, resulting in unnecessary labour for the most fundamental needs. The meme unearths Gen-Z's immersion in Marxist theory and practice – with itself being a form of activism – and expresses it using the generation’s default language of irony and melancholy.

For Gen-Z, this melancholy is an openly outward and constant state, paired with internal (privatised) stress and anxiety about ecological collapse, alongside individual as well as collective decline in material conditions. “Return to monke” expresses this generation’s hauntology, a seemingly unconfirmed, nevertheless correct, intuition that things could be different and better, despite having no memories of the pre-80s welfare states and social security. The time period implied in the meme, the time of a previous evolutionary step, is also telling. It is not only a return to the 1960s or 1970s anymore – those parts history have been politically neutralised and only their aesthetic qualities preserved, then sold as commodities. It is a return to pre-capitalism, to pre-anthropocene. The humour expresses lighthearted entertainment on the surface, below which is a deep desire for a departure from present conditions. Gen-Z is acutely self-aware of their position, of their alienation from traditional labour, their devaluing education with increasing costs, inability of owning a home or to ever retire, and for the lack of an apparent alternative to their conditions, this radical response is formulated. It is an almost predictable extension of various forms of “dropping out”, from religious communities, to rural living, Kerouac-inspired hedonism and communes. It however represents a more extreme form of leaving society, as a response to the hollowing out of the future by the market.

“Return to monke” voices a generation’s frustration with the commodification of the everyday, the stripping away of social security and any future to look forward to. The primitivist direction the meme takes also surfaces an intriguing dichotomy. The generation most enveloped and socialised through personal mobile apparatuses and digital social platforms, a generation that depends on these both culturally, socially and materially recognises its own overwhelmed senses and material disparity, and wishes to abandon these.

The most striking feature of the meme therefore is its radicalism, which is reflective of the radical conditions we are subjected to. It is no longer enough to take a break from labour and escape to a commodified rest – we need to be radically out, any way possible.


Debord, G. (1967)

Society of the Spectacle

. Reprint, London: Rebel Press, 1994.