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“Media” and Millennial Runoff


The making of the Online Left

The most stunning realizations are of something one thought one already knew. These bring into question whether one really knew what they thought they knew to begin with.

My girlfriend works for one of the three big talent agencies in Hollywood. Most don’t understand what such agencies actually do aside from represent celebrities. In truth, they can often appear as the directors of the culture industry itself. As of 2018, about 90% of television shows were “packaged,” the practice of an agency’s putting various talent it represents into a project it represents and then selling the project to a content outlet. This amounts to agencies standing above the entire culture industry to determine what does and does not get made.

Packaging is often motivated by virtue of a potential work’s stupidity. Work that elicits a response of “I-can’t-believe-they-made-this” sells. Given the cynicism that infects this impetus for creation, one might imagine that the general planners of the culture industry do not themselves partake of it. That conclusion would be a mistake.

In virtual meetings with agency employees that I’ve had the privilege to eavesdrop on, I’ve often heard a manager begin with, “What did everyone watch this week?” To this, assistants will list two or three series they’ve recently binge-watched — tasks that consume hours upon hours of time. These employees often work up to 13-hour days; their time to themselves is limited. Yet they do not view themselves as above it all — snide puppeteers of culture. Rather, they themselves are avid consumers of the culture industry’s products. Knowing how the sausage is made only makes it more savory. I thought I already understood this. I work in film, so I was already familiar with the subjectivity of the culture industry. Yet the shock I felt in getting a glimpse at the world of agencies surprised me.

Packaging is not limited to media content. Agencies act as cultural impresarios, coordinating various marketing firms and industries to act in a way that would be traditionally associated with monopoly. Kombucha became popular in the West because one of the three big agencies decided it would direct its clients to push it, presumably with itself and its clients as the beneficiaries of future investments in the products and production chains that facilitate kombucha production. But this happened on a whim, not due to the careful calculation of industrial magnates.

The conspiratorial thinking that the average person engages in regarding how media manipulates them presumes that there is a subject standing above the social apparatus, actually in control. But in fact, the passivity of the audience presumed by mass media, which inspires this conspiratorial thinking, is most prominent at the top. The planned society finds its parody in the massive apparatus overseen by Hollywood agencies that direct culture on a whim, but, as it can only direct culture, it can only affect the world quantitatively. In truth, it’s more productive to ask what agencies, what media, cannot do. In this question, one finds what was historically the task of the Left — overcoming culture, overcoming society, overcoming capitalism. Today, however, it is precisely what agencies do — quantitative changes in the cultural sphere ordained by whim — that the Left upholds as politics.

Media as Failure

In the decade since #Occupy, the American sectarian Left has largely collapsed. At first glance, this organizational implosion seems to pose the possibility of overcoming the thought barriers built in and through the failure of the revolution, barriers that block the political tasks of the present. But this is not so. These thought barriers have merely slipped into the unconscious. Those organizations carried a historical memory, and their dissolution presents the possibility of this memory’s loss, reducing sectarian tendencies into mere reflex: Trotskyoids rather than Trotskyists; anarchoids rather than anarchists; Stalinoids rather than Stalinists.

Today, the Left has retreated into the vague cloud of “media.” Without reservation, we speak of the “Internet Left,” despite the fact that this broad banner encompasses a wide spectrum of often conflicting tendencies. Sectarian reflexives find their expression in this media cloud, where it is commonly said that a kind of political eclecticism predominates. This is a misapprehension, as this eclecticism is mediated through a history of undigested failures, most notably embodied by the Left publishing monopolies — Verso/Jacobin, Haymarket, Historical Materialism, etc. — left behind by the New Left and now by the Millennials. This retreat into media is an expression of regress in a post/pre-political moment, finding a historical rhyme with the post-1848 moment while simultaneously falling beneath that history.

In a recent interview, Matt Christman of Chapo Trap House claimed that “podcasting has become [a] sine qua non for political identity. In the absence of any [political] movement. . . consumption of podcasts has become. . . the stand-in for what your politics are.” The interview has value in that it features Christman groping for answers, grappling with the failure of the Millennial Left — a failure not of an attempt that did not succeed, but one in which the actual task was never clearly clarified. This is what distinguishes the media formations the Left takes on today from the post-1848 formations of Left agitation and propaganda groups, conscious tactical retreats from politics following a revolutionary defeat. We might then revise Christman’s statement to say the following: In the Millennial Left’s abdication of politics, media activity has taken on the appearance of politics qua politics, obfuscating the Left’s world-historic task to take political power in order to overcome capitalism.

The Internet Left and Left McLuhanism

Christman is among the more self-aware figures of the Internet Left, a phenomenon which must be taken seriously, as it’s treated as real in the world. What is the Internet Left? It doesn’t seem to simply mean, “the Left on the internet,” because to a large extent, the Left has been online for a very long time. The Internet Left seems newer. Ironic as it is, the people at the World Socialist Web Site probably wouldn’t fall under what might be called the Internet Left. The term’s former connotation of condescension would likely still ring true to their older organization.

#Occupy and the Arab Spring, key moments of the Millennial Left, are what first gave the Internet Left life. Whether it’s true or not, decentralized online organizing and, to a lesser extent, blogosphere activity, is treated as a valuable legacy of the Millennial Left. Now, the final bullet in the head for the Millennial Left — two failed Bernie Sanders campaigns — has created a crisis for the Internet Left. This crisis came as a surprise, as the Internet Left was not fully grasped as a phenomenon of the Millennials.

This isn’t meant as conjecture. Benjamin Studebaker, former host of What’s Left?, recently remarked to me that the implicit goal of the podcast was to influence the Bernie campaign. To paraphrase his comments, the two hosts were aware that advisors for the Bernie campaign such as Briahna Joy Gray listened to the podcast, supposedly to get “attack points.” To Studebaker, adoption of their purportedly Marxist attack points by the campaign would compromise it and force the Millennials further to the Left. Studebaker left the podcast a week before the Bernie campaign officially ended.

Internet Left platform and quasi-organization Do Not Research have an explicit self-conception of themselves as in a crisis period following the failure of the Bernie 2020 campaign. As Abbey Pusz, one of the co-directors of DNR, explained,

[DNR] was riding the wave of political energy that began in 2020, but faced with Brunch Era Biden [and] a shift in the Instagram landscape…, the project [was put] into a kind of crisis. I frame it [as] a crisis around the failure in the Bernie Sanders campaign as a[n]… open question/antagonism toward the roots that the project came out of. In one example, I want people to think about how shitposting on the meme account could… be carrying water for the Democrats… Right now the object is, what are the right questions to ask?

For the Internet Left, as an outgrowth and epiphenomena of the Millennial Left, the collapse of the latter sends the former into crisis. Zoomers, who have ingratiated themselves within the Internet Left, are now experiencing the crisis of the previous generation with no ability to grasp its origin. Its point of origin becomes “Bernie lost,” much to the benefit of the leaders of the Millennial Left, who now trace their beginning to 2015, rather than linking it with moments which perhaps could have meant much more: the Anti-War Movement in 2003–2008, or #Occupy in 2011. This move deliberately removes all agency (and, thus, responsibility) away from the Millennial Left as an independent force and places it into the hands of the Democratic Party with the launch of the Bernie campaign in 2015. More importantly, it ignores how the Millennial Left’s liquidation into the Democrats represented the resolution of questions formulated over the course of the prior decade.

Generational divides within the Left have the appearance of a downward stairwell of regression — the Millennial Left as a weaker repeat of the Boomers, and now Zoomers as a weaker repeat of Gen X, with each generation receiving a poisoned inheritance from their forbearers. But this fall without end is symptomatic of the absence of a receptacle for historical memory, a means to digest failure. In the past, this was the political party. The people at DNR grasp that their undirected “radical” activity might just serve the function of integrating a new generation into the Democratic Party. It is often lamented that it is the internet itself that encourages impulsive responses from users and that this leads the Left to behave in impulsive, opportunistic ways. This contains an element of truth. Earlier this year, Socialist Workers Party member Mary-Alice Waters wrote:

If the internet and its associated technologies had been developed under the control of the working class, the future would be brighter for us all. In the hands of the capitalist rulers, however, it has been born as a pernicious weapon to advance their class interests against workers and farmers.
Not only has it extended, to previously unimaginable lengths, the hours of the day during which our labor is exploited. It is a weapon used to penetrate every aspect of our lives from infancy on, every minute of our day. It works to batter down all resistance to the petty-bourgeois social relations it promotes.
Far from the “social media” it claims to be, it atomizes and divides us. It celebrates the epitome of petty bourgeois self-promotion and self-interest. Under the banner of promoting individual “freedom,” its masters are the conscious enemy of social solidarity of the working class and our allies. These servants of capital do everything possible to undermine and destroy such solidarity.
In short, in the hands of the capitalist class, it is a new and poisonous counterrevolutionary force.

Often, however, the problem of the internet for the Left becomes a way to make the internet the problem. The claim that the internet makes the Left impulsive and opportunist credits the problem to the internet itself and ignores that the general opportunistic impulse in the dominant current of the Left reaches much deeper. What is actually gleaned from this observation is that without a way to mediate information (too often one hears today that there is “too much information!”) the only response is pure immediacy, reflex.

The flipside of Waters’ position is that the internet is just a tool. But a tool is a tool only if it can be used. A Left that could actually use the internet as a tool in an overt and explicit way does not exist. A Weekly Worker article from 2019, “Fetishizing the Web,” attempted to grapple with the Left’s problematic treatment of the internet, to underwhelming effect. It concluded that “a website cannot substitute for a physical paper” for the Left and that there needs to be “a comprehensive challenge to the dominance of the capitalist media – and all of them, from radio to search engines.”

Setting aside the question of these conclusions’ validity, simply shrugging off the fetishism the Left has developed for the internet and media in general and straightforwardly asserting the need to better utilize these tools ignores the fact that the internet and media really are forces that stand above us and dominate us so long as the tasks required of the Left are abandoned. Their character must actually be worked through, which wouldn’t mean working through the internet or media as the problems, but rather the history that made these things appear as the problems for the Left.

The common Left critique of technology fetishism — that it’s ideological to view technology as something demonic that stands above us and dominates us, or as something that will solve our problems with a kind of automatism — too often falls into what it claims to critique because it fails to grasp ideology as something with a real force in the world, as something with an actual truth-content. This critique of ideology has itself become ideological. Could it acknowledge that, perhaps, outside of capitalism, technology does have the potential to be one-sidedly beneficial, that technology’s mythic quality à la Pandora’s box would cease to be such once technology was consciously grasped as a function of social relations? What would it mean to sustain the revelatory moment of the early users of telephones? “It’s like they’re right next to me!”

Despite the saturation of complaints from the Internet Left that “the Left can’t meme,” it’s among the Internet Left itself where one most clearly sees the present inability to straightforwardly use the internet as a tool. What’s Left? desired to indirectly influence the Bernie campaign by feeding “attack points” to advisors, hoping to quietly change the direction of the Millennial Left. DNR operates with the conceit that their memes indirectly affect people, though, as mentioned before, the manner in which people are affected is obscure and unpredictable. DNR founder Josh Citarella recently wrote an article about planting memes in radical online spheres to “redirect their interests and activities toward more productive ends.” But what does “productive” mean here?

The Internet Left believes its task is to “influence” events, which amounts to acting as the palace schemer in the court of the Democrats. Meanwhile, all attempts to become the active agent of events have been abandoned. As noted by Ezra Klein in his recent conversation with Jacobin founder and de-facto chief of the DSA, Bhaskar Sunkara, “the Left has gotten enough power to drive the narrative, but not enough to win many elections.” But how has winning elections become the implicit goal of the American Left, when historically that was not the case? And although “power” here is framed as something that one progressively gains, the way the Left has distracted itself with the question of “narrative” is precisely the way it has avoided the question of political power. Media, “controlling the narrative” has become an end in itself as a function of failure. After all, when Sunkara founded Jacobin, was the goal really just to start a magazine, or even to become the president of The Nation? Although winning the propaganda war would be a task of an actual revolutionary movement, this movement is now just presumed, when it in fact does not exist. The Left’s “media problem” lives on, undead, as the legacy of the Millennials’ failure.

In 2007, around the time of the Millennial Left’s emergence, French thinker Régis Debray wrote an essay for New Left Review called “Socialism: A Life Cycle.” This piece makes a rhetorical move similar to Foucault’s epistemes, in which history is divided into three distinct epochs, each with their own immanent logic. For Debray, these epochs are defined primarily by their means of communication and transmission. He argues that socialism was bound up with the second epoch, the so-called graphosphere, which began with the invention of the printing press in 1448 and ended with the failure of the New Left in 1968. He emphasizes that Enlightenment thought was bound up with this era and was created in and through the new modes of transmission, overcoming the previous mode in which the word of God was delivered by man. After 1968, there is the dawn of the so-called videosphere, in which image transmission supersedes the transmission of written word: the immediacy of the image overtakes the mediated word. For Debray, this is the end of socialist movements: the project of socialism had always been a creature of the Enlightenment, and socialist movements and parties were historically built on the basis of their publications — Iskra’s relationship to the Bolshevik Party, for example.

Although it’s mostly forgotten today, Debray’s essay was an early symptom of a prominent tendency in the Millennial Left, one that might be described as Left McLuhanism, after media theorist Marshall McLuhan, most known for his dictum, “the medium is the message” — a phrase that, along with the term “media” itself, expressed a liquidation of the distinction between form and content. A similar liquidation can be observed today in the Left itself. This tendency can be characterized primarily by the primacy of media. For Debray this meant that, due to changes in media transmission, socialism had become impossible. But the more common flipside of this tendency is to make media dominance the goal of the Left, an extreme confusion of means and ends. For both apparently opposite perspectives, modes of transmission — media — directly determine political horizons.

Left McLuhanism does not refer to a particular strain of the contemporary Left, but rather to its tendency as a whole. The DSA, an organization that has now become identical with the American Left through a mass liquidation of Left organizations, demonstrates this. It first emerged through a series of splits, as a compromise formation emerging from Max Shachtman’s realignment strategy. It was never intended to be a socialist party, but rather an organization which could potentially create the conditions for a socialist party by instigating a crisis within the labor movement. Compare this description with one from a 2019 interview with Gus Sanchez, a DSA organizer, and strategist. For him, as for many others in the DSA, the organization is “the premier platform for exchange of Leftist ideas.”

The political goal originally associated with Michael Harrington’s DSA is gone. In its place is a “platform” for the transmission of ideas — the DSA as medium for “radical” currents of thought. It has become synonymous with the American Left, and the American Left has become a mere outlet store in the “marketplace of ideas.” The form and content of the organization has been totally liquidated. In its place is a bundle of reflexes that now serve as the most advanced vanguard for the defense of the status quo.

To say a little more on Debray: although many of Debray’s claims can be treated as descriptively true, they naturalize existing conditions, foreclosing the possibility for their overcoming. By stating that socialism — the goal of the Left, the historical force tasked with utopically negating the present (see Leszek Kołakowski, “The Concept of the Left”) — is impossible, Debray affirms that overcoming present conditions is impossible. And perhaps that is true, but, if so, it completely defies our sense of reason, our sense that we should be able to change the state of affairs. We are left with the melancholic contemplation of a fallen world. If we have no business in changing the world, why bother describing it?

“Fake News” and “Radicalization”

Recently my roommate recalled a conversation he’d had with a friend. This friend lamented to him that the Right had won the so-called “culture war.” My roommate asked him to elaborate. He observed in reply how everyday, characters like Alex Jones and Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson fill millions of Americans’ heads with “lies” and Right-wing propaganda. My roommate asked, “What about Colbert? Just as many people, if not more, watch him every night. What about every commentator on NBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, etc.?” To this his interlocutor shrugged his shoulders.

Liberals and the “Left” (hysterical liberals) take excessive notice of characters like Rogan and Carlson because they seem to lie with impunity. Their sense of objective truth is the actual indication that progressivism has actually won the culture war — it possesses a monopoly on reality. Colbert doesn’t seem to violate this sense of truth, despite the knowing eyerolls he may provoke.

Carlson and others of his ilk do defy left liberals’ sense of truth. Carlson appears as something with an outsized effect in the world because he violates the Left’s very perception of reality and is thus immediately rejected as an aberration, untrue. The viewership of these figures likewise seems a threat. It suggests there are others with an entirely different sense of empirical reality from their own. Mass narcissism is threatened by what does not verify it.

This sense of “truth” exposes the Left’s abandonment of its task, a task that necessitates a dialectical understanding of the world. “No method can claim a monopoly of cognition, but no method seems authentic which does not recognize that these two propositions are meaningful descriptions of our situation: ‘The whole is the truth’ and the whole is false.”[2] Treating the world as a totality, as a whole, and comprehending this totality is necessary for the Left. Yet the totality itself is self-contradictory and thus points beyond itself. Seeing how the whole points beyond itself indicates what is politically necessary, what must be done so that things might be otherwise. The inability to grasp this is indicated by the Left’s inability to grasp the necessary character of phenomena. In short, it ignores that society is never simply “wrong.”

An authentic Left would not tail the Democrats in hand-wringing about “fake” news and “misinformation,” but would incorporate the truth-content of these phenomena into their theory and practice, because they are authentic expressions of discontent with a world that does not live up to the aspirations it has set for itself. The treatment of phenomena such as “fake news” as aberrations leads the “Left” to support all sorts of authoritative measures which undermine elementary rights; perhaps more significantly, it cedes to the establishment that the other news is plainly true. Such blind defense of the “facts” is nothing but the defense of conditions as they are, of a “truth” which is an expression of a greater untruth. It is nothing but a more mendacious conservatism. Not to mention the fact that liberal news is itself full of lies.

Paranoia over successful Republican media — cries of fake news, “dog whistles,” rabbit holes, shitposts — is the flipside of the subjective justification for the Left’s preoccupation with “media”: The necessity to “radicalize.” “When were you radicalized?” becomes the call sign for the Internet Left.

If Alex Jones and Tucker Carlson are at fault for telling people the “wrong” things, then, according to this perspective, the Left is merely tasked with telling people the “correct” things. If people know the correct things, if they are told by trusted sources what to do, then everything will fall into place. When this is all that must be done, then, of course, understanding how information is transmitted and mediated becomes the end-all-be-all.

This is epitomized by figures like Citarella, or by Metahaven’s pamphlet “Can Jokes Bring Down Governments?”[1] which both assert the radical potential of memes to “radicalize” and “resist,” or by Ben Burgis, who has a notable preoccupation with logic and debate. Like many among the Internet Left, Burgis tasks himself with “spreading the gospel,” convincing as many people as possible across as much media as possible that socialism is the way, typically through debate. As he stated in a recent Jacobin interview, “the Left, such as it exists right now…, [is] Left Media…, [and] if [information’s] only going out of one place, [people are] probably not gonna hear about it.” For Burgis, the actual problem is simply that not enough people believe socialism to be possible.

Winning socialism means (a) convincing a huge mass of people who don’t currently think that anything but capitalism is possible that there even can be a different kind of world and that they should fight for one, and then (b) going through an immensely complicated process, full of pitfalls and problems, in which that enormous group of people figures out together how it can all work…[3]

Thus, if people could be convinced and “radicalized,” socialism could become possible — “logic” is the answer. What the impetus to “radicalize” misses, however, is two-fold.

First, people see the world how they desire and fear it to be. Thus, for a perspective that one-sidedly relies on telling people the “correct” things, to be “successful” it must accommodate to the present’s narcissistic subjectivity and affirm these desires and fears. It seeks to be most compatible with a subjectivity that will reject or abuse anything that does not smoothly align with its own misshapen form. While it does not consciously pursue this as trickery, “argument” as such is itself fully constituted by this lacerated subjectivity. This accommodation to regressed consciousness is nothing but an accommodation to the state of affairs that produced it. Straightforwardly arguing for socialism avoids the ambiguous character of socialism as a proposition — that socialism has been objectively disproven by history (even as history disintegrated in the process). Logic as such stands against socialism, and it is this logic that actually needs to be overcome in the achievement of socialism. Burgis’ “logic” is nothing but the logic of the system he claims to be critical of.

Telling people the “correct” things is problematized by the fact that the existing “Left,” a Left that has abandoned its historical aspiration towards freedom, is in no position to say what the “correct” thing to do actually is. Understanding and changing the world are not wholly distinct operations. To understand the world implies an ability to change it, and vice versa. This was the stakes of the Marxist claim that the proletariat, its revolutionary class, was the subject-object of history, and of its need for a unity between theory and practice. In the past, through a revolutionary theory which came from intellectuals, the proletariat as a class worked on the world in practice. Its collisions with the capitalist world would allow it to develop an understanding not only of the world but of itself as a subject of change in the process of self-transformation — a self-transformation which would cause it to subsume and overturn the world and thus overcome itself as a class, necessarily the last class.

Figures like Burgis assume that the Right is simply employing rhetoric to trick an unsuspecting audience so that the Left is tasked with simply exposing these fallacies. But, insofar as the Left has abandoned the task of freedom, these “fallacies” are true, and to treat them as simply false is an expression of a greater untruth. It is not the Right that is disingenuous but Burgis. Making the achievement of socialism a problem of logic and argument sidesteps precisely what must be dealt with — the history of failure. Logic is merely affirmative and is insufficient for what would be required to create the conditions for social transformation. The assumption that we can redevelop socialism by improving skills of rhetoric and argument presumes that these skills’ obsolescence was essentially an aberration and not a result of the great historical catastrophe in which we have lived for perhaps over 100 years.

It is this catastrophe, the failure of the Left, that has brought us to the point where we are faced with the “media problem.” It is not that Left media activity must be abandoned, but that the actual ends this activity is serving must be genuinely grasped. The Left as it is currently constituted is incapable of this.

For a revolutionary socialist movement and an authentic Left with no illusions about its tasks, the problem of media would likely cease to be so intractable. The proposal many on the Left have made, that media and the internet are simply tools, has the potential to become true in practice. To treat them as the thing itself is to be lost in the static, the static of historical failure.

“There is too much information!” In freedom, this statement would be incomprehensible.

[1] Metahaven, Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? (Moscow: Strekla Press, 2014).

[2] Herbert Marcuse, “A Note on Dialectics,” in Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Second Edition (Boston: Beacon Press: 1960), vii-xvi.

[3] Ben Burgis, Give Them an Argument: Logic for the Left (London: Zer0 Books, 2019), 87.