“Could it have gone any other way?” An Interview with Matt Christman


Reflections on the Millennial Left

This interview originally aired as a Sublation Media podcast entitled “Podcasting After Bernie,” In it, Matt Christman reflects upon his own realization that “the political project [I] thought [I was] part of is not actually happening.” We publish an edited transcript of the interview as an especially thoughtful engagement with the present political moment.

Doug Lain: Matt Christman is one of the hosts of Chapo Trap House and the man behind the CushVlog. He is currently running a reading group on his vlog on David Graeber and David Wengrow’s 2021 book, The Dawn of Everything, a book that revises our understanding of the birth of civilization. Just to start with, why are you reading the David Graeber book?

Matt Christman: I’ve found myself recently reflecting more and more on foundational questions of human social order — how it came to be and how a narrative of it makes sense for me. This book coming out right now seemed like a good opportunity for me to refine my thoughts on that. We’re still pretty early on in the book. We haven’t really gotten to the innovative anarchist parts yet.

DL: Well, back in the 1990s, I was an anarchist living in the Pacific Northwest. One of the big trends in anarchism then was the primitivist turn, the turn to the post-left. From what I know about the Graeber book it seems that he might be overcoming the urge to become a primitivist by saying that it’s possible to have agricultural production and maybe even industrial production without falling into a hierarchical, oppressive social order.

MC: Yeah, that seems to be the thesis, which is a challenge to Marxism. We’ll see how he develops it. So far, he has argued that different modes of production do not necessitate certain hierarchical social relationships.

DL: That may be a challenge to Marxism, but it sounds more like a challenge to primitivism. Because the primitivists would say, “no, we need to abandon agriculture, get back into the wild, and abandon civilization.” They are anti-civilization. Primitivists in the 90s would run off into the forest and generally starve to death. So, it’s nice him to write to save his fellow anarchists from that fate. But how do you see it as a challenge to Marxism? After all, Marxism is saying, we can have industrial society, we can have modernity without being hierarchical and oppressive and exploitative.

MC: But a part from Marxism, too, is the assertion that material relationships structure our social relationships. The cheif most of those is the mode of production.

DL: So he’s saying that the mode of production changed, but the social changes don’t start then. They start with some sort of change in ideology.

MC: I haven’t gotten there yet. We’ll see what he says.

DL: My knee-jerk Marxist defense against this suggestion is to say, “well, the mode of production has to be looked at deeply. It always includes both social organization and a technological change.” So, you might have the development of agriculture without the kind of hierarchical arrangements that would turn that it into something that sustained larger social orders, more hierarchical social orders, or something like that. But that’s just off the top of my head without thinking it through very much. But I always want to defend Marxism from the likes of the late David Graeber.

But, we should talk about something we both know a little bit more about, podcasting and the left space for podcasting. You’re at the forefront of that, probably unintentionally. But back in the early days, Chapo Trap House got a big push from the New Yorker, but last year you got attacked by them.

MC: Well, the first New Yorker article wasn’t terribly complimentary. It was sort of a concern troll that we were being insufficiently intersectional. It was a big deal to be in the New Yorker, of course — any press is good press, it doesn’t really matter what they say. But, the angle was to see us as defiant white guys who refused to accept the reality of non-class basis of oppression generally. It certainly was not, “hey, these guys are awesome, right?”

The most recent one is more of a direct strike. It was interesting because it shows the trajectory not just of the relationship between us and the mainstream media, but also the way that podcasting has become this sine qua non for political identity. In the absence of any movement on the political front, podcast consumption has become a stand-in for politics. That was always something that attracted people to political podcasts — it became a way for people who felt political frustrations and a desire for political change to imagine themselves part of a community. But, for a time, there was a spoken and unspoken sense that that was part of a broader project. Now that has gone away, and all we’re left with is consumer signaling. So that article basically said, “your leftism is determined by which podcast you listen to, and, therefore, curating your podcast is an important political act. It’s a reflection of you individually.”

DL: I started podcasting well before you did, back in 2009. Back then, being a leftist podcaster meant that you either spoke with some member of a sectarian Marxist group, some Trot or Communist group, or you were just talking to anybody on the left. I started out by getting myself into podcasts that were focused on psychedelics because Marxism was about as far out as psychedelics at that moment. So, I thought, “we might as well bring it to these people, because they might have the imagination to listen.” Also, being politicized in the nineties in the Pacific Northwest, I knew a little bit about Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary and all that.

It was not until around 2016, after I started working at Zer0 Books, that my little podcast attracted a somewhat larger audience. But I never felt any pressure to become a political pundit that people would identify with as defining their politics. I just wanted it to be a little broader view of the left. I wanted that either everyone should listen regardless of where they were on the left or everyone should just believe exactly what I believed in, should join my little sect of one. But now that Trump and Sanders are gone, it’s like I’ve returned to 2009, just talking to whoever I can. There are more podcasts around, but, basically, it seems like the same endeavor as it was then. You just create something, rather than entering into a field that’s already got a direction. Since the end of the Sanders campaign do you feel something similar yourself or do you feel that you have to fit into a slot that’s already been constructed?

MC: Since the Sanders campaign every content creator has been challenged with how to integrate the reality of the Irrelevance of the left online to the political process. In some respects, it’s terrifying, because it means that the political project you thought you were part of is not actually happening. But it’s also liberating because it takes some of the pressure off and allows you to refocus on the fact that this is an entertainment product and that, if you’re going to do politics, it can’t be what counts for that. That was something that we insisted on early on when the show started, but, as the mirage of the Sanders campaign came into focus, it was very easy to imagine yourself as part of an actual political movement with the ability to influence things. That came with a real sense of responsibility and anxiety. It was worth it because you felt your words had power, but now, as I say, everybody has to come to terms with their irrelevance one way or the other. So, the question is, how do you stay entertaining and truthful without feeding the delusions of people who still want to believe that they’re building something?

DL: I’m thinking about the sectarian left, because — certainly after 1989, but really before then, probably after 1968 — there was then a feeling of profound defeat on the left. Many sectarian groups, whether they were Trotskyist or Maoist or whatever flavor of Marxism or anarchism, continued on by saying to themselves, “well, we’re no longer political. Our job now is to educate, propagandize, and retain the vision.” Do you feel like maybe you have something like that responsibility, to put a message in a bottle for the future, as Adorno put it?

MC: I’ve talked about that with friends, and that is how it feels. I know I personally have found myself incapable of offering any constructive analysis of the current political moment. So, I find myself more focused on history. I’m trying to find something about the past, which is something that can be investigated in its totality due to the fact that it is the past, and to tease out dynamics within it that can be applied to the current moment. That’s how I have been dealing with the breakup and the decline of the political movement that I imagined myself part of.

DL: How old were you in 2011 during Occupy?

MC: I was about thirty. I was in New York and went down to Zuccotti Park on the second day. So, I saw them do the General Assembly and the twinkle hands. There were a bunch of topless women there with paint on them. I remember just feeling despair, because it felt like a self-conscious 1960s retread and I couldn’t imagine that having any real influence. I left and was shocked by its persistence and how it grew. I went back several times, but never felt like I could contribute.

DL: I was part of the peace movement in the early 2000s. I organized and did marches. One of the things that struck me then was that, even after 9/11, the left response was right out of the 70s or late 60s. It felt like we should all be high and, if we were women, not shave our armpits. It felt very much like a repeat, and I ended up leaving. But with Occupy, because it was focused on class and on the financial sector, and not just about the need for peace, not just against violence or emoting about the need to overcome racism or whatever, because it was actually trying to strike at the foundation — at least that is what I thought. So, I felt pretty optimistic about Occupy, despite how carnivalesque it seemed, despite the 1960s aesthetic.

But then what struck me was not how long it lasted, but how it failed to deal with its own defeat. For a long time afterwards people were still insisting that it was happening, even after they had all been driven out of the park. Eventually, it retreated into reformist legal maneuvering and helping people stay in their homes. That was what they did, community organizing. And that was never acknowledged to be a retreat. It was thought to be an advance, what we’re doing next. But, of course, it was just a way for the activists to professionalize and for the rest to just disperse. Then with Bernie Sanders it seemed like a lot of people were just preparing to have positions of power and authority within the new universe, within the White House or the new media space that was being developed. There even was talk of it in the mainstream media. That was different from Occupy, which felt like it was from the outside. With Occupy there was a defined radical left that was attempting something, whereas with the Sanders campaign it was from the inside of the Democratic Party. It felt as if there was a new direction emerging within the Democratic Party, so, perhaps, that made it seem more realistic. But the people who got defeated there got defeated on a much more direct and personal level. For instance, if Michael Brooks was still alive, I’m sure his level of disappointment would be intense right now.

MC: Respecting Occupy and Sanders, I don’t think it could have really gone any other way, because the left by that point, really by the early 2000s, had been completely routed and destroyed. The working class base of the Democratic Party had been scattered, and all you had were individuals from all walks of life and all class backgrounds responding to the crisis of the non-recovery after 2008 with a relatively spontaneous desire to resist the system. Because of the failure of the institutional left, it was inevitable that they were going to be allergic to demands and to structured politics, because they had seen it fail. Now, the lack of that also failed, but it had to be experienced before people could accept that it really is all we have. Because we simply don’t have the capacity in the face of this totalizing capitalist system to defeat it by demonstrating an alternative, which anyway will always just be nestled within the system and only be allowed to the degree that it poses no threat. But if Occupy didn’t build a real constituency, the Sanders campaign really was a mad dash for the controls. Famously, a Trump supporter wrote an infamous essay in 2016 in which he compared the 2016 election to Flight 93. The Democrats are going to crash the plane into the White House or whatever, so,

even if Trump is an imperfect vessel, he’s our only chance to grab the reins. Of course, that was ridiculous, and the actual policies pursued by both parties, as we’ve seen now, are basically identical. But the Sanders campaign was get a desperate grab for the levers of power in order to build a working class movement that did not exist. But that is inverting the process. But at that late date and with so few apparent prospects, it felt like the only real option. It was what was happening, and, for a while, it looked like it was a going concern and had a chance.

I remember when it seemed, at least to us, that Bernie might actually get the nomination. I remember having to tell myself that I had to accept that I was not going to be able to treat a Sanders presidency like any previous one. I couldn’t simply distance myself from it in office, even though it would immediately disappoint and sell out. I knew, therefore, that it would implicate me morally, which is what people were really scared of. They feared the loss of their sense of political virtue by actually encountering power, knowing that they would probably fail in most of their objectives. But that failure was our really our only hope of building some capacity, some organizational energy that could withstand the continuing tightening of the neoliberal noose. So, even in the best-case scenario, it was a desperate grab not even really for power, but for the ability to organize towards power beyond Sanders.

DL: I never expected Sanders to actually be allowed to get the nomination, but I thought they might get to a contested convention in which they would have to fairly openly take it from him. He might have almost enough delegates to win, and they would play games with super delegates to take it away from him. That’s what I thought would happen, and I hoped that it would do tremendous damage to the Democratic Party, causing great disillusionment among many Democratic voters. That, from my perspective, would be a great thing — to kill off the Democratic Party as a party for the left or for the working class. But, unfortunately, I was wrong about that. I was surprised at how much solidarity there was amongst the candidates to defeat Sanders. I became a naive whiner when that happened. Earlier you said, “we can’t create an alternative within this system that won’t be nestled within it.” That’s true. If you look at David Graeber’s vision of Occupy, the idea was to prefigure a new kind of politics, a new kind of society, by occupying these parks. That obviously didn’t work because of the very thing you pointed to. But a working class movement in unions or radical unions would also be nestled deeply within capital. In fact, it would be the source of capital’s value, while it might also have the potential to change the system, to make it become a different kind of system to the degree to which the workers struggle for power politically as well as in the workplace. That’s why Marx pointed to the proletariat as a potentially revolutionary force, because it could do exactly that. It would be the source of power within capitalism that they couldn’t get rid of; they occupied the territory on which they could actually do political battle and change society. So, what is it that is holding back the working class internationally, and specifically in the United States, from that kind of politics? Or, are they being held back? Because there’s a great resignation and there are these anti-mandate protests. What are we to make of these things?

MC: The thing holding back the working class is that there is no actual class experience in this country. The reality of class is obviously undeniable, the reality of your life being organized primarily by your relationship to capital. But in America most intensely, but also in other advanced nations, the subjective experience of class has been completely eradicated. People do not experience the hardship and the alienation of capitalism in crisis as members of a class. They experience it as individuals, as members of, basically, a consumer demographic tranch. Their relationship to each other is according to those demographic consumer models. Their hostility to the system and their resistance to it are expressed according to a consumer identity. And that’s not their fault. One thing that makes it very difficult to talk about this stuff in a constructive way is the smuggled-in moralism that even people who consider themselves hardcore materialist Marxists fall victim to, namely, the idea that the working class is virtuous, that it contains some transcendent value (as opposed to being the group that has the capacity to experience and express class consciousness in a way that can effectively challenge capitalism). But they are only workers when they all experience alienation as members of a class. That is certainly how Marx imagined the experience of being working class intensifying over time. But, in the United States anyway, the 20th-century process of suburbanization and the mass media have really turned us into not the sack of potatoes of rural France in the 19th century, but into Pringles. In the potato chip tube of American post-industrial society, we are not workers. We work, but we are not workers. The organizing power of events, a power that ought to be the first and most important element in building working-class power, does not intensify class consciousness, because there is none to intensify.

DL: I was recently talking with a rural woman who had been working as a manicurist, but found herself looking for a job. What she talked about was the people she knew who could help her find work. They included people who ran the salons as well as other workers. There was no distinction in her mind between them, because it was just about finding work. But it wasn’t about defining herself through what she consumed. She repeated to me how she hated not having a job. She was defined by her work. She had done it for a long time and took pride in the skills she possessed. She hated being unemployed. She was disdainful towards people who told her to go on food stamps and collect unemployment. To that, she responded, “no, I go to work. That’s what I do.” When I pointed out that with COVID and inflation it was not her fault and that this was happening to a lot of people, her response was to say, “yeah, no shit, Sherlock.” What I’m getting at is that it is not just a matter of the consumer identity, but just that for a worker who’s out of work or who’s struggling to get a higher wage, the institutions that they might rely on simply are not there. There was no way for her to work with other workers to collectively do anything. So she had to be like an entrepreneur herself. In the end, she got a job. Three days after we spoke, she texted me to say she got hired.

MC: Yeah, most people cannot afford to pine for political solutions to their economic problems, because, in the meantime, they have to pay the bills and keep a roof over their head. That privileges embracing “grindset,” embracing the idea that you are on your own. Political whining is just a waste of time that would be better spent finding something through your own efforts. Because the message has been sent loud and clear, certainly over the past ten years, from every institution in this country: You are completely on your own and any political solution is a chimera, a fantasy. The promise of political help is a cynical fraud being dangled in front of you by people who really just want to pick your pocket. And it’s very difficult to convince anyone that that is not the case.

What doomed the Sanders campaign was the success of Obama. Obama was the last politician to get a fair hearing from regular people for a pitch for political change. The betrayal that resulted left people worse off than before. But, worse than that, it left people saddled with a bunch of cultural guilt: Because the prospect of politics making anybody’s life better is completely dismissed because we have to face the reality of life under capitalism, the need to express virtuous politics is more important than ever, despite its having no actual bearing on anybody’s life. So, by the time Bernie showed up, he got a hearing among young people who were too young for the most part to have been disappointed by Obama. But everybody else who was uncommitted to either party (and maybe would support in the abstract a social-democratic turn in American politics) had no faith in the program and no desire to be made a chump again.

DL: But during the nominating process in 2007-8, of the three candidates who had any shot Obama was not the furthest to the left. It was John Edwards who was talking about two Americas — the rich and the poor, the working class and the ownership class. Edwards was more interested in revitalizing the working-class part of the Democratic party. Obama’s only left credentials were that he was black and that he hadn’t been in office during the war debacle, so he didn’t have a record.

MC: Of course, it was all marketing. In the primary, it was marketing that appealed to young people. It lacked substance, but the economic crisis came just at the moment of the presidential election, after he got the nomination. So, in that moment of crisis, Obama got to stand for some vague concept of change. His brand was populist reform. No content, just brand. In the end, populist reform turned out to be recapitalizing the banks, kicking millions of people out of their homes, and refusing to allow the economy to recover in any meaningful way. There was, in short, very little difference between the two parties as regards the major issues of the day.