To Popularize a Movement, There Needs to Be a Movement in the First Place
what actually-existing political movement is "breadtube" inviting people into?
I wrote about YIMBYism and the battle for its online culture for the Daily Beast recently, check it out.
When I first started writing for a public audience, socialists had been written out of establishment publications sufficiently that simply being a self-described socialist had novelty value. (A market opportunity!) People would share my work back then by saying, “he’s a socialist, but…”, and not just conservatives either. As I’ve said before, the left pole within high-profile liberalism was guys like Michael Kinsley, center-left types who had absorbed the Clintonite worldview and treated it as the obvious truth. Against them was, like, Mickey Kaus. That was what passed for within-left conversation. Whatever self-described socialists might have gotten national prominence at all were the children of Michael Harrington, “socialists” whose first priority was anticommunism, many of whom were in the Christopher Hitchens leftist-to-neocon pipeline.
It’s fair to say that things have changed. Socialist perspectives are legion now. Nobody thinks to come to me to get the socialist perspective anymore, which is just as well, given my cultural distance from your average Wellesley-educated leftist. I still do frequently get queried about a lot of socialist ephemera, though, perhaps out of inertia more than anything else. For example, I often get asked about “Breadtube,” a loose constellation of socialish vloggers and streamers, and about Contrapoints and Hasan Piker in particular. For many, they offer an easy onramp for socialist community. The trouble is that I don’t know what exactly I’m supposed to react to. Breadtube and those in its orbit appear to be entertainers first, and typical of entertainers they’re longer on passion than on coherence. Which would be OK, if such coherence lay in some larger socialist project. The problem is that there is no real socialist movement in 21st-century American politics. All we have are entertainers.
Since at least 2016 and the noble failure of the Bernie Sanders candidacy, there’s been a lot of interest in socialism. That energy had been building since the financial crisis and Occupy, and then Bernie galvanized young people in a way I couldn’t have imagined before. There was tremendous membership growth for the Democratic Socialists of America, historically my enemies but grudgingly my friends. Ideas that had been seen as too far to the left to be countenanced, in the aughts, grew to be commonplace in mainstream publications, even rather stodgy ones. More than anything there was a broad-based sense of discontent, the notion that “shit is fucked up and bullshit,” which you now encounter everywhere, even in the social media presence of #brands. You are all aware that I see little of value in that vague, directionless rage, but I can’t deny that it’s genuine, this disgust with the status quo, and reflects broad unhappiness with the American project. For awhile it all felt like it was building to something, something real.
Then Bernie lost and Hillary won, and then Hillary lost, and then Bernie lost and Biden won, and now we live in Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema hell. There’s the Squad, which is cool I guess, but the vehicles of organizational socialism are already voicing their unhappiness with them, and it’s not clear to which extent they represent a coherent political tendency. Bernie has no heir. DSA’s membership grows and shrinks, and there’s a constant battle between its sober and serious IRL wing and its screaming social justice Twitter wing. Sadly the latter does more to set the national reputation than the former. No one knows the right level of politics for socialists to operate in; being the left wing of the Democratic party would be something of a drag, but at least it would be a plan, but then again there will always be the Synemas and Manchins and the party’s inherent bias towards them…. I don’t pretend that any of this is easy. You can wedge Mark Fisher’s famous observation that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism in here if you would like.
Either way: though I admire a magazine like Jacobin (and my writing used to appear there pretty regularly), and I respect the activist core of DSA, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a coherent American socialist movement right now. There’s not an obvious group or party that’s serving as the primary organizing vehicle, Bernie is 80 years old and there’s no other figure that enjoys both the socialist base’s great admiration and significant crossover popularity, we don’t know how closely to work with Democrats or when, and we don’t have a shared definition of socialism or what agenda of small-bore changes could be seen as contributing to it. Nobody is really sure where to put all the feelings of injustice and unhappiness, and that includes me.
Which complicates questions about socialist or left entertainers and popularizers - I don’t know how to evaluate those who popularize a movement that does not exist. Popularizing what?
So when people ask me what I think about Hasan Piker, for example, I genuinely don’t know what they’re asking me to react to. How well he plays Mario Kart? I’m not being a dick. I’m saying, simply, that I don’t know how to address the politics of people who define themselves as political figures but who have no particularly lucid political identity and who aren’t connected to a coherent political project. It’s made worse by the fact that, in my experience, Piker specifically and “Breadtubers” generally retreat constantly into the safety of “hey we’re all just goofing around here.” The possibility of seriousness is preemptively ironized away. Everything’s a joke; nothing matters; now watch me no-scope this guy.
What propositional content would I be addressing in Piker’s streams, then? What are his big ideas, politically? I’m sure he’s really good at being a streamer, and it’s a hard thing to do well. (I’m too old to really understand that whole world, I think.) But the question remains, if we’re asked to interpret his project politically, what is he bringing to the table as a political theorist or organizer? If there’s some big central idea that Piker has advanced that I’ve missed, please, point me in the right direction. If he writes a book, I’ll read and review it. But I find it bizarre that there’s an expectation that I would be interested in, or even capable of, mining his various videos and picking through the endless jokes to find what he’s actually putting out there politically.
I like Natalie Wynn much more, but the fundamental frustration is perhaps even deeper there: in her videos she very elegantly and intelligently traffics in banalities, middlebrow wisdom for people who are too distracted to think any deeper. This is, no doubt, a function of her project, of the kind of person she's teaching out to, which I respect. But it's not for me. Her YouTube videos are exquisitely made explorations of specific issues without any clear connection to a broader political milieu. While I don’t find a lot of novelty in them I do think she’s a remarkably effective teacher. But that broader political project remains inscrutable to me. I don’t know what her grand vision is, what the big-picture valence is of all of these discrete parts. I understand her to be a leftist, but I don’t know which kind, nor do I have a sense of what she thinks about the overarching question of how to be a leftist in 21st-century America.
At least Wynn clearly has deeper understanding of the issues that she discusses, even if she never really spells out the bigger picture. (I suspect she’s saving it for a book.) “Vaush,” Christ. I don't know, man. Pretty nakedly pro-imperialism, overbearingly invested in linguistic purity markers, dismissive of left criticisms of liberals, “libertarian” except for people he doesn't like? The guy's politics are incoherent, even in the sad context of today's left, and trying to suss them out is not made easier by the fact that he peppers his conversations with Marxist terms that make no sense whatsoever. I have heard the term “dialectics” wedged into sentences where they could be removed without changing the meaning enough times in my life, thanks. (I will again stress: it is OK to consider yourself on the far left and to drop your vestigial attachment to Marxism and its vocabulary.)
He’s also kind of a monster!
“We’re wealthier than them by metrics.” Ah, yes. Metrics. I too know words. For the record, Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal and less to lose than the NATO countries do in a nuclear conflict, and Vaush and his army of indoor kid fans can’t stop them from making the tristate area glow if they decide to. More to the point, anyone who knows the slightest thing about sanctions - the topic he’s so casually spouting off about - knows that they hurt the poorest most and the powerful least, leaving the leadership structure on top. Putin will not starve, that much is certain, but millions of innocent Russian citizens might. And we’re still yet to chew on how someone could think advocating for starving millions of innocent people to bring their government to heel - forgive me for going “literally Hitler,” but literally Hitler’s plan for Russia - could ever fit with the respect for human rights and resistance to American hegemony any leftist should have. The less said about this guy, the better, and the fact that he has so many apologists in the larger “Breadtube” space says some not-very-great things.
There’s a guy named Destiny I’m sometimes asked to comment on too. Destiny. A man in his 30s. There was a time when giving yourself a name like the lesser half of a WWF tag team would be seen as self-evidently ridiculous, but here we are. We’re in a strange place these days, as a culture. “Destiny,” christ.
The larger issue is this: these cultures are sites of the great 21st-century curse of addiction to jokes. And while humor can be a great balm and an occasional organizing tool, contemporary socialism is an object lesson in the dangers of treating your political movement as a comedy club. At some point you have to just say “this is who I am, these are my values, and here’s why you should join me,” with all the vulnerability that such frankness entails. There’s a great temptation, in life, to hide in a space of unseriousness. Or, maybe even worse, to constantly slide into and out of seriousness as convenient. Hey, you took me seriously when I said that? lol lol lol, imagine taking me seriously. It never ends. Every argument that fails to go your way can be sabotaged if you act like you never meant it. And this is a state of affairs that has bled deeper and deeper into the socialist world, and I’ve watched it happen in real time. Yes, I understand that the Marxist world that I grew up in was no closer to power than we are now, and no, I don’t think that we should be a joyless collection of nerds having pointless arguments in drab halls. But there is such a thing as overcorrecting. Sadly, there’s little personal profit in going first in rejecting jokey meaninglessness. Not in these cultures.
It’s fair to say that I need to propose a better way forward if I’m criticizing what they’re doing now. Personally? I think socialism is a verb, not a noun - it’s something you do, rather than something you are. You must practice! I think people who have activist urges should go do activism. Find a local organization, investigate it, go to a couple meetings, and if you like what you're hearing, try a few events or actions. My advice is to avoid left generalist organizations at first and stick to issue-specific groups, whether in housing, education, healthcare, or other. Find an organization where people say things that make sense and put together actions that could at least plausibly help real people. Then do the work of being a leftist. Advance the cause by inches. Tell jokes on your own time.
Is that how we win? Probably not. But it’s got to be better than lol lol lol nothing matters. We’ve tried that for a decade. Look what it’s brought us so far. I recognize that I don’t have a great plan myself, but it’s better than spending the rest of our lives sneering online while the world burns. We’ll always be sorting through various bad options. Ours is a love amongst the ruins.