On Tuesday the 26th I released a video that I eventually titled “Christopher Lasch, Paul Sweezy, and the Great RESET” but it didn’t get many clicks or views. I watched the dashboard of our youtube studio closely as the video failed to perform and then, after an hour or so, as the video was removed by youtube. It had, according to them, “violated community standards on COVID.” That is, it was thought to have disputed the recommendations of the World Health Organization, specifically related to social distancing and social isolation. I appealed this action as the video did not dispute those recommendations. To be clear it is my opinion that masks are necessary. Lockdowns are often necessary. COVID is real and very dangerous. It’s much worse than the flu. However, despite the fact that anyone who watched the video and took in the argument being made within it would see that the video was not a critique of the World Health Organization nor an attempt to dispute their guidelines, our appeal of the decision to remove the video was rejected.
For Zero Books as a youtube channel the takedown of our video and the attached warning, if we violate community standards again our channel could be entirely shut down, is worrying. We are in the position of having to second guess how the algorithm will interpret the videos we produce and what our guests say. Given how faulty the enforcement of community standards was this time producing videos tackling difficult subjects and engaging in ruthless criticism on youtube feels like a game of Russian Roulette.
We are still hoping we can have the decision reversed and one of the aims of this video is to encourage viewers to get the word out, to use social media to alert people to the problem, and to communicate with Youtube that they’ve made a mistake. If you’re watching and want to help the channel please do share this video on social media and let people know what happened.
The other aim of this video, however, is to figure out how we’ve arrived at a moment in history when nearly 2 billion people watch over a billion hours of youtube videos a day, a moment when four hundred million youtube users report that a platform curated by neural networks and machine learning, where editorial decisions are made by an algorithm that has a reading comprehension ability well below the average human, is very important to them as they attempt to understand what is happening in the world.
We’ll take a look at Grafton Tanner’s critique of techno-utopianism from his upcoming book “The Circle and the Snake,” discuss the possibility of a rising anti-politics as explored in the upcoming book “The End of the End of History,” and take another stab at evaluating Christopher Lasch’s “The Agony of the Left.”
It’s remarkable the degree to which history repeats itself. For the last thirty years, there have been multiple and increasingly loud objections to Fukuyama’s essay and book “The End of History,” a book that argued that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberal democracy could be seen as the “end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution.” Thirty years before the collapse of communism another book, this one written by Daniel Bell, similarly announced that the development of ideologies had ended. And in his 1969 book “The Agony of the Left” Christopher Lasch took up this earlier end of history, evaluating both how the sixties had provided a refutation and a strange confirmation of Daniel Bell’s argument.
Lasch was struck by the level of discontent there had been in the sixties. He noted that “The antiwar movement in the United States has grown to such proportions that it may prove impossible, in the future, to carry on American colonialism without resorting to wholesale repression at home.” And he noted that “riots threaten to become a permanent feature of urban life.”
It is difficult to say whether it has become impossible to carry out colonial projects without wholesale repression at home as, even nearly 20 years after the attacks of September 11th, it is not clear just what counts as repression and what doesn’t.
However we judge the consequence of the last 60 years of protest politics and direct action from the left, two facts are clear. First, the notion of an end of ideology has stuck around and gained traction, especially since 2016, and second, the dominant left is very nearly as anti-ideological as the right. This turn away from ideology came after the mainstream pronouncement of the death of ideology by Bell, but it did come. Lasch recognized it as taking two forms: The Radical Liberalism of Arnold Kaufman and the democratic socialism of Michael Harrington. In fact, Lasch characterized both men as radical liberals and recognized how both had emerged after the left had failed to revolutionize American society.
In “The Death of Ideology” Bell, a self-described liberal, noted that the early 20th century socialists were ambivalent on the subject of reform, both taking up reformist demands as a means to be politically relevant and rejecting the reformist aims of their adversaries. In his book, Bell quotes Eugene Debs, who said the following during the election of 1896. “What but meaningless phrases are "imperialism," "expansion," "free silver," "gold standard," etc., to the wage worker? The large capitalists represented by Mr. McKinley and the small capitalists represented by Mr. Bryan are interested in these "issues," but they do not concern the working class.”
For Bell, the Death of Ideology meant many things, but it definitely indicated that the spirit of Debs, his rejection of practical reforms, to a politics that accommodated itself to the realities of capitalism, was no either going or already gone. And in 1969 Lasch would agree with Bell’s assessment, even if he did not embrace the quietism of Bell, or the radical liberalism of those who symptomatically like Harrington and Kaufman, who pressed on as leftists even as the ideology of the left, the idea of revolutionary transformation that some like Bell would derisively call Messianic, had passed on.
And this is what we should note at this moment, what I can’t help but notice as I read and reread the warning issued by Google after the takedown of our video. The death of at least the socialist ideology is a material fact that is operative in the world. And this fact is what two of our upcoming books are wrestling with or examining.
In his book, the Circle and the Snake Grafton Tanner notices that capitalism is in the business of selling solutions to problems it creates, and those solutions, are increasingly technological. That is, while the ideology of socialism, or of overcoming capitalism and regrounding society on a new material foundation, has died, the dissatisfaction that had spurred on and justified socialist ideology, continues. As Lasch pointed out fifty years ago, the passive acceptance of society as it is was short-lived.
What that leaves us with is a left project that, as The Aufhebunga Bunga gang (Alex Hochuli, Philip Cunliffe, and George Hoare) wrote in their upcoming The End of the End of History “understands the working class as the object of politics, with the welfare of the working-class majority to be improved through redistribution, large social projects, and economic development.” The old socialist idea that the working class is the subject of politics, that the working class had a political agenda that included self-government ultimately self abolition, has been driven back to near nonexistence.
This is what we should understand when we consider the climate of censorship that we find online. Google, Facebook, the US government, and most other major institutions think of us not as politicized workers but as masses. We are conceived of as passive recipients of ideas and information and as the automatic generators and spreaders of memes and messages that must be analyzed and directed. Every post must be categorized and its path directed, based on an objective evaluation of its toxicity and/or authority. Every argument and fact shunted to the right demographic, not in order to keep an engaged citizenry informed, but in order to profit off of what can only be thought of as a kind of stasis.
At this moment it’s worth considering how Lasch concluded his analysis of the sixties New Left and the radical liberal turn he witnessed. He wrote, “No matter what some militants think, a mass movement for radical change cannot grow up in a setting of repression. It demands that the avenues of discussion remain open, that limits be placed on the powers of the secret police and other agencies of “law enforcement,” and that the freedom to convince and persuade, in short, be protected both from vigilantes and from official attacks. So long as the “radical liberal” remains committed to the defense of these principles, he is the ally, not the enemy, of those who are seeking a deeper reconstruction of American life.”
Back in 1969 Lasch may have had reason to be relatively confident that his liberal friends would remain allies, but fifty years later I think it is relatively clear that today’s radical liberals have firmly and resolutely abandoned these principles and are no longer to be treated as allies to those who seek a deeper or truly radical transformation of society.
Instead, the task of would-be radicals must first be to disassociate with the radical liberals and their progressive allies in corporations and the state, even as we continue to operate within domains that are dominated by these factions within the capitalist order.
That is, while you don’t necessarily have to delete your account, you should always realize that when you’re on twitter, Facebook, Instagram or youtube, you’re in enemy territory.