The Merit of Online Agitation
Recently Caleb Maupin, an American Marxist and activist, released a book entitled “BreadTube Serves Imperialism: Examining The New Brand of Internet Pseudo-Socialism”. This book was an attempt to deconstruct the phenomenon of BreadTube, an online entertainment trend turned subgenre which has a focus on media analysis, social issues, and generally “left-wing” politics. This attempt is understandable if not commendable; not only is criticism always welcome but BreadTube in particular is deeply flawed. Its politics are vaguely left-wing, yet rarely if ever provide any concrete calls to action. Its aversion towards economic analysis leaves its criticisms blunted at best. And of course its nature as a business means that of all its many flaws, BreadTube is incentivized not to fix the vast majority of them. A more economic analysis might bore people, and undoubtedly wouldn’t have the same level of appeal to BreadTube’s largely labor-aristocratic audience. Calls to action would require more concrete organizing, something BreadTube entirely lacks. Even if this were attempted, BreadTube’s reformist nature and focus almost entirely on social issues means that such organizing likely wouldn't get far. As the saying goes, “You can't have capitalism without racism.”
This, alongside BreadTube’s relatively small outreach, brings into question whether the topic of online agitation is even one worthy of discussion. This could and should be explored in more depth in the future, however for now suffice it to say that yes, online agitation is ultimately niche and largely irrelevant. This is not to say it has no merit, but rather that it should not be hyper fixated on. There are certainly a fair share of high quality agitators online, including on the YouTube platform (channels such as Hakim, BadEmpanada, and others provide well researched and digestible content, suitable for agitation), however even the largest explicitly Marxist channel, Hakim, has only recently reached 100k subscribers. Of that number, how many were Marxists before discovering his channel? How many are or plan to be actually organized? No amount of YouTube videos, social media posts, or articles written by arrogant teenagers can make up for on the ground organizing. This does not mean online agitation is useless, but it should be viewed in context.
The Book Itself
Maupin opens his book by claiming that “The internet culture of “Social Justice Warriors” and the emergence of a group of pseudo-leftist internet voices called “BreadTube” is an attempt to counter the influence of right-wing voices among the US population, with the covert backing of the rival faction of imperialists.”(pg.6) Maupin does not even attempt to back this bold claim up, instead preferring to compare the alliance between social-democrats and Marxist-Leninists against fascism in the 30s to the alleged alliance between BreadTube and Marxist-Leninists to combat the right wing in America. Maupin claims that BreadTube is more dangerous than the social democrats, because the latter were genuinely committed to a version of Marxism which, while watered down, is still far better than the antithetical views held by the BreadTubers. Ignoring that the revisionism championed by figures such as Karl Kautsky and Eduard Berstein was and is itself antithetical to Marxism, Maupin vastly overstates the importance and danger of BreadTube.
He writes “BreadTube voices generally believe technological progress is an affront to mother nature, and that societies around the world are kept in a state of deindustrialization and underdevelopment are more “pure” and “beautiful”, close to some kind of spiritual ideal.”(pg.10) This claim goes completely unsourced, and no effort is made to prove that these views are held by all or even any members of BreadTube. “While Social Democracy in the 1920s tended to oppose illegal activities and militant labor activism, BreadTube has taken the opposite extreme. Bread Tubers tend to favor an escalation of street violence against the right-wing at a time when these forces are much better armed and have a much better organized base among the population. If the eventual escalation that BreadTubers seem committed to inciting were to occur, the result would most likely be a huge crackdown on all political activism by the state, if not an outright victory for the right-wing. Furthermore, BreadTube often seems to almost incite lawless violence and hooliganism against Marxist-Leninists, 21st Century Socialists and Anti-Imperialists at the same time that they call for mob violence against the right-wing. Bread Tube is actively working to change the political discourse, labelling anti-war and anti- imperialist voices as “Red Browns” and “Nazbols,” equating them with Nazis, and setting the stage of mob violence and state repression against them.”(pg.11)
It is true that BreadTube has a love for nonsensical terms such as “tankie” and “red fascist”, the latter demonstrating with great efficiency the utter political ignorance of much of this crowd. Yet Maupin’s claims that BreadTube frequently incites reckless violence and adventurism are once more completely unsourced. No attempt is made to prove such claims, yet this supposed adventurism makes up the core of Maupin’s argument that BreadTube is more dangerous than the revisionists of the 30s. Maupin goes on to write “The purpose of this book is to debunk and expose the dangerous pseudo-leftism which BreadTube espouses. Genuine leftism and Marxism is the only way out of the crisis. The primitivist, worker-coop, “non-authoritarian” society BreadTubers advocate is not really achievable or desirable.” A noble goal, and Maupin is quite right; anti-communism, a fixation on worker-coops, and a rejection of Marxism and as such any concrete and scientific analysis of Capitalism, are all failures of BreadTube. Yet, as we will see, Maupin fails to properly explain and critique these failures.
When it comes to discussing the individual personalities which make up BreadTube, Maupin takes the route of character assassination. Rather than discuss each entertainer's merits and flaws in relation to agitation, Maupin chooses to hyperfocus on their personal lives, usually implying that these details delegitimize the entertainer. He puts forward the claim that BreadTube peddles a conspiracy, one that states Nazis have infiltrated the US government.(pg.116) It has become tedious to note, however I feel I am obligated to remind the reader once more that not a single source is provided to support this claim. In fact, throughout the entirety of the book, Maupin provides almost no sources to support his characterizations of BreadTube. How is the reader to believe a word Maupin writes, when he refuses to make even the barest effort at supporting his claims? Does he expect the reader to already be highly familiar with BreadTube and its flaws? If so, surely there is no reason to read the book.
Regarding Thought Slime, he writes “Matt’s videos tend to fixate on things like slime, feces, genitalia, and other things deemed to be ugly. Matt’s channel is much like the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why in that while it appears to be sympathetic to the mentally ill, it more or less encourages and enables people to fixate on their depressed, rageful, and suicidal feelings, wallowing in self-pity, anger, and hopelessness. This begs a fair question: How many of Matt’s mostly teenage and largely transgender audience have actually committed suicide after stewing with Matt for hours on their dark feelings? The answer is of course unknown.”(pg.24) About Vaush, Maupin writes “The personality of the 25-year-old indicates signs of narcissism and sex addiction. Some have speculated that his blatant rudeness and inability to comprehend other people’s views indicates he may be on the autistic spectrum.”(pg.19) This hyperfocus on the personalities of BreadTube cannot substitute for a proper analysis of their work, something Maupin forgets or ignores for the entirety of his book.
Maupin proceeds to run through a history of counter-gangs and their use during the cold war. Again, he expects the reader to take his claims at face value. Rather than serving as a brief but well sourced education on Counter Gangs, this section serves instead as the means by which Maupin makes the reader comfortable with the notion that Counter Gangs have been deployed frequently, and that as such it isn't such a stretch to believe BreadTube represents just another example. This reasoning is entirely intellectually dishonest. That an event has occurred in the past, regardless of its frequency, does not in and of itself mean it is happening again in the present. Without a proper analysis of the conditions which have historically led to the phenomenon, no claim can be made that the phenomenon is occurring or will occur. Maupin makes no such study of the conditions of counter gangs, instead simply listing instances of their occurrence, and as such he cannot reasonably claim that BreadTube is another such example.
He goes on to write “The important thing to remember about counter-gangs in the late Cold War is that they are generally not conscious deceivers. Some will read the above contents and believe that African Maoists, UNITA, Left-Wing Intellectuals, or the Bread Tubers of 2021, are all “secret CIA agents” or some other crude interpretation. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no doubt that the fighters of UNITA, the Wahhabis who fought alongside Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, the intellectuals who pushed EuroCommunism, or even the BreadTubers of our time, legitimately believed in what they said and did. While they may be naive about the support they receive, what makes them useful proxies is their sincerity. Selecting certain ignorant and confused young people to be the voice of the movement and perhaps carefully nudging them to frame their rhetoric in a certain way is key. By rewarding them with patrons and clicks, the narrative can be carefully reinforced. A new “socialism” that is not anti-imperialist, not even genuinely anti-capitalist, but is very useful in containing and beating back the right-wing can be cultivated to serve imperialism.”(pg.48)
Maupin is correct in suggesting that a significant portion of the American population distorts socialism, and is equally correct in suggesting that the bourgeoisie encourage such distortion. Yet Maupin again provides no evidence to support his claims. If BreadTube is being provided support, how? In what way is support given? In what quantity and how frequently? Are only the larger entertainers supported, or does support extend to smaller voices as well? Why do the bourgeoisie consider online entertainers to be worthy of their attention, so much so that they would provide assistance to said groups? Do they find the relatively small audiences of such entertainers to be dangerous? Or do they see potential for growth and are instead attempting to co-opt the movement before it grows too large? Perhaps it's something else entirely? None of these questions are answered. Is the idea that a group of young, politically minded liberals, seeing a large amount of far right branded entertainment on their mediums of choice, decided to produce the very content they enjoyed, and to counter the far right while doing so, is that idea so ridiculous? Is the idea that, as more voices began to fill this niche, more people became exposed to such content and were inspired to produce their own, so absurd? Is it inconceivable that their ignorance, the result of a constant and overwhelming propaganda campaign, allowed them to conflate liberalism and social democracy with socialism? And if these ideas are so far flung, if the bourgeoisie do utilize covert aid to prop up this ideologically distorted entertainment, if BreadTubers do have handlers, and if this phenomenon truly is a coordinated and professionally orchestrated campaign of propaganda, where is the evidence? Maupin provides none. Vague and inconsistent speculation is no substitute for materialist analysis.
Maupin’s second chapter criticizes BreadTube for its ignorance of and blatant distortion of Marxist theory. These criticisms are entirely valid, and indeed one of BreadTube’s greatest flaws, though it should be noted that Maupin does not provide examples of such misunderstandings in his sections “The Marxist Definition of Capitalism”, “Imperialism: The Capitalism of Our Time”, “The Marxist Definition of Socialism”, and more. In the section “Marx Wasn’t A Statist” we find Maupins first reference to a specific work of BreadTube, when he criticizes Thought Slime’s video “Prager University Does Not Understand Democracy”. The section Maupin takes issue with is the one in which Thought Slime says “Lenin called the centralization of control over the state and economy Democratic Centralism.” Maupin is right to take issue, as this is a complete mischaracterization of Democratic Centralism. In truth, Democratic Centralism was the means by which Lenin and the Bolsheviks organized their party. The system, roughly speaking, revolved around the notion that democracy should be exercised to the fullest extent during times of decision making, but that when a decision was made it had to be followed by all members of the party, irrespective of individual objections. Thought Slime is an anarchist, and it is possible that they take issue with the level of adherence to the party line required by the Bolsheviks, however they are still incorrect in their depiction of Democratic Centralism and Maupin is right to call this out. It should be noted however that Marx is not mentioned in this video, and Thought Slime makes no claim to the label Marxist, nor do they claim that their views of the state are in line with Marx’s.
Maupin goes on to claim both that Vaush has misunderstood Marx’s work “Civil War in France”, and that Vaush has misunderstood socialism as merely being a society of worker co-ops. These criticisms would be valid if Maupin’s claims could be verified, however his lack of citations means they cannot be. He writes “BreadTube’s insistence that socialism is merely a worker cooperative scheme reveals further the thesis of this book, that BreadTube is largely the creation of the more powerful, globalist wing of the ruling class in its efforts to beat back the rebellions of Trump and lower level capitalists. The pro-imperialist narrative, where Communist revolutions “only made life worse” is repeated by BreadTube voices, despite being overwhelmingly inconsistent with reality.”(pg.93) This anti-communist narrative is espoused not just by BreadTube, but on the contrary is parroted by almost all members of the major capitalist countries. This is not an indication that BreadTube is a bourgeois creation. BreadTube, in all its willful ignorance, has neither the experience nor study to refute anti-communism, and as such thoroughly lacks the will.
Maupin goes on to criticize BreadTube’s view of fascism in his chapter “Nazi! Nazi! Nazi!”. He denies Contrapoints’ claim that fascism can be broken down into three core beliefs, those beliefs being “a belief in the sacredness of the white race, the conspiracy theory that Jews seek to conduct “White Genocide” or “replacement”, and the ultimate goal of creating a “white ethno-state””.(pg.115) Maupin notes that these beliefs summarize the vast majority of white nationalists, but that they are not themselves fundamentally tied to the phenomenon of fascism. Maupin is entirely correct. Fascism, being “Capitalism in Decay'', need not be white, and Contrapoints’ definition is more in line with white nationalism than fascism. Of course, this mistake is understandable as the two often overlap, however Contrapoints should have done better given the intended educational nature of her video. Maupin’s error, if it can be called such, is in blatantly misrepresenting Contrapoints’ video.
I mentioned the three beliefs which Contrapoints claims can summarise Fascism. In truth, these beliefs were paraphrased. Contrapoints actually breaks these beliefs down as follows:
1. People of European heritage are or ought to constitute a biological, cultural, and political unity known as “the white race”-sometimes dog-whistled as “Western culture.”
2. Jews are masterminding the destruction of the white race through multiculturalism and non-white immigration (“white genocide” or “ethnic replacement”)
3. The only way to save the white race is to establish a “white homeland,” or “ethnostate,” from which non-whites and degenerates must be purged.
This summarising of Contrapoints’ claims does no harm in this case, yet Maupin’s allergy to citation or even consistent quotation rears its head in a far more damaging manner later. Maupin attempts to paint Contrapoints as participating in a political witch hunt. He writes “The overwhelming majority of people in the United States feel patriotic, but according to Contrapoints, statements like “I love my country” could be interpreted as coded fascist messaging.”(pg.117) This is incorrect. Contrapoints says, just under four minutes into her video, “The idea that appreciating European culture is in some way linked to establishing a white ethnostate is just nonsense.” Maupin continues “Gestures like “Thumbs up” or “OK” signs are used by millions of Americans each day, but according to Contrapoints, these could indeed be secret Nazi hand signs.”(pg.117)
Regarding the Thumbs Up sign, Maupin could be referring to an emoji in which the index finger is being pointed up. Contrapoints uses this as an example of a sign which, while seeming mundane, could become a dog whistle in the future due to the rapidity in which fascists discard and replace dog whistles. This is done to keep said dog whistles from being exposed, something vital if they are to function properly. It is also possible Maupin simply used the Thumbs Up symbol as an example. Regarding the OK sign, the shooter in the Christchurch terrorist attack flashed this symbol in a court appearance. Members of groups such as the Proud Boys have used the sign extensively, and it spread like fire in 2017 across the more backwards and, one might even say, degenerate corners of the internet. These corners are havens for far right extremists who, until recently, would be hounded and ostracized in public. With the deepening of the capitalist crisis, and the subsequent heightening of contradictions, there has been a wave of far right reaction which has made the public a substantially more hospitable place for the very sort of people who utilize the OK sign as a dog whistle. To deny that this sign has been and often still is used this way is absurd.
Maupin also quotes Contrapoints as saying “I am not a fascist is exactly what a fascist would say.”(pg.120) This quotation is dishonest, and is used to again paint Contrapoints as involved in a witch hunt. Maupin writes “Is it true that many White Nationalists conceal their views, and operate covertly in broader conservative circles? Yes. Is it true that many advocates of a white ethnostate who harbor anti-semitic views will conceal this message when creating broader content? Yes.”
However, Contrapoints video basically argues that anything can be a dog whistle, anyone can be a fascist, and all that is necessary to prove it is something as meaningless as a hand gesture, a slip of the tongue, or most importantly a disagreement with the mainstream of the left.”(pg.116) The full Contrapoints quote is as follows, “This means that if someone acts like a fascist, has fascist beliefs, repeats fascist talking points, and hangs out with other fascists, the fact that they publicly denounce fascism should be worth absolutely nothing to you and shouldn't even enter into your consideration of whether they're a fascist. After all, “I'm not a fascist'' is exactly what a fascist would say.” Contrapoints is not attempting to paint fascism as so vague a phenomenon that anyone can be accused of it, but rather is stating that if one's actions are consistently in support of fascism then public denouncement of fascism becomes worthless. This attempt to use the quote out of context is telling. Additionally, Contrapoints explicitly says “You should never assume someone is a fascist just because of their hair or because of the emoji they use. These are only little pieces of a larger puzzle.” This misrepresentation is solidified when Maupin writes “Of course, in the world view extolled by much of BreadTube, if you dare disagree that the west is a bastion of tolerance and freedom, while China, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela are evil “fascist” regimes, you must be a fascist yourself. Who cares if you are anti-racist, or have spent over a decade working against racism; remember: “I am not a fascist is exactly what a fascist would say.”” Either Maupin is knowingly mis-representing Contrapoints, is being lazy in his research (something hard to believe as these refutations are all provided within the very same video Maupin quotes), or is simply so blinded by his thesis that he ignores all evidence which contradicts it.
This dogmatic commitment to undue criticism is revealed further in Maupin’s fourth chapter, “Understanding Left-Pessimism”. Maupin provides the following quote, “When exactly do you think capital will be done making money? How much money is enough for the ultra-rich jackasses who already have most of it? We’ve long ago sailed past it because several of them own incalculable sums, so much that they could not spend it in a thousand lifetimes and yet they don't stop, despite the consequences, the human cost, the environmental cost, they keep going… There are only so many resources to be extracted from the earth until there aren't any left… They keep going forever, or more realistically, until they can't, and at that point we are doomed… A human being intuitively understands the concept of finite resources… We the consumer, particularly, those of us in the west, bear some responsibility in this too. We buy shit we dont need and throw away shit other people could use.”(pg.125)
Maupin writes “While Matt accepts the premise that capitalism is capable of creating endless growth, Matt thinks this is bad.”(pg.126.) and “In their video championing “de-growth”, Thought Slime argues that humans have gone too far. The problem isn't that working people are increasingly impoverished due to capitalism's inherent creation of poverty amidst plenty, the problem is that average working people have too much stuff. As American workers are seeing their wages go down, their homes foreclosed, and their children condemned to a life of student debt, the problem is that they are still too comfortable. Thought Slime anticipates an ecological apocalypse unless human consumption can be urgently reduced. Matt insists their “degrowth” model is not the same as capitalist austerity.”(pg.126 and pg.127)
This is a complete misunderstanding of Thought Slime’s words. Matt is not arguing for de-growth, rather they are arguing that capitalists, by not engaging in a more sustainable mode of consumption, are destroying the planet. This fact is undeniable. He says “They keep going forever, or more realistically, until they can't, and at that point we are doomed… A human being intuitively understands the concept of finite resources…” This is a complete acknowledgement of the inability of capitalism to create infinite growth. Matt is arguing that, instead of producing infinite growth, capitalism will instead grow until, in all their characteristic recklessness and disregard for life, capitalists have utterly destroyed the earth. While it is true that Matt falls into an individualistic and rather meaningless criticism when he says “We the consumer, particularly those of us in the west, bear some responsibility in this too. We buy shit we dont need and throw away shit other people could use.”, this is not what Maupin takes issue with. Again he overlooks the legitimate issues of BreadTube, instead misrepresenting Thought Slime and arguing against a strawman. That this would happen once in the published book of a self proclaimed Marxist is problematic. That it would happen repeatedly, seemingly carelessly, is unacceptable and speaks to a larger issue.
Maupin seems to have approached his criticism of BreadTube from an emotional, rather than analytical, perspective. This is a shame because BreadTube is indeed a deeply flawed and ultimately ineffective phenomenon, and Maupin notes many of these flaws. Yet rather than deconstructing BreadTubes failings using a materialist analysis, Maupin attacks the character of these entertainers, misrepresents their arguments, and aimlessly speculates at a theory he never makes a serious effort at proving. To say that this work is disappointing is an understatement.
My aim is not to tear down the character of Caleb Maupin, nor is it to discourage criticism of BreadTube and other fascinating but ultimately flawed phenomena. Rather, it is to show that just because a work appears to be on “our” side, that is, a Marxist and ultimately revolutionary side, does not mean that work is devoid of criticism. As Maupin’s book shows, a work can profess itself to be Marxist and still be deeply flawed, so much so that, on account of its methodology, one must ask if it is even Marxist at all. There exists a trend on the left which extolls all that proclaims itself Marxist, regardless of merit. This trend goes hand in hand with the idea of the “Anti-Imperialist State”, an entirely un-Marxist notion. These contrarians vehemently deny any and all criticism of previous socialist experiments, current socialist or self proclaimed socialst nations such as the People's Republic of China, and pass anti-americanism off as activism.
To be anti-American is not enough. To be anti-imperialist is not enough. To be anti-capitalist is not enough. Were the Mensheviks not all these things? Were the left wing terrorists, those who held to the “Propaganda of the Deed” not all these things? Was the Soviet Union, or rather, most of its leaders, not all these things? Yet the Mesheviks did not bring about the Russian Revolution. The terrorists did not bring about the Russian Revolution. And for all its many achievements, the Soviet Union ultimately failed to defend the revolution. Are we to subscribe to a sort of ultimate determinism whereby not just general trends in society but the entire fate of revolutionaries and revolutionary nations is predetermined? Were the Mensheviks doomed to failure. What about the terrorists? The Soviet Union itself? Or was it these groups ideological failings that, among other things, paved the way for their practical failings?
If we subscribe to the latter notion then we must not allow theories, nations, and individuals to go uncriticized simply because they adorn themselves in Marxist clothing. Bernstein, Kautsky, and many other opportunists referred to themselves as Marxists. We know that ideological failing can take on a subtle, almost pedantic form. Yet just as the opportunists failings have and are overt, so too may ours be covert. To say that BreadTube is a flawed phenomenon of little use is an understatement. To say that its failings include paranoia in relation to fascists, a desire for de-growth, and being part of a covert CIA plot is blatantly false, or at the very least unsubstantiated.
And of course, if we instead subscribe to the contrarian view, and an entirely deterministic view by extension, then this is all of no importance. Let us continue along the paths we have already walked, uncritical of whether those paths are always the most sound. Marxists march along, for fate itself is one our side. God knows it's been kind to us so far.
1. The channel “Second Thought” has over a million subscribers and is a self proclaimed Marxist, however as his channel does not focus on this Marxism, instead providing a more timid and introductory anti-capitalism that rarely if ever dips into outright Marxism, I have decided not to include him. This is not meant as a judgment on Second Thought’s channel, rather an acknowledgement of the channel's content.
2. “Prager University Does Not Understand Democracy.” YouTube, Thought Slime, 5 Feb. 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TX1nS9L46L4. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.
3. This will to ignorance being rivaled only perhaps by that loud and catastrophically large portion of the population which believes that the most effective path to combating “the elites”, “big tech”, and “the mainstream media”, is increased privatization, so that these very fine people may acquire more, not less, of a stranglehold on our lives. This ignorance, mind numbing though it may be, is largely our failing, and must be remembered as such if it is to be combatted.
4. It should be noted that Contrapoints’s definition is intended to describe contemporary fascists, making her error more understandable. It is true that fascism or proto-fascism is predominantly a white phenomenon. Still, this is by no means a prerequisite, and speaks more to the conditions of western capitalist countries than it does to some sort of racial requirement.
5. “Decrypting the Alt-Right: How to Recognize a F@Scist | ContraPoints.” YouTube, ContraPoints, 1 Sept. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx4BVGPkdzk. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.
6. “Ok Hand Sign Added to List of Hate Symbols.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Sept. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-49837898.
7. I use this term in its more classical sense, removed from the derogatory connotations it has since taken on. In their day, these terrorists would likely be referred to simply as anarchists, despite the fact that many of those who engaged in “excitative terror” were Marxists, Reactionaries, and ascribed to various other ideologies.
C. Paine is an African American high school student with an interest in revolutionary politics and decolonization.
9/29/2021 10:28:09 pm
MM is usually an amazing website for resources and articles. The Center for Political Innovation is proud to have several individuals who write for both. This is definitely not MM best moment.
10/12/2021 09:07:34 am
I know I’m rather late but I’d love to hear what issues or disagreements you have regarding the article Criticism is always welcome provided it’s constructive.
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