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.
Mental health crises: depression, schizophrenia and various other disorders, have engulfed the 21st century post-globalisation world. The rate of suicide is at an ever higher magnitude and in our present hyper-connected age of mass media and advanced communication, loneliness is a major issue concerning a large chunk of the population.
We are living in the time of neoliberalism, a set of economic policies characterised by market deregulation, privatisation of previously-nationalised industries or resources, and a support for rugged-individualism and competition on an ideological level. It is accompanied by a rejection of society as a concept and social solidarity as a value. The spread of neoliberalism came with a cut-back on social security and Keynesian welfarism, with cancellation of pensions and monetary support schemes that were helpful to workers in need.
Former UK Prime Minister and neoliberal ideologue, Margaret Thatcher had once said, “There is no such thing as a society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” This blanket rejection of societal causes to the multiple problems of humanity has become injected in the modern public discourse. One of the results of this heuristic is that a politically-oriented problem such as the mental health crisis, is generally looked at entirely from the point of view of an individual.
The approach towards dealing with the mental health crisis has been an atomised and individualistic one. Most explanations and proposed solutions amount to a form of genetic or biological determinism. In this article, I look into studies that provide both qualitative and quantitative data to argue that mental health issues are often products of the dominant economic system and its inherent tendency to multiply finance capital at the cost of its human labour force and their mental stability.
The mental health crisis is a direct result of the atomised, coercive and alienating nature of the dominant economic system. A failure to recognise societal causes by obscuring them with genetic and biological determinism will only lead to making matters worse. In fact, any solution without regard to larger systemic and political change will at best be superficial and not lead to long term improvement of the mental state of the population.
Capitalism and Mental Health
The article ‘Capitalism and Mental Health’ by David Matthews (for Monthly Review) begins by recognising that the world is being engulfed by a persistent mental health crisis. The empirical data at hand is fearsome. The World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that three hundred million people across the world suffer from depression, twenty-three million people show symptoms of schizophrenia and eight hundred thousand individuals commit suicide annually (Matthews, 2019).
The data illustrates the claim that mental health conditions have gradually worsened over the previous decade in the most industrialised blocks, or what Paul Baran refers to as ‘monopoly-capitalist nations’ such as Britain. Biological and genetic explanations, i.e. those which reduce mental health problems to genomic dysfunction, dominate the discourse to the point of discouraging any enquiry regarding social causes of the issues. Make no mistake: biological or psychological explanations are not to be discarded; but a deeper look is to be taken at the economic and political conditions, which Matthews holds as the primary cause of the mental health crisis (Matthews, 2019).
Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide
Let us go back in time to sociologist Emile Durkheim. His book ‘Suicide’ published as far back as 1897 took into account plenty of empirical data to suggest that suicides are directly related to social and political factors. He stressed that the industrial society of his time, with its rising focus on individual self-interest and rejection of social and communal living, was a major factor for rising cases of suicide (Durkheim, 1966).
In his book Durkheim laid out the grounds by refuting theories of suicide based on psychology, genetics and biology (as well climate and geography.) Those factors, he concluded, do not amount to any valid causation of suicide. Certainly not in the large-scale that they were occurring. Suicide, according to Durkheim was not a personal situation, but a socially caused condition (Durkheim, 1966).
Durkheim categorized suicide into three types: egoistic, altruistic and anomic. Egoistic suicides were caused by extreme loneliness and also extreme individualism – both of which are imminent features of capitalism and more specifically the neoliberal monopoly capitalism that is dominant today. A person prone to this form of suicide is characterised by a certain egoism that renders him ‘detached from society’. This is also the kind of personality trait encouraged and idolised today by neoliberal ideology through media advertisements and civil society institutions (Durkheim, 1966).
A serious survey of Durkheim’s theory goes on to show that the politically-oriented nature of suicides is not a revolutionary discovery by the research studies in hand. These have been matters of concern for more than a century now. The fact that this appears radical, tells us something about the nature of neoliberal ideology which has normalised the handing over of complete responsibility of mental illnesses to the individual, with wilful ignorance of societal causes (Durkheim, 1966).
Privatisation of stress
Cultural theorist Mark Fisher in his book ‘Capitalist Realism’ argues that the dominant cultural logic of late capitalism (that he terms ‘capitalist realism’) attempts to create a false layer of reality over what is real. An example he provides is the de-politicization of mental health issues. He writes, “Capitalist Realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather.” (Fisher, 2009)
He points out that mid-twentieth century radical thinkers ranging from Foucault in his book ‘Madness and Civilisation’ to Deleuze and Guattari in their book ‘Capitalism and Schizophrenia’ had illustrated that ‘madness’ was not natural but political. Fisher goes further to assert the political nature of not only ‘madness’ in the extreme, but also the relatively commonplace mental disorders (Fisher, 2009).
Ideology of entertainment and consumption
The domination of monopoly capital subjugates the vast majority of the population to a working life that is neither meaningful to them nor satisfactory. The only source of escape is recreation and entertainment, which in the present system amounts to consumption and more consumption of commodities. This form of leisure doesn’t add any meaning or value to one’s life. We therefore associate our recreation with idleness, giving rise to a certain amount of guilt, thus making the experience of pleasure, not pleasurable at all. Through their lack of substance, both work and leisure increasingly lose their inner content and meaning. (Matthews, 2019)
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek termed this phenomenon ‘ideological enjoyment’, which is further drawn from the Lacanian psychoanalytical concept of “jouissance” (which is a French term for extreme enjoyment to the point of exhaustion). This is an aspect of the present day dominant ideology which bestows on the people a vague notion of entertainment which is neither fulfilling nor enjoyable, however is sought after by a multitude of people (Zizek, 2009).
Matthews points out that this ideological validation for such kinds of enjoyment is a necessary means to keep the consumer society running. The system is designed to concentrate finance capital into the hands of the few and hence has no responsibility to be considerate of the population whose basic needs it fails to deliver. This structural phenomenon of monopoly capitalism, according to Baran and Sweezy, results in “the spread of increasingly severe psychic disorders.” (Matthews, 2019)
A thinker who can provide us with insight on the matter at hand, is Erich Fromm. Let us take a look at his body of work in some detail.
Erich Fromm (March 23, 1900 – March 18, 1980) was a psychoanalyst whose works focused on the questions of innate nature of human beings and relations with social surroundings. He had a keen focus on individual human liberation that he considered to be unachievable without the liberation of entire humanity, with a restructuring of the entire socio-economic system.
He belonged to the Neo-Freudian school of psychodynamics, having some major disagreements and controversies with his contemporaries. Fromm had a deep and everlasting influence of the Marxist dialectical materialist approach to the progression of history and change in society. He considered the development of history and the subsequent changes in society an important aspect that shapes peoples’ feelings of freedom and relationship with their own self and their fellow beings (Ferguson, 2016).
Fromm agreed with Freud on the tenet that much of human behaviour and experience is the result of a cause that is unconscious, however, he considered the Freudian term ‘unconscious’ a rather mystical representation of mental causative thoughts and processes of which a person is not conscious.
Fromm’s criticism of Freud was primarily about the ideas of Oedipus complex and libido theory. He was of opinion that a human’s personal development was influenced by his interactions with the society he lived in and the power structures present in it, as opposed to predominantly biological and libido-driven factors (Cherry, Biography of Social Psychologist Erich Fromm, 2020).
During his period of study in the University of Munich, he attended seminars organised by dissident psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel about ways in which Marxist and Freudian thought could be reconciled, keeping in mind the emancipation of alienated humanity. (Ferguson, 2016).
Despite having a major influence of the Freudian thought, Fromm indisputably considered Marx the greater thinker, which he made no secret of in his book ‘Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounters with Freud and Marx’ (Fromm, Beyond the Chains of Illusion, 1962) .
Theories and solutions of Erich Fromm
Among his contemporary Neo-Freudians, Fromm stood out because of his deep concern with the fate of the social and psychological well-being of the collective humanity. His writings were marked by an emphasis on the importance of the individual and its liberty to think freely. He held that in order to bring about a positive mental transcendence for humanity, one not only had to increase self-consciousness and non-deterministic free thinking, but also had to strive towards altering the social, economic and political circumstances under which they lived.
Fromm believed that in the age of ever-increasing capitalist tyranny and control over information and thoughts; humans can broadly be categorized into five character types, four of which are the repulsive results of the unevenly designed society (receptive, exploitative, hoarding and marketing character types), while the fifth one is a productive character type, which is possessed by only a minority of people. The receptive character tends to seek constant help and support from his fellow beings, while not being keen to return any of it. The exploitative character is motivated by a selfish desire to attain success and tries to do so at the cost of other people by lying and cheating. The hoarding type tends to collect and stockpile loads of material commodities as their possession, in order to deal with the insecurity caused by their lack of social connection with other humans. The material type tends to look at human relationships merely in terms of the benefits they can gain from it. (Cherry, Fromm's Character Orientations, 2020)
One of Fromm’s most significant works is his first book Escape from Freedom, which he wrote in 1941. This was when his country (Germany) was at the pinnacle of Nazi fanaticism, with various other countries heading towards totalitarianism. He proposed in his book that freedom has a dialectical nature and can be perceived to be of two types: positive and negative. The constructive kind of freedom which humans want to arrive at was positive freedom, and the desire to escape from tyranny and control was negative freedom.
Before the industrial revolution, humans were enslaved and bound permanently to their social positions. No value was ascertained to their individual development. Fromm held that this type of non-individualistic society, while enslaving humans, offered them a sense of security. With the rise of capitalism, we were bestowed upon with a certain freedom that was utterly superficial and left the people in a state of anxiety and powerlessness arising from too much focus on the self, with little regard to the need for community. The individualism that was promoted had little to do with individuality and creative endeavour, and more to do with self-centeredness and narcissism.
Fromm wrote that alongside a desire to be free, humans also possessed a desire to submit to authority and conform to norms. This object of submission, Fromm held, did not necessarily have to be an external authority such as a dictator, but could also be inner ideals of morality, duty and popular opinion. This tendency to submit and conform, along with the narrowness of the political and social conditions of capitalism and bourgeois democracy, result in humans gathering in the bandwagons in support of totalitarian dictators. This was Fromm’s explanation for the rise of fascism as an inevitable result of the capitalist political and economic system. This was in stark contrast to the dominant idea that fascism was an isolated case of aberration from the normal. (Popova, The Paradox of Freedom).
In another significant book The Sane Society, Fromm points out that Western society is not mentally stable by and large and not sane. He adds that the cause of mental health deterioration is not entirely personal, and to a large extent a result of the chaos of power imbalance in the society itself. Humanity as a collective and as individuals, has been alienated, and various thinkers have tried to devise a cause for it. Marx considered it something primarily determined by material reality, while Tolstoy considered it to be the result of a departure from the spiritual values that defined humanity. Fromm tells us that the cause for modern day alienation is ‘robotism’. This is the transformation of humans into unfeeling, unauthentic creatures whose intelligence has evolved, but the emotional capacity to correctly utilize that intelligence, still stays undeveloped. (Popova, The Sane Society)
On an individual level, Fromm proposes that human beings need to awaken to self-consciousness and understanding of their true needs, as opposed to superficial needs that they have been indoctrinated to. Fromm calls for a ‘humanistic communitarian society’ which can be summed up in his own words as:
“A society in which man relates to man lovingly, in which he is rooted in bonds of brotherliness and solidarity, rather than in the ties of blood and soil; a society which gives him the possibility of transcending nature by creating rather than by destroying, in which everyone gains a sense of self by experiencing himself as the subject of his powers rather than by conformity, in which a system of orientation and devotion exists without man’s needing to distort reality and to worship idols.” (Fromm, Conclusion, 1955)
Work and alienation
Human beings are characterised, among other things, by their need to express themselves and make use of their creative faculties. The activities at workplace, where the majority of the population spends a huge amount of their day, have the potential to provide them with utmost happiness and satisfaction. However, that is not the case since most workers in the industrial world are alienated from the products of their labour, they have no autonomy over what work is done or ownership over the fruits of their labour, i.e. the finished products. Work, therefore, is a source of major frustration and alienation of humans from their society and from themselves.
This idea is strengthened by more modern psychological theories such as the self-determination theory (SDT) which states that the intrinsic motivation to perform work is dependent on the feeling of competence, autonomy and relatedness. The capitalist system does not allow its workers the right to those feelings.
Matthews’ study backs up the ideas of alienation with sufficient empirical data suggesting that vast majority of people feel disenfranchised from the work they do and find no meaningfulness. Matthews quotes a survey in Britain where 47% of employees would consider finding a new job, citing such reasons as not enjoying work and feeling unimportant in the process. Severe mental health conditions such as depression, stress and anxiety as a result of unsatisfactory work, are only increasing. A study in 2017 estimated that 60% of British employees had suffered work-related mental problems, with anxiety and depression topping the list. Despite such a correlation, the negative feeling regarding work has become so common, that it is seen not as an ill-condition specific to our economic system, but as a natural reaction to work (Matthews, 2019).
In his book ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Guy Debord wrote, “The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender "lonely crowds." In Debord’s list of technologies, among automobiles and television, today one could certainly add social media (Debord, 1992).
The nature of the capitalist economic system disables the capacity for the emotional and intellectual commitments required for leading fulfilling relationships. This causes conversations to reduce into superficial niceties and small talk. In a survey conducted in 2017 in Britain, 13% of the people admitted to having no close friends, and another 17% having poor quality friendships. The core tenet of capitalist ideology, with its focus on individualism and competition, takes away any sense of solidarity between people. People tend to see other people as obstacles to their own needs. An employee survey in 2016 has illustrated that 27% people work longer than they would want to and that negatively impacts their personal life and relationships (Matthews, 2019).
I hope to have been able to make it clear that the rise in mental health problems, is neither an individual issue, nor a coincidence or aberration led by faulty actors. It is an inevitable outcome of the dominant economic and political system that we live in. It is important to note, that medical solutions are extremely important. In our efforts to galvanise and push our governments to legislate for healthcare for all, we must add mental health and therapy. Certainly, the process and nature of therapy that is dominant today, is also not free from being influenced by the dominant neoliberal ideology. In fact there are serious questions to be asked about what kind of role psychotherapy plays in our society, but that is for another article.
Suryashekhar Biswas is an undergrad from India, majoring in media studies and English literature. He takes interest in cultural and literary criticism and wishes to contribute to the glorious lineage of third-world Marxism.
Note by the author: The phrase sex work encompasses many industries not just prostitution. However, the phrases prostitution and sex work will be used interchangeably in this essay.
Throughout leftist spaces one’s ears will constantly be flooded with pro-sex work messages. However, if one spends a cursory amount of time flipping through the basic texts of Marxism such as The Communist Manifesto and Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, or the works of Marxist feminists such as Alexandra Kollontai and Nadezhda Krupskaya, one will see an overwhelming trend against prostitution. In fact just looking at historically socialist states one will see that the vast majority of them were able to eliminate prostitution and sex work. Most namely Cuba and China both of which were countries plagued by prostitution that is until the communists eliminated prostitution by actually liberating women from capitalist patriarchy. It was only when socialist states opened up to capitalism that one saw a rise in prostitution, accompanied by crime, poverty, and a roll back on women’s rights. The fall of the Soviet Union saw a massive increase in prostitution. Not only among women but also by children! In every socialist state the revolutionaries worked to eliminate prostitution, not because of petty bourgeois moralism, but because they understood that sex work was an institution based on the violent exploitation of women’s bodies. Such an institution was and still is incompatible to women’s liberation and Marxism.
Proponents of prostitution argue that it’s a choice, that women choose to become prostitutes. When viewed through this lens, prostitution is seen as a mutually beneficial relationship. The prostitute (often a woman) gets money. The buyer (often a man) gets to satisfy his sexual desires. This situation however is nothing more than a fantasy. Prostitution is a fundamentally antagonistic relationship among all parties. The prostitute needs to get as much money as possible by doing the least amount of labor and the buyer wants to get as much labor as he can from the prostitute with the least amount of money. In this relationship the prostitute is in the majority of cases coming from a position of weakness. 80 percent of prostitutes are between the ages of 13-25. 90% of prostitutes depend on pimps. 84% of prostitutes in a study done in San Francisco had reported to current or past homelessness.The average age of entry into prostitution is 12-16. Black and Latinx women are more likely to be trafficked into the sex industry. The buyers of prostitution are more likely to be middle-upper class white men. The buyer in most cases has more power over the prostitute and is able to coerce the sex worker into doing something that they might not be comfortable in doing. In fact, according to a study done in San Francisco of 130 prostitutes, 49% of them reported being assaulted as children, 82% had been physically assaulted, 68% had been raped while on the job, 87% of the participants wanted to leave the profession. Prostitution relies on uneven power dynamics between the buyer and the seller. The seller in most cases has the ability to commit the most horrible abuses to a prostitute and often gets away with it because of their disproportionate privilege and wealth compared to the prostitute. How can such a situation be consensual? While a prostitute might not always be threatened by a gun, though that certainly does happen--83% of prostitutes have been threatened with a weapon. In this case it is the dollar that replaces the gun. If a prostitute doesn’t obey the buyer or refuses to take the gig they will be threatened with poverty and starvation. And even if a prostitute can leave a client, that doesn’t mean she can leave the industry as a whole, because of a lack of economic prospects, coercion by pimps, losing her means of sustenance, etc. Prostitution relies on the exploitation and objectification of women and lgbt people. Marxists must be diametrically opposed to all forms of exploitation, including that of prostitution.
Another common argument one will hear from the pro-prostitution crowd is that sex work is work. Such a phrase is often used to absolve the abuses of the industry. However, just because something is work doesn’t mean that it should be absolved of all scrutiny. For example, making meth in a garage is technically work, that doesn’t mean it should be supported. What makes sex work different from all forms of labor is that violence and exploitation are inherent to sex work. Compared to other forms of work where the greatest risks to one’s health are usually accidents such as tripping or falling, or problems like stress which can be remedied with regulation, it’s impossible to regulate out the violence inherent to sex work. Jobs such as farming, fishing, and logging, don’t have to be exploitative, the same can’t be said of sex work. Even “high class” sex workers such as escorts aren’t immune to the violence of the job. Less than a week ago the body of a Wall Street escort was found stuffed in a barrel in New Jersey. Just because the conditions are nicer or more “regulated” doesn’t mean that the violence or exploitation goes away. Even in places where sex work is legal or decriminalized sex workers still face disproportionate rates of violence compared to the general population of women. Consider the fact that about 68% of prostitutes have PTSD compared to 13% of veterans, and in the vast majority of jobs PTSD rates are negligible. The fact that prostitutes have such an immense PTSD rate tells us that suffering and abuse in prostitution is the norm, not the exception. To say that sex work is work would be ignoring the vast amount of pain that the vast majority of sex workers go through. Esperanza Fonseca also known as the Proletarian Feminist summed this up quite concisely.
“Wage labor is exploitative because of the surplus value extracted from the workers' labor. Prostitution is sexual exploitation because it feeds off of extreme vulnerability to maintain a class of prostitutes, coerces sex through money and power, and exposes those women to high amounts of rape and violence.”
Of course when all else fails defenders of prostitution will say that prostitution is the oldest job on the planet, and that it’s always been a part of human society. However, this statement displays a clear ignorance of history. In order for prostitution to exist there needs to be the existence of patriarchy, class society, and money. The first mention of prostitution was around 2400 BC in Ancient Sumer. Human society has existed for at least 10,000 years. 2400 BC was only 4400 years ago. It’s also worth mentioning that the majority of socialist societies which saw great reductions in wealth and income inequality and great improvements in women’s rights were accompanied by great reductions in prostitution. It was only after capitalism was reintroduced and accompanied by a rollback of social safety nets which were crucial in providing women independence from men, that prostitution started to reappear with a vengeance. The fact that prostitution reappeared alongside the introduction of unregulated predatory neoliberal capitalism which had the worst impacts on women tells us two things. Prostitution isn’t liberating or empowering. And prostitution doesn’t have to exist in all societies.
What are the options then? How should Marxists deal with prostitution? The best way as shown by plenty of historical examples is to kick out the capitalists and establish an economy centered around the needs of the people rather than profit, in other words socialism. Such a society must allow women to become economically independent from men by providing them not just with legal rights on paper but also with economic rights such as the right to healthcare, education, housing, childcare, and a job that allows them to live comfortably. As Marxists we understand that the capitalists in this country would do everything they can to avoid actually addressing the needs of working people because that would pose a threat to their profits. Only a government of action that fights for working families can achieve truly liberate women from the threat of prostitution.
N.C. Cai is a Chinese American Marxist Feminist. She is interested in socialist feminism, Western imperialism, history, and domestic policy, specifically in regards to drug laws, reproductive justice, and healthcare.
This article was produced by Tankie GF.
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