A Fascist Internet?
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. Here I return to part two of a review of The Twittering Machine, looking at the mediocrity of online microcelebrity. It was first published December 6 2019.
chapter 1. our parasocial malaise
The telos of the clickbait economy is not postmodernism, but fascist kitsch.
Last week I published a favourable review of Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine, a book about the harms and potentials of social media. However, I also promised a more critical look at something the book raises. Here I will do that, as well as offer an examination of Seymour’s deeper analysis of online fascism. Ultimately, and as good as it is, I cannot wholly agree with how The Twittering Machine engages online left celebrity culture.
Chiefly, I wish to argue that we should not exaggerate the agency and power of the online crowd against celebrity, nor overemphasise the importance of celebrities and, in ways that require unpacking, draw false equivalencies between online right and left communities. Even if the behaviour of the latter is far from ideal.
The go-to example of a left microcelebrity suffering the dreaded 'twitterstorm' remains the drama around left(ish) YouTuber, Natalie ‘Contrapoints’ Wynn. This was also an example Seymour gave, albeit without sufficient context, on a Novara Media podcast promoting The Twittering Machine.
The drama around Contra peaked after Wynn platformed Buck Angel, an advocate of transmedicalism (an ideology that erases nonbinary people from the trans umbrella), occassional ally of notorious transphobe Graham Lineham, and who infamously outed Lana Wachowski in an act of bigoted vengeance. This is now old news, but it continues to be exemplary of dynamics that are far from resolved.
I agree with Seymour that ‘the shitstorm is not a form of accountability’; however, there is clearly more to be said about the problem of accountability for left online microcelebrities. The danger of trusting the arbitrarily selected voices of BreadTube are real, but the crucial point is to see that this trust is too easily given, too easily abused, and that it has bad consequences for all concerned. But, also, that reliance on such personalities and all the attendant problems is not an accident, it is encoded in the logic of modernity (the historical origins of celebrity) and the internet.
Why is online drama significant? I want to suggest that understanding the problem of microcelebrities on the left is intimately connected to another subject, one that I will also explore in this essay: the innate fascist proclivities of the internet as such, especially in terms of social media. The part of The Twittering Machine concerned with this issue is especially interesting because it extends the analysis of Neil Faulkner’s (et al.) Creeping Fascism, which I reviewed on Medium.
What is the problem of BreadTube (or LeftTube)? I.e., why do the left’s most popular microcelebrities, generally raised to their status to combat online fascism through entertaining videos with high production values and campy, whimsical aesthetics, so often fail to stand with the oppressed, whether we are talking Wynn or someone like Peter Coffin who has even sided with a reactionary pile-on against Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian? What is going on here?
In lieu of being able to hold such voices accountable, it is insufficient to conclude that twitterstorms are only, as Seymour writes, ‘ecstasies sanctioned by virtue’ and ‘as part of its addictive repertoire’ Twitter ‘democratised punishment.’ Not only does this exaggerate (or conflate) some fair complaints with unjustified ‘punishment’, but to dismiss the concerns of the marginalised against any popular lefties is to my mind a misapplication of something like Mark Fisher’s arguments in the famous essay ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’. Here, Fisher defended Owen Jones and Russell Brand, both of whom have their merits and neither of whom have engaged in the types of behaviour we see from many prominent BreadTubers.
Fisher wrote his piece in aid of fermenting class consciousness against the ‘identitarianism’ he associated with Twitter and universities, which is a malleable term that can be used to criticise bad liberal moralists like Hilary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, but also often allows for a thoughtless, vulgar Marxist dismissal of the concerns of the oppressed. (There is so much more to say on the awful identity vs. class arguments.) To pit class or universality against identity or identitarianism particularly doesn’t translate well when considering the complaints of nonbinary people or feminists make against elevated left voices who betray their concerns. And whereas Jones and Brand have addressed the issue of class, these left microcelebrities have at best done very little to raise class consciousness. In his essay Fisher wrote:
The petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic [of class] even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it.
Given such words, we might consider whether he would find much to champion in someone whose main reference point on class (as with Wynn) is Paul Fussell’s pseudo-Weberian Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, which obscures the social reality behind a game of appearances and status. And although I would suggest that BreadTube’s bad theoretical conception of class is not an intellectual fault, nsuch an organic expression of a real class interest shows the pitfall of celebrity for the left. Like all petit bourgeois political entertainers, there’s something nasty in their woodshed.
As was argued in my review of Seymour’s book, the problems with social media (clickbait, addiction, shallowness of content, etc.) are inherent to the medium as it exists under capitalism. (It is not about some people being bad, or a generalisable approach to the technology!) To understand this, then, and the limits of online left celebrity as such, it is helpful to return to the problems with Meagan Day’s ‘Unfortunately, We Can’t Log Off’ article for Jacobin, which I critiqued in my review of The Twittering Machine.
For Day, as for Seymour, it’s clear that social media is not ideologically neutral, but a fertile environment for the right. Her answer, however, while understandable, betrays naivety. Day recommends we instrumentalise online mediums as a left propaganda tool; that is, exactly as BreadTube did in cultivating celebrity status to combat online fascism.
This suggests, however, that leftists should merely decide to exist beyond the reach of the logics of the media they utilise, or that we leftists who take to such media will never do so for unhealthy reasons. Even if there are individuals who can exist on the worst of these mediums with integrity, the bigger question is if we can expect that to be done reliably?
Not only do I want to suggest that we cannot (and I believe Seymour’s engagement with online fascism grounds such pessimism), but I want to suggest that the primary harm is the hateful discourse that the media gives rise to. Contrary to Seymour’s characterisation, outrage is not only directed at celebrities: in the Wynn example, wounded nonbinary people were quickly compared to GamerGate (in a Medium piece to which I will not link) in the ensuing ‘debates’ around her actions; a view endorsed by Wynn’s fellow BreadTube friend Lindsay Ellis.
This is especially perverse as GamerGate was an alt-right online movement within the umbrella of creeping fascism that relentlessly targeted them for abuse. GamerGate was not an oppressed community seeking redress, but a coterie of crypto-fascist microcelebrities (and their stans) operating largely within Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer’s scripted culture war.
What can be learned from such ironies? Insofar as we rely on the voices of people themselves reliant on such platforms, the problem of accountability is serious and we need to acknowledge our catch-22. Abandoning the mediums might not be an option either (might even be hiding from the problem, and is certainly not what I am proposing), but embracing the entirety of the likes of BreadTube strikes me as being now more than naive; it has become a defensive and actively cruel attitude. (And since writing this piece, has only become a more entrenched and poisonous approach.)
Ultimately, the role of petit bourgeois celebrities in any context is suspect. Seymour acknowledges that celebrity ‘horrifies, degrades and diminishes the star’ and correctly cites their high suicide rates as evidence. Furthermore, he’s right to observe the ‘stress, physical illnesses and increased body dysmorphia’ experienced by fans of celebrity. Nonetheless, we must not only acknowledge, but stress celebrity’s inherent power to damage non-celebrity, non-fan communities—even more so when this occurs on the left.
Even offline, qualities conducive to fame (skilled rhetoric, good presentation, fortune in both senses, social connections and respectability) are at best neutral and at worst undesirable to socialism. We know this when it comes to the alt-right (whether we are talking Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson), but are mistaken to ignore that it is as much a problem for celebrities of the internet’s soft left. And that this is particularly so when pecuniary rewards for the upper-tier necessitates embracing modes of conformity that make it often rewarding for them to betray the oppressed (and garner the increased attention of an ultimately low-stakes outrage).
To find a better way to examine these issues, we need only look to Seymour’s analysis of online fascism and how it operates (whether in the form of the white-supremacist alt right or religious-fundamentalist ISIS). This part of the book rightly emphasises that it is the interaction between people and mediums, embedded in systems, wherein the problemsbecome clear (that is, the worst do the best, and the best will be tempted to become the worst):
From ISIS to the alt-right, new fascisms are emerging around microcelebrities, mini-patriarchs and the flow of homogenized messages. If classical fascism directed narcissistic libido investments into the image of the leader, as the embodiment of the people and its historical destiny, neo-fascism harvests the algorithmic accumulation of sentiment in the form of identification-by-Twitterstorm. If the image of the fascist mass was once best captured by the bird’s-eye view of aerial photography, it is now available in a much higher-resolution bird’s eye view as metrics. And if classical fascism built its organization through recruitment from social organizations, such as veterans’ clubs, germinal neo-fascism recruits from the loose associational practices of the platforms. The networked social movement has acquired jackboots.
But Seymour’s analysis here is hampered by his anti-identitarian bent. He argues that as a ‘racist, sexist alt-right denounces ‘snowflake’ fragility (you can’t take a joke)[…] the identitarian Left scolds white male fragility (you can’t take the critique).’ This is nonsense. While there are undoubtedly examples of liberal identity politics that are far from healthy (even disturbingly reactionary), it is not good analysis to see these as aspects of the same logic with only the caveat that much of ‘identity politics addresses long-standing injustices, impacting on people precisely because of how they’re identified’. It is not only that the critique of the fragility of the privileged and ‘snowflake’ fragility have opposite bases in class society, but that the targets of such critiques (the marginalised as opposed to the powerful) are not comparable either. Power is structural. Content itself matters. And accusations of fragility are true or false depending on the accuser and accused.
The telos of the clickbait economy is not postmodernism, but fascist kitsch.
What the right and left do share, however, proves to be a fatal problem only for the left. That is, that the internet is adapted only to elevating a small number of people who, to retain their ‘power’, must often be willing to court controversy to elicit the resulting attention, only without offending the already influential. It is not that BreadTube's occasional mistreatment of the oppressed reveals an occult truth that the left and right are secretly the same — not even to a small extent.
Rather, the situated success of online left gurus is hard to sustain without going over — to some extent — to the right’s tactics. ‘What is true is that online alt-right politics has found a convivial home in trolling subcultures,’ Seymour writes, ‘and has often adopted the tactics of trolling, in its dissimulation and harassment campaigns.’ Moreover, it was always a fact of the internet: ‘Fascists have proven to be avid early adopters of new technologies. They were among the first to use email in order to organize without being disrupted by the authorities.’ Here, Seymour’s analysis becomes useful again.
chapter 2. fascism reloaded
As with any problem of technology, Seymour stresses that it only ever exaggerates existing contradictions, rather than inventing new ones. For example, he notes that even though ‘Modi, Duterte, Bolsonaro and Trump have all used the social industry and messaging services effectively to bypass legacy media, they have each benefited from the (perceived and actual) corruption and stalemate of the political establishment.’ Likewise, ISIS ‘exploited social media far more efficiently than the protest movements of 2011, without unconsciously mimicking or depending on the model of association found on the platforms.’
Indeed, as extensively outlined in The Twittering Machine, the problem is not limited to fascism, however conducive social media is to it. Any kind of degrading and repressed content can be elevated by this peculiar, anonymised and exploitative media:
The content agnosticism of computational capitalism has political valences, but the algorithm’s effects go well beyond political content. The artist James Bridle has written of the surprisingly outré and noir YouTube content for kids, which involves erotic or violent content: Peppa Pig eating her daddy or drinking bleach, for example.
Moreover, the problem cannot be overcome so long as the social industry exists on the basis of a for-profit infrastructure. A 2017 study, for instance, ‘found that Trump alone was worth about $2.5 billion to Twitter, a fifth of its share value at the time.’ Therefore, it would seem, ‘the social industry firms can’t afford to lose the alt-right’. (Or, at least, not without significant pressure.) Society’s are made up of people and their decisions, but human beings create and occupy elaborate systems and technology is adapted to these systems.
That online systems of the social industry favour the far right should concern us greatly. And not only because it puts the left at a disadvantage, but because it tells us something about the society that gave rise to that social industry.
We should begin to take seriously the possibility that something about the social industry is either incipiently fascistic, or particularly conducive to incipient fascism
In one of the most important statements of the book, and the main take-away from this essay, Seymour urges: ‘We should begin to take seriously the possibility that something about the social industry is either incipiently fascistic, or particularly conducive to incipient fascism.’ When that is applied as much to the internet’s left ecology as to the right, it is my contention that we ought to be profoundly alarmed and distrustful of even most attempts to combat it. No medium is ideologically neutral, and this medium has proven especially dangerous.
Still, whatever one has to say about examples of misbehaviour from the left, it is to creeping fascism that we must turn most of our concern. Here, again, Seymour has insights. Mirroring much of Faulkner’s analysis of the far-right politics that has taken hold across the world, Seymour notes that fascism today — while still fascist — is shaped by different forces than the fascism of the past.
For Faulkner, the fact that the fascism of the 30s had to fight an organised and militant left explains most of its differences with its contemporary iteration. Those experiences of street violence fashioned militant reactionaries into what he dubs the battering-ram fascism of, for example, the German Nazi Party. For Seymour, this is also the case, ‘fascist movements of the interwar period were rooted in imperialist ideologies, popular militarism, paramilitary organizations and a world system run by colonial empires and menaced by socialist revolution. These circumstances will not return.’ That is focal for understanding the far right we now face.
However, what Seymour adds to Faulkner is a keen sense of how the social industry, with its excessive unleashing of the repressed, socially atomising technology and faux countercultural dressings, also shapes the new fascism in unique ways. It is therefore the case that even were such a fascism to break down at the electoral level, (as it possibly, temporarily has in the US) it would remain an imminent threat:
The fascist potential of the social industry doesn’t necessarily lie in its short-term electoral consequences, ominous and damaging as these may be. Rather, far more lethally, it may be indicated by the phenomenon fashionably known as ‘stochastic terror’. This concept, anonymously minted in 2011, refers to the way that communications can be used to incite random violence and terror. Fascist terror is ‘stochastic’ because fascism is still fractal: the armed shitstorm, a material possibility of the medium every bit as much as the meatspace troll, has yet to materialize. But these are early days for the networked fascism of the twenty-first century.
In conclusion, the optimistic and hopeful ending of my review of The Twittering Machine might be the right attitude, but it should not disabuse us of the monstrous problems that confront us. What should be made clearer from the morbid symptoms we encounter is that there is no way forward; not in leftist microcelebrities or opting out.
Individually leaving the internet, as Benjamin Y. Fong recommends in his Jacobin piece ‘Log Off’, accomplishes nothing more than protecting oneself from psychological damage — it is a therapeutic, not a political, choice, even if it might often be the right one. Embracing social media as a mere tool, however carefully, also ignores its dangers. And while it is obvious that we need collective (that is, political) approaches, we are at a disadvantage against our fascist enemies.
Can we find a utopian solution to this dystopian moment? Not if we give in to pessimism, however much it might seem warranted. But also not if we hide from the situation, and fall for the same traps of celebrity culture and infotainment that have debased even the already craven online right.
What do we do next? Certainly, we should never tolerate the abuse of any part of the working class (which includes nonbinary people!) and we ought to look to the working class itself, foremost, to find clues about those routes to its self-emancipation. This much remains true until the left has overcome capitalism as a whole. Beyond that, let us remain sceptical of the false hopes endlessly paraded by capitalist society.
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