Monday, December 9, 2013

Left to Obscurity

The other day, I read an article about libertarians, the Internet, and how they're affecting leftist politics. For a moment, I was thrilled - someone else on the Internet was as upset about Internet libertarians as I am! And then my friends started pointing out that the article wasn't very well-written, and my elation faded away.

Aw. Dead end.

Still, there's a talking point inspired from this article that is definitely worth addressing. Where are the Leftists in the age of the Internet? And how has the seemingly dominant ideology of the Internet affected Leftism?

Here's a long, scatterbrained, and probably off-point diagnosis on the state of leftist thought on the Internet, and what might possibly improve it.

Let's define what it means to be a Leftist, for the sake of this post's discussion. A Leftist is someone who does not believe that capitalism is a good or sustainable system for our society and would like to see it replaced with something else. A Leftist could want to see capitalism replaced gradually and peacefully, or they could want to see it replaced suddenly and violently. A Leftist could want to see capitalism replaced with something more top-down, a la socialism, or they could want to see it replaced with something more decentralized, a la anarchism.

The main thing that defines a Leftist is that they don't believe in capitalism, which should meaningfully separate them from liberals (who share similar goals to Leftists but don't think it is necessary to displace the capitalist system), conservatives, and libertarians. And yes, things like the "libertarian Left" and "anarcho-capitalism" exist, but their viewpoints mostly resemble libertarianism. And, for full disclosure, I'm someone who probably fits my definition of liberalism pretty strongly, but with sympathies towards a gradual socialist shift.

So, back to our question: Where are the Leftists on the Internet?

Perhaps there's a broader question here that is more relevant: where are the Leftists, period? The Overton window in American politics - that is, the range of political ideas that are acceptable for public discussion - has been getting pushed farther and farther into right-wing territory. Conservative political commentator and think tank fellow Joshua Trevino has spoken on this phenomenon, even alluding to an organized strategy within think tanks to keep pushing the Overton window as far to the right as possible.

We can see it reflected in mass media such as television. I've written before on how the schism in media use between generations may account for the increasing conservatism of radio and television news. Perhaps, in addition to changing media use, there might actually be an agenda among the right-wingers. Whatever the case, Leftists are mostly absent in public spotlight. The Tea Party is somehow a media-worthy force that can get actual political support, but Occupy Wall Street mostly attracts media attention when people want to talk about why it failed. This is despite the fact that OWS hasn't actually gone anywhere and is still pushing against the system.

Well, there are always Internet viral videos, right? ...Right?

Leftism has some online presence, but they're generally drowned out by more conventionally liberal websites. For every Jacobin, there's a ThinkProgress, TheDailyKos, and, ugh, Upworthy. Seeing as what constitutes "Left" can span a wide and splintered array of viewpoints, and since a lot of Leftist terms are fairly unfashionable (see: any and all hubbub about the word 'socialism'), it can be hard to find firmly leftist material. Sometimes you can find hints of anti-capitalist musings in places like Alternet and other places, but it seems mostly out of sight.

Online hubs with left-wing perspectives are even rarer. SomethingAwful's Debate and Discussion forum, beyond all expectations for a comedy website, is dominated by both anarchists and socialists. However, the SomethingAwful forums are not designed to be widely accessible, so this left wing of their community remains fairly isolated. In contrast, the Anonymous movement is too widely accessible. Anonymous may have an anarchist bent to it at times, but then again, it can have a fairly libertarian bent to it too. The whole point of the anonymous moniker is that anybody can be an Anonymous, so it isn't defined by or limited to anarchism.

There's an r/socialism on Reddit, but it seems almost token. Like, of course there's an r/socialism, there's a subreddit for everything! Look at this grab bag of political subreddits - the volume of Left-leaning subreddits pale in comparison to the libertarian or libertarian-leaning subreddits, especially when you skim through the subreddits past the strictly "partisan" category.  As far as Reddit rankings go, r/anarchism sits as the 393rd-highest subscribed subreddit, while r/socialism doesn't even make the top 500. Of course, r/Libertarian sits at 165 at the time of this writing.

Leftism on the Internet, much like Leftism in real life, is mostly diluted, mostly scattered, and mostly unpopular. That should be strange to us. The Internet excels at bringing splintered minority groups together, often allowing them to develop a sense of community. It's never actually mattered if the community is based on a sound premise - they're usually not! Even if you're one of those people who thinks that Leftist thought is completely loony, you'd still expect the Leftists to have something to themselves online. So why don't they?

A part of it might just be that I'm looking for Leftist material in 2013, while we have a Democrat president. Maybe having a Republican president would inspire more fervor among lefties. The Democratic Underground forums got their most press back when George W Bush was president, mostly for saying things that are just as loony as what tea party conservatives get away with today.

But I think another, more crucial, part of the lack of Leftism on the Internet is how absolutely, blindingly outnumbered they are by libertarians on the Internet.

Just in case you forgot that this exists.

We've talked about the general libertarian atmosphere of online communities, but we really should re-emphasize just how easy it is to be a libertarian. The language is so vague that nearly anybody can identify with the ideology to some token degree.

Did you dislike the Iraq War back when Bush was president? Do you have trouble understanding why marijuana is illegal? Congratulations! You have something in common with libertarians! Never mind that those are some of the most banal political opinions you could possibly have, and that plenty of non-libertarian people would probably agree with you. The libertarians are the easiest ones to relate to because they keep it simple - they get that it's about personal freedom. You like freedom, don't you?

Are you a generally accepting person? You don't see yourself as a racist, sexist, homophobe, or whatever else, right? Then I guess you could call yourself pretty liberal on social issues. But wait, you don't like the idea of wasting money either, and if the government is spending lots of money, then it might be wasting lots of money too! These are both incredibly novel opinions to have, and a shitty political quiz that some libertarian put together says that these opinions make you a libertarian! Now you have a label that falls out of the binary American party system, which definitely shows that your opinion is more nuanced and thoughtful than the opinions of anybody who's chosen to conform as "democrat" or "republican".

Perhaps some more thoughtful libertarians are cringing at the idea that they're being grouped with the legions of people online that only have a token sense of their ideology and call themselves libertarian. But that's the very problem - there are legions of people online that do this. The ideology gets very well-publicized online and the language is kept ludicrously simple. This creates a very low barrier of entry for people to identify as a libertarian.

It's a brilliant recruiting strategy. Libertarians end up drawing tons of attention to their ideology. Their sheer numbers make it impossible to avoid hearing about the ideology in most contexts. They end up having a command over political language on the Internet. What's more, libertarianism doesn't have a stigma to it like Leftism does. Leftist thought is much older, has been integrated into our academic canon, and has experienced plenty of valid criticism (as well as fear-mongering, like with McCarthyism) over the years. Libertarianism is relatively young, hasn't yet seen public spotlight like Leftism has (unless you want to count Somalia as the current shining example of a libertarian nation-state), and does a better job in capturing the hearts of young affluent people who don't like getting told what to do. The result is that leftist thought tends to get overlooked in favor of the new, shiny, freedom-loving libertarian mantra.

But wait a minute - who's doing the recruiting for libertarianism? There are plenty of libertarian spokesmen - as I've mentioned in the previous blog post on libertarianism, examples of outspoken libertarian personalities include South Park's founders, Rush, and magician Penn Jilette. But there are other libertarians that probably have an even higher profile online: The founders of your favorite Internet websites.

You can't escape.

The Jacobin article from the beginning of this blog post drops some names of famous libertarians who aren't Ron Paul. The rank and file of online libertarians include people like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, Google engineering director Ray Kurzweil, and others. Reddit's co-founder Alexis Ohanian, though never explicitly identifying as a libertarian, certainly seems to embrace the libertarian presence on his website and was resistant to top-down intervention on Reddit's child pornography problem, so you can probably infer a libertarian leaning.

Maybe you don't know all of these people by name, or haven't seen any of their writings or speeches or anything. But you have used their handiwork. These people are behind the websites you use. They have a direct hand in curating the style and content of their websites. They manage teams of people that are presumably like-minded enough to work under them. Their work makes them leaders of great services that millions get to use for free. Established businesses and business outlets praise them in much the same way that they praise CEOs of other companies.

Their success isn't really lost on us. We vaguely know that these people exist, and we like them for their services. What's more, their success is derived from our efforts. If you've ever contributed to Wikipedia, then you've contributed to the phenomenon that gives Jimmy Wales a cultural platform. But contributing to Wikipedia isn't a bad thing at all! Wikipedia is useful and good. The confusion comes when we make a logical leap and say that, because Wikipedia is useful and good, Jimmy Wales' opinions are also useful and good.

It's one thing that these people associate with libertarianism, but their brand of libertarianism is uniquely Internet-flavored. In addition to the generic advocacy of personal freedoms, they tie in technology as the key to personal liberation. This so-called techno-utopianism, or cyber-libertarianism, emphasizes the role of the Internet (and other technologies too) in actualizing an ideal society of empowered individuals.

And they're not totally wrong either. Modern technology - especially technology of the Internet - is very impressive. It's allowed us to connect with each other in ways that we've never been able to before. Worlds upon worlds of human experience, intellectual discourse, and large-scale information are at our fingertips. The vigilante movements and the open source projects have revealed enormous amounts about our sociology that can soften people's attitudes on the idea of mass-cooperation and progress. These are powerful tools that can make us better.

ohhhh no here we go again

So when these people - these Ray Kurzweils, these Peter Thiels - talk about the power of this technology, we're very inclined to hang on to their words. Because it's mostly true - the Internet has changed the world, it has benefited us as people, it's made us smarter and more connected with each other. Maybe it can bring us closer to an ideal society.

If you're a libertarian, then you're probably already in love with this rhetoric. If you were already politically inclined that way - even in the casual sort of way that I described above - then these people probably push you further in a libertarian direction.

But if you're a Leftist, then you want to be in love with their words too. You want to believe that the Internet is a disruptive force to the status quo, that the availability of information is empowering the common person in previously unseen ways, that the capitalist dogma is finally being eroded away in favor of a more cooperative world.

And you want to believe this while these website founders climb the financial ranks like business people before them, while YouTube develops and empowers an upper crust of performers that can bypass YouTube regulations, and while websites shove increasingly better-targeted ads in your face to get you to buy their products.

The emergent infrastructure on the Internet certainly could subvert capitalism, but the people trying to sell us on the technology aren't actually interested in subverting capitalism at all. They're earning their livelihood off it. Nothing about these websites or their technology are ever going to directly address the deeper flaws of capitalist structure, because they work too well within the current system. Instead, these people continue to promote an ideology that is overly simplistic and disproportionately benefits themselves over the millions of Internet users.

War. War never changes.

This is the really sinister part of online libertarianism: Leftists have just as much reason to be excited about the Internet as libertarians do. But the conversation revolves around using the technology for the promotion of libertarian ideals, because libertarians have so much more clout online than leftists. In other words, this celebration of technology ends up disproportionately benefiting the libertarian cause because libertarians are the ones with power online.

The best example of this horrible identity crisis can be found in the response to the NSA spying.

If you were one of the people outraged by the NSA's activities online (Google sure was), then ask yourself why you were outraged. Was it the collection of information on you? Was it the lack of informed consent on the action? Was it just that you don't know what the NSA was going to do with that information, and that makes you uneasy?

Don't get me wrong, these can all be valid reasons to be upset about the NSA leak. But check your consistency: If you're mad that the NSA information database even exists, then are you also mad at Facebook for being giant information databases on millions of people? If you're mad about the lack of consent of using your information, then are you somehow more comfortable with how big data analysis with advertisers are at the point where they can figure out you're pregnant before you do? If it was how you don't trust the government's values, then are you more okay with advertising companies whose very goal in mining your data is to more effectively manipulate you in buying their products?

If you hate the idea of the government putting together a giant database on Internet users using coercive means, but you don't really have a problem with the privately owned databases on Internet users using basic information to figure out more about you than you'd probably like, then there is some serious inconsistency in your viewpoint. That is, unless you trust the entrepreneurs. Which might not be a good idea.

Libertarians got very mad about the NSA. This is consistent with their belief system. Some - but not all - of those reasons translate well into a more leftist way of thinking. The online discourse about the NSA, motivated by libertarians, get Leftists talking about how they're equally outraged about the NSA based on those select shared reasons. If the Leftists steer the conversation deeper, then they leave the domain of discussion that interests most libertarians, and the conversation starts to die. The overall effect is the appearance of a louder libertarian base, with the issue of NSA spying remaining a fairly shallowly explored issue.

This should really tear you apart if you identify with the Left, but think that the Internet is promoting leftist ideology. You see the technology in front of you, and you know how it could be used as a fantastic, empowering tool. You see examples of online social justice and the victory of secular thought and you want to believe that the Internet is finally empowering the marginalized. But that isn't what's necessarily going on in the larger picture.

It makes perfect sense to be mad at the NSA for collecting data on people's emails without a warrant or without their consent. But Google doing the same thing and  protracting their admission of it doesn't attract nearly as much widespread ire. Why?

Or the vocal, Ron Paul-loving minority.

Does our technology fundamentally benefit us by virtue of its existence? To some degree, I'd argue yes. Certainly, having this technology in existence opens up more possibilities for people to sustain themselves. But it remains important to monitor who's manning the technology.

That's the really tough part when it comes to criticizing the Internet bigwigs. They are contributing amazing ideas. Look at Elon Musk's hyperloop, or Ray Kurzweil's push for technologies that enhance human longevity. Isn't offering up these amazing ideas - and using their power to actualize them - a net good?

Well, it would depend on what these entrepreneurs would like to do with their actualized ideas They certainly could let these technologies proliferate, which would strongly benefit greater society while marginally benefiting them. Or, they could introduce artificial barriers to the proliferation of that technology, which would give them greater personal profit while benefiting everyone else less. And hey, there's precedence for this!

In the 1950s, America was productive enough as a society where there was serious discussion about how much people would really need to work anymore. People were saying that we could get away with four day workweeks and maintain our standard of living. The technology was there. The fundamental obstacle to the common worker's ability to engage in higher pursuits - time - seemed to have been conquered.

Yet somehow, our levels of work never ceased.  The workplace environment became even more hostile to our free time. But it isn't like old jobs suddenly re-emerged. Jobs with artificial purpose - your tech support jobs, your telemarketer jobs - began to find their niche instead. The demand for material consumption never actually ceased among the American population, and enough companies were willing to take advantage of that demand. They pushed their sales harder with more ads, they preyed on more insecurities, and they introduced more products that they could convince people were necessary to have.

Suddenly people were willing to work unnecessary amounts of time just so they could meet an artificially inflated standard of living. The Reagan years only served to fuel this fire - greed is good, they would say! The 90s generation - my generation - were born into a world that was literally making up reasons for us to buy more things and work more hours.

The history of American consumerism is one giant precedence for the willingness of some entrepreneurs to introduce artificial barriers to personal satisfaction for the sake of personal gain. Our Internet entrepreneurs might be introducing fantastic technologies that could make our lives better, and it probably is feasible for this technology to become widespread. But why should we expect these entrepreneurs to let such an opportunity for personal profit slide?

Perhaps the extreme of this technocratic capitalist nonsense can be found in online cults like Less Wrong. They try to romance us with stories about the might of the singularity, about how a push for friendly artificial intelligence will make the world a better place. The Rationalists might in fact be pushing techno-utopianism to its logical conclusion, speculating on a technological force that could be free from imperfect human influence. But why would we believe that the picture is so simple? It assumes that these people are actually working towards what they claim to be working for, which, given MIRI's track record for productive output, might not really be true at all.

Just in case you still had trouble imagining how an innovative entrepreneur could end up being a giant asshole.

I don't mean to disparage people on the grounds that they are wealthy, nor do I mean to disparage all Internet entrepreneurs. There are many people in power who don't subscribe to the current atmosphere of libertarian techno-utopianism. The Giving Pledge is a fantastic project, and includes people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.  Some tech entrepreneurs are even calling for more regulations on the Internet, contrary to the prevailing online atmosphere.

But despite these valiant efforts, the Internet remains a sickeningly libertarian place, and it cripples the heft of the left by exploiting the ambiguous nature of technological advancement. John Steinbeck once said that America doesn't have poor people - merely temporarily embarrassed rich people. The online medium has given us illusions about individualism, meritocracy, and technology as a saving force. But we forget about racial disparitiesgender tensionsturmoil among the socially disadvantaged, and other issues that we can deal with here and now, that simply require us to care.

There needs to be more serious discussion on what problems our technology can't solve, and I say this as a goddamned bioinformatician - my entire job revolves around the idea that computing technology can provide new and amazing solutions to old problems in things like disease treatment and energy production. Also, I run a goddamn blog about how great the Internet is. I am not someone who doubts the capacity of technology to improve our world. I merely question how that technology will be used, once it comes about.

If the Left wants to find online relevance that can counter the libertarians, then it needs to find a way to denounce the perceived power of technology while still embracing technology.  That should seem like a ludicrously uphill battle, because it is. As Vladimir Lenin once said, "What is to be done?"

There is one avenue of social current online that I think has potential in rekindling a push against the capitalism norm, and that is feminism. Particularly radical feminism - the kind that refers to patriarchy as an existent social system.

Sickles are out of style.

Feminism on the Internet has managed to become an impressive force, raising very important discussions within gaming culture and online atheism. It's done an amazing job in raising awareness on issues of power dynamics in online circles that have traditionally been dominated by men. Their arguments are fundamentally based on issues that require empathy - that it's unjust that double standards exist, that it's unacceptable that rape culture exists, that it's ridiculous that women are expected to conform to a certain image on the basis of their gender in all instances.

Online feminism has jointly relied on an embrace of Internet technology while using arguments that transcend the use of that technology and critique the greater social structure. Their movement directly speaks for approximately half of the population, which can't be said about racial struggles (where minorities are...erm, a minority in real life and online) or class struggles (where it seems unreasonable to expect working class people to have the time or resources to deeply engage with communities online on an equivalent level as the affluent classes). Plus, since gender issues affect both men and women, feminists can gather plenty of feminist allies among people who aren't women. This is a movement that really can get people to talk about changing social constructs.

Sure, feminism is not a monolithic movement. There is such a thing as libertarian feminism, but they don't seem to be terribly widespread. Within the subset of the feminist Internet, you most strongly see liberals and leftists. Perhaps that's because the capitalist system, as it's implemented, helps reinforce some patriarchal norms. That makes feminist circles a particularly safe space for Leftist thought - because it's doubly clear how the system disparages them.

If mass media has pushed the Overton window towards right-wing perspectives, and if the Internet has helped push the Overton window towards libertarian perspectives, then maybe feminism can push the window back towards the left. With leftist voices online currently scattered and mostly drowned out, feminism can be a great rallying point.

But, of course, I'm not a woman. I can't speak for feminism. But even if I don't have the authority to confirm this belief, I believe this: that women are in a position to lead the Left into social relevance online. And I throw my full support behind them.


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