- Arthur Kleinman
Against the Web - Marred by Intellectual Complacence
How can socialists build a political movement that has genuine mainstream appeal while remaining faithful to their principles? After reading Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right, it is clear that Michael Brooks, the book’s author and a key figure in the emerging ecosystem of left-wing Youtube commentary, has dedicated much energy toward constructing a solution to this quandary. In lieu of the defeats recently suffered by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, torchbearers of the progressive left in their respective countries, one could argue that the matter at hand has never been so pertinent.
Brooks dedicates much of Against the Web to a critique of the "Intellectual Dark Web" (IDW), a self-styled group of renegade intellectuals who claim to be resisting what they perceive to be the increasingly repressive tendencies of the liberal left. He does so with an eye to the politico-cultural platform that the left can offer in their place, a framework for which he lays out at the end of the book. However, on both these fronts, Brooks’ manifesto of sorts falls short, in large part attributable to the stifling miasma of intellectual complacence which pervades the text.
Admittedly, there is much to like in Against the Web. Brooks’ critique of Sam Harris is sufficiently thorough and scathing, with his analysis of the latter’s insidious utilisation of “thought experiments” to veil clumsy apologia for US foreign policy and dog whistle racism serving as a highlight. Furthermore, Brooks’ broad emphasis on the need for a more pragmatic, culturally accommodative movement is both refreshing and necessary in a context where mainstream discourse is oft punctuated by the excesses of certain elements of the left. Angrily virtue-signalling on Twitter might provide a more immediate catharsis, but it is no substitute for actually winning power and implementing one’s ambitions, particularly if the former serves to obstruct the latter. Brooks manifestly grasps this point.
Nevertheless, Brooks regrettably fails to build on these strengths, leaving Against the Web feeling inconsequential and somewhat amateurish when assessed as a whole. For one, rather than providing a comprehensive rebuttal of the IDW membership sans Harris, Brooks opts to employ a sequence of brief anecdotes to elucidate the flaws in their arguments. To be fair, these to an extent serve their purpose, but the reader is regardless left with a sense that Brooks couldn’t be bothered to provide a more concerted analysis.
For instance, Brooks dedicates a mere five pages to his critique of Ben Shapiro’s literature, before moving on to discuss his more famous and immediately embarrassing Andrew Neil interview. Admittedly, the source material Brooks is working with here is highly entertaining, and if it was employed to supplement a more thorough analysis of Shapiro’s worldview the section would be much more effective. However, Brooks settles for the easier route, and makes the interview an integral component of his line of argument.
The impression encapsulated above of Brooks not being particularly bothered emanates from close to the entire book. While consistent with the intellectual swagger he projects on his Youtube show, a written work – particularly one that aspires to provide the basis for a mainstream political movement – should operate at a higher standard. Most symptomatic of this approach are the various points throughout Against the Web’s brief 82-page runtime where Brooks makes bold, sweeping statements about political and historical issues with the most minimal of substantiations.
Take the following passage, where Brooks discusses David Reynolds, a member of the Socialist Party of America (SPA): “in its final decades…[it] sometimes erred on the side of an exaggerated concern about Stalinism that led some of its leaders to downplay or ignore the far more real threat of American imperialism. This culminated in a split over the war in Vietnam, with some members supporting the intervention and some rejecting it. McReynolds…was on the right side of that split, just as he landed on the right side of just about every other major debate of the late twentieth century” [emphasis added]. Not only does Brooks blithely assert that the SPA’s concern about Stalin was “exaggerated” – an inherently controversial claim considering the individual concerned – but there is also a conspicuous absence of substantiation for his claim that McReynolds was on the “right side of just about every other major debate of the late twentieth century”, which almost reads like a sentence from a secondary school assignment in its brazenness.
If this were a marginal occurrence, there would be little basis for complaint here, but as was alluded to earlier such complacency crops up repeatedly throughout the book - for instance: “…contrary to the delusions of the #YangGang, the combination of robots and a Universal Basic Income isn’t going to result in any kind of desirable alternative. Even if things did play out that way, which they won’t, that’s just a recipe for ever greater division between the rich and poor”. The obvious immaturity of this passage aside, on what basis does Brooks so confidently assert that the policy set he described wouldn’t produce a “desirable alternative”? Whatever it might be, scarcely any attempt is made to share the source of his conviction with the reader.
Having consumed much of Brooks’ content, I don’t doubt that he would have little trouble backing up these statements if confronted over them, but that is beside the point. Against the Web is presented as a written work predicated upon in-depth analysis rather than a humorous, intentionally condescending Youtube clip, yet Brooks prolifically lapses into the motifs of the latter. As a result, the book is written in an overbearingly presumptuous manner – a fact which no doubt serves to inhibit Brooks from fulfilling his true potential as an analyst.