I’ve been reading recently a little about Breadtube, or Leftube, the attempt to create a progressive space for video makers on YouTube. I had been familiar with some of the creators, such as Contrapoints or Hbomberguy, but I’ve only just become aware it was a ‘scene’ or what have you.
Named after the Conquest of Bread, it has apparently turned into quite a thriving community, based around a subreddit, and has built up enough of a following that it has its own ‘Battle for the Soul,’ NYT profiles and, as with every left wing space online worth its salt, a good deal of acrimony and drama. YouTube has always tended towards being at best, apolitical, and more often, deeply conservative and reactionary. It’s almost a by-word for online fascism at this point.
It’s very interesting then to see people trying to carve out a left wing space on a platform that has such an obvious right wing bent to it, and it raises some important questions about how the medium itself does impact the message.
First though, I saw this post from a guy newly converted from the right (a lot of the community’s raison d’etre is deradicalisation of people drifting towards reaction) who was worried that his entire political life was becoming a mirror of the ‘gamer getting angry at videos.’
While not toxic when it comes to politics as a whole anymore, I’m still only watching some breadtube on occasion not to learn for myself, but to simply gain that sense of superiority. I feel like there are probably others that exhibit this on r/BreadTube, when it comes to the concept of absorbing concepts just to “stick it” to the reactionary conservatives, rather than for something more proactive. I literally joined this sub because I was interested in arguments against the demagogues of Youtube, rather than my own knowledge alone.
I find the way that left wing ideas spread and spaces form online really interesting. In a traditional view of how the working class becomes conscious, a lot of emphasis has been placed on basically how we are all packed together. We live beside one another, in cities, working the same or similar jobs, and it is through being able to interact with one another on this common ground that class consciousness was born.
Now we have a strange, halfway state, where there is a demographic very alienated and often isolated, who naturally have social interactions through the kind of regulator of the internet that are coming towards left wing ideals. This is going to be a very different type of politics, and exists in very different ways.
For instance there is the concept of the ‘Breadpill.’ Like the reactionary right has its ‘redpills’ which are supposed secret truths that make one view the world for how it is, the community is very concerned with similar ways of pushing people towards the left. Usually this is through a format of some kind of entry video, reading the Conquest of Bread, or some person who makes videos dropping some knowledge.
In the context of political education, I think this is perhaps a bit of an undeveloped way to go about it. The best success I’ve had with introducing people to socialist and more specifically Marxist ideas and concepts has been in social contexts, like our political education course. It’s also something of the perfect fit for a individualised, atomised online-left.
My partner, for instance, is quite the fan of Contrapoints and has enjoyed quite a few of the other video producers, but her first proper foray into socialism was during the most recent The World Transformed festival. Specifically the panel ‘Organising the Unorganisable’ hosted by some incredible union activists, and the screening of Ken Loach’s ‘Sorry We Missed You.’ Not the movie itself, or just the talk, but as she told me after, it was the sense of solidarity and support for the workers, something she’d never really been too exposed to before.
For a leftism that has been created in the semi real, shimmering space of online, an experience like this is effectively impossible. Discourse even becomes restricted, either through the general problems of communication through text, or through the fact that response is within a mass public context. All questions, all debate, all explanation online, is ultimately subject to a permanent spectre of universal accessibility.
When you are for instance hosting a discussion with say, twenty people, in a meeting room, the space is not open for broadcast and recording. It’s quite a contradiction that there is an ever present public, and yet due to the medium, online participation is still a solitary activity.
The leftism then becomes mediated through some kind of personality. There certainly is a prevalence of ‘parasocial relationships’ between viewers and people making videos for YouTube, where the viewer is encouraged to form a false social connection with the viewed. Those who tend to be most successful also tend to be those best at making viewers feel like their friends. In the context of the left though, this becomes a question of a political identity revolving around consumption of media on a specific platform.
This is magnified with the nature of the social media being used. Something like Twitter, for instance, is not designed to be a useful experience, or to be enjoyable, or even to be something worth spending time on. It is designed to keep its users on the site, creating data through likes and follows, being exposed to advertising, building profiles and followings and raising the value of the site. Bloomberg estimates that President Trump’s twitter is worth two billion dollars, most of course are worth nothing like this, but in the end, all participation on the platform is building a similar value.
On YouTube then, the design is not to provide good videos, or to even create some Californian Ideology ‘Marketplace of Ideas.’ The purpose of YouTube is to keep people on YouTube. All content on the site is ultimately passively continuing the existence of the platform, and no matter how good it is, this should raise questions about how comfortable we are perpetuating that. The platform itself is not neutral, and indeed can never be neutral.
Now, I don’t want to make some facile moralist argument about how YouTube is bad, although I do believe platform capitalism, social media, and the dominance thereof are indeed negative (especially for the formation of progressive political movements.) Of course we should abolish YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and every other hyper exploitative, brain-warping, algorithmic nightmare of a website eventually, and honestly, I do think on environmental grounds the internet is going to have to evolve or die at some point (afterall, watching video online has a truly monumental carbon footprint.) What’s more important at this juncture though, is the political question.
At the end of the day, making and watching YouTube videos, posting on Twitter, dropping ‘Breadpills’ or really any consumptive activity, is not ever going to be a political action. It may be a productive action, if you are selling a book or your profile as a journalist certainly it helps to post a lot, and people make a living from producing videos. The social relation between consumer and producer however, means that it is unlikely to be anything more.
A politics based on this really has a lot more of the smallholding French peasant in Marx’s ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’ to it, a solitary figure with only vertical relationships, only with the addition of social media instead of institutions like the Church. The fan is provided with the talismans of progressive politics, and tries to apply them on an individual level, with the object of fandom as the connection between them and the ‘left.’
What I think is important to remember, as with everything online, is that we really should take a more critical view of how we interact with the system. I do sometimes wonder if holding ourselves to just a restrained propagandist use of social media, and attempt otherwise to carve out our own spaces, not just squat on others. It’s also probably good to try to remember that we can just enjoy things without having to attach immense purpose to them.
As regards the personalities, I think it puts an awful lot of strain onto said individuals to expect them to be the tribunes of some new politics. As individual creators it doesn’t especially make much sense to treat them in such a serious way, especially considering the reasonably low viewership.
Socialism is a social ‘ism,’ and only really starts when you interact with those around you and recognise your shared humanity and interests. An online version of that really is going to be no replacement, and at worse will just end up segregating leftists from those around them. Whilst having someone to show you the way is very useful, it’s important to be critical of how we consume it from a distance. Real political education, afterall, comes from the everyday class struggle, you can’t learn it from a book alone, even if it does help.