Against The Web, the first book by YouTube host Michael Brooks, is a nimble polemic in critique of the “Intellectual Dark Web” — an assortment of intellectuals of various persuasions who rose to fame in 2018 as against the excesses of the “social justice” left — and a rejoinder to online reactionary sentiment more broadly.
In a brisk 82 pages, Brooks provides a thoughtfully scathing analysis of IDW members from a historical-materialist perspective. He follows with his own vision of cultural cosmopolitanism and international socialism as a comprehensive response to the rise of the New Right.
Against the Web is sliced into five compact chapters that makes digesting its message and inhaling its critiques into a pleasant afternoon’s work. In the first bit, Brooks lays out the central contradiction of the IDW brand and puts a spotlight on its underlying rhetorical sleight of hand. As Voltaire once said of the Holy Roman Empire, it’s not Holy, not Roman, and not an Empire; in Brooks’s telling, the Intellectual Dark Web is neither particularly intellectual nor particularly dark. The idea that it is moving against the grain of mainstream opinion is thrown into sharp relief by its glowing profiles in major outlets like The New York Times or appearances on colossal platforms like Joe Rogan’s podcast. The trick of this group is to promote itself as both counter-cultural and innovative when it is no more than a reiteration of right-wing tropes that are recycled every generation or so.
By positioning itself as marginalized, engaged in a heroic uphill battle against the totalitarian forces of progressive identity politics, the IDW can repackage conservative ideas as groundbreaking while claiming the mantle of neutral centrists engaged in detached logic and fact-based analysis. Defending traditional gender roles or downplaying the pervasiveness of racism is suddenly cool and interesting again, when it is really just the same resistance to change that has always characterized conservatism.
Brooks’s contention, in a nutshell, is that the IDW falsely sells itself as nonpartisan and dissident when, in reality, it is both explicitly anti-left and in alignment with establishment forces.
Unfortunately, while the book is worthwhile for what it does include, it doesn’t deliver on its grander promise. To provide a definitive analysis of the IDW, it would have to assess the appeal of the IDW, knock down the reasons for the project (such as it is), and provide a fulsome alternative. But Brooks conveniently sidesteps the deeper questions and conflicts that gave rise to the IDW in the first place. The moral blind spots, reflexive assumptions, and glaring omissions of Against The Web reveal precisely why the left populism Brooks champions will ultimately fail to stem the tide of the reactionary wave in America.
Throughout the book, Brooks takes aim at several of the IDW’s main players. His central criticism is that the IDW attempts to either naturalize or mythologize recurrent inequalities and injustices in society while holding onto a vague notion of “Western Civilization” that is really just a stand-in for white maleness.
He excoriates the author and podcaster Sam Harris for conveniently denying the historical oppression of nonwhite groups to suit his ideological priors — such as Harris’s contention that some cultures have more “moral capital” than others in his critiques of Islam, or that the history of anti-black racism is irrelevant when it comes to analyzing group disparities in IQ. Harris, most known for his podcast Making Sense, uses lofty thought experiments to justify his imperialist foreign policy views or retrograde attitudes on race, says Brooks.
The next chapter goes after psychology professor turned self-help guru Jordan Peterson. According to Brooks, Peterson employs Jungian archetypes and religious motifs to enshrine a supposed natural order of society that has come upended by resentful professors and narcissistic student activists. Peterson’s key principle of metaphorically putting one’s house in perfect order before attempting to change the world commits him to an absolutist individualism that, in practice, would have him turn a blind eye to the past oppression the civil rights movement and abolitionism strained to overcome. Despite Peterson’s call to deeper meaning and spiritual development, his unquestioning faith in free markets ignores the stark tension between the chaotic nature of modern capitalism and the inculcation of community and civic participation. By mythologizing inequality as inevitable through vague biblical references and weird allegories, Peterson can claim metaphysical depth and wisdom while falling back on thoughtless defenses of the status quo.
The final chapter, entitled “Beyond The IDW,” was the most interesting — and probably the most illustrative of what Brooks is overlooking. He compels his fellow leftists to receive the IDW’s success as a challenge and an opportunity to improve their project, rather than as a cosmic accident or a reason for despair. Brooks’s answer to the IDW comes in the form of “cosmopolitan socialism” that integrates socially democratic reforms like universal healthcare and worker co-ops with universal humanist principles that welcomes various cultural traditions into the fold.
Brooks (sort of) rejects notions of cultural appropriation in favor of an open exchange of styles, perspectives, identities, and ideas, while calling upon supporters of left-wing causes to avoid the campus indulgences that provide fodder for their political opponents. Admirably, he pushes back against the essentialism around issues of identity that has been embraced in elite progressive circles, preferring instead to frame inequalities in historical and materialistic terms that acknowledge asymmetric power relations without assigning ownership of a given culture to particular groups. This is all much more analytically useful and cohesive than much of the more group identity-focused left tend to be.
But where Brooks’s thinking becomes contorted is with his assumption that economic leftism and cultural progressivism are naturally aligned, choosing to ignore the vast logical divisions inside their marriage of convenience. In actuality, the broad-based social programs and redistributive economic policies he’d like to see instituted are not prioritized, and in fact drastically under-emphasized, by a mainstream of cultural progressives whose commitments have more to do with enacting an identity-based moral regime, even to the exclusion of more material concerns.
The actually-existing left today, with its demands on behalf of historically marginalized groups, based on the premise of collective intergenerational guilt, is in tension with the left of Brooks’s imagination. Making up for imbalanced historic power relations involves an entirely separate moral framework from mitigating suffering in the present among as many people as possible regardless of their ancestry or chromosomes. Today’s left often approach social change from a starting point that is incompatible with a robust, class-based analysis.
Curiously, Brooks concedes nothing to the cultural concerns of the right and views social justice excess as a peripheral phenomenon of noisy undergrads that is mostly emphasized by right-wing outlets to score partisan points, rather than a direct ideological result of a particular worldview. But these excesses, whether it comes in the form of the Yale Halloween costume debacle with Nicholas Christakis or the Evergreen State College controversy with Bret Weinstein, flow directly from the moral logic of collective guilt and identitarian justice — it is this logic that has caused the concept creep of the term “racism” from hateful ethnic chauvinism into virtually any dissent from the prevailing narrative.
Further, Brooks is allergic to nationalist sentiment. It’s fine to dislike it, but to fail to locate it as a factor in what is happening in the very push-pull dynamic that Against the Web is analyzing is a major mistake. Brooks only uses the word nationalism in the context of nationalizing public services, even though any collective decision-making in the U.S. will invariably involve at least some appeal to national identity. The issue of immigration — which arguably did more than anything else to fuel Trump’s rise — is only mentioned as it pertains to the injustices of child separation at the border or the need for workers’s rights in the “Global South.” But the upswell of anti-immigrant attitudes in America has at least something to do with the unprecedented level of global migration (and, of course, however much Bernie Sanders tried to avoid acknowledging it in the most recent primary, it is labor unions and the left which have traditionally comprised the strongest opposition to immigration in America). In Against the Web, questions of national identity are left unprodded, or they are otherwise presumed to be the impulses of angry white men who don’t like having their power challenged.
The IDW arose as a kind of cultural third way through the culture war, albeit a shallow one at times. Although its members continue to operate on their own platforms, the movement itself has receded. But the energies that go into a movement don’t disappear when the group loses its coherence. Brooks wants to tap into that energy and funnel it toward alleviating the social maladies that the IDW could not, since they did not correctly identify what they are. But any success the IDW has had surely has much to do with its diagnosis of what has gone wrong in society, particularly in its elite institutions such as academia, the media, and political discourse more broadly. Brooks doesn’t need to swallow every IDW assumption in order to reappropriate the movement’s power, but neither can he dismiss the project almost entirely and think his corrective will gain any traction among the people who gravitated toward it in the first place.
Still, Against The Web is a worthy, punchy read for anyone interested in online political discourse. And Brooks is a serious thinker and an asset for the democratic socialist movement. But his inability to charitably understand what gives the other side whatever appeal and success it achieves, or to address the frays within the modern left, is a massive strain on the book.
Three trends have unfolded on the same timescale and to a similar degree: over the past 30 years, rates of immigration have spiked, attachment to white racial identity has doubled, and political polarization has reached new heights. These forces shape our present culture war and each one of them were factors in Trump’s rise to power. Stemming reactionary sentiment must result from an actual understanding of where it’s coming from and why new right-wing iterations—like the IDW—gain influence and converts. Reading Against The Web made me think Brooks gets closer than other leftist critics to doing so, but remains far off still.