In this article I interpolate Michael Brooks’ much anticipated book, Against the Web: The Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right. For a few years, Brooks has been rising as one of the left’s shrewdest political analysts and most ardent critics of the “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW), a jokey branding psyop by Eric Weinstein which captured a cluster of pundits united by “free speech” and, in effect, reactionary politics. We are at another major inflection point of the culture war, and this is about the bigger picture that we all need to see for a global paradigm shift.
The IDW formed in 2018 as a stylized constellation of varied rationalist classical liberals and conservatives with anti-left agendas. The effect was disruption of the public discourse on the pretences of freethought and dangerous conversations. Peterson, who can at times be thought of as a stand-in for the whole, due to being one of the most popular and controversial, has been known to brag about how to “monetize social justice warriors”, and makes no distinctions across the progressive left he opposes. Whatever the IDW think ‘the left’ is, the supposed target of their scorn, many on across left have been debunking them all along the way.
Early in its rise, the IDW enjoyed several boosts from mainstream centrist establishment corporations like the NY Times and their Zionist opinion-makers like Bari Weiss and David Brooks. The phenomenon persisted for almost two years even amidst hundreds of critiques from across the New Left, some even from within (See Is the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ Politically Diverse?, Caricaturing the Left Doesn’t Benefit the Intellectual Dark Web, and this). With the IDW declared dead in Dec. 2019 by Robert Wright and the hysteria mostly subsided, though some reactionary leaders and followers remain unrepentant, it’s time for a post-mortem and reconfiguration of the discourse.
Brooks’ book arrives at the end of a long campaign of the new left coalition debunking the various right-wing talking points filtered through the IDW, all while also building a grassroots coalition for a political revolution manifested in the Bernie Sanders campaign. Little of the left critique really seemed to penetrate what I’ll dub as the ‘dense-making’ frameworks and forums of the IDW ecology, because they truly never entered into leftist discourses. Instead they taunted and flirted with the left at minimalist points of contact, paradoxically intimate yet absurdly distant in comprehension and followthrough, such as displayed by Jordan Peterson’s encounters with Slavoj Zizek or Russell Brand, or Harris’ with Ezra Klein (who is hardly a leftist), etc.
Zizek also writes the introduction to the forthcoming book, Myth & Mayhem: A Leftist Critique of Jordan Peterson; four authors combining for a thorough academic debunk of the most revered thought leader of 2018 and some of 2019. This whole IDW zeitgeist ties in to what Matt McManus has written another book on, about postmodern conservatism. In answering the question — Is Jordan Peterson Postmodern? — McManus provides a few angles and explains how Peterson is more like a modernist conservative, one who unfortunately misreads key sources like Heidegger and completely mischaracterizes others like Marx.
The IDW thought leaders boast of their camaraderie and collective intelligence, but they actively (intentionally or not) spread misinformation and simulated thinking over these two long years, poisoning the well of discourse while telegraphing civility. The net effect of the IDW has left much of the discourse in a fugue state, which has upheld the establishment politics at odds with the progressive movement. Despite the IDW’s blindness of its own shadow, there are good signs that at least some of the audience are breaking away and want to rejoin the new left project (the moderator of r/IntellectualDarkWeb recently re-pledged his support for Bernie Sanders, following Yang dropping out).
What’s left of the IDW community still believes in a positive impact overall. For them, what the IDW represents is not a specific list of pundits, but rather a movement of dialogue and engagement, and not one without mistakes. They reject arguments that conflate the two, because they feel attacked when their beloved thinker is debunked. Whether its the r/IDW moderator or Rebel Wisdom, they invested time in what they saw as a genuine intellectual experiment that potentially helped hundreds of thousands of people. This makes it difficult to reconcile the critiques, which come from perspectives that the IDW spend a lot of time demonizing. The impasse remains, and only actual direct engagement between IDW-types and the left will resolve it.
The jig is largely up though, and while the IDW may be expired as a meme, the reactionary politics behind it (beyond the sincere moderate fans) are still lurking and thriving. There is in(s)ane centrist and right-wing resistance to everything progressive from basic human rights like universal healthcare to complex socio-technical systems change and economic justice afforded by a Green New Deal. The human rights and freedoms ostensibly cherished by the IDW still matter, and actually matter more to the New Left than it ever will to the free speech warriors. That is why Against the Web provides countless brutal debunks but also an ambitious vision for a better world; one that could even rescue some of the cancelled casualties of the culture war.
Aside from the sweeping message of global materialist solidarity politics driving the book, the middle chapters focus on discrediting the most over-exposed actors of the IDW cast: the case studies are mainly on Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, and Ben Shapiro, who are at once the low-hanging fruit of the bunch and in some ways the most formidable and persistent. In a preview, Brooks’ calls them “the big three” for their prominent ahistoricism and mythification of ‘Western Civilization’.
Contrary to this Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, all societies have actually generated basic ideas of universal human rights and dignity. Following on ideas from Amartya Sen, Brooks embraces the truth of a global world and humanity, and the implications that “distinctions like East and West are truly fictitious — that’s not like a nice politically correct statement, that’s the reality, that is the truth of our lives.”
The social constructions that define us also divide us, and obscures the interdependencies that unite the world. This isn’t about the struggle for Western civilization; it’s about the struggle for civilization in general.
The New Right’s ethnonationalism and phallogocentrism is here answered by the New Left with a demystified cosmopolitan socialism anchored in material politics and basic decency for human and ecological solidarity across time and space.
This worldview draws inspiration from a range of notable thinkers, and historical milestones such as FDR’s New Deal and the ANC’s Freedom Charter, to the Bernie Sanders movement and freeing former Brazil President Lula da Silva and beyond. It is a broad scope coalition, one I consider metamodern in the best sense. These things are all interconnected, and Brooks is your mapmaker and guide from the front lines of the culture war to the finish line of the political revolution.
The heydey of the IDW punditry is over, where almost all of them are now locked in to their reactionary commitments, while the left has all but concluded their critique. In some ways Brooks’ book feels like a victory lap, but we haven’t quite won yet. We have to win politically, and we have to lead the public discourse in better directions. Meanwhile, much of the audiences who followed the IDW on this journey are still out there and hungry for real change, speaking truth to power and each other, and some spiritual sensibility for good measure. That is exactly what the New Left provides in spades, and already did before the IDW came around.
In Summary and Review
Chapter One: “Meet the New Right: The Intellectual Dark Web and Capital’s Contradictions” starts off by introducing the basic IDW concept and where it came from. The very idea of contradictions in capitalism is mobilized through the IDW, as they grift from yellow journalistic narratives and redbaiting. Brooks trounces on Rubin’s vapid-fire interviewing skills for a few pages, showing why its dangerous. As an aside, I am linking the video Everybody Hates Rubin (2020) which somewhat humanizes Rubin against these types of attacks, but the critiques are still accurate and we need to do better to actually rise above partisanship and change each others minds. Brooks moves swiftly into the book’s major premises and themes. I would paraphrase the over-arching thesis as such:
- The roots of the reactionary right can be traced back throughout the last century, but more recently the New Right and the IDW are manifestations of the double tragedy and false choices of the 2016 US election and Brexit. Centrists and conservatives tacitly colluded to make our current neoliberal nightmare exacerbated, where we have to suffer through post-truth and polarization every day while the prospects seem to darken. Brooks acknowledges that some leftism/ performative wokeism is counterproductive, but stresses that there is still no equivalence between activists and reactionaries, and never will be.
- Reactionaries have capitalized on and benefited from this cultural and political seizure, while ironically promoting hierarchies during the simultaneous breakdown of technocratic meritocracy, which has been unmasked just another captured market for capitalist hegemony. Meanwhile, the pseudo-intellectual right naturalizes and mythologizes social problems, whereas the intellectual left historicizes and contextualizes them. The effect is that conservatism obfuscates and filibusters the very issues that we’re all trying to solve.
- A better world is possible and necessary, as defined by a “cosmopolitan vision of a global socialist humanism” which also hinges on a certain degree of localism, autonomy, and cultural freedom for people united through a planetary meshwork. This largely pivots on a proper material analysis of capitalism and alter-globalization, which the IDW bubble generally eschews outright. We have to press on not to “Singapore Station” (neoliberalism) or “Budapest Station” (authoritarian right) but onto a new “Finland Station”, a re-imagined politics of care (borrowing from Bhaskar Sunkara’s metaphors).
That is roughly the spirit of the book as forecasted in Chapter One. The next three chapters are the case studies on Harris, Peterson, and Shapiro, followed by a conclusion that is the answer to the problem. Chapter Two: “The History is Completely Irrelevant” is a reference to an inane Sam Harris quote from his debates with Ezra Klein. Brooks pulls back the curtain to show how Harris virtue signals — one of the things the IDW complains leftists do. Brooks jumps around historical cases to debunk Harris, highlights the childish row with Chomsky, critiques Harris’ generally horrible takes on geopolitics (i.e. Israel-Palestine, etc.), clarifies the limits of New Atheism, debunks the Charles Murray/ IQ scandal (ongoing), and outlines the ahistoricism of the whole IDW band of brothers.
In Chapter Three: The Dragon Who Didn’t Do His Homework, an allusion to the Zizek debate, Brooks reveals Peterson’s bootstrapped bible-thumping for what it is, and goes above and beyond to offer a better psycho-spiritual salve in the works of James Hillman and Scott Atran. The focus returns to Peterson and his “central contradiction” or “core contradiction”. Peterson’s proverbial paradox is one that’s been said many times in many ways: his blindspots hide the answers to his problematization, and the solutions he proposes are as much part of the problem; his own quackery in psychology makes him all the more signal and tone deaf to sociology. Brooks’ response is to argue for structural solutions to the social plagues of poverty and alienation, and rightly so:
“The cosmopolitan socialist synthesis that I’m arguing for aims to deal head-on with the anxieties, pain, and confusion that Peterson evokes… To begin framing the left’s response, one must appreciate the degree to which Peterson is taking on the biggest macro-issues of our time and trying to solve them with the smallest self-help micro-solutions. Socialists can do better. We can start by analyzing the material roots of the uptick in alienation and despair that fuels Peterson’s book sales. That doesn’t mean telling people not to care about spiritual fulfillment or personal meaning. It’s not an either/or. What we should point out, though, is that increasing numbers of younger people in our late-stage capitalist economy are pushed into forms of precarious freelance pseudo-entrepreneurship…”Against the Web
In that passage, Brooks acknowledges the attraction of Peterson, but does not pull punches elsewhere. There are some critiques I resist indulging. For example, leading leftists like Brooks and Nathan J. Robinson (of Current Affairs) dismiss Maps of Meaning wholesale, as if its smoking gun proof of Peterson’s pseudoscientific bona fides. That is going to turn off a lot of Peterson’s audience, but I urge fans to appreciate the critical context. For Peterson, all these things are entangled — his academic work, and his paranoid anti-socialist praxis — and critics see the harm it causes.
There are many reasons for leftists to overcorrect and criticize eveything about Peterson. For Robinson, Peterson’s misreading of Orwell as his own grounds for rejecting socialism, revealed in Maps intro, hits to close to home. The fact that Orwell actually identified with democratic socialism makes this personal anecdote from Peterson near the top of his egregious and embarrasing intellectual errors. It’s like when religious evangelists weaponize Einstein, who was in fact a very secular pantheist, and a socialist to boot. Nevertheless, while Maps of Meaning as a whole may very well be deeply flawed from a certain perspective, I drew some value out of it, particularly in its idiosyncratic employment of “abstraction” as the iterative and reflexive cognitive process at the root of our social evolution and mythological metaphysics.
In Chapter Four: Shapiro’s Propaganda and Other Dishonorable Mentions, Brooks carries on the debunking of the white lies and western myths of Ben Shapiro and others. The critique up-ends it self when Brooks pivots to Mark Fisher and the concept of the Vampire Castle. IDW figures are both bloodsuckers and victims of call-out culture and the urge to cancel each other. The coup de grace is a justified character assassination of Dave Rubin, the biggest rube of the roundtable that absorbed all the right-wing coded classical liberalism like a sponge, who now works with Glenn Beck. Finally, Chapter Five: The Answer invites you to the movement for actual intellectual discourse and global change. Buy the book to take in Brooks’ worldview.
“The answer to the IDW and the new right in general is a cosmopolitan-socialist synthesis that centers a global materialist politics. The alienated and confused young men who flock to someone like Jordan Peterson can’t be won over to the left by telling them constantly to acknowledge and question their privilege. Nor can the even greater mass of people who aren’t as plugged into politics or the culture war as IDW fans be tempted into greater engagement through a politics that centers moralism and the policing of every petty interaction. We need a material analysis, buttressed with a sense of humor and a recognition of human fallibility, that connects the fight for a better world to the immediate interests of the majority of the population.”Against the Web
Background Signal to Noise
Before we expand on the advanced argument, I want to take us back to almost two years ago. I wrote a longform critique of the IDW because I felt it was necessary to answer in-depth the reactionary, anti-postmodern, and anti-sociological aspects of it with a leftist, metamodern, sociological assessment. I spent a section foregrounding their merits and good intentions before several sections on debunking their dogma and offering critique. My fundamental constructive through-line is that they should all know better (given critiques of them from the left are valid), and that they’re therefore potentially redeemable (in theory). I was thorough because criticizing the IDW is a necessary but distracting sideshow from the real work of “ideas” and of transforming politics.
Since then more debunks from the left than I can count have contributed to a chorus of critique, so I always note that the critique extends far beyond my own summaries of it. Leftists like Michael Brooks critique regularly as issues come up. His book tries to put a pin in it and move on. The next major time I felt compelled to revisit the IDW was in a two-part analysis and juxtaposition of Integral Theory and metamodernism vis-a-vis each other and the IDW, in which Brooks’ insight features again, helping track various misunderstandings and communication blockages between sense-making communities and the oversimplified political thinking of many Integralists, including Ken Wilber. The simple injunction here is that we have to maintain higher standards for public intellectual discourse and progressive values, and how they relate to each other.
The new age nonsense and bland centrist politics were supposed to be purged already, but Ken Wilber and Rebel Wisdom seem intent on bringing it back in through their bastardization of integral theory into armchair analysis with an ‘integral politics’, and further entangling their own projects in the debacle of the IDW, while not supporting or participating in leftist discourse at all. It all falls quite short of serious intellectual rigour, especially when the IDW talk outside their expertise (but even within it), playing up the spectacle and divisive effect.
I raise these points as the necessary background to catch up to the current moment in finer detail, to appreciate the advanced argument being made here. There is no room here to condense all the critiques of the IDW or everything I’ve written or Brooks has in his book. This article you are reading is about the bigger picture. I tapped Brooks as a key thinker in what I optimistically termed “the Emergentsia”, an emerging post-political distributed intelligentsia for fostering the emergence of meaning making and systems transformation; something like that. I described this prospect vis-a-vis the IDW as the;
“…bright lights emerging amidst the intellectual shadows (and shade) cast by the Intellectual Dark Web (IDW), into a similar cerebral, liminal, and spiritual space but, crucially, without the apparent sociological ambivalence. Emergentsia thinking therefore often feels and sounds more fully and adequately complex because they are moving between a broader spectrum of epistemologies, worldviews, and practices with a kind of post-ideological political consciousness, rather than what can sometimes sound, in IDW circles, like a fixation with free speech for its own sake.”Rise of the Emergentsia #1
In the ideal sense, a diverse Emergenstia emerges to address some of those same needs as the IDW, but offers a more serious engagement with the meta-crises than the best classical liberals can muster. Despite attempts to move on, some of the pathologies of IDW dense/sense-making — namely an aversion to social justice and sociological analysis —also linger in some circles like Integral, and “Game B” (which coincidently is not too far removed from the Weinstein bros), and related spaces. They have no coherent political critique nor an effective praxis for engagement.
Brooks is on the sharp end of the spectrum of political proaction, with his leftist organizing and vision of cosmopolitan socialism. In this book he provides a fairly definitive consideration and judgment of the New Right’s M.O., and offers a way through for leftists and IDW fans alike still in search of a higher truth or purpose.
Critics like Brooks and myself can easily acknowledge what people like Peterson, and the IDW as a whole, are right about, but we are also very tired of doing it. We share many common values in enlightenment principles like reason and free speech, but evidently execute and advocate for them quite differently (and better) in the political space. But the request to entertain the positive traits of the IDW is often a trap to solicit concessions and ignore the critique. This is about what they get wrong and we get right. Brooks spends the necessary minimum amount of space steel-manning his opponents before critiquing them in this book, but he also mocks them ruthlessly with his trademark humour.
Brooks also goes further than I do in articulating exactly what’s wrong with the parts of the left that the IDW critique; and this is exactly what should appeal to the dark webbers if they actually are sincere about learning and reform. The context of authority and legitimacy of who speaks for, as, and with the left also matters here, as Brooks’ auto-critique comes from the heart of the actual left vanguard and is much more credible than Bret Weinstein’s defensive posturing from his fringe liberal echo chamber, where they still complain loudly that they are silenced.
The irony here is that the actual lefist revolutionaries are also the reformers, the game changers, and the moderates, centrists, and reactionaries are status-quo.
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