The emptiness of the Intellectual Dark Web

We were first properly introduced to the Intellectual Dark Web in 2018, when the New York Times columnist Bari Weiss published a long essay on the loose alliance of thinkers and commentators who rose to prominence by kicking back against the Left-wing shibboleths of the college campus and the liberal dinner party. Weiss noted that its members “share three distinct qualities”: a willingness to “disagree ferociously, but talk civilly, about nearly every meaningful subject” along with a resistance to “parroting what’s politically convenient” — which, she argued, some had paid for “by being purged from institutions that have become increasingly hostile to unorthodox thought”.

A new book on the IDW takes a dimmer view of these above-the-fray intellectuals who claim to be motivated by hostility to ideological orthodoxy. Indeed, Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right is the most substantial critique of the IDW and its brand of ‘classical liberalism’ to date.

The book’s author is Michael Brooks, an American political YouTuber and a socialist. For Brooks, the IDW use a veneer of ‘reason’ and ‘science’ to justify prevailing inequalities. In a context where Donald Trump is the occupant of the White House and neo-liberal capitalism remains dominant (Jeff Bezos is forecast to become the world’s first trillionaire by 2026), the IDW’s cringeworthy posturing as a “persecuted minority” is glib and largely vacuous, in Brooks’s telling. As Brooks writes, the IDW “brand themselves as unclassifiable renegades even as they all share elements of an unmistakable anti-left agenda”.

The IDW’s lodestar is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian clinical psychologist and self-help guru who likes to talk about hierarchies and gender differences while dissecting Left-wing totalitarianism for the YouTube generation. Peterson has been preaching the same material for years. Yet he only truly gained prominence in 2016 following a campus row over pronouns for transgender students. The campus Left went berserk and Peterson started getting invited onto popular talk shows to rail earnestly against “post-modern Neo-Marxists”.

Yet as time went on, what the ‘renegades’ of the Intellectual Dark Web were really reneging on was their previous commitment to the Left. As Brooks writes, “[the IDW] generate their audience by publishing a neverending stream of ‘oh my God, look at these leftists being crazy’ articles”.

Aside from Ben Shapiro, a religious conservative who refers to abortion as “killing babies”, the IDW is largely made up of former liberals who have been “mugged by reality”, in Irving Kristol’s famous phrase, even if they nowadays often sound indistinguishable from what Brooks describes as “old school reactionaries”. Dave Rubin was once a member of the progressive Young Turks network who today decries “oppression Olympics”. Sam Harris is a fellow New Atheist ‘Horseman’ and one-time supporter of Hillary Clinton who conducts thought experiments on torture and a nuclear first strike against Iran. Meanwhile Jordon Peterson implores readers of his bestselling book, 12 Rules for Life, to “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”.

Underlying much of this, Brooks argues, is an acceptance of prevailing inequalities — economic, gender, and racial — as natural. The IDW’s leading lights uncritically defend capitalism while drawing on biology and the dreary science of ‘IQ’ to bolster the status quo. They aim to “naturalize or mythologize historically contingent power relations”, as Brooks puts it. Behind every one of Peterson’s self-help homilies is an unbending fealty to the status quo. Hierarchies are hard-wired because lobsters follow them. Gender differences are real because women gravitate towards people and men towards things. Envy and resentment at the success of others will rot your soul. Oh, and stand up straight and make your damn bed.

The Left takes a dim view of the self-help movement — related, I suspect, to its own paternalistic preference for people who are on their way down rather than on their way up. Sinecured academics and privately educated scribblers make a handsome living telling poor people that they should “rise with their class, not out of it”. The sort of self-betterment promoted by the likes of Dr Peterson — so the argument goes — would be better channelled into a focus on structural change. Ironically, much like the Petersonian self-help mantras they disparage, large sections of the Left also want the poor to defer gratification — albeit until after the Revolution.

But self-actualisation has its obvious limitations. As Brooks notes, “sometimes people’s houses aren’t in order precisely because of the condition of the world”. In contrast to many of his comrades on the Left, however, Brooks argues that, rather than dismissing Jordan Peterson’s fanbase — largely white, male and self-taught — as ‘deplorables’, the Left should try to win them over to a more substantive programme. “One of the most dangerous things the Left can do is to write off the demographic to which Peterson appeals because of its relative racial and gender privilege,” Brooks writes.

Brooks’ critique of the IDW is at its best when he pulls apart the latter’s penchant for “naturalising instead of historicising”. Much IDW thought seeks in effect to depolitisise politics. We cannot fundamentally change the world therefore we should only try to describe it. Particularly absurd, as Brooks points out, is the way in which ideology is portrayed among members of the IDW as something other people subscribe to, whereas they are merely disinterested, above-the-fray intellectuals. Thus Peterson launches tirades against the principle of absolute equality, which few people believe in anyway, while earnestly drinking the meritocratic Kool-Aid, which is as much an ideological mirage as anything Peterson opposes. Meritocracy, as the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu once put it, is an imaginary world in which “every prize can be attained, instantaneously, by everyone, so that at each moment anyone can become anything”.

The belief in actually existing equality of opportunity is particularly credulous when it comes to accounting for racial injustices in the contemporary United States. Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, whose work is frequently cited by members of the IDW, made the astonishing claim during a 2007 debate that “most of the juice” had gone out of environmental explanations for racial inequality “by the 1970s”. This too is an ideological point of view. As Brooks notes with incredulity, this was “a single decade after the ‘Whites Only’ signs came out of the restaurant windows and black people started to be allowed to vote”.

Of course, one needn’t be affiliated with the IDW to understand that the movement’s popularity — Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson can easily pack-out auditoriums — is partly a backlash against the excesses of the Left. It was once said that the Bolsheviks sought to politicise sleep. Their successors on today’s social justice scene deploy the truism that everything is political as a licence to shut down opposing opinions as ‘phobias’ and ‘microaggressions’. Peterson is not entirely wrong when he compares the campus activist who vibrates with rage at some minor rhetorical transgression to the Cheka officer whose gloved-hand raps on the door in the middle of the night. The difference is one has political power while the other does not.

This remains an important distinction, however, especially in Donald Trump’s America. The cloying self-regard of much IDW debate is bad enough, but it seems especially self-serving to pose as a purveyor of ‘unorthodox thought’ when taking on the comic turbulence of campus politics — all the while saying very little about the moral abominations of the Trump Presidency. Flattering the likes of Charles Murray may constitute subversive opinion in some quarters, but it’s hardly Charter 77.

Despite his opposition to Peterson and company, Brooks is of the Marxist-influenced Left, which has little time for the hair-splitting narcissism of identity politics and what he refers to contemptuously as the “shallow analysis” of the “ultra-woke”. Brooks calls instead for a return to universalism because “good and liberating ideas, like bad and reactionary ones, have thrived in a variety of cultural settings”.

This is a welcome blast against the dominant fetish for what Brooks describes as “drawing artificial lines between cultures”. Campus-driven heresy hunts are a distraction and a turn-off for ordinary people, as Brooks notes. Damning someone for being male or having a white skin may provide some cheap and ephemeral thrill, but it is not a serious approach to winning political power. As Brooks writes, “comradeship and solidarity across racial and national lines… is going to have to be central to any kind of viable movement to achieve a better world”.

Moreover, by the time Peterson and co appeared on the scene, many liberals had apparently forgotten how to argue for the things they believe in — thinking that moral indignation alone was enough. The brass standard here is Cathy Newman’s flailing attempt to interrogate Peterson in a 2018 interview for Channel 4 News. The interview went viral on the back of his running rings around her. Newman’s subsequent attempt to blame the humiliation on “men with an agenda” was as fatuous and complacent as her interview style.

But the Intellectual Dark Web — Peterson in particular — have thrived off the back of an overblown fear, particularly prevalent in the United States, of a resurgent Socialism. This would probably find a less substantial audience if people like Michael Brooks stopped trying to resuscitate Marxism-Leninism. Brooks contrasts the reactionary Left-baiting of the IDW with his own fruitless search – encapsulated in the pages of the socialist magazine Jacobin — for a “rejuvenated, humane, internationalist, and appealing version of the politics of the Finland station”[1].

In setting out what he believes in (as opposed to the IDW), Brooks evokes St Petersburg’s Finland Station to convey his sympathy for the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Brooks concedes that one should not be an “uncritical apologist for everything that happened in the years after Lenin arrived at the Finland Station” — which is big of him — but he contrasts the reactionary politics of the IDW with his own dream of Communism with a human face. This reader wasn’t persuaded. Indeed, this sort of Socialist wish-thinking was once likened by the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski to trying to cook a “dish of fried snowballs”. Leninism leads to famine, terror and forced labour camps — even if Jordon Peterson and the IDW say so.

Anti-Communism comes in a variety of hues though, some of which are more interesting than others. One irony of the ongoing culture war is the sense — to those of us standing on the sidelines at least — that one extreme sustains its opposite, and vice-versa. Christopher Hitchens briefly appears in Brooks’s book — only to be showered with abuse about his “failing liver”. Once upon a time Hitchens cautioned his friend the novelist Martin Amis to be careful about the type of anti-Communist he turned into. Brooks similarly reprimands the IDW for “obsessing about ‘freedom’ while getting chummy with authoritarians like Viktor Orban”. The IDW might here be reminded of Peterson’s Rule #6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the World.

One should also look at the material reasons why, historically, socialism has gained traction, but this doesn’t seem to interest the IDW. This might after all indicate that something was rotten with the status quo. Indeed, one can imagine Ben Shapiro or Dave Rubin reading Dickens’s classic revolutionary drama, A Tale of Two Cities, and coming away looking for Jacobins under the bed — while entirely missing the line which warns: “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.”

The Whiggish liberalism of the Intellectual Dark Web sometimes feels like an ideology for affluent and comfortable times — in common with the narcissistic culture of identity politics it defines itself against. In this sense the IDW bring to mind an older generation of 19th-century liberals and conservatives who, in the words of Czesław Miłosz — a far more interesting anti-Stalinist than anyone the Intellectual Dark Web has produced — continued to “mouth 19th-century phrases about respect for man” — while all around them the world burned.

But the culture wars haven’t gone away. As we’ve seen with the recent Black Lives Matter protests: Covid-19, stagnant economies and mass unemployment are lighting a fire beneath ongoing ideological battles over history and social justice. One therefore imagines that the IDW will go on having the “important conversations that the mainstream won’t”, as Dave Rubin portentously phrased it. For Brooks, however, those seeking answers to the big questions of our time be better off looking elsewhere.

 

[1] Jordan Peterson may call Lenin “an ideologue & mass murderer”, yet the hero in Lenin’s favourite novel — Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? — is a man called Rakhmetev who eschews sex and alcohol and eats only raw steak while following a rigorous exercise programme. Which sounds an awful lot like Jordan Peterson.

 

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