The Poverty of Breadtube
We all live in strange and dangerous times. Most of us are trying desperately to make some sense of it. I am no different.
Let’s begin with something of an introduction. I’m not anyone in particular, just a full-time worker who wants socialism yesterday. The intersection of my material circumstances, my rudimentary knowledge of socialism, and the halcyon campaign of Bernard Sanders led to my long, general slide to the left. After the familiar triumphantly tragic failure that ensued, I sought to deepen my understanding of what went wrong, how it could be different, and absorbed lefty thought to bolster this. Same as anyone who spends any time engaging in the online left “space,” I’ve watched a variety of videos on breadtube: the ubiquitous Contrapoints, Vaush, Hbomb, Shaun, Peter Coffin, the Serfs, and many others. Taken as is, some of their videos are informative, usually well produced, entertaining for sure. Most of them, I would even say. These days, however, socialism seems to be on the lips of many online left personalities, and yet their understanding of it leaves much to be desired. Couple this with the growing followings some of these content creators have seen, people eager to make sense of the chaos of their lives, and it becomes more and more imperative that we know what we’re talking about. When it comes to the issue of socialism, what it is and how we get there, there is plenty to critique about the general level of consciousness of your average socialist breadtuber. I intend, with any luck, to make a critical assessment of prominent notions about socialism within that side of Breadtube, in the hopes of working towards a better understanding of socialism in a time where it is so desperately needed. So what follows then is the result of my aforementioned long, general slide.
I will avoid naming specific breadtubers as offenders of these—as I see them at least—misinformed notions, but if you watch some of the few names listed above or others, as I do, you can probably imagine who they might be.
We should start our investigation at the beginning, and define some terms, mostly for those who might not quite be following so far. What exactly is breadtube? The exact definition is probably up for debate; it is a somewhat nebulous concept, as there is ambiguity between where it begins and where it ends. What seems particular to it, however, is an association with the popular left. As you can imagine from the name, it largely substantiates itself on YouTube, although it echoes into Twitter and other social media, as most things on the internet tend to do. Over time, particularly in accordance with the campaign of Bernie Sanders and the beginnings, however illusory, of a progressive movement in his wake, they have taken up, to some degree or another, the title of “socialists,” or the identification with the tendency at least. As the saying goes, of course, first as tragedy, again as farce. Breadtube—and indeed the entire online left—could only find the movement as it existed: largely crippled in social fact by the disintegration of union participation and the general worsening of conditions for workers, despite growing wealth (read: accumulation); led by ghosts and the pale shadows of socialist intellectuals; conjoined, as if by necessity, to the political revolution that could hardly pass for FDR, let alone Lenin.
Thus, it is not entirely surprising that breadtube has largely assimilated the thoughts of such “luminaries” as Noam Chomsky and Richard Wolfe (though not exclusively): the long-beaten corpse of market socialism, and the proclaimed “Marxian” economic theory extolling the virtues of worker co-ops and workplace democracy as the alternative to capitalist production. It’s no wonder they cling to the closest chance they have, at least so far as they’re aware, of getting out of this hell: Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, the Squad, AOC, this or that social movement. And, failing that, Biden is better than doing nothing at all, which is apparently the only alternative.
Since the intent of this article is not necessarily to critique Chomsky or Wolfe or any of the others, particularly, I will instead comment on the cross-pollinated ideas which breadtube shares with them, and tends to view favorably. I will begin with workers co-operatives as the “socialist” solution to capitalism, and by extension the syndicalist ideal.
The simple fact that worker co-ops co-exist with and in capitalist society, are completely legal and unmolested, except perhaps on the market, should tell you everything you need to know about them. The reality that they are, potentially, more efficient and productive than traditional firms is not an argument in their favor, at least from the socialist perspective. Something that has been under vicious attack, however, and for the last 40 years is the hard-won rights to forming a union and collective bargaining, coupled with wages that far lag productivity, a general gutting of the social safety net, and so the progressive plunge of the working class into ever more pitiless competition for the most meager of crumbs. It’s almost as if workers organizing and associating together in their own interest is far more dangerous to the capitalists than the workers establishing a firm to compete against them on the open market, an arena where the rules of engagement are always in the favor of those capitalists.
Mondragon, the world’s largest worker co-operative, is also the 10th largest company in Spain, and yet Spain has not suddenly become the center of world socialist revolution because of it. Much less so for any other co-op in the world market. You cannot meaningfully challenge capitalist social and material relations with a form of worker organization that is perfectly at home within capitalist social and material relations. “The hell of capitalism is the firm, not that the firm has a boss,” as Bordiga writes. Co-operatives and so-called workplace democracy assume the workplace, assume wage labor, assume capital; in short they assume all the trappings of capitalist society, and yet this is what’s presented to us as an ideal for socialist society.
I want to make it clear I am not suggesting worker co-ops are without purpose for the working class, or that unions represent something fundamentally “more socialist” than co-ops. Both of these forms can potentially point the way forward, insofar as they are both manifestations of the “ever expanding union of the workers” (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto). Both the trade unions and worker co-ops are insufficient by themselves for realizing the socialist organization of society, however, although they remain a way for workers to associate, to find common interest, to become a class for themselves. This cannot be overstated, and it leads nicely into a further critique, particularly how breadtube imagines socialist practice—what it means to be a socialist, and what actions we can take to actualize a socialist mode of production.
It’s important, again, to keep in mind the historical moment, or moments, that produced breadtube. A generation growing up and entering “the real world” in the midst of a global recession; the continuation of already extant neoliberal capitalism, but with a shiny gloss of hope and change; rising productivity, together with stagnant wages; exorbitant student debt, and no prospects of getting a job that pays a wage high enough to service that debt. Least of all the existential nightmare that is climate change and the realization we’re slowly—and less and less slowly with time—melting ourselves. With these realities and more weighing heavy on them, most people are waking up to the fact something is deeply wrong. This has sparked a renewed interest, especially in younger people, in socialism. What this has given rise to is a host of organizations, publications, media, and movements, chief among them the DSA, the campaign(s) of Bernie Sanders, Jacobin, Current Affairs, Fight for $15, BLM, and yes, even breadtube. There is much to critique in these various manifestations, but that would be beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say, however, they are connected, and as a result breadtube has become something of a cheerleader for many of these intersecting movements, organizations, politicians, and the ideas associated with all of them. I would maintain, however, that the vast mass of these forms amount to the left wing of capital, in so far as they can see something is wrong with the system—the offal and corruption and destruction it creates—but their proposed solutions to these pressing issues amount to tweaks to the system. They may be significant tweaks, sure; projects and proposals the likes of which the state has scarcely entertained. But there seems a general unwillingness to overcome capitalism—even to fundamentally question it—or at least a sense that overcoming it has become impossible. Maybe this is all we can really muster. We’ll go out with a whimper instead of a bang. But I think there is a different way, and it’s the way that has always been there, and has always been in effect, sometimes more visible than others. That is the dictatorship of the proletariat, and it comes about as a direct result of the class struggle.
This is not to suggest that I think that’s that, we’ve figured out socialism. Just do a dictatorship of the proletariat, guys! It couldn’t ever be that simple. No, it’s not as if you could walk up to the workers in an Amazon fulfillment center (a more cruelly ironic name has never existed, to be sure) and tell them all they have to do is smash the state and substitute their own commune in its place. You’d be laughed out of the building, and probably arrested. But the instantiation of the working class’ own dictatorship, by the workers themselves, should be the ultimate aim of the socialists, at least as far as their practice is concerned. This requires the direct engagement of the workers by would-be socialists. Not to tell them what to do, to come down from the mountain top and show them to utopia. It does, however, require engaging in their struggles with them, in concert with them. Marx and Engels state this in the Communist Manifesto:
“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement. The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole. The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”
Obviously we are not in a great position of power right now. We cannot expect immediate results. But our actions must begin somewhere if we are ever to do anything, and we must understand “the line of march,” where our intervention in the struggle is most fitting to the moment. This will come about organically, so there can be no grand blueprint beyond the simple facts: there is a struggle between classes; in this historically specific time it is between capital and labor, bourgeoisie and proletariat; this struggle leads to a classless society; the necessary step in that direction is the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“The dictatorship of the proletariat continues to haunt those who so passionately desire and so desperately need there to be some other way. They want a Bread and Roses revolution; and like the descendants and perpetuators of the so-called model victory of the Lawrence textile strike, only care about the movement, not the end goal—even if that means the liquidation of the victory. Maybe the next Syriza, the next Bolivarism, the next Rojava, the next Sanders, the next Corbyn, the next Occupy—the next popular front, the next permutation of social democracy, the next national liberation movement, the next social movement– will open a new road for the working-class; anything but the revolution, anything but the proletarian dictatorship.” —Mhou, former Anti-Capital contributor
Socialist practice is not arguing with conservatives, or liberals, or fascists, or “succdems”, or “tankies”, or “anarkiddies.” Socialist practice is not pimping progressive politics, stumping for Bernie or Corbyn or whichever bourgeois politician or party has the “best” opinions and platform, or pushing to vote for the lesser evil when all else fails. Nor is it simply putting ideas in people’s heads, hoping one day as if by magic they’ll suddenly realize they’re being exploited and do something about it. Socialist practice can really only ever be about the working class—joining in their struggle against capital for ever higher wages, lower work hours, better conditions of labor, free access to healthcare and education, an equal ability among all members of the class to sell their labor power, and the explicit and full-throated defense of the most vulnerable members of the class everywhere. But beyond simply asking for more, pushing the limits of the demands capital is capable of stomaching, it is showing in reality that the only freedom for the workers lies in their emancipation, which can only be brought about by “abolishing the conditions of [their] own life” (Marx, The Holy Family). That means the end of wage labor, of capital, of the market, of commodities, of value, and most importantly the end of the proletariat as a class. This necessity is something you will never hear uttered in a video on breadtube.
Although some breadtubers would deride the notion of the so-called “marketplace of ideas,” most of their efforts seem to fall well within the paradigm. Socialism seems to them just an idea among many, a correct opinion to be held, whose horizon can only ever be bourgeois—a platform for some progressive candidate or party to run on, a set of prescriptions meant to make for a better, more humane capitalism. It could not possibly be the outcome of a really existing struggle between classes, a real movement in the world always there beneath the surface. Such a conception would, after all, require more than proselytizing for this and that politician or policy; it would require real action, in the real world, and among real workers without pretension. It would, in short, make for bad content.
So what’s the alternative? Read theory? Act without thinking? Neither of these things seem sufficient, and on an individual level there seems to be nothing that can be done. Overcoming alienation and atomization, central to the capitalist social relation, has to begin somewhere; it must be in some sort of community, with a clear purpose and aim, to work together for something better.
That would be the primary impetus for writing this article. It may seem, and it’s largely true, that there is no easy way to get from where we are to where we want to be. Between that chasm lies knowledge: theory from the source, and the “uncastrated” history of the class struggle. But you don’t have to go it alone. I am a member of a discord server, which you may have already read about, the School of Marxist Fundamentals. Together we study and discuss the theory and philosophy of Marx, the history of the Russian revolution and the most important period in history for socialism, with plenty of supplementary material, and repeat. My own understanding of socialism has advanced more in 8 months than in the last 4 years combined, and I have (infamously, as you might learn) missed a significant portion of the curriculum! Not, of course, to suggest that I already know it all; on the contrary I don’t know even a fraction of it. I only mean to say that this has been the single most useful source of information and education in my path so far. This is because we have created a real community, where people can come together as comrades and openly talk about socialism, theory, history, or really anything—jiu jitsu, beans, hamsters, black metal, guerrilla tactics, trans rights, how we’re feeling that day, or even the dictatorship of the proletariat.
That said, theory that cannot inform or produce an active practice in the world is mere mental masturbation, a simple ideal; and a practice that is not grounded in a theory that accurately represents the material reality of the world is empty and meaningless action for the sake of action. What we are seeking to do is precisely to discover—or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover—a practical way of realizing socialism that is based on the actually existing conditions of the working class as we encounter it today.
Unlike the idiot Caleb Maupin, I don’t think breadtube should just go away. I have laid out an honest critique, sure, but there is still some use to be had in a variety of platforms that seriously inform people of the theory, history, and practice of socialism and class struggle. Breadtube as it exists is not yet that, but it could be. If you currently watch these videos and personalities—or even if you are one of the parasocial relationships making videos that could be considered part of breadtube—and you are serious in your convictions, join us in learning how we might change society from one concerned only with producing profit and misery into one that unconditionally meets and expands human needs. The proletariat has a world to win, and nothing to lose but their chains.