Rewriting History

A new podcast investigates some of the big decision points in history and asks: Could things have been different?

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

Historians tend to frown on the practice of imagining “alternate histories.” Two people who don’t are Danny Bessner and Matt Christman, hosts of the new podcast “Hinge Points.” On each episode, they take an historical “hinge” moment and ask, could it have been different? What if, for example, the German Social Democrats had not fallen in line behind the march to war in 1914?

Ryan Grim: In the summer of 1914, after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand threatened to engulf Europe in violence, the workers of the world were faced with the question of war or peace.

That August, with war fever at its hottest, the German Social Democratic Party threw its weight behind the war. It cleared the way for a continent-wide conflagration.

That decision cut squarely against Karl Marx’s prediction that the working class would refuse to go to war against itself, that class solidarity was stronger than nationalist solidarity. Now, to be fair to his friend Frederick Engels, in 1887, after Marx had died, Engels did in fact forecast just such a war, writing: “No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Eurepe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done […] only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.”

But in 1914, once the German workers party approved the war, so did the rest of the European socialist parties, as they had little choice at that point. From there, Engel’s prediction came half true: It did unleash an undreamt of violence, and it did create the conditions for working class revolution, but they only succeeded in Russia, while they were put down in Germany.

All of this is explored in a new podcast called Hinge Points, hosted by Matt Christman and Danny Bessner, that takes historical moments and asks the question:“What if?” In this case: What if the leadership of the German Social Democrats had decided not to vote to approve the war loans?

This type of counter-factual musing is frowned upon by serious historians, but I’m not a serious historian, so I happily smile on it; I think it’s not only an engaging way to learn about historical events, but it’s also a useful creative exercise to get you thinking about what kind of world is possible, and what kind of world isn’t.

It can help us think about what’s possible today, in what has become a deeply confusing era. That confusion follows the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, which was followed a decade and a half later by the financial crisis, and a decade after that by a pandemic. What kind of world is possible emerging from that, and what is our role in creating it?

To work through this, I’m joined by the hosts of Hinge Points. Thank you both for joining me.

Matt Christman: Thanks for having us.

Danny Bessner: Thank you very much for having us.

RG: So Danny Bessner, he’s the co-host of the American Prestige podcast, also a foreign policy professor at the “Scoop” Jackson School at the University of Washington. Do I have that right?

DB: Oh, yes, you do. [Laughs.]

RG: Excellent.

And Matt Christman is the co-host of the podcast Chapo Trap House.

So you’re both collectively doing the podcast Hinge Points now. How did this come about?

What drove you to launch this project?

DB: Well, I think Matt and I have become friends. And we’re both kind of history nerds: I got a PhD in European and American history. And Matt has been reading history his entire life.

And, in particular, Matt does this type of historical thinking that I think is really valuable, which is this type of really big historical thinking, macro-political thinking, looking at big structures from 30,000 feet. And that’s really not a type of historical thinking that one is able to do in the American Academy. The American Academy, as many people might know, is incredibly specialized — and to advance your career in the historical profession, you really have to focus on something narrow.

So for me, as someone who’s an academic, it was just refreshing and fun to talk to Matt about these sorts of large, big questions that we have about history, and particularly about where we are in 2021. And over the course of the last year or so just having these conversations really made it seem to us that there was really a space for this type of big historical thinking to discuss in a public forum, particularly when it came to the fate of the left and where the left finds itself in 2021.

So we found ourselves talking about these historical hinge points, and that was really the genesis, at least from my end, of this project.

MC: Yeah, I’ve said [it] before, it’s like an autopsy of the human civilizational project as we’re sort of living in the corpse of it.

RG: Yeah. And, Matt, a running theme of yours for for a while now has been kind of the pervasive sense of just fundamental powerlessness, that so many people feel and you’ve talked a lot about the way that that expresses itself in our politics: pushing people into polarized camps, shouting at each other in a culture war that the only point of the war is to fight it so that people can’t ignore the fact that they can’t actually do anything about their material reality.

And so: Did this podcast sort of flow out of that a little bit? Like, if we can’t do anything right now, at least we can learn from what went wrong in the past, so that it gives us a chance.

MC: It definitely was. I found myself in a situation of having this absolutely accidental and baffling — and frankly, probably immoral job of talking about politics at this point in history and feeling like I didn’t really have a lot to say about what should happen, or what the contours of the moment are just because of how stultified everything feels and how much it feels as though we are in a fallow period in many ways. That doesn’t assume that that’s going to persist — in fact, I think it can’t persist — but it does limit your ability to be useful, really, if you’re focusing on the politics of the moment, because as you pointed out, the politics of the moment are illusory.

So, for myself, if I wanted to say anything that I thought could be interesting, that might be interesting to other people, it would be to look backward, and to identify those moments of contingency — where things happen one way, that could have gone another way, and just imagining the possibilities that existed and that were foreclosed upon. Because if you can identify and dissect those moments in the past, it allows you to apply that thinking to the moment that you live in and and remember that every moment is filled and suffused with possibilities. And that only after events have coalesced, after an action has been taken, can you really say that something is fully determined. And since we’re always living in a moment of contingency because we don’t know where this is all going to go, thinking about previous moments of contingency not only let us see what matters, but how we can think about identifying what matters around us.

RG: And as of now you’ve put out two episodes so far — I don’t want to rehash them since people can and should go listen to them. They’re enjoyable, even though they’re deep dives into very discrete periods of time. The first one you do looks at the German Social Democratic Party’s decision to effectively vote for World War I, put war credits but get behind the war effort. And the second one looks at the German Revolution of 1918-1919. Again, the Social Democratic Party plays this interesting role in it.

And I learned a great German word — Danny, do I have it right? Dickenbonze?

DB: [Laughs.] Yeah, dickenbonze, which basically means like the fat, big wigs.

RG: And we have these in the U.S., these are the kind of the labor bosses who have grown fat on the dole of the workers’ pay. Who had the famous quote: “Nothing is too good for the working class”?

MC: Samuel Gompers, baby.

RG: — when he was criticized for being too fat of a fat cat.

So you talk about how the workers organize themselves into this party structure. Necessarily, as a result of that, they have these fat cats on top of them. And so when the decision comes to be made, the material reality that the fat cats or dickenbonze are living in affects their decision-making, because now all of a sudden, they have a lot to lose, and they’re not engaged in the alienating aspect of labor.

MC: Yes.

DB: Yes.

RG: Then, in the second episode, it comes back in an interesting way in the way that this revolution, this is a spontaneous revolution that is able to be crushed not just by the dickenbonsen who are now in government, but also by the fact that there is no kind of coordinated leadership the way that there was in the Soviet Union.

So it’s set up this contradiction — tell me if you think I’m saying right — that without organized leadership, you can’t pull off a revolution, but with an organized revolution, the leadership doesn’t want to make a revolution?

MC: Right. Yeah.

DB: Right. Yeah, and this is the ultimate problem, I think, that socialist parties faced in parliamentary democracies and throughout the history of modernity.

And I just think, just take a step back — the larger question that we’re trying to ask in those two episodes, and an additional one that’ll come later, is what happens when the working class didn’t do what some Marxists and Marx himself perhaps thought they would do, which was essentially unite across national boundaries and not kill each other in the maelstrom of World War I?

And I think that without even thinking about it, Matt, and I focus three of our first episodes on this problem because, in a real sense, I think we’re living in the hangover of that problem. What happens if the proletariat does become conscious of itself and do what it’s supposed to do, and lead this sort of a communist socialist revolution?

And so I think from that question, we then got into questions of like, the literal mechanisms of party leadership and who is acting on behalf of the workers, how are they acting on behalf of the workers, and how does what might be termed their bourgeois-ification inform the strategic decisions that were made, both in 1914, and then 1918-1919, during these German revolutions.

And I think this is the fundamental tension of the entire thing, which is you do need that sort of coordination, but it needs to be a coordination that’s directly connected to sort of the lived experience of alienated labor. But that is not an experience that one has when one becomes essentially an administrator of a political party.

And you see echoes of this debate across the North Atlantic world and throughout the Global South as well. And I think you see it, for example, in the United States with debates over the professional managerial class, the PMC, what role do they have in a working class revolution? And I think just history shows that it’s not an especially effective one.

RG: And, Matt, you made, I thought, an interesting point about the Russian Revolution, that because the revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, were essentially criminalized that they had just as much risk not making revolution as they did making one. They weren’t comfortable enough.

MC: Yeah, absolutely.

In 1917, the leading edge of the connected, working class party, the Bolshevik Party, that by over the course of the summer of 1917, as the Provisional Government lost legitimacy, was able to consolidate significant support among a majority of the active workers in the critical cities, where it was led by people who if a revolution didn’t happen, would probably have all been executed, or at the very least been, had to flee back into exile, which was just not a situation that existed for the leaders of the center of mass of German Workers in the cities who are SDP bureaucrats who had been part of a legal party for a generation, and who had well ensconced themselves in the structures of the German bourgeois state at that point.

RG: And you talked about how in 1919, there was, what was it called, a Kapp Putsch?

MC: A Kapp Putsch.

RG: [Laughs.] So basically a right-wing coup.

MC: Yeah, sort of a Kornilov affair for post-war Germany. Yeah.

RG: Yeah. And so it made me wonder: If there was no Kornilov affair in the summer of ’17. Do you then not get the consolidation and the support behind the Bolsheviks that fall?

MC: I think that that’s very likely. But of course, the thing to point out there is that the Kornilov affair was in large part orchestrated by Alexander Kerensky.

RG: Right. Right.

MC: Like the thing about the Bolshevik Revolution, and the absurdity of people who want to blame the Bolsheviks for taking power, is that they were only allowed to take power by the repeated and just a stunning inability of any level of power in the Russian state, both the czarists and then the provisional government, to do anything like provide a basis for legitimate governance.

Although, and we’ll talk about this in a future episode that I guarantee will get a lot of people mad at us, but I’m very excited for that to happen — but even in that case, without Lenin showing up when he did, the Bolsheviks probably would not have had the will to pull off that coup. But their consolidation of power only happens after the Kornilov affair.

And as we said in the episode about Germany, the Kapp Putsch, happens after the creation of the Freikorps, after the suppression of those early revolts, after the suppression of the Munich Soviet Republic, and doesn’t have that galvanizing effect of bringing together a coherent and well-organized revolutionary party that the Kornilov affair had in Russia.

DB: And just to briefly piggyback off that, I think that also has to do with the relative levels of development in two societies.

MC: Yes.

DB: In some sense it’s really not the most useful thing to compare what happens in Germany with what happens in the Russian Empire. One because the conditions were just very different. And perhaps most importantly, from the perspective of Marx’s theory, their levels of development were just totally different. And what we talk about in that future episode — I think people will get mad at us — is what did it mean for the International left to be centered in Russia/the Soviet Union and we approach that question in an interesting way that I hope people will at least find compelling and worthy of discussion.

MC: And also just try not to moralize it.

DB: No, not at all.

MC: And I think what makes it easy to talk about is just how much more so than the German Revolution, which was really stillborn, the Russian Revolution is incredibly contingent at a several points you can see things going in a drastically different direction, which raises the question: Well, OK, imagine those things had changed, then what new contours emerge in the working class struggle for self-awareness and power that would be happening all across the world no matter what, in the crisis following the end of World War I.

RG: I actually wanted to ask you about the Russian Revolution. And I don’t want to steal too much thunder from a future episode, but because I do agree with you that that it was so contingent on Lenin and Trotsky pushing their crew to make this revolution and then also making sure that they didn’t cave in the days following and open themselves up to a giant socialist coalition government that would have just been a retread of the failed provisional government.

MC: Yeah.

RG: It really did seem like a force of will, like these guys just winning arguments in backrooms. And so the question, then, is what if they lose those arguments? And you just continue to get a failed liberal democracy in Russia over the next couple decades? What I’m curious about is what you think that would do to U.S. foreign policy?

DB: This is our question. Well, the way we approached it was less about U.S. foreign policy, and what does that mean for what might be termed “the North Atlantic” left writ large? And the questions that I think we ask are: What if international leftism wasn’t centered in the Soviet Union, a society at a very different level of development, run by very particular people at a particular time? What would it mean if leftism didn’t become as discredited as it did? Obviously, that effort would have been, I think, undertaken regardless of whether the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. But what would it have meant if one wasn’t able to tar U.S. leftists, or German leftists, or French and British leftists with the accusation of being a fifth column of a foreign power? And what would it mean, if the Western left wasn’t oriented in some significant way toward the common turn and other Soviet bodies? And I think this is what might annoy people, given our particular approach?

MC: And what would it mean if you didn’t have a situation where there is a profound schism within the working class movement of every Western country over the question of how to orient themselves towards Moscow?

RG: Right. And then from the U.S. perspective, do you think that the U.S. war hawks and the ones who were pushing an imperial agenda would be as successful, let’s say, pursuing the Vietnam War? Does China go communist? And let’s say it does, is that enough for the U.S. to go wage war in Vietnam? Or does the United States start to have a little bit more tolerance for social democratic movements? As you guys know, across the 20th century, you couldn’t be for raising taxes in Brazil without risking assassination at the hands of some U.S. agent or some U.S. operative? So it really changes the course of what’s possible in all of these countries.

DB: I think that’s precisely right. And I think it opens up new opportunities.

Personally, I think after World War II, the United States is going to affirm some sort of global hegemony. I think that is over determined once France falls in the summer of 1940. I think that really freaked out a lot of Americans and it really refigured what they thought of themselves in terms of a global scale. They were going to go outside the Western Hemisphere and even more outside the Philippines.

Now the character of that empire, I think, was shaped profoundly by the Soviet Union, and particularly once, in the autumn of 1949, once China quote-unquote falls to communism, once the Soviets acquire a nuclear weapon, I think that kind of sets the stage for the decades-long Cold War that we had.

So what happens if that doesn’t happen? I think that you do get an imperial American foreign policy. But I think it takes a different form.

Vietnam, I’m not sure if you get the precise war that happens there. But I do think you get the United States trying to assert dollar hegemony which, of course, happened before the end of World War II. And I do think you get the building of bases around the world. But you might get a less virulent anti-socialism domestically; I think you might see something more along the lines of what happened in the United Kingdom, with the creation of some form of national health service and some more social democratic reforms, though I do think that imperialism is over-determined.

RG: Matt, what do you think it does domestically to the U.S.?

MC: Well, I think what it does to the U.S. and to other countries is it changes the dynamic mix of the labor struggle such that when the global crisis of capitalism that was kind of kicked off by World War I and continued through the 20s and 30s, that when the forces array, you know, are politically to respond to that, that perhaps instead of there being this international context for communism as an alternative to, to capitalism, and communism as defined by the actions of the Soviet Union as it builds power and defends itself against an encirclement by capitalist powers bent on its destruction, but rather by specific conditions within the countries in question, and if that happens, you might see a completely different axis of conflict, which I do think is inevitable in the 1930s and 40s worldwide than the one that we ended up with. And I think that’s one of the more interesting parts of it is because you could imagine a world where the absence of communism being integrated into the state competitive framework the way it was after the victory of the Bolsheviks, and in Russia, rather a still internationalized, de-territorialized working class movement but that still would assert itself in specific national contexts. And maybe instead of a world war, like the one we got, there is instead a kind of collection of intertwining cascading civil wars.

RG: Any other teases you can give about future moments you’re going to look at?

MC: We’re thinking of this as the first season. We’re probably going to do more. The response has been pretty encouraging so far. But for now, these are mostly pretty modern. The latest is 19th century with the Lincoln assassination and alternative Reconstruction; the most recent, for us, is 9/11 and the consequences of that, and then I think our second season will probably go back into the mists of time to find more outlandish and frankly kind of fun counterfactuals back when — the farther back you go, the more loose everything feels.

DB: And we also intend to expand beyond the broad North Atlantic world in future seasons, incorporating the Global South, incorporating areas outside of Europe and the United States. But this one, I think, was really motivated by trying to look back on where we are in 2021 from the American political situation in the wake of the Bernie defeat. And I think that going forward, as Matt said, we’ll go back to antiquity, we’ll go to the Middle Ages, Charlemagne will make an appearance, Genghis Khan will make an appearance I’m sure, and really try to expand our vision in a more macro way.

MC: This season basically assumes as overdetermined the triumph of Anglo-American capitalism as the context for global development in the 19th and 20th centuries. And I think, in the future, we’re going to try to maybe go back and say: OK, well, what could have happened to have prevented that from occurring, or change the specific nature of capitalism’s triumph, that kind of thing.

[Musical interlude.]

RG: So to go back to the myth of pre-Covid 2020s, speaking of Bernie’s loss, and also speaking of contingent decisions by roomfuls of people, curious to get your take on, what happens if Jim Clyburn decides that it’s not in his interests to weigh in South Carolina, and Barack Obama decides it’s not in the interest of his legacy to be against this youth’s freight train that’s barreling out of Nevada, and he’s just gonna let this play out.

And let’s say that Sanders does fairly well. He was polling well in South Carolina coming out in Nevada, he does well there, he does well on Super Tuesday. It’s no guarantee, but let’s just pretend he wins. How do you feel like some of this year’s events would have gone differently? Just start with Afghanistan, if he were in the White House?

MC: Well, for me, personally, when we were picking hinge points and things to talk about, I kind of have to balance the importance of the imposition of conditions by a certain action, and then the contingency involved. How few decisions would have had to be different for something significant to be different? How many specific choices of individual people and also random events could be changed to get a drastically different outcome?

And with Bernie, I don’t see a lot of plausible alternatives. Too many things would have to be different in a way that is not really explicable. Like I can’t imagine why Clyburn would not do what he did. It is in Clyburn’s interest to endorse Biden at that point. There’s no world that we live in where Jim Clyburn in the position he’s in does not want to prevent Bernie from being the nominee. The same thing goes, I think, for Obama. So I can’t imagine things being different in that respect. And that’s why I want to look back to when maybe there was more slack in the line, and there was more give in the system, and there were more moments of possibility now. Like, there’s fluidity around us now, but I don’t think it resides at the level of national politics.

DB: I think that one of the reasons that our politics seems so sterile right now, and something that I’ve been arguing for a bit, is that we have the institutions of mass democracy, political parties, the mass media, but the way power actually functions in this society is really located within an administrative state.

So that’s, I think, a big disconnect — we have things like popular movements, like protests against George Floyd’s murder, and all of those things and it seems like nothing seems to change because we have the appearance of mass politics, but actually, the way power functions is more of an administrative hyper-elite way.

So I just wanted to say that, but in terms of being different with Bernie, I mean, just to put my cards on the table, I was a foreign policy adviser to the Bernie campaign. And so I was thinking a lot about this when it seemed like he had a real chance, and I, at least, thought that he really did have a real chance. And one of the things that I think would have been undertaken, at least in the realm of foreign policy, where I was located, was that I think you would have had, for the first time, a general strategic reassessment of the entire structure of American hegemony or the American Empire.

I remember one time we were asked to present blue-sky ideas. And what I noticed is that one of the most complicated problems that the left faces — the anti-imperialist left faces — is that in a lot of ways, we don’t even know where power is located. It’s devolved, the authority of the American state, and it was designed this way consciously, is so devolved, both in terms of its domestic power, but also internationally. So one of the things that I wanted to do was literally just create a series of task forces to map this Leviathan; to map this octopus-like structure that is situated around the globe.

So I think what would have been one of the most important things is that in those early years of Bernie, you would have gotten an actual power-mapping of this incredible structure and an actual reassessment of things like the defense budget, of things like the 750 overseas military bases, of things like allowing the uniformed military to have such an influence on U.S. foreign policy. And that’s, I think, unique because I agree with Matt on this generally, presidents do have really restricted power. And in some sense, the way that he and I always put it is that the algorithm has become conscious.

But I think one realm where the President does have a fair amount of power does relate to American security politics. And I think it was a real missed opportunity to reexamine the global hegemonic structure that the United States has been building since 1945, and even more so since 1989. So it’s a real shame that he didn’t win.

RG: And I’m curious how you think about what Biden’s been up to this year in the context of that kind of static political situation that you described. When we post this podcast, it should be Friday, this evening, the House will be voting or not voting, depending on how it goes, on this Build Back Better Bill, this $1.75-$1.9 trillion package that extends the Child Tax Credit —

MC: — knocked down from $3.5 trillion.

RG: Well, Bernie started it at $6 trillion. Then they passed it through the Senate at $3.5. Now it’s down to, I think, $1.9 but they’re already telegraphing it’ll be knocked down again, if it gets to the Senate. At the same time, it includes, what? $600 billion in climate, clean energy stuff, Child Tax Credit, childcare subsidies, that sort of thing.

How do you think about that type of federal movement in the context of the depression about the overall situation?

MC: I mean, I guess I have a hard time understanding what the ask is of the average American when it comes to paying attention to and having an investment in questions like what passes within the House and Senate? Because it is manifestly not in our hands what comes out of this bill.

DB: Exactly.

MC: We have nothing to say about it. And so, as an American, I can hope, certainly, that there’s good stuff in it. And I can hope that that good stuff can help me and that it can impact my life and impact other people’s lives. But beyond that, just vague preference for better legislation rather than worse, the same way that I have a preference for a sunny day rather than a cloudy one, I don’t really know what we’re, as people, supposed to take from it from a political perspective, because we are out of the loop.

RG: And the contrast with 2008 and 2009 is interesting. In 2008, you had this giant upsurge of enthusiasm, and this organized effort to elect Barack Obama, and then he consciously kind of demobilized people and we know the result of that.

But with Biden’s election, Biden didn’t have to demobilize anything. Even before Covid, he would do these Iowa rallies, and you’d have 12 people show up, and half of them would leave saying that they had shown up as a Biden supporter and were now on the fence. And that was it! Like, that was the end of the campaign, because then Covid hits MSNBC signals that it’s over, and he wins, and then he stays in Wilmington through November.

MC: Doesn’t have to do any public interactions, after having accumulated just a snowball of gaffes just in the few appearances he did make in Iowa and New Hampshire. He just got to be behind, just be in this big bunker.

DB: And I think this just shows again, like we often talk about politics in this country in a way that is just absolutely disconnected from how power works. He’s not a popular guy, he never was a popular guy, and that’s totally unrelated to whether he won the election and how he governs. So I think that’s one of the most important things that we on the quote-unquote left can do at this moment of our absolute lack of influences to really rethink how we even understand politics in this country. We’re oftentimes using old language and old models that don’t reflect the actually existing structures of the American state. And I don’t love making pronouncements about what the left should do, but I’ll do it anyway. I do think we should actually look at the state and where power actually lies instead of just using the old phrases of like, organized protest. Because those things I don’t think necessarily work in the context of American power and 2021.

RG: And If I were to struggle to grasp for some meaning or purpose to what I do with my day every day, every week, every year, besides entertainment — what’s the purpose of this podcast? I hope people enjoy listening to it, and I hope people enjoy reading the things I write, but that really ought not to be the only purpose. And I guess the best that I could come up with would be that there are impressions — and I’m curious for your take on this — there are impressions that people in the administrative state and people in Congress have about what people want to happen, that have some vague influence on the decisions that they make, perhaps only at the margins. Is there anything more than that? Or is even that a reach?

MC: I mean, I think that there is a general understanding of what people would prefer to have, and would rather have not. The polling is pretty explicit about what people would like. And you can rationally imagine how certain programs would be broadly enjoyed by people, whatever their ideological masks that they put on it, they would enjoy experiencing them. And that is a contributing factor to the game theory of people in office.

But that is the product of an ambient, like cultural churn, it cannot be coordinated as the thing. And that means it’s not to be condemned, like pursuing political engagement, at the level of partisan investments and public expression is not something to be condemned, because it’s inevitable: What would be the point of condemning something that people are going to naturally want to do to express some sort of control over their lives? And so they’re going to do it. You can’t assume they won’t. And they’re going to do it in such a way that expresses this inchoate yearning for the old social democracy, that all the structures that we currently live under-required to work, required to accumulate legitimacy for the population.

DB: Yeah. And just to put a fine point on it — I mean, I think I go back to Marx here, which is the number one impulse of the science of historical materialism is to understand your moment and how it actually works and how it actually functions. And I think that’s something really useful that people in the media who have a large platform are able to genuinely contribute to: to help their audience appreciate what is actually going on and not necessarily take place in the partisan scrum that I think Matt rightly says we’re essentially disconnected from and we essentially have no real say over what happens in the administrative state — and even kind of perversely in Congress at this point.

RG: To take it from another angle, maybe another way to get myself out of bed in the morning would be to say that: Even if this is all spring training, you’ve got to keep loose.

MC: That’s exactly it. We have a desire to control our destinies. Some of the people in America are always going to imagine that as being political participants. Being a political participant requires knowing something about what’s going on politically, and having views, and having preferences and expressing them even if it’s just by talking to people around the watercooler, or posting online, or volunteering for a campaign, or running themselves or giving money. That’s all part and parcel to the experience of being a political subject, and political subjects are going to be essential to any socialist project in any situation.

So participating in the culture in this fallow moment to build one political identity over another absolutely is an inevitable and necessary part of the process of, as you said, training and being aware of what the moment calls for.

RG: I feel much better now. Thank you.

MC: [Laughs.]

DB: You’re welcome.

MC: No, it’s the same thing I tell myself, and it’s, of course, self justification — because who wants to dig ditches — but to me, it also seems unavoidable. There is no way to, as a person, which everyone has to assume themselves to be an individual. There is no left in a meaningful sense in this country. So you can never say: I want this to happen. And then when you’re imagining it assumes a coordinated group of people carrying it out with you. That’s not on the table. It’s really you doing things, even the representations of like, significant rupture, and conflict with the state that we’ve seen, are the result of individual decisions — like the George Floyd protests were, by and large, the decisions of individuals to respond to the specific stresses and outrages of the moment with mass action, but action that’s predicated on individual preference, rather than some sort of organized —

DB: — coordinated thought.

MC: Exactly. And absent that, we’re just individuals. And if you accept that, it really does humble you. But the good part of that is that it takes a lot off your shoulders. It really isn’t up to you to have the exact correct opinion on everything; it really isn’t up to you to see change happen in your lifetime, because it probably isn’t — what is up to you to do is to live a life that is that feels aligned at every access with the project of determining for yourself and expressing for yourself a individuality, a personal identity, aligned with values, internal, and social. And from that position, then you can just ask yourself in every axis of your life: What should I be doing? But not assume a can opener that says: Forget these questions. The only real thing that changes is turning the wheel of history. I can’t approach any of the problems in my life until we have radically altered the relationship between humans and capital. That is not anything anyone can assume is going to happen in anything like a near timeframe. What you do have is every other thing in your life that you have to address. And you should.

DB: And I think that’s also freeing — because what Matt’s saying, and we talk about this quite a bit, is that that doesn’t mean that you have to define yourself as like a Bolshevik or Menshevik or a Trotskyite.

MC: Right.

DB: That is not ultimately that meaningful in the context of the United States in 2021. So this is actually a freeing impulse, I think, to disconnect yourself from those ultimately, identitarian approaches to politics that are effectively self branding. And I understand that this is what we all do. I’m on Twitter. I get it. We all like attention. And we all like to feel morally right. But what Matt is saying is really a freeing way to approach politics given the realities of power in 2021 America.

MC: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I understand the argument for why you should have a developed theory of the state right. But how often in your day-to-day life does that question come up?

DB: Right.

MC: So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put a lot of time, effort — and most importantly, in my opinion — emotional investment into determining the question, because you don’t have a lot to do with it other than have it as a badge of identity. And as a way to socially signal, mostly online, but also in social situations. It is in the clouds.

So you can have preferences that way; everyone is going to accumulate preferences. But they can just be that. They don’t have to be the locus of your identity and the thing that drives you to action, because at that level of abstraction, mostly, the only action that that level of abstract identity can push you towards is either spectacular acts of self validation, which is for the few and the brave, or totally consequence-free, indulgent expressions of social identity — and preening — on an online format. Those are the only things you can do with something at that level of distance from the questions of your daily life.

RG: People often try to give you advice. They say: Just log off, man. But what you’re saying is —

CM: You can’t! No. We’re cyborgs.

RG: — actually, no, you can’t log off, but just relax and live a good life.

MC: Exactly. We’re cyborgs.

DB: I actually wrote a little piece about this for The Nation. And I think that’s totally — as Matt just said — we really are cyborgs. To live in 2021 is to be partially online, at least on social media. So that’s not really an impulse. So much of our daily sociality.

MC: If you already are, I should say — like, if you aren’t yet, like people can point to, a lot of people aren’t online. Yeah. They have not had the surgery basically. They have not imbibed the nanobots. But it is a very difficult thing to detach yourself from socially. Absent some sort of radical break of circumstances, which some people are going to carry off —

DB: — the equivalent of a monk, basically — it’s very difficult. Most people aren’t monks or ascetics. So that’s not particularly good advice. And I think what we need to do, as Matt is suggesting, is learn to live with this thing in a healthy way. It’s the emotional part that’s the problem. It’s just screaming at people online and allowing that to affect you. It’s developing parasocial relationships with people who you don’t know that I think is really unhealthy. So you have to put these things in a meaningful perspective, given the political reality of where we are.

MC: Yeah, precisely.

RG: Great. Well, I think we’ve worked that out.

DB: We’re done here.

RG: So I really appreciate you guys coming on — again, the podcast is called Hinge Points. It’s terrific. It’s much better than thinking about our current condition. But we’re going to continue!

MC: We gotta! We can’t go on, but we go on

RG: Anything else you want to plug, by the way?

MC: I guess our respective podcasts. Chapo Trap House over here.

DB: And American Prestige over here.

RG: Yes, both excellent listens.

MC: Oh, and me and Chris Wade, we just wrapped up the Hell of Presidents podcast on Stitcher. Last episode came out last week. This Friday at 4 PM ET, we’re going to do a Twitch Q&A for any questions anybody who listened to that podcast has about presidents. We can go through them. We can do counterfactuals. We could read their astrological signs! It’ll be a fun wrap-up, for anyone who listened to that pod.

RG: It sounds fun. For people who don’t use Twitch much, how do they get there?

MC: You don’t have to sign in. You don’t have to do anything. It’ll just be on the screen. You can ask questions without having to do any icky interaction with the Twitch AI, or whatever the fuck. That’s what I would do, that’s for sure. I don’t have a Twitch account. People can gift me subs all day and I won’t be able to do anything with them.

RG: Excellent. Well, I look forward to asking: What would’ve happened if Zachary Taylor had lived?

MC: That’s a really interesting one, because you really could have a civil war on a much accelerated time frame!

RG: Mmhmm.

MC: If you do not have Fillmore there to carry off the compromise. That is a very good one.

RG: I’ll drop it in the chat.

DB: [Laughs.]


RG: Alright, thanks so much.

MC: Yes. Thank you.

DB: Yeah. Thanks so much.

[Credits music.]

RG: Well, thank you both for being here. That was Danny Bessner and Matt Christman, and that’s our show.

Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. bureau chief of The Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

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