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I am an avid consumer of too many podcasts, and, like many, have a gnawing Instagram habit. I willingly admit I consume more than enough media to entertain a small village. The majority of what I take in walks the line between my study of political theory and commentary on the bohemian culture I populate as a 22-year-old woman living in Bushwick. According to the established newspapers my parents read, I’m part of a growing group of young leftists who serve as an audience for irony-poisoned tastemakers.
I moved to New York knowing that I would study politics, and also that my personal beliefs fell somewhere on the left wing, and that was about it. As a high schooler in Portland, Oregon, I was part of a volunteer group of teens who taught other teens about safe sex. In addition, I did door-knocking and canvassing for Planned Parenthood endorsed candidates in races across the city. A crusader against sexual assault, I was profiled by The Oregonian for demanding that the school address Title IX violations.
In other words, I was the average liberal feminist teen one imagines when they think of a place like Portland.
It’s fitting that the very first reading I did as an undergrad was titled “Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism.” There was no ah-ha moment for me when it came to leftist politics, it was simply that the more I read for school, and the more media I consumed, the farther left I moved.
Early last year the New York Times reported on the media moment of what they called “the Dirtbag Left.” The “bards of the new American” progressives, according to the Times, were a small number of podcasters, led by “Chapo Trap House,” which has hundreds of thousands of listeners. The Times described these new media stars in a mostly negative way, highlighting their use of vulgarity and fondness for being outrageous, but I think their popularity during Trump’s Presidency came from their knowledge that many of us on the left were angry, in part because the civilities of mainstream liberal politics seemed to have failed us. Why should we play nice with people who didn’t care about our humanity? Why should we care that Biden and Mitch McConnell had lunch together for years?
I tuned into the podcasters to have a laugh, and also hear their takes on everything from their personal lives to current politics to the philosophy of Michel Foucault. It was Amber A’Lee Frost, a veteran Occupy Wall Street activist and one of the Chapo podcasts hosts who coined the term “Dirtbag Left.” For the Indiana native, “dirtbag” was a term of endearment, and a flag to rally round – a declaration of irreverent independence.
While my mom read the Times and watched Stephen Colbert, I listened to podcasts, and entered into the dirtbag ecosystem: the meme pages, the Twitter groups, and the publications, such as The Intercept, The Nation, Current Affairs, sometimes Jacobin (depending on the author), and formerly Commune (before it imploded).
I think The Times piece was right when it described the need of my generation for a new type of political belonging, to a new kind of political subculture. We left-wing Millennials and Gen Z’ers have cultivated an anti-establishment community of like-minded activists. But what I am intrigued by is the emergence of dirtbag celebrities, who have one foot in the world of anti-capitalist politics, and another foot firmly planted in the market for novel commodities.
What happens when Amber A’Lee Frost becomes, in effect, an influencer—one of the potentially most lucrative new vocations of our time. Getting paid to share your life with a few clicks on your phone, or having people listen to your thoughts without peer review or qualifications, is many people’s dream. In fact, CNBC reported in 2019 that 54% of young people would become an influencer if given a chance. The leading young members of the Dirtbag left are just one example of influencers who have made a living by catering to a specific subculture. But they have also created a new opening for what I’ll call the “influencer-intellectual” – perhaps someone older and already famous for their books, but now also popular for their lifestyle; but also young people who are already famous on social media, and now trying to become famous for books containing their thoughts on politics and culture.
In both cases, academic radicals and young activists are now selling online personas, often organized around entertaining hot takes on social media. Making a one-minute video explaining complex concepts on Tik Tok can land one thousands of followers.
Dasha Nekrasova, one of the hosts of the podcast Red Scare, is an interesting example of this. Red Scare touts nearly 10,000 Patreon subscribers and Nekrasova herself has 74 thousand Instagram followers: I would guess that about 80% of this audience is young women between the ages of 19 and 29.
Dasha is a gorgeous 30-year-old with a blossoming acting career, set to guest star on the hit HBO show Succession in its upcoming season. More so than the Chapo podcast hosts, the Red Scare girls push back on “Politically Correct” culture. Though they market themselves as anti-liberal feminists, they openly embrace gender roles and chauvinism, and are often scathingly mean to other women. Most of the time, they target established mainstream feminists who promote corporate feminism (the topic of my own senior thesis) – but Nekrasova exemplifies and endorses just the kind of beauty standards that make too many young girls feel like crap.
Nekrasova also figures in a recent Times article by Ben Smith about a fascinating sub-group within her media circle. Titled “They Had a Fun Pandemic. You Can Read About It in Print,” Smith focuses mainly on The Drunken Canal, an alternative weekly paper started by an NYU student and a fellow New School grad. This media venture, though physically offline, is just as much part of the dirtbag community as the podcasters. The Drunken Canal has published writing from the original influencer, Caroline Calloway, as well as lists of who has been “canceled.” Smith compares the carefree young editors and their dismissiveness of Covid-precautions to the energy of the roaring 20s: they’re young, rich, beautiful, and partying, and they’re happy to share the glad tidings. The latest issue has a story predicting that “DASHA will become the new and better Chloë Sevigny.”
As a consumer of much of this material, I don’t want to claim that it has no benefit— a podcast or social media post can make it easier for people to learn about nearly any topic, you can plug into your phone while riding the train on the way to work and quickly have a week’s worth of news or a semester’s worth of philosophical study explained to you in arguably just as high of quality as what you would get from a top-notch newspaper. If you’re a savvy media consumer, a door of accessibility is opened by all of this media being online. I believe that this revolution of information and the movement of discourse to this freer space is mostly positive, but we should question what it means if the people who control the narrative have linked arms with groups trying to sell us beauty products.
What’s interesting, too, is that the younger influencer intellectuals still pay tribute to the authority of their elders. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian Marxist and Lacanian who has already been the subject of two documentary films, has been on Red Scare and several other podcasts. He mixes well with the influencer-intellectual because he is willing and able to engage directly with pop culture, and to apply post-structural theories to an analysis of everyday life. The podcasts, memes, and opinion pieces by the influencer-intellectuals often directly reference the work of academic critical theorists like Zizek. In this way, the young influencer-intellectuals have helped bring important theoretical work to the much larger community of young radicals that has formed online.
In theory, the formation of a new kind of public intellectual who doesn’t have ties to academia ought to be a good thing. We know that it is often those with the most privilege who get platformed and are given the authority to discuss politics publicly. We should always be trying to make political conversations accessible to as many people as possible.
However, I think this shift toward “influencer” Intellectuals comes at a steep cost: we’re moving from the elitism of the university to the elitism of a glamorous lifestyle most easily experienced by the rich.
I also believe we need to exercise caution when it comes to platforming the tastemakers of young leftist culture. Social media is by nature shallow. Algorithms may be able to show us what looks good; but they can also prevent someone from forming an independent political opinion, based on in-depth inquiry. If the sphere of influence is moving away from academia for young leftists, let it be moving towards those who have the most moving and true stories to tell, not towards those who simply want to rack up the most subscribers.
Annabelle Schwartz-Horney is a spring 2021 graduate of The New School with a major in politics.