Review: The Chapo Guide To Revolution

The Chapo Guide To Revolution: A Manifesto Against Facts, Logic, and Reason is the book written by four of the five hosts of the similarly named podcast which is famous for making a lot of money and being emblematic of the ‘dirtbag’ left.

I recommend the book. It’s funny and smart, a sort of — in a way to be substantiated later — cross of Chomsky and Zinn (thus a historico-political account of the US with an accent on imperialism and discrimination) with Bill Hicks and The Simpsons. It made me laugh out loud about ten times (which I would say is a lot) and is very well-written. Other reviewers said that it would be a good book to put in the books of an otherwise politically unmotivated young person and — with some qualifications (while jokes about the Mont Pelerin society and George McGovern are great if you know the history, if you don’t they’ll go over your head) — I agree with that.

Their thesis is clear: capitalism doesn’t work for young people, American history consists in a series of exploitations (of black people and women, of foreign belligerents, of the environment); Democrats are spineless and weak and Republicans powerful, but diabolically so, the media is mostly dumbasses, work sucks, and prestige TV is bad.

I will first describe the contents of the book, and then assess the prospects of the ‘fully ironic’ ideology they offer in response to this onslaught of negativity.

Overview Of The Book

The book has chapters, more or less, for each sentence in the summary above. I will concentrate on a couple, beginning with the chapter on liberals.

Chapo hate the libs, and to tell us why, they run us through the history and proto-history of liberalism in America, as manifest in the Democratic Party and its ideological forebears.

They hate them because liberals are weak (the text is peppered with words like ‘tepid’, ‘void’, ‘dainty’, ‘wimp out’). They are a class of people who, seeing America jerked to the right by the, well, right, jerked right themselves, like a puppy on a leash, to keep relevant.

This basic thought is of course a recognisable one, something manifest by, for example, the use of ‘new’ (‘third way’) in the branding of the 90s liberal parties on both sides of the Atlantic. Chapo’s sights go beyond the last 20–30 years, though. They present a pretty bleak, though funny and very readable, account of a couple of hundred years of liberalism in America, from Puritans to today.

Starting with today, they give us a taxonomy of the modern liberals you might have met online. They tell us about the people who reply under Trump’s tweets (who write things like “Hey Cheeto Benito, is this the fake news you’ve been complaining about? #TheLiesAreComingFromInsideTheHouse”), or the many Twitter people who get excited by celebrities (the superpowers of which are ‘Charisma, remarkably low thetan levels’) who dunk on Trump at award shows, or again the pro-war socially liberal liberals who read books like ‘The Balls To Be A Woman: Golda Meir’s War against Toxic Masculinity’, who attend shows like ‘A Jazz Tribute to Nato’, or again the people who things their children patently didn’t say (“Doesn’t the pwesident know that the individual mandate shores up the insuwance market?”). It’s funny.

To give a sense of the history they tell: taking up the story with FDR, for example, their assessment of him is that the New Deal was (at least in part) an operation to stave off more radical alternatives to capitalism the Depression provoked and moreover one which excluded black people in order to get votes from Southern Democratic politicians, and skipping to LBJ, we get a picture of him as a racist warmonger, perhaps even one who waged war to keep capitalism alive via Keynesian public works (in this case, funding the army). Skipping some more we hear the familiar (and some new) complaints against Clinton — centrist, sexist, state-gutting — and then Obama, the bank bailer out and War On Terror-continuer.

I have a few questions about this version of history they give us. Up front they give us the picture of libs as jerked along by the increasingly uncontrollable GOP, tied to procedure in an embarrassing way as the Republicans just steamroller over them from enormity to enormity. But I’m not sure that that one-size-fits-all theory can really capture all the data. Is it right to think of FDR and LBJ as jerked rightwards? Maybe, but it’s not super obvious. If liberals are all the same, how to explain their differences, as now their enthusiasm for the state waxes (those just mentioned) and wanes (Clintons), and as belligerence and social liberalism (attitudes to race, gender, etc.) changes too?

Second, their extensive nihilism, although readable, makes one wonder what to do. After all, presumably they will support things like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. But to the extent that they are still programs recognizably within the liberal paradigm (Chomsky called Sanders a New Deal democrat) one might come away thinking that these are programs doomed to fail, at best sticking plasters on the mortally wounded body of capitalism. So, and in a way I’ll expand on later, I’m not sure their relentlessly caustic recap, if accurate, is helpful.

Third, there is a completely different way of viewing the history, one suggested by a book which coincidentally I read just before this one. In Why Liberals Win (Even When They Lose Elections), Stephen Prothero argues that there is pattern to the various cultural wars liberals and conservatives engage in, according to which they fight for a while (about the place of religious minorities in America, about prohibition, about gay rights) and then liberals win and their position becomes mainstream, and so one is tempted, looking back, to not see liberals as effectual because what they effected is now taken for granted. On this alternative reading of history, liberals aren’t the puny figures Chapo gives us (I think their response would be to say that anything good in liberalism is cribbed from echt-Left people, but who cares where an idea comes from if it’s good? Also I don’t know if it’s right — think of classical liberal John Stuart Mill on woman’s rights.)

The book then goes on to neoliberalism and conservatism. Neoliberalism, they tell us, is the ideology which originated at a meeting in ‘Colorado’s historic Overlook hotel in 1947’, a pretty perfect mashup of this and this, a meeting which laid the groundwork for neoliberalism ‘as well as a renewed spiritual interest in certain long-forgotten Babylonian deities’ and which aimed ‘to craft policies designed to nourish the vast and ancient elder gods they worshipped’. The chapter ends, fittingly, in Lovecraftian babbling.

(An aside: I’ve been for a long time curious about the hyperbole one reads among the political left, and especially its resort to such Lovecraftian hyperbole or obscene scatology. Why is that the way we talk about our opponents today? But I think this book suggested an answer to me: we’ve already wasted most of our invective on liberals, and so, if we want to make room in insult-space for conservatives, we need to resort to this sort of extreme imagery and verbiage.)

Their take on conversatives is that, unlike liberals who have a void at their core, the Republicans know what they want and what they want is bad. It’s basically a movement by a rich aristocracy to stay rich, and the cultural trappings — family, hierarchy, country, heterosexuality — are means to that end: ‘Conservatives run on gays, guns, and God as they dismantle the public sector and facilitate the upward transfer of wealth once they get into office’. The section on conservatives throughout history is titled ‘We’re openly, 100 percent Evil’.

Among the portraits of the contemporary right, I particularly liked Citizen Kek (twitter handle: ‘HemorrhoidalSaxon’) their theory of whom is that he is the sort of dispossessed young person who in days of yore would have been sent to the colonies to brutalize others but now, colonies lacking, is forced to take his misfitting adolescent aggression online and frequent r/TheDonald, and TradCath weirdo, ‘a lot of tweed jackets, pipes, and upsetting facial hair with none of the good humor or charm that usually accompanies them’

The rest of the book consists in a chapter on the media (early twentieth century headlines from which include ‘Spanish Flu or Spanish Boo-Hoo? New Influenza Nothing to Worry About’, and they give us an account of how journalists Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford sensationally broke Watergate) which, in addition to many good jokes, provided at least this reader with some interesting information about the early millennium political blogosphere I didn’t know about and some good making fun of people who should be made fun of, and a chapter on culture, which picks off some low hanging fruit (people who analogize politics to Harry Potter and Game Of Thrones) and has some funny recaps of the Matrix.

Is Ironic Politics Good?

The stated aim of the book is to provide a “fully ironic” ideology. I want to talk about this some, moving away from exposition of the book to consider the broader idea of where such ideas come from and what, if anything, we should do with them.

The first thing I want to note is that the book is, in a sense, fundamentally not new. It forms part of a tradition of American satire in the US that now goes back (at least) 30 years. That tradition is marked by irony, and I want to suggest that irony-laced politics is, perhaps, not the best approach for those of us who want things to change.

The basic thought is easy, and I’ve already kind of touched on it: everything, pretty much, is bad for the Chapo gang. Fair enough: things do seem pretty bad. But I think their ironic position compels them towards that judgement such that even were things good they wouldn’t have the register to express it. The ironist is compelled to judge everything negatively, to find ways to disparage things. This most often is accompanied by humour, but need not be. They can tell us, concerning climate change and having listed some disasters in the global south, ‘The apocalypse is already here; you just don’t live there yet’. There’s no joke here. And they can tell us bad things along with the joke. One thing that their position barely allows for is to say good things without a joke. The manifesto with which the book begins seems to typify this:

1. Three-day workweek, four-hour workday

2. Health care, childcare, education, housing, and food are free and paid for by turning all existing billionaires into thousandaires and/or Soylent

3. The use of logic, facts, and reason is outlawed

4. Feelings become fiat currency

[etc]

They have with a couple of good and socialistically venerable ideas, but they puncture it somewhat with hyperbole and then other ridiculous items. It’s as if there’s a fear of sincerity that forces them to resort to bathos so as not to seem uncool.

Arguably that’s bad. If one’s public voice is one that feels compelled to shit over everything, what about one’s private voice, one’s thoughts? They might go the same way. But that’s to constrain your thoughts, to dissuade you from the process of thinking about and getting involved in alternatives because, if everything is bad, then so must this new alternative you’re thinking about be.

(This anti-irony line of thought is not remotely original to me — it’s found in David Foster Wallace’s early 90s essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’, for example.)

A prediction of this take would be that ironic politics would be in a sort of stasis. It couldn’t progress, because it can’t even really think about progress without instantly ironically distancing itself from it.

And this, I think, is born out. We’re now about three decades deep in ironic politics, and those decades have seen very limited sketching of alternatives. Thus let’s rewind some thirty years to the first Gulf war. The Gen X equivalent to the Chapo listener might well have gone to see Bill Hicks perform, and heard routines like this:

See, everyone got boners over the technology, and it was pretty incredible. Watching missiles fly down air vents, pretty unbelievable. But couldn’t we feasibly use that same technology to shoot food at hungry people? Know what I mean? Fly over Ethiopia, “There’s a guy that needs a banana!” BOOM! The Stealth Banana. Smart fruit! I don’t know. Once again, I was watching the f’ing news, and it really threw me off. It depressed everyone, it’s so scary watching the news, how they built it all out of proportion, like Iraq was ever, or could ever possibly, under any stretch of the imagination be a threat to us-wwwwhatsoever.

In another routine, he says he saw on the news

there’s a quote from Saddam Hussein going we have nothing against America we just want to see George Bush beheaded and his head kicked down the road like a soccer ball I’m thinking that’s what I want to see.

Now compare the dedication to the Chapo Book (‘to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistant’), or again consider this passage with, like the Hicks one, mixes dick jokes and America bellicosity:

Endless and aimless struggle against evil is … a great way to keep military budgets and their pleated trousers swole. The War on terror is the bathtub our empire lies in, surveying a sunset over a wheat field in the Cialis commerical that is our twenty-first-century international statecraft

We get, I think, the same disgust, the same detachment, the same sense that the only appropriate response is scatological. But that reaction is limited. Those listening to Bill Hicks are now 50 or 60, perhaps the very same libs the book criticises, and I think a genuine concern is that Chapo listeners might go the same way. Maybe this sort of comedy, by excluding everything, doesn’t open vistas of possibility for its readers.

I could press this point. One of the reasons I found the book so enjoyable is because it reminded me of The Simpsons in its capacity to look over and be funny about American history.

(One could imagine the early twentieth century headline I quoted above spinning on screen; in the episode Bart Gets An Elephant, signs at the Republican meeting read “We want what’s worst for everyone” and “We’re just plain evil.” while signs at the Democratic Party meeting: “We hate life and ourselves” and “We can’t govern!”. Isn’t this pretty much Chapo’s thesis, expressed as they would express it?”).

But one not great things about the Simpsons is its both sidesism: it is a show that frequently counsels against political action and extremism, and arguably it does so because of the ironic distance it takes towards the political sphere: again, if everything is bad, then nothing is good. And again, it’s at least unclear if The Simpsons generation are going to turn out to be the political actors we need (I make this point at great length in my book about the 90s, which is forthcoming).

So that’s my tentative assessment: the ironic politics, although funny and hard to resist, occludes possibilities, as evidence for which I point out that it’s been around for a while during periods of political stagnation.

That somewhat negative assessment notwithstanding, I would still recommend and put this book into the hands of people interested in politics, comedy, or both, but I would do with a recommendation to actually spend some time thinking about what the future that follows the bleak history Chapo gives us might look like.