Episode 40: Three Priorities for an Independent Left, Today (w/ Doug Lain)

Hello Fully Automated listeners! This is a rebroadcast of Episode 7 of Class Unity: Transmissions, as posted hereTransmissions is the official podcast of Class Unity, and I want to thank them for their permission to use this episode. You can find out more about Class Unity over at https://classunity.org/

For those curious, there will be more independent ‘Fully Automated’ content coming soon. But I will continue to repost those ‘Transmissions’ episodes in which I am involved, as I think they will be of interest to listeners of this show, too.

Welcome to Episode 7 of Class Unity “Transmissions.” In this episode we are joined by Doug Lain, Commissioning Editor at Sublation Media. Lain is a real veteran of the left podcast scene. From his old philosophy podcast “Diet Soap,” which ran from 2009 through 2014, to his work as host of the Zero Books podcast, Zero Squared, Lain’s impact as a formative voice on the contemporary socialist left cannot be understated.

In this show we cover a wide range of topics, including Lain’s recent ban from Elon Musk’s newly “pro-free speech” Twitter (for a joke about RFK Jnr). However, the real purpose of the interview is to revisit an old Tweet of his, from April this year. On April 15, Lain posted three priorities that, he said, “an independent left” should be focused on right now:

  1. Ending the conflict in Ukraine by opposing the very dangerous continuing escalation;
  2. Protecting the working class from the consequences from the continuing financial and fiscal crisis that has been expressed through inflation and the banking crisis;
  3. Opposing the war on disinformation and the expansion of the security state into the “whole of society.”

In recent months, Lain has been particularly strident on the first and the third of these priorities. However, his arguments have not been especially well received (his recent encounter with the Majority Report’s Matt Binder offers a fairly representative example of the disdain many progressives have for Lain’s views). Noting the vehemence of this response, we were curious. And so we decided to invite Lain for a chat.

We start by asking Lain what he means by the phrase “an independent left”? We then move onto the first of his priorities, the war in Ukraine. The US left has been strangely quiet on this conflict. Where it has addressed the issue, it has usually been in handwaving fashion, arguing that it is a case of “imperialism on both sides.” We put it to Lain that this is kind of an inversion of Trump’s infamous “very fine people on both sides” comment. Perhaps the imperialism on both sides argument had some empirical application in the lead up to World War I. But Russia has a GDP close to that of Italy. Equally, US foreign policy insiders like Former Ambassador to USSR Jack Matlock, George Kennan, William Burns have warned DC policymakers for decades about eastwards NATO expansion, saying in no uncertain terms that Ukraine would be the hardest of red lines for Russia. Moreover, now, as Lev Golonkin reports in The Nation in June, the US is openly funding and arming the Ukrainian military despite the presence in its ranks of openly fascist regiments. It seems clear therefore not only who started this war, and why, but that its moral costs and risks for future catastrophe are unacceptable. So why is the left so adamant in its avoidance of this topic?

Lain’s second priority is protecting the working class from the continuing financial and fiscal crisis. Lain argues “there was never any chance to transform the democratic party into a vehicle for socialism.” But where does that now leave us, on the question of socialist strategy? Does he think the Bernie wave is over, and the left is now basically done with parliamentary politics for another couple of generations? As he surveys the landscape of the contemporary left, what hope does he see for a revolutionary politics?

The third topic for Lain essentially stems from his commitment to a left defense of “bourgeois rights.” Notably, Lain was especially vocal about revelations in the “Twitter Files” earlier this year. The Files were published by Matt Taibbi and Michael Shellenberger, who were denounced as Trump-aligned “so-called journalists” by Congresswoman Stacey Plaskett (D) for their trouble. They contain countless leaked internal documents, including emails between management at Twitter and various US intelligence agencies. They indicate that the state agencies were putting extensive pressure on the social media company in order to suppress public criticism on topics ranging from the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, to the efficacy of Covid lockdowns, to the involvement of Russia in the 2020 US presidential election. For Lain, the Twitter Files serve only to affirm arguments made recently by Jacob Siegel in Tablet Magazine, that we were witnessing the birth of a “whole of society” censorship apparatus.

Strangely, the left has been practically unanimous in diminishing the Twitter Files, with commentators like Carl Beijer declaring “we already knew this,”and countless others describing it as a “nothing burger.” How does Lain explain the strident resistance of so many of the left to taking the Twitter Files seriously? To answer this question, we turn to Lain’s recent letter in Cosmonaut Magazine, “UFOs, Russiagate, and the Spectacle,” where Lain presents one of his most favored quotes from the French Situationist Guy Debord:

“Never has censorship been more perfect. Never has the opinion of those who are still led to believe, in several countries, that they remain free citizens been less authorized to make themselves known whenever it is a matter of choices affecting their real lives. Never has it been possible to lie to them with a perfect absence of consequences. The spectator is simply supposed to know nothing and deserve nothing.”

Clearly, censorship has long been an obstacle to the advancement of socialist strategy. It is especially remarkable therefore that, in this generation’s equivalent of the Valerie Plame moment — that is, the moment where the scale and scope of a political deception becomes so staggeringly obvious that even ordinary folks can see it plainly — the left has been found so wanton in its disregard for basic bourgeois rights.