The socialists behind the immensely successful podcast ‘Chapo Trap House’ have now released a book, The Chapo Guide to Revolution. A satirical attack on liberals and conservatives, as well as a sincere case for democratic socialism, it is often funny and sometimes instructive. The book has good jibes about the foaming rage of right-wing keyboard warriors and the affectations of conservative intellectuals.
Chapo satire often flounders on its contradictions, though. The Chapo crew enjoy mocking the appearances of liberal and conservative figures, for example, yet their photographs suggest that if they want such jokes to be effective they should confine themselves to non-visual forms of media. They deride conservatives for being ‘mad online’ yet are forced to issue grovelling apologies when their fans erupt in fury over ill-considered un-PC stunts. They mock the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ for its self-regarding dissident pretensions yet skirt around the strangeness of a ‘revolutionary’ podcast receiving warm profiles from the New Yorker and cheerful tributes from the New York Times’s style section.
The Chapo Guide to Revolution uneasily balances the authors’ identities as both mischievous satirists and influential voices of democratic socialism. There are many funny moments but the humour strains as the authors’ polemical impulses swell beneath the satire. An amusing riff on American Cold War strategy as an enormous business plan gets old before the lads have even reached the Vietnam War. ‘Yes, yes, I get it,’ you want to say, ‘The US acted more in its interests than in the interests of abstract values. I’ve heard of Realpolitik as well.’ But on it goes.
It does not help that the book is so slavishly one-sided. It is subtitled ‘a manifesto against logic, facts and reason’, a derisive nod at Ben Shapiroesque debate club pedants on the right, but just as Grammar Nazis are no excuse for bad grammar, pedants are no excuse bad arguments and flimsy history. In this book, the Korean War is covered with no mention of the fact that it was North Korea that invaded the South. The Soviet-Afghan War is considered without reference to the fact that hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed during the Soviet occupation. At one point the authors write:
‘Pick your dictatorship: Would you rather have lived in Fidel Castro’s Cuba or in any one of the US’s many military junta police states?’
Fidel Castro’s Cuba is referenced for a reason: it had perhaps the least murderous of the communist regimes. If the authors had written, say, would you rather have lived in North or South Korea, or Marshall Plan-supported Western Europe or Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc, the false equivalence would have been apparent. It is true, of course, that anti-communist paranoia and self-interested opportunism led the US and its allies to commit vast atrocities and catastrophic blunders but this Chaponomania is tediously blinkered.
The book improves when the authors discuss journalism. A taxonomy of social media archetypes is uninspiring as it is made up of jokes you have heard and told before. When the authors discuss political commentators, though, a seething hatred bubbles up through the calculated jests. Line after line is quotable here. Hunter S. Thompson ‘allowed egg-shaped pundits with nascent alcohol problems to think of themselves as outlaw rebels.’ Pro-war bloggers were ‘deluded enough to think that their razor-sharp polemics would help guide Bush’s wrecking ball across the Middle East.’ Pro-war commentators ‘pledge [their] support to a disastrous and completely unnecessary war the same way Mafia thugs burn the likeness of a saint.’ I suspect that readers who are unfamiliar with the authors’ podcast might be turned off by their rudeness and vulgarity but I completely sympathise with their conclusion that being polite, well-dressed and sympathetic to the establishment has been treated as the hallmark of ‘seriousness’ rather than, say, intelligence and perspicacity. Give me a crass ideologue over a smooth-talking propagandist.
The authors are also fun in their attacks on establishment Democrats. There is at least a chance that just as Corbyn bested New Labour non-entities, the democratic socialists will surpass people who think Hillary Clinton is a distinguished stateswoman, Beto O’Rourke is the next Barack Obama and Aaron Sorkin has an inspiring body of work. Still, their case for socialism – after all this anti-imperialist and anti-corporate invective – disappoints by being more pathetic than formidable. In the gleaming future of the Chapotopia, socialism will be achieved by ‘seizing the billionaires’ money, socialising their wealth and handing the keys of production over to the workers.’ ‘After setting everyone on equal footing,’ the authors continue, ‘you’re looking at an economy that requires something like a three-hour workday, with machines taking care of most of the drudgery,’ leaving the public free for ‘posting, gaming and having a nice big wank.’
As well as offering an unwelcome glimpse into the life of a professional podcaster, this analysis sighs with complacence. What will the ‘seizing’ and ‘socialising’ involve? At least have the nads to spell out what you mean. How could we balance automative advancement so as to avoid unproductivity, unemployment and anthropological irrelevance? Perhaps it is unfair to expect the authors to know but they are waging a lot on the ‘man-children’ of the ‘incel kingdom of Silicon Valley’ pulling off this hair-raising technological accomplishment for no more remuneration than their posting, gaming, wanking peers. What will the good life mean in such an advanced, collectivised yet indolent society?
The Chapo crew avoid these questions. Answering them might mean dropping their pose of ironic detachment and accepting the risk of baffling or repulsing their New Yorker and New York Times Style’s readers. Admitting that they do not know the answers, on the other hand, would mean abandoning their pretence of clear, unchallenged rectitude in the face of their opponents’ evil and stupidity. Desperately reliant on their appearance of transcendent cool, Chapo prefers to play it safe.