Michael Brooks has recently pubished his book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right. In this book, Brooks criticises three members of what is known as The Intellectual Dark Web (IDW). These members are neuroscientist and author Sam Harris; host of the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro; and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. Brooks mentions that although the IDW seems to be losing their prominence, having a resource that explains the arguments and tactics they used remains relevant. When a new version of IDW come along, such a resource will have leftists better prepared.
Preparing leftists for the future seems to be the main goal of this book. Brooks definitely doesn’t hold back against his criticisms against his targets. The book does appear to be written by a leftist for leftists. This is not necessarily a criticism, merely that the goal of the book does not use language that would win over fans of the IDW. Take for example his description of IDW member Dave Rubin:
“Dave Rubin doesn’t belong in the “intellectual” anything. He’s dumb as a rock. He might as well be a rock to judge by how little he bothers challenging the right-wing guests he “has important conversations” with on his show.”
Although I may agree with this description, it definitely wouldn’t be a useful olive branch to any Rubin fans reading this book.
The book is slightly under 100 pages and divided into 5 chapters. The first chapter explains the origins of the IDW and argues for leftists in the future to apply a materialist response to the IDW and proponents of Capitalism, whilst also addressing the problem of the liberal-left that focusses solely on identity issues absent of class analysis.
The second chapter is dedicated to Sam Harris. Brooks criticises Harris’ defences of genocide through (at least what Harris calls) thought experiments. I enjoyed this part of the book specifically, since one of my main interests in academic philosophy are thought experiments. Harris’ thought experiment cited was the imagined situation that if a Islamic State gained possession of nuclear weapons, then it would be morally permissible to do a nuclear strike first.
Brooks responds by offering a counter thought experiment to demonstrate that all thought experiments do is clarify concepts or our moral intuitions, not give us information about the actual world. Brooks gives the imagined situation that private institutions may ruin public health, so in such a world we should have all health in public hands.
Although Brooks is right that Harris’ thought experiment doesn’t function like they ought to, I think Brooks’ better response was that Pakistan has Nuclear weapons and no preemptive strike has been necessary. This is a counterexample fatal to Harris’ thought experiment, because it shows a case where the imagined scenario is actually happened and didn’t warrant Harris’ conclusion.
Brooks’ uses this to argue that thought experiments have no use for examining the real world. This is where I disagree with Brooks. Thought experiments have been used by scientists to explain natural phenomena. A famous example is Galileo’s falling objects, where Galieo asked us to imagine a heavy ball and a light ball tied together dropped from a buiding. This imagined scenario creates a contradiction for those who believed that heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones, so to solve the contradiction is to conclude that all objects fall at the same speed. Although this experiment is empirically testable (Brian Cox did this with a bowling ball and a feather, see here: ), the thought experiment still held force without the empirical observation to back it up.
Similar can be said on ethical thought experiments. Consider our feelings about abortion. Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist thought experiment, where she asks us to imagine a man kidnapped and connected to violinist who needs use of his body for 9 months in order to survive a deadly illness. Thomson argues that if we conclude that it is morally permissible to disconnect from the violinist, it is also morally permissible to abort a pregnancy due to sexual assault. Although the thought experiment is completely fanciful, it has implications on real world issues.
This not to say that comparing what the real world is like has no relevance in judging a thought experiment, merely rejecting that thought experiments have no use in analysing real world problems.
Chapter 3 moves on to Jordan Peterson. Brooks dedicates this chapter arguing how Peterson’s simultenous worries about alienated young men whilst championing Capitalism. Brooks uses a variety of Marxist thinkers to demonstrate that we can reach out to those attracted to Peterson buy illuminating the alienation Capitalism produces. Brooks also takes time to show how little Peterson understands Marxism through his contradictory and ahistorical descriptions of ‘post-modern neo Marxism’. This is a good message for leftist thinkers. Understanding the root causes of what attracts alienated young men to Peterson is done well in this chapter and does provide the olive branch required for a unified working class.
Chapter 4 targets Ben Shapiro. The main focus is Shapio’s defence of ‘Western Civilisation’. In this section, Brooks discusses the origins of Western Civilisation as a concept and how many of the postive attributes we want to credit Western Civilisation with can also be applied to other civilisations. Brooks stresses this where he says:
“Simply put, Shapiro’s idea of the “West” is an invention, a twentieth-century construction, and Shapiro’s claims about “Judeo-Christianity” are, if anything, even more risible.”
Although the IDW may be losing prominence, right wing glorifications of Western Civilisation are not. So, Brooks has done well describing the basics on how new the concept is and how slippery it can be to grant it moral superiority.
In the final chapter, Brooks argues for a international Marxist humanism as a response to IDW rhetoric. This ultimately involves a recognition of cultural and idenitity based issues, avoiding economic reductionism, whilst framing them ultimately in material conditions. This approach both avoids the charge of class reductionism whilst still maintaining a Marxist historical materialist approach to social issues. The socialist project, according to Brooks, would lead to a universal humanism. Brooks mentions, I think rightly, that this is not to be confused with a universal monoculture, where he says “It means building a truly global intellectual and political culture with roots in a diversity of societies.”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it to any leftist Comrades interested in the context behind the IDW. It is also a useful approach to future versions of IDW that may arise in the future. If you are interested, the Amazon link to the book is below. Also, for those interested in this subject, my book Contrasting Identites addresses the criticisms the IDW makes against what is called ‘Identity Politics’, which is also in the links below.