The Problem of the Dissident Magazine
A New Series
It is the age of the dissident magazine. American Affairs. UnHerd. The Bellows. Compact. IM-1776. Sublation. Every time you turn around there is a new publication being formed in response to the supposed crises of liberalism. Each appears with the claim that something has gone horribly wrong with American society and the old forms of discourse no longer suffice to address its urgent problems.
Yet I propose that the problem that generates the dissident magazine is not how to reform or revolutionize a broken society, but rather how to create the impression that a secure society is in the process of being reformed or revolutionized.
Of course, the dissidents involved do not think of their projects in this way. American liberalism has gone off the rails, and as they describe it, they are proposing the radical ideas necessary to meet the scale of the crisis.
But from what perspective is the existing society experiencing crisis? Not from its own. Despite its superficial chaos, capitalist society continues to reproduce itself according to its own internal logic, and to the exclusion of any political threat to its perpetuation.
The crisis that spawns the dissident magazine, therefore, is not a crisis of capitalism on the verge of collapse, but rather the subjective crisis of middle-class liberals whose faith in the system is collapsing, and who project this feeling onto the society itself.
Their lives feel less meaningful and secure, the conventional propaganda is less convincing, and measuring the world according to their experience of disorder and decline, they believe something has got to give. Enter the dissident magazine to create a sense of new possibilities with a bold discourse that promises to guide them out of their rut.
Despite the apparent radicalism of the dissident magazine, it serves in practice as an exhaust valve for middle-class discontent, something that allows its audience to blow off steam while keeping them hooked to the left/right game that perpetuates the society. It is indeed a vehicle that carries frustrated liberals from one election cycle to the next, juicing them up with tales of “realignment,” “populism,” “socialism,” “collapse,” whatever they need to hear to remain invested in the game, to believe this time is really different.
If they can no longer accept straightforward defenses of the society, then the dissident magazine is there to placate them with ever more extreme rhetoric about “the regime” and utopian snake oil about failed states, decaying empires, imminent collapse, civil war, insurgent labor movements, and so on. Of course, these grandiose narratives inevitably lead their audiences into the mundane arms of one liberal faction or the other in a process that only further enhances their frustration and prompts the cycle—and the need for more dissident media—to begin anew.
In short, the dissident magazine appears as something different, but its social function is the rationalization of the same. It launders the same old liberal premises through the oppositional aesthetics of antiliberalism.
This is the thesis I will develop in a new series of posts that will criticize, in turn, several of the dissident magazines launched in recent years via close analysis of their initial mission statements.
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I will scrutinize the dissident magazines one-by-one for a few reasons:
as an experiment to produce shorter posts in quicker succession than my theoretical articles.
as an exercise in close reading that imposes the productive limitations of attending only to these statements, which despite their typical brevity, provide ample evidence to support my claims.
to focus on the distinctiveness of each dissident magazine, while revealing their overall unity.
It is on this last point that I’d like to conclude with reference to Jacobin, the father of the modern dissident magazine, in whose shadow they all operate despite their protests against it. Since my subject is the more recent surge of dissident publishing, I won’t devote a separate article to the 2011 statement of purpose, “Introducing Jacobin,” Bhaskar Sunkara penned for its first issue. Yet even as it appeared the greater part of a decade or more before the others, it resonates today for unwittingly diagnosing both what it would become and the tendencies of the dissident magazines that have followed it.
Sunkara’s introduction to Jacobin mocks the “mighty pronouncements” of the typical upstart publication, observing that “there is something pathological about this trend” of having “a grandiloquent opening, some platitudes about ‘resurrecting intellectual discourse’ followed by issue after issue of the same old shit.”
Although addressing a prior media landscape, his criticism of “these delusions” common to overconfident and rhetorically defiant new publications applies to the dissident magazines attempting to make a splash today. Yet even as Sunkara had critical perspective in 2011 on trends in dissident publishing that continue into the present, his own magazine could not avoid the common fate he once ridiculed.
“Introducing Jacobin” indeed contains some mighty pronouncements and delusions of its own, when it asserts, for example, that “Jacobin is not an organ of a political organization nor captive to a single ideology,” something belied by its being an organ of the Democratic Socialists of America, itself captive to the Democratic Party.
That Jacobin is a Democratic propaganda vehicle may be obvious now, yet like the promises of every dissident magazine being formed in the present, it began by proclaiming its critical independence: “We will have no editorial position beyond” some loose “common values,” for as Sunkara once wrote: “Every writer speaks for him or herself.”
The most surprising initial claim Sunkara makes for Jacobin is that “Sober analysis of the present and criticisms of the Left does not mean accommodation to the status quo.” The irony of this line is that it was in fact Jacobin’s inability to criticize the left that accommodated it to the status quo.
Looking at the leftist pablum published by Jacobin a decade later, however, it is hard to believe it was ever animated by a critical posture toward the left, that it ever poured cold water on those “unchallenging rags” filled with “rosy reports of mass movements in the making.” But whether Jacobin or the new slate we will soon examine, this is the fate of the dissident magazine. It announces itself as something different as a necessary disguise for “the same old shit.”
It's not that Jacobin was a disguise for "the same old shit," it's that these magazines operate under capitalism. The incentive to publish more of the stuff that gets the clicks gradually erodes genuine intentions. It is because this is a gradual process that these people can all believe, in the beginning, that this time is different. For a brief window, it is different--and there are some genuinely interesting, critical pieces. But the longer the magazine runs, the more it is subject to the perverse incentives, and the more it becomes like the stuff it was created to supplant. Eventually, they become like New Republic or Mother Jones, even though all of these magazines are founded by people who genuinely hate New Republic and Mother Jones. It's the capacity of capitalism to gut whatever intentions we approach it with that is so devastating. Even your blog would, if sufficiently commercially successful, end up in the same place. This is why it is imperative not to make a living from political writing. If you depend on the market you are enslaved by it, no matter what you intend.
As a reader of many of these 'dissident' magazines over the past few years, this was very thought provoking, thanks! 🙏