More on the #cancel phenomenon, once again prompted by an essay by Paul Graham. If you don't know who he is, PG is considered a thought leader by the Silicon Valley crowd. He's also one of the founders of Y-Combinator, the startup incubator.

You may also want to know what a thought leader is. The simplest definition I know is: a thought leader is an intellectual with fewer ideas and a lot more money.

A slightly more complex definition: a thought leader is someone with more money than ideas whose job is to convince you how to make money with your ideas.

Intellectuals skew radical. Thought leaders skew conservative. BTW, radical and conservative aren't synonymous with left wing and right wing. A radical is a person whose beliefs lie at one extreme of the currently acceptable spectrum of beliefs. For example, you're a libertarian radical if you belief that governments shouldn't levy taxes, offer public goods or come in the way of any private activity.

While 'extreme' is a subjective term, here's a model that works for me: beliefs are like planets around the social sun. At some point, the planets give way to the interstellar void; in between the planets and the stars is a belt full of cranks and psychopaths. If you believe in no government, you're a planet; if you believe governments (literally) eat children, you're a crank; if you eat children, you're a psychopath.

Back to PG.

He thinks a wealth tax is a bad idea. Which isn't surprising because he's a very rich man whose professional interests lie in convincing people they should invest their time and energy in making themselves very rich and making PG even richer. Why would young men (they are mostly men) flock to San Fransisco to listen to PG's thought leadership if they didn't think he was capable of making them money?

PG is conservative that way, as in, he is at the top of the totem pole and prefers a world that not only keeps him at the top, but also retains the system that keeps him on top. He's also a liberal in the classic sense: he believes in gay rights, racial equality etc, but not at the cost of rocking the boat.

In that he's similar to Steven Pinker and others who are being canceled. The target of #cancel culture isn't the fascist or the white supremacist. It's the liberal conservative. Another term for the target: the neoliberal.

A question arises: why?

This is a glimpse, a mere snippet of what's likely going to be a long series about the geopolitics of #cancel culture.

Let's start by asking: who are the people complaining loudly about being canceled?

The noises aren't coming from the right wing. It's not as if Rush Limbaugh or some KKK hack is crying that he's being bullied in the Twitter playground. No, it's people who for the most part have impeccable liberal credentials.

Tenured professors at Harvard whose self-image is that of an anti-racist pro-LGBT progressive. People who believe in reason and science and wouldn't be caught denying climate change if their lives depended on it.

So what are they being canceled?

To understand the answer, we have to go back to the 'End of History.' No, not the day of judgment but Francis Fukuyama's famous book of that name, which claimed at the end of the Cold War that liberal democracy combined with market capitalism have solved the basic problems of humankind for ever. The west had won. First Sauron (Hitler) was defeated and then Saruman (Stalin) was taken down.

In that EOH world, liberal exemplars at Harvard and Princeton were creatures who commanded worldwide respect. Others might disagree with them, but they were good people and expected to be treated as such by everyone. Even the radicals like Chomsky lived at the margins of liberalism and were protected because they were frenemies.

Not so anymore.

Cancel culture doesn't respect liberal champions as moral exemplars, people to be respected or even accommodated. They are no longer history's winners. Brexit and Trump have shown liberalism to be weak at home and the rise of China is showing liberalism to be weak abroad. The disastrous handling of the COVID crisis is only adding to that failure.

A new world is being born, a world in which liberalism as an idea is being challenged from both sides. Equally importantly, the center of moral gravity is also shifting.

Where to?


I am right in the middle of #cancel culture. I don't like the term, for it's almost always used in the way 'political correctness' was used and continues to be used. Which is to say, as a way of justifying oppressive regimes of race, gender, caste etc.

It's a strange world in which those complaining about police violence, about structural injustice and fear for life and limb are being labeled illiberal while those who want to perpetuate their position at the top of the ladder clothe themselves in the flag of free speech.

Social media, especially Twitter, can be a mean place and both right and left wing partisans have gone after their opponents. I would think that anyone who looks at the world objectively will see that right-wing authoritarian regimes have gained power over much of the planet, and so the right-wing hate brigade has had much more success than their left-wing counterparts.

Then again, there's nothing to celebrate when people are fired or ostracized for remarks taken out of context or said when they were too young to know better. Forgiveness is generally a good thing and it's not a prized virtue among the partisans on either side. I am frequently guilty of harshness myself.

Right or wrong, something yuuuge is afoot. It's one thing to go after fascists but when there's genuine anger against people who represent the good side of the 'European Enlightenment,' we might be at the brink of a sea change in attitudes. People who were used to being seen as moral and intellectual leaders are now suspect.

The Answer My Friend....

I will give you an example: Chomsky is no longer a darling of the young left. That's a tragedy at one level, for he's a man I admire greatly. Then again, he's very much embedded in the 'natural superiority' of Euro-American culture. In none of his books does he engage in any depth with any non-Western thinker. Which has to be a conscious omission in a scholar who will unearth minor memos written by some state department hack as evidence for US imperialism.

All of which is to say that while the current debate focuses on the 'cancel' in cancel culture the real struggle is over the #culture in cancel culture.

That's the question I am going to explore, for I believe we are at the beginning of a millennial shift in ideas about culture and knowledge. For now: frequent short posts rather than chapter length essays.

Whose culture and why?

The Culture in Cancel Culture

The 'traditional' left was steeped in materialist history and in its mythology, the main struggle was over control over the means of production, i.e., who gets to own the factories and who gets the fruits of manufacture.

The contemporary left's struggles are over race, gender, sexuality and other markers of identity. Many of my traditionalist leftie friends are troubled by identity politics. They think identity politics are used by the capitalist class to divide the lower classes.

Which is likely true. Why else would a white blue collar worker vote for Trump?

But at the same time, the importance of identity reflects a major shift in the history of production itself. Industrial manufacturing produces stuff using physical mechanical devices – wealth and power accrue to those who control these devices.

In contrast, it's the manufacture of information – in the form of software, data and finance – that's at the heart of the cybernetic system we inhabit today and the manufacture of identity is central to this cybernetic system: just as industrial manufacturing produces widgets, cybernetic manufacturing produces people.

Another way of putting it: culture is not something incidental to the contemporary world, like going to church on Sundays to listen to sermons about humility while crushing your competition the rest of the week. Culture is actively being produced and reproduced; most obviously on social media, but also in other parts of the information economy.

Which is why cancel culture is so important: it's not a fight over a peripheral part of the world system while we neglect what's really real. Culture is what's really real.