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Thursday, 27 April 2023

Taking the L; Notes on Lefty Pol


A recent chit chat on a forum dredged up a bit of history. The subject was leftypol an image board I haven't thought about in years. Nevertheless, hearing the name got the juices flowing, it helped that many of the participants shared their history including some former moderators. I discovered leftypol around 2016-17 when I encountered some of its users on other sites. Leftypol is, or was an explicitly leftwing offshoot of Pol (politics) an infamous subboard on the equally infamous imageboard 4chan. 

I was surprised to hear that leftypol was still a thing, but was not surprised to hear the former moderators lament its decline into a hardline reactionary niche filled with "Anti-western hegemony" with western and hegemony being polite terms for any and all kinds of social tolerance. Like many such sub communities the board's decline lead to many fractures and splits, with at least one splinter being set up by several ex-moderators in an attempt to recapture the glory days. 

Its really difficult to find concrete data given the subject matter, the appeal of imageboards is that they're anonymous, difficult to search and navigate through. They also have a habit of going offline for long periods only to resurrect on a similar but different domain address or were squatted by a competitor. I found a wiki for imageboards that dates the creation of leftypol in 2014 and that's the only date I can find, and I can't find anything about the board before that year so its probably correct. 

So, I believe I found out about the board during its peak, there were references to it on the politically active "normal" web, and some of minor internet personalities were open about being active on there. As a veteran of several dead communities I understand the appeal of revival, but after some reflection I think maybe let it go. I did check out the board a bit, it had a very good library of text books, but it was always quite rotten. Asking a question was just an invite to insults, usually insults laced with slurs and threats of violence. 

Of the board posters I knew, well, most seemed young and had a lot of baggage, unhappy is how I'd term most of them. Some were still quite sociable, I didn't bother associating with the openly abrasive for very long. The board's culture was extremely misanthropic, a lot of cynicism in the hostile attitude sense, the term "irony poisoned" fitted quite well, and everything had to be turned into a hostile and sarcastic joke. The lefty part of the pol manifested in a strange sort of pissing contest as to who was more hardcore and truly a radical, this seemed to be the case regardless of chosen ideological tendency. Indeed, despite the lefty moniker they always seemed to have a problem dealing with atypical reactionary movements and personalities.

When I first came across users of the board I was surprised that they seemed to largely free of the sectarianism that pervades most other left political webspaces. But, soon I gathered that subgroups were there, just that they organised on different lines. A lot of them reminded me of school cliques. A lot of them had personal issues (I know that because oversharing was pretty common) and I don't believe leftypol was a positive space for them and their attempts to come to terms and move beyond them.

Of the groups I came across I largely stopped interacting with them, of those I stayed aware of many dropped out, either just on the sites like twitter and discord etc. others stayed online but dropped out of politics for new hobbies, or stayed into politics but openly embraced esoteric new right philosophers and the far right in general. Of, the latter there was some cloaking with words of respect for their "character" or ability to think beyond the "neo-liberal hegemony" before just openly embracing naked racism. Looking back I think there were some warning signs, there was always a presence for what could be called anti-establishment reactionaries. Particularly if they were academics so gave the supporters a veneer to hide behind, the "you just don't get it" style of argument.

I don't think this is anything unexpected if you're familiar with how imageboards work. They're anonymous (well, more anonymous than is typical) but that also means you can't build a coherent community around it. It has to go off site, I'm not surprised some of its more active users moved onto other sites where they could build a brand around themselves or seek out interesting people to connect with. 

The internet as a whole hasn't been kind to image boards, I find it surprisingly that they still attract at least some young people to them. I never really cared for the image boards, but I was pretty active on the Bulletin Board System (BBS) sites back in the day. I did frequent an image board called Bookchan though. Bookchan, which was so obscure the fan wiki I found background information on leftypol doesn't even have a reference to it nevermind an entry, but back in the mid 2000s it was a really convenient way to find e-books. You saved a suspiciously large jpeg, usually the book cover, then re-saved it by changing the extension and then you got a word doc or a pdf. At the time this was a really great way to get hold of books. Then file sharing and torrent sites became popular and better to use which took a lot of the popularity, and then clandestine site networks like z-library came along, and the web as a whole improved with bandwidth and connection speeds increasing to the point that nearly any site could host e-book files pretty easily, and that was it for Bookchan, its time had past. I think the same has happened to leftypol.

The appeal of leftypol beyond the library of texts which was quickly spread was its meme content. And, I enjoy memes, I didn't enjoy any of the memes that came from leftypol though, they seemed less like jokes and more meanspirited insults and desperate attempts to settle scores that meant nothing to an outside audience. But I've seen that eslewhere they can be useful in agitation, especially as an introduction. But, there are problems with them. Memes alone can't accomplish much in terms of action, nor in education, I'm not really surprised that around the same time (2017-23) we've seen an explosion in the number of youtube channels, podcasts, webcomics and a new wave of competition  bloggers, on platforms like Medium, to move beyond that. And, while I wouldn't say that development has been a net positive I do get it as a sort of memetic evolution. And yes, I have opinions on the famous "Breadtube"and its spawn, maybe I'll be bothered to finish my thoughts on them some day.


Why do so many leftist webspaces succumb to reaction?

I've touched on this topic briefly above but wanted to address it here, as I think it is both important and not unique to leftypol. Apparently, leftypol is now firmly in the "to hell with all the rest, my best friend is anti-west" camp. Open and sincere cheering on of brutal regimes that are in disputes with the American government and ridiculing and sneering at all things and people commonly associated with the term "western values". This isn't unique nor even that rare. All of the active political discord groups that didn't just die of inactivity went this way when I jumped ship, a popular lament on reddit is that all the big lefty subreddits seem to be controlled by conspiracy theorists and time travellers from the Communist Party of Soviet Union in 1952. Revleft a very old forum which if I recall correctly was set up by the Socialist Equality Party, a small Trot party in the US but had some popularity was soon used as the butt of many jokes about the worst people around who chose to use communist party symbolism. And a lot of the discourse or gossip about the Breadtubers and podcasters is about just how many of them seem to have really taken a strange turn over the past couple of years.

Its a very common problem, and one I've wondered at for some time. I don't have a definitive answer with a detailed plan of action to prevent it, but I do have some thoughts and sketches. Most of the victims of these declines have one factor in common they were all "left unity" or at the very least big tent style spaces. We can see this was the case for leftypol by looking at its cute little logo. It has Soviet inspired laurel reef borders, a red star with an A in a circle, red and black on the framing so Anarchist and non-anarchist communist references, and that thing in the middle that looks like an observatory is actually a bunker, which references Enver Hoxha the dogmatic dictator of Albania who has been attracting a small number of fans on the web like flies to a corpse. 

The discord servers were also supposed to be welcoming to all, one had a checklist function where users could make public their influences, from the typical, anarchism, marxism, democratic socialism, all the way to Ba'athism and left nationalism. That one had most of its mods leave to set up rival servers, most of which were exposed via leaks for everything up to inappropriate behaviour to openly pushing fascism. The main server having lost most of its active moderation soon stagnated to the point the classic texts of fascism were being shared openly. That was a more extreme example, though others usually tolerated supporters of brutal regimes that are actively oppressing their own populations and this meant that for the sake of the "community" criticism of those regimes no matter how they were framed had to be curtailed. 

In the reddits since they tend to be too active to effectively control all discussion and tone a popular tactic seems to be for users to work their way up into the moderation and admin positions and then start banning users who share content that is believed to be in opposition to their ideological views, citing whatever rule was in place to deter fighting. While this never gets rid of all the dissenting views it does over time shift the exposure and prevalence to other groups. 

There is a less conspiratorial explanation too. The reactionary groups, cheerleaders for the Chinese state, and the denialers of the real history of the Soviet Union, the working class conservatives, are quite numerous and so overwhelm the smaller voices. Though that wouldn't explain the success of the fringe reactionary types. I suppose it could be a case of two factors working independently for the most part that have the same effect. In my experience most of the marxist-whatever reactionaries are also open conservatives, even the ones who are from minority groups. The only difference I can see is that their are two types, one who will deny until their last breath that their chosen idols ever did anything wrong in general and to vulnerable groups in particular, and the other type who loudly agree that these things happened and are continuing to happen and that's great. Haven't seen much infighting between the two.

As to the why that so many reactionary misanthropes are attracted towards the political left on at least some superficial level? Well, I don't believe most of these people are truly anti-capitalist. They're anti something, of course, but I think a more accurate label that covers most of these individuals would be anti-status quo, or contrarian. The current way of things, what's often lazily could the "western world" isn't great for many of others. There are lots to criticise and plenty that could be changed for the better. The world we live in is obviously capitalist, that is often boasted about. But, and here's the crux of the matter (well I think it is anyway) the western world is more than an economic system, it also includes a style and logic to government, (representative, plural, electoral) and often the word Western has become a synoym for many cultural views and social attitudes. Officially the West is now Gay friendly, it treats women as equals, it views racism as an embarassment and promotes tolerance between the religious faiths and is open to extending the same degree of openness to political creeds provided a few red lines (mostly revolving violence) are not crossed.

To be blunt, this is all bullshit, the Global North/Western World, does a pretty shitty job of fulfilling any of these claims, the most you can say is that if you pick a nation in the Western camp and another that's not, (good luck coming up with a way to distinguish that isn't arbitrary guessing) the one on the western side of land might, do better than the other in some of those fields, maybe. Regardless of reality though that's the belief lots of people all over the world have. Especially those who have made being pro and anti status quo a core part of their identities. 

This is guess work, but based on my observations, I've been running into Stalin profile pictures and usernames that are obscure references to the anniversary of a massacre that definitely never happend (winking emoji) to notice some trends. In the late 2000s to the early 2010s, the vast majority of lefty social media users were openly pro Queer, or at least keen to signal positive attitudes toward Gay people. The trickle of positive legal and civic reforms were giving some celebration. However, the types who strongly associated with the old dead empire in Eastern Europe were busy dammning with faint praise. A lot of them were quick to tell you how East Germany had decriminalised homosexuality before West Germany and that the Soviet Union was the first country on earth to do so. Now, if you paid attention you would have some questions, first the Soviet Union wasn't remotely the first nation to abolish legal penalties for same sex activity, it had been beaten by multiple nations over a century earlier. And second, the experiences of homosexual citizens of both nations were open about how hostile and repressive the authorities were to them regardless of legal formalities. 

But after a few years the tone changed. The amount of celebrations decreased, meanwhile the appearance of "Leftists" who were openly homophobic or alarmed about Transgender "ideology" became more and more common. Either there numbers were growing, or they had found the opposition to their reactionary views to be too weak to bother hiding anymore. Personally, I'm of the opinnion that as the governments and the institutions (the press, education, entertainment industry etc.) of the "Western World" were finally forced to make concessions and then made a big fuss about how enlightened and "evolved" (thanks Obama) they were to be a contraian rebel against society shifted from pro-gay increasingly toward anti. After all, the two great forces, or poles as some of them prefer, in opposition to the "West" are the Russian Federation and the People's Republic of China, with honourable mentions for the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea. On one side you have (on the surface anyway) a pro LGBTQ "Love is love" and on the other you have bans on Gay "propaganda" and public hangings. Now nuance would do a lot for the critical part of the "critical support" way of thinking, sadly nuance is in short supply.

And to show its not just about personally bigotry, I'm currently seeing a similar pattern in regards to the issue of drugs. Back in my youth and until about three years ago, The most common view on drugs was that prohibition didn't work, caused far more misery than doing nothing and was a cyncial tool in which powerful organisations, especially American organisations, used as cover for increase policing and targetting of vulnerable people and communities. Any alternate point of view was so rare it was extraordinary. In the current year though? Well, from what I've seen its still the mainstream opinnion, but as more states especially Canada and the USA take baby steps towards ending the drug war the opposite opinnion that draconian punishments and strong law and order is actually a perfectly sensible way to tackle substance abuse, is getting more common.

As to why so many contrarians cloak themselves in the debris of the Cold War, that was the last time this "global order" was challenged to an extent. Apart from them you have the Islamic fundamentalists and the Axis in WWII. And I'm sure I'm not alone in seeing sympathy for both of them online.

Overall I think the desire to have a big tent made up of groups that are mutually exclusive and antagonistic is an exercise in collective misery doomed to failure and often condemns what were once useful spaces to stagnate and rot, leaving only empty shells.

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