You Don’t Need (To Complain About) Substack

“Our timing was nearly perfect—a mere two weeks after we wrote our joint essay, Substack had a huge controversy, and is now facing a backlash. Writers are thinking of jumping ship and looking for ideas for what to do next. I’ve been doing this without a net for a while, and I have a few thoughts on how it can be done.”

—Ernie Smith, “Newsletter, Untethered.” Tedium.co. March 19, 2021.

Basically, Ernie explains how to roll your own newsletter. If you don’t like Substack, Medium, or these other publishing platforms, you don’t have to use them. There are options, but many require technical expertise, which is what you are paying them not to learn so you can focus on writing.

Let me take a moment to comment, with the full understanding that no one cares what I think: The Substack “controversy” is nonsense. What they are doing is figuring out who could make money on their platform and removing the risk for these writers to try it out. I haven’t read up on who they made offers to, but is the world a more interesting place with Scott Alexander publishing Astral Codex Ten and Freddie deBoer being given a one year guarantee to build an audience on the platform and concentrate on writing? Probably. I don’t agree with the politics of either of these individuals. But, I do know that the modern media landscape doesn’t give them a platform, and it should. When we support a media landscape of diverse voices, it means you’re going to hear a lot of viewpoints you’re not going to like. That’s the price of a diverse landscape.

Of course, capitalism comes with incentives, and the incentives encourage extreme viewpoints. That’s what people will pay for.

If you want to promote conventional opinion, write mediocre poetry, share your hot tips on making money (or living your best life, nutrition advice or what not), then you get on a free tier of an online publishing platform. Or, if you are slightly more serious, you pay for the privilege and get a WordPress personal site or equivalent. And, if you are very good, relatable, extreme and/or lucky, Substack might approach you in a decade too. Good luck to you, if that’s what you want.

But, complaining how some company runs its business? Is Substack Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook or Microsoft? Do we want to talk about the relative harms here and why quitting Substack for some other online publishing or newsletter platform is a relatively cost-free form of virtue signaling? Want to guess how many people will read and heed Ernie’s advice rather than join the platform of the moment? Fractions of a percent. In other words, the objections about Substack and the migrating to another service with the same incentives is the kind of nonsense that characterizes left activism and is why so much of it has very little impact on the real world beyond soothing a few consciences and signaling we are good people at very little cost.

Rolling your own has a serious cost, in time and effort. Giving up Facebook, or one of the other feudal internet companies, also has a significant cost. But, leaving Substack to go to Buttondown? Who you fooling?

For a better argument, see Ben Thompson.

Thanks to Ernie for suggesting a few editorial changes to make it clear that rolling your own is not cost-free nor is it virtual signaling. It is a great way to control your creative output and foster independence. The challenge for publishing ecosystems is getting the tools to the point that non-technical writers can take advantage of them.

Cosmopolitan Values

“But over the past 60 years, college graduates have gone from being 4 percent of the electorate to being more like 35. Now, it’s actually possible — for the first time ever in human history — for political parties to openly embrace cosmopolitan values and win elections; certainly primary and municipal elections, maybe even national elections if you don’t push things too far or if you have a recession at your back. And so Democratic elites started campaigning on the things they’d always wanted to, but which had previously been too toxic. And so did center-left parties internationally.”

—Eric Levitz, “David Shor’s Unified Theory of American Politics.” New York Magazine. July 17, 2020

Liberalism is the Incubator of Authoritarianisms

“‘Are you against the ‘liberal order’ which guaranteed peace and stability, and other wonderful things for so long?’ The obvious answer is that your much-cherished liberal order was the incubator for Trumpism and other authoritarianisms. It made human beings subordinate to the market, replacing social bonds with market relations and sanctifying greed. It propagated an ethos of individual autonomy and personal responsibility, while the exigencies of the market made it impossible for people to save and plan for the future. It burdened people with chronic debt and turned them into gamblers in the stock market. Liberal capitalism was supposed to foster a universal middle class and encourage bourgeois values of sobriety and prudence and democratic virtues of accountability. It achieved the opposite: the creation of a precariat with no clear long-term prospects, dangerously vulnerable to demagogues promising them the moon. Uncontrolled liberalism, in other words, prepares the grounds for its own demise.”

—Pankaj Mishra in an interview with Francis Wade, “‘The Liberal Order Is the Incubator for Authoritarianism’: A Conversation with Pankaj Mishra.” The Los Angeles Review of Books. November 15, 2018.

The fact that authoritarians are propped up by other authoritarianisms is commonly understood. Pointing to terrorists, pirates, criminals, and The Other in all their manifestations has always been a way to legitimize the rule and draconian practices of the elite.

But, liberal ideas like “human rights,” “rule of law,” and so forth are given a free pass on a more critical review of when they are applied and who benefits. What do these terms mean in a society where 1/3 of black men spend some time in prison? What do they mean when the bombs dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen are made and dropped from planes sold by the United States?

When you understand that concepts like human rights and rule of law don’t apply equally to everyone, as is suggested by the name on the tin and how it is used, then it is easy to see the relationship of liberalism with other forms of fundamentalism. Free market fundamentalism is one obvious manifestation. But, rule of law and legal positivism is no less of a fundamentalism, one that doesn’t track well with reality when one can get past the surface and take a more critical look.

It’s an interesting point that liberalism is the fertile soil in which authoritarianism grows.

My Affair With the Intellectual Dark Web – Great Escape – Medium

“If the idea is that I piss people off by being disloyal to my likely tribes, well, I don’t think that makes me unusual. I think it just makes me a good intellectual.”

—Alice Dreger quoted in Meghan Daum. “My Affair With the Intellectual Dark Web.” Medium. August 24, 2018.

Easy test to see if you (or others) are thinking for yourself is whether your ideas easily conform to a political orthodoxy.

The Daum article is interesting throughout.

Michael Cohen’s GoFundMe: Why Liberals are Giving to Cohen, Stormy Daniels, and Peter Strzok – Vox

“The success of crowdfunding campaigns for anti-Trump figures — even Cohen — seems to be yet another manifestation of the progressive enthusiasm that’s showing up elsewhere. People are angry, upset, and ready to go, and it’s an outlet for them to do something. After Sen. John McCain’s death, one person donated $20 to Cohen’s fund in his name.

‘What it looks like to me is that progressives in particular are engaging in any way you can think of, money being a big one,’ Thomas, from Crowdpac, said.”

—Emily Stewart. “Michael Cohen’s GoFundMe: why liberals are giving to Cohen, Stormy Daniels, and Peter Strzok.” Vox. August 27, 2018.

After reading this article, one has to wonder how contributing to Micheal Cohen’s legal defense fund constitutes a “progressive” outlet for action. Is there not a more worthy cause to contribute your money to than Micheal Cohen’s legal defense fund?

This is just the most recent example where a thinking person has to step back and look at the two party system with its constituent factions and wonder, “What is going on here?”

Progressives, liberals, evangelicals, and Tea Party conservatives are consumed by agendas that are oxymoronic. The classic example: You can have small government. You can have a global war-fighting capability. But, you cannot have both. Modern conservativism pretends you can.

And, it’s not just conservatism. Progressives want government to foster change. But, the more power government has the more attractive it becomes for capture by corporate interests, which uses the government’s power to reenforce the status quo.

Progress, assuming it is possible at all, isn’t driven by the federal government. Exhibit A: alcohol and drug prohibition that was advocated by progressives became tools that turned into the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. In the long run, government power is used to promote elite interests and not any kind of “progress.”

Add in:

  • Free market fundamentalists who believe the free market is the solution to every problem, and neither know of or care about the horrors of the factory systems then and now.
  • Liberal identity politics whose big idea is to put women and people of color in positions of power and maintain the status quo by reigning in the worst abuses.
  • Evangelical literalists that want to return to the social relations of pastoral and agricultural societies while living in an industrialized one.
  • The anything for a Buck crowd that are in it just for the money and influence, i.e., most politicians, regardless of party.

When you look at this dumpster fire, with whom do you wish to associate? Democrat or Republican? Liberal or conservative? The only reasonable answer is none of the above.

I’ll cast my vote for the least worst candidate. But, don’t expect me to pretend to care or believe that it makes much difference.