Is There a Future for Left-Wing YouTube?

In recent years, YouTube has become a bastion of right-wing commentators and subcultures – but the growing presence of anti-capitalist channels suggests the platform is far from a political monopoly.

The recent brief deletion of Novara Media's YouTube channel proves that no channel is safe from the whims of big tech. Credit: Dado Ruvic / Reuters

With the aid of social media platforms, the mid 2010s bore witness to right-wing phenomena such as Gamergate, the launch of platforms such as Talkradio (designed to produce content for the digital world), and Jordan Peterson’s press tour for 12 Rules for Life, during which ‘social justice warriors’ were cast as the reactionaries’ number one foe. All this activity coalesced in 2018 with the publication of Bari Weiss’s much derided New York Times article that heralded the arrival of an ‘intellectual dark web’ (or IDW).

Weiss’s piece platformed Peterson and various other American personalities, many of whom are associated with the dark money-funded Turning Point organisation, which has USA and UK branches. Among them was Dave Rubin, one of the many examples of hack YouTubers who have built an online ecosystem in which right wing ideas go viral, especially among younger men. There are also British figures in this canon, such as Carl Benjamin and Paul Joseph Watson.

Though oriented around the so-called culture wars, and often adopting an anti-feminist position, these individuals can be described as spokespeople for the free-market ideologues who fund organisations such as Turning Point.

In reaction to this trend, buoyed by the relative popularity of left wingers such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, and inspired by American commentators such as Contrapoints, British YouTubers such as such as Philosophy Tube and Hbomberguy began to pick up steam by providing counter-arguments to the ‘alt-right’, often in visually inventive and witty ways.

But while the Guardian, for example, has many articles referencing the IDW, searching its website for BreadTube, as the early collection of left-wing video essayists such as those mentioned above were dubbed, produces no results. The lack of publicity is one reason why left-wing YouTubers can’t compete with Rubin et al. when it comes to subscriber numbers, but their growth in a digital media space that sidelines their political standpoints shouldn’t be ignored.

YouTuber Shaun has amassed over 470,000 subscribers since beginning his channel in 2016.

The mononymous Shaun is one the British progressive video essayists who has built a fervent audience since the mid 2010s. It’s an audience so dedicated that it provided over a million views to a recent 150 minute clip in which Shaun discusses the political history of America dropping nuclear bombs on Japan.

Like for nearly every YouTuber I spoke to for this article, it can take months for Shaun to produce a long form video, and his work is funded by enthusiastic viewers via Patreon (YouTube has tended to demonetise political content, and left-wing YouTubers often don’t like having ads attached to their work).

There’s a distinction to be made between the video essayists under discussion here and the more current affairs-oriented projects such as Novara Media and the Owen Jones channel. Many of those involved in both are of the same austerity-marked generation, who, after graduating bounced between various ‘sorts of low-paid, insecure work’, as Shaun describes his own situation before receiving financial support from fans.

The latter often resemble forms of traditional media in an attempt to make a dent on its hegemony, and typically have staff with ties to left-wing institutions. But the YouTubers I talked to are much more autonomous—arguably somewhat atomised—and generally more formally experimental, employing sometimes erratic editing for comedic effect and often referring to internet culture.

Tara Mooknee is a much more recent addition to the landscape, having started to make videos during the first pandemic lockdown. Producing work that deals with the intersection between feminism, left-wing politics, and popular culture, her channel’s popularity has grown quickly.

Tara Mooknee only joined YouTube in 2019 but has already amassed over 11 million views.

This did come with downsides, the biggest of them being the ‘negative and sometimes even abusive comments’ that she says started to appear below her posts once her channel grew. Although she does make different styles of videos, she says that ‘I think the algorithm works according to the “brand” your channel has established and rewards work that fits into that mould.’

Like Mooknee, Angie Speaks has also come up against the limits of YouTube’s potential, and has diversified her output to include a podcast called Low Society, which she co-hosts. She’s an inventive commentator who discusses, among other topics, radical politics, race, and class consciousness.

Angie has distanced herself from the BreadTube scene which she was initially associated with, but she is one of the few video essayists with a vocal and clear critique of the negative effects of YouTube and the social mediafication of politics. She talks about refusing to transform her work ‘into a consumer product’ and is highly critical of the notion that online audiences are communities, per Silicon Valley’s parlance. ‘These platforms play a massive role in the neoliberal commodification of the social realm and are inherently atomising and have warped the concept of community beyond any coherent recognition.’

‘What we are being offered are transient encounters with people online that are incredibly superficial but are beginning to take the place of establishing social bonds and commitments in reality. A consumer demographic is not a community, it’s not a radical “found family”. It is people being led down consumption paths by indifferent algorithms that are designed to extract as much value from consumers that they possibly can.’

The limits to building community online are also due to the algorithmic bias inherent to online platforms, which research has shown to reinforce social biases and restrict peoples’ feeds to feature people that think and look like them. Another feature of YouTube is that political videos tend to go viral when they are responses to or in opposition to already popular clips and channels.

This means that disagreement and confrontation are rewarded, while less aggressive and perhaps more subtle modes of intellectual work are sidelined. Podcasting doesn’t suffer from this psychology as much, which is perhaps why it’s grown in popularity so much, and why YouTuber are evermore aiming for the audio market.

The anonymous Unlearning Economics is equally critical of the role that social media platforms play in society. One of the few YouTubers working within academia, he creates videos that try to expand and make more detailed the sometimes crude economic arguments one is likely to find on the platform.

He highlights that it is ‘us creators and users who produce YouTube’s value.’ And while that value is passed down to creators in the form of, on average, $3 to $5 per 1,000 video views (for monetis

YouTube channel Unlearning Economics focuses on debunking traditional right-wing economic arguments.

ed content), Google’s parent company Alphabet made $183 billion in 2020, 80% of which came from Google’s adverts, a business model that relies on the company having monopoly ownership of platforms such as YouTube.

‘I usually try not to make sweeping statements, but I think that capitalism has ruined the internet a bit.’ Tracing its history, from a government funded project developed by passionate engineers and academics, to a place which is dedicated to extracting value from your labour and leisure, it’s hard not to agree.

‘If it had proceeded based on open source, communal lines, I think it would potentially look a lot better, but it’s been commercialised and that’s sucked the life out of it.’ YouTube’s recent (if impermanent) deletion of the Novara Media channel without explanation or forewarning demonstrates that the precarity runs deep, and that no channel, whatever its following, is safe from the whims of big tech.

We’re a long way from digital workers seizing the means of their work’s reproduction, or consumers receiving the value generated by their engagement with ‘content’. But we do have dedicated progressives, however atomised they may be, using what tools there are to push the spaces that exist to the left. The next step is to collectively imagine an internet which is communal and democratic; a digital space for the people rather than the mouthpieces of capital’s vested interests.