Interview with Peter Coffin - 2022
(nonfiction, sociology, political theory, media studies, academic)
Peter Coffin is a video essayist (Very Important Documentaries), podcaster (PACD), and author (Custom Reality and You). Relatable humor and a commitment to everyday people keeps their perspective fresh, fun, and most importantly sharp.
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Randal Eldon Greene: Hello Peter Coffin.
You book Cancel Culture: Mob Justice or a Society of Subscriptions looks at what exactly cancel culture is, how it works and who it works for, and what the ultimate outcomes of canceling are. The first thing that may surprise some readers is that you don't actually agree with the "culture" part of cancel culture. As a cultural phenomena, I'd think the term would suit the behavior of canceling just fine. Yet you make an argument against this terminology.
Peter Coffin: Generally, when people say "culture," they mean sets of customs that develop from the interpersonal exchange between members of a social group. "Cancel culture" I think describes a set of dynamics or behaviors rather than customs that do not simply develop from interpersonal relationships. These behaviors developed out of an ideology that comes to us from the ruling class: neoliberalism, a system-justifying ideology for a capitalist society primarily categorized by its fetishization of markets. A less incendiary definition, perhaps, would be "a market-centric approach to all of society," where market dynamics get applied to everything. I don't think we'd call neoliberalism a "culture." At least I certainly don't; I call it an ideology, and I believe "cancel culture" is simply this form of ideology manifesting in social spaces.
To put it another way, "cancel culture" is a product of business rather than culture. Or, perhaps, an attempt to get people to see business as culture. We see people talking about personal relationships becoming very transactional, dating apps perhaps being the most blatant example. "Cancel culture” is seeing social relations as something one can subscribe and unsubscribe from. I could understand someone seeing that as culture, because the overarching ideology of our society paints it as one, but I try pretty hard to make the distinction here.
Randal Eldon Greene: How do you differentiate collectivization—a mass movement of people working together—from a cancel culture mob? Is it simply the online aspect of cancel culture or is there something more fundamental than medium at play that makes canceling different than mass protests, such as Black Lives Matter protests?
Peter Coffin: I don't think I would differentiate between them—a cancel mob is people collectivizing to pursue what they think is "justice." Obviously, a cancel mob and BLM are different things, but I think if we were to differentiate along these lines, we're basically saying "collectives are good, and a cancel mob isn't that, because it's bad," and I don't believe that's true. I think it's better to ask, why would we want to collectivize? To amass power, right? That's ultimately the reason we do things together rather than individually - because in this situation most of us have very little power. So what would we rather use that power for? To take down some individual we perceive to be bad for their opinions, or to attempt to struggle against a ruling, capitalist class?
In terms of the online aspect, I think that has an impact, for sure, but it's more that there is any kind of mediating platform that is owned by capital. In terms of Twitter or other social media, there's a mode of communication that incentivizes conflict and spectacle because it gets one likes, retweets, whatever. But with BLM, there's several non-profit orgs which more or less commandeered the movement with funding from capitalists and mainstream political parties and other orgs. It went from being about changing the relationship between citizen and police (as well as the funding situation, particularly along racial lines), to electing Joe Biden, who is moving in the exact opposite direction the movement was demanding everyone go in before the campaign hit high gear.
My friend Caleb Maupin—who heads an org called the Center for Political Innovation—talks about the need to "get out of the movement and into the masses," and I think that is a macro understanding of the kind of thing we're talking about here. A movement that isn't explicitly founded with protections against its commandeering is one we must assume is, or will be, commandeered. My friend Andrew Saturn of the newly-revived Socialist Party of America is in the process of building a party with those types of protections, and I think these two orgs, the CPI and SPA, represent the beginnings of a kind of collectivization of power that's nothing like a cancel mob. But that doesn't mean a cancel mob isn't collectivization, it's just one driven by market incentives that are injected into the participants social experience via mediating platforms - which happens offline as well.
In fact, I would start attempting to move away from dichotomizing on and offline. These things are increasingly intertwined in even many of the most low-income situations, and many low-income jobs are establishing online requirements. I think it's more about who owns what's connecting you and I - and their agenda - than what it is.
Randal Eldon Greene: If I understand correctly, you say that the notion of justice—the desire to see justice served—is what gives cancel culture its power.
Peter Coffin: Well, that depends on exactly what power means, relatively speaking. In terms of why a lot of people can exert their will on one person, then to one sense, yes. The will to see justice served is the ostensible reason people team up to "cancel" someone, and the team is more powerful than the individual.
In another sense, though, we have to think about what justice means in this equation. Plato's concept of justice is, to shorten a little, "everyone in their place." So what determines people's "correct" place? Generally speaking, the overarching ideology of the day. During feudalism, there were various ideologies that kept people thinking they were "common," many happily accepting the idea that the nobility and/or monarchy were "above them." With that embedded logic, to see justice served, you would want to team up against anyone who attempted to rebel. Like, they would have canceled the hell out of William Wallace!
And I think that kind of justice is the kind those who own our airwaves and social platforms work to propagate and maintain, too. I think regular people have a different definition of justice, though. We tend to think of justice as some version of fairness or equal treatment for everyone. Some of us lean more toward punishment for wrongs than others, while some think that means repayment. This sort of ambiguity and structurelessness leaves the overarching ideology room to assert itself.
Plato basically means “know your place, bitch”
—Cancel Culture (p.10)
Understanding that, my belief is that the real source of the power is whatever apparatus that can be used to propagate ideology at the societal level. In a society with modern conditions of production, that is, where production is the lever of power, then ownership is really where the power comes from. Who owns things is who dictates how they work, and in the case of the media, what is said. The U.S. media really gets an outsized amount of influence on what people believe "reality" means, and we are all influenced by that to at least some extent.
So, the desire for justice might seem like the source of power, but I think that having the means to direct people's actions by establishing what people consider to be reality is the real source.
Randal Eldon Greene: So if there is no objective meaning of justice, then it is up to the market to sort out what justice is, which leaves room for influencers like U.S. media companies to define and direct the kind of justice they desire. And in actuality, that's the function of cancel culture: a market system that sorts out justice on behalf of the prevailing ideology. Earlier you stated that this ideology is neoliberalism. I'd like your elevator argument against neoliberalism. Succinctly as possible, what is it about the neoliberal version of capitalism that you think is "bad," especially since it is the ideology that most of us structure our reality around?
Peter Coffin: I'd say it's less that the neoliberal version of capitalism is qualitatively different in terms of basic material relations. If we were to characterize the current capital stage or setup, it would simply be imperialism and has been for a very long time. Neoliberalism is more a justifying ideology and a type policy. The ideology directs people to think "like the market," which is silly because "the market" is made up of an aggregate of so many streams of information: resources, currencies, quantities, locations, etc. A person can't really "think like the market." Thus, it becomes a sort of fetish - and not just for working people who aren't really operating on a national or international level, but for people in the capitalist class, as well. I like to call the latter "liking the smell of one's own farts."
The policies that are created in a world where neoliberalism is the justifying ideology of capitalism are generally just applying the thinking that markets can fix everything. You can see it in most of what people call "social justice." Rather than working on changing how relationships work, it's more concentrated on representing. Do I think representation is "bad," per se? No, but most of it is a marketing exercise. The assumption that if people simply change their opinions and behavior—which exist in a consumer market—that the overall world will change. I would argue this simply creates opportunities for a small number of people from marginalized groups to ascend to positions where they hold the same kind of power non-marginalized people do. So rather than a homogenous bourgeoisie maintaining power relations, we have a diverse one. And while that might lead to some ideological fights, the relations will remain the same.
Of course, I'm assuming we're taking an elevator to the top floor with a lot of stops in between! Sorry about that.
I'll try to give a shorter elevator ride pitch: neoliberalism fetishizes markets and works to adopt their dynamics in every facet of our lives. This seeks to make everything transactional, which makes everything feel what a lot of people call "sociopathic." Life feels more obviously phony and empty in this shade of capitalism, and the ideology uses a fetishization of the market to justify this.
Randal Eldon Greene: You're of course critiquing a form of mob justice that can only exist in the modern era of capitalism, though it has its precedents. I think that grasping the underpinnings of cancel culture requires an understanding of the primary contradiction of capitalism, which you state "is the socialization of production." Could you explain what you mean by this?
Peter Coffin: The socialization of production is the main accomplishment of capitalism! Simply put, it's industrialization. Many probably would think of a Marxism/communism-oriented person as someone who thinks "capitalism is evil," but those of us with a little more diligence in understanding the theory actually have a great respect for industrialization.
To go into a little more detail, in feudalism, when someone produced a pair of shoes, they did it in their workshop. They owned the means to produce it and privately retained the product and any profit it could make them. The socialization of production is when these producers became workers. Rather than owning the tools, obtaining the resources, and laboring to create a final product, when industrialization happened, many came together to do this at a much faster pace with more efficiency.
Technology made this possible, though, and here is where we find the primary contradiction of capitalism: the way product and potential profit were allocated retained that feudal character. The means to produce were not socialized in the same way the labor was, in fact, they remained private. The results of this contradiction are pretty easily apparent; the power imbalance between owner and worker is vast. There's a lot of myth about how the feudal lord was abolished so now people have agency over their fate—if they work hard enough, they will succeed and achieve comfort, safety, and satisfaction. In reality, there's a hard barrier in that most people do not have the resources to orchestrate some form of upward mobility.
The socialization of production gives us the basis for a society that progresses rather than regresses; the cooperation of workers is incredible and accomplishes things that were previously understood to be impossible. It also gives us the basis to understand that we, as the non-owning class, the workers, the proletariat, are doing all the work while someone else gets to collect on our work. That's the contradiction at the heart of power imbalance in an industrialized society, and that power imbalance is vast. Ultimately, that's what a communist wants to change.
Randal Eldon Greene: You say that cancel culture and mob justice generally serve institutionalized power. I'm interested in how you'd defend a critique that points out that these phenomena are heavily criticized by the institutionalized power that you say it truly serves.
Peter Coffin: I'd say "so is racism." But while a CEO or and HR person might say "racism is terrible," their interests aren't in fighting racism, which is why the paths they take to "fighting" it are generally ones that outline and nullify liabilities for the companies they work for rather than actually address historical and ideological disparities. If there is something correct many people asked around the Obama campaign, it's "why is racism still around?" Obviously, that campaign was fought with some racial tactics from both the conservative side and even Hillary Clinton during the primary.
While all of them correctly identify that racism still exists, they do things that continue to preserve it by not addressing the fundamental relationships and historical disparities. They focus on interpersonal relationships and it, again, keeps the focus off those who hold the real power.
Joe Biden might, at this point in his life, hate racism, but he also wrote the 1994 crime bill. Whether or not that bill did anything about interpersonal racism, I can't tell you, but the effects on the black population are well-documented. And those effects are compounded by the historical sequence of events that preceded it. None of that is addressed by the people with power who regularly say "racism is abhorrent." I can't tell you if all of them simply want to preserve racism or if they're just ignorant, but I think it's appropriate to compare this phenomenon to mob justice. The things they might condemn are aesthetic, but there is a systemic function that ultimately benefits them in the mechanics of the thing they might call "abhorrent." And again, they might not even know this. I am not going to pretend I think every single person with power is just a cackling villain. I don't know. I do know these ideologies keep people in a war of "all against all" rather than "most against the few with the power."
Randal Eldon Greene: Why do you think that people everywhere on the political spectrum tend to see cancel culture as a leftist phenomena?
Peter Coffin: Because "leftists" are obnoxious! Where we are in terms of political consciousness is that the "leftists" are the successors to "SJWs." I try to make a pretty hard distinction between myself and the American "left" for a pretty specific reason: the ideology I believe they have been fed makes them think they dislike individualism and capitalism but they're also, intentionally or not, acting against what I advocate for.
I don't personally think it is just them, but I would suggest people associate cancel culture with leftists for that exact reason: to distance themselves. If "my" group doesn't do cancel culture, then it's "not like the leftists!" I would argue the only way not to be like anyone on the bourgeois political spectrum is to advocate for a path towards qualitatively different power relations—or as Marx would say, scientific socialism.
Randal Eldon Greene: I found your idea of social media as self-regulating prisons fascinating. How do platforms, especially very public ones like Twitter, function as a kind of panopticon—a circular prison where everyone is both a guard and guarded, the patroller and patrolled?
Peter Coffin: For me, this is the most sobering aspect of social media. What feels like a simple interaction—not unlike any other in our lives—is actually an extremely complex exchange. When I post or send someone something on the internet, it goes through several stages of mediation.
Before anyone posts anything, people look at a social service and think about if it's something that fits what they want to do, and what kind of person the appeal has been tailored to. That filters a certain kind of person out before anyone is even using the service. Then, as one makes an account, one hands over identifying information for them to compare to information they have or have access to and adjusts how a site will handle a person: what they see, who sees them, etc. Then what they say is sorted again and again by what language, tone, and keywords they use. Does this post seem like it would be good for x group to see? Or maybe y group? Keeping this in mind, that doesn't necessarily mean these groups would like it, either. It means "will these groups engage with it?" There's a certain clustering of groups of people that plays on normal social dynamics in a competitive society and encourages more. The easiest form of engagement to prompt seems to be conflict, so it generally seems to try to foment and reinforce groups that will have conflict with each other. Posts that create conflict will get x group mad and will validate y group.
Layered in with this, there is an abstract currency. Replies, retweets, likes, shares, and the various visible (and invisible) metrics are symbolic "money" backed by social connection. When one accumulates more of these metrics, the machine regards one as more worthwhile to "do business with" — as both an entity that generates value from doing work as well as an entertainment commodity. We can think of an individual as a "producer" in a similar way we might consider a TV producer and the image of themselves they create to share with people as a "show." A service like Twitter is essentially a machine that does the work of the publishing side of an entertainment company; it is designed to do the same curation, promotion, and maintenance that such a bureaucracy does.
It, however, does this with people who, to varying extents, do not understand the nature of the machine and interface with it as a neutral platform. Some can "see The Matrix," so to speak, but even though most don't, they understand that they can do certain things and it responds in certain ways. This is all by design, and thus we find the place where the designers are able to leverage our behavior. This is where incentives make their more obvious appearance. The currency we talked about is, of course, the most visible connection to these incentives and the ultimate "pay" we receive for completing them. But as people detect certain behaviors are more likely to be rewarded, they engage in those behaviors: building a following, identifying what validates them, giving that to one's following, finding people who invalidate one's following and making them look bad, etc.
The easiest way to do this is to put a novel aesthetic on the prevailing social ideology. So maybe you "dress" (or rather signal) like a radical leftist and defend Ukrainian Nazis—sorry, Azov Battalion members—because right now, the U.S. state is waging a proxy war on Russia through them. Maybe you "dress" like a trucker and talk about how great Trump is. It's not hard to tap into some argument the ruling class is having with itself that regular people don't actually have any input on and sort people into "sides."
So when people are all factioned off, all of them are incentivized to keep an eye on each other and snitch on everything you can. This rewards you with metrics and advances your position on the platform. But it's only on the platform. You have to keep doing it there. It takes a ridiculous amount of effort to transfer a following from one social "platform" to another. I have seen tons of people with millions of subscribers on YouTube and like 12k on Twitter. You're stuck there!
Randal Eldon Greene: You claim that attention is a kind of currency. Now most of us not only enjoy but crave social media attention. What do you think it is about framing attention as currency that makes us uncomfortable?
Peter Coffin: I think a lot of us don't like the idea that we're craving something other than human interaction. But the issue is that we often do not see that we are not really interacting with another human being, not entirely at least. We're interacting with a mediating platform that is designed to use our interaction to generate value.
In this way, we're doing a kind of unpaid labor. That makes me uncomfortable. Social platforms are difficult to fully understand, though, and people don't really think of them in this kind of concrete language. If we're doing unpaid labor, what are we making? Well, an environment that looks attractive to advertisers (with measurements/metrics to back it up), as well as a heap of data. This stuff is extremely valuable to the owners of these platforms.
So then it's, "okay, well, why are we doing that if we aren't being paid?" But the only reason we call it "unpaid" is that it isn't being paid in traditional currency. I can't take the attention I am getting and go get my groceries with it. It's an abstract currency, and it's only worth anything on the social platform we're using. "Attention is Chuck E. Cheese Prize Tickets and Monopoly Money Combined" is about as catchy as the whole idea is comforting, though.
Ultimately, I think everything the concept symbolizes is uncomfortable and that's probably a good part of the pushback I've gotten on that through the years.
Randal Eldon Greene: Mass movements to quit a platform like Twitter or Facebook mirror cancel culture in some respects, but is it an effective strategy for addressing the toxic problems of these environments?
Peter Coffin: It's an effective strategy to stop dealing with them as an individual, but I am a staunch detractor of any kind of consumer activism. I do not believe anything a consumer does changes anything about the product; I don't think supply is driven by demand. There are a number of reasons I think this, but the easiest thing to point out is if demand were the prime cause of action in a capitalist society, commercials wouldn't be attempting to persuade anyone of anything—they'd be informative and that would be it.
For one, a mass quitting of Twitter isn't really a mass movement of any kind, is it? Firstly, if you had even 10,000 people do it, that doesn't even dent the number of bots and fake users on the platform. Secondly, those people aren't all concentrated in one place; they're diffused over a worldwide userbase. There's no labor withheld, so production continues exactly as it did otherwise, just counting 10,000 fewer users. To put it bluntly, Twitter just doesn't give a crap about that.
I think saying it's similar to cancel culture is a really good observation. In my book/documentary, I used a metaphor that cancelling an individual is like a mass unsubscription from content funded through Patreon. If the content wasn't backed by some kind of institutional power, people's support was the only support and it was likely in smaller numbers. That could effectively end that thing. It could be cancelled. But content backed by Netflix, a show or a film . . . whatever—that can't be taken out so easily. They don't care. Not only do they have 192.9 million subscribers, they are also sitting on more cash than you can imagine. They can ultimately do what they want.
The same goes for Twitter, and that doesn't change whether finance capital owns it or Elon Musk. They own the "status update network" space, and they aren't going to change policies based purely on a few people quitting.
Randal Eldon Greene: Of course, you point out that people who buy into our "current social paradigm" aren't to blame. It's what they know. It's a lot like how one can't be blamed for participating in any capitalist system of exchange because there's really no alternatives. I feel like people who read your book are going to ask if there are any real world steps that we, as individuals, can take when it comes to mitigating transactional relationships and the pressure to enact justice through canceling.
Peter Coffin: One of the biggest steps we can take is learning more about the current social paradigm—ultimately our ideology. What is the contemporary ideology? Obviously, my answer is going to be "neoliberalism" but even so, that could change. To develop a critique of ideology requires us to see the material relations the ideology is justifying. In capitalism's case, it's a relation where some people own everything, and most people do everything for them. If we can figure out how an ideology maps onto that, we can start to see that our enemy is not each other, it's the preservation of that relation. I realize this isn't a "solution," but at no point should we just jump to the conclusion that we have one. We can certainly have goals—sublating this relation to another which is more beneficial for all—but if we are not a society conscious of our own problems, both aesthetically and mechanically, we can't expect to get to that goal.
Randal Eldon Greene: You create fun and informative videos on all sorts of topics that revolve more or less around the critique of capitalism. The best of these, in my opinion, are a part of your Very Important Documentaries series. I'm curious why you decided to turn your cancel culture video into a book?
Peter Coffin: I very much appreciate that. They are certainly my labor of love at this point. Cancel Culture was adapted from the video script. There are some minor differences between the two, but obviously the critique is the same. I make documentaries because I believe it's a fun, creative, and satisfying way of expressing myself, but not everyone wants to see me in an extremely tight, bawdy American flag singlet. Don't get me wrong, some very much do—it drove my partner absolutely wild! But while some of the humor translates to a book, some people just get more out of reading. I want what I am trying to say to be available for those people too.
Randal Eldon Greene: Will you be publishing more print versions of your Very Important Documentaries?
Peter Coffin: Yes, the next one is called Less Sucks and is a debunk of overpopulation and degrowth. It will also be available for purchase as a book and I suspect it will be over 100 pages. The script is . . . more than three times as long as the Cancel Culture script currently and is not completely done. I'm really excited for this book/doc because it's really educational about one of the most vital flaws in capitalism that creates the contradiction we have to resolve. It links many things together that many different people talk about. I'm very excited.
Thank you so much!
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About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of Descriptions of Heaven, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death.