The Intellectual Dark Web’s “Maverick Free Thinkers” Are Just Defenders of the Status Quo

The “intellectual dark web” made up of thinkers like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris likes to pose as a bastion of serious intellectual inquiry and open debate. But its animating spirit is deeply conservative: a determination to “prove” that our societies' hierarchies of wealth and power are natural and inevitable.

Sam Harris in San Francisco, 2014.

In a now infamous 2018 profile in the New York Times penned by Bari Weiss, the world was first introduced to the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” (IDW): a group of would-be mavericks who were said to be waging a righteous crusade against the rising tides of political correctness and intellectual conformity. There was, of course, an obvious irony to the piece’s central conceit: its supposedly renegade protagonists claiming to be victims of a stifling cultural climate while enjoying tremendous influence and receiving a glowing profile in a global newspaper of record.

As Michael Brooks observes in the opening chapter of his new book Against the Web, the contradiction is hardly a new one. Reactionary figures, after all, have projected a narrative of cultural victimhood going back to the earliest days of William F. Buckley Jr and the National Review.

Complaints about a stifling and censorious climate of political correctness are also far from a novel development. Nonetheless, as Brooks argues, the so-called IDW still represents something more than just garden-variety cultural conservatism even if the two share plenty of terrain.

For one thing, there’s at least some ideological heterogeneity among its key figures: Ben Shapiro is a religious conservative; Sam Harris has at least some socially liberal commitments; Jordan Peterson, meanwhile, is beloved on the Right, though has never officially affiliated himself with it.

This in particular, Brooks says, has been key to their popular appeal: by masking their conservative politics with a rhetoric of reason, open mindedness, and free inquiry, members of the IDW have been able to brand themselves as “unclassifiable renegades” despite holding what are obviously right-wing views (the New Atheist movement — in many respects the IDW’s forerunner — employed an identical tactic). Against the Web thus sets out to be “a case study in the way that reactionaries have begun to repackage their project of defending traditional hierarchies.”

In a theme that strongly echoes Corey Robin’s influential thesis on conservatism, a belief in hierarchy is for Brooks what ultimately animates the IDW project and ties together its foundational commitments — from its zeal for the capitalist order and American imperial hegemony to its deterministic view of biology when it comes to both race and gender. “Crucially,” Brooks argues, “in all of these areas the IDW promotes narratives that either naturalize or mythologize historically contingent power relations.”

This observation turns out to be the book’s most useful insight when it comes to understanding how the IDW’s conservative formula operates across multiple fronts. Employing it as his basic framework throughout, Brooks devotes the lion’s share of Against the Web to intellectually satisfying deconstructions of the group’s leading figures and their essentially mythical narratives.

Thus, Harris’s supposed defense of enlightened liberalism is exposed as run-of-the-mill cultural chauvinism; Peterson’s ramblings about mythological archetypes, lobsters, the chaotic feminine, and the “postmodern neo-Marxist” left as ahistorical fiction; Ben Shapiro’s laughable narrative of American greatness as little more than an exceptionalist fairy tale.

Underlying each is a simplistic story of a natural order corrupted, of objective truth obscured by a relativistically minded culture too afraid to face it. If the IDW is attractive to some, the compelling simplicity of its message — that, beneath all the chaos of modern life, there is an immutable order worth defending — is a major reason.

There are entire cities to sack in the bad arguments and sometimes downright embarrassing claims made by the IDW’s would-be militants for reason and, in this respect, Brooks certainly doesn’t hold back his contempt. Dave Rubin in particular (“mind-blowingly insipid,” “dumb as a rock”) provides ample fodder.

But Against the Web ultimately pairs this deconstructive project with a prescriptive one — offering, as its subtitle suggests, a cosmopolitan socialist vision alongside its polemic against the intellectual shortcomings of the so-called IDW and its phony renegades. “What we need,” says Brooks in the book’s final chapter:

is a cosmopolitan socialism premised on real material needs that expresses itself in criticism, art, movement building, and anything else that drives politics … following Gramsci, we need an integral approach that fuses universal desires, aspirations, and material concerns with a recognition that we do in fact live in a globalized, interconnected, and neoliberal world still defined by grotesque inequality, ecological crisis, and resurgent right wing authoritarianism.

This, says Brooks, means going beyond both traditional social democracy and the sometimes well-intentioned but ultimately wrongheaded culturalist politics still found throughout much of the contemporary left, without slipping into crass economic reductionism. Here, drawing on the internationalist perspective that will be familiar to regular viewers of his YouTube show, the author cites a number of potential inspirations ranging from the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress to the writings of Cornel West and the Bengali Marxist M. N. Roy.

At a brisk eighty-two pages, Against the Web manages to cover a lot of ground and doubles as a handy reference guide to the most popular reactionary figures of the present moment and their bestselling intellectual hokum. But it is also a timely warning about the dangers of reflexively dismissing their popularity, or surrendering their often confused and alienated audiences to the right.

With humor, analytical rigor, and careful attention to the sources of the IDW’s appeal, Brooks offers us a model blueprint for countering the reactionary narratives ascendant in the smoldering ruins of the neoliberal order. Activists and thinkers across the Left would be wise to follow his example.