NYTimes Celebrates Mag of 'Mainstream' Marxism vs. 'Tea Party Invective,' 'Capitalist Vampire Squid'

January 23rd, 2013 11:54 AM

The New York Times celebrated a new, proudly Marxist magazine on the front of Monday's Arts section. Reporter Jennifer Schuessler rejoiced as "A Young Publisher Takes Marx Into the Mainstream."

When Bhaskar Sunkara was growing up in Westchester County, he likes to say, he dreamed of being a professional basketball player.

But the height gods, among others, didn’t smile in his favor. So in 2009, during a medical leave from his sophomore year at George Washington University, Mr. Sunkara turned to Plan B: creating a magazine dedicated to bringing jargon-free neo-Marxist thinking to the masses.

As if the only problem with Marxist thinking is jargon. Schuessler certainly sounded more comfortable with the "socialist brand" than what she termed "Tea Party invective."

The resulting magazine, Jacobin, whose ninth issue just landed, has certainly been an improbable hit, buoyed by the radical stirrings of the Occupy movement and a bitingly satirical but serious-minded style. Since its debut in September 2010 it has attracted nearly 2,000 print and digital subscribers, some 250,000 Web hits a month, regular name-checks from prominent bloggers, and book deals from two New York publishers.

It has also earned Mr. Sunkara, now a ripe 23, extravagant praise from members of a (slightly) older guard who see his success as heartening sign that the socialist “brand” -- to use a word he throws around with un-self-conscious ease -- hasn’t been totally killed off by Tea Party invective.


And the praise doesn’t come only from the left-hand side of the spectrum. The National Review blogger Reihan Salam, who has linked to numerous Jacobin articles, called Mr. Sunkara “an almost hilariously savvy character who knows how to deploy mockery and flattery to great effect.”

The magazine’s injection of a “vital left-of-left-of-center” viewpoint into the conversation, he added, “has been very fun to watch.”

In writing Mr. Sunkara can come on like a one-man insult-comedy squad, whether the target is regular whipping boys like the Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein (“a young liberal with a lust for properly punctuated policy memos”) or the capitalist vampire squid itself.

It's noteworthy that the phrase "capitalist vampire squid" was offered without quotes that would have emphasized it's a left-wing term of abuse and not a factual description of capitalism. It was coined in 2009 by left-wing Rolling Stone journalist Matt Taibbi in an investigative piece on Goldman Sachs. Schuessler continued:

And when Seth Ackerman, a graduate student at Cornell University, turned in a scathing analysis of the Constitution’s inherent conservatism for the second issue, Mr. Sunkara knew it needed something to really pop.

“Seth had a title with nine words and a semicolon,” he recalled. “I crossed it out and wrote ‘Burn the Constitution.’ ”

That article, along with “Zombie Marx,” a critique of chapter-and-verse Marxist economics by Mike Beggs, a young lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney who Mr. Sunkara met (like Mr. Ackerman) through the e-mail list of Doug Henwood’s Left Business Observer, got some pickup on blogs. But it was a packed Jacobin-organized panel on the Occupy movement, held in a downtown Manhattan bookstore three weeks after the protests began in Zuccotti Park in September 2011, that really put the magazine on the map, drawing attention from Politico and Glenn Beck.

Schuessler left out that a member of that panel was free-lance reporter Natasha Lennard, who had covered the Occupy protests for the Times merely six days previous. As Times Watch reported, "Lennard's comments, alternately post-modern and potty-mouthed, were peppered with potshots at the NYPD," referring to them as "baton-wielding, helmet-wearing monsters."

Schuessler continued to herald Jacobin for rehabilitating hard left ideas about a "post-capitalist economy."

Meanwhile the magazine was also attracting attention from more established figures on the left, who saw it as raising fundamental questions that had been off the table since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Corey Robin, an associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College who became a contributing editor last winter, pointed in particular to articles by Mr. Ackerman and Peter Frase, another early Jacobin recruit, debating the possibility of a post-capitalist economy involving, among other things, drastically reduced working hours.

“So many people are not working or already getting wages subsidized by the state -- maybe there’s something already at play that we haven’t paid enough attention to,” Mr. Robin said.

Hugely successful conservative writers don't fare as well with Schuessler. She has managed to jab Ann Coulter twice, once for dislodging a cat memoir from the top of the paper's best seller list with her latest "single-word-titled screed," and later dismissed her as a "conservative attack dog."