Substack, Business Models, and Cancel Culture

Way back when, when I was a credit analyst I was talking to a colleague about banking and finance and politics and economics. At one point in the conversation, I don’t remember what had just been said, but he looked at me in shock and asked, “Don’t you believe in Capitalism?” meaning I assume “but, aren’t you of the faith?” At the time I considered myself an Institutional Economist, the main tenant of which is that economics is not moral or immoral, but an amoral system of organizing the activities we consider economic through institutions. I’ve since found that Complexity Economics is more closely aligned with my understanding of economic systems, and I don’t think there is much left of the discipline of institutional economics anyway. I’d studied with Dr. John Culbertson who may have been one of its last great proponents passing away in 2001.

But, back to my colleague’s question, rather than explaining the ill-advised nature of believing in Capitalism as the ultimate solution to humanity’s problems, or even questioning his belief that he was a Capitalist—how could he be? To be a Capitalist by definition you have to own Capital. We were at the beginnings of our careers and both owned bupkis—I answered, “I believe Capitalism exists.”

I still believe in Capitalism. I certainly believe in the necessity to navigate it every day. I believe in the inescapability of it. I tried escaping as a matter of fact. I joined a hippie/draft dodging movement of homesteaders in Alaska. This was back in the day when off the grid did not just mean off the electrical grid, but off of the communications grid as well. A number of the people I was with did not use their birth names and did not want to be found. The whole, small, white, lot of us were going to build a better society. When I left Alaska with three small kids in tow there were people in my sphere who questioned why I had “sold-out” to the man. Personally, I saw it more as being starved into submission.

Which brings us to my position on the current Substack controversy. It seems the transphobic may or may not have gotten a toe-hold in Substack, or at least those who are willing to support the transphobic in the name of free speech.  Some of those, who already had large followings may have been offered a financial incentive to join the platform in the form of an advance. The advance is paid back using a complicated formula that guarantees first year income, but may actually be less lucrative to the writer than the deal available to the rest of us. In other words, rather than operating like a traditional publishing advance it operates more like a guaranteed earnings floor.

Two hot takes on the controversy are here and here. As Jude Ellison Sady Doyle says Substack is not a neutral platform. It can’t be of course, because it is trying to exist in Capitalism. At this point in late stage capitalism there is an almost religious fervor that follows the creation of new companies that are trying to “disrupt” old models. Traditional publishing and traditional journalism are models ripe for disruption. They’ve been in trouble throughout the current century. Writers have found staff jobs disappearing and their ability to make money freelancing squeezed by ever lower payments and advances (you should just do this for the exposure type of thing). Substack offered an alternative. People would subscribe not to a publication or a platform (which is the model Medium has gravitated to) but to a writer. It remains to be seen how this model will evolve in Substack’s case. 

Heather Cox Richardson (Letters from an American) writes all of her posts herself and posts daily. (OMG when does this woman sleep?) I am addicted to her posts and read them first thing every morning although I’ve yet to pony up any money as a subscriber. Dan Rather (Steady) has a team helping him in an attempt to bring back the kind of investigative journalism that he practiced during his television career. Again, I only get the free version so I don’t know how successful he has been with this in the paid version. Anand Giridharadas (The Ink) supplements his columns in traditional publishing. On Substack he can write what he wants and build a community. 

From a complexity systems perspective Substack itself is an evolving example of emergence, which may be one of the reasons I’m drawn to it as a platform. The other reason is that I am largely unknown (no disrespect intended to those of you follow me), but my experiment is in finding the people with whom I resonate. At the same time Substack needs to worry about attracting investors and scaling up quickly (because Capitalism).

It is hard to critique Substack’s business model, because Substack doesn’t know what it’s model is. That’s kind of the point. Like Eric Ries advises in his book The Lean Start-up Substack is trying various business models and following a “build-measure-learn” approach. One of the things they’re trying is to scale quickly by offering an earnings floor to certain likely high earners. I refuse to call it a publishing advance because that is not how it functions. Substack just doesn’t operate like a publishing company. It may decide to evolve that way. Who knows? That is yet to emerge.

And this is where we run smack dab into the primary issue that Substack has to deal with. Are they really a social media company and what does that mean in terms of their responsibility for content? Their content guidelinesseem reasonable enough, however they have indicated they will be sole arbiters of what does and doesn’t violate their guidelines and they will err on the side of doing nothing.

The precipitating event of the controversy is a Substack article by Glenn Greenwald which was quickly followed by the news that Greenwald had been induced to join Substack by being provided a guaranteed earnings floor for his first year of blogging. In Greenwald’s first foray on Substack he whined about cancel culture, and about the ACLU and Chase Strangio engaging in something he called corporate censorship (more commonly known as business decisions). Greenwald believes himself to be a victim of corporate censorship and cancel culture because an exposé of internal controversies over free speech at the ACLU was pulled by his publisher before it was finished. His main complaint appears to be that the ACLU which used to be in favor of “free speech” no matter who was hurt, was now taking a more nuanced approach. He was particularly outraged by Chase Strangio staff attorney at the ACLU, who took issue with a book by Abigail Shrier that she couldn’t find a publisher for (again business decision, because Capitalism).

There are a number of things to keep in mind in this iteration of outrage over “cancel culture”. Which cancellees are we being outraged about? Greenwald himself is not averse to turning to the twitter verse in the hopes of cancelling the careers of those he disagrees with.

A close look at current cancel culture outrage reveals that it is sparked by lack of an audience, platform, or publishing venture for the protectors of an anti-diversity status quo. It is never sparked by marginalized people being denied a platform. 

Also, people lie. Those most outraged by cancel culture are using the free speech argument in a self-serving way. The current conservative led “cancel culture” project is a project to protect privileged status using a progressive tool. This works to make a reactionary project seem reasonable on its face. In “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published in Harper’s Bazaar they pulled out all the stops on calling on the left to support an “open debate”. An argument which has historically privileged the status quo and contributed to the silencing of marginalized voices. While acknowledging the overdue calls for equity and inclusion they are equally concerned that the voices of the reactionary not be left out. 

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.. 

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.

Matt Yglesias of Vox was one of the signatories of this letter. He also received a guaranteed earnings floor for his Substack blog.

The arguments about cancel culture seem reasonable on their face, particularly when couched in a leftist framing of equal access. But, they ring hollow when looking at the history of journalism. Like Larry Summer’s 2005 Harvard speech that posited that maybe women were bad at the maths and sciences because biology, if only presented with half the argument any argument makes sense. Summers went on to make the disingenuous statement that he’d only been asking questions and perhaps we should answer them in the name of science. Women of course weren’t outraged by the fact that the question was asked. We were outraged by the fact that the question has been repeatedly asked and answered for literal centuries. And this insistence on spending time, energy, and research work on asking and answering it yet again has the impact of cancelling real and important work that women in the sciences were trying to do and get funded.

The problem with Shrier’s book is that it raises arguments about the inherent existence of trans children which have been irrevocably invalidated, and her solutions to the imagined problem of children questioning their assigned at birth gender identity has and continues to cause very real harm. So maybe, publishers didn’t pick it up because it was an objectively bad book, or maybe it was a business decision based on current customer demographics. (Who knows if trans people are real they may even buy books and may well be a demographic worth marketing to).

The most devastating thing about the way cancel culture actually works in America is those whose words have been cancelled before they’ve even figured out how to speak, those who have never been given a platform. Those trans kids who have to spend so much time and energy hiding who they are that the idea of reaching their potential becomes nothing more than a cruel joke for one example. Here’s another example: According to Leigh Habor at oprahdaily.com,

On April 20, 2021, 60-plus years after his death, the Library of America (LOA) will publish Wright’s The Man Who Lived Underground. This landmark novel, which his daughter, Julia Wright, unearthed at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and brought to LOA, tells the story of Fred Daniels, a Black man framed for a double murder he did not commit…

Though Wright himself considered The Man Who Lived Underground his finest work, its depiction of police brutality was so graphic, his publishers believed that it shouldn't see the light of day. When Wright submitted the work to his editor, it was turned down. 

…LOA editors already knew that significant portions of Native Son and Black Boy had been redacted at the request of the then-mighty Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC), to make them more digestible to white readers. 

Back in the day when I was still in banking my boss used to come into my office and say, “I know what you did for me yesterday, but what are you going to do for me tomorrow?” No one’s job was safe based on past performance. No one’s job was protected by reinterpreting the second amendment to promote rehashing old, discriminatory, and dangerous arguments. Substack will eventually have to deal with the market pressures put on social media companies and disruptive start-ups to take responsibility for the role they play. Readers/consumers will continue to use their free speech rights to call for accountability and the voices of the marginalized will be increasingly heard. In the meantime I will continue to self-publish on Substack in service of my project of reimagining what will emerge to replace late stage Capitalism.

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