Twitch streamer and philosophical gadfly Steven “Destiny” Bonnell II spent 90 minutes of his day on Wednesday debating the merits of capitalism and socialism with noted economist Richard Wolff. Thirty-five minutes into the “debate” and the pair were arguing over the basic definitions of capitalism and socialism—economic systems whose relative merits and performance they were supposed to compare. It was not how either party had said they wanted the conversation to go.
It was also a clear picture of the state of online-led political conversation—one side stalls the conversation to demand strict definitions and gaming personalities soak up too much time and attention.
“People throw around the socialism label so much and no one really knows what it means or what it stands for,” Bonnell told Waypoint in an email ahead of the debate. “I wish people would stop obsessing over these labels and just advocate for data-driven policies to push us forward rather than advocating for these massive changes that just aren't going to happen in any of our lifetimes.”
Yet the bulk of the first hour of the debate was about defining socialism and capitalism. The pair went back and forth, both often heated. Wolff is old school and a college professor. His style was collegiate, sometimes condescending, and often sounded like a lecture. Destiny is used to debating on the internet where talking fast and fussing about specifics throws off an opponent. It was a weird pairing.
Destiny uploaded a video of the talk to YouTube with the title ‘“You are just WRONG!’—Richard Wolff Debate Gets HEATED.”
The Serfs, a left leaning comedy and political commentary YouTube channel, hosted and moderated the debate. “It's going to be 3 minute opening statements, followed by 50 minutes of open debate, then 30 minutes of audience QnA and then finally closing remarks,” the Serfs told Motherboard in an email ahead of the debate. “Destiny will be defending capitalism as the prevalent economic system and Richard Wolff will be debating that it should be transformed into something else.”
Wolff spent the most time speaking during the open debate, spending a great length of time discussing his points and attempting to fact-check Destiny in real time. “I find this a laughable caricature of anything I’ve ever written or anything I understand is part of this conversation,” Wolff said during the debate.
Destiny argued that socialism has a history of famine and abuses in countries like the Soviet Union and China. Wolff countered by saying Destiny had an outdated view of modern socialism. “To trade in old and shrinking conceptions of socialism may be a good debating ploy but it doesn’t advance our understanding of everything,” Wolff said.
Destiny claimed that Wolff didn’t like Marx. “I’m very glad that you’ve acknowledged Marx...was an absolute fraud and an absolute failure,” he said.
“You’re making this stuff up,” Wolff said, interrupting Destiny. “I’ve never acknowledged anything of the sort. I don’t even know where you get this...It’s a rich, diverse tradition. It’s as if you’re going to decide what it is I mean I said when I say these things. I never said that the Marxist theory isn’t valuable, that the labor theory of value doesn’t apply. If you read any of the books and articles I pumped out in my life, you’d know that the exact opposite is the case.”
Throughout the debate, Destiny groaned loudly and twisted around in his chair. He put his hands on his face and rolled his eyes. The Twitch chat rolled along, arbitrarily scoring the debate and getting excited when either participant seemed to get mad.
One of Destiny’s biggest peeves was Wolff’s use of history to explain socialism and capitalism.
“You’ve told me a bunch of things that capitalism isn’t. You’ve given me a bunch of random collected facts of history,” Destiny said after Wolff had given what he felt was an unsatisfactory definition of capitalism.
“Why would you talk about the history of it? That’s not relevant,” Destiny said, after asking Wolff why he refused to call the modern American democratic party a socialist party.
“Why don’t you just let me respond without coaching me how to do it?” Wolff said.
It was frustrating to watch because, even after 90 minutes, it felt like there was never a conversation much less a debate. Destiny and Wolff come from such different backgrounds and performance styles that they couldn’t discuss the topic. Wolff wanted to lecture and correct perceived inaccuracies in Destiny’s presentation. Destiny seemed to want to score points and “win” the conversation.
This does raise the question—why is this happening at all? Why is a Twitch streamer debating an economist about the big economic ideas of our age? Destiny is a politically active game streamer who describes himself as liberal, though his political affect is more of an edgelord libertarian.
He trolls far-right personalities and has weathered a number of controversies around his political views and defense of the use of racial slurs. His personal website contains a section that outlines his thoughts on political and philosophical issues from the use of political violence to thought experiments about incest and child pornography.
YouTubers, Twitch Streamers, influencers, and other social media stars are a big part of the future of mainstream culture. They exist in a space beyond politics and entertainment. They’re mixing these things together and changing the culture. Hasan Piker, another gamer and Twitch Streamer, had the best coverage of election night. Carl "Sargon of Akkad" Benjamin ran for office in the United Kingdom and lost.
Online culture is dominating real-life culture. It’s where we have the most contentious political debates and it’s giving rise to a new generation of influencers who will shape the culture of the future. Wolff knows this. It’s why he showed up in the first place. Destiny has cultivated a large audience that likes to hear his thoughts on politics , and he is genuinely interested in having conversations about political philosophy.
The problem is that when he laments the way people "throw around the socialism label" without knowing what it means, he's describing himself and the archetypal style of online debate he practices. His debate showcased how instinctively he throws labels around, and how frustrated he gets when someone tries to pin him down on meaning. His audience and platform mean that someone like Wolff feels he should go have this conversation with Destiny, but their misfiring 90-minute exchange also showed why it can never be a good conversation. This was the thrust of Wolff's own closing remarks, where he acknowledged that the fact of the debate might have been more telling than anything they said during it.
“The yearning to do better than we’re doing in U.S. capitalism, that’s already a fact. It’s now only a question of where it will go,” he said during his closing statement. “The very fact that this conversation is happening and the very fact that someone like me was invited to participate is itself a sign of where things are going.”