How Economic Historian Adam Tooze Pushed the "Dirtbag Left" Off the Podcasting ThroneHistorians in the News
tags: economic history, Economic Policy
Henry Williams was 7 in 2008, and what he remembers about 2008 is that his dad lost his job. Henry’s suburban childhood was comfortable, but even so, it was shadowed by an awareness of precarity. For a time when Henry was growing up, an aunt in her 20s lived with his family while she was between jobs. The aunt had gotten an M.F.A. in film. In the years to come, an M.F.A. in film would seem like a bad plan to Henry.
When Henry Williams arrived at college, he was a STEM guy: Computers were what you did to be practical. Eventually, he imagined, he might get a Ph.D. in physics. But his undergraduate career at Columbia was still young when other events intervened. Freshman year, he and a friend started a not-quite-kidding presidential campaign for former Alaska senator Mike Gravel. (They had heard about the senator on the socialist comedy podcast Chapo Trap House.) The campaign consisted primarily of a vigorous presence on dirtbag-left Twitter, where the so-called Gravel Teens gave their 89-year-old candidate’s account an unlikely fluency. The campaign did not achieve its goal of sending Gravel to the Democratic-primary debates, though it did attract mystified attention and national press. Williams’s allegiance passed in due course to Bernie Sanders, whose campaign suffered irretrievable defeat just before COVID shut down Williams’s campus. Dissatisfied with remote school and disillusioned with college in general, he decided to take a year off — from class, but not from learning.
What he wanted, he told me, was to find someone who could explain “what the hell was going on in the world.” From Sanders’s loss, to the emergence of a global pandemic, to the economic fallout, “it’s this incredibly fast-moving maelstrom of events, and particularly if you talk about the economics of it, it’s almost impossible to get a grip on.” This was when Williams discovered the work of economic historian Adam Tooze.
In the corner of Twitter where Williams dwelled, Tooze had emerged as the explainer of first resort. He was the guy other guys recommended; he was also, from what Williams recalls, tweeting “a hell of a lot.” Williams heard Tooze on the Bloomberg Odd Lots podcast explaining how the current crisis was and wasn’t like 2008. He read Tooze in the London Review of Books explaining the pandemic’s effects across China, the U.S., and the eurozone. Starting with The Deluge, Tooze’s 2014 account of World War I and its aftermath, Williams proceeded to read all of his books — The Wages of Destruction (about the Nazi economy), Crashed (about the 2008 financial crisis), and Statistics and the German State, 1900–1945 (self-explanatory). His year off from college became, in effect, an independent study in Tooze.
In seminar rooms and on Twitter, Tooze has won a following: They are primarily young men, known sometimes as “Tooze Bros” or “Tooze Boys,” if boys can encompass a male population in its early 20s to late 30s. Like Williams, these fans tend toward the left and have occupations that enable them to spend hours on Twitter forming opinions. They concern themselves with American economic and foreign policy, with special attention to the fraught places where these two intersect — for example, in confronting climate change. Perhaps some would once have cast their critique in the shitpost mode of the Chapo heyday, but lately, in place of provocation, they prefer an avalanche of facts. The Gravel campaign, Williams reflected, “feels like forever ago. I feel a lot older than I was then.”
What Tooze gives a reader like Williams is not a piercing, singular insight but a sense of rigorous mastery.