It’s always interesting to see what it takes to go big on YouTube. In my second critique of the YouTuber Kraut, I analyze his biggest video ever, “Trump’s Biggest Failure”. This thing has racked up over four million views over the past five years. Kraut is very skilled at his medium, and is very intelligent. But I think it’s very telling that his most successful video, by a factor of four or so, is so very standard in its views. It’s more compelling and fun in its presentation, but this video on China is basically a Pentagon briefing or a Cable news special in its content. I wonder if there’s a broader lesson there?
I hope you enjoy this latest “YouTube Drama” video. Stuff like this keeps the channel ticking over so I can produce less popular but more worthwhile content.
Video Transcript after the jump…
So I finally watched another Kraut video, and there was a lot about it that I liked. There is a reason “Trump’s Biggest Failure” a video about China, has over 4 million views. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
Even in a video from three years ago, it’s clear that Kraut is a master of this medium. Parts of it are presented with comic strip humor and irreverence, and then it switches seamlessly into Adam Curtis style archival footage with jarring music cues. The video whiplashes across all of Chinese and world history with what looks like stunning erudition. Somehow Kraut makes it all work together, and has crafted a supremely engaging style for delivering a message.
Unfortunately the message he is so masterfully delivering is kind of crap. It’s nowhere near as fraudulent as his Chomsky video I reviewed last time, this one was more filled with mistakes than lies. But Kraut’s three year old China video was almost more disappointing than the Chomsky one, because no matter how cleverly the story was told, the story was MSNBC or Fox News level in its bog standard propagandizing. Judging from this video, I think it’s fair to accuse Kraut of being just another cog in the US military Industrial Complex.
At this point I should probably clarify what I mean by military industrial complex, because my definition is a little different from others. Here’s an old clip.
“The Military Industrial complex has metastasized. It’s not the thing Eisenhower warned about 50 years ago it’s much, much bigger. The crucial element is time. For 50 years this system has been growing. Defense contractors now include a surprising number of businesses you would never think of, but the US military buys a lot more than just guns. In Eisenhower’s day there were people in government, media, and academia who remembered an era before militarization. Those people are now all dead. MIlitary money funds an immense ecosystem of journalism, universities, and think tanks, all of which are knowingly or unknowingly dedicated to the continuation of the current system. Very few working within this system can even see how absurd that system is.”
The Military Industrial Complex isn’t just a set of institutions, it’s an all encompassing ideology, and it’s international. It’s a way of looking at the world that you have to consciously work to try to see beyond. I’m not saying that Kraut is paid by Washington, DC, or is doing this consciously, but I am definitely saying that, with this video anyway, he’s a servant of US empire.
We hear a lot about how nobody respects authority anymore in the internet age, and how governments have lost control of all of the narratives. I believed that too until January of 2018. Most politics nerds were understandably focused on the Donald Trump show, which allowed Washington, DC to roll out a seismic shift in US foreign policy. After wasting 6 trillion dollars on the obscene failure of the War on Terror, the Pentagon published a national defense strategy refocusing on Great Power Competition. After 20 years of creating terrorism everywhere in the name of security, the Pentagon confidently asserted that it would now be using our tax dollars to create, or rather to fight great power competition.
Well, I assumed that this new National Defense Strategy would be ridiculed into nonexistence. Let the gang that destroyed the Middle East loose on economically important countries like Russia and China? Surely our famously adversarial media ecosystem wouldn’t let that happen. During the Trump administration? It wasn’t possible. Well actually it was very possible.
To my surprise, Almost every media source in the United States, and in Europe, got on board immediately, regardless of supposed partisan affiliation. It was almost as if they had been given marching orders. Even the business press, that had spent 20 years selling China’s economy, started a very successful campaign of fear-mongering about the security of Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. The idea that China had somehow fooled us, or betrayed us by not turning into Switzerland within six months of joining the World Trade Organization became the new party line, from the Trump administration, to the New York Times, to the Economist. And by October 2019, the China panic had even made it to a German YouTube channel…
“Because here is an uncomfortable truth that we are only just starting to realize. China’s economic growth blinded us. It prevented us from seeing how its society developed, and what it developed into, and how.”
Kraut’s China panic, just like the Pentagon’s, is rooted in some pretty fundamental misunderstandings of how the world works. I have two main critiques of this video, and they are both about history that Kraut either misunderstands completely, or consciously leaves out.
In this video Kraut,
A: Doesn’t Understand The past 2,000 years
B: Ignores All the relevant Geopolitics Of The Past 20 Years.
In my first video on Kraut, I explained why I hadn’t watched many of his videos, and this China video is the one I was complaining about specifically.
“They are just so god damn long. And whenever I would try to watch one of his videos, I would usually stop when I got to some glaring error or blatant misinterpretation. If something’s an hour long, and I come to something that’s clearly wrong on minute 10, I usually can’t bring myself to watch the rest of the video.”
Here are some of the errors that made it so hard for me to watch Kraut’s China video.
“For almost 2,000 years the world revolved around China, and all those empires, kingdoms and Republics that banned trade amongst themselves all traded with China.”
“The Chinese Market and Chinese products are what dominated European, Middle Eastern and even African economies for almost 2,000 years.”
This is a central facet of the China panic narrative. China ran everything for all of human history, and now they’re coming back! You see this idea pushed everywhere. Despite the fact that it’s complete bullshit.
This idea of a historical Chinese hegemon is the worst sort of presentism. It’s an indisputable fact that for long stretches of the past 2,000 years China was the most sophisticated and economically developed country in the world, but what that meant, 1,000 years ago, or even 50 years ago, was a completely different thing from what it means today. Amusingly, Kraut acknowledges how much the world is constantly changing within this video, but somehow misses the implications.
“The previous year the American businessman, Malcolm Mclean, frustrated with the immense difficulties of loading and unloading goods on ships, trucks and trains, came up with the idea of a standard measure metal box, specific for trade, unified international dimensions and easy to transport. The Americans would not adopt the metric system, but they certainly know how to use it. This invention on the 26th of April 1956 are dates that will go down in human history of similar significance to the invention of the printing press. It completely revolutionized global trade. Suddenly everything could be transported, quickly, efficiently, at low cost across the entire world.”
This is a great point. The world got exponentially more connected in the 1950s. But what Kraut neglects to mention is that this was only the latest exponential growth in trade over the past 500 years. The standardization and grading of agricultural commodities in the 1800s was another massive shift. So were railroads and steamships. Trade got exponentially bigger at multiple different points in the process of building our modern world. But you have to understand the flip side of this too. This means that the rewards of being the biggest economic player in the world get exponentially smaller as you work your way back through history. Before the industrial revolution we did not live in a world that is anywhere near as unified as it is today. Sure China was a strong empire for a while, that you had to approach humbly to trade with. But that’s been true for dozens of historic empires, from the Aztecs to the Byzantines. China’s sheer historic size and continuity does make it special, but it didn’t give them magic industrial trade powers in the ancient world.
The direct European silver for Chinese porcelain and silk trade didn’t last for 2,000 years as Kraut implies, it barely lasted for 250, between the advent of the Spanish and Dutch in Asia and the British crushing of Chinese independence in the 1840s. Before the British knit together the first world system in the 1750s the world was vastly more isolated than it is today. Yes, there were growing trade links, but the world had much more separate histories. Empires could rise and fall in different parts of the world without directly impacting everybody else. China probably was humanity’s biggest economy for long stretches of time. But that didn’t mean much. China never dominated the world.
Which brings me to the point where I stopped watching this video two years ago. “The First British trading missions to China offered the Chinese the newest and most modern technological advances… and the Chinese rejected their offer. In Latin. Because that was the language of those Europeans they had the trade deals with. The fact that the Romans had stopped existing 1,000 years ago didn’t matter to them and their cultural mindset. To Them the British were the same barbarians as the Romans.”
This is complete hogwash. It’s the level of historical understanding you’d find in a Jackie Chan movie. There were no governmental contacts between ancient Rome and China, let alone trade deals. It’s possible that an ancient Marco Polo or two made it from one capital to the other, but they left no record if they did. If this anecdote has any truth to it, the Chinese spoke Latin to the British in the 1700s because Latin is what the Jesuit missionaries of the 1600s, like Matteo Ricci, were speaking.
Some of the misunderstanding here may come from the concept of the Silk Road. It was almost never a highway or railroad that a single set of merchants would ride from one end to the other. It was a series of chunks. Some Chinese goods made it to Rome, but they passed through multiple hands to get there. At least until the Mongol invasion of the 13th century, there were empires full of prosperous middle men in between East and West. There were no trade deals between China and Rome.
It may seem like I’m spending too much time on ancient history, but the myth of China’s historic dominance is vitally important to the case that Kraut is making.
“But most crucially to Xi and Xi’s main mission and agenda is to rebuild the geopolitical power that this empire once had.”
There’s no question that China wants to be rich and respected, and would be happier if the US had less of a presence on the Chinese border. But the baseline assumption that China wants to run the world due to past glory is deeply dubious. Kraut and the rest of Washington DC’s war mongers assume that China wants to run everything, but it’s based on faulty historical assumptions like the ones I just laid out here.
Kraut’s video is also based on a deeply flawed approach to contemporary history as well. There are some parts that it isn’t fair for me to mock him about. This is a three year old video, and it’s not Kraut’s fault that many of the assertions he makes now look ridiculous. The panicked passages on China’s sinister move to loan money and build infrastructure in Africa look pretty silly now, but that’s because we’re speaking from the future. The five minutes Kraut devotes to China’s purchasing of Australia also look pretty silly in light of the way that relationship has deteriorated. Even the US mainstream press is beginning to concede that the Belt and Road Initiative is somewhere between harmless and a massive failure for China. Now, I could have told you that five years ago but this standard China Panic Drivel was the Pentagon dictated majority view in Western Media back then so I can’t really blame Kraut for believing it. I could spend ten minutes telling you why you shouldn’t be worried about Chinese investment abroad, but why bother, when the YouTuber Polymatter has already done such an amazing job doing it. You can check out their great summing up at a link here or in this video’s description.
Kraut is absolutely right to call Trump’s China strategy a failure. Trump’s choice to not just attack China, but also attack all of the US allies we needed to effectively isolate China at the same time was a world-historically stupid thing to do. I’ve said elsewhere that Donald Trump was China’s biggest opportunity since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and gave the Chinese an all-powerful ally against Japanese imperialism. After Trump’s election, a savvy China could have stepped in and become the world’s champion of civility and globalization. In 2017, I shared Kraut’s horror at Xi Jinping’s trip to Davos.
“The 15th of January 2017, a day that will go down in the history books, is when China had one of its greatest triumphs. At the world economic forum, an event hosted by the elites of global capitalism, the President of the Chinese Communist State, was the opening speaker, lecturing the world on how to do proper and more free trade, and how his nation would take a leading position in such. America’s president wasn’t even present.”
At the end of his video, Kraut even goes so far as to say…
“China has taken full advantage of his presidency, moreso than anyone else, to aggressively push further than any other Chinese president, and set its global ambitions into stone. While everybody else was distracted with a funny looking blonde man, because apparently his presidency is apparently all about ‘triggering the libs’ and no actual coherent policy.”
Trump was China’s greatest opportunity since Pearl Harbor. And five years later, we can say with great confidence, that they completely fucked up that opportunity. They could have risen above Trumpism and won the world, but instead they decided to jump down to his level, get in the gutter with the pig, and alienate everybody with “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”. Trump said some nasty stuff to our allies, but China actively arrested their citizens and sanctioned their legislators. China committed crimes against humanity in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and even managed to fall into lethal border disputes with India. Three years ago, Kraut’s video could still make a good case that China was on the path to victory. After Covid, with a faltering economy, and a work force that is both declining and getting more expensive, the Chinese Communist party is beginning to look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. The Chinese government doesn’t look like the rulers of tomorrow, they look like idiots. But you can’t blame the Kraut of three years ago for not seeing that.
I think there’s a much deeper flaw in Kraut’s China video though, that goes far beyond some of its fear mongering aging poorly. Kraut has made a video about geopolitics, with a strong focus on the first two decades of this century. It’s compelling stuff, and he pulls out all the stops audio visually speaking. But it’s deeply wrong, not because he’s lying about what China is doing, but because he’s pretending that China is the only power doing anything. In Kraut world, China is already well on its way towards being the world’s only power, and it seems to be making choices in a vacuum.
“The same way the Americans found themselves confronted with the problem that some free markets are not free, China found itself confronted with the problem of free market countries that are free, and those free countries may limit their trade based on how your unfree government may behave. They are accountable to the public for democracy and law. The public in such countries might not approve of business with dictatorships or backdoor dealings with them. So what do you do about with pesky democracies?”
I’m sorry, pesky democracies? Is that the story of the past 20 years? China reshaping the world while a few outnumbered democracies desperately try to avoid Chinese imperialism? Seriously? Is China the country that’s been driving worldwide militarization over the past 20 years?
“What do these Venezuelan riot police, Kenyan troops in Somalia, Ecuadorean police, and Sudanese soldiers all have in common? They all use Chinese equipment, Chinese armed vehicles specifically built for riot control, Chinese personnel carriers, Chinese Mass surveillance systems, and Chinese Rifles.
Kraut is absolutely right that China does bad things on the world stage, but his approach to the last 20 years is like talking about the US’s World War II conquest of Asia and nuking of a couple cities without mentioning Pearl Harbor or the horrors of the Japanese empire. China has been acting out over the past two decades. But not because it’s trying to build a world empire. It’s because China is quite rightly terrified of the United States.
This century’s first US government, Under George W. Bush inaugurated a policy of open ended war, anywhere on the planet it felt like going. In the process it destroyed and occupied a number of sovereign countries including Afghanistan on the Chinese border. The Obama government claimed it would be more friendly to the world, and then destroyed Libya, the richest country in North Africa, inaugurating waves of Jihadism and a lost economic decade for some of the poorest countries on Earth. In destroying Libya, the United States also managed to completely screw over China and Russia at the United Nations, promising that we would not use the humanitarian mission the security council approved for regime change, and then doing regime change. It’s key to point out that In his second term good cop Obama openly announced that he was going to pivot the American War Machine to Asia, and convinced Japan, China’s greatest tormentor, to abandon its decades old policy of pacifism. Obama was followed by Trump, who claimed to be laser focused on attacking China in almost every campaign speech he gave. The current US government has kept Trump’s tariffs on China’s lifeblood, international trade, and even though it is busy slaughtering Russian troops in great numbers in a Ukrainian proxy war, it has decided that now is the perfect time to kick off a new Taiwan crisis. China’s choices to respond to all this with crimes against humanity to secure its borders in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and intimidation to secure its sea lanes is sad and stupid, and should be confronted diplomatically, but wow, is China not the 21st century’s main agent of chaos.
Kraut’s China video is very well made. But it’s also propaganda. And even worse, it’s not his propaganda, it’s US government propaganda. Three years ago, Kraut was doing the work of US Empire. Pure and simple.
In the interest of closing on a more friendly note, it’s important to mention that this is a three year old video I’m talking about. Scanning some of his more recent production, it looks like Kraut’s gotten a bit more skeptical of US government policy. I recently watched his video, The Folly of Liberal History and enjoyed it immensely. I believe it’s based on some Francis Fukuyama work I’ve also found useful. I disagree with parts of it of course, but I think it’s a really well done video, that makes some good points.
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