JANUARY 30, 2020
YOU’VE PROBABLY SEEN the Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself memes going around social media — even members of Congress have been publicizing the conspiracy theories surrounding the alleged suicide of Jeffrey Epstein. Surprisingly, our most reactionary right-wing representatives are the ones who continue to amplify the story. From leftist politicians, on the other hand, there has been an odd silence. The podcast Trueanon, hosted by Marxists Brace Belden and Liz Franczak, wants to fill this vacuum. Through their podcast, Belden and Franczak hope to illustrate that the fascination with Epstein is part of a larger story about the rot at the heart of the global elite. From episodes about the history of the internet, to human trafficking, to why we need Medicare for all, the podcast helps contextualize the Epstein story. I asked Belden and Franczak about the story they feel the left should be telling about the ongoing Epstein scandal, and where we should go from here.
SAM JAFFE GOLDSTEIN: When did you first learn about Epstein? What did you find missing from the narrative that made you both want to start Trueanon?
LIZ FRANCZAK: I’ve been aware of the rumors surrounding Epstein and the Lolita Express for quite some time. I remember when Gawker published the Black Book, that caused quite the stir. When Epstein got arrested in July, Brace and I were chatting and started to dive deeper into the case. We got immediately wrapped up in all the crazy “coincidences” and connections.
BRACE BELDEN: I’ve also been thinking about Epstein for a while. His name was batted around during the 2016 election, mostly in regards to how neither candidate could really bring his name up to damn the other with. When he died, I saw a lot of talk about how depraved his crimes were, but the more interesting details — for instance, his ties to intelligence agencies — were shunted aside.
As with everything else in this world, there are different versions of the story depending on your ideological bent. What is your version? Why should people trust yours over Donald Trump Jr.’s? Or a liberal’s who thinks it is merely a glitch in the system?
LF: I’d like to think that I could engender more trust simply by not being Donald Trump Jr. But I think that we bring a different angle to the entire project — the left is right to be skeptical of the US government and shouldn’t shy away from critiquing its various state organs and military projects. Connecting this story to a larger history of US intelligence operations overseas and domestically is quite easy given the cast of characters and their various connections. I can understand why a liberal might not want to hear that, but that is something the left has been dealing with for over a century. There’s a lot of new left energy emerging in the States, which is exciting, but there’s a lack of education and understanding of the history of the state and the way it exercises power through various institutions, particularly to stymie left and labor power. While all this new energy is very exciting, I worry that the American left has absolutely no clue how capital and the state operate and exert control, that they, even while they scream about the horrors of capitalism, fundamentally don’t take capital power seriously. If they did, if they really, really did, they’d have a much more militant attitude than they display today. This shows me a lack of education and false consciousness, and this has to be addressed in some way. Hopefully we can get at some of that, with a bit of humor.
The Epstein case offers us a rare opportunity to tell these stories and explain in clear detail exactly what the left is up against. It’s a case that requires looking at the most powerful institutions and people all over the world and understanding how they all connect, support, fight for and against each other. This is the left’s rightful ground and it shouldn’t allow the right any space to capitalize on this story.
BB: I’m a psychopath that hates rich people.
A frustration about the story is that we now know so much about Epstein. There are pictures documenting it, it was all done in the open, yet it’s all still shrouded in mystery. How do you two handle that paradox?
LF: To me, this is a feature, not a bug. Bill Maher has been joking about “pedophile island” on television for 20 years; I spoke with someone recently who claimed that everyone on the Upper East Side in society circles referred to Jeffrey’s townhouse as “the veal farm” (a particularly gruesome nickname). However, I think that this is actually typical of these kinds of stories. Part of the fact that it was out in the open, at least partially, is what allowed it to go on for so long.
People get up in arms and say, “I can’t believe people didn’t say anything.” Who was going to say something? Donald Trump? Bill Clinton? Come on now. This is fundamentally not how power works. You cannot appeal to some unnamed, fantastical authority. This is the case with everything: you cannot appeal to an authority when the authority itself is implicated and indeed incentivized to keep this crime — whether it is this specifically or, as we talk about on the podcast, more generally — going. This is what power exerting power looks like.
BB: I’m not sure that anyone has any interest in getting past the more lurid details of his crimes. The connections that Ghislaine Maxwell alone has are worth quite a lot; the upper classes rarely throw their own under the bus if they can help it. I literally think that rich people are vampires in every sense of the word — psychic vampires, money vampires, sex vampires, blood vampires. They have a totally different, absolutely warped sense of morality and society. While Epstein is probably worse than most, the number of women that are bought and sold in high society is incredible. So while, like Trump, some of Epstein’s mores may be offensive to those at the top, he’s one of their men.
All the people involved seem so dumb. You listen to Epstein and the intellectuals who gave shine to Epstein’s reputation, and you are flabbergasted by their dullness. Does it now seem extremely obvious that they should have been called out? Or is hindsight 20/20?
LF: I might get in trouble for this, but I am not exactly of the mind that the men he was working with or the institutions he was bankrolling are of the genius variety to begin with. The meritocratic myth is so strong that I forgive the public for this, but we would all do well to disabuse ourselves of the notion that these men are rightfully at the top of the ruling class because they are smart. Should we have been paying attention? Yes, but the system is designed to obfuscate that. Philanthropy exists to launder the reputations of the bourgeoisie. Again, this is a feature, not a bug!
It is also worth noting that “calling out” isn’t actually a thing that the less powerful can do to the more powerful. How do you call out Bill Gates’s obsession with overpopulation in the Global South? How do you call out the Clinton Foundation ransacking Haiti? How do you call out Google’s continued existence? My point is that our authority is unfortunately made up of the very people we’d like to “call out.” All this does is appeal to different actors within this authoritative body to exert power of their own, but it cannot fundamentally change anything.
So “calling out” only serves to shore up legitimacy for potentially weak structures by appealing to an outside authority to do something — this appeal is what shores up the authority’s power, cleanses the system of the cancer that it itself has produced, and allows it to continue, business as usual, until another cancer inevitably metastasizes. I know it is not en vogue for leftist publications to take this stance, but this is why it is so dangerous for the nominal “left” to take part in such exercises — either against the seemingly powerful or within their own group. I really take a hard line on this.
BB: Liz says all that a lot better than I can. I think people have to recognize we’re dealing with an incredibly dangerous enemy. I think a lot on the left think we can out-moral those at the top. Well, of course we can, that goes without saying, our relation to production makes it so! But that alone doesn’t do anything. There will never be actual consequences. One or two individuals may be inconvenienced or embarrassed, but Prince Andrew is hardly going to get thrown in the clink. We have to work to create a society where people like Prince Andrew cannot exist.
The podcast also spends a lot of time discussing the worlds of academia and Silicon Valley, looking at what the Epstein story teaches us about our tech-libertarian overlords.
LF: The horror of academia, finance, and Silicon Valley is a real hobbyhorse of mine, so I’ll take any chance I have to “go off” on these societal cancers. Epstein, of course, bankrolled a lot of these people, was in the same dinner party circles as the Davos set. Again, I think he gives us a window into talking about these institutions and their complicated histories. As far as the libertarian-tech angle: I think this ties back to a larger history. DoD, RAND, Silicon Valley, Hollywood — these histories are uniquely tied up in a kind of frontier logic that is quite specific to California. Is it really a coincidence that the two largest American exports — culture and weaponry — come of age within a 25-mile radius of one another? I might throw out that the left lens to take with these developments — Silicon Valley, progressive and hippie and libertarian cultures, surveillance technology, and the development of mass-scale death weaponry — would assert that they are connected not on a red string but rather that all these forces and institutions are co-producing and interdependent. Come to think of it, maybe this is why it’s appropriate we use a David Lynch–inspired theme song for the podcast, a man whose work so deeply examines the waking dream of rusted-over Americana in the aftermath of the post-atomic boom.
As Epstein Didn’t Kill Himself has become right-wing meme, not a single right-wing outlet has done any gumshoe reporting. What do you think they are trying to exploit versus actually reveal?
LF: As always, they are just capitalizing on energy. The right is very good at this, in part because they have a sort of wink-wink attitude and various dissident-friendly institutions, at least within the media landscape. The left, unfortunately still very much drenched in liberal attitudes, is a bit self-serious when it comes to these things. It should worry everyone on the left that the right has taken a hold of “transgression.” The left needs to give itself permission to not be so serious all the time — transgression is the space of artists, the poor, the marginalized, and the downtrodden, where people experience a respite from the grind of daily working life, where joy becomes a materializing force. This is our fucking territory, and we’re giving it up to race realists and Holocaust deniers? At some point we need to take a step back and say, “Okay, what the hell is going on and how do we intervene?”
BB: The right has always thrived on pointing out real or imagined moral depravity. They’re all dimestore Julius Streichers. They’re horny for this sort of stuff, all the Steven Crowder set, this Epstein shit turns them on. They’re sick, it’s a type of perverted madness. They don’t want to solve the case, they want to masturbate to it. That said, I agree with Liz.
On an episode about Hillary and Chelsea Clinton’s appearance on The Daily Show — in what may be called a heated podcasting moment — you said you were happy Hillary lost. Although there are obvious reasons leftists who hate Hillary have not voiced that opinion, can you talk about the catharsis that your listeners may have felt when hearing that?
LF: A lot of people reached out after that aired and were thanking us. To be totally frank, we were a bit nervous with the edit, that we would get pushback for saying what we said. I can only speak for myself but I have a lot of resentment toward the Democratic Party, not simply over 2016 and the ratfucking they gave Bernie Sanders, but also for the direction of the party and its institutions over the last 20, 30, 40 years. Hillary Clinton is an easy target for this, sure, but also emblematic of the very changes within the Democratic institutions that have decimated the working class and given rise to an opportunistic right over the course of three decades.
Something happened post-2016 which, in my mind, is a real shame: the left abandoned its rallying cry that “Bernie would have won.” I think this happened for a couple different reasons: first, people were in genuine shock over the election of Donald Trump; second, liberal mores took over a not fully radicalized and nascent left-leaning but not fully organic working-class movement; and third, it became tacitly agreed upon that it was uncouth to discuss this because we could “move liberals to the left” and shift the Overton window in our favor. No doubt, some people looking to advance their careers had some stake in enforcing this final development.
I think there was an idea that we could all wash our hands of the Hillary Clinton stink and “move on” with “better understanding,” dragging liberals along to the left in order to strengthen the “mass movement.” I understand the impulse here, but in retrospect it ended up being a complete disaster. The entire point of the “Bernie would have won” meme was that Bernie would have won not just because of what he was speaking to — material issues that the marginalized working class desperately care about because quite literally no one will speak to them — but because he was able to do so by virtue of his status outside of all the compromised Democratic institutions implicated in the war against the working class. He could claim a moral high ground, a legitimacy borne through rare integrity that frankly, no other politician can. He would have cut through the bullshit of the right and charted a new course for the liberal-left, capitalizing on a new coalition both within and outside of, indeed in spite of, the wreck of the Democratic Party.
But to be more precise: The problem with Hillary wasn’t the Electoral College, or Donald Trump, or the GOP, or that she didn’t have “left progressive enough policies,” or the Russians. The problem with Democrats is the Democrats themselves. Rather than absorb this logic, the left said, “We can simply advocate for the Democrats to have more left policies,” as if you can “move” these institutions that are so deeply intertwined in finance, careerism, global capital, the nonprofit industrial complex, military-intelligence-surveillance corporatism, and so on, into a politics that is, by its very nature, a threat to the continued influence of those very institutions. These are irreconcilable antagonisms. So, here we are.
What does a reckoning with the story of Epstein look like to you?
BB: For the moment, I think that every single motherfucker in the Black Book — or everyone in that circle, everyone in that class — should be hounded with this story for the rest of their lives.
The term PSYOP (psychological operations) has come back, but is this term even needed when power has become so nakedly brazen about what it does? The CIA tortured people and they just continue to argue it was necessary.
BB: People have to realize that the CIA is alive as ever, that they are sick freaks and should be treated as such. A real reckoning means arrests, long sentences, and abolition of the type of society that can create monsters like that.
LF: I will say yes and no, if that’s okay. What I would push back on is the idea that everything the CIA and the US State does — both domestically and overseas — is out in the open. We call Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but wars end. The US is engaged in basically imperial policing of military outposts/colonies, and the idea that we have transparent knowledge into what is happening is just absurd on its face.
On the other hand, you are right to point out that power is, as you say, quite naked and brazen about what it does. A lot of this is due to the absolute collapse of our liberal institutions. The blame for this rests on the shoulders of Obama, in my opinion, who was elected with a mandate to do something precisely about this in the wake of the Bush administration’s crimes. Instead, he shored up the power of the surveillance and war state and caved to the cartel of bankers in the face of collapse. Is there a better phrase than “We tortured some folks” for the shrug the Americans gave the world when confronted with our great century of death? This is disciplining with a sigh. We used depleted uranium in Iraq, and scientists say the fallout is worse than Nagasaki. We don’t speak of the horrors we caused in the Middle East in the same way we understand Vietnam or the destruction of Japan. “Torturing some folks” doesn’t have the cruel triumphant splendor of the atom bomb — perhaps this is precisely the point.