Baby Steps Towards Anti-Capitalism: A Discussion with Isaiah Paik, Part One
TikToker, activist, and aspiring presidential candidate Isaiah Paik discusses leftist politics, and how we can all do our part to initiate material change.
“Hello. My name is Isaiah Paik. I am 19 years old, and I am running for President of the United States in 2020. I am running as an independent, and I am running as an anti-capitalist, I am running as a member of Generation Z, and I am running for all of us.”
Isaiah Paik (@paik4president) is a popular TikTok creator who focuses his content on a diverse array of topics, including economics, Gen Z culture, anti-capitalism, and leftist ideologies. He currently has 67K followers and 1.7M likes on the social media app.
Paik joins PIA Deputy Editor Jalen Jones to talk about how leftist political action exists within and outside of the world of social media. In Part One, the two discuss anti-capitalist efforts, and how new leftists can approach political change that is both tangible and sustainable.
So I can see that you’re really vocal about leftist politics all over your social media, especially on your pretty popular TikTok account. This may be a little basic to those who are really involved with politics, but for those who may just be entering this realm, what is it that you would say makes somebody a leftist, as opposed to a liberal, or just generally a progressive?
So I think that leftism is kind of divided into two different spheres. There's cultural, and then there's economic. We're having a nice mainstream moment for cultural leftism, and I'm really happy about that. That just comes with accepting various political and social minorities (like Asian Americans), platforming those people and allowing them to be recognized as equals and have a just society for all kinds of people. I'm definitely for that. But the other avenue of leftism, which I don't see as much discussion about (and that was what I really wanted to start by page about back in March) is economic leftism. That's saying “well yes, you know there's lots of different people, and we can recognize diversity and trying to have an inclusive society, but all that doesn't matter if the means of producing wealth and the means of controlling resources are held in the hands of a very few people—it doesn't matter the race or the gender or the sexuality of those people, because the fact that they are so few and have so much power over the rest of us, that’s the real problem.
That's why it's actually been kind of an interesting journey for me, because I started out on TikTok back in March saying I was running for President; I knew that that would give me political TikTok clout, especially in March during the Democratic primaries... I started off just talking about class, and not talking about race at all—only in the past couple months (because of the Asian American and API stuff happening recently have I started to be more vocal about that, but my primary focus is always this economic leftism idea.
I actually was curious about why you had the whole “paik4president” deal—a lot of leftists will actually advocate to not vote in elections. I personally saw this on my social media pages a lot. You must have some kind of faith in our electoral system since you plan to be running for president, right?
I definitely recognize where they're coming from. I struggle with this a lot. paik4president is both cynical—like, I know that back in March when I was 19, this is gonna give me political TikTok clout if I start as this “presidential candidate”—but also an encapsulation of my own ironic dreams. I do want to go into politics. I do want to run for office in the future. I just finished my junior year of college; I want to try to go to law school after this, and so it’s very much a part of what I want to do with my life.
The traction there is part of this larger tension in my life—part of me, especially being a first generation Asian American, really wants to put myself out there to show that I can succeed in America. The most prestigious office in America is the president, so that's where my sights are set; the other part of me is this leftist who's become more and more aware of the inequality and disparities in our world, and wants to see the whole system come down. Why I was pushing people to vote in 2020 (why vote for Biden rather), and why I think that electoral politics is important at least as a form of harm reduction. We don't live in an ideal world, and so in the same way that I'm anti-capitalist but like, need to buy food and eat, I say that I'm against a lot of stuff the US federal government has done, but at the same time like, participating in it is better than not participating, when there are worse alternatives.
There are people who say there's no ethical consumption under capitalism, and I feel like that applies to both anti-capitalism and leftism. If you are really really into it and you really really ardently believe it, it can become very isolating and very paralyzing; I've been in those places myself, especially last summer or the year before. I would get into this select, sort of depressive headspace of “there's nothing I could do, and nothing matters because all of these systems have so much more power than me,” but I think if you let yourself just get stuck in that and only think about that, it's becomes the opposite of activism. It's because there's no action in that. It's all passive at that point. You have to allow yourself a grace to recognize that, yes, nothing is going to be an ideal solution, but action is better than inaction. If you have principles you can mobilize action around—even if they're not going to be entirely solved by you or by anybody in this century—it's still productive to act in that way.
I was gonna bring up how like your “Capitalism is Bad” video series. I love it. It's simple, yet also very educational. But, after watching these videos I'm always left wondering: So what's next? Can I do anything about these issues under capitalism? Is there anything more besides just knowing a system is bad? There's so many things about this country that I'd like to make better, but I just end up paralyzed because there's so many things to address. What would action look like to you, and do you have any advice on how people can get the ball rolling more so in the anti-capitalist direction as opposed to less so?
I definitely see what you're saying. Part of that is just what capitalism has done to the media. It's so productive to make media that just tells you about a problem, so that all of our lives we just see media about problems (rather than how to fix them). You can't hold it upon yourself to try and solve every problem that you've seen on Instagram or TikTok, because no one person can do all of that. Like when I first started on TikTok, you're right, I would just make these “Capitalism is Bad” videos, and I had this silly belief that if I just made enough videos about why capitalism is bad, people would do something about it. I realized I can't put that expectation on myself, because that's never going to be the solution by itself.
I have to think about it as part of a whole—in the realm of TikTok, but also in general. Our actions can be part of something larger than ourselves. I had to set my sights smaller than trying to change the entirety of American discourse!
This past year I've started volunteering, and it was just through a local group that I found in my city. I'd highly recommend checking out the Instagram stories of other leftists or other people you know, because that's been a really meaningful experience for me; to affect a very significant amount of change for a smaller amount of people, I'll just go and collect masks and stuff from my college and then go and hand them out to people and to mutual aid. That sort of stuff is maybe less impactful, and it doesn't get you 50,000 views (on social media), but it actually does something. Finding an avenue for you to do something—whether that's volunteering, whether that's trying to raise money for organizations, etc.—that's also something that I've started doing as well. I've tried to shift from just flatly “Capitalism is Bad.”
Capitalism is bad—we know this, and go “here's a mutual aid organization you can support,” “here's a fundraiser that one of my friends is running.” I tried to make content like that. I did a live stream actually on Sunday to raise money for two different Asian American charities. So I just feel like I feel like you have to recognize that you're not going to solve everything by yourself. No one's gonna solve anything by themselves, and if you think that you were trying to solve everything by yourself or if your sights are set too high, that's gonna paralyze you. You need to think: What can I actually do? Especially as a young person, what ways can I affect change in a way that's manageable and accomplishable for me at this moment? Because if I try to do stuff that I can't actually do, then I'm just going to be frustrated about it.
Yeah, you’ve got to take baby steps first in order to get anywhere.
Speaking of mutual aid efforts, how did you get started with yours? You mentioned that you found out about it through social media. How do you recommend people generally get involved with these? I’m thinking, as I said, baby steps towards anti-capitalism.
I would say to definitely take the chance to explore your communities. I'm maybe not the best resource on this, as I'm definitely getting more involved with this as well. I'm kind of in the transition stage myself, from being this mainly online leftist, to trying to do community organizing—trying to help, especially now that I've gained this platform to point others in the right direction as well.
I would say try to be aware of and embedded in your community. College is a really good starting place, especially for you to get a good handle on a lot of these ideas. But, there's also a tendency for you to just share these ideas with other people at your school or other people on the internet, and then not translate them into any meaningful action. If you're in college, I would say look beyond your college—that’s where I was able to find a lot of good volunteering opportunities. Definitely check out social media too. People on TikTok complain that leftism and wokeness is just becoming a “meme,” as in becoming really socially popular right now... but I think that that popularity is really good, because I believe that that allows opportunity. Obviously be critical and don't just do things because you think it will give you social clout, but the fact that people are trying to prove how caring and empathetic they are is valuable. That not only increases their chances of sharing opportunities with other people, but also, it's just pushing a good cultural narrative that we should care about things.
Try to coordinate with people. Like if you have friends, you can organize stuff yourself; you can work with your school to organize community events, or to give things away. Just think about material needs in your area, and how you can try and meet those needs and recognize that if the need seems too great, you can find a smaller need and try to solve that as well. Something that you can do.
I do think that a lot of people—including myself honestly—get comfortable with having these ideas, these thoughts about anti-capitalism and leftism. I'm having conversations, so it’s like I'm doing the work. But you're not really getting anything done if you don't actually go out and make use of those ideas.
I see a lot of people saying that TikTok discourse doesn't matter at all, and I go back and forth on this a lot because I do think that action with our words without any action is kind of meaningless. But, I also think that messages matter a lot, so communicating with other people in trying to convince, say your family to vote more Democrat than Republican is also productive work. Even if it's not changing anything materially right away, all material conditions result from people's beliefs, opinions, and worldviews about stuff, so that aspect really is productive as well.
If you focus on just changing minds, that's another way to sort of get burned out. TikTok is a great place to remind you that there's an infinite supply of people to disagree with you, and if your goal is just to disagree, and try to convince people, you can do a lot of good there—but that's also an unlimited need right for for convincing, whereas you can also just help a lot of people materially, in a less taxing way.
This interview was held on Monday, 05/31/2021.