Gregor Baszak parses Nagle's celebrated, and "overdue" reconsideration of the internet, and social media in particular as a battlefield for politics.
At his infamous press conference on August 15, 2017, President Trump was asked by indignant reporters why it took him so long to condemn the alt-right organizers behind the Charlottesville, Virginia rally. “When you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me,” the president countered. “You define it. Go ahead. Define it for me, come on, let's go” (qtd. in “Full text”).
At least on this front, Trump’s impatience with the media had its justification. Too often do we feel comfortable flinging buzzwords around, rarely though do we pause to see if we’re all on the same page regarding their meaning. What, we might ask in this vein, is “activism”? What is meant when critics make judgments about the prevalence of “white supremacy”? We’re all “feminists,” alright, but since it might mean one thing to some and another to others, it’s only fair to ask for a workable definition.
What, then, is the alt-right? Why did it emerge so suddenly and quickly gain so much power? What are its ideas? Who are its primary intellectual spokespersons?
Angela Nagle’s much-discussed recent book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right arrived just in time to answer these pressing questions. The alt-right, in her account, represents “a new wave of overtly white segregationist and white nationalist movements and subcultures . . . [which] called for a US white ethno-state and a pan-national white Empire” (12).
But the book does a lot more than provide definitions. Expanding upon arguments raised in an earlier essay-version, published in 2016 by The Baffler under the title “The New Man of 4chan,” Nagle directs her investigative gaze not just at the alt-right and its more mainstream variant, what she calls the “alt-light” represented by charismatic media figures like Milo Yiannopoulos; rather, one of the central claims of the book is that the left—especially its online variant of “Tumblr liberalism”—has actively antagonized American mainstream society through its celebration of identity politics and the concomitant and wide-ranging accusations of racism, misogyny, transphobia, and so on. If that weren’t enough, the derisively labeled “social justice warriors” of the online left and the academe tend to turn against each other in the process, resulting in “a vicious culture of group attacks, group shaming, and attempts to destroy the reputations and lives of others within their political milieu” (Kill 75). In turning its rage inward, the American left has effectively eaten its own, the result a tragic “brain drain out of the left . . . because of the Tumblrization of left politics [which] has done damage that will prove long-lasting” (80).
These pessimistic conclusions are arrived at by Nagle through two key theses structuring the book. The first is that “transgression,” a value cherished highly on the left not just since the 1960s, has become popular with the alt-right and its anonymous online troops, as well. Trolling grieving parents on the social media pages of their deceased children, linking feminism to cancer, shaming overweight people for their looks—for Yiannopoulos and his followers no taboo is too holy to be violated. Yet, being transgressive that way is considered “fun” by Yiannopoulos (29), a way to stem against a flood of censorious behavior promoted by the left.
Following the elections of 2016, many liberal commentators feared that Breitbart editor Steve Bannon’s appointment to a White House position meant that the alt-right had gone mainstream, and that a far-right figure had the ear of the President of the United States. We have seen already, however, that to Nagle the alt-right proper was a much smaller force than widely believed, limited to fringe elements advocating for white ethno-nationalism. Even Yiannopoulos’s status as a conservative is in doubt for Nagle, since “many of his views amount to little more than classical liberalism” (56). “Despite calling himself a conservative,” Nagle asserts, “he, Trump, rightist 4chan and the alt-right all represent a pretty dramatic departure from the kind of churchgoing, upstanding, button-down, family-values conservatism” that William F. Buckley and Phyllis Schlafly embodied as the forebears to the Reaganite revolution of the 1980s (56-7).1Infamously, days after Trump’s election Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore declared in front of dozens of House Republicans that Reagan’s ideological sway over the party was broken. Instead, the GOP was “now officially a Trump working class party.” To Moore “the shock was palpable” following his remarks.
Speaking of Reagan: During his tenure as president he oversaw a radical transition in the American economy away from the immediate post-War period of state interventionism and class compromise to a supply-side driven modus operandi that favored corporate profits over unions and the financial markets over manufacturing. The left, meanwhile, through a Gramscian impulse at winning ideological hegemony over cultural issues, marched through the humanities departments in the academe. Culture preceded politics in this view, and the hope was that a heightened consciousness would lead to other types of change “downstream” (40). The alt-right, it turned out, agreed but stayed clear of the university, waging battles online to conquer hegemony over cultural issues.
This leads Nagle to thesis number two: political discourse in America has become a matter of subcultural cliquishness, with insight into the true and just way of thinking, speaking, and acting restricted to a handful of enlightened few. On the left, using the correct identity markers and pronouns is knowledge guarded with extreme vigilance, and slip-ups in usage might lead to your being shunned fairly easily by an online community in which virtue is treated as a valuable though scarce currency (77). Nagle links this phenomenon to exclusive EDM club cultures: being in the know and outside mainstream taste are markers of high distinction. It becomes problematic, of course, once politics gets understood on the same level: rather than a quest toward organizing majorities, subculturalized politics aims at the exact opposite. As a result, we were able to observe the extreme marginality and censorious zeal with which the American left has driven itself into a corner throughout the last few decades. Drawing on Sarah Thornton’s work on club cultures, Nagle observes that participants of these various fashions tend to “[police] the boundaries of its subcultures through constant reclassification of hipness” (107). That thus the larger political battlefield was essentially surrendered to Trump and his alt-light/alt-right followers is evidence to Nagle that our celebration of transgression and counterculture must come to an end in favor of what she calls a renewed “materialist” socialist left.
This conclusion, and Nagle’s many other arguments, obviously didn’t go down very well with many of her readers on the contemporary left. To Red Wedge Magazine co-editor Jordy Cummings Kill All Normies reads above all else as “an anti-Left polemic” (italics in the original). In a review chock-full of expletives (some of her claims are held to be “just bullshit”), Cummings accuses Nagle of a lack of familiarity with the countercultures she’s addressing, ironic given the fact that a protective attitude around insider knowledge on such countercultures was one of Nagle’s primary targets. She has since singled out Cummings’ review and described it as “hilarious” (see her interview in Zero Books editor Douglas Lain’s podcast Zero Squared). In particular, she expressed her frustration with so many of her critics who, like Cummings, concentrated their criticism on the accusation that the book wasn’t “left-wing” enough—a betrayal to cause and movement, one that smacked just a bit too much of conservative sympathies and that wasn’t in tune enough with the established codes of the in-group. Nagle, however, does identify herself as a person of the left, essentially much in line with what she calls the “materialist” leftism of a Bernie Sanders or Barbara Ehrenreich. The online brigades of Tumblr and the like, in turn, she deems to be representative of the “liberal left” of America (Kill 68).
These labels seem rather accidental, however, and so we return to our initial problem of the ubiquity of underdefined concepts: It is not at all clear what it means to speak of such variants as leftism or liberalism in the 21st century, though Kill All Normies is peppered generously with use of such descriptors. While we close the book with a firm sense of what alt-right/alt-light and its personnel is, we are also left with the disconcerting confusion over what it means to be on the left today.2For the most useful attempt at defining the meaning of the “left” and the “right” in its historical usage, see Kolakowski.
The fact that the resurgence of the right is led by a flamboyant homosexual Briton like Yiannopoulos, someone who is more than eager to deploy transgressive countercultural tactics initially promoted by the New Left, means to Nagle that out of all the political currents of previous decades, the traditionalist conservatism of a Phyllis Schlafly “is the only force described here that has really died” (85). But does she not make just as strong a case to pronounce the left—in whatever shape or form—dead?
Since the left as a historical entity goes unexplained, so, too, goes Nagle’s primary object of critique, the “liberal left” of the second half of the 20th century. If this left is so self-destructive and intolerant of dissent, then can it even be said to be “liberal” in the first place? What Nagle is actually referring to is, of course, postmodern thought, which had identified itself exactly against the liberalism of the proponents of the Enlightenment and other such “metanarratives,” to use Lyotard’s famous phrase (xxiv). Unfortunately, Nagle’s discussion of postmodernism is unsatisfyingly superficial, largely checking off some key spokespersons in a few single pages to showcase their faults. Judith Butler’s theories are summarized in one subordinate clause (70), Stanley Fish’s audience-centered model of interpretation described with barely more detail (82-3). And yet their influence is held to be enormous by Nagle. Why did the exhaustion with the Enlightenment seem so attractive to so many thinkers at the same time, however? Why did the institutions to the left of the Democratic Party collapse so quickly and so tragically throughout the 20th century? How did we arrive at where we are now?
It is not as if answering these questions would have terribly exceeded the ambitions of the book. Rather, it would have added an historical heft urgently needed. As such, Nagle is left to presume that her readers will clearly share her exhaustion with identity politics. The proof that the latter is malignant? Provided by a list of gender identities spread over a page and a half in the middle of the book, “all taken directly from Tumblr” (70). Fair enough, learning that “Daimogender” is “[a] gender closely related to demons and the supernatural” (71) seems somewhat comical. Yet, there is little attempt by Nagle to persuade her postmodern foes of the inadequacy of the wrong-headed views they are deemed to hold. We have already seen how they responded. “Materialist” critics, in turn, loved Kill All Normies (see Liu, and MacDougald). Thus, no movement has been made, no ideological obstacle overcome, and, ironically, Nagle has mostly just satisfied the expectations of her own political clique.
Overall, it might be overdue to reconsider the internet as a battlefield for politics. To many early cyberutopians, it promised the re-democratization of a capitalist society grown stale throughout the 20th century (William Gibson, of course, immediately recognized that it was also an innovation ripe for swift corporatization—in his 1984 debut novel Neuromancer, cyberspace is portrayed to be “all corporate,” according to Gibson, “and a few cybernetic car thieves are skulking through it attempting to steal tidbits of information”3Gibson provided this summary account of his novel in a 1997 interview on the BBC series The Net, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUbm9dyITCY, accessed 12 Dec, 2017.). The internet was thus imagined to be a space, according to Nagle, “in which old hierarchical models of business and culture would be replaced by the wisdom of crowds, the swarm, the hive mind, citizen journalism and user-generated content” (3). “They got their wish,” she goes on, “but it’s not quite the utopian vision they were hoping for” (ibid.).
Wherever, over the past decade, we might have imagined the internet to serve as a transformative tool, as with Occupy or the Arab Spring, the quick demise of these movements revealed on the one hand the limitations of the “leaderless” model of politics; on the other, this demise showed that what we’re dealing with might not at all be properly considered “politics.” The predominance of filter algorithms on social media sites does not just limit the range of individuals a user might reach with his or her message; what’s even more troubling is that the algorithms appear also prohibitive of information reaching that user’s eyes to begin with. As Liza Featherstone observed in the wake of the 2015 mass shooting committed by Dylann Roof at the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, many Twitter users, like actor Rob Lowe, were quick to complain that the media failed to point out that Roof was white. A double standard? No, because how else might Lowe have found out about Roof’s skin color if not from the same media sources he complained about? Lowe and others simply hadn’t seen enough of a variety of sources pop up on their feeds. “Media criticism stood in for politics,” Featherstone concludes, and the predominance of the “filter bubbles” we’re stuck in limits the scope of our critical awareness (and our attention span, seeing how the wrath of the online swarm may erratically descend first on monuments and statues, then on the national anthem, and suddenly on alleged sex offenders—with attention on one issue never sustained long enough to amount to sufficient long-term policy changes, courtesy of social media algorithms).
To raise this problem in another form redeems Kill All Normies, as a criticism of the cult of the “leaderless form of digital revolution” (10), where everyone with a Twitter handle can pose as an heroic revolutionary. By contrast, involvement in traditional organizational forms of political activity, such as member-driven political parties or trade unions, where policy goals can be clearly defined and leaders recalled, is at an all-time low.4For a useful starting point on the problem of the “post-political,” see Heartfield. On the general phenomenon of “post-democracy,” see Crouch. Since no social-media personality is ever subject to such democratic scrutiny, literally anything can be said to accumulate clicks before the attention shifts elsewhere. As Nagle observes correctly,
"the leaderless form actually told us little about the philosophical, moral or conceptual content of the movements involved. Into the vacuum of “leaderlessness” almost anything could appear. No matter how networked, “transgressive”, social media savvy or non-hierarchical a movement may be, it is the content of its ideas that matter just as much as at any point in history."(27)
The alt-right stepped in to fill a void caused by a left in disarray. To consider how to reinvolve broader portions of the population into a communal sense of democratic engagement would mean to take matters offline.
Crouch, Colin. Post-Democracy. Polity, 2004.
Cummings, Jordy. “I Know Who Else Was Transgressive: Teen Vogue Has Better Politics Than Angela Nagle.” Red Wedge, 2 Aug, 2017, http://www.redwedgemagazine.com/online-issue/nagle-review. Accessed 4 Dec, 2017.
Featherstone, Liza. “Don’t Blame the Media for the Charleston Murders.” New York Observer, 23 June, 2015, http://observer.com/2015/06/dont-blame-the-media-for-the-charleston-murders/. Accessed 4 Dec, 2017.
“Full Text: Trump’s Comments on White Supremacists, ‘Alt-Left’ in Charlottesville.” Politico, 15 Aug, 2017, https://www.politico.com/story/2017/08/15/full-text-trump-comments-white-supremacists-alt-left-transcript-241662. Accessed 12 Dec, 2017.
Heartfield, James. The European Union and the End of Politics. Zero Books, 2013.
Kolakowski, Leszek. “The Concept of the Left.” The New Left Reader, edited by Carl Oglesby, Grove Press, 1969, pp. 144-158. Lain, Douglas. “Zero Squared #127: Nagle Answers Her Critics (Such As They Are).” Zero Books Blog, 5 Oct, 2017, http://zero-books.net/blogs/zero/zero-squared-127-nagle-answers-her-critics-such-as-they-are/. Accessed 4 Dec, 2017.
Liu, Catherine. “Dialectic of Dark Enlightenments: The Alt-Right’s Place in the Culture Industry.” Los Angeles Review of Books, 30 July, 2017, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/dialectic-of-dark-enlightenments-the-alt-rights-place-in-the-culture-industry/#!. Accessed 4 Dec, 2017.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, Manchester UP, 1984.
MacDougald, Park. “The Unflattering Familiarity of the Alt-Right in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies.” New York Magazine, 13 July, 2017, http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/07/angela-nagles-kill-all-normies-the-alt-right-and-4chan.html. Accessed 4 Dec, 2017.
Moore, Stephen. “Welcome to the Party of Trump.” The American Spectator, 25 Nov, 2016, https://spectator.org/welcome-to-the-party-of-trump/. Accessed 4 Dec, 2017.
Nagle, Angela. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Zero Books, 2017.