Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the alt-right and Trump. Alresford, England: Zero Books, 2017. 120 pages.
It is easy to have dark, foreboding intuitions about what apocalyptic movements might be developing on the internet and social media. It is far harder to observe the birth processes of those rough beasts slouching towards Twitter to be born.
Of course, this is the nature of the development of extremist movements. To any outside observer, the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party would have presented nothing more than serious men in beards arguing incomprehensibly over party organization and dialectical materialism. Nor would watching angry veterans get drunk in Bavarian beer halls in 1921 have been much more enlightening about the threat to civilization steeping there.
It would have been helpful, when 20th-century totalitarianism was developing, to have someone like Irish journalist Angela Nagle around. The author of Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the alt-right and Trump is a sensitive and critical observer with the stamina to wade through enormous quantities of dreck. She has studied the tiresome and combative worlds of the online alt-right and identitarian left, managing to balance empathy, analysis and common sense. With the election of Donald Trump, her Marxisant publisher Zero Books recognized that this research was onto something big, and rushed to get this book out. In some places, the hurry shows: names are misspelled, minor errors abound and some chapters seem more finished than others. But overall this is an indispensable work of reporting and analysis.
Nagle starts by situating the dystopic worlds she is about to talk about in the recurrent “cyberutopianism” that periodically characterizes discussions of new communications technologies. The likely ur-text of cyberutopianism is John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,1 which announced to the “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel” that they had no sovereignty in the pure land of cyberspace, a “world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth,” in which the only law would be the Golden Rule.
In her first chapter, Nagle points to how this trope of cyberutopianism, despite apparently being buried by the absurdities of the dot-com era, was revived around 2011 with the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. She documents romanticization of the “leaderless network” enabled by technology, pointing out that this ideology disabled Occupy from taking on either programmatic form or tactical flexibility. She then turns to the development of the current online right. Kill All Normies shows more compellingly than any other book I am aware of how a nerdy male online subculture oriented toward video games became an increasingly dangerous alt-right.
Nagle describes an older generation of paleoconservatives around Pat Buchanan, who have long viewed politics as a battleground of racial and religious identity and despised the neoconservative project of turning the United States into a “proposition nation” in which anyone, regardless of religious or ethnic background, could be American so long as they believed in free markets and the Declaration of Independence. For the neoconservatives, this possibility was precisely what made the United States superior to “Old Europe.” For the “paleocons,” America is and should be a nation rooted in a white Christian majority, threatened as much by economic globalization and the neoconservative project of “perpetual war for perpetual peace” as by the identity politics of minorities.
The Buchananites recognize their dilemma in supporting a white, Christian American identity that is tied to capitalism and to the valorization of the U.S. military. In Nagle’s Marxist analysis (which many Buchananites share), the traditional white Christian identity of the United States is among the apparently solid things that the logic of capitalism “melts into air” in favour of the depersonalized logic of market exchange. Although Nagle does not point this out, the U.S. military serves both as a critical cultural marker for the white working class culture the Buchananites champion and as the backstop for the liberal, global order they despise. The paleocons share with the identity left a belief that universal, Enlightenment norms of liberalism and modernism are deeply deluded, and indeed view themselves as warriors in an identity struggle for America’s traditional majority.
The Buchananites have been purged by the mainstream right a number of times, most recently during the Iraq war. But they developed a presence online and a policy of “no enemies to the right” – including the small fascist groups that have always existed in America.
The “alt-right” as we now know it comes from a meeting of these Buchananite intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals with a younger generation marinated in the hypermasculinist subcultures of video gamers and “pick up artists” (men who claim to study techniques for sexual success). The match is hardly a natural one.The denizens of 4chan do not live traditional Christian lives but delight in a deracinated, pornography-centred lifestyle and a nihilistic will-to-power worldview. In Nagle’s analysis, they are the product of the cultural left’s traditional valorization of “transgression” and irony. Nagle describes how the gamer subculture interacted with the “manosphere,” a “leaderless network” of men trading complaints about women, pop evolutionary psychology theories and tips on how to be sexually successful in the Hobbesian 21st-entury dating market. The “manosphere” shades into a “race realist” (i.e. racist) subculture, which focuses these psychosexual anxieties on concern about lack of fertility among white women.
Nagle documents the bizarre “gamergate” controversy, in which a feminist game designer who created “Depression Quest” (described by Nagle as “a terrible game featuring many of the fragility and mental illness–fetishizing characteristics of the kind of feminism that has emerged online in recent years”) was repeatedly threatened with rape and death and harassed in real life and online. This criminal behaviour represented only an extreme example of the treatment regularly visited on women who for some reason inspire the ire of male internet “trolls.” As Nagle pointed out before the world became aware of it with the deadly riots in Charlottesville in August 2017, at the far fringes of this movement are individuals clearly primed for terrorist violence. At the same time, they (apparently with some assistance from Vladimir Putin’s FSB) constituted the “troll army” supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
Nagle’s account combines clear-headed journalistic description of these dangerous developments with an analysis that goes beyond moral denunciation – one that clearly has Marxist provenance but avoids academic jargon. I appreciate her account of how the cultural production of “irony” can allow plausible deniability and how “transgression” can easily lead to reactionary politics. Her analysis of how the logic of 21st-century capital is undermining structures of family, nation and race that were central to the development of capitalism is hardly novel, but is used nicely. From Nagle’s perspective, neither the centre nor the left is providing a positive vision to young white men threatened by demographic transition, transactionalized sexual relationships and the loss of meaningful masculine work. 4chan does not purport to have any answers to these developments either, least of all a traditional religious one, but like a dematerialized Munich beer hall it provides a sense of identity and agonistic struggle.
The other virtual subculture Nagle reports on is left-Tumblr, the “microblogging” home of gender fluidity. As with the racist-masculinist-nationalist right, there is nothing new about the transgender subculture. Drag queens were instrumental in the 1969 Stonewall riot that was a seminal event in the development of the modern gay rights movement. The idea that gender is distinct from biological sex, and more fluid and performative, has been part of feminist theory since Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex and is the fundamental theme of Judith Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble. What is new is Tumblr as the “subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas.”
According to Nagle, there are now literally hundreds of genders being expressed on Tumblr, from Ambigender (“a feeling of two genders simultaneously, without fluidity”) to Xirl (identification as a non-binary girl or nonbinary girl-adjacent). It is easy to be put off by the jargon inherent in these explorations, but in many ways gender-identity Tumblr is the ultimate expression of Barlow’s claim that cyberspace could liberate people from the matter- and history-bound hierarchies of “meatspace.” There can be no doubt that this has been a truly liberating experience for many people faced by stigmatization and seeking social solidarity.
As a leftist, Nagle does not want to deny this and certainly expresses solidarity with people feeling stifled by gender conformity (or who are part of other groups that have found networks and identity online). But she notes that “amid all the vulnerability and self-humbling, members of these subcultures often behaved with extraordinary viciousness and aggression, like their anonymous Pepe-posting counterparts behind the safety of the keyboard.”
“Pepe the Frog” is a cartoon mascot of the “race realist” alt-right, so Nagle is drawing a parallel that is in many ways unfair. The identities found on Tumblr can be life-changing in positive ways, while the same can obviously not be said for awkward white males radicalized by 4chan or the manosphere into politicized bigots. Gender-fluid Tumblr is not known for death and rape threats. But it certainly is known for calling out individuals for humiliation and shaming. Examples of mob behaviour and fanaticism include a widely-followed Twitter user “Brienne of Snarth” who criticized a grieving father of a toddler killed by an alligator in 2016 for “white privilege.”
Nagle introduces the concept of a “scarcity of virtue.” Status can be gained by self-righteously or snarkily denouncing others for racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia. Many minor celebrities built followers on Tumblr or Twitter by doing just this. But they can, in their turn, be exposed for the same sins by those with a more secure position of intersectional virtue. The dynamics are familiar to people who have encountered left-wing sectarianism in the predigital age, or to those aware of the Christological debates of the fourth century.
But the immediacy of social media does seem to spread moral panics faster and make for astonishing victims. Nagle points to campaigns against feminist icon Germaine Greer and gay activist Peter Tatchell. Secular ex-Muslims have been particularly targeted. While progressives are vulnerable to these tactics, alt-right performance artists like Milo Yiannopoulos made careers out of provoking “social justice warriors,” generating publicity and material rewards from right-wing fans (in Yiannopoulos’s case, until he went over the line in making supportive comments about relationships between pubescent boys and adult men).
One question I have about Nagle’s story here is whether what she is describing is simply the inevitable excesses of an essentially beneficial movement for greater social inclusion. Every reform movement, including those we all commend in retrospect, has had ideologues and enforcers, and has inspired backlash in the broader society – which rarely wants to be disturbed. It is easy to imagine oneself as an abolitionist or fighter for women’s suffrage in the early days of those movements, but it is quite possible we would have found them – as most of their contemporaries did – to be tiresome, self-righteous monomaniacs.
On the other hand, we also have the examples of the Jacobins, Communists and left-wing terrorist groups to show that egalitarian ideology can be consistent with a soul-destroying militant conformism and authoritarianism. I suspect that gender fluidity and intersectionality are unlikely to lead to anything beyond the occasional overreaction and waste of energy, since they seem inherently implausible as a basis for real political power. But it is hard to know.
Nagle points to the revival of a class-based economic left as a way out of the clash of right and left identity politics. This is not a new idea: reading Second International Marxists, it is hard not to be struck by how many of them valued class politics as a way to get away from the nationalist passions they could see pulling European civilization apart (and putting Jews, in particular, in danger), even more than as a way of redressing the inequities of capitalism. The idea of class as the solution to the “national question,” the “woman question” and other such questions can be found in different ways in Engels, Luxemburg and Lenin.
In the end, the reactionaries who thought nation would always beat class turned out to be right. It is fascinating how strong the pull of the idea of class polarization as a cure for identity polarization is among millennial intellectuals like Nagle. This promise of an exit helps explain the appeal of wooden old-leftists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn to people born after Marxism was apparently definitively buried.
1 Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence