Leftists who write thinkpieces or satires about the alt-right tend to produce more sensationalism than substance. Too often, satisfying but unhelpful insults like “anime Nazi dorks” and “neckbeard fedoras” stand in for analysis.
Rarely do we try to understand why someone who thinks of themself as a good person would want to join what amounts to the online youth wing of a global neofascist movement. Yet many have — especially, yes, young white men — and the reactionary wave continues to spread.
By contrast, in Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars From 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, the Irish journalist Angela Nagle has made efforts not just to mock and condemn but to understand what’s driving the alt-right’s rise — and how the Left’s worse tendencies help it grow.
The new book is an expansion of Nagle’s reporting on the subject for American socialist magazines. Building on work by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman and essayist David Auerbach, Nagle traces the alt-right’s origins to the anonymous message boards, chat rooms, wikis and blogs that dominated cyberspace through the mid-2000s and early 2010s, before today’s public and interlinked social media accounts had reached their current level of dominance. Defined by total anonymity, fleeting interactions and information overload, these spaces fostered a milieu of digital pranksterism and sophisticated in-jokes centered on two core interests: celebrating geek culture and transgressing moral boundaries
This culture was a mess of contradictions. On the one hand, it was for a time a hotbed of principled leftist cyber-activism that culminated in endeavors such as the Anonymous movement and early Wikileaks. Though their methods were controversial, these “hacktivists” were key to exposing much Obama-era corporate and government wrongdoing. In April 2010, for example, Wikileaks released the Collateral Murder video of U.S. helicopters shooting a Reuters journalist and several civilians in Baghdad. The next year, hackers revealed that Bank of America — with help from the Department of Justice — had assembled a team of shadowy intelligence contractors to coordinate a campaign of disinformation and hacking against journalists and activists.
As Nagle sees it, this radical element has faded away, undermined not only by state spying and repression but also by the inherent limits of its leaderless structure and ideological vagueness.
What’s arisen in its place is something more toxic: a shallow online identity politics of both the Left and Right that Nagle calls “politics as culture war.”
The right-wing side grew out of forums like 4chan, where white and upper-middle-class teenagers, protected by screen names and driven by deep social alienation, could plot to ruin the lives of random strangers through harassment and the publication of personal information (known as doxxing) while cracking intentionally hyperbolic and supposedly ironic jokes on sexist, pedophiliac, anti-Semitic and racist themes. In these web communities, it’s intentionally ambiguous whether jokes like “Jews did 9÷11” are supposed to be funny because they’re absurd or because they’re true. This proves a fruitful ambiguity for actual racists, as it helps them normalize and spread their beliefs.
It was the 2014 “Gamergate” controversy, Nagle explains, that turned this largely apolitical “culture of transgression” into a far-right cultural movement. When female video-game journalists such as Anita Sarkeesian took issue with sexism in the gaming world, offended male gamers unleashed a sustained campaign of harassment, doxxing, and rape and death threats against the critics. Like-minded young men (and some women) took note. Soon a decentralized coalition of rabid anti-feminists, white nationalists, “free-market” libertarians and even self-proclaimed monarchists had declared war on political correctness. The shared culture they developed, Nagle writes, was “characterized by a particularly dark preoccupation with thwarted or failed white Western masculinity as a grand metaphor.”
This primordial stew of proto-fascism is what came to be called the alt-right. After moving through its origins, Nagle spends the bulk of her book sketching its various component movements and their figureheads.
There’s the Manosphere, whose diverse collection of misogynists is united in the belief that feminism has destroyed both the traditional family and their own sexual prospects. There’s Richard Spencer and his white nationalist brigade, who argue for the biological reality of race, the impossibility of a multicultural society, and the need for white ethnostates to defend the West from immigrants and Islam. There are carnival barkers like Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes and Lauren Southern who manufacture whole media careers by baiting over-earnest progressives into shrill and predictable denunciations. And there’s the whole sad parade of self-help gurus, conspiracy theorists and supplement-peddling hucksters — think InfoWars.com owner Alex Jones — who have found a way to make a quick buck and a name for themselves in the alt-right digital ecosystem.
It all has the feel of a whirlwind tour — which isn’t always to the book’s benefit. Much of Kill All Normies is a series of anecdotes that doesn’t take the time to define its terms or give more than cursory summaries of its subjects. Often these anecdotes are illuminating in themselves, but readers who aren’t already familiar with the relevant subcultures and slang may struggle to keep up. (This improves in the last three chapters and conclusion, which stand on their own as analytic essays.)
Nagle is at her best when she moves past the fleeting scandals and fads of digital culture and cuts to the psychological roots of this new far-right cultural politics — particularly its anti-feminist core. With surprising sympathy, she outlines their “anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status” in the sexual hierarchy. She quotes “men’s rights activist” F. Roger Devlin, who argues that the freedom of women to choose sexual partners outside marriage and defy traditional gender roles has led to “promiscuity for the few” and “loneliness for the majority.” Put bluntly, Devlin and his ilk believe women choose to hook up with elite men and leave the vast majority involuntarily celibate, or “incel.” Whether or not this argument holds, those lonely outcasts who see themselves as the victims of this narrative express their resentment at sexual rejection not only through trolling online but also by opposing women’s basic human rights and, in extreme cases, by committing sexually motivated murders as in the 2014 massacre near the University of California, Santa Barbara. Nagle concludes, convincingly, that this is “the central issue driving this kind of reactionary sexual politics, perhaps even the central personal motivation behind the entire turn to the far Right among young men.”
But Nagle argues these ideas gained currency as part of an online culture war — and every war has more than one side.
The alt-right’s mortal enemies came into their own at the microblogging service Tumblr, where other socially alienated teens constructed subcultures based around increasingly arcane racial, gender, sexual and other identities. Nagle argues — and I agree — that this supposedly liberal movement retreated into symbolic politics and a profoundly illiberal culture of virtue signaling, grievance and social authoritarianism.
Drawing on the work of the late writer Mark Fisher, Nagle defines “Tumblr-liberalism” (her term, though I think this underestimates the tendency’s reach into radical as well as liberal circles) by its intolerance of dissent: “The very idea of winning people over through ideas now seems to anguish, offend and enrage.” Instead, those who would express something different from the party line must be harassed or even denied a platform entirely.
Nagle catalogues many damning instances of this tendency using public humiliation, censorship, harassment and firings in order to promote and enforce its dogmas, both online and off. (In fact I’d argue the sheer breadth of her examples shows Tumblr liberalism is something that extends far beyond Tumblr and has deeper roots.) In one case, an “antiracist” Twitter user responds to the death of a six-year-old attacked by an alligator by mocking the “white male entitlement” of his parents; in another, anonymous students bring the academic Laura Kipnis before a Title IX court simply for writing an essay arguing love affairs between professors and their students don’t necessarily constitute an abuse of power.
The spread of “antifa” tactics among anarchists and liberals in the Trump era has seen no-platforming increasingly applied to the alt-right. But Tumblr liberals, it seems, more often than not target others on the Left, denying a platform to those guilty of thought-crime against various sacred cows. This trend continues, as evidenced by a recent scandal in which philosophers called on a feminist journal to retract an article that dared to engage seriously with the notion of Rachel Dolezal-style “transracialism.”
Nagle believes these Tumblr liberals have “made the Left a laughingstock for a whole new generation.” Though nominally opposed, Nagle argues, the alt-right and Tumblr liberalism feed off each other and form “essentially two rival wings of contemporary identity politics.” In the new culture wars between these two groups, the alt-right is able to claim the mantle of free speech and countercultural transgression that leftists once proudly boasted to represent, so that the Tumblr liberals are positioned as a sort of morality police — prudish, inquisitorial, and widely despised. This in turn has made being on the Right “something exciting, fun and courageous for the first time since … well, possibly ever.”
No doubt Nagle’s assault on identity politics will spark many necessary and overdue debates on the Left. Already this has been a key part of the book’s controversial reception. But what strikes me most is something else.
Though Kill All Normies is a fine piece of journalism and cultural criticism — the first serious popular study of its subject — I found as I read it that I kept coming up against the book’s most important limitation. Nagle has a tendency to see the alt-right as essentially a pop-cultural phenomenon or social malaise to be diagnosed, not a political movement with ideas that must be refuted. As a result, the book leaves many urgent questions unanswered. Does the alt-right constitute a twenty-first century fascism? What kind of politics, ultimately, follows from their beliefs? What connection do they have to the xenophobic nationalism currently sweeping electoral politics across the industrialized world? Readers must look elsewhere for answers.
Furthermore, Nagle’s focus on minor Twitter celebrities means she neglects the more serious intellectuals in the movement — whether it’s the post-libertarian dreams of authoritarian city-states one finds in Nick Land and Mencius Moldbug, the corporatist nationalism of Michael Anton, or the biological racism and white supremacy of Steve Sailer and Richard Spencer. These writers make complicated arguments against democracy and for racial and sexual hierarchy rooted in historical analysis, evolutionary psychology, IQ testing and political theory. Even when ordinary alt-righters can’t recognize them by name, they are often regurgitating vulgarized versions of their ideas.
These ideas are refutable and the politics underlying them is horrific. But every time the Left refuses to even try countering them with our own, the alt-right’s portrait of us as dogmatists who can only confront their terrible truths with censorship and violence gains credibility. (And that portrait, as we’ve seen, is a key component of how they recruit.) Nagle would probably respond that the alt-right’s insipid Internet lunacy reveals it to be fundamentally unserious and not worth engaging intellectually. But today’s revived socialist movement, of which Nagle and I are both a part, is no less a product of social alienation and postmodern irony than the new fascism, nor does it lack its own Twitter bullshit. In a country that elected Trump, it’s worth taking seriously the appeal of both movements as attempts to escape the dead end of neoliberalism — one by expanding democracy, the other by doing away with it.
Still, Nagle’s book is a good start. What we get from it is a brief history and a portrait of the cultural logic that may breed tomorrow’s authoritarianism. Hopefully it is the first contribution of many to that part of the antifascist struggle that employs means other than fists and makeshift shields.