The negative-sum internet
Paul Demarty reviews: Angela Nagle, Kill all normies: the online culture wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the alt-right and Trump, Zero Books, 2017, pp120, £9.99
Alt-right supporters march through University of Virginia
It is a very great understatement to say that the election of Donald Trump challenged a lot of received wisdom.
In fact, outside of the head-banging Republican hard core in the Tea Party and in the modern conspiracy-obsessed equivalents of the old John Birch Society, there is scarcely a constituency in America that is not facing some sort of reckoning, whether or not it can face it squarely (Hillary Clinton’s absurd, conceited memoir of the 2016 campaign being an object lesson in how not to do it).
Kill all normies, a short book by the Irish, US-based writer Angela Nagle, is addressed to one particular strand of discussion - what role did the internet play in all this excitement, and where does that leave that vision of the new, non-hierarchical politics of networked youth that was so fulsome a source of substandard punditry in the first few post-crisis years?
Nagle’s book attracts interest first of all for the seriousness with which she takes the people at the core of her narrative - the novel far-right subcultures organised principally online, and outside of ‘traditional’ neo-Nazi haunts like the Stormfront web forum. These are the young men notorious for mob-handedly bombarding opponents, or indeed random passers-by, with horrendous abuse - though their targets are diverse, very much their principal enemies are feminists, and indeed women in general. Nagle has spent more of the last couple of years than is probably conducive to good health lurking on the relevant web forums, principally the link-sharing platform, Reddit, and 4chan’s notorious ‘/b/’ subforum - a feat for which she deserves some kind of medal. There might be nobody alive with a better grasp of the contradictions at work in this subculture - certainly its participants are blind to them.
The second point of interest is her central argument, which has unsurprisingly ruffled a few feathers. For Nagle, it is not merely that Donald’s electronic army is a rebuke to left techno-utopia: it is instead the latter’s twisted offspring - an evil whose gestation within the fold of liberal-left approval passed unnoticed because it shares much of its host’s ‘conventional wisdom’.
Nagle’s narrative begins, for all intents purposes, in 2010-11, a year and a bit that seemed to promise a great deal. The Occupy movement brought serious public protests back to the American streets - or at least public parks - for the first time since the movement against the Iraq war was at its peak. It was even longer since such protests had been directed at all against capitalism, with the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement around the turn of the millennium. In the global periphery, of course, there was the small matter of the ‘Arab spring’. The role of the internet in these movements was hotly debated; on this point Nagle cites Heather Brooke, who wrote in her book The revolution will be digitised: “Technology is breaking down traditional social barriers of status, class, power, wealth and geography, replacing them with an ethos of collaboration and transparency.”
Other examples, of course, abound: Nagle returns often to Manuel Castells’ Adbusters article, ‘The disgust becomes a network’, and she also mentions Paul ‘Nostradamus’ Mason’s Why it’s kicking off everywhere. Of course, things did not exactly go to plan:
The Egyptian revolution led to something worse - the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists ran riot in the streets and stories of rapes in the very public square that had shortly before held so much hope came to light. Soon the military dictatorship swept back into power. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators remained literally aimless and were eventually forced out of public property by police, camp by camp.
By the end of 2013, a public square-style movement took place in Ukraine, which started with many of the same scenes of romanticised people power in the public square. However, this time the leaderless network narrative, which was already starting to look a little less convincing, was left aside because the protests quickly erupted into fascist mob rule (p11).
The great online campaigns started to get a little odd. Nagle credits the faintly self-parodic Kony 2012 campaign - which sought to build a bipartisan campaign for the United States to ‘solve’ a Ugandan civil war by arresting the ruthless militia leader, Joseph Kony - as an “early significant [moment] of rupture” in the emergence of meme-driven, ‘viral’ online political activism. A backlash quickly developed and the Ugandan government denounced the campaign as clumsy and insensitive, all of which seems to have driven the maker of the original viral video, Jason Russell, completely mad - a further clip emerged “in which he could be seen outdoors naked and shouting, hitting the ground, masturbating and vandalising cars” (pp3-4).
Underlying all the leftwing boosting of modern technology was a series of assumptions - that the culture around such technology was driven primarily by the young; that the young are typically - if not more leftwing - at least more ‘liberal’ on race, gender and so on. What would then emerge was a new kind of mass political movement, whose instincts would be progressive in the broad sense. Yet even in 2011 that was a slightly peculiar assumption.
Nagle mentions the omnipresence of the Guy Fawkes mask, declaring solidarity with the hacker-activist collective, Anonymous, which - along with its satellites - became associated with the left. Yet that link is a lot more tenuous than it might appear, for Anonymous emerged ultimately from 4chan’s aforementioned /b/, which it will now be necessary to describe in more detail.
4chan is the most famous example of a particular sort of internet forum: the image board. The mechanics of it are simple - post an image, discuss it. What culture you get rather depends on what sort of images are circulated, and the initial purpose of 4chan was to circulate especially bizarre and perhaps legally sensitive hentai images (the pornographic side of Japanese manga drawing). Its culture expanded beyond hentai, but after much the same fashion - 4chan values transgression above all other things, its users typically post anonymously, and of the many subforums, its ‘random’ one - /b/ - has gained a reputation as a fearsome bear pit, the furious psychopathic id of the digital age.
The Anonymous collective emerged from a 4chan campaign of digital sabotage against the Church of Scientology, which irked by virtue of its censorious and litigious streak. Its ‘actions’ were more usually generically libertarian than leftwing, and thus it united both left-liberal activists (‘moralfags’, in chan-speak) and people whose interests were more nihilistically obsessed with shocking people ‘for the lulz’. The latter sort may have thought of themselves as somehow ‘apolitical’, but have since become the shock troops of the alt-right, which built itself up as a movement prepared to question the sacred truths of modern liberal society.
How did this happen? For Nagle, the crucial part of the process actually occurred elsewhere entirely (although still on the internet). As Occupy and its associated leftwing campaigns disintegrated, many of its atoms reformed around the curious doctrines of intersectional feminism. Intersectionality is, in origin, a spin-off of the ‘critical race theory’ school of thought in American legal academia, and in fact merely one micro-variant of the postmodernist, post-Marxist identity politics that came to prominence especially in the 1980s. Early in this decade, however, intersectionality became adopted as the flag of a new and virulent wave of the same sort of identity politics.
The idea that different forms of oppression ‘intersect’ and interact in unpredictable ways is, on its own, something of a truism (albeit only because we have the history of the 1960s and 1970s, and the attempts of the far left to organise the oppressed after the fashion of the radical wing of the US civil rights movement, which presented the problems concretely). The distinctive feature of contemporary ‘intersectionality’ - the thing that for better or worse gives it its cutting edge - is the radical subjectivism of its epistemology. It is argued, or rather assumed, that only the oppressed can speak for themselves, and that for others to speak about their oppression is inherently to talk over and silence them, and that such silencing is dehumanising and basically violent.
If you add these two parts together, the fissile reaction reaches critical mass. For only the oppressed can speak for themselves, and oppressions combine dynamically; the result is what in computer science is called a ‘combinatorial explosion’ of micro-identities claiming absolute, jealous sovereignty over the discourse on their experience. The internet is already a place for self-creation and recreation, a natural habitat for the identity-fluid. So we get the reductio ad absurdum of identity politics, which centred on the microblogging site Tumblr. Nagle has some fun quoting Tumblrites on the definition of ‘genderale’ (“a gender that is hard to describe. Mainly associated with plants, herbs and liquids”) and the phenomenon of ‘otherkin’ - people who identify as somehow non-human.
In ‘real life’ politics, this mindset has caused most of its controversy on campuses, with a renewed focus on ‘no platform’ tactics, to be used against racists, sexists, etc. The main flashpoint is on the matter of whether transgendered women are welcome in women-only feminist organisations, and so those second-wave feminists who stick on the chromosomal requirements of the sisterhood - the so-called ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminists’ or Terfs - are routinely hounded out of universities by the local student left.
Online, it is the combination of witch-hunting self-righteousness and sheer violent meanness of this movement that predominates - as if Torquemada had formed an American high-school clique. Nagle revisits old-favourite anecdotes like the reaction to the late Mark Fisher’s anti-intersectionalite article, ‘Exiting the vampire castle’ (and gloating reactions to his suicide earlier this year), and throwing in a few that I never knew about - like the contention of one Twitter intersectionalist that the grieving father of an alligator-mauled toddler was indulging in his white privilege (pp75-76).
It is this that is the context for the dramatic rightward lurch among the shock-troops of 4chan and similar. The religious right was a traditional source of irritation, but compared to the crusading Bush years, it was in retreat. Concurrently, a new and aggressive censorious leftism was on the rise, into which the exultant transgressors of 4chan could not be expected to fit. Battle was joined; and ‘pure’ adolescent rebellion against ‘political correctness’ carries with it the temptation of genuine far-rightism.
There is also the matter of who these people are, and again, Nagle is in the almost unique position among liberal lefts of having bothered to investigate how they see themselves. We are all comfortable to sneer at 4chan types as perpetual virgins and saddos, but there is a lack of empathy here; for it is not enormously fun to be a perpetual virgin or a saddo. The former are called ‘incels’ in the subculture - ‘involuntary celibates’ - and there is a real sense in which this violently misogynistic subculture can function as a sort of support group. Nagle quotes from a user on the ‘incel’ subforum on Reddit: “I spent four hours just staring at the wall in my room. What normies call an existential crisis, for the incel is simply... life” (p98).
There is something like a coherent world-view for these self-proclaimed beta-males. Premise one: the ‘traditional’ characterisation of gender roles and propensities is basically accurate. Men have the characteristics that propel them forth from the household to win bread; women are nurturers, more emotion-driven and therefore capricious. Sexual liberation and gender equality in work, etc, is therefore a disaster: women, no longer constrained by the need to pick an economically viable mate, choose sexual partners based purely on mechanical desire, leading to - in the words of one alt-right writer, F Roger Devlin - “promiscuity for the few, loneliness for the majority”. If this majority wants to escape its loneliness, it must treat the dating game - and, by implication, relations between the genders in general - like a Hobbesian war of all against all.
As in sexual life, so in the life of nations. White people are supposedly in charge of America - but they are being outbred by immigrants and domestic ethnic minorities, and outmanoeuvred by their advocates, both on the left and the mainstream right. The term ‘cuckservative’ (a portmanteau of cuckold and conservative) sums it all up nicely - it is applied to the run-of-the-mill Republican congressman whose sole remaining spurious link to the revolutionary party of Lincoln is boilerplate about how America offers opportunities to all, regardless of their race. The nation is in this view the wife, with whom a shadowy interloper is having his wicked way.
Despite its apparent completeness, this world view is, of course, riven with contradictions, to which Nagle is alert. It purports to venerate traditional marriage over modern promiscuity, but in practice encourages its adherents to pursue casual sex with conventionally attractive women of - in the ‘traditional’ phrase - easy virtue. It despises the ‘alpha males’ and their unsophistication, but prescribes only that the betas beat the alphas at their own game. It is this that marks it out as little more than an exercise in self-justification for people who, despite being largely middle class males in the Greatest Country On Earth, seem to confront an existence of intense alienation and loneliness:
The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women. But this ever-extended adolescence has also brought with it the rise of adult childlessness and a steep sexual hierarchy. Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order. Their own anxiety and anger about their low-ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what has produced their hard-line rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically, when it comes to women (p97).
In this world, people like Elliot Rodger, the spree-killer, are heroes and martyrs. In the end, they are the exact mirror image of the Tumblr identitarians and their “performative vulnerability”, as Nagle nicely puts it, albeit ‘more so’: recent history is hardly littered with the murderous rampages of intersectionalists, unlike the ‘beta males’ and white nationalists.
Winners and losers
The question remains whether any of this made any difference last November, and more broadly of its importance to wider society. The alt-right, in spite of the poor condition of most of its adherents on closer examination, has been blown up into a vast and unconscionable threat; and indeed some of its marquee names have put in appearances in the White House (principally Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka). Yet Trump won last year on the thinnest of margins, and that kind of success certainly has many fathers. Alt-right enthusiasm for Trump - the bête noire of the ‘cuckservative’ mainstream - is one explanation. The lukewarm attitude of Democrat constituencies for Hillary is another. The ‘left behind’ of the rust belt are one more. On it goes.
Nagle’s writing has plenty enough in common with that proceeding from the ex-Revolutionary Communist Party milieu in this country, focused primarily on the website Spiked. The latter’s decreasingly hinged enthusiasm for Brexit, firm Zionism and hatred of the pro-transgender movement very nearly puts it within the alt-right, which is not true of Nagle; yet the vigour with which she presses the case that it is intersectionality which is causative of the lunacy catalogued here is characteristically Spikedish. In truth, it would be better to say that the two phenomena so resemble each other in a genetic sort of a way - there is a pretty near common ancestor (looks like somebody has been cuckolded ... ).
The apparently total victory of the neoliberal right in the 1980s and especially the 1990s, after the fall of the Stalinist regimes, placed the traditional left on the defensive on economic issues, and pushed it thereby more firmly onto the issues of personal liberty that place it in league with - or in competition with - identity politics. But one does not retreat into a less easily defended position than one started from. Why should it have found it so easy? Because racial and gender equality had become the official ideology of the state core - it was to stand on a position that everyone purported to share. The difference between the terms of that official ideology and the lived reality of a society in which (to take the American context) black people were seeing a lot more of the inside of jails, and a resurgent religious right made inroads against even the modest guarantees of Roe v Wade, provided the left with a raison d’être.
But it also so provided the alt-right with the same. For their alienated audience faced essentially the same situation in reverse - a sense of entitlement to better than their lot, combined with the apparently united hostility of the left and ‘cuckservative’ right. The evident, lunatic bigotry of the alt-right unfortunately forms the last moment of the vicious circle - it ‘proves’ the liberals right about their opponents, and vice versa.
Lost in all this, of course, is the idea represented in the famous statement of Marx that a nation which oppresses another can never itself be free: that oppression does not benefit the oppressors on some particular matter uniformly. In fact, it is almost invariably the case that some of those oppressors are engaged in a negative sum game with those in whose oppression they collude. In this remark, Marx referred to the manner in which anti-Irish prejudice disarmed many English workers against their own oppressors; but the degraded and fetishised sexual economy of neoliberal capitalism is another example of something in which most of the winners are also losers.
As for the techno-utopians, their dream was that the relative egalitarianism of the internet should usher in, in and of itself, a more critically minded and astute civil society, no longer so blind to the degradation of its fellows. If Kill all normies achieves nothing else, it documents the death of this particular piece of idiocy.