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Understanding the Alt-Right

Oisín O’Neill Fagan

Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, by Angela Nagle, Zero Books, 136 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-1785355431

If the internet is a communication tool that sometimes, as a marginal hobby, produces discourse, anonymous message boards are the dark place where unspeakable discourse goes to breed with itself. Recently, however, these spaces have been burrowing their extreme ideologies through the cracks of a decaying mainstream media. If anonymous message boards were the seedy underbelly of the internet, then social media would be its unreachable heights. Here, ersatz communities police, with relish and much jargon, any expressions that fall outside their own ever-expanding discourse; always expanding as they only function discursively. The two spaces outlined above are small corners of the internet, but the former space has birthed the Alt-right, and the latter has radicalised the more modern forms of identity politics.

That the produce from these two bubbling cauldrons has figured so prominently in North American and European political discourse over the last five years is bizarre. Outside of the perceived and legitimate social inequalities that brought these discourses into being, their quick growth has probably been supplemented by the hypersensitive receptivity of Europe, and other such English-speaking countries, to the USA’s youth culture, which in the last century has always manifested itself politically through the development of new cultural forms. The USA, as the hegemonic centre, perpetuates a global reproduction of its own symbolic forms, but unfortunately, like England in the nineteenth century, the more confident of global power and influence the centre is, the more parochial and inward-looking it becomes. Symbolic forms, imperialistic or otherwise, are usually a one-way street.

Still, online culture is a strangely proportioned new world, and it needs a map. Into this space comes Angela Nagle’s persuasive essay Kill All Normies, which charts the frenetic online culture wars of the last decade, marking and delineating their evolving political mutations. Alongside her brief historicisation, Nagle offers many useful categorisations on the different forms of misogyny and racism that have coagulated under the banner of Alt-right, a diverse and contradictory subcultural grouping which, as she notes, shares a concept of transgression as a useful and empty form. On the other side of the online culture wars, she splits the modern manifestations of the left into “materialist left” and “Tumblr liberalism”, a crude albeit fair separation, given the unintentionally laughable manner in which these two groupings behave towards one another. No doubt this, like many of Nagle’s concepts and categorisations, will come in for some criticism from those invested in the spaces discussed, but her essay is very clearly not an engagement with them; it has been written for those detested mainstream normies who do not feel the need to invest their political energies into sprawling online subcultures.

Nagle does a lot of the heavy lifting necessary to conceptualise the roots of this permeation of unpleasant online subcultures into a – at least relatively – less unpleasant mainstream culture, but the weight isn’t felt because of her easy, fluent style. Formally at least, her writing is the perfect antidote to the subcultural excesses espoused by her objects of study, who often have literary styles and manners of arguing so thickly laid on and so self-aware that they are vaguely nauseating after a few paragraphs. Still, it is Nagle’s weary, adult tone when discussing outrageous online behaviour that is the greatest stylistic joy of the book:

Gamergate itself kicked off when Zoe Quinn created a video game called Depression Quest … 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 … First, let me be clear on my own position on gaming. If you’re an adult, I think you should probably be investing your emotional energies elsewhere. And that includes feminist gaming, which has always struck me as being about as appealing as feminist porn; in other words, not at all. However, anyone with some grasp on the basic norms of human conduct will still be able to see why the [Gamergate] fallout was utterly unhinged.

That this essay is so much fun to read shouldn’t distract from the fact that it is that rarest of things: a convincing leftist cultural historiography of the present, whose prototype is that momentous defining text of the eighties, Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism – though if you were looking for more recent comparisons it is most reminiscent of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Crucially though, these prior works charted the hopeless and fragmented monocultures that emerged from the consensus around postmodern liberalism, whereas this essay charts a newer moment, one which could possibly be defined by a new and stronger opposition to liberalism, from both left and right.

This is mentioned because there has already been an unexamined tendency in the reception of Kill All Normies to emphasise how new cultural forms and formations have not only helped propel anti-liberal agendas, but perhaps even helped the Trump of the (sub)title to power. Looking at the various breakdowns of the US presidential vote, and the many factors at play during the election, I remain sceptical on this point. In the outpouring that followed Trump’s victory it seemed almost every cultural producer and cultural mediator understood ideology and the political propagation of ideology through a solely Gramscian framework; and the always-already bored rushed to the newest forms to explain the oldest phenomena. By the always-already bored, I mean the mainstream media, subcultures, and academia; all of whom run hungrily towards the extremely distorted and atypical creations of the fringe so as to appease the exhaustion their own forms generate.

One of the defining questions for a cultural sociologist from the materialist left is: how far does culture trickle down? Whereas Jameson and Fisher were explicit that the cultures they examined emanated from late capitalism, Nagle, outside of the subtitle of her work and the summary included in her introduction, is less explicit as to how politically important she deems the online culture wars to have been in a phenomenon such as Trump’s rise. Whatever relationship there is, or was, how it formed, and what its impact could entail, remains under-examined. This is important because even a partial answer to this specific question would help shed some light on the confused, shifting and still misunderstood relationship between culture and politics.

Obviously, this is an unfair, unquantifiable, and probably unanswerable question, especially given how much Nagle has already delivered. It is much easier for a Jameson or a Fisher to retrospectively cast a glance over an entrenched postmodern culture within a stable political framework, and to then derive analyses from it, than it is for Nagle to operate as both a field researcher and a sociologist in a relatively unexplored terrain during a time of rapid political change; and, being entirely honest, the question is only framed in this manner in the hope that she will turn her talents toward it in a later work. Within the framework that she does discuss, she offers many solutions to the phenomena she has described and theorised, and her closing chapter, ‘That joke isn’t funny anymore – the culture war goes offline’ is open-ended and suggestive; in a sense it is an intellectual call to arms, prognosticating that a more open conflict is inevitable as long as these unchallenged trends grow.

Continuing on from Nagle’s analysis, it is difficult to imagine that the Alt-right will do anything but crumble on contact with air, though this welcome phenomenon wouldn’t in any way address its root causes or prevent a later mutation from resurfacing. United mostly by what they hate, their internal contradictions are too great to allow them to form any kind of sustainable, cohesive political organisation, or do anything offline more politically significant than beating up a few teenagers. Trump’s connection with the Alt-right, as so much else with him, is probably entirely opportunistic, shallow and fleeting. Their main asset is not the president of the USA, who is not beholden to them or their ideology in any way, but their aesthetic, which will very soon be marketised, entirely emptied of its content. No matter how quickly the online right regenerates itself or reinvents the symbols that cloak its ideology, the market will outstrip it and strip it bare. Due to the symbiotic nature of mainstream media and new media, its content will get a brief airing through some of its more palatable offspring, but due to the transgressive ethos which made it noteworthy in the first place, it will transgress too far and be removed from the public domain; this removal being just as easy a process on major websites as it is in major media organisations. While the public discourse is always shifted by the margin, widespread support for a patriarchal ethno-state in the USA will not be forthcoming outside of the self-referential cultural proliferations that propagate the notion.

The intelligentsia of the Alt-right have learned very well from the cultural left. They can criticise and ream off historical data and trends, reference ancient Rome and Greece, write wonderful essays on why criticisms of them misunderstand their grievances, aren’t very good or miss the point, but these young boys have spent too much time thinking about ancient civilisations and not enough time looking at their own methodology. They haven’t learned the most important thing about the cultural left, which is its history. This left lost, and its cultural transformation still leaves all those it helped integrate into public and civil life looking down the barrel at disgusting and increasing levels of economic injustice in a radically unequal world. There are fairly strict limits to cultural transformation, especially through transgressive discursive forms; one such limit that would spring to mind is the ability to deliver a patriarchal ethno-state in lieu of a post-industrial and imperial one.

The ideas of the Alt-right, and the more exclusionary and differentiating forms of North American identity politics, will probably not be defeated in an online battle of ideas, given the intractability and specificity of their discourses, never mind that the forms online cultures espouse are not especially conducive to debate, dialectical thought, or, at the end of the day, productive political struggle. Whether they are even worth engaging with at all is also a dubious proposition, given their proud, entrenched marginality and the resentment they unfailingly wield and reproduce. Rather they will have to be superseded and made irrelevant by a wide-reaching, inclusive and unapologetically mainstream political movement towards economic justice that uses social media primarily as an organising tool. This would remove at once both the roots of the online subcultures’ complaints, and their attractive glow. No doubt such a movement will face some resistance from these online subcultures, and Nagle’s excellent essay will be a very useful guide and ideological tool to deploy once this inevitable shitstorm begins.


Oisín O’Neill Fagan is author of Hostages, a short story collection published by New Island in 2016