Dialectic of Dark Enlightenments: The Alt-Right’s Place in the Culture Industry by Catherine Liu
Originally published at the LA Review of Books, here.
JULY 30, 2017
JULY 30, 2017
IN Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right (Zero Books, 2017), Angela Nagle does two remarkable things. First, she situates the emergence of alt-right meme culture in a dialectical relationship to Professional Managerial Class liberalism that’s incarnated, she argues, by Barack Obama: “articulate, erudite, cosmopolitan.” This timely intervention allows us to understand how the United States of America elected a troll president who delighted throughout his campaign in inflaming a sense of grievance while giving the finger to the first enemy of the culture war: “political correctness.” Second, she provides the “thick” anthropological context for the emergence of the alt-right and its media friendlier faces, what she calls the “alt-light.” Nagle’s book is a highly readable polemical intellectual history of culturalism and the internet; it makes the case that there would be no Trump without the prankster sadism of meme culture. It’s a credit to the book’s critical sophistication that both ends of the identity politics spectrum will feel aggrieved by Nagle’s assessment of their tactics and their politics.
Kill All Normies opens by giving readers an overview of the utopian promises of networked horizontality: it shows us that, contra to the hopes of many on the left, hackerist anonymity married to group psychology and fast internet connections did not produce better politics. Nagle’s book tracks, for instance, the complex online polarization that sprang up after the Cincinnati Zoo shot Harambe, the gorilla into whose cage a young African-American child had fallen: online, internet-driven mourning rituals around Harambe intersected complexly with viral memes making fun of those same rituals. From there, Nagle’s book moves to build on her thesis that the cultural politics of transgression, so long fetishized by the left, have been triumphantly adopted by the right. She then offers an account of the viciousness of Tumblr liberal authoritarianism, with its ever-proliferating new forms of gender identities and the finger-pointing sanctimony of identity vanguardism. Nagle likens the extreme political correctness of Tumblr culture wars to “virtue hoarding”: only the select are virtuous and know how to handle the new identities correctly. The rest of us are sausage-fingered cis-gendered idiots who need to do the perp walk of shame every day. Competitive Tumblr shaming shuts down not only dialogue but also the very possibility for solidarity and coalition building along the shared experiences of alienation and exploitation.
Nagle’s final chapters deal with the anti-feminist “Manosphere” that gave us rape apologists, male separatism, and the Proud Boys, a pseudo-fascist group who now show up to campuses to “defend free speech” and far-right speakers while provoking violent confrontations around campus culture wars. These chapters show how the new internet culture of male sexual grievance gave permission to express openly and directly violence against and hatred of women, with the most tragic result being Elliot Rodger’s mass murders. Finally, Nagle unexpectedly draws a stunning connection between online misogyny and the treatment of inexperienced participants or, as they are called in the internet-born language “leetspeak,” n00bs. In her conclusion, she brings it all back to an analysis of the alt-light presidency of Donald Trump, concluding with a clear denunciation of transgression as a political form. The book is breathtaking and concise. It is a slim volume and a must-read, although it’s worth saying that the intermittent misspelling of Pat Buchanan’s name was irritating and distracting. Zero Books: If you are going to be publishing a volume of such political and intellectual significance, make sure you get copyediting in perfect order.
Nagle does not invite us to share a thrilling sense of horror and disgust at the cruelty of alt-right and alt-light meme culture; instead, she implicates left strategies in particular and contemporary internet culture in general in participating in the creation of a world in which the alt-right could rise. In some ways, Nagle’s book explains Hillary Clinton’s dramatic failure to damage Donald Trump’s campaign when she fingered him as a champion of the alt-right. Clinton’s great reveal was greeted by alt-right champion Richard Spencer as great publicity, and Trump voters did not move to the middle. To Nagle, Clinton’s shaming strategies reveal her ignorance of the actual political dynamics of the electorate.
Nagle argues convincingly that the most prolific actors on the alt-right and the alt-light have been great students of the culture wars, but not in the way we might think. Alt-right movements did not model themselves after aspirational aristocrats and defenders of Western tradition like William F. Buckley Jr. or Allan Bloom. No! Instead, they have adopted the fetishism of transgression that marked the Cultural Studies left: they embedded themselves in subcultural styles repellent to mainstream, middlebrow liberal sensibilities and they call on their armies to attack the tastes and sensibilities embodied by n00bs and “normies.” Punk street style of the mid- to late 1970s, with its Vaselined Mohawks and safety-pinned T-shirts appeared as rebellious and, to Dick Hebdige, deeply meaningful attacks on working-class masculinity. Ironic meme culture attacks continues to “épater la bourgeoisie” by targeting naïve online expressions of sentimentality in spontaneous actions, ranging from the defacement of Facebook memorial pages and to hijacking Cincinnati Zoo Director Thane Maynard’s Twitter account to spread #DicksoutforHarambe.
Nagle is one of the brightest lights in a new generation of left writers and thinkers who have declared their independence from intellectual conformity with liberal academic nostra about “difference” and “hegemony.” Whereas Hebdige found punk and subcultural expressions of rebellion as politically progressive and anti-authoritarian, Nagle is willing to question the Cultural Studies assumption that the “margins” represent a kind of political wisdom that the uninitiated need Roland Barthes to decode.
At the center of this book and in what is one of its most brilliant and controversial chapters, “Gramscians of the alt-light,” Nagle argues the alt-light succeeded in creating its own form of transgression-based revolt against the cultural hegemony of “establishment” sensibilities. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian communist activist and thinker, spent 11 years in prison under Italian fascists. His greatest legacy was his critique of Marxist economic determinism, a position that was embraced by left academics in the Anglo-American world. During the 1970s and ’80s, in light of the decline of Old Labour and the rise of Margaret Thatcher, Anglo-American leftists used Gramsci’s ideas of cultural hegemony to describe plans for the political importance of establishing alternative culture and alternative media: its everyday practices of cultural production and consumption would extract political gold by mining the marginal and the debased, camp and trash styles of expression that high to middlebrow taste cultures rejected.
Provocatively, Nagle argues that it was the alt-right that applied the strategies of changing popular taste through alternative media most successfully. Steve Bannon’s political ambitions were realized at Breitbart, where his intellectual animus against mainstream/lamestream media found angry audiences hungry for an “alternative” political discourse promoted by more and more extreme voices.
Furthermore, alt-light figures like Milo Yiannopoulos (before his downfall) and mustachioed Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes have succeeded in shaping popular culture and its audiences’ media consumption habits through alternative and subcultural channels. McInnes was forced to leave Rooster, the hipster ad agency that he founded, after he published an article entitled “Transphobia is Perfectly Natural” on Thought Catalog in 2014; it is widely seen as a piece of hate speech. He was also forced out of Vice for his extreme views. Yet these removals have not diminished McInnes’s media influence: through his YouTube channel, Rebel Media, and other venues such as Fox News, McInnes remains an emblem of right-wing “cool.” These and similar figures said outrageous things and took outrageous positions, adorning themselves in the Nietzschean finery of punk dandies ready to rock your centrist world: “Although the tactics of the online right are updated to a digital age, it is hard to think of a better term than Gramscian to describe what they have strategically achieved,” Nagle writes, “as a movement almost entirely based on influencing culture and shifting the Overton window through media and culture.” Rather than operating exclusively through formal politics, “they succeeded largely by bypassing the dying mainstream media and creating an Internet-culture and alternative media of their own from the ground up.” The left has created its own alternative media: the addictive and brilliant podcast Chapo Trap House and Jacobin are two recent success stories, but Nagle points out that the alt-light and the alt-right have been more popular and more successful at brewing loyal right-wing audiences.
Nagle goes on to argue that the online social movements of the right, with a constellation of interlocking and multilayered alternative media platforms, spanning YouTube, Twitter, and news sites like Breitbart, created a pantheon of alt-light media celebrities ready to deliver a punch in the gut to their self-defined enemies: liberals and snowflakes. They built audiences by giving the finger to the superego of professionally managed social tolerance, and of course, that long-hated bogeyman, “political correctness.” The mainstream media and the Democratic Party underestimated the power of these “alternative” media outlets and the outsized personalities that they promoted. They thought that when Hillary Clinton named this movement in her campaign against Donald Trump, underinformed Trump sympathizers would recoil at any association with the proto-fascist agenda of these groups.
Trump’s boasts about pussy grabbing fit right into the alt-light subcultural style: hedonistic, misogynistically irreverent, imbued with a vulgar lust for life, Trump could always allude to the light-heartedness of Pepe meme-making, while trashing the snowflake/virtue-signaling sensibilities of the liberal internet at the same time.
Erstwhile poster boy for the alt-light Milo Yiannopoulos made his name during the Gamergate controversies (the 4chan-spawned war between male gamers and female game critics like Anita Sarkeesian that led to the by-now-familiar doxxing and death threats against any proponent of greater diversity and gender representation in formerly male-nerd-dominated online environments). He went on to become an editor at Breitbart and embarked this past winter on a violence- and controversy-plagued tour of US campuses, where he would display signs like “Dear Trump: Please Deport Fat People” before launching into diatribes against political correctness. Nagle points out that Yiannopoulos disingenuously drew a direct line between the online culture wars he waged in the 2010s with Buchanan’s invocation of “the struggle for the soul of America” in his speech to the Republican National Convention of 1992. But Milo’s hereditary relationship with Buchanan’s fire-and-brimstone evangelism is less salient than he wants to believe, and this tension helps explain the limits of what he accomplished. Yiannopoulos’s eventual downfall captures all the irony of a right-wing outrage dandy trying to cozy up to an Evangelical Christian forefather he called “Daddy.” Yiannopoulos’s defense of “free speech” through pressing the limits of the publicly thinkable and sayable is related to the dark side of radical internet libertarianism: Nagle points out that the “right-wing style that Yiannopoulos embodied represents a marriage of the ironic, irreverent, taboo-busting culture of 4chan with the politics of the right.”
In 2014, the Washington Post published a bemused but fundamentally positive account of 4chan here. 4chan is an anonymous forum launched in 2003, home to cat memes and celebrity nude photo leaks, pornified sadism and Nietzschean voluntarism. The most extreme corners of 4chan are located at /b/ and /pol/, places where darker fantasies of beta-males and political irreverence are shared. “It was the image- and humor-based culture of the irreverent meme factory of 4chan and later 8chan that gave the alt-right its youthful energy, with its transgression and hacker tactics,” Nagle explains. And these energies manifested elsewhere, as well: “The Guy Fawkes mask used in the protests in 2011 was a reference to Anonymous, which took its name, leaderless anticelebrity ethic and networked style from the chaotic anonymous style of 4chan.” Rather than romanticize the power of Anonymous troll armies as forces that can threaten Evil Corporation à la television’s Mr. Robot, Nagle shows that the power of 4chan’s mob actions were most effectively exercised against grieving parents on Facebook, n00bs who used the internet too naïvely, and feminist computer game critics.
4chan-driven persecution delights in the victimization of the uninitiated and the ingénue in much the way that 18th-century libertines from Choderlos de Laclos and the Marquis de Sade delighted in describing the ravishing of besotted know-nothing virgins. At stake in a sense of belonging to extreme right groups is a sense of powerful insider knowledge. Nagle dissects the relationship between the dark resentments against women and mainstream culture nursed on 4chan and the rhetoric of the Proud Boys, Roosh V, and Richard Spencer, who all advocate an anti-feminist, anti-mainstream-culture sensibility that is based on a mixture of punk’s subcultural hypermasculinity and alternative culture erudition married to pride in Western Cultural traditions — identity politics for white men, appropriating the terms of Gay and Black Pride to defend white male identity.
In her description of 4chan and alt-right subcultures, Nagle is unstinting in her critiques of both moral panic responses and academic ultra-PC tolerance of chan culture’s transgressive and countercultural ethos. Before 2016, Nagle notes that academics like Whitney Phillips, author of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: The Relationship Between Trolling and Mainstream Culture (MIT Press, 2016), offered a fundamentally troll-sympathetic account of the relationship between “deviant” behavior and the mainstream. For Phillips, trolls are basically harmless DIY meme producers responding to large-scale, mass-produced cultural meanings that dominate the media landscape. In this sense, Phillips and Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Verso, 2015) embrace /chan/ culture’s contempt for n00bs and “mainstream” taste. Nagle points to the work of Sarah Thornton’s study of “subcultural capital” (Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, Wesleyan University Press, 1996) as a powerful counterpoint to affirmations of 4chan, Anonymous, and “hacker” elites.
Following Thornton, Nagle refuses to accept subcultural claims about its own righteous exclusivity: the accumulation of subcultural capital by punks, club kids, and now the alt-right look extraordinarily similar, especially when all these subcultures share a “hatred of the shallow, vain clueless girl with mainstream tastes trying to infiltrate a geeky subculture.” She argues that the hatred of the “basic bitch” has become an organizing principle for the subcultural formation itself. Taking as an example Richard Spencer, the 39-year-old president of the white-nationalist think tank the National Policy Institute, Nagle emphasizes Spencer’s reliance on “cool”: “Richard Spencer regularly accuses those who fail to find the return of race separatism edgy and cool, of being normies and basic bitches.” Finally, Nagle shows that Richard Spencer’s neo-fascist political style has not sprung directly from 1930s Germany, but is a response to Obama’s cool liberal style, 4chan, new media history, alternative media’s war against cultural hegemony as well as academic fetishism of anti-normativity, subculture, and transgression.
Nagle’s measured prose, her commitment to both context and dialectics, contradiction and convergence as well as her stark imperturbability in the face of deeply disturbing materials make her the ideal reader of both liberal and academic hypocrisy as well as alt-right instrumentalization of transgression as politics. The alt-right’s promotion of racism and misogyny happens in an online space that is increasingly characterized by vicious antagonisms. The alt-right and alt-light’s war on respectability has to be framed as an aggravation of contemporary class warfare.
Her critique of Tumblr liberalism, however, needs an added dimension: this particularly violent and intolerant form of identity politics represents the political and cultural vanguard of an increasingly toxic Professional Managerial Class, whose need to consolidate its economic advantages comes during a time of stringent class consolidation. In 1976, John and Barbara Ehrenreich noted that PMC monopoly on progressive/left politics was a development in class conflict that would have profound effects on the rise of neoliberalism and globalization in the decades to come. While this class emerged as an enemy or at least an antagonist of capital during the early decades of the 20th century, its political neutrality has become increasingly complicit with “the status quo” of income inequality. In order to differentiate itself culturally from the working classes and the interests of finance capital, it draws upon the sentimental and melodramatic innovations of its forebears of the 18th century. Suffering and victimization become its calling cards: a precious and esoteric language of difference and tolerance supplant an analysis of contradiction and solidarity. It focuses on hegemonic cultural politics and self-improvement and the transformation of everyday life.
Its political betrayal of working-class interests and its refusal to work toward economic distribution are disguised by its liberal/managerial and deeply technocratic and apolitical attitude toward progress. As long as the PMC has no sense of its alliance with the salaried masses, popular discontent and hatred of its precious ways will be fertile ground for the fomenting of internet-driven forms of Anglophone fascism. Angela Nagle has shown that in the absence of solidarity and a real political, economic program on the left, we will continue to see the popularity of alt-right sadism and mischief-based memes, gesturing toward a dystopic space of irony and hipness, policed by trolls with fascist tendencies. When pressed, spokespeople of the alt-right and alt-light will say that they only want the establishment of a white ethno-state. If you insist on the details of police-state measures, violent exclusion, and genocide necessary to achieve their goal, they retreat into hipster irony and protestations about the innocence of their separatist dreams. Professional Managerial Class liberalism has not only failed at destroying fascism and white supremacy, but it may also very well, through its cultivation of culturalist pieties and neglect of economic policies, add to the appeal of its most virulent adversaries.
Catherine Liu is professor of Film and Media Studies at UC Irvine. Author of two academic monographs, Copying Machines: Taking Notes for the Automaton and American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique, she has also published a novel called Oriental Girls Desire Romance.