A german version of this post has been published here and tl;dr version will be published in print, in Analyse & Kritik.
“this is not a book about the alt-right. It is an anti-Left polemic.”
“‘the centre’ – as a proclaimed area of shared, sensible assumptions about the values, needs and possibilities of a political community, defined against threatening ‘extremes’ – is a frequently remade fiction, masking specific ideological commitments and positioning“
Pretty late, but I can not not write a few words about Angela Nagles Kill All Normies. I am tired of people scapegoating “left identity politics” just like the far right wants them to, and I find it hard to believe that there are still new articles being published that treat this book like a standard reference without any criticism. Though, to be fair, sometimes these articles stick the word “controversial” to Kill All Normies as a kind of magic spell that signals that the author is aware that criticism is due but that at the same time exempts the author from applying any. Seeing how widely known Kill All Normies has become by now, I would rather wish for this book to be just as critically discussed and dissected as the Sokal (Squared) Hoax. This is my little contribution.
No source citations, spiteful and sloppy style
A first obvious reason why her work should be questioned is Nagles “sloppy sourcing”: There are no citations in this book. Not only does it make verification hard, it is also almost impossible to contextualize statements. Libcom have taken it upon themselves to search for possible sources and have found that there are passages that have similar wording as Wikipedia entries. Well, if work this way, it can happen that you accidentally use use a fascist’s self-description: In Kill All Normies’ case it is Aleksandr Dugin’s description of his own book. Charles Davis gathered similarly problematic references, for example that Nagle describes incidents based on news articles that she doesn’t cite while simply leaving out the parts of the articles that do not support her argument.
Her snarky tabloid press style, quite a few misspellings and an overall writing style that shows in what a rush this text has been written also deserve criticism. Apparently there was little editorial effort. Maybe all this is acceptable for a blogger like me who has not much time for writing, does not write in her first language and has no editorial background and resources. For a published book though, and for one that by now has been translated into several more languages and is making the rounds in a greater extent and that is even used by people with an academic background as allegedly reliable source, all this is a no-go. I can only assume that the publisher, Zero Books, hoped such a sensationalist work would sell even in such a sloppy version. And it has worked. Clickbait in book shape.
Jules Joanne Gleeson files the book rather aptly under “travel writing for internet culture”, thereby pointing out its exoticizing aspect: “Kill All Normies provides a string of curios and oddities (from neo-nazi cults, to inscrutably gendered teenagers) to an audience expected to find them unfamiliar, and titillating.”
Rejection of the feminine, internalized misogyny
Rejection of the feminine is woven all through Nagle’s book. She is noticeably annoyed by feminists and it feels as if she wants to be “one of the guys”, a “cool girl”. It downright smells of internalize misogyny.
Even in small details she sets a subtle mood against people, mostly women, she sees as part of “tumblr-liberalism”, an example: Jordy Cummings observes that Nagle doesn’t use titles for those (e.g. Judith Butler) but uses titles like “doctor” or “professor” for people she deems worthy.
She seriously thinks it helpful to write this about Gamergate, one of the initial events in the origin of the Alt-Right:
“Gamergate itself kicked off when Zoe Quinn created a video game called Depression Quest, which even to a nongamer like me looked like 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. It was the kind of game, about depression, that would have worked as a perfect parody of everything the gamergaters hated about SJWs (social justice warriors).
Nevertheless, her dreadful game got positive reviews from politically sympathetic indie games journalists, which turned into a kind of catalyst for the whole gamergate saga.”
This quote should also give you a taste of her style. As Noah Berlatsky remarks: “Not a single word about that Zoe Quinn “actually has depression, and the fact that her game is about sadness and fragility—and is therefore coded feminine—is precisely why Gamergate saw it, and Quinn, as convenient scapegoats to rally against once Quinn’s abusive ex stirred up the mob.” (Quinn was one of the women who suffered the most massive misogynist attacks in Gamergate.) Nagle often sounds so disdainful about openly showing one’s vulnerability that I almost waited that she uses the insult “snowflakes” herself.
When she writes about the alleged weakness of a woman like Zoe Quinn, Nagle implicitly writes herself as tough-minded critic of feminism and any kind of showing of vulnerability, and: as very conservative if it comes to gender politics. While she does describe the ugliness of right propaganda on the web, again and again she sounds as if she has a tiny bit too much understanding for the Alt-Right and the sexists of the manosphere. As Donald Parkinson points out, “she concludes in her chapter on the manosphere by saying that the ‘sexual revolution’ has led to a ‘steep sexual hierarchy’, the decline of monogamy creating a ‘pecking order’ amongst men. … they develop an ideology around the hatred of women and resentment, blaming ‘cultural marxist feminists’ for talking away this idealized past. The idea that these men just can’t get laid and are therefore doomed to be this reactionary just feeds exactly into the ideology of reddit incels.” It is hardly surprising that Nagle also is not very critical of Jordan Peterson, someone famous for suggesting compulsory monogamy as solution for misogynist violence last year.
The little good I see in this little book is that it introduces people who don’t know anything about it to how the right US scene presents itself online, with a look at quite a few subscenes. But that has been done by others and with a more sober look. Nagle’s nerdy fascination tilts to one side. She writes about Pat Buchanan and Milo Yiannopolous in great length, quotes them directly and uses their theories about an alleged autoritarianism of the left, but her description of the left? Wow. Drastic simplifications and mood-setting descriptions. She uses vocabulary like “hysterical”, “sensitive”, “absurd” etc., which is language that degrades by feminization, just like the Alt-Right uses it. She uses omissions to create the undifferentiated and inaccurate image of a self-contained omnipresent hypersensitive pc-censorship left that she needs to underpin her theory.
Construction and demonization of an imaginary left: “Tumblr Liberalism”
One example of the intentional omissions that Nagle uses to present the “left” as anti-free speech movement becomes obvious when she writes about the protests against Milo “feminism is cancer” Yiannopolous in Berkeley. She describes it as attack on freedom of speech but does not mention with any word that the main reason behind the protests turning out as drastic as they did was that Yiannopolous had announced that in his speech he would call out immigrants without papers by name in order to deliver them to deportation. He also his fans to do the same. As Andrew Stewart writes, this was “an attempt to incite violence against the most vulnerable individuals in our society,” and the concern of protestors was to radically stand up against this, to stand up for people who were actually threatened. To leave that out when describing what happened simply is distorting.
Angela Nagle is taking side for free speech absolutism and even worse: Although this also is a core topic of right propaganda, she sets up this position as reasonable status quo without discussing the arguments against it. There are more examples of how Nagle uses omissions for her lopsided descriptions of campus conflicts as “anti-free speech” censorship instead of political protest with actual arguments. You can find them for example in Richard Seymour’s “The negative dialectics of moralism”.
Nagle uses a similar way of leaving out more complex contexts whenever they do not fit her theory when she lumps together concepts of a progressive left, identity politics that are focussed on working against everyday discrimination and neoliberal diversity tactics and many more into what she calls “Tumblr Liberalism”. She constructs it out of mostly falsifying reduction, out of extreme examples. Hypersensitive call-out culture is her pet point. She can not deliver any substantial proof that it really is characteristic for the major part of the online left and that it is not only a small while very noisy part of it.
While she works out in detail how incels and alt-right came to be, it is kind of impressive how she blocks out nagging invisible everyday experiences of discrimination that are a big part of the roots of “identity politics”. Racism, antisemitism, homo- and transphobia – Nagle has kind of a blind spot for those. According to Kill All Normies her nebulous Tumblr Liberalism was born out of an emotionalized irrational sensitivity that Nagle tries to sloppily trace back to the ideals of the hippie movement that became mainstream culture, ignoring racism, ableism, antisemitism etc.
As I have mentioned before, I find it fascinating how in Kill All Normies Nagle writes up herself as distant voice of reason, a kind of common sense of bothsideism, and by this implicitly targeting readers who also need and want to care only little about experiences of marginalization and discrimination. To position herself as neutral, such a presumption of objectivity, sadly is not a rare move of bourgeois centrists, playing themselves as the balanced average of society. Or of white western thinkers trying to shirk their being intertwined in power relationships and a history of discrimination. Also what is (self-)described as the Intellectual Dark Web (Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Ben Shapiro, Jonathan Haidt etc.). Jonathan Haidt (of Righteous Mind and Coddling Of The American Mind fame), of course gets mentioned by Nagle. He stands for this kind of populist scientism that pitches “reason” and “logic” against “social justice” and “inclusion”, toughness against vulnerability. A man who manages, as Moira Weigel notes about Coddling Of The American Mind, his book with Greg Lukianoff: “they can write hundreds of pages about what’s wrong with contemporary higher education and not mention debt or adjuncts.”
Anyway. Another example for Nagles construction of her left bogeyman is ridicule for ideas of gender theory that she gives a lot of room. It speaks for itself that she gives a whole two pages of her – on more than one level – slim book to a list of gender terms by “gender-bending Tumblr users”, only to signal “look at these weirdos lel” to her readers. To use this list as allegedly representative example is absurd. As there are no citations and as Nagle did not react to their request, Libcom have done some research themselves: “ it appears that either this list was taken from a clearly labeled ‘list of poorly-attested nonbinary identities’ with insufficient sourcing or evidence that the listed genders were claimed by anyone, or it was sourced from a forum thread on the alt-right hub /pol/ where posters mocked the list.” But who cares if it fits the theory one wants to feed?
Another example is her cold mockery of spoonies. “Spoonies” is a term with which people who live with a chronic illness self-label. It is mainly used with focus on those whose illnesses are invisible to the public eye, like people with chronical pain. If you want to know more, Amanda Hess has written about people using the spoonie tag on social media to share experiences and support each other. These often are people who do not know anyone else who shares their experiences with Crohn or Lupus etc. In the past there were only offline self help groups as possibilities for exchange. Today it has become easier to find others, thanks to social media. This helped bringing about a more offensive way of dealing with it instead of shamefully hiding the illness. From misery to the building their own subculture. The spoon became a symbol and got printed on mugs, stickers, jewellery or shirts. A symbol from which those-in-the-know can recognize each other – as used often in the solidary history of marginalized people.
Nagle does not write anything about positive aspects but only describes spoonies as a “cult of suffering, weakness and vulnerability”. She even suggests that they could lie about their illnesses, once more using negative extremes to sustain her theory: “Young women, very often also identifying as intersectional feminists and radicals, displayed their spoonie identity and lashed out at anyone for not reacting appropriately to their under-recognized, undiagnosed or undiagnosable invisible illnesses or for lacking sensitivity to their other identities.” idk, somehow she often sounds like the cliche of some old bitter man on a park bench, cursing the youth of today. Or, as Josh Davies writes a bit more soberly:
”Nagle’s focus on the way things are said, and her reluctance to think about the politics and processes behind what is being said leaves her seemingly adopting a similar stance on gender to that of many of the conservatives she is critical of: gender non-conformity is something strange, esoteric and frivolous. The way her argument is presented here seems little different to the transphobic ‘I sexually identify as an attack helicopter’ meme regurgitated across the internet by edgy defenders of heteronormativity.”
Donald Parkinson points out: “Fans of Kill All Normies point to the negative reaction to the book from ‘social justice tumblr and twitter’ as proving the book’s point. All it really proves is that leftists aren’t a fan of conservative gender politics and mocking disabled people, which is correct and rightfully so. The reason tumblr ID politics exists is that people experience real oppression in their daily lives, and a lack of collective solutions leads people to individualistic methods of coping with this.”
That parts of this culture bears toxic behaviour can not and should not be denied but you get negative extremes in any other political culture and mostly it does not get criticized with such a spitefulness that makes me ask myself what this criticism actually is about.
Also: To simply absorb and accept the right myth that this so-called Tumblr Liberalism is “the ruling elite” and that the right only has gotten so radical in self-defense, is totally blind to the fact that – as Donald Parkinson writes too – that it has always been a tactic of the right to call out extreme examples to demonize concerns of the progressive left. When she uses their jargon and line of argument, Nagle plays right into the hands of the far right that through her manages to throw a line and hook to the centre of society. Here is another example from Kill All Normies:
“This anti-free speech, anti-free thought, anti-intellectual online movement, which has substituted politics with neuroses, can’t be separated from the real-life scenes millions saw online of college campuses, in which to be on the right was made something exciting, fun and courageous for the first time since… well, possibly ever. When Milo challenged his protesters to argue with him countless times on his tour, he knew that they not only wouldn’t, but also that they couldn’t. They come from an utterly intellectually shut-down world of Tumblr and trigger warnings, and the purging of dissent in which they have only learned to recite jargon.”
Is this still ‘rational’ criticism of the left or already marketing for the Alt-Right?
What Nagle does not mention is the diversity of the progressive left and liberal left, the countless extensive and controversial discussions that are so typical for most of the left online subculture practice and from which approaches get (re)developed further and further. Also “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”: She does not consider that – even if probably no dogs – there is a very diverse group of people behind her examples and what gets so easily subsumed under “the left”. Kids who mix fanfic and memes with cultural and political theorizing, self help groups that are there to help each other with practical and psychological problems, people without academic background discussing complex theory work and trying to put it into help for political practice in actual everyday life, and of course also academic political discourse and so on. Steamroller Nagle levels all those diverse and lively scenes down into some kind of totally homogenous dogmatically-stuck irrational tribalism, a left bogeyman.
That neoliberals commodify a lot of progressive, constructive and nuanced ideas, and watered them down into buzzwords, like as in marketing of anything from political parties to products, doesn’t mean that those ideas and approaches can not still be justified and useful in their more radical form. It is worth differentiating. If anything is typical for the left then it is a hivemind ever re-reflecting, discussing, criticising, discarding and advancing how a better future for everyone can be attained. Nagle however does not seem to care about solutions. For example, as Andrew Stewart writes, she “never mentions that there is a class-based intersectional feminism that can effectively oppose the alt-right.” Josh Davies concludes: “ Nagle’s sweeping generalisations not only obscure their differences but foreclose any discussion of the history and politics of each of the amorphous ‘Tumblr liberalism’’s constituent parts. For a book that focuses so much on the left’s supposed inability to generate and challenge ideas, it often reads as an invitation not to think.”
Kill All Normies often reminds me of the – hopefully never to be translated – german queer essay collection Beißreflexe, a book that is demonizing identity politics in a very similar way: constructing an image out of particular and extreme cases and overall more interested in an acidic takedown than in solutions. Floris Biskamp wrote a great analytic review of that book, structured into seven points, fallacies and mistakes, with which the bogeyman gets constructed. Those would fit for Kill All Normies just as well: Generalization of the particular, alarmistic exaggeration, the effects of standardization, invisible power and ignored capacity to act, misunderstood criticism of privilege, suppressed criticism of racism, pathologization of the others. This review already getting longer than I wanted it to be, I do not have time to go further into this but it is surprising how similar these books, and indeed an international anti-”left identity politics” dispute is structured.
No critically and historically contextualizing look at the Alt-Right
After Kill All Normies Nagle has published a text called ‘The Left case against Open Borders’ in which she plays working class and immigrants off against each other and equates a left idea of globalization with its neoliberal distorting mirror. (The difference if you really need to have it pointed out, maybe is best put by a line from a Die Goldenen Zitronen song: “I could cross your shitty Western Sea – if I were a sneaker” (english version of the song).)
With this essay Nagle was invited for an interview on his show by White Nationalist Tucker Carlson in which she let herself be instrumentalized and celebrated by the right. I do not know if she is as naive or ignorant as to take the racist, antisemitic, sexist and nativist ideology of the right not seriously, or if she simply does not mind playing into their hands, Querfront, so to speak (Strasserite? I think that’d be the political equivalent in english).
It is not just that essay though, Kill All Normies also has not exactly covered itself in glory: A book on the far right that misses out on racism as a topic? Hm. As Jules Joanne Gleeson points out, it also does not connect the Alt-Right with “earlier and on-going trends in the Anglophone right. For instance there is no evaluation of the English Defence League, or older groups such as the Orange Order. Even National Action (a recently banned British group unambiguously part of the ‘nipster’ wing of the Alt-Right, while drawing on the legacy of earlier British neo-nazi tendencies such as ‘Rock Against Communism’ and Combat 18) are not mentioned, despite their aggressive and innovative internet presence.”
Nagle also does not write about the Alt-Right’s international connections with groups like Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s Génération Identitaire, Putin’s troll army or Hindutva. What about overlaps to the Counter Jihad movement that also had a strong online presence? And Gleeson explicitly criticizes: “Unfortunately, another of the book’s greatest failures is the lack of dedicated treatment of anti-semitism.” And Gleeson also sees Nagle falling for tactics of the right: “Nagle is reliant on a schema produced by the Alt-Right itself: the division between the Alt-Right proper (hardcore national socialists and white supremacists) and Alt-Light (who mostly avoid overt racism, instead deploying a more ‘civic’ western chauvinism). Nagle fails to note how this distinction has been used instrumentally by the Alt-Right itself.”
She does not analyse tactics of the Alt-Right as such and does not point out that next to the demonization of gender theories and feminism and to the distortion of left criticism as censorship, another big propaganda topic of the Alt-Right is its effort to fuel a revival of the American commie-panic. They do that as well by heating up the (antisemitically connotated) agitation against “cultural marxism” as they do it directly by stirring a fear of a communist revolution, as Red Scare revival. This is neither new nor specific for the internet but it needs historical contextualization. As Jack Smith IV sums up: “Renewing the language of the Red Scare equips the right with the talking points they need to delegitimize the rising tide of left-wing populism. The rhetoric is antiquated, but its purpose remains the same: to portray protest as subversion, to undercut the struggle for civil rights and to prevent the left from expanding the boundaries of what’s possible in America by policing the boundaries of what it means to be an American.”
It is remarkable that, as Donald Parkinson mentions, in her narrative of how the alt-right came into existence Nagle uses “a methodology that itself has more in common with liberal cultural theory” than with the “marxist materialism” she claims to use. Kill All Normies sticks to an analysis along her transgression theory, there is nothing about class and economy. (Which adds a hint of irony to the left materialists’ love for Nagle’s book.) Nagle’s analysis is restricted to online discourses and as Parkinson notes too: “Her primary problem with identity politics seems to its ‘oversensitivity’ and ‘extremism’, not their failure to adequately address exploitation and oppression in a materialist manner.”
Digital Dualism and no analysis of digital platforms
Limiting her reflections on online presence (and propaganda stunts) leads Nagle to a chapter title like “The joke isn’t funny any more – the culture war goes offline”. She seems stuck in the thinking of digital dualism, separating “real” offline world and “virtual” online world, when using expressions like “spills into real life”. Her theory seems to be: First there was a “leaderless internet revolution”, then bad left “identity politics” rose and as reaction to that the “irreverent trolling style associated with 4chan” and some point the web was so full that it overflowed and spilled from Tumblr to the IRL campus etc. Maybe someone should put a plug into the Alt-Right parts of the internet so all their hate would stay in there.
By ignoring offline aspects of the right Nagle overlooks important connections and underestimates their danger and cause-effect relationships. Donald Parkins notes this weakness of Kill All Normies: “… ideologues like Richard Spencer and Kevin MacDonald have been organizing their think tanks and affinity groups for quite some time, and as proven by events in Charlottesville they are quite willing to take their ideas ‘to the streets’. There is a lack of information about the actual alt-right as it exists in the [offline] world. … Nothing is said about the efforts of white supremacist organizers like Identity Europa or the Traditionalist Workers Party to organize frats or rural workers and what kind of visions these groups have (a balkanization of the US and the create of an all-white “enthno state” is a common one). Rather Nagle pretends the alt-right is only an online phenomena, when these people have been trying to promote these politics for years.”
Maybe it is the lack of this wider context that makes Nagle neglect how tactical the recruitment and radicalization gets applied online. It is not just an automatic response to “political correctness gone mad.” Even if I were to overlook that she does not relate to the offline organisation and effects of right groups, from a book that limits its analysis to online presence of right groups I would expect at least one little chapter about how attention economy, social metrics, virality etc., in other words how the specific structures and mechanisms of the prominent platforms for online communication and networking contribute to radicalization. There is no space dedicated to this topic in Kill All Normies.
If you are interested in this, here are two reading tipps (I am copy-pasting this from my Matrix And The Manosphere talk script) but – content warning: Both texts are not as sensationalistically written as Kill All Normies.
1.) In her essay “Counter-Creativity” in ‘Sociotechnical Change from Alt-Right to Alt-Tech’ Julia Ebner mentions three tactical goals: “they have leveraged the digital space for three different types of campaigns to reach their key audiences: radicalization campaigns targeting sympathizers, manipulation campaigns targeting the mainstream, and intimidation campaigns targeting political opponents.” In their networks they share instructions, strategic documents on how to start chats with strangers, how to build trust and use widespread grievances, and how to adapt your language to the person you want to reach with your ideology.
2.) Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis also cover this in their great reader Media Manipulation And Disinformation Online. They explore how an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, tech-libertarians, white nationalists, MRAs, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration-activists and bored young people use the techniques of participatory culture and the weak points of social media to spread their beliefs. They intentionally use the possibilities of internet platforms that are optimized for attention economy (because they are financed by advertizing) to specifically use weaknesses of the news media eco sytem.
Both readers are available as free downloads.
Back to Kill All Normies failure on this topic, as Richard Seymour points out: “what one needs then, surely, is not the increasingly hokey attacks on a straw ‘identity politics’, but a political (and psychic) economy of social media. What one needs is an account of how attention is engaged, retained, bought and sold; how online platforms are structured and structuring in their effects on users; how existing social and cultural tendencies are selected and accentuated by these technologies and their corporate organisation; and so on. … What this book does, sadly, is circle around the familiar, well-trodden terrain, not only in terms of its theory, but in terms of its unreflexive ‘backlash’ anti-moralist moralising. It perpetuates the dynamics that it purports to anatomise, scold and shame.”
Transgression as culture of the mainstream and its problem of fascination with the right
The central point that Nagle wants to make is that the culture of transgression had long belonged to the left but today has been taken over by the right. She argues that because the mainstream culture has become a kind of political-correctness-gone-mad of a Tumblr Liberalism that she has carefully constructed herself. The people that did no longer want to put up with it could hardly do anything else but react with an anti-political-correctness move and radicalize themselves into the Alt-Right.
Counter culture, non-conformism, the whole idea of small subcultures with all their codes is disgusting for Nagle, this oozes from every pore of this book. Neocons on the other hand almost get her enthusing: “intellectually equipped and rhetorically gifted”, “smart”, this is how she describes them and Milo Yiannopolous is a figure that clearly fascinates her (he gets a full 71 mentions on her 247 pages and tbh: her take of the Alt-Right sounds just taken from the self-defining text he posted on Breitbart a couple of years ago. Of course she is not the only one who lazily took that over instead of analyzing it but that is no excuse. Actually it is part of the problem and sustains the Alt-Right.)
One point on which Nagle bases her rejection of transgressive culture is that it is not popular, not for the masses but inherently elitist and thereby working against the working class. As rebuttal Jordy Cummings recommends the lecture of Brian Palmer’s Cultures of Darkness:
“Palmer asserts, with tremendous, terrific and big league historical backing, that it is in these transgressive spaces – from pre-20th century Freemasonry to late nights at the DJ booth, from kink culture to tarot cards, to late night union socials and drunken, stoned revelry – that revolutionary and emancipatory ideals are formed through genuine comradeship beyond the meeting room and picket line. … throughout the history of capitalism and its accompanying history of working class struggle, one would be hard pressed to find any social movement against capitalist social relations without finding it rooted in one form of transgressive counterculture or another.” How powerful transgressive culture can be in strengthening a feeling of solidarity and how encouraging it can be, often gets misunderstood and denounced as mere “identity politics” instead of seeing it as an integral part.
And, just as a side note, let me be clear: No matter how understandable and even necessary some criticism of extreme aspects of the so-called identity politics are: They became necessary because the problems of marginalized people were forever dismissed as “Nebenwiderspruch”, as side contradiction, and discriminating and excluding structures were maintained even in progressive left circles. For many people it was the Tumblr-Queerfeminism-&-Crip-&-Antiracism-&-Spoonie-etc. activism that showed them politics as something that has an effect on their everyday life and that they can actively contribute to at all. It has opened room to talk and contribute for many people who were marginalized even in left scenes. That is something the whole white / cis-male / heterosexual / able-bodied dominated political groups have not managed with their endless complex and isolated theory discussions or in their folk politics around working class revolution, revolving around themselves. Hello, this desire for political participation absolutely should be taken up thankfully, discussed friendly, developed further, brought closer together and encouraged, and not sarcastically bashed!
But back to transgression: I would like to wildly guess that the problem has not been transgression as cultural technique of a however disposed left, just as little as the right is “the new punk”, but that the neoliberal bourgeois centre has taken up transgressive culture long ago and turned it into mainstream, alongside a radicalization of capitalism.
Transgression, irony, breaking of taboos – that this grew as mainstream techniques of politics, brands, media and marketing, until the cynical borders of what was acceptable to say and to show were so wide open that the ideology of the right just needed to take up its lose ends because nothing felt “extreme” or “surprising” anymore, seems to be a bigger part of the problem to me. “Disrupt Everything” as society’s, as social consensus. The removal of taboos and of solidarity have been mainstream even before the Alt-Right. This radicalization of the mainstream has made it so anything can be said, any criticism has been countered with free-speech absolutism since many years. And today, in Germany of all countries you get talk shows discussing “Germany for the Germans” on public service television and the right still complains that it gets censored by the “lying press”.
The culture that is consistent with mainstream transgression is not that in a small youth club a group of queer people do not want to let white people with dreadlocks join their zine crafting group. It also is not “I’m drinking male tears”-memes commodified into cups and shirts by white feminists of the media or creative class. No, the consistent culture to go with the middle class and mainstream transgression is the unrestrained shaming and stigmatizing of groups of people who are off worse in talkshows and the tabloid press that had already started years ago. The endless shows and articles that are supposed to make women or poor people “better” and/or ridicule them. Stigmatization of the unemployed as lazy, presentation of young mothers as freaks, humiliation of migrants as asylum cheaters, makeover shows that make “real men” out of “losers”, etc. The list of losers of the late meritocratic hypercapitalism is endless and they can be mocked uninhibitedly, anything else would be censorship. Ethics are censorship in today’s mainstream tabloid logic. Humiliation of people in the media normalizes the accompanying austerity politics that have been built into a huge humiliation machine for the poorest and weakest members of society via overbureaucratization apparatuses that make Kafka look fun, all instead of a welfare state. If all of this has nothing to do with the transgression that Nagle thinks is so central for the rise of the right then I don’t know what has.
I agree with Nagle that the problem can be found in the so-called mainstream, the centre, but I do not accept the right narrative that some kind of “Tumblr Liberalism” is what defines this middle class bourgeois centre. The right is just as present there. As are many others. There is not one elite whose views rule over everyting – not a liberal snowflake social justice warrior one, not a nativist racist sexist one but a wide variety of positions. Donald Parkinson sums it up: “The very notion of a ruling elite should be thrown out, for we live under the power of a ruling class. Furthermore, the ruling class is not homogeneous and competes within itself. So it is hard to say that there is one monolithic ruling class ideology, but rather there are different competing ideologies that are often contradictory. So while liberal multiculturalism is part of the ruling ideology, so is white supremacy. Bourgeois society isn’t one unified bloc.”
Fox News exists side by side with Teen Vogue, sexism sells as well as anti-sexism, Buzzfeed and Dove are centrist extremism, just as VICE and Breitbart are. The commodification of the social struggle needs more of the same: As long as I make my living from turning the struggle against misery into content that I can sell I can not seriously be interested in collective solutions because the constant outrage and emotions work so much better in an attention economy. But it is also the other way round: If I do not experience any other kind of help, when I feel politically powerless and have no social web to catch me, then I commodify what I have and sell the discrimination or whatever misery that I suffer. Patreon instead of politics, competitive individualistic life support instead of social revolution.
The experience that counterculture hardly ever helped to bring about big changes was followed by the experience that counterculture had become impossible at all, by all-pervasive product scouting that cut off any emerging subsubsubscene. We rather have a problem with commodification police than with p.c. police amirite… Where was I? Oh yes, rambling about Nagle’s Kill All Normies, the book the propositions of which get adopted so uncritically by so many, even if the book just amplifies a narrative of the right, thereby fuelling the “culture wars”. No surprise the right likes the book too, as Josh Davies points out: “Prominent US fascist Richard Spencer has endorsed Nagle’s book on his Instagram, noting that it ‘gets’ his movement and that its criticisms of ‘the Tumblr left’ are ‘useful’. It should go without saying that such an endorsement — for an ostensibly left wing book on left and right-wing online cultures — ought to give pause. Apparently not.”
Kill All Normies does not mention that transgression has dug itself deeply into everyday life in a far more dangerous way by an individualizing “disrupt everything” and “commodify everything” startup culture that ultimately would love to do away with any state control. Guess because it does not feed into the narrative of the “culture wars”. From hot take to hot take though: This is a bit thin for a wannabe-”materialist marxist”. Donald Parkinson also mentions: “Nagle also completely ignores the role of Ron Paul libertarianism. Anyone who understands the alt-right knows there’s a connection between libertarian politics and the alt-right, and that many people disappointed by the failure of Ron Paulism turned to the alt-right. … Libertarianism, an ideology where all morality is based on property rights in a country built on a foundation of slavery and segregation attracts racists. Libertarianism’s emphasis on competition can lead its followers to embrace Social Darwinism and explore ideas related to race realism. This creates a connection between white identitarians and libertarianism. … There is a sort of vulgar positivism to libertarian ideology that bides well with race realism. … Seeing markets as more democratic than any kind of state institution, free market liberalism is itself is critical of all that is egalitarian and democratic and therefore in its most extreme variants biding well with the ideology of the alt-right.”
For Nagle both, “Tumblr Liberalism” and the 4Chan-Alt-Right, are extreme efforts to create a counterculture, “transgression”, to rebel against a common sense status quo. That is why she sees no difference between a left concerned with solidarity and openness, and a right filled with racism, sexism and nativist-nationalist separation. Ultimately Nagle is all about a classic bourgeois rejection of extremisms. It is a deeply anti-solidary book. Her bashing is a lack of empathy dressed up as reason, alarmingly conservative. Hence her focus on the inefficiency of transgression: She does not want anything to diverge from the norm, then everything is going to be alright. She has no alternatives to offer, just as Josh Davies criticizes: “This refusal to reflect is compounded by the book’s lack of a sense that there’s anything that can be done. There’s much criticism of the political practices of those opposing the far right but little sense of what Nagle suggests in their place.”
That despite all these shortcomings there are so many people taking Nagle’s book as a serious resource shows most of all one thing: That we have a problem of being fascinated with the right.