Last year, the writer Angela Nagle interviewed American white supremacist Richard Spencer. Spencer is head of the National Policy Institute. You’d think perhaps that something called the National Policy Institute would be a home to languid public servants, drained of their initial enthusiasm for progressive social policy by the dull reality of bureaucratic stasis. But no, it’s actually a lobby group for white supremacists, a think tank, a way to intellectualise racism.
Angela Nagle, in case you’ve been living under a stone for the past year, is the author of the most talked about book examining the subcultural turn of right-wing politics. Kill All Normies is the result of many years studying the various online cultures that exist in pockets of the internet, and how they became mainstream. It has been hailed across the political divide for its articulation of the authority vacuum left by the collapse of social and economic liberalism, and the scramble by multifarious groups to authorise both their diagnosis and their remedies for society.
The vast majority of the book deals with the “alt-right”, its genesis and evolution. However, there has been much criticism (more often than not vicious) of Nagle’s writing on identity politics. She has been criticised by many for failing to understand the nuances of intersectionality and by others for her refusal to offer a class-based analysis of the conditions that spawned the alt-right. Most of these criticisms have come from those who identify with the left and thus Nagle has become another symbol of the widening gulf, not between left and right, but within the left itself (and this is before she interviewed a neo-Nazi ).
As much as Kill All Normies is described as a guide to the alt-right, it is also crucially a media studies book, one that looks at the mediums of communications that have allowed individuals (more often than not alienated) to find and harness subjectivities outside of “mainstream” norms. It examines the differences in discourse of different online platforms and the modes of behaviour and the various performative words and gestures that are encouraged in order to be culturally accepted within online communities. As Nagle writes in Kill All Normies:
While taboo and anti-moral ideologies festered in the dark corners of the anonymous Internet, the de-anonymized social media platforms, where most young people now develop their political ideas for the first time, became a panopticon, in which the many lived in fear of observation from the eagle eye of an offended organizer of public shaming. At the height of its power, the dreaded call-out, no matter how minor the transgression or how well intentioned the transgressor, could ruin your reputation, your job or your life. The particular incarnations of the online left and right that exist today are undoubtedly a product of this strange period of ultra puritanism.
The online panopticon is fundamentally different to Bentham’s panopticon. As Byung-Chul Han has observed, where Bentham’s panopticon limits freedom of the body, that is the observing eye coerces discipline on how the prisoners behave in their cell, the online panopticon does not so much discipline thought and speech but compels the user to speech, to join the surrounding chorus. Communication is, as one media theorist has observed, our rather pathetic attempt to vanquish death. Online communication, in being largely communicated through the medium of platforms, is largely centripetal. Language gravitates towards sameness due to the coercion of the feedback loop, something that doesn’t happen when you’re chatting in the pub to your mate about this or that.
Online communication platforms, whether anonymous “chan” spaces like 4chan or mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, are dependent on total communication. They may be polar opposites in that, while under the protection of anonymity one can say anything, when one has a reputation to protect one is more inclined to be quiet, yet in both we are caught in the circuit of total communication.
Nagle points to the fact that they are, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. Both rely on a compulsion to communicate and, despite one avowing anonymity while the other disavows it, they are both driven by the same ideology. That the free circulation of information is an imperative in the creation of communities and individual freedoms. Faith in the digital network replaces an individual’s alienated presence in the real world.
As Byung Chun Han has commented in his book The Transparency Society:
The society of control makes intensive use of freedom. It is only possible thanks to voluntary self – illumination and self – exposure. It exploits freedom. The society of control achieves perfection when its inhabitants do not communicate because of external constraint but out of inner need – that is, when the fear of giving up a private and intimate sphere yields to the need to put oneself on display shamelessly.
To understand the premise of Kill All Normies it is important to understand this point: that we are not talking about radically different ideologies. We are, instead, talking about the same ideology in different guises. We are talking about alienation under capitalism and specifically, its turn towards what Mark Fisher would describe as the hijacking of our libidinal, psychical energies, creating individuals that are in fact, in Han’s words, “the excess of Capital itself”:
Under neoliberalism, the technology of power takes on a subtle form. It does not lay hold of individuals directly. Instead it ensures that individuals act on themselves so that power relations are interiorised – and then interpreted as freedom. Self-optimisation and submission, freedom and exploitation, fall into one.
So it is with what Nagle terms “self-flagellating” politics, which, to focus on Twitter for a moment, exemplifies a media platform that actively moves away from political discussion toward “an environment in which virtue is the currency”, that “through the correct virtue signalling, minor celebrities (aka each potential user) could attract a following greater than through traditional media”. In a platform driven by followers, influence wags the tail of communication.
The internet is a communicative tool built of and for the psyche. It bypasses the body. As it becomes the dominant form of communication, politics further becomes exhibitionary, the appearance of doing, and the exhibitionary nature of language become elevated. The gesture or the image becomes more important than collective action. As Nagle wryly notes, “Something about public social media platforms, it turned out, was conductive to the vanity of morally righteous politics,” while the “value of the currency of virtue that those who had made their social media cultural capital on was in danger of being devalued”. Such freedoms of communication, then, weirdly reinstate the segregations and the differences between people rather than consolidating any political mandate, position or organisation.
The language of social media may ostensibly appear dissident and rebellious, but like the constant rebels that went before them, their disgruntledness is easily absorbed back into the expansions of capital. The social milieu that Nagle describes in Kill All Normies reminds us of Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, but Goodman’s dissociated youth hanging around street corners and spitting at the dust in boredom are replaced by the young (mostly) men posting hentai in 4chan or writing Twitter threads on why Pat McCabe hates women because he offered a comparison between the midlands of Ireland and the American South. The message below is strikingly similar to Kill All Normies.
These groups of disaffected youth are not small, and they will grow larger. Certainly they are suffering. Demonstrably they are not getting enough out of our wealth and civilization. They are failing to assimilate much of the culture. As was predictable, most of the authorities and all of the public spokesmen explain it by saying there has been a failure of socialization. They say that the background conditions have interrupted socialization and must be improved. And, not enough effort has been made to guarantee belonging, there must be better bait or punishment … But perhaps there has not been a failure to communicate. Perhaps the social message has been communicated clearly to the young men and is unacceptable.
Like Goodman, Nagle takes the experience of white young men as the focus of her study. In Growing Up Absurd, we are being treated to a study of American youth as they transition from childhood to adulthood, and the retarding of this development. Goodman highlights the clear divergence between an increasingly wealthy United States and the frivolity with which the young (mainly white and male) engage with their society. Why assimilate if their only stake in society is to work a dead-end job that inspires indifference at worst, hostility at best?
The failure that Goodman points to is that young people are being divested of a stake in their future. If adulthood is the stage in life where one has the capacity and the agency to make decisions, whether that be economically or politically, the erosion of this capacity is going to create one impotent, disenfranchised generation after another. They may view the dominant culture as one of absolute hypocrisy, yet they struggle to conceive of another that can be economically, politically, and culturally satisfying as their view of the world has been shaped in a technocratic environment where capital has conquered the human community, created a media landscape that wilfully shapes our hopes and fears, and where most of us now seek refuge in a cyberspace that confirms our biases with every scroll.
The significance of the online culture wars that Nagle writes about derives from this retreat of new youth cultures from the nightclubs, dancehalls, and street corners to congregating online. This could be seen as a result of the privatising of public space, enclosing the city, and diminishing leisure time. This has happened at the same time that the internet has become the dominant form of media and the cultural inertia that has come from the economic and political stasis has found a release valve in cyberspace.
To grow up now means that one seldom has an encounter with the other, the deviant, that one is on the conveyor belt of the same. The internet may fragment the societal narratives broadcast in the mass media but it also necessitates a sense of conformity – depending on what side of the internet you are, of course, on. As Amber Lee Frost stated in the documentary adaption of Nagle’s book:
Let’s say you’re like sixteen years old. You live in some ****hole suburb and you’re white and male and middle class but your prospects are low. You’ve got two internets to choose from. One internet says you are congenitally racist, you have already participated in rape culture by consuming the dominant media. You have offended someone ten times by speaking in a common language that you use with any person on the street. And then you have this other internet which is full of a rebellious kind of comedy. You are, in fact, encouraged to indulge in your most forbidden interests and you’re sixteen and you’re experimenting with doing and saying things that are offensive. You’re trying to find that line. Which internet are you going to choose?
Even if the mainstream has taken a nosedive, one thing is clear: whichever side of the internet one chooses, one either ends up down a wormhole of “identity politics” or “conspiracy theories”, and an emancipatory politics based on questions of political economy is almost entirely absent. Of course, this is where much of the harsh criticism that Nagle faced from the left comes from. Some claimed she was an apologist for fascism, blaming its resurgence on the left’s failures, once again a handy way to mirror the blame away from the real issue: alienation and the fact that the chance to belong, even among white supremacists, is more attractive than being alone.
This becomes the major problem with “identity politics” as it is practised in online spaces like tumblr and Twitter. This kind of politics becomes about “giving voice” to those who are most oppressed but not about getting power. It becomes a competition between people to self-identify with the most marginalised group, fetishising their marginality to elevate their voice, to make sure their experience is acknowledged. Somewhat counterintuitively, identity, which is often a subject position branded on someone by an historical or dominant power structure, becomes a badge worn with zeal in order to seek recognition within that same historical structure.
Identity is something to be overcome, dismantled and reshaped and it is imperative that new subjectivities emerge and are allowed to be constituted if a new social system is to emerge that can undermine and dismantle capitalism. As Mark Fisher notes in Ghosts of My Life:
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are right when they say that the revolutionary take on race, gender and sexuality struggles goes far beyond the demand that different identities be recognised. Ultimately, it is about the dismantling of identity. The “revolutionary process of the abolition of identity, we should keep in mind, is monstrous, violent, and traumatic. Don’t try to save yourself – in fact, your self has to be sacrificed! This does not mean that liberation casts us into an indifferent sea with no objects of identification, but rather the existing identities will no longer serve as anchors.
If our very selves are subject to the whims of capital, are in actual fact the very extensions of capital itself, the basing of a leftist politics on identities encapsulates a politics that can only be exhibitionary at best, that can only be performative in a terrain happily bequeathed to it by capital. Worse still, the very language that now permeates this performativity – that is, irony – means we are within an endless circuit of language that struggles to formulate a sincere utterance, a sincere gesture in the fear of being the only loser in the classroom that didn’t get the in-joke.
This of course applies to both of the “two internets” which Amber Lee Frost refers to. The right permits one to be transgressive, to overcome one’s alienation in taboo. On the left, irony acts as a hyper-performative language, language that signals that one stands for a particular cause, one stands for another cause but the actual action to which it attests is probably absent in real life.
And it is here that language acts as a policing mechanism that has created an online left that, Nagle remarks, is more subcultural than political. Where one has to know the shibboleths upon entering, that serves as a stop valve to many from engaging, especially young white men, who are bestowed with the identity of “white” which is viewed in this discourse as almost an original sin: they are marked with the sign of Cain . In the landscape of modernity where all are alienated, they are the ones that become marked as the genesis of their own social malaise.
And this is, at the current moment, the very problem that needs to be faced up to. There is a need to question online spaces, how they permit a certain discourse to become the bespoke currency of that platform, how, in actual fact, online space has not just created an increasingly tolerant atmosphere but has fermented a new kind of sectarianism. In sectarian societies, two or more communities live side by side but each looks at the other as being totally subaltern. In sectarian societies, there is no public sphere, as each holds to their own trenchant truths. In the public sphere one should be confronted with difference, with having to rethink one’s own subject position when one comes face to face with the radical possibilities that the other confronts us with.
Online spaces, as Byung Chul Han explains, have done the opposite of building a new public sphere:
Social media and personalized search engines set up in the internet a space of absolute closeness; here the outside has been eliminated. One encounters only oneself and one’s own life. No negativity stands available to make change possible. This digital vicinity offers users only sectors of the world that please them. In this fashion, it dismantles the public sphere – indeed, it dismantles public, critical consciousness – and it privatises the world. The internet transforms into an intimate space. It grows more and more distant from the space of communal action.
The problem with having no public space, as Hannah Arendt points out in The Origins of Totalitarianism, is that the truths that one holds dear do not need to be confronted with someone else’s truths. The danger is, when one is lost in the rabbit hole of one internet or another, one’s subjective understanding is so constantly reinforced in this hall of mirrors that it begins to become a worldview. There is no outsider, no other, no difference, to either break or cloud the mirror. And thus, for Arendt, the ideal subjects for a tyrannical regime are those isolated individuals whose isolated subjectivity is constructed in privacy, in the cauldron of their consciousness:
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Kill All Normies seems to be an attempt to understand not so much the rise of the alt-right as the manner in which the ideas of identity politics (both left and right) have been recuperated back into the circuitry of the internet. Here individuals are only engaging with truths made self-evident (yet defused of any radicalism) by being mirrored by those around them, and as we become more aware of how algorithms work to give us more of what we have previously liked, previously engaged with, we understand that our online spaces increasingly consolidate our pre-existing expectations.
What Nagle hints at towards the close of the book is the need to re-establish the notion of a public sphere, one that is not perforated by the toxicity of Twitter, reddit, 4chan or Tumblr. Without building a politics in which the “normies” are engaged, that speaks to them, that offers a sense of belonging rather than an opportunity to be flagellated before being permitted entry, politics will become increasingly sectarian, with each political vision being as true as the next.
Perhaps this is why Nagle was right to interview Spencer. Not only to overcome the sectarian borders that are becoming increasingly entrenched, but to begin a discourse that can begin to uncover the reality of violence that lies in the alt-right’s political project, and to recognise the millennial woes of those that are veering towards the right.
By seeking to reignite/preserve a public sphere rather than having a polarised population living and understanding the world through the discourse of their respective bubbles and thus entrenching sectarianism, a sphere of commonality needs to be created that makes it more difficult to latch onto the more subcultural/cliquish elements that define both spectrums of this polarisation. Not only is Kill All Normies an important critique of the energy vacuum of online media and its hijacking of our libidinal and organisational energy; it also reaffirms the need for a media that goes beyond the clique and toward the normie.