Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. London: Zero Books, 2017. 136pp. $16.95/£9.99 paperback.
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This review is intended as a corrective to the more woolly assumptions underlying Kill All Normies. Suffice it to say that on the alt-right itself, at least the content of its currently constituted existence, Nagle is informative. Yet the amount of information contained in the book would have been better served as a listicle or at best a 5 page article in Current Affairs or some such… The point being made here is that this is not a book about the alt-right. It is an anti-Left polemic.
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In 1970, the famed “New Journalist” Tom Wolfe wrote an article, and later a book, lampooning a dinner party held by the progressive composer Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panther Party. Fresh off of decontextualizing the Merry Pranksters and Bay Area counterculture in Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, Wolfe, a cheeky, fresh-faced conservative, now was on a mission to show the silliness of what was not yet called “identity politics.” Poking fun at the very idea that a member of the BPP would enjoy hors-d’oeuvres; painting one dimensional figures of the Panthers and liberal intelligentsia in one swoop, just as he had absolutely used and duped the Merry Pranksters, and would later attempt to “take down” Noam Chomsky. Wolfe’s work, in the last instance, is not about his subject matter, but about using his subject matter to subtly push a very specific worldview and set of politics, in his case, an aristocratic and worldly Toryism.
For Wolfe, and for Angela Nagle, exposition of cultural and social types is a tool with which to advocate a very specific set of politics. Also like Wolfe, Nagle thinks there was a profound cultural shift with the constitution of the sixties counterculture. And Nagle thinks that the very concept of subculture, of counterculture, militates against the Left. Counterculture, says Nagle, is inherently anti-mass, anti-popular, elitist. That Nagle calls Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF) founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow an “anarchist hacker” (he’s actually somewhat of a libertarian anti-imperialist) reveals a sense of dilettantism, a lack of proper investigation of historical material beyond a headline on someone’s Facebook feed. She knows as much about counterculture as I do about all those “’What does your last name mean’ Buzzfeed quizzes”.
As with this odd portrayal of Barlow, Nagle’s narrative of pre-2000 internet culture is riddled with so many inaccuracies that one is surprised it was even published. It’s almost as absurd – even surreal – as her name-dropping of Gramsci. As an early user of Usenet, I can assure Nagle and readers of this book that folks used it as fans of cult bands, science fiction, left politics and so on. Usenet introduced me to Marxist discussion, X-Files discussion and the brilliant work of Company Flow. I never saw much by way of right wing memes or Pepe, but then, I guess I got off the bus too early. Perhaps there was a right-libertarian streak, but Nagle’s situating of 4Chan and the alt-right as growing out of early internet culture is just bullshit. As is her far-out, gnarly and decisively square portrayal of the relationship between counterculture(s) and radical politics. Can you dig it?
Never mind the intrinsic, if haphazard, links between the far Left and sixties counterculture, in particular in the Bay Area and London. Never mind the punk scene’s Rock Against Racism initiative, ACT-UP, Black Lives Matter. Just about every social movement over the last half century has its connotative codes, rituals and even sardonic choices declared to be reactionary. It’s as if Nagle was a Stalinist commissar imagining it’s 1934 and surrealism is hers to declare “decadent”.
In Nagle’s notebooks, it is not counterculture that brings social change. It is discourse. Yes, for someone who spends a book railing against the discourses of the right, centre and left, it doesn’t seem at all like she has any alternative but to bemoan this mode of subjectivity, even sympathetically quoting foundational neocon Allan Bloom to back up her position. It is indeed telling how fawning Nagle is towards Norman Podhoretz, et al.
Indeed, surrealism and “transgression” are situated as points of origin in decades of the development of countercultural thought that has contributed, in Nagle’s comical horseshoe theory narrative, as the grandmother of both the alt-right and what she variously calls “Tumblr Liberalism” and “identity politics.” She calls Tumblr nothing more than “the reverse mirror of rightist 4Chan,” and, drawing on Walter Benn Michaels, asserts without any back-up that this reflects a “liberal preference for ‘recognition of diversity over economic inequality’” as if all the kids with mixed consciousness on Tumblr are also part of the “rich kids of Instagram” set. Whenever referring to venerated thinkers such as Benn Michaels or “Professor Adolph Reed Jr.”, she uses the “Professor” or “Doctor” honorific, which is apparently too much of a compliment for Judith Butler. It’s puzzling, if not downright offensive, that Nagle thinks there is something wrong with a subjectivity that dictates that straight white cisgender people to “listen and believe.” Is Nagle guarding people’s right, say, to not believe survivors of sexual assault?
For this, the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Catherine Liu effuses that 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.” As someone who writes on encounters between cultural production and counterculture on one hand, and radical and revolutionary politics on the other, I think there’s plenty to interrogate in the Birmingham School, of the idea of working class and subaltern cultural practices situated as inherently oppositional. Culture, like history, does nothing by itself. It is real, living, sensuous human beings who constitute, produce and reproduce culture. Thus cultural practices – often consciously but sometimes organically – develop cultures of opposition and transgression.
Counterculture and the avant-garde, to be clear, are products of how everyday life is produced and reproduced within class societies in general, and capitalism in particular. This process echoes the system’s combined and uneven development, its constant search for novelty, the constant destruction and creation of capital, and the near universality of uneven and mixed consciousness. To outright deny any political meaning in counterculture or marginal or antinomian types is profoundly un-materialist, reducing social and cultural practices. This right here is absolutely, positively, historically inaccurate. When writing about the sixties, Nagle may as well be a LaRouchie, so dangerous does she find the counterculture, something she ahistorically calls a “very recent and very modern aesthetic.” For real?
I could go on and on about how Nagle should read Brian Palmer’s Cultures of Darkness: Night Travels in the Histories of Transgression. Palmer is a Marxist and an historian of the working class, best known for his remarkable knowledge of the history of working class politics, whether the great strikes in Minnesota, the life of James Cannon or more recently, with anti-poverty activist Gaitan Heiroux, of poor people’s struggles in Toronto. Yet in the context of Nagle’s discourse-fetishism that she quirkily calls “materialism,” Palmer is engaging in nothing more than Tumblr liberalism. Not to be flip or rude, but she doesn’t have even a toe, let alone a leg to stand on in asserting either that counterculture is inherently anti-mass or anti-working class, and that, in turn, both “Tumblr liberalism” and the alt-right can be reduced to countercultural social practices.
Palmer is absolutely a necessary read on this point, as a follower of E.P. Thompson, that working classes are made by their experiences, and more often-than-not, these experiences have been marked by “transgression.” In Palmer’s frame, transgression is not the poisoned chalice that goes straight from Georges Bataille’s shenanigans to Jim Morrison whipping out his dick to Milo defending pederasty. Rather, like Marx’s telling passage in the 1844 manuscripts about French communist workers drinking and smoking, 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. This is not the simple “resistance through rituals” asserted by cultural studies, it is actual working-class history out of which Palmer develops his theorization. The rituals aren’t resistance, they are necessary internal relations within the social practices of working class people in their various bodies, social positions, locales and temporal-spatial differentiations. Yet 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. Even the proper Teutons of the Second International had a Bohemian streak!
When writing about the alt-right, Nagle doesn’t really seem all that serious. Certainly, the plethora of information in a slim volume is not entirely worthless. But in terms of substance, I have learned more about fighting the alt-right from my local comrades who fight fascism in the streets, who gather information on them and defend communities that are at risk from white supremacists and their agents within police forces. In print and online, from Harrison Fluss and Sam Miller to even liberal writers at Vox, there have been dozens and dozens of articles that in 500 words have more original and politically useful things to say about the alt-right than this book, which projects its own elitism onto everyone else. It is shocking, actually, that Nagle seems to think that the alt-right is a big deal yet not even once does she suggest any methods of fighting them – except of course to poke fun at the protests that forced Berkeley to cancel Milo’s speech. It is even more shocking that paragons of the Left intelligentia are celebrating Nagle as having written something important but accessible, like No Logo, Gender Trouble, Manufacturing Consent or Orientalism. “Bound to be a classic” is what one sincere comrade told me about this book.
The aforementioned Liu, in a piece far more informative and thought out than the book under review has a few “laugh extremely loud” quotes or “lelz”, in particular a point in which Liu finds Nagle to be astute with “both context and dialectics.” What? This book is about as dialectical – perhaps less so – than the bleating that one would find on the World Socialist Website, and to wit, with a similar attitude towards counterculture, activism and Left culture more broadly. Those five pages (69 to 73), where Nagle makes fun of gender non-conformity? Nagle spends three of those five pages attempting to draw a chuckle from a reader by listing a series of gender identities “all taken from Tumblr”, and then implies they are nothing more than an outgrowth of the idea of “otherkin.” She thus proclaims that this is a problem of “the broader theme of identity fluidity” then proceeds to make more mean spirited fun of disability activists, “spoon theory” and so forth, all the while using the knowing prose of the fearless journalist who ‘knows better’. Great goddamn – this is as Dialectical as Fuck! The defense of second-wave feminist Germaine Greer after her cack-handed transphobic outbursts as against what she portrays as censorious Tumblr liberals? Same.
Let’s be clear, Nagle sends subtle dog-whistles towards Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) thought, even implying that Jordan Peterson gets a bad rap. Her most admired figure, admittedly, after all, is Camille Paglia. Much dialectics. Such materialism.
The factual errors that start in the very first paragraph of the book – glaringly (claiming a book published in the nineties was written about George W. Bush) – and continue throughout? Why, these dialectics rival Lukacs, Dietzgen, Engels and even Heraclitus, for fuck’s sake!
I will remain silent on Liu, clearly a co-thinker of Nagle in the so-called “dirtbag left”, when she conflates feminist, queer and anti-racist socialist thought with the “professional managerial class.” As I say, “lelz.” Park MacDougald, in New York Magazine, quite rightly acknowledges that one does not really learn much new from this book, and is at least somewhat honest that it is less about the alt-right than it is a critique of the Left and “liberalism.” Nagle finds humanity and “folksiness” in some of these alt-right figures, not unlike Wolfe’s cartoon character portrayals of astronauts, Black nationalists and acid-droppers. To an extent, one can speculate that in humanizing them, she is making them all the more unappealing. But contrast how Nagle writes about, say, Men’s Rights Activists, with how she writes about those victimized by fascism. In her account of so-called gamergate, Nagle can’t help but inform the reader that she hates videogames, and that the cultural producer first attacked within the gamergate fiasco made bad videogames. Her account of gamergate as the foundational moment of the modern alt-right is likely quite accurate – a battle within a subculture. Yet she humanizes the fuck out of the perpetrators in Gamergate, while writing about female cultural producers in a sneering, scornful way.
Then there’s Tumblr. Tumblr has been a fascinating social phenomenon, in which young people discover and imagine new subjectivities – and yes, along with these new subjectivities, they foster and collectively interpellate new identities beyond the gender binary. To transgender folks and anyone who falls outside of normativity (and not just young people) Tumblr culture has genuinely been helpful. It has, in turn, yes, led large corporations – especially those used by said demographic – to allow people to identify beyond the gender binary. It used to be that it was considered at least a partial victory – “recognition” if not “redistribution” – when this sort of thing takes place. But Nagle finds it funny that Facebook now allows for non-binary identity. Thus, mutatis-mutandis: Tumblr, Trans issues, gender, all of it is “Tumblr liberalism.”
And let’s not stop there. Nagle, generally speaking, treats LGBTQI people in derisive ways. This is not some kind of “call out.” Nagle is quite open about her belief that her version of left politics is a politics of exclusion, a sort of workerism without workers, as she doesn’t seem to orient to the working class either. In fact, the book doesn’t really seem to have politics. At least not on the surface.
But underneath it all the book does have politics, and this is a classic sleight of hand – to attack those to one’s left by associating them with those to one’s right. The politics Nagle is espousing are that of a parlour trick. She repeatedly throughout the book will combine in a single paragraph or even a single sentence a perfectly reasonable and defensible left position – let’s say Justin Trudeau being a white supremacist – with an absurd one – Hillary Clinton being a feminist and “Bernie Bros” being anti-feminist. So, to be clear, Nagle is saying to Indigenous people and the great swathe of the Left that have finally come to support Indigenous social movements that they are the equivalent of a liberal because they justifiably argue that, even if personally Justin is a nice guy with a tattoo, he is not your friend, he is an upholder of white supremacy. Opposing Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Liberal Party’s history of white supremacy is the same as supporting Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders. Okay.
But to many people on the Left, those still smarting from losing an argument on Twitter, or from being “called out” in a dramatic way, her work is a salve. She is telling her readers “I understand, you are a real leftist, those meanies who called you a transphobe are just meanies!” And she thus serves to reinforce this politics of exclusion. And this politics of exclusion, I will add, has nothing to say about transformational social change. She pays some lip service to Marxism, but, as noted, she has nothing but negative things. She is particularly vicious towards feminist and queer socialism of the type, for example, found in Holly Lewis’s work. It is a challenge to her and her co-thinkers to actually have a substantive critique of liberal identity politics that also engages, renovates and focuses on the importance of a Marxist politics of identity.
But Nagle is redbaiting those to her left. If it were up to Nagle, the Left would be led by able-bodied workers who, if they come from any marginalized group, take pains to not make that the focus of their politics. The horizon, for Nagle, seems to be some form of Laclauian left populism, led by a snarky but plucky intelligentsia of social democrats who want liberals to “bend their knees.” She doesn’t spell it out, but she certainly doesn’t seem to be a revolutionary socialist by any stretch.
So how to build hegemony within the Left culture? Why by attacking transgression and celebrating “normies!” And what could be more transgressive than that? To Nagle and her milieu, the attitude towards the alt-right is “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” They genuinely see more affinity between their world view and the likes of Jordan Peterson. The socialist Left has no room for this kind of thinking. Instead of paying attention to this sack of potatoes, Leftists should read Teen Vogue. The kids are alright, Tumblr or not. Certainly more class conscious as well as “woke” than Nagle.
Jordy Cummings is a critic, labor activist and PhD recipient pending defense from York University in Toronto. He is a member of the Red Wedge editorial collective.