Well now, here’s one to fast-track to the top of the ‘to read’ pile. We needed a clear-sighted account of the disturbing evolutions in online cultural politics since the early 2010s, plus the dramatic influence they’ve had on real-world politics, and now it’s arrived. I read Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies in a euphoria of relief, tempted on virtually every page to photograph incisive passages and send them to friends. I was delighted not only because I found myself in fervent agreement with almost everything the author said, but because Nagle’s short book is bounteously informative, oh-so timely, and pitched at a tone that mixes condemnation, understanding, exasperation, and conviction in just the right measures. While it does not decline to take sides, this impeccably level-headed book stands as a repudiation of the shrill, bullying style typical of both camps in the ugly and vicious culture war it examines. Kill All Normies is a sign that the left might be recovering its sanity.
Since the advent of social media and the proliferation of Web-connected devices, cultural shifts of an unprecedented nature have caught us off guard. In the shadow of the most astounding political event of our time – the election of Donald Trump to the White House – Nagle endeavours to explain how the mainstream got so weird and radical. Among the questions she poses: how did it become possible to claim, not without justification, that conservatism is the new punk? When did the liberal left – priorly associated with countercultural cool – come to resemble the traditional right: prudish, prissy, easily offended, ‘anti-free speech, anti-free thought, anti-intellectual’? How did the left become ‘a laughing stock for a whole new generation’?
In Nagle’s telling, we are living through the third phase of the culture wars, following those of the 1990s and the 1960s in which conservative forces tried – and signally failed – to impede the moral, sexual, and feminist revolutions led by liberals. The 2010s culture wars are different in two key respects: first, they are being waged primarily online – a new battleground where familiar strategies are redundant; and second, the poles have been reversed. Hoary conservatives are no longer the cultural gatekeepers resisting the left’s youthful insurrection. In anglophone countries that still import their mores and values from the United States – despite that nation’s decline in status as a global power – liberalism is now, culturally speaking, the dominant ideology. Today’s young rebels, transgressors, and culture-jamming subversives are on the right. Whereas liberal artists once delighted in heeding the avant-garde rallying cry to shock the bourgeoisie, they themselves became much like the bourgeoisie: complacent, herd-like, and narcissistically assured of their own virtue. They were in for a shock.
Nagle stresses that the savagery of the backlash by the alt-right subcultures – including those radiating from the nihilistic sewer-site 4chan – was reflexive to the toxic absurdities of Web-fermented, US campus-nurtured identity politics. The alt-right were not the only ones exasperated by the sanctimony, puritanism, public shaming of dissenters, and open hostility towards straight white males that became normalised in recent years. All out war might not have erupted if social constructionist, identity political radicalism – and its attendant doctrinaire moralising – had remained within the Internet subcultures and campuses where it was spawned: the problem arose when it gained serious traction in mainstream life.
We all watched it happen. With dizzying rapidness, bizarre ideological excrescences that were once considered radical and fringe became the new norms of public life. Almost overnight, sane people began using, for purposes wildly beyond the contexts in which they made sense, terms like ‘no platforming’ (which now meant the practice of suppressing the voices of people whose views we dislike), ‘triggering’ (the belief that anything from classic works of literature to traditional ideas about gender can provoke trauma), and ‘cultural appropriation’ (the notion that cultures and races possess intellectual property, therefore other cultures must not adopt their styles, customs, or even linguistic usages). Anyone who didn’t get the memo, or whose sense of pride or functioning memory prevented them from denouncing former verities and loudly cheering the new orthodoxy, woke up to find they had become thought criminals, pariahs, reactionaries.
Led by social media ringleaders who excelled at competitive virtue signalling, the online ‘left’ (it had largely abandoned any question of economic struggle, and often seemed actively hostile to those who focussed on class inequality over and above identity politics) did not hesitate to ruin the lives and careers of anyone not seen to walk in ideological lock-step with the new regime. Whether the issue was feminism, race, gender or identity, critical thinking was suppressed because it risked offending the new sensibilities, which often seemed to consist of little more than a radically expanded capacity to be offended. A cretinous culture of performative piety and fear of debate took root. As Nagle writes, ‘the very idea of winning people over through ideas now seems to anguish, offend and enrage this tragically stupefied shadow of the great movements of the left’.
Nagle critiques the follies of campus identity politics and social media liberalism not from the right, but as a left-leaning feminist. As she elucidates point after reasonable point, it feels as if a grown-up has finally entered the room. Like Mark Fisher, the Marxist critic who was savaged by his putative comrades for decrying ‘the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism’ of the online left, Nagle has no sympathy for Twitter/Tumblr liberalism’s ‘cult of fragility and victimhood mixed with a vicious culture of group attacks, group shaming, and attempts to destroy the reputations and lives of others’. It is reassuring to find a self-described feminist disdaining the ‘hysterical’ liberal call-out culture, and acknowledging that it has produced ‘a breeding ground for an online backlash of irreverent mockery and anti-PC’. Without joining the forces of reaction or losing sight of the vileness of the alt-right, she writes of ‘the deep intellectual rot of contemporary political progressivism’; ‘the moral self-flattery of … a tired liberal intellectual conformity’; and ‘the hysteria and faux-politics of liberal Internet culture’.
To explain how we got here, Nagle takes us back to that optimistic moment in the early 2010s, when it seemed like a ‘leaderless digital revolution’ would enable the masses to rise up via social media and overthrow oppressors. Echoing Jarett Kobek’s merciless satirical novel I Hate the Internet, she sees the collapse of the Arab Spring into tyranny and chaos as an allegory for a wider disenchantment with the ‘leaderless digital revolution’ narrative. Many liberals continue to echo the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ praise of social media as an engine of progressivist social change, but today it is Donald Trump rather than any egalitarian revolution that we readily associate with Twitter. Nagle’s dismissal of Twitter is right on the money: ‘a platform in which users are supposed to compete for followers and through which lagging careers can be instantly boosted through the correct virtue signalling’. Social media in general are ‘conducive to the vanity of morally righteous politics’.
After Kony and the Arab Spring, the feel-good sentimentalism of early 2010s clicktivism mutated into something more claustrophobic: a ‘panopticon, in which the many lived in fear of observation from the eagle eye of an offended organiser of public shaming.’ Sanctimony and lynch-mob moralism reached a peak. The Internet degenerated into a sweatbox of hair-trigger liberal outrage and ad hominem attacks. Then, after years of crying wolf by taking offence at even the most innocuous ideological solecisms, ‘the real wolf eventually arrived.’
As Trump marched into the White House, terrified liberals scrambled to learn about a demonic new political force known as the alt-right. While the term is applied loosely in the media to cover a broad right-wing movement, strictly speaking it refers to the Internet’s white segregationist, white-nationalist subcultures. The alt-light, on the other hand, denotes a more amorphous, often nihilistic, anti-PC and anti-feminist movement, which includes the /b/tards and trolls of 4chan. The movement as a whole has already had a seismic impact on mainstream culture: Trump probably would not have won without alt-right and alt-light agitation.
The Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci insisted that politics are led by culture, rather than vice versa: Nagle argues that it is the online right who now apply this insight most effectively. The right’s most notorious culture warrior is Milo Yiannopoulos – he of the sublimely named Dangerous Faggot Tour. Exploiting the festering, rebellious atmosphere on sites like 4chan and Breitbart News (at which he was an editor), the handsome and charismatic Milo became the bogeyman to liberals, gleefully offending everyone while exposing the absurdities of hysterical campus politics. ‘Feminism is Cancer’ was but one of his made-to-outrage slogans.
To be sure, liberal absurdities presented themselves to Milo and his cohorts like fish in a barrel. ‘Openly propagandistic’ websites like Buzzfeed, Everyday Feminism, Jezebel, and Salon ran listicles and articles which pretty much satirised themselves (my favourite of Nagle’s examples: ‘8 Signs Your Yoga Practice Is Culturally Appropriated’). In the radical identity politics laboratory of Tumblr, hundreds of new genders were announced, of which Nagle offers a two-page sample list. A random selection:
Genderale – A gender that is hard to describe. Mainly associated with plants, herbs and liquids.
Cassflux – When your level of indifference towards your gender fluctuates.
And that’s before we even get to ‘otherkin’ genders, in which boys and girls identify as dragons, elves, aliens, cartoon characters, and so on.
There is much to laugh at in all this. Yet as I read these accounts of Tumblr-based gender experimentation, I was struck and touched by the creativity and vulnerability they evince. The problem is, this identity and gender radicalism leaked out of the Internet, first onto American campuses, and then into mainstream life around the world – and its ideologue-enforcers behaved with a vicious intolerance that tended to evaporate any such sympathies. It became not only acceptable but fashionable to mock the straight, the white, the male, and the cisgender. ‘That’s such an old-white-guy thing to say’ became a common phrase used to dismiss bothersome opinions.
The ideological sex-change was complete. The left was the new right: priggish, alarmingly humourless, antipathetic to free speech and free thought. The situation hit a nadir with the campus riots at Berkeley earlier this year, when Milo was violently blocked from speaking at a university once considered a bastion of progressivist struggle. By suppressing him, the rioters granted Milo his supreme victory, confirming his taunt that they couldn’t oppose him on the level of ideas because they’d castrated their own capacity for critical thought, while elevating him to historic status into the bargain.
For all the intolerance and silliness of Tumblr-style identitarianism, little on the left has approached the frightening, Sadean nastiness of chan culture and the alt-right, especially when their targets are women. Nagle traces the philosophical roots of chan culture back to transgressive, anti-liberal figures paradoxically venerated by the liberal arts establishment: Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Bataille, and yes, the Marquis de Sade. One of her key arguments is that the transgressive attitude embodied by the left in previous culture wars has blown up in its face. Now that they are no longer the rebel outsiders but the ideological establishment, liberals find themselves on the receiving end of transgressive and countercultural energies, and they don’t like it. Whereas the Beats, hippies and punks once flaunted the breaking of taboos, and the protestors of 1968 proclaimed that ‘It is forbidden to forbid’, today it is the nihilist saboteurs of the online right who take them at their word, sowing chaos, fear and revulsion by a virulent transgressivism outstripping that of Bataille or Jean Genet.
Now that the politically fungible, vacuous nature of the transgressive attitude has been exposed, Nagle suggests it’s time for the left to discard it once and for all. Why persist with an ‘utterly empty and fraudulent’ ideal that ‘can characterise misogyny just as easily as it can sexual liberation’? The problem with her suggestion is that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle quite so easily. Liberal academics and artists employed transgression to militate against traditional proprieties around sexuality, gender, religion, etc, and now their weapons have fallen into enemy hands.
Elsewhere, Nagle explores the ‘Manosphere’: the often severely misogynist subcultures of men’s activism and sexual warfare. While she is appalled by the hatred and foulness on display, her account is not without understanding for the sex-starved men who feel chronically humiliated by their ‘beta’ status, excluded from the paradise of promiscuity available to a genetically fortunate elite since the 1960s sexual revolution. Banding together online to compare experiences and stoke each other’s rancour, these ‘incels’ – involuntary celibates – loathe sexually successful males and ‘sluttish’ women who ‘ride the cock carousel’. The contradictory, tormented males of the Manosphere might have crawled from the pages of a Michel Houellebecq novel. Pulled in opposite directions by conservatism and consumerism, they bemoan the disappearance of traditional feminine reserve among Western women, while hating those same women for withholding the pornified sex they crave.
I could dwell on the frequency of typo-addled sentences that distract from Kill All Normies’ powerful analysis, but let’s not give undue weight to relatively trivial matters. There is, after all, a war on. The nastiest alt-righters and heartless trolls are beyond communication, and so too are the most doctrinaire and cosseted ‘sour faced identitarians’. The rest of us, however, stand to gain by thinking seriously about what’s been making the opposite side so angry. The alternative is a reinforced belief in the infallible righteousness of our own group – and further divisiveness. Angela Nagle strikes me as an uncommonly sane voice in a culture war defined by astounding cruelty, extremism and intolerance. Kill All Normies is as absorbing as it is important. I hope everyone reads it.