Halfway to Gilead: how the alt-right’s online culture wars made hate mainstream

Breitbart himself said that “politics is downstream from culture”. Expanding what’s sayable to determine what is doable, here’s how the alt-right grew roots. Review of Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies.

Paul Walsh
19 October 2017

A Trump supporter. Wikimedia Commons/Fibonacci Blue. CC-BY-2.0.It’s historic, I guess. Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland recently became the first far-right party to enter its parliament for over fifty years, and maybe the silliest. I say silly because one AfD election poster featured a heavily-pregnant woman, lying on German grass, smiling towards a German camera, under the words ‘New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves’. And with the far-right Freedom Party crashing into mainstream Austrian politics, a party which last year released a video telling asylum seekers to keep their fingers off “our women”, I suppose we’re already halfway to Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, where women walk around in bonnets and sensible shoes, hands piously clasped, while men drive round and point at things.

I suppose we’re already halfway to Margaret Atwood’s  Gilead, where women walk around in bonnets and sensible shoes, while men drive round and point at things.

Across Europe there seems to be a far-right Mercedes breaking all political speed limits, powered by the engine of National Truism, the philosophy of today. How does National Truism work? It’s a minestrone, combining ideas like ‘parthenogenesis’ (rebirth) and ‘lebensraum’ (living space) with a civilizational decline story and a fear of ‘others’: immigrants, muslims, and, worst of all, muslim immigrants. And it’s a supreme national truth to say we should live in ethno-states with ‘our own kind’, speak ‘our own languages’, and eat ‘our own food’ – which, for me, being British, means eating potatoes, drinking tea, and talking about football.   

In the middle of all this, we need an explanation and diagnosis before – to paraphrase Gustave Flaubert – we wake up in a world where everyone must carry a flag, move around, and be stupid. Angela Nagle’s book provides both. Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right explains the meteoric rise of the American 'alt-right', explores its contradictions, and connects the satellites involved – from men’s rights activists and PUAs (pick-up artists) to fallen star of the alt-right, Milo Yiannopoulos. 

The book begins with Obama's 2008 election win, when right-wing America realised the enemy was neither poverty nor class – but that a black man and his black family now lived in the White House, and ate and slept there too. For some, the appearance of this family signified a cosmic curse; and this ‘some’, once mobilised and weaponised, set the tone for the ‘many’ who then unleashed a tide of hate. Trump’s campaign smashed its way through a hollowed-out media quicker than Democrats could scream What Happened! Liberals went to work whistling Sugarman; a racist bigot became president singing Trumpland Uber Alles. And now he eats and sleeps there too.

Nagle’s book succeeds in many ways. It’s accessible yet heavy on ideas, and her condensed investigation is informative and useful, documenting the vile cruelties of recent online culture wars. In particular, the online trolling and abuse of women like feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian is beyond shocking; one gamer even created a videogame where players could beat her up until her face “was bloodied and bruised, and her eyes blackened and swollen”. The justification for such behaviour? “Trolling is basically internet eugenics. I want everyone off the Internet. Bloggers are filth… We need to put these people in the oven,” in the words of one celebrated troll.

To explain this misogynistic online world, in a recent interview, Nagle explored the idea suggests that these shadowy corners of cyberspace, or gamerspace, are the only domains that young men (and they are overwhelmingly young men) can control in an era of precarious jobs and no-hope futures; the one space where they feel ‘accepted’. And there are two major implications. The first is that criticism of these online spaces will inevitably generate a volcano of rage because such criticism poses an existential threat to identities still being formed, and still fragile. Second, it may be that this rage against the liberal-multicultural machine contains a longing for what neoliberalism has ripped away. That is, behind the battle cry of Kill All Normies lies a secret desire for normality, and love. 

In modern politics, liberal leaders are forgiven for drone bombing as long as they're cool with gay marriage.

The book has many strengths, yet the concept Nagle frames in opposition to the alt-right is somewhat vague. She calls this ‘Tumblr-liberalism’– a form of hyper-sensitivity exemplified by safe spaces, trigger warnings, and online witch hunts in the name of political correctness, or what political correctness now means. This culture invokes a constant call to check your privilege against a never-ending scorecard of race, disability, gender, and so on. And despite good intentions, this results in a form of “vindictive protectiveness... in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse,” according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The suggestion – and you don’t have to be a tub-thumping Marxist here – is that structural issues of economics and class become subterranean issues, and then non-issues. As sociologist Didier Eribon writes in Returning to Rheims, our societies came out of the sexual closet, but not out of the “class closet”. 

And yet the culture wars of today seem different from those of the past. Nagle writes that “teachers were assigned Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and major culture-wars battles were waged over creeping feminism and multiculturalism in education and in the broader sphere”. Previous culture wars of the 60s took place under conditions of decolonisation, with real rather than online wars in many countries – with far less space between intellectuals and social movements, social movements and revolutions. (Friere himself was imprisoned in his native Brazil for his activism.) Culture wars of the past were fought under conditions of potential revolution; today this potential, under conditions of neoliberalism, has largely evaporated.

Despite the drawbacks of ‘Tumblr-liberalism’, the arguments in the chapter ‘Gramscians of the alt-light’ are strong and insightful. Through Gramsci’s idea that culture is the terrain on which regimes control thought  – his idea of hegemony – Nagle shows that the alt-right’s field of battle is culture rather than economics; Andrew Breitbart himself said that “politics is downstream from culture”. And some of Nagle’s sharpest words are here, like her claim that, “in modern politics, liberal leaders are forgiven for drone bombing as long as they're cool with gay marriage, while on the right, enacting policies that devastate families and stable communities was cheered on at any cost as long as it dealt a satisfying blow to the trade unions, as we saw during the Reagan and Thatcher years.” Ouch. Yet the issues here are perhaps organisational rather than ideological – the right has just been more successful in building what Gramsci called the Modern Prince: “an organism, a complex element of society in which a collective will... begins to take concrete form.” For Gramsci the Modern Prince was the political party; for the alt-right the collective will develops from what they call ‘meta-politics’.

Their aim is simple: expand what is sayable to affect what is doable.

Developing a far-right ‘meta-politics’ has been the work of the French New Right or Nouvelle Droite, a thought-collective founded in 1968. Their aim is simple: expand what is sayable to affect what is doable. According to Tamir Bar-On, author of Rethinking the French New Right: Alternatives to Modernity, this ‘meta-politics’ wants to supersede traditional left / right distinctions, to create an alternative modernity, and to make a ‘new religion’ of politics – which sounds good until you realise these ideas rest on a hatred of equality, a love of hierarchy, and a rejection of the political world created by the French Revolution. At ground level this ‘meta-politics’ translates into a hatred of everything liberals hold dear: liberal democracy, equality, and most of all multiculturalism, where the far right is succeeding. Just listen to UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently said, “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” These ideas have seeped into the way people talk, and affect the way people vote. 

But where next for the far-right? After Charlottesville, the far-right Mercedes looks more like an East German Trabant, a vehicle made of toxic materials, uncomfortable to travel in, and difficult to steer. Perhaps the hangers-on will peel away, for, as Nagle writes, “how many of these racist trolls are committed to the real-life violence and potential state repression that the movement’s goals will now summon forth?” And her book makes one thing clear – the alt-right can no longer claim ironic prankster status, just out ‘for the lulz’. There’s a fascist core to the movement, expressed in alt-right leader Richard Spencer’s dream of an all-white ethno-state brought about by ‘peaceful ethnic cleansing’.

Nagle writes that “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”. And maybe that’s the problem. A left that can no longer make ideas clings more tightly and piously to yesterday’s slogans, mantras, and fads. Perhaps Kill All Normies will be one of many books exposing the current pathologies of the left, a left which seems to be yawning while the world closes its mouth, and Gilead draws near.

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