How to turn losers into communists

It’s been a rough couple of years for the self-image of nerds. After a decade of being welcomed as a faintly sexy new part of mainstream culture, the most hardcore elements of nerd culture are now associated with the most toxic parts of the right wing. If you have an anime avatar or spend a lot of time on message boards, you’ll probably be suspected of being a white nationalist. How the hell did this happen?

Of course, the majority of people who enjoy video game marathons or know the intricacies of old Marvel storylines are not part of the alt-right. Most of them are perfectly normal, relatable people. Even among the diehards, nerds are more likely to be apolitical, liberal, or even leftist. But it’s the fascists who make all the noise, and who interest me as both a cautionary tale and a missed opportunity.

The demographic I’m interested in is one that’s usually invisible save for being the object of mockery. They have poor social skills, and feel like the society of beautiful people on TV and in public is fundamentally alien to them. They cling to specialized interests, but it feels like the beautiful people are taking over those too. They are often unemployed and still live with their parents, and feel the sense of shame society imposes for that. They are losers, in just about every sense of the world.

Some of these people likely always had reactionary politics, and there have been misogynist and racist currents in fandom for decades. But the political culture in nerd politics has become far more activist in the last five years or so, and the reactionary perspective has gone from being marginal to impossible to avoid. At least some of the losers have been radicalized, and it’s important to understand why.

The self-mythology of the alt-right is that they were ordinary people pushed into political action by the overreach of identity politics (or the “social justice warriors”, to use their own noxious terminology.) This is a superficial explanation at best. For one thing, previous feminist and anti-racist interventions into nerd spheres, such as the sci-fi New Wave of the 60s and 70s, didn’t provoke nearly as active reaction. But I also don’t believe that these people always had some sort of dark racist seed in them, at least not any more than anyone growing up in American culture.

Rather, we can see the origin of the alt-right in the high numbers of youth unemployment following the 2007 financial crisis. People who had grown up in gifted classes, promised the world for their intelligence, graduated and found themselves unwanted. They began to spend a lot of time on the Internet, now more available than ever before. This experience of disillusionment caused many, perhaps most young people to move towards the left. But there were some groups that the left failed to appeal to, whether out of embarrassment or ignorance. Those people were left to find another solution.

When they turn to politics for an explanation as to why their lives suck, mainstream currents have little to offer them. Traditional conservatism says that their plight is of their own making and that they just have to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get a real job. Identity-inflected liberalism tells them that as white men they already have a huge advantage, and that they really must be mediocre if they can’t even succeed on “easy mode.” In other words, the political mainstream tells losers that they only have themselves to blame, and whatever the validity of that argument it’s a tough one for those affected to swallow.

By contrast, the alt-right offers a lot to losers. It tells them that they don’t have a girlfriend because feminism has made women unappreciative of their value. It tells them that they don’t have a job because immigrants took it. These explanations are laughably wrong, but they’re the only ones that allow losers to describe their problems as structural rather than personal. And even better, they can fight back by doing the things they love to do anyway: arguing about video games on the Internet.

This profile is a generalization, and doesn’t fit everyone associated with the alt-right. Some of the high-profile game developers and streamers who have supported GamerGate and the odious politics that came out of it are quite wealthy. But the movement does bear the mark of men who’ve failed to find a place in society, all the way up to so-called leaders like Richard Spencer, who still lives with his parents.

Does any of this justify becoming a neo-Nazi? Of course not. But if the left wants to win people over, it needs to focus less on judging someone’s morality and determining from this whether someone’s concerns can be safely dismissed. Rather, we should understand the losers of the world as a group which, like any other population, is pliable with promises and narratives that speak to their immediate problems. A true leftist politics is one in which no one is written off, even people who have bad social skills and embarrassing interests. And I think that the left has a more compelling narrative to offer disenfranchised losers than the far right’s, an appeal it largely hasn’t made in the past.

To be clear: appealing to these people doesn’t mean abandoning the left’s commitment to feminism and anti-racism, nor does it mean forgoing critique of any cultural object. We cannot give an inch when it comes to sexism and white supremacy in any arena. What it does mean is that we need a different way to appeal to the nerds society has failed.

Consider the stereotypical nerd living in his mother’s basement. He needs communism more than most. A left message which focused on reforms like basic income or full employment would promise him a sense of social status and meaning that he doesn’t have under capitalism, and which the far right can never truly deliver. For people who are employed in tech, a left-wing message could focus on the long hours and poor work conditions endemic to the industry. The left could emphasize its commitment to creating a world in which people are free to pursue their passions — whether it be honing their League of Legends game or creating the world’s greatest meme.

How to deliver this message? Smuggling feminism and anti-racism into nerd entertainment hasn’t done it. Perhaps we need to be more straightforward in our approach. Those who can tolerate it may have to get into the weeds on the subreddits and imageboards. Consider it trolling for the greater good — not so much to convert dedicated members of the alt-right, but rather to convince the lurkers and others who are vulnerable and on the verge of being radicalized that there is another, better option.

On its own, this is not a strategy for building a broad movement. The alt-right is a very small part of the population, and Trump owes much less to them than the conventional Republican coalition. Rather, consider it one of many specialized appeals that the left will have to make, never compromising any of our values but rather emphasizing different ones in order to appeal to different groups. The way in which the alt-right has set the terms of media discourse over the past six months is the consequence of ignoring even a small group of vulnerable people.