The long-awaited Kill All Normies came out last week. Its author Angela Nagle had been doing the podcast circuit for some time, and with every appearance the anticipation built; after months of ubiquitous thinkpieces bemoaning Gamergate and Pepe here was the first solid, scholarly work by an accomplished cultural theorist to chronicle and analyze the alt-right. The subjects of the book immediately got wind of it, and in short order ran her off Twitter, which is a terrible thing and nobody deserves. Unfortunately, the book itself is a massive disappointment.
The thing is about five pages long for a start, and in form, tone and depth doesn’t much exceed any of those thinkpieces. The general thesis, insofar as it has one, is a conglomeration of some of the laziest shibboleths that have emerged post-Gamergate. Its conceptual framework is built of tired buzzwords like “Tumblr liberalism” “call-out culture” and “identity politics” (as in the recent redefinition, which emerged from an inadvertent consensus between two squabbling wings of the Democratic Party). And it provides nothing new, original or useful in figuring out why the alt-right matter, how they interact with real world politics and what to do about them.
There are also some very illustrative howlers. Take this: “Trigger warnings had to be issued [on college campuses] in order to avoid the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder”. This is pithy, Mencken-esque stuff and many will gleefully quote it. Few will question Angela Nagle’s ability to make a psychiatric diagnosis at a glance; few will question why certain academics feel so strongly about a task which in practice takes up so little of their time. Here’s another: “Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.” As far as I can tell she is actually claiming this as a fact, not while trying to describe anyone else’s position. I honestly have no idea why she believes this. Despite the persistence of the legend, the internet has rendered the very concept of a “sexual pecking order” all but obsolete. A repulsive personality might render you involuntarily celibate, but that’s about it. And I also particularly enjoyed her weirdly sympathetic description of Prof. Jordan Peterson’s quixotic but lucrative snit about pronouns, and her pious consternation at his office door being glued shut.
The book’s first chapter has some value for its broad survey of internet reactionary lore, if like the majority of people you’re unfamiliar with it. It opens with a brief critical retrospective on the concepts of “digital leaderless revolution” that arose in the wake of Occupy and the Arab Spring, and how the hopes they embodied weren’t borne out. This is largely apt but flawed in its implication that its “hyperbole and hubris” rose organically, and that it was intellectual laziness that allowed observers to be passively mesmerized by TV footage from Tahrir Square. (There’s isn’t space for a full treatment here, but Nagle sees no need to even briefly interrogate who put that footage out, and who provided the figurative voiceovers.) She touches on Kony 2012, spends a confusing amount of time trying to glean meaning from the spread of Harambe memes, and makes the interesting assertion that during the early 2010s there was a “gradual right-wing turn in chan culture”, which makes one wonder what the original 2000s-era posting base — largely banned from Something Awful for being too racist — were up to before that. She wastes no time in going off the deep end, seeing mirages of conscious Gramscian projects in the adclick-honeypot for reactionary uncles that is Breitbart, blithely echoing Steve Bannon’s own self promotion (steering clear of calling him a Leninist, thankfully), expressing astonishment that 60s-vintage aesthetics of social transgression could be adopted by reactionaries, and being Very. Very. Insistent on a sharp taxonomical distinction between the “alt-right” and the “alt-light”. (The latter are comprised by Cernovich, Milo and the other household names. The main qualifying factor for being in the alt-light is apparently that people have heard of you, and that you make their living by the fact that people have heard of you. It would stand to reason that the number of n-bombs and smegma-riffs you can then drop is limited more by the demands of commerce than anything else, bringing the usefulness of the distinction into question; but never mind.) Nagle seems to consider it less important to draw a distinction between, say, the Pepe brigade and the NRx movement (who barely acknowledge each other), than between Mike Cernovich and Richard Spencer, who angrily and painfully acknowledge each other. This basically implies the most fruitful path towards figuring out what makes the alt-right tick is to ask them directly, uncritically swallow whatever they say, and stop your analysis there. I’m not sure whether it’s more charitable to blame this on laziness, time pressure, or Nagle’s sincere beliefs about proper methodology.
Special vitriol is expressed in the chapter “From Tumblr to the campus wars: creating scarcity in an online economy of virtue”, where most of the thesis is actually set forth. Tellingly, it’s by far the weakest part of the book on an argumentative level. It opens with a collection of anecdotes about people on Tumblr being earnestly silly about how many genders they have or how they deal with anxiety, depression or any of their other real or imagined disabilities. Each one is postscripted with a wry variation on “aren’t these people silly”. (There are indeed some very silly people on the internet, and it is diverting to laugh at them. Here, in a supposedly scholarly work with a purpose, it is a mere waste of ink.) Having thoroughly demonstrated her novel premise that Tumblr has silly people posting on it, she proceeds to explain how some of the same people started aggressively posting at other people on Twitter, and then aggressively saying things to them on college campuses. The targets of this aggression, mainly professors and administrators and leading lights of left-leaning sensibilities became “baffled, cowed or apologetic” when confronted.* But those who had learned their game on 4chan — shockingly — did not feel compelled to moderate their responses, instead coming out “all guns blazing”. Thus, did the Tumblr left give birth to a phenomenon which already existed. (Nagle is doing things with causality here which would impress Einstein.) Of course, there is enough weaselry in the text that its author can retreat to a more defensible position; that performatively hypersensitive social-justice-warriors who problematize everything under the sun are easy to mock, and the act of mocking them simply shaped and influenced the emerging alt-right’s aesthetics and ideology. I suppose a trite statement is an improvement over a false one, but not by much. It again fails to answer the question of where they came from or what to do about them; the genie was evidently out of the bottle already and no-one could have put it back by purging trigger warnings from the campus or “check your privilege” from their menchies.
But fixating on these bloopers misses the point. Again, the overall thesis of the book is the idea that the alt-right is a direct response to “Tumblr identity politics”. Although this has been held by a faction of the aforementioned Thinkpiece Engineers, Nagle is among the first to my knowledge to come out and articulate it so clearly. It’s not just factually inaccurate, or just ahistorical, or symptomatic of a facile and misleading conception of online discourse as both a phenomenon sui generis and the major underlying force driving social movements and change; it revolves around a deep and seductive misconception that the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of Discourse. Incidentally, an easy conclusion to make from the Tumblr thesis would be that the proper response to the cynical instrumentalization of anti-racist and anti-sexist rhetoric by high-profile liberal commentators and the leadership of the Democratic Party is to explicitly reject such struggles and declare they have no place in a true socialist politics. It’d be a mistake, and just hand the initiative to liberals and the right in shaping the priorities of socialist movements, and turn everything into a cargo cult politics prioritizing form over substance exactly as the loathed corporate Democrats do. But we’re starting to see it anyway.
The big tragedy with Kill All Normies, of course, is that a proper anthropological treatment of the alt-right is still sorely needed. I would suspect such a treatment would need to mention that an Iraq war or a Great Recession happened while covering the years 2000–2016. However the question that really needs to be answered, one that Nagle signally fails to, is “why should anyone care about online bigots in the first place?” Online bigots, and online communities full of outspoken and unabashed bigots of varying stripes are not new; Stormfront has been around since the 1990s, with a membership in the thousands. Sites like Chimpout, N****rology, the defunct New Effort (with its terms of service stating “we will ban you if you are any type of f*ggot”) and My Posting Career are barely younger. But nobody cared about them at the time. Many would claim that this was because they were consigned to the “fringes of mainstream discourse”; well, so was the Thule Society. This may seem nitpicky, but if you’re going to delve into the genealogy of hardcore sexist, racist and homophobic ideology on the internet while going no further back than the late 2000s, you’re not doing your job right. There was never any fundamental change in tone or content; take a look at an archived pre-Obama post from one of these places; it will be indistinguishable from anything being tossed around on Twitter or in the Breitbart comments. But most of the posters on those old sites arrived at their ideology largely by what they saw on cable TV. The one difference in these days before the ascendancy of YouTube and Facebook was that nobody really knew how to make an independent media platform on the internet; the discourse online responded to that in the television studios. There was never much of a leap from a Rush Limbaugh or a Glenn Beck to the Klan; they drew the dots, and the audience could easily join them up.
So we know Nagle’s contention that the alt-right are a response to leftist identity politics is simply incorrect, as a matter of historical fact. Moreover, we’ve got a strong case that the it’s just the logical conclusion of mainstream conservatism in the American milieu. I challenge anybody to tell me the functional difference between sighing over the decline of the traditional family and saying “make me a fukn s@ndwich bitch lol”. The only transformation is on a superficial aesthetic level. Nagle comes within a hair’s breadth of figuring it out when she briefly place Milo and Pat Buchanan side by side; not without a great deal of help from the parties in question, who seem to be more aware of their own affinity than she initially suspected. she also correctly asserts that “once you remove the ‘trolling’, many of [Milo’s] views amount to little more than classical liberalism.” Yes, you can be a Milo and a classical liberal at the same time, the tone and the content are two independent quantities. Yet this comes immediately afterwards: “Despite calling himself a conservative he, Trump, rightist 4chan and the alt-right all represent a pretty dramatic departure from the kind of churchgoing, upstanding, button-down, family-values conservatism that we usually associate with the term in Anglo-American public and political life”. It’s only a “dramatic” departure if you are more concerned with the fuzzy mental associations each approach evokes, rather than true, material effects on human lives; these do not change at all. A 4chan manosphere white supremacist is ultimately just Pat Buchanan, or indeed Bill Buckley, being thoroughly honest with himself. A politics which is supposed to remain humane, moderate and respectful while preserving the intersecting (sorry) structures of domination which rip resources from the earth and labor from the oppressed and pile up their fruits in the coffers of the elite was always deeply contradictory, and in a world where the Western labor aristocracy is being immiserated and the falling rate of global profit spurs a panicked and ruthless imperialism, those contradictions can no longer hold. Mainstream conservatism is quite naturally growing legs, shedding its tail, and every day looking more and more like a frog.
*(I’m not denying that a lot of undoubtedly worthy people were unfairly shut down or attacked without opportunity to defend themselves; I question both whether it is accurate to talk about “a brain drain out of the left”, and whether the bun-fights in relatively narrow on-and-offline academic circles and left spaces really had as much effect on the wider world as Nagle thinks. She doesn’t take the time to demonstrate it. )