A new book from Irish author Angela Nagle chronicles the rise of the alt-right and how the worst of the internet went mainstream.
Image: Pepe and Donald Trump. Image: YouTube
There are certain books where, as you're reading, you realize your mind is about to change. Reading Kill All Normies is one of those experiences. Written by Angela Nagle, an Irish writer and academic known for articles identifying "The New Man of 4chan," the book is a record of the recent online "culture wars", culminating in the 2016 US election and the triumph of the alt-right. It is also an indictment of the left, pinpointing just how it allowed this to happen.
The book opens with a cultural history, "From Hope to Harambe," outlining the progression from mid-00s pickup artist communities, to overtly anti-feminist "neomasculinity," to Gamergate (here Nagle's narration takes a near-audible sigh), leading to its collusion with 4chan's troll army and its political awakening as the alt-right. Nagle wrote her PhD dissertation on online misogyny, witnessing this evolution in real-time. "There's a sort of broad arch of reactionary politics which moves from anti-feminism to racism," she explains, meeting me in Dublin to talk about the book.
With its promise of a collective identity, the alt-right can seduce and assimilate these groups, lending them a sense of coherent identity.
Nagle approaches the alt-right as a tangle of wayward factions, united in their loathing of the left. Named for Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci who argued that political change follows cultural change, the "Gramscian Alt-Light" are those people you've seen on 4chan threads: creative, angry, unpredictable, but politically vacuous and messy. The "Manosphere" are men threatened by feminists, who they claim augur in civilizational decline and "cucking." They have converted their misogyny into racism, which links them with more old-fashioned far-right bigotry.
What each group shares is a fear of the future, an atomized life spent forever alone. With its promise of a collective identity, the alt-right can seduce and assimilate these groups, lending them a sense of coherent identity.
Among the alt-right's leaders, Nagle sees Richard Spencer as the most influential and the most likely to sustain a political career. "Mike Cernovich, Lauren Southern and Milo, all those people are brilliant at media," says Nagle. "They're really good at Twitter, but they're shallow thinkers. Richard Spencer is much smarter. He realizes that conservatism will never be cool, so he's trying to bring in figures from the dissident left."
Essentialist arguments about what it is to "be a man" have evolved to address what it is to be a white man. Nagle cites "Return of Kings" (a "neomasculinity" blog) author Roosh V's transition from pickup artist to alt-right proponent as an example. Overwhelmed by a sexual hierarchy in which they cannot compete, and immersed in anti-immigration rhetoric and talk of "white genocide," the alt-right has coalesced around an aggressive, ultra-conservative version of white masculinity.
Nagle identifies a contradiction at the heart of the alt-right's demands: It might call for a return to old-fashioned values, but it fails to recognize how those same forces that brings it together erode any chance of returning to that lifestyle (the kind lived by people who hardly use the internet in the first place). "I think they want out of their lives, because their own lives are nothing like that," Nagle explains. "They're living the ultimate kind of individualism. They spend their time watching porn and playing video games. They're not part of any greater purpose." Spencer himself alludes to this in speeches, stating that "in a culture which offers video games, endless entertainment, drugs, alcohol, porn, sports, and a thousand other distractions to convince us of another reality, we want to cut all of that away."
This argument for the "real" stretches far beyond the online right: As a generation born far away enough from lifetime monogamy, home ownership, job security and a life without technology, we have little concept of the "normal" we're denied. On the alt-right, this plays out as an irresolvable frustration. "When they talk about 'normies,' explains Nagle, "they're also saying 'I want a normal life. I want a wife and a house and a family.' They're deeply conflicted, because everything they hate in this world is what they are the ultimate example of."
It would be tempting to dismiss this as an attack on easy targets (a group of antisocial teenage boys), but Nagle never dismisses their hopes and frustrations. Instead, she traces where they come from. Nor does she spare the online left: Kill All Normies can be categorized alongside Jarrett's Kobek's 2016 anti-novel I Hate the Internet in that both titles attack the online left from the left. Beside the /b/tards and racists and the Men Going Their Own Way (aka "MGTOW," the anti-feminist group that claims to renounce women and sex entirely), still it is the left who come out looking worst of all.
This is what makes Kill All Normies so troubling, and in other ways so exhilarating to read. Nagle attacks a liberal internet sunk in filter-bubbled complacency, drunk on the relative ease of expressing one's politics in retweets, and obsessed with calling out the right-wing bogeyman.
Nagle links this stagnation to a poverty of thought: "The thing is, you cannot come up with new ideas if the intellectual culture of your movement is totally closed down. Which has been the case for years. That's why the alt-right has been such a shock, because everyone was banking on the fact that everyone now agrees with us."
Nagle's argument finds horrifying validation at the book's conclusion, which leaps forward to January of this year, immediately after the suicide of author and cultural critic Mark Fisher. Rather than mourning his loss, or expressing condolences to his bereaved family, members of the online left gloated and portrayed his untimely death as a victory:
Nagle is damning here, writing that "this response is a fairly typical example of precisely the sour-faced identitarians who undoubtedly drove so many young people to the right during these vicious culture wars."
In the recent past, Fisher came under fire online for his essay "Exiting the Vampire Castle," which argues against the online left's call-out culture as obstructing change, and breeding a further sense of futility among the online left. When I interviewed Fisher two years ago about his Facebook project "Boring Dystopia," he was certain that Facebook, Twitter and their ilk would die away within our lifetimes.
This hasn't yet come to pass. Rather, "online politics" have gone mainstream, and won an election. What went so horribly wrong in online life, that it got this bad? Have we learned to love the filter bubble so much that we've forgotten our own humanity?
More than anything, this book is about the a battle for the real. What is real? Who gets to be a normie?
It is tempting to dream of an end to Twitter, of Facebook imploding and Instagram going offline, to put an end to this culture war. But Nagle isn't convinced it would solve our dilemma: "I think it would be replaced by something that would fulfill the same purpose. I wouldn't want to suggest a technical solution to what is in essence an absence of ideas."
The book ends with the alt-right on the ascendant, spilling off the screen and into real life as riots erupt at American universities. The alt-right has been validated: we have already let them, to paraphrase Ivanka Trump (herself misquoting Ayn Rand). Now, who is going to stop them?
More than anything, this book is about a battle for the real. What is real? Who gets to be a normie? What will we accept as "normal," and what will we stand against? To Nagle, the challenge posed is a moral one: "We think of them as kind of a dirty word, one which reminds of us of reactionary politics, but moral questions are so important. We constantly make moral decisions, whether we want to or not. And the central issue of the alt right is a moral one."
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