If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention. But don’t worry, it’s not just you: objective confusion seems to have settled over the American media landscape in 2017.
To say that the Overton window — the range of acceptable political discourse — expanded last year is to vastly understate the situation. It would be better to say that rage, spread across a wide spectrum of political ideologies, smashed the window, frame, and mold. As a result, we now live in a conceptual twilight that confounds journalists and citizens alike.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Donald Trump sheds a crucial beam of light on our present moment. It accomplishes this because its author did the dirty work: Nagle read, aggregated, and interpreted the actual mass of 4chan, Tumblr, and Twitter messages that have accumulated online over the last half-decade. (“Thank god,” writes Amber A’lee Frost, “because I’m sure as hell not doing it.”)
If you want to understand what’s going on in American political discourse today, read the book. If you think you already know what’s going on, read the book anyway.
Kill All Normies’ reception suggests that it is mostly concerned with Internet trolls, specifically those who take credit for Donald Trump’s unlikely victory, but it does far more than that. Nagle’s book provides a comprehensive assessment of how digital media has broken traditional forms of political messaging, presented from the very cyber-locations where it occurred. The Right’s 4Chan (and 8Chan and 2Chan and WizardChan) and the Left’s Tumblr figure large, and Kill All Normies narrates their departures from the mainstream media.
Nagle explains that she decided to synthesize these two stories
to map the online culture wars that formed the political sensibilities of a generation, to understand and to keep an account of the online battles that may otherwise be forgotten but have nevertheless shaped culture and ideas in a profound way from tiny obscure subcultural beginnings to mainstream public and political life in recent years.
The result is as beautiful as it is devastating. Nagle’s history of the insurgent right and moribund left shows us that, if the Left doesn’t reconsider its media strategy, it will continue to lose.
Nagle’s book begins around 2011, when a new wave of net-utopianism emerged. Occupy and the Arab Spring, along with Wikileaks, demonstrated that the Internet could produce concrete political results as opposed to the more generalized utopianism that marked nineties web culture.
Meanwhile, at both party and cultural levels, the Right was preparing for a large-scale confrontation. The Left — not without exception — was too busy navel-gazing to notice. Like Laura Poitras’s recent film Risk, which documents how cyber-libertarianism failed to recognize the possible misuse or systemic control offered by digital technologies, Nagle reveals that the storm had been brewing for some time. She writes:
Just a few years ago the left-cyberutopians claimed that “the disgust had become a network” and that establishment old media could no longer control politics, that the new public sphere was going to be based on leaderless user-generated social media. This network has indeed arrived, but it has helped to take the right, not the left, to power.
By focusing on the actual content of both camps’ messages, Nagle reveals that the belief in neutral digital spaces was only ever a collective delusion. The national news media could afford to learn this lesson as well.
The trolls who became warriors and generals in “World War Meme” only make up part of this subculture. Nagle’s account of the “alt-right” provides a much more general and far more concrete overview of this political movement than anything that has appeared in print so far.
She identifies a brief genealogy of misogyny-focused message boards and platforms — among them Breitbart News — that operate as separate factions in a decentralized and successful attempt to shape media narratives. Some elements of this history will be familiar: Gamergate, in which male video-game enthusiasts attacked female gamers and game critics, or Pizzagate, in which even the mainstream news picked up a truly bizarre conspiracy theory about the Democratic Party, cheese pizza, and child sex abuse.
Nagle’s overarching claim is troubling: the trolls, loosely allied with Trump’s itchy Twitter finger and Steve Bannon’s far-right platform at Breitbart, discovered a way to control what links get clicked. While some scholars have questioned these techniques’ efficacy and others have argued that the alt-right “hacked the attention economy,” Nagle surpasses them all by focusing on the messages themselves.
Nagle names these media manipulators the “Gramscian Alt Light,” after the Italian Marxist whose notion of hegemony introduced the interpretation of cultural messaging into Marxist theory. We can see how the alt-right borrows from Gramsci — as well as from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School — in Andrew Breitbart’s motto: “Politics is downstream from culture.”
Indeed, Breitbart founded his news organization to counter the liberal Huffington Post, where he had previously worked. For Breitbart and his protegé Steve Bannon, “alternative facts” and “fake news” simply translate what Western Marxism has been saying for nearly a century: cultural messaging not only reflects political and economic struggle but also influences the forms that struggle takes. Dominate the message (boards), and you will dominate politics. As Nagle summarizes:
[The] Gramscian strategy has been successful beyond any predictions . . . It appears as though in the online culture wars, those heeding the ideas of the left most closely, from Chomsky’s idea of manufacturing consent to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and counter-hegemony, and applying them most strategically, were the right.
As Nagle shows in detail, the trolls create the content for this manipulation, styling their explosive and multimedia memes as rejections of a dying liberal culture. These images are galvanizing, heady, and always vile:
It was the image- and humor-based culture of the irreverent meme factory of 4chan and later 8chan that gave the alt-right its youthful energy, with its transgression and hacker tactics.
Nagle traces the rise of this sensibility through Milo Yiannopoulos, whose far-right queer persona could hardly be further from Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism. She characterizes today’s right as “more in the spirit of foul-mouthed comment-thread trolls than it is of bible study, more Fight Club than family values, more in line with the Marquis de Sade than Edmund Burke.” Irony, she argues, separates Yiannopoulos from Buchanan.
The alt-right’s ironic pose helped smash the Overton window. On 4Chan, Nagle writes, it allowed users to “cover for genuinely sinister things.” The meme warriors who marshaled irony in this way saw themselves as the vanguard of a world-historical process. The Right, Nagle points out, now identifies itself as countercultural — and perhaps they’re right. They made irony into a Gramscian weapon.
The ease with which this online culture coopted transgression, she argues, shows how “superficial and historically accidental it was” that counterculture “ended up being in any way associated with the socialist left” after the 1960s. As a result, the alt-right signals a resurgent conservatism no more than “the rise of Tumblr-style identity politics constitutes a resurgence of the socialist or materialist left.”
The Vampire Castle
This all might be less upsetting if Nagle didn’t trace the other side of the story as well. While the alt-right was presenting itself as the irony-laden cutting edge of civilization, the Tumblr left collapsed into vicious infighting.
Readers of Jacobin will already know the debates that eventually spilled into the 2016 Democratic primary and beyond, so I won’t recount them here. Nagle, however, points to one example — Mark Fisher’s 2013 essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — that offers a useful diagnosis for the present and shows the true range of her work.
In that essay, Fisher argues that a myopic focus on identity, combined with a jealous policing of others’ speech, kneecapped the Left. The essay predicted its own reception: Fisher left Twitter, but the castle remained vampiric. Although his suicide in January deprived the Left of an important voice, his warning remains clear: while an army of trolls was helping the first non-conforming Republican candidate of the last two generations win an election, the Left was complaining about how Fisher phrased his trenchant prose.
Nagle summarizes the situation this way: Left social media platforms nurtured a style of political commentary in which moral virtue became its own value. Once that system became clear, the struggle turned to amassing capital (and thereby denying it to others) rather than fighting “any actual racism, sexism, or homophobia.” This “embarrassing and toxic online politics . . . has made the Left a laughing stock for a whole new generation.” Reading this book should force the Left to finally realize that we need to do something about this.
Online culture helps mediate between the grassroots and large-scale organizations like states and large corporations. “It’s the economy, stupid” has transformed into “It’s the representation of the economy, stupid” — a less succinct but more accurate slogan for politics in the age of digital messaging. The trolls changed the media-political culture while their Tumblr and Left Twitter counterparts ensured that their baroque online world wouldn’t have any real political consequences.
Rather than describing the bad actors that perpetrated the alt-right’s ugly culture, Nagle accounts for their messages and circulation. In doing so, she gives us an analysis that can help guide the Left in the present. Irony served the trolls in building a joyous (if vile) culture and manipulating the media. Political struggle doesn’t take place (primarily) online, but message-shaping does. The Left needs to reverse engineer this move to craft a media strategy that targets the Right while building solidarity.
Today’s Right has not hesitated to look to Gramsci (or even Lenin). We shouldn’t either.