Charlie George reviews Kill All Normies: online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right by Angela Nagle
How did Steve Bannon, who Nagle describes as “an anti-establishment figure with ambitious ideas”, go from editing “the alt-right’s go-to website” to being Donald Trump’s chief strategist?
How did Bannon get from the centre of the leading capitalist power, before being told by Trump that he had “lost his mind”, and losing his role at ‘Breibart’ alt-right news site? Nagle does not tell us these things.
Instead, we are presented with an engaging — if flawed — series of anecdotes charting the history of the alt-right from their origins in the depths of 4chan (an online message board, known as the starting point for many internet memes). Today the alt-right have sufficient social and political weight to be blamed for murders, suicides, rapes. Some even claim they have President Donald Trump lying at their feet.
Nagle’s core argument is that the alt-right believe they are transgressives against the societal norms imposed by the liberal cultural mainstream which has grown up over the last few decades. They oppose the “humourless, self-righteous, right-on” left.
Acting under the belief that “politics is downstream from culture”, to paraphrase Andrew Breibart, the alt-right push parodies of left-wing politics and attacks — predominantly on women and ethnic minorities. The jokes have become increasingly serious, but all the while the would-be comedians claim the joke is only really to be understood in their insular online community, and that those who take them seriously should be mocked.
What are these men (the alt-right is a mostly male movement) fighting for? Nagle says they believe they are fighting for a lost time of morality, before the supposed fall of Western civilisation. These men believe they will be leading a “beta rebellion” — a term used to describe the supposed subjugated nature of straight white men — in defence of “Western morality”. All this from their platform of the online message board ‘Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse’.
While Nagle does well to expose the absurdity of the alt-right, her major failing is a total lack of materialist analysis. At no point are we told the class origins of any of the groups involved, nor how much wealth and power they have in the US or the world.
Indeed it appears that we are meant to take it for granted that the alt-right are left-behind losers.
Whether this is the case or not, the lack of an explaination of the interactions between the alt-right figureheads as they came closer to the mainstream of the Republican Party, and their impact on the movement, is telling of a wider problem with the book.
Nagle does not examine the wider context of the alt-right’s rise.
One example, and one of only a couple of references to Britain in the text, is to describe the young Tory party members’ campaign to “Hang Nelson Mandela” during the Thatcher years as an early equivalent of right-wing transgression. But are the rich kids of Britain’s governing political party allying with the racist South African regime really the equivalent to someone living their life online and sharing a frog meme? I don’t think so.
Nagle further briefly focuses on the liberal online grouping organised around the identity politics of Tumblr (a microblogging website), mocking them. This analysis of left-wing identity politics is also lacking.
Described simply as “the Tumblr Left” by Nagle, she dismisses their “absurd” politics as stemming from them being “ultra-sensitive”. But the problem here is not so much sensitivity as a lack of class analysis. Because of their liberalism, “the Tumblr Left”shrinks from taking militant action, and calls on the powers that be to enforce bans against those they do not like.
Another, overarching, failure of the book, is the lack of seriousness with which it treats its subject — there are no references. Despite its very short length, the book does not flow very well and, as other reviewers have pointed out, it is full of typos.
Part of this lacklustre approach is the constant shallow reference to left-wing academics and their schools of thought — the Situationists, Bourdieu, Gramsci and so on —without coming close to adequately explaining the relevance of their ideas.
Ultimately, Kill All Normies is a good introduction to the alt-right, but that’s it.
While we are waiting for a more sophisticated analysis the class-struggle socialist left, must not allow the far-right to dominate the debate, while we fall into performative denunciations. Instead, we must present a strong socialist alternative working to unite the working-class against capitalism and its politics of division.
We must fight the liberal urge to ban political opponents as some sort of principle. Instead we must take militant action to fight our opponents.