Angela Nagle is an old person’s idea of a young person, or rather, and more to the point, she’s an old leftist’s idea of what a young leftist should be—a sworn enemy of identity politics, a dedicated partisan of class struggle. Her new book, Kill All Normies (Zero Press: 2017), is a brilliant, sobering exploration of what happened to American politics in cyberspace, just in the last twelve years. It’s a must-read because it demonstrates how the Alt-Right—which drove the Trump campaign and still determines the intellectual horizons of the White House—is animated by a misogyny that runs so deep that its spectacular, pornographic qualities require the new illiteracy of the Internet. And vice versa.
Let me translate that statement, just so you don’t get her wrong. Me, either. In nauseating detail, Nagle documents the anti-feminist, anti-female, woman-hating sensibility that organizes and unifies the Alt-Right—always remember, this is the only thing its various elements agree on. For them “anti-PC” means misogyny, pure and simple, from Jared Taylor and Kevin B. MacDonald, who are semi-respectable shitheads, on toward the scum that crawl through 4 chan /b/, where their language is always running parallel, below grade as it were, to the brutish tweets of Roosh V and POTUS. (See chapters 1-2, and 6)
Nagle also suggests, intentionally or not, that the absolute, anonymous freedoms of the Internet solicit and eventually exact this pornographic extremity of utterance. The form and the content go together. So you could come away from reading this book thinking that free speech is dangerous.
I didn’t. But there’s a statement from early in the book that might make you wonder where the author is headed with the argument. At any rate it made me ask three questions. Is this just another indictment of the well-meaning but befuddled cultural studies crowd and their post-structuralist enablers—you know the type, the ones who saw progress, liberation, and transgression in watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and who meanwhile mistook language, texts, mere words, for material reality? Does praise for Alan Sokal’s Social Text hoax wait for the reader on the other side of this polemic? And if so, why are we stuck back there, twenty fucking years ago, when boneheads like Sokal were taken seriously?
Short anwers: yes, yes, and . . . well, give me a minute.
Here’s that early statement. “Writers like Manuel Castells and numerous commentators in the Wired magazine milieu told us of the coming of a networked society, in which old hierarchical models of business and culture would be replaced by the wisdom of crowds, the swarm, the hive mind, citizen journalism and user-generated content. They got their wish, but it’s not quite the utopian vision they were hoping for.”
But how to take this veiled admonition? Am I supposed to remember that the Arab Spring announced the revolutionary force of the “networked society,”and then utterly failed, with restoration and reaction throughout the region? Am I supposed to feel bad because I fell for the original line? Am I supposed to recall every insane and insulting Amazon review of my recent book? Am I supposed to punish myself because I couldn’t see that if the unwashed and the uneducated and the unhinged took over cyberspace, as they inevitably would, the result would be Steve Bannon in the White House? To all of the above, a resounding “yes” is the answer Angel Nagle gives on my behalf, and yours.
But I’ve got some counter-questions. Isn’t the “networked society” a literary upheaval comparable to the one that exploded in the late-18th and 19th centuries, through which the unwashed and the uneducated learned to represent themselves, then taught their supposed betters how to end monarchies and create democracies—how to make revolutions, in other words? And weren’t the results just as uneven? The French Revolution was a disaster that led by way of The Terror to the Bourbon Restoration, something like what recently happened in Egypt, no? And surely we agree that its reiterations would soon become farcical? But the American Revolution fared much better, yes?
There’s another statement at the close of the book that I find even more annoying because it wears the tired mien of an old leftist who’s seen it all—it’s so grimly smug that it makes me want to become a troll and bother my friends at Facebook. Except that, not to worry, I have no skills. Here, after making fun of Whitney Phillips and Gabriella Coleman, who once thought that the misogynist, pornographic 4 chan world was a sign of “counter-hegemonic” possibility—and just before dismissing the Birmingham School, the alma mater of cultural studies—the author reminds us of her earlier concern:
“It was the utterly empty idea of countercultural transgression that created the void into which anything can flow as long as it is contemptuous of mainstream values and tastes. This is what allowed a culture that has now been exposed in all its horror to be romanticized by progressives as a counter-hegemonic force. The truth I think it reveals is that both rightist chan culture and ultra-PC academic culture understood the countercultural dog whistle of disdain for everything mainstream.”
That’s from Chapter 7. Now, in Chapter 1, and in passing thereafter, Nagle compares the left-wing Tumblr to the online scene of the Alt-Right, suggesting that its puritanical excesses are the broken mirror image of the 4 chan world—or at least that these opposite idioms derive from the same intellectual moment, the first decade of the 21st century: “The particular incarnations of the online left and right that exist today are undoubtedly a product of this strange period of ultra puritanism.”
Thus, the argument goes, both the Tumblr-type leftists who hold the campus hostage by way of Title IX and the misogynist morons who hold the White House hostage by way of alt-right expertise are victims of the same epistemological error. They mistake transgression for politics, and this, of course, is just another pointless way of giving priority to the (subjective) assertion of identities rather than to the (objective) representation of material interests. Calling Thomas Frank. What was the matter with Kansas, again?
Nagle isn’t lacking for authorities to cite along these lines, all of them urging us toward the intellectual barricades where class makes a difference—that is, where cultural or identity politics are already known as distractions from the real thing, and where authenticity, not performativity, is the licensed product you can use in legitimate argument. Walter Benn Michaels, Adolph Reed, Connor Kilpatrick, Liza Featherstone, Todd Gitlin, now there’s an A-list of class-conscious public intellectuals for you, people who know that all this theorizing fuss about race and gender is so much evasion of the material realities (read: the sources of power) that prevail under capitalism.
Still, where’s Doug Henwood? Surely he belongs on this list. But then so do the late Richard Rorty and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., proud liberals who made exactly the same argument against identity politics that Nagle now offers as the alternative to the cultural/academic Left and the benighted Alt-Right. There’s some irony for you—old-fashioned, New Deal liberals are the templates of current dissent from the extremes of Left and Right. The “vital center,” as Schlesinger called the political mainstream he wanted, now returns from the dead, courtesy of people who advertise themselves as radicals.
The bad guys, according to Nagle, the theorists appropriated by both the PC Tumblr Left and the ugly Alt-Right, are Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot, Debord, Bakhtin—and Butler. Yes, Judith Butler appears on this stage as she did in the 1990s, in the aftermath of Gender Trouble (1990), as the exemplar of a “post-modernist” feminism unmoored from the Enlightenment, attached only to the Nietzschean axiom that subjectivity is a product of action, a fleeting moment created by performance, not—as assumed in bourgeois (liberal) political theory and practice—a prior substance or a permanent substrate of human being. Nancy Fraser and Seyla Benhabib, for example, indicted Butler on these grounds in 1993. Nagle has unconsciously reproduced their indictment, with the presumed blessings of Michaels, Reed, Kilpatrick, Featherstone, Gitlin, Henwood, Rorty, and Schlesinger, Jr.
Here is how Butler appears as the problem; the second passage, it is worth noting, comes right after Nagle celebrates Alan Sokal for making fun of the post-structuralists over at Social Text:
“Although one could trace various threads to a multitude of different online and offline points of origin, Tumblr was one of the most important platforms for the emergence of a whole political and aesthetic sensibility, developing its own vocabulary and style—very much the reverse mirror image of rightist 4 chan in this way. . . . By 1990, Judith Butler had taken [Simone de Beauvoir] several steps further, or perhaps more literally, in Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, in which she argued that the coherence of the categories of sex, gender, and sexuality were entirely culturally constructed. . . . By the earl 2010s, Tumblr had put Butler’s theory into practice and created an entire subcultural language, set of slogans, and style to go with it. . . . It was the subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas.” (p. 70)
“Today, we are still having much the same culture war. If one had to pick a single thinker whose ideas have most shaped the Tumblr left, it would undoubtedly be Judith Butler [,] and those on the left who remain critics of that identiy-oriented cultural left are still the kind of people who would align more closely with Gitlin and [Barbara] Ehrenreich.” (p. 84)
Well, yeah. But how come we’re still stuck in these debates on the Left? It’s not a philosophical problem, a matter of fixed metaphysical approaches—as in materialism vs. idealism—although many participants in the debate would insist that it is. No, I think it’s a lower-order intellectual item that is nonetheless more significant. I don’t know how to put it except to say that the Left has done no better than the Right in coming to terms with the revolutionary implications of modern feminism, the kind sponsored by Judith Butler. The Right treats them as poisonous red pills, the Left as indigestible fragments of an imaginary meal. Either way, they remain unassimilable.
I can’t speak for the Right. But, to switch metaphors, I think the “materialist” Left, as Nagle represents it here, still can’t see why identity politics—feminism, to be sure, but also black nationalism and movements organized around sexualities—are inevitable moments in the decomposition of capitalism, as the decline of socially necessary labor and the extrication of the “human element” from goods production proceeds, and accordingly permits the articulation of a subject position that is not over-determined by a place in an occupational hierarchy, that is, by class standing.
The “materialist” Left still can’t see that we have passed beyond the realm of necessity, even under capitalism, and that labor no longer defines us as human beings or political agents. And so it insists on class consciousness as the preface, and on class struggle as the crucible, of meaningful anti-capitalist politics. And so it also treats feminism of the kind Judith Butler sponsors as a diversion from the Left’s essential agenda, which, according to Michaels, et al., is supposed to turn on economic inequality—on redistribution, not recognition.
To my mind, this either/or choice is not only unnecessary, it’s destructive, because it keeps us locked up in debates that are pointless, except as a way of demonstrating left-wing credentials. Angela Nagle wants us to make that choice, but her book frees us from its terms.