If you’re searching for a materialist analysis of the alt-right or modern identity politics, look elsewhere.
Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is a short book, but its created a massive amount of controversy in the left. Unfortunately much of it has taken the form twitter harassment rather than actual debate. The topic of the alt-right, which is basically the current ideological form of “counter-revolution” in the US is a serious topic Marxists should understand, despite how marginal it is. However much of the controversy around Nagle’s book is focused on whether or not she is a transphobe. Nagle’s gender politics are definitely conservative, but more important than Nagle’s personal views is whether the book provides an accurate and useful narrative for understanding the alt-right and how these views influence her understanding. I believe the narrative that Nagle presents regarding the rise of the alt-right is basically off the mark and will try to provide an alternative narrative. I have spent quite a bit of time studying the alt-right and the beliefs of their main ideologues, so I feel like I have some level of knowledge that I can bring to the table.
First of all, what are the merits of the book? On one end it does provide a decent geography of the alt-right subculture, and does comprehend that this subculture is very much divided. On one end you have the alt-right proper, who are committed white nationalists and patriarchal traditionalists that believe in anti-semitic conspiracy theories. These are your followers of Richard Spencer, Greg Johnson, Red Ice Radio, Identity Europa, Matt Heimbach, Kevin Macdonald, and Christopher Cantwell. On the other end you have what is derided by these more hardcore white nationalists as the alt-lite, figures like Milo, Paul Joseph Watson, Sargon of Akkad, Jordan Peterson, Mike Cernovitch and Gavin Mcinnes. The alt-lite stays away from anti-semitism and focuses more on opposing identity politics, rejecting the alt-right for being identity politics for whites. While there are reactionary viewpoints of all kinds shared by both sides, Nagle does have awareness of some of the contradictions within the broader new right.
Nagle does also demonstrate how social media has changed the terrain of politics, where memes are now an important part of a presidential campaign. While focusing on this instead probably would’ve made for a more interesting book, Nagle does demonstrate how the ability of the alt-right to use the internet to wage a campaign of cultural subversion is an example of how online spaces have become places where political discourse is developed. There is an argument to be made that the far-right has done the best job at mastering the medium of the internet so far, leading to the popular phrase that “the left can’t meme.”
The left of course can meme, but its internet subcultures are critiqued pretty harshly by Nagle. Her argument that tumblr ID politics are based on a cult of victimhood is coupled with a sort of dismissal of the actual reason tumblr ID politics exist. Her take on identity politics has also been a large part of the controversy around the book. For example, Nagle mocks the “spoon theory” that people with disabilities use to describe the drudgery of suffering from chronic fatigue and physical dysfunction in a cruel world of market domination. She also says that women who have never been in the military most likely don’t suffer PTSD when arguing wholesale against the idea of trigger warnings. There is also her treatment of Judith Butler, where she is blamed for the fringe phenomena of ‘otherkin’ which is mostly invoked to mock transgender individuals. It comes off in bad taste, callous and dismissive of the real oppression people suffer from. Fans of Kill All Normies point to the negative reaction to the book from “social justice tumblr and twitter” as proving the books point. All it really proves is that leftists aren’t a fan of conservative gender politics and mocking disabled people, which is correct and rightfully so.
The reason tumblr ID politics exists is that people experience real oppression in their daily lives, and a lack of collective solutions leads people to individualistic methods of coping with this. Of course this culture can also have a toxic side of heavily policing people’s views and online harassment. But the alt-right doesn’t simply gain followers by seeking out the most absurd and excessive examples of tumblr ID politics to try and paint the entire left as ‘irrational’ rather than emotional. This is a tactic the right has always used, taking the excesses of the left to argue against the very principles of the left. Most people can comprehend that what a small minority that the right focuses on doesn’t represent the entire left.
While it was treatment of the topic of tumblr feminism that caused the most rage from some quarters of the left, the primary problem with Kill All Normies primarily lies within the narrative of how the alt-right came into existence, using a methodology that itself has more in common with liberal cultural theory than marxist materialism. Nagle’s theory is essentially this: 1) liberal multiculturalism and diversity have become the main ideology of “elites” 2) there is a long tradition of transgression that goes back to the Marquis De Sade, that once belonged to the left and 3) now that liberal multiculturalism is the dominant ideology, attempts to be transgressive today will simply mean attacking the values of these liberal elites and the culture of 4chan provides a perfect medium for this. So therefore the Alt-Right are not so much in the tradition of far right politics but rather that of Antonin Artaud, George Bataille or even the Situationists, subverting the modern hegemony of liberal political correctness.
There are many problems with this narrative. For one it mostly sees the alt-right as a purely online phenomena, while ideologues like Richard Spencer and Kevin MacDonald have been organizing their think tanks and affinity groups for quite some time, and as proven by events in Charloettesville they are quite willing to take their ideas ‘to the streets’. There is a lack of information about the actual alt-right as it exists in the real world. Politics happens in the real world, not on the internet. Nothing is said about the efforts of white supremacist organizers like Identity Europa or the Traditionalist Workers Party to organize frats or rural workers and what kind of visions these groups have (a balkanization of the US and the create of an all-white “enthno state” is a common one). Rather Nagle pretends the alt-right is only an online phenomena, when these people have been trying to promote these politics for years. While one could say the book is focused on online culture wars, these “culture wars” do not exist in a vacuum isolated from the society that created them.
Nagle also completely ignores the role of Ron Paul libertarianism. Anyone who understands the alt-right knows there’s a connection between libertarian politics and the alt-right, and that many people disappointed by the failure of Ron Paulism turned to the alt-right. Most of us can name at least one libertarian friend who ended up going pro-Trump or full on white identitarian. Libertarianism, an ideology where all morality is based on property rights in a country built on a foundation of slavery and segregation attracts racists. Libertarianism’s emphasis on competition can lead its followers to embrace Social Darwinism and explore ideas related to race realism. This creates a connection between white identitarians and libertarianism. A case example is Christopher Cantwell, who started as a libertarian online ideologue but came to decide that fascism was needed to create a white “ethno-state” that would make libertarian economics possible. But this is hardly a new phenomena, since libertarians like Murray Rothbard have also cooperated with the racialist right. From Ron Paul’s libertarian paleoconservatism it was very easy for many to move further to the right, especially realizing that Ron Paul wouldn’t solve their economic problems. It’s a common trope that there’s an expressway from libertarianism to the alt-right, with Richard Spencer himself starting in politics as an anti-war libertarian. The ‘base’ created by Ron Paul gathered people disaffected with the republican party with racist paleo-conservatives. There is a sort of vulgar positivism to libertarian ideology that bides well with race realism. Libertarianism ideology, at its most extreme in anarcho-capitalism, has even flirted with endorsement for monarchism over democracy such as in the works of Hans-Herman Hoppe. Seeing markets as more democratic than any kind of state institution, free market liberalism is itself is critical of all that is egalitarian and democratic and therefore in its most extreme variants biding well with the ideology of the alt-right.
Another problem lies in the premise that liberal multiculturalism, as expressed at its most extreme on tumblr, is the ideology of the ruling elite. The very notion of a ruling elite should be thrown out, for we live under the power of a ruling class. Furthermore, the ruling class is not homogeneous and competes within itself. So it is hard to say that there is one monolithic ruling class ideology, but rather there are different competing ideologies that are often contradictory. So while liberal multiculturalism is part of the ruling ideology, so is white supremacy. Bourgeois society isn’t one unified bloc.
Nagle seems to find the contradiction between the alt-right’s aesthetics of anime porn, vulgarity, and appeals to traditionalism as a fascinating new development in the right. It is true that we are used to typical religious conservative appeals to family values and condemning obscenity. Yet at the same time how many of these religious conservatives have been found to be complete hypocrites? A sense of moral transgression and deviance was also present in the original fascist movement. Gabriel D’Annuzio, whose attempt was to create a colony in Fiume based on the rule of bohemian intellectuals fueled by national chauvinism was a classic example. As Wilhelm Reich noted in Mass Psychology of Fascism, Nazi subculture used promises of sex and rebellious behavior like smoking cigarettes to win support from the youth. Julius Evola got his start in dada, and one cannot also ignore the influence of the avant-garde Futurists on Mussolini. So fascists have used forms of transgression before. It’s just not a transgression that attacks the basic moral fabric of capitalism and class society itself. Rather, they attack the democratic aspects of modern capitalist society, like universal suffrage and the notion of human rights for oppressed groups, which are often won through popular struggle in defiance to capitalism. It is the simply part of the psuedo-revolutionary aspect of fascism, presenting tradition and order as a revolutionary alternative to the decadence of modernity.
The idea the alt-right are being transgressive against the rulers of culture is only true in the most shallow sense. Their inherently anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic ideology is actually fully compatible with capitalism. Ultimately, norms like nationalism and the family are upheld by the alt-right, norms which are essential for the reproduction of capitalism. While some alt-righters might try to move towards a sort of third positionist attempt to combine anti-capitalism with their idea of counter-revolution, ultimately their ideas amount to economic nationalism and localism and don’t actual challenge the rule of private property. So while the alt-right may revel in their sense of transgressiveness, it has nothing to do with the tradition of transgression represented by De Sade or Bataille who were attacking the moral authority of the ruling class itself. The alt-right yearn for a ruling class with firmly established moral authority.
The roots of the alt-right are not in the historical tradition of transgression. Rather they are part of the tradition of counter-enlightenment, the ideologies of those who wished to forever undo 1789 and 1917. De Maistre and Carlyle, Nietzsche, Julius Evola, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Mussolini, and Martin Heidegger are the intellectual heritage of the alt-right. It is the intellectual heritage of opposition to enlightenment ideals and the marxist perfection of these ideas, such as universalism, human equality, the desire to be free from domination, the attack on illegitimate authority, an opposition to the patriarchal family. These are thinkers who in the cases of the bourgeois revolution of 1789 and the proletarian revolution of 1917 virulently opposed the general attempt to make a better humanity and put forward ideals that directly negated the notions of human equality, questioning of tradition and self-rule. Instead tradition, hierarchy, patriarchy, and ethnic collectivism were to be upheld. The intellectuals of the Alt-right like Richard Spencer are part of this tradition of ‘counter-revolution’ that most fiercely manifested itself in the Nazi death camps. Yet they are counter-revolutionary ideologues without a revolution to crush.
We are living in a period where liberal centrism seems to be in crisis, and it’s hard to imagine things going the same way much longer. There is a sense of alienation and fear about the existing conditions, as well as a sense of paranoia. Without a strong left, the far-right will grow in situations like this even if there is no revolution to crush. And with swathes of young middle class men who are sexually repressed and blame the decadence of modern society as the cause their problems, specifically freedom for women, this counter-revolutionary politic can find a base. This is explored in the chapter on the manosphere in Nagle’s book, but hardly sufficiently.
As Matthew Lyons has pointed out, the modern alt-right is especially sexist and misogynistic compared to the far right of the past. Nagle does touch on this in her chapter that focuses on the manosphere, but in the process reveals her own conservative gender politics. For example she concludes in her chapter on the manosphere by saying that the “sexual revolution” has led to a “steep sexual hierarchy”, the decline of monogamy creating a “pecking order” amongst men. So accordingly, some men are inherently going to be at the bottom and denied sex, hence leading to the insanely sexist reactionary politics these men carry. So essentially the MRAs in a sense are right according to Nagle, that the “sexual revolution” has created a pecking order where some men are simply bound to lose.
Nagle doesn’t conclude from here that we need a reestablishment of intense patriarchal gender norms like the alt-right, but she essentially agrees that this has dealt men a bad hand which leads them to embrace reactionary gender roles. Yet it is better to understand the embrace of reactionary patriarchy by these young men as a reaction to the actual gains feminists have made for the rights of women, which men ideologized as being at their expense. They imagine an ideal where being born white and middle class would mean they’re guaranteed a hot wife, a 6 figure job and a family they’re in command of, an ideal that never existed. Instead they develop an ideology around the hatred of women and resentment, blaming ‘cultural marxist feminists’ for talking away this idealized past. The idea that these men just can’t get laid and are therefore doomed to be this reactionary just feeds exactly into the ideology of reddit incels.
The breakdown of the family as a unit of production under capitalism does do a huge blow to patriarchal relations and the domination of the family structure without eliminating it. This allows radical gender politics to develop because there is less of a patriarchal structure enforcing gender norms. The amount of divorces that occurs is a good metric for how much freedom women have. The rise of mass society also allows for women to participate in politics. One can see the intense sexism of the modern alt-right as a reaction to this. One particularly controversial alt-right meme is “White sharia”, the idea that whites need their own sharia law to put women back in their place. People don’t believe this stuff because they’re at the bottom of some imaginary sexual hierarchy, but because they’re delusional conspiracy theorists and revanchists against freedom for women. Their own hatred of women and feminism is probably a factor in why they are ‘incel’.
While there isn’t a revolution to be counter to, in the sense that they want to roll back the advances made for women due to the breakdown of family structures the alt-right is still in the tradition of reaction and counter revolution. For example, Julius Evola warned that capitalism is just as revolutionary and subversive as communism. So a sense of sexual resentment against women winning rights can be seen as a main factor that fuels the alt-right. The ideas of Wilhelm Reich (in his marxist period) on how the sexual repression of the patriarchal family structure fuels counter-revolution make sense in the context of the alt-right.
Another factor to take into consideration is the weakening of the global color line and the structures of white supremacy being less embedded in a formalized political hierarchy. The post-colonial world of a multinational proletariat was created by a blow to white supremacy and in turn has led to a desire for white revanchism which is justifying with false ideologies of victimization. White supremacy, while still a major force, was relatively weakened by decolonization and movements for civil rights. Yet petty-bourgeois whites are still raised in the US to expect a special social status. The extreme racism of the alt-right can be seen as a result of anxieties about loss of this status. Alt-right racism is very much an expression of the anxieties of global white supremacy, where the main item of faith is belief in a white genocide due to immigration changing demographics.
The irony is that for its hatred of post-structuralist inspired identity politics, Kill All Normies is basically a discursive account of the alt-right, focusing on the online discourses created by the alt-right and not looking at the actual material conditions that have given rise to his ideology. As much as the alt-right is an internet phenomena, the conditions that give rise to this ideology aren’t explainable purely through online discourse. What’s being used is an essentially liberal methodology. What is needed is a materialist understanding of the alt-right and what factors in society have given rise to it. Simply focusing on its online discourse provides a shallow surface level analysis.
Kill All Normies isn’t Marxist. It’s hardly even leftist. It comes mostly from a liberal centrist opposition to “extremism”. Yet opposition to identity politics from the left has led many self proclaimed communists to embrace the book, despite the inherently conservative nature of Nagle’s arguments. While it is true that identity politics can be used as a way to suppress class politics, Nagle doesn’t even seem to think that class politics should replace identity politics. Her primary problem with identity politics seems to its “oversensitivity” and “extremism”, not their failure to adequately address exploitation and oppression in a materialist manner. Communists should critique bourgeois identity politics not to dismiss fighting against oppression, but rather to develop a more materialist and effective means of doing so.