For her work on the alt-right, Angela Nagle, visiting lecturer in Trinity for Michaelmas term, has received mentions in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
She sits down with Trinity News to speak about topics covered in her recent book Kill All Normies, such as what exactly is the alt-right, transgressive politics and online shaming, as well as more recent events such as Charlottesville and CopOnComrades.
How did you come to research online subcultures?
I started studied online anti-feminist subcultures and forums years ago for my Ph.D. Over the course of my thesis the culture went through different phases. For example it started off being preoccupied with pick up artists but as time went on a lot of things we now recognize as alt-right came to the fore, such as IQ, eugenics, and discussions of birth rates. By the time I finish it, it had changed in the significant way and I became more interested in new movements that were cross pollinating with these anti-feminist subcultures. The main online subculture I was looking at would have been Reddit, specifically the “Red Pill” and a couple of pick-up forums, as well as the massively influential 4chan, and later came the exclusively alt-right focused sites like radix counter currents.
There has been some ambiguity in what ‘Alt-Right’ means, could you clarify?
What exactly the alt-right represents is kind of blurred. If you use the strict definition than you are using the definition that the far-right want you to use, therein associating the alt-right with the far-right. A lot of people however, use the term differently. For example, when my dad uses it, he means the likes of Steve Bannon.
He’s not entirely wrong. There is a new populist right that is not particularly connected with the neo-conservative ethos of the Reagans and Thatchers. Instead they are motivated by different political and philosophical principles. Yet in the strict sense the alt-right is an identitarian nationalist movement. The alt-right is the name those that claim the traditional meaning use to refer to those that are a watered down versions of themselves, such as Milo Yiannopoulos.
I think there’s also legitimacy in making those distinctions. Even though we know that the people of both groups were in contact for years, I think the alt-light are essentially kind of fundamentally philosophically different to the alt right. They are essentially a form of Civic nationalism, somewhat liberal, in a sense. A lot of them come from libertarian backgrounds. They retain the anti-immigration stuff, but the idea is essentially the identity politics of the right and the left are both a problem. The alt-right, on the other-hand, explicitly advocate identity politics.
Progressive media has a tendency to lump everything on the right in together but these are important distinctions worth discussing. When I was looking at all this stuff on places like 4chan, if any church-going conservative were to stumble upon these forums they would be absolutely horrified. These subcultures are not socially and morally conservative.
In the book I suggest their philosophy is rooted in the Marquis de Sade style of anti-Rousseau libertine misogyny. Don’t mistake this for a conservative movement. It’s a radical movement.
In the book you have some interesting thoughts about transgression being used as a political tool. Could you speak a little about that? How does it relate to the alt-right?
There has been this very foggy notion notion around for 100 years or so, which is basically that transgression is a style of the left. To break down tradition and existing institutions, to always overturn, is necessarily progressive and good. Even if you look at the way people write about the cultural arts, if they use the word transgressive you know it’s suggests a positive attribute. By transgressing we are pursuing something worthwhile.
This just struck me as a very interesting phenomenon. Because the alt-right show that the idea of transgression can be politically malleable. The reason this is important is because it links to bigger issues. For example, I think there’s something wrong with the left preoccupation with transgression and wish to be seen as a counter culture, as what it suggest is that you don’t actually want to be part of the mainstream. It suggests that you don’t actually want to take power.
It suggests that that you are happy to be forever happy to be in the margins retaining your purity; more interested in breaking down institutions than building them. You cannot always adopt the position of just being against what is and overly romanticised transgression, if you are a sincere socialist, because ultimately you want to be hegemonic at some point.
You make a distinction between the alt-right and the tumblr left. What is the Tumblr left?
I used 4chan as a kind of broad marker of the styles of the alt-right and I used Tumblr as a broad marker of the styles of what the right call ‘social justice warrior’ left. Like 4chan with the right, Tumblr is known as being the style maker of what we now call social justice warriors. Everything from the fashion sensibility to the language like trigger warnings and sensitivity and microaggressions formed in that kind of world Tumblr cultivates.
I thought it was interesting how these constituted two different versions of the internet. On the right, you had one that was based entirely on being non-virtuous concerned with being as offensive and gross as horrible. On the left internet, you had exactly the opposite which was an obsession with virtue and purity.
On the tumblr-left, people who did not live up to the standards of that purity had to be purged. Online left-wing culture has been defined by these purges for the last 4 years. People who said the wrong thing, people who didn’t apologise correctly or not, or said one thing that could be considerably interpreted as racist are sex with or homophobic or transphobic or whatever, were purged.
It just seems as if there was this kind of mania on the tumblr-left. In the book, I use the use phrase the economy of virtue. If virtue is the currency of the internet you have to make sure it is in short supply because if everybody has it it’s no good. They therefore had to restrict it so it wouldn’t become meaningless, so the currency would not be devalued. So they had to constantly purge people, and the individuals involved in these attacks really delighted in them.
There was nonetheless a symbiotic relationship between these two online subcultures. On the one side, the right, you have an online culture that believes Western civilization is in a state of collapse. It has become decadent, where nobody is procreating and everybody is a degenerate. The tumblr-left, which is their worst nightmare. It’s almost like a cartoon of what they imagine Western civilization to be.
Then on the other side, you have the tumblr-left people that believe everyone is secretly a Nazi, every man is misogynist, every white person is racist , and everything in the outside world is kind of sinister.
They look at the alt right and see everything they said as true. The alt-right hate women, they’re Nazis, they are all the things that we’re saying white men.
How influential are these groups?
On the inside, both groups feel very big, but if you step outside the online world, you are unlikely to meet anyone of either camp. Their actual membership is quite small. Nonetheless because of mainstream media’s love and fetishisation of counter-culture, because it’s constantly chasing online subcultures as a way of seeing where culture is going as it did with Punk and other movements.
They inflate these groups significance. But then it begins to become self-fulfilling as through the media attention these groups do end up becoming significant.
In a more recent article ‘Goodbye Pepe’ you speak about the negative effect of Charlottesville on the alt-right’s public image. Could you elaborate?
Charlottesville was a moment where the alt-right came into its own. On the first day, they did this very powerful display of uniformity of purpose and confidence in which they were wearing matching clothes, with a procession consisting of a large number of members. Then the next day it all got very violent and chaotic.
There were violent clashes between them and antifa and a woman protesting on the counter protest side two cops. This incredibly confident display transitioned to total disaster in the course of a day. Then there was a huge response by the media. People realised the seriousness of the issue. They realised this can have a life outside of the internet. There were militiamen. It was no longer seen as just it geeky teenage kids on 4chan. It was seen to be the alt-right.
It sounds like your description of purging has certain parallels with the Frankie Gaffney and CopOnComrades scenario last summer. Do you have any thoughts on the incident.
It’s worth going back and reading Frankie Gaffney news article, because it was pretty mild and says things that the vast majority of people would just take for granted. Basically if someone has no economic privilege and if you live in a country which is something like 95% white, the idea that we would just be adopting this American style of an identity-politics speak and everyone should have to denounce themselves as a white person is sort of ridiculous.
Now I accept, of course, that racism and sexism exist and they insert themselves in culture in frustratingly subtle ways, which make them difficult to change. However I think that ultimately you can go to any major international and multinational corporation talk about the virtues of feminism and anti-racism and anti-homophobia or whatever. You can demand that massively powerful institution in the world do certain tokenistic gestures to signal that they approve of your cultural politics.
However class is different because it is ultimately only economic transformation that can address class. You cannot solve the issue of class by saying let’s have less microaggressions against people who were tracksuits or something. It’s not about identity, it’s about an economic relationship.
Therefore class is the only really dangerous one because it threatens where power is and therefore actually threatens capital. Capital is very happy to give you culture. This is why consumer culture is always co-opting counter culture it’s not threatened by it. Any company would be happy to have more people of colour or more women on their boards, it’s not going to fundamentally challenge them in anyway
So I’m suspicious of the fact that if you go into a university or the Irish media or wherever and say that ‘I’m a feminist, I want more women on boards, I want more women on panels, I want more women on TV,’ you will be met no opposition, no substantial opposition anyway. I know this because I’ve existed in that world. If anything you’ll possibly even be celebrated for your politics.
However if you say what Frankie did you get a very extreme response. In the case of Gaffney, hundreds of women, the most influential women in the country, basically, signed that letter. If Frankie wants to speak at an event now even if it has nothing to do with politics the organisers will get hate mail telling them they can’t have him on their panel, even if he is speaking about Dracula, which he was recently.
If Gaffney had written that we need to have more women on panels or whatever, he’d probably have a job in the Irish Times. He would probably have a job in academia. There’s a reason why cultural inequalities are not meeting the same opposition.