History, Philosophy, and Morals in ‘Kill All Normies’

Angela Nagle has been a frequent presence in the “new old left” for the last year so—her essays in Jacobin and the Baffler, as well as her many podcast appearances, have been bright spots in the dark year of deciphering the 2016 presidential campaign and the 2017 presidential debacle. Nagle has become perhaps the best-known cartographer of the “alt-right,” the archipelago of online reactionary movements that received unprecedented media attention for their (largely rhetorical) connections with the Trump campaign.

Her long-awaited book, Kill All Normies, outlines the online culture wars of the past few years: the consolidation of diverse far-right tendencies around opposition to “political correctness,” the division between the ethno-nationalist “alt-right” (Richard Spencer) and its opportunistic fellow travelers of the “alt-light” (Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes). She covers, as well, the relationship of mutual hostility between online reaction and what she calls “Tumblr liberalism”—the alt-right’s left “mirror image.”

The core of Kill All Normies is a polemic against “transgressivism”—a counter-cultural style that prioritizes rejection of the mainstream, tends toward “anti-moralism” and “nihilism,” and can ultimately be a tool of any politics. Nagle is particularly critical of scholars and commentators who, imbibing what she takes to be an ambient cultural orthodoxy, naively assume that transgressivism is inherently progressive. But as the general public is increasingly aware, the lawless, transgressive, liberating space of the internet has reinvigorated American white supremacy and given rise to vile new racist and misogynist groups who are increasingly taking their ideas into the real world. “When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/transgressive/countercultural can place fascists in a position of superiority to regular people,” Nagle writes,“we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn cultural ideas” (p. 107).

The emphasis on transgressivism seems to have emerged for Nagle from her engagement with scholars like Gabriella Coleman, who talk about subcultures being “counter-hegemonic spaces,” and write glowingly—and credulously—about forms of social organization emerging from online hacker culture. Nagle emphasizes another scholar’s argument that the likes of Coleman have “been insufficiently critical of subcultural ideologies [like those of 4chan]…because their biases have tended to agree with the anti-mass society discourses of the youth cultures they study” (p. 106). Nagle sees residual counterculturalism-by-default as a strategic problem for the left in the present, as it faces down a right-wing neo-Nazism rapidly appropriating the youth appeal of transgressivism for a hideous reactionary agenda, and a liberal mainstream that has learned to weaponize the argot of Tumblr activism as a weapon against critics of the neoliberal consensus.

As an analysis of the contemporary conjuncture, Nagle seems absolutely correct. She doesn’t say much about how counterculturalism became the cultural orthodoxy we probably all agree it is. But she seems right that transgressivism as a political style has little to offer the demands of the present, which increasingly look like the old-fashioned, laborious, and decidedly unsexy work of convincing a lot of non-ideological “normies” to join our side. She also seems right that the dogmatism and allergy to debate in parts of the contemporary left—particularly in the cross-pollination of Tumblr liberalism and campus activism—is in part the pathological result of long decades of marginality and irrelevance, and is locked into dialectical tit-for-tat with the alt-right. Nagle, like myself, is skeptical that the culture of fantasy, victimization, cult of fragility and illness, vicious boundary-policing, and general unreality that have come to predominate in online “left” culture are anything but a hindrance to the job that currently stands before us.

When Nagle tries to situate “transgressivism” in a longer historical and philosophical arc, though, I think she relies heavily on received stereotypes of twentieth-century ideas and politics, and pushes the story into stale and unpersuasive binaries. Kill All Normies repeatedly but vaguely implies that the “transgressivism” that defines the alt-right is an appropriation of the spirit of the 1960s. But Nagle’s only specific definitions of what it means to be countercultural are drawn not from any empirical engagement with what happened in the 1960s, but from a cherry-picked array of thinkers and movements like “romanticism,” Sade, Nietzsche, the Surrealists, the Situationists, etc. This spirit is described as “anti-moral” and “nihilistic,” valorizing the “throwing off the id,” the “liberation of the individual and the id,” “taboo-breaking.” While it is certainly the case that these elements were part of the cultural revolution of the 1960s, it is revealing that Nagle has little to say about the politics of the 60s generation, as if the counterculture was simply about narcissistic individual expression and libertinism.

It is even more revealing that the view of the 1960s in Kill All Normies is presented almost exclusively through the words of neo-conservative critics of it like Irving Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Lionel Trilling. In some passages, one can quite clearly observe the move of simultaneously presenting criticism of the 1960s as conservative ideology and as it if has a certain obvious truth:

“The recent rise of the online right is evidence of the triumph of the identity politics of the right and of the co-opting (but nevertheless the triumph) of 60s left styles of transgression and counterculture. The libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony, and ultimately the nihilism that the left was once accused of by the right actually characterized the movement to which Milo belonged.” (p. 59)

The upshot of this, for Nagle, is that what seemed progressive at the time and emerged as “culturally triumphant,” actually “coexisted quite comfortably with the scorched-earth free-market economics of the right—a fusion that reached its fullest expression in the Blair/Clinton era.” While this point is indisputable, it need not rely on the reductive, revisionist account of the 1960s that conservatives began advancing immediately and that some leftists themselves later embraced. Andrew Hartman, whose book Nagle draws on heavily, showed that the neoconservatives did not merely hate that the 1960s counterculture was “adversarial,” but they were threatened by its political critique of American imperialism, racial and gender hierarchies, and an illusory cultural consensus built on consumerist pacification; in short, the neocons wanted to preserve a romanticized notion of America as having uniquely solved the problems of modern society.

Nagle seems oddly indifferent to the 1960s critique of consumer society that has recently been appropriated by the alt-right, who have given it a masculinist twist through the celebration of films like Fight Club. But 1960s rejection of the conformism of mass society was much more likely to be driven by a marxisant critique of the commodification of life in common and the placation of the working classes in meaningless work and consumption. As Kristin Ross has argued, May 1968 (in France, but also elsewhere) was a revolutionary anti-capitalist movement, deeply rooted in class analysis and labor consciousness, and was only in retrospect revised into a narcissistic generational rebellion and “transgression for transgression’s sake.” Similarly, as others such as Julian Bourg have shown, the spirit of cultural non-conformity and taboo-breaking were not mindless hedonism, but a rejection of conservative morality in favor of a different kind of morality—one that successfully effected the deep cultural transformations that everyone from moderate liberals to Marxists now embrace as basic features of an emancipated society.

Nagle wants to use the fact that 60s counterculturalism proved compatible with Reaganomics and, later, the alt-right, as a way to discredit all transgressivism as inherently “anti-moral” and thus inherently “nihilistic,” unable to advance a political vision that requires moral judgments. On the contrary, I think we need less categorical denunciation and more historical explanation of how, under the specific conditions of, say, 1968-2017, the countercultural style was diluted into barely-political symbolism and fully appropriated by the ideological mechanisms of capitalist society. The alternative is that we end up holding onto binaries between sober, socially conservative, “normie” working-class people, and sexually liberated, libertine, college-educated “bourgeois bohemians,” or between the austere, rigidly organized left politics of the 1930s and the youthful enthusiasm of the 1960s. (Nagle explicitly encourages this kind of thinking, noting that during the Great Depression, “ideas of transgression and cultural radicalism were largely irrelevant to this working-class left,” p. 61).

Such notions are myopically stuck in the present: Not only have the lowest rungs of society been the most enthusiastic participants in the radically transgressive festival atmosphere of the revolutions in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, but the revolt against “cultural” hierarchies were part of both. The Bolsheviks of the 1920s did not give women the vote and legalize abortion and homosexuality far in advance of any Western society because “bourgeois bohemians” demanded it, but rather because these things had long been perpetually-thwarted dimensions of the radical left vision of an egalitarian society. The French Popular Front of the 1930s simultaneously brought a socialist government to power and inspired a mass outpouring of popular enthusiasm for changing the codes of everyday life, reversing hierarchies and transgressing the usual bounds of society.

There is a further way in which Nagle’s prosecutorial tendencies lead to an excessively Manichean view of the recent past. I’ve already mentioned how she defines the spirit of the 60s more by juxtaposing them with older “transgressive” thinkers than by discussing the ideas the political actors really held and what actions they took. This method (or non-method) produces further ambiguity in her account of the theoretical ideas behind late twentieth-century politics; she moves back and forth between theories and empirical history without really attempting the (admittedly very difficult) explanation of how those two things really act upon each other. The result, unfortunately, is highly informal and occasionally even extravagant claims, such as that the proliferation of gender identities on Tumblr was “the subcultural digital fruition of Judith Butler’s ideas” (p. 70).

In general, Nagle’s approach to theory redeploys the shopworn clichés of previous Marxists who blamed postmodernism for the intellectual failures of the post-1960s left. These clichés focused on postmodernism’s embrace of the symbolic, its evacuation of the “real” world of the economy and politics, and its (often greatly exaggerated and misunderstood) epistemological skepticism. There are fair critiques to be made of the many vapid applications of “postmodernism,” and certainly about their contemporary relevance or meaning outside the academy. But Marxisant critiques of postmodernism were only rarely made by people who knew of what they spoke, and Nagle too seems to think she has to criticize “academic relativism” (p. 83) to undermine the worst excesses of identity politics. Scattered reference to “reason” and “universalism”—words that have quite different theoretical/philosophical and political/strategic meanings—suggest that Nagle sees a kind of eighteenth-century materialism as a prerequisite for getting the left back on track to winning the masses. Recovering that, in Kill All Normies, means enlisting an array of veteran left-wingers like Todd Gitlin and Barbara Ehrenreich who have heroic legacies as activists and writers, but have no business weighing in on academic philosophy. She also approvingly sprinkles in quotes from neoconservatives like Allan Bloom and Camille Paglia, and indulges in yet another recapitulation of the Sokal hoax, strengthening the impression that her entire analysis of the 1960s is broadly in sync with its reactionary critics.

Simply put, I think this is dangerous territory for writers and thinkers who are not going to put in the work to understand what they are criticizing. It is at best intellectually dull, at worst strategically damaging. The arguments are tiresome, insular, and for the most part irrelevant to the challenges of building a successful, left-wing mass movement. But the reasons Nagle and others seem to think they are essential are even more troubling: they hold onto to the belief that there are genetic links between ideas and consequences, that a political worldview can only be legitimate if it is absolutely true, epistemologically unassailable.

Not only is such thinking a displacement of the theological desire for absolute grounds, but it has been a true stumbling block for Marxism in the twentieth-century. When the philosophical richness of the materialist and Marxist traditions is reduced to a schematic ideology and orthodoxy, it loses its intellectual vitality and its attraction for people drawn to philosophical problems that are relevant to all aspects of living on the left. And worse, these schematic notions of philosophy that appear in the polemics of the present—whether “the” Enlightenment, or “historical materialism”—do not imply any real engagement with ideas, but are mere partis pris hopelessly overdetermined by the politics of the recent past. The goal should not be to blame “relativism” for inherently producing “nihilistic” politics—a fundamentally ahistorical and idealist enterprise that overlooks the emergence and effects of ideas in specific historical conditions. Relativism and transgressivism, like universalism and nationalism, have emerged repeatedly, in radically different times and places, with radically different political valences. The attempt to pin them to specific politics and outcomes, whether left or right, will always lead to reduction and naiveté.

As the neo-Marxist left works to make a permanent mark on American politics, there will no doubt be an overwhelming urge to re-narrate the twentieth century, to discover causes and assign blame for the left’s failures. That is a worthwhile exercise, and I think Nagle and I are both part of a broad consensus that the embrace of marginality as a political style has had its day, and that the task ahead is the building of a genuine mass movement. This will require universalist explanations of what brings different kinds of people in an atomized society together, and a conscious rejection of in-group boundary-policing and purity tests toward the goal of convincing a whole lot of “normies” that socialism has a program that will make their lives better. Nagle is right that such a project sits oddly with any kind of anti-moralism, or moralism reduced to impenetrable subcultural codes. The critique of capitalism was rooted in moral exhortation from the beginning, and moralism remains one of our most powerful tools.

Yet, articulating new visions, and mediating the inevitable conflicts between them, will take us into the realms of theoretical ideas of what we understand human beings and society to be, and how politics and economics work. There is no such thing as praxis without theory, whether it is made explicit or not. That suggests a greater case for openness to the past rather than judgment of it, a rejection of the assumption that we know the answers right away. History is full of surprises.

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