Books | Review | “Tumblr Liberalism” vs The Serious Authentic Left: On Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies

If the left is to have the same degree of success in translating online cultures into political movements, then it needs to understand both the online world and its own history. Kill All Normies helps with neither of those things, and is unlikely to win support beyond those already convinced of its central, conservative, thesis, writes Josh Davies.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, September 8, 2017 12:00 - 0 Comments

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The politics of online culture and online culture’s impact on politics is a subject ripe for discussion. Trump’s election victory has not only shown the ability of the right to organise online at an unprecedented level, but also came partly from a base which inhabited and cultivated online spaces built around misogyny, racism and antipathy towards “political correctness” and social progress that had been years in the making.

On the left, we’ve seen a huge cultural shift, from a rapid expansion in online spaces and their use for discussion, support and organising. Everything — from the resources available to trans people to the impressive infrastructure built up for the Sanders and Corbyn campaigns — points to a change in the way politics is experienced and practiced that has far-reaching implications for anyone interested in social change. How to deal with the cultural and technological changes that the internet has brought to politics is something that we are still grappling with in 2017.

The permanent archiving, amplification of voices, anonymity and the speed of communication that this technological and cultural shift has brought about all offer unprecedented means for conversation and organising. These come with challenges, too: both in terms of learning how to take advantage of them, but also the possibility that they can be deliberately used to create distrust and demoralisation.

On top of this, there’s the problem of how what happens online can translate into IRL (‘in real life’) organisation and social movements. At the moment, it looks like the far right has a better understanding of all of this than the left does. If whatever comes after neoliberalism is to be something that moves in a progressive direction — and not the rightward nativist shift seen in Trump, Brexit and the alt-right — then the left needs to be able to renew and sustain itself as well as spread its ideas.

Neoliberalism rested on and produced a set of defeats of the Left which weren’t only manifested in a pessimism about the possibility of socialism but also the destruction of those spaces where ideas could be generated and cultures of solidarity sustained in various degrees — whether that be through trade unions, community organisation, shared public space or free-time. It isn’t some wide-eyed technological utopianism to suggest that the expansion of online spaces might at least partially make up for the closure of physical ones, and that the politics and the culture of the emergence of those spaces should be understood in terms of the legacy of nearly forty years of defeats for progressive social and working class movements and the recomposition of the possibilities for resistance.

Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, then, has arrived in the immediate context of a left-right political and cultural schism which is not only very visible but is the driving force behind an increasing number of conflagrations in the US but also across Europe. It’s an excellent subject for a left wing analysis and I was excited that there was a book looking at this as well as grateful that someone had put in the work to produce the kind of analysis tying an increasingly dangerous right wing movement to its cultural background.

That Nagle recognises that there’s been an important technological shift is useful, certainly a welcome change from the tendency amongst many on the left to see everything only as a repeat of past struggles. But the book fell short of my expectations because of what comes across as quite a dismissive perspective towards the possibilities for a renewal of the left and the opportunities in left-wing online and “campus” spaces, and also because the book conveys little sense of either how the alt-right can be effectively challenged or what a positive model for politics and political culture might look like.

The real thrust of the book is a critique of the left and, whilst there’s nothing wrong with this in itself, it’s carried out in a way that doesn’t come across as at all interested in winning over any of those it’s criticising — nor as one that evinces much distance from historical attempts within the left to dismiss politics around social oppression as frivolous, non-genuine, or an attempt to diminish the centrality of class. Pick a decade out of a hat and you’d likely find something similar to Nagle’s arguments — often directed at ideas and social movements that have since won recognition and found their place in today’s left wing discourse.

When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail

The left Nagle views as being both unwilling and unable to effectively challenge the rise of right and far-right politics is one beset — as she sees it — by a self-defeating identitarianism that both narrows political horizons and leaves it unable to relate to the people outside its milieu. She calls this politics “Tumblr-liberalism” and for her it is characterised by a preoccupation with gender fluidity, the provision of “safe spaces” and the exploration of issues around “mental ill-health, disability, race, cultural identity and ‘intersectionality’”1.

Nagle finds nothing damaging in this in itself but, combined with the pressure to demonstrate virtue for online cultural capital and the need for a culture of policing and purging in order to maintain its scarcity2, and with a narrative (similar to that she quotes from leading “alt-light” figure Milo Yiannopoulous3) where the left now appears as censorious and authoritarian versus a nascent right which poses as transgressive4, Nagle finds this politics to be “a disease of the left”5 and a sign of its “deep intellectual rot”6.

There’s a lot of problems with this analysis, chiefly that the category of “Tumblr liberalism” here is an overly convenient way of lumping together a broad range of political theories and practices into one undesirable heap, allowing her to dismiss any of the ideas and the criticisms contained within them based on a narrow and often unrelated sample.

Nagle sees signs of the phenomenon everywhere: “woke” Clinton campaign staffers, Tumblr users discussing gender pronouns, academics questioning the idea of a stable literary canon, opponents of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminism, student unions, antifa protesters at Berkley and so on and so forth. The common thread that ties them together is what she sees as a tendency for a move away from a politics focused on inequality towards one focused around identity7. But these things are not all the same. Nagle’s sweeping generalisations not only obscure their differences but foreclose any discussion of the history and politics of each of the amorphous “Tumblr liberalism”’s constituent parts. For a book that focuses so much on the left’s supposed inability to generate and challenge ideas, it often reads as an invitation not to think.

Richard Seymour’s review of the book points out Nagle’s omission of much of the context for the opposition to Germaine Greer, Peter Tatchell and Maryam Namazie, and the tactics employed by some of those opposing them. For Nagle, heckling, refusing to share a platform, or petitioning for speaking invitations to be rescinded are all evidence of a left that is pro-censorship and afraid of ideas.

The lack of political engagement with the people critical of Greer, Tatchell and Namazie, however, makes Nagle’s commitment to robust debate seem dubious at best. The lack of acknowledgement of the criticisms made here means that no meaningful debate about the utility of the tactics employed can take place. Nagle shies away from saying what she thinks about the politics of each instance (though, as Richard Seymour says, it can perhaps be inferred) and we’re left with another example of Nagle’s paradigms — in this case the “pro-censorship left” rather than “Tumblr liberalism” — become ways of not thinking.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

Nagle shows a tendency to be less interested in what people have to say and more interested in how they say it. If this is apparent in her (one-sided) discussions around the “pro-censorship” left, then it’s doubly so in the derisory way in which she treats people’s online discussions of gender. In a style reminiscent of much of the conservative content reposted on the Reddit pages LeWrongGeneration and ForwardsFromGrandma — bad memes bemoaning the modern generation and its liberal politics, offered as subject for mockery — Nagle spends three pages reeling off a list of gender identities and definitions she has found somewhere on tumblr9 and then notes how such deconstruction and discussion of gender identity is “closely related to” the online subculture of “otherkin” — people who identify as non-human, for instance as mythological animals, cartoon characters or inanimate objects.

Nagle’s focus on the way things are said, and her reluctance to think about the politics and processes behind what is being said leaves her seemingly adopting a similar stance on gender to that of many of the conservatives she is critical of: gender non-conformity is something strange, esoteric and frivolous. The way her argument is presented here seems little different to the transphobic “I sexually identify as an attack helicopter” meme regurgitated across the internet by edgy defenders of heteronormativity.

Nagle’s focus on the form discourse takes, rather than its content or context, also leaves her simply seeming not to get Tumblr, or any value it might have.. Recognition of the way that tumblr has been something “genuinely useful” for “transgender folks and anyone who falls outside of normativity (and not just young people)”. In his review, Jordy Cummings’s informed perspective is able to do two things that Nagle does not: To recognise that such online spaces are part of real relationships, and to understand the basis of people’s connections to them.

Positioning the language used around gender identity in terms of a wider context — of relationships and a means of connection — enables the possibility of a critique that understands the participants in online communities in a way that Nagle’s rush to deride them does not. Nagle’s lazy categorisations also mean she misses the way in which the focus on coining terms for experiences and identities on sites like tumblr is, in itself, a consequence of the form in which the discourse takes place. A text-based format carried out by anonymous participants in a forum that encourages sharing isn’t just a recipe for “virtue signalling” but also one that can foster a playfulness and experimentation with language. Instead of a considered approach to the issues, all we get is “look at the funny words lol” followed by an exaggerated one-sided dismissal that will only appeal to those already in agreement.

The lack of an understanding of “identitarian” online spaces means that Nagle sees no way in which such terminology might give rise to useful discussions — even, and perhaps especially, when its deployment is criticised. If she had spent much time in these spaces, or attempted to look at their nuances with even a fraction of the effort she spends on exploring their cultural and political equivalents on the right, she might have picked up on this.

Her discussion of “trigger warnings” is typical of this. She dismisses the idea with an argument that would be perfectly at home on the right: Trigger Warnings are for “the unexpectedly high number of young women who had never gone to war claiming to have post-traumatic stress disorder” (p.78). This is a pretty gross caricature of a protocol most often used to help people who have been subject to rape or sexual abuse steer clear of unexpected mentions of it.

Again, Nagle’s obsession with her caricature of a censorious left gets in the way of the lived experiences that are reflected in online cultural practices. Her contempt for the use of “spoon theory” as a way of trying to understand the experiences of disabled people is a further example of not understanding what she criticises as “Tumblr liberalism”. Her bizarre pedantic snark that it’s not a theory but “actually a metaphor”, and complacent assertion that “caring about disabilities” is something that has “gone on for centuries, and [is] certainly uncontroversial”(pp. 73-74) show her ignorance around the issues she is commenting on (and discussions of them in academia as well as amongst disability activists and online communities). But who cares about understanding such ideas when they’re just further evidence of a drift towards identity politics anyway?

Black Lives Matter Matters

The best part of the book is the section on “the Manosphere”, the collection of sites and communities dedicated to anti-feminism that bridges the personal and the political. From “pick-up artistry” to so-called Men’s Rights activists and “No Wank” masturbation abstentionists, this broad online subculture is subject to a criticism that is not only bitingly sarcastic but also helpful in understanding the type of subjectivity which modern “alt right” and openly fascist movements have identified as theirs. It was this sort of analysis of the mixture of online subculture, political movement and historical context — and how the individual places themself within it — that I was hoping for more of when I first heard of the book.

In particular, the book would have really benefited from Nagle doing to the racist politics of the far right what she does to its gender politics. It’s not that she omits racism from an understanding of the growth of the right but she never goes as far as she does on gender in really capturing what those racist politics mean to — and offer — the individual who practices them. You get glimpses of the racist history and theories of parts of the right, and a sense of its influences on parts of online culture, but the book felt really lacking here, where it’s obvious Nagle understands right wing online culture well enough to have done a lot more with it. Indeed, what she does here has been undertaken more thoroughly elsewhere, such as in Matthew Lyons’ ‘CTRL-ALT-DELETE: the Origins and Ideology of the Alternative Right’.

An examination of the “birther” conspiracy theory — the notion that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the US, which tapped into racist anxiety over the election of the country’s first black president— would have been very useful, as it’s in keeping with much of the themes and the timeline in the book. ‘Birtherism’ was not only widespread and subject to an official response but it was also something that epitomised (and helped foster) the widespread right wing distrust of the mainstream media, rightly identified by Nagle as so crucial in the spread of the influence of the “alt right” and in Trump’s electoral success.

Whilst no book can be expected to cover everything, the fact that Black Lives Matter get barely a handful of mentions — once in relation to the shooting of five BLM protestors, another time as part of a list of subjects covered in a Milo Yiannopoulos tour, and only once more as a group Yiannopoulos intended to antagonise through his choice of costume on stage — is telling enough. This lack of mentions alone is cause for concern in a book articulated around the growth of the right and the relationship between the internet and politics, but even the mentions that do exist fail to engage with the politics or practices behind BLM or the way in which the right has responded to them. Nagle doesn’t criticise BLM as practitioners of “identity politics” or “Tumblr liberalism”, but perhaps given the broadness of her definitions she could have done so.

The fact that BLM poses an obvious challenge to Nagle’s ideas about “identity politics” being a diversion that diminishes the left is never taken up; neither is the way that in which the right in America has built itself partly as a reaction against the BLM movement. If you were to speak to most of the participants mobilised to protest by the right in the US recently, I’d imagine Black Lives Matter would draw more ire than the embrace of post-structuralism by parts of left wing academia; but that’s just a guess.

Going Offline

Nagle objects to the use of the term “conservative left”, deeming it a pejorative descriptor aimed at closing down debate and ostracising those it targets, but her criticisms of “identity politics” movements (which are built around forms of social oppression) and the lack of a sense that there’s any potential worth exploiting in the the growth of gender, sexuality and race-based politics in recent years, do make her come across as at least socially-conservative. Moreover, Nagle’s opposition to any description of parts of the left as conservative (would “traditionalist”, “orthodox” or “revanchist” be more acceptable candidates?) seems hypocritical when considered against her tendency to bundle so much into the category of “Tumblr liberalism”.

It’s unfortunate for Nagle’s argument that a paper recently given by Judith Butler (whose ideas Nagle sees as finding “fruition” in the “Tumblr left”) at a conference looking at the conservative left is, in part, an argument for the necessity of understanding the unstable relationship between the cultural and the material. Had the “left conservatives” of 25 years ago won out the kind of interrogation of the relationship between politics and online subcultures present in Kill All Normies, Butler suggests, that might have been seen as evidence of Marxism’s drifting away from proper politics.

Prominent US fascist Richard Spencer has endorsed Nagle’s book on his Instagram, noting that it “gets” his movement and that its criticisms of “the Tumblr left” are “useful”. It should go without saying that such an endorsement — for an ostensibly left wing book on left and right-wing online cultures — ought to give pause. Apparently not. For both her publisher, Zero Books, and for many of the proponents of its politics, the raising of Spencer’s endorsement as a problem, a criticism of the book or just something to be taken note of, was evidence of the kind of toxic online culture that Nagle writes against: a smear, a campaign, slander, a witch hunt and so on.

What is notable here isn’t only the extreme sensitivity of the people leaping to close down discussion of the problems raised by a fascist endorsing a left wing critique of a gender, sexuality and race-centred politics —a sensitivity which, it is worth nothing, both Nagle and the far right have invoked as one of the features of “Tumblr liberalism”— but also an eagerness not to think about inconvenient truths that echoes the refusal of context or engagement that runs throughout Kill All Normies.

This refusal to reflect is compounded by the book’s lack of a sense that there’s anything that can be done. There’s much criticism of the political practices of those opposing the far right but little sense of what Nagle suggests in their place beyond the importance of ideas – though obviously not ideas put forward in the language of the traditional left, or which criticise that left’s claims to universalism (which are seen as yet more “Tumblr liberalism” to be dismissed and sneered at).

If the left is to have the same degree of success in translating online cultures into political movements then it needs to understand both the online world and its own IRL history. Kill All Normies helps with neither of those things, and is unlikely to win any support beyond people already convinced of its central, conservative, thesis.

There are many examples of harmful online political culture carried out by people who identify as being on the left, but to pose this as being in some way an inevitable consequence of a so-called “Tumblr liberalism” is not only inaccurate but, more crucially, does nothing to solve the problem.

A welcoming, engaging, interested online culture and politics of the left, one capable of providing a forum for debate and a means of generating ideas and action, is clearly something we need. However, it is far likelier that such a culture will emerge against — rather than out of — the type of politics advocated by Kill All Normies.

Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right
Angela Nagle
Zero Books, June 2017
Paperback, 136pp
ISBN: 978-1-78535-543-1

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Josh Davies

Josh Davies is a writer and activist. He tweets at: @_joshdavies

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