After the murderous gathering in Charlottesville, there’s a real need for insightful analysis of the American far right – but, argues Max Leak, Kill All Normies fails to provide it.
It’s unsurprising that many of the left on both sides of the Atlantic were excited at the publication of Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle’s new book examining the internet-based neo-fascist movement widely known as the ‘alt-right’. We have waited a long time for a leftist author to provide a lucid materialist analysis of the roots, current makeup and political trajectory of this movement. Having now read the book, I fear we’ll be waiting a while longer.
Several other reviews of the book have already been published, largely criticising Nagle’s crude and uncharitable portrayals of the liberal-left trends which she variably terms ‘identity politics’ or ‘Tumblr liberalism’. Nagle’s commentary on these phenomena is vapid, sensationalist, and even uncomfortably close to centrist ‘horseshoe theory’ ideas, but I will try to focus here on Nagle’s analysis of neo-fascism in itself.
The first thing to say is that any rebuke to Nagle is complicated by the difficulty of understanding her writing in the first place. The book is surprisingly replete with typos, grammatical non-sequiturs and conspicuous absences of basic contextual information. This combines with an erratically zig-zagging argument to produce moments of almost total incoherence. Take, for example, the free-floating assertion that the Bushite neoconservatives ‘had their origins in the materialism of the anti-Soviet left’ (this follows an assertion only one page previously that all politics in the last several decades has been ‘purely cultural’). The whole thing cries out for a merciless edit and a full-scale rewrite, and it’s hard to shake the suspicion that the book’s release was unduly expedited to capitalise commercially on the aftermath of Trump’s election.
Another unfortunate running sore is that Nagle persistently name-drops various seminal thinkers without taking the time to introduce, contextualise or explain the ideas being referenced. The result is simultaneously high-handed and poorly executed, as Nagle airily presumes her readers to be already familiar with various authors – Gramsci, Nietzsche, and the Marquis de Sade, among others – which she herself does not appear to be particularly conversant with. Nagle’s treatment of Judith Butler – who is found guilty, after a kangaroo court trial lasting a single paragraph, of being the reason why some teenagers online self-identify as plants and ‘Otherkins’ – is especially grating and ridiculous.
Insofar as Kill All Normies has a consistent argument, it is this: the so-called alt-right – a loose constellation of overlapping white nationalist, anti-feminist, illiberal and Islamophobic tendencies largely based online – has successfully adopted an edgy, ‘counter-cultural’ appeal over the last two decades. The reason it has been able to do this – at least, the only reason which Nagle thinks worth mentioning – is because of its mirror image on the left, a demographic of censorious ‘Tumblr liberals’, the practitioners of a shrill and self-absorbed ‘identity politics’ which has repelled a whole new generation from the political left.
The first half of this is not exactly wrong, but nor is it anything worth writing a book about. To Nagle, the mere fact that the style of ‘counter-culture’ could be credibly adopted by a right-wing movement is a source of wonder, meriting 120 pages of scattered discussion. This apparently novel observation makes up the mainstay of the book, the only significant idea that Nagle really manages to communicate in the entire course of her argument. And I can’t help but feel that it isn’t novel at all.
To imagine that all previous fascist movements have been stodgily conservative, and have styled themselves as such, betrays a peculiar ignorance of the history of fascism. What about the neo-Nazi skinhead scene of the late 1970s (still strong and vital in East Germany and much of Eastern Europe)? Many of the original Nazis wanted to abolish Christianity and instigate neo-paganism – hardly a reaffirmation of family-values conservatism. Successful modern fascist movements, like Greece’s Golden Dawn, have grown by becoming fashionable presences on schoolyards, and the classical fascist intelligentsia contained numerous young utopian idealists – Marinetti and the futurists, most famously – alongside conventional reactionaries. Arguments around the definitive features of fascism are often circular and unhelpful, but it is impossible to assemble a definition of fascism in which an ebullient spirit of radicalism does not feature at least in some cases.
Nagle emphasises that the alt-right’s members derive a transgressive thrill from flouting the formal anti-racist and anti-sexist precepts of modern Western society. This fairly mundane insight is wrapped up in a chapter of garbled psychoanalysis and cod-philosophy, which twists both Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade to an extent that even the latter would surely have taken exception to. The fact that alt-right internet culture is often humorous in tone – that much of the horrifying spectacle of alt-right discourse is carried out semi-ironically, ‘for the lulz’ – is also marvelled over as a distinctly 2017 phenomenon. Again, however, the author’s declaration that she has discovered an entirely new strain within the right-wing gene pool falls flat as soon as we look at even a couple of historical examples of other fascist movements. This, for example, is how one former member of the (very crude and conventional) British neo-Nazi gang Combat 18 explains the group’s Holocaust denial:
All the anti-Jewish stuff was done because we knew it would offend people… If there is one issue that really winds people up it is the Holocaust. This in itself gave us a real laugh. No-one really believed that the Holocaust didn’t happen… but we knew how people would get worked up about it… It had become such a taboo subject.
- (Quoted in White Riot: the Violent Story of Combat 18, Nick Lowles)
Broadly speaking, Kill All Normies is undone as a serious piece of commentary by Nagle’s blinkered insistence that the alt-right represents something entirely new and unprecedented. This angle may be lucratively sensationalist, but it totally obfuscates any serious consideration of any of the politically pertinent questions socialists should be asking about American neo-fascism. There is no discussion, for example, of how the alt-right intersects, ideologically and organisationally, with pre-existing right-wing political forces. There is no attention to the broader realignments taking place in American politics, or the fact that we are living through an epoch of capitalist political (if not, for the moment, economic) crisis. For a writer who self-identifies as a socialist, these seem like significant questions to consider.
Nothing which doesn’t fit the claim of the alt-right’s absolute novelty is allowed to sully the book’s pages. For instance, we are informed that ‘the genuinely conservative right… really has died’. This strikes me as a very strange thing to believe, given that Mike Pence is the Vice President of the United States, that abortion clinics are closing faster than factories across the (largely Republican-governed) US mainland, and that the White House keeps pumping out orders to legalise anti-LGBT discrimination, deregulate gun ownership, restrict voting rights and so on – very much the standard fare of US conservatism. Traditional American conservatives may have taken some knocks in recent years, especially over gay rights, but in any partnership between them and the alt-right, they remain not only relevant, but overwhelmingly the senior partners. Dissecting the partly antagonistic, partly symbiotic interaction between these two tendencies should surely be an urgent priority.
There is a great deal of collated data about the alt-right’s makeup and activities, but much of the analysis seems limited to quotations of statements made by the alt-rightists themselves. The result is a journey into the dark online jungle which, all too often, misses the wood for the trees. In contextualising the ultra-misogynist rage of University of California campus shooter Elliot Rodgers, Nagle states as fact the alt-right view that the anger of sexually unsuccessful young men results from the sexual revolution of the 1960s, which brought ‘a greater level of sexual choice for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among a large male population at the bottom of the pecking order.’ (There is no need, apparently, to mention the patriarchal social framework which makes the journey from sexual frustration to murderous woman-hatred a possibility in the first place.) This seemingly genuine endorsement of a paranoid delusion cribbed from porn-ridden chat forums is another of those moments at which it’s hard to tell whether Nagle has made an outlandish leap of logic or simply suffered a severe failure of copy-editing. Whichever it is, this certainly isn’t the ‘materialist’ analysis that the book’s readers were promised.
Above all, Kill All Normies is a missed opportunity: not only does it fail to offer us a usable analysis of a real and dangerous fascist tendency, it serves to actively push such an analysis further out of reach. Nagle’s book is a work of pop psychology with implausible pretensions of academic grandeur. It also has the potential to do real damage to the socialist left if its clumsy cannonades against ‘identity politics’ are allowed to drown out more thoughtful critiques of identity-based youth activism. Kill All Normies will be well-received by those who find that its simplistic analysis vindicates their pre-existing hunches; it will be of little use to anyone looking to learn about 21st-century fascism.