Kill All Normies

Kill All Normies

Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right

How internet subcultures are conquering the mainstream, from from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right.


Recent years have seen a revival of the heated culture wars of the 1990s, but this time its battle ground is the internet. On one side the "alt right" ranges from the once obscure neo-reactionary and white separatist movements, to geeky subcultures like 4chan, to more mainstream manifestations such as the Trump-supporting gay libertarian Milo Yiannopolous. On the other side, a culture of struggle sessions and virtue signalling lurks behind a therapeutic language of trigger warnings and safe spaces. The feminist side of the online culture wars has its equally geeky subcultures right through to its mainstream expression. Kill All Normies explores some of the cultural genealogies and past parallels of these styles and subcultures, drawing from transgressive styles of 60s libertinism and conservative movements, to make the case for a rejection of the perpetual cultural turn.


First of all: Holy s""t. This is a book that I have been waiting to read for quiet some time now, but the level of insight and highly comprehensive discussion of what is going on in the cultural wars on the Web by Nagle exceeded my expectations. It reminded me of early works by Naomi Klein which combined the journalistic approach to the material at hand with detailed, but still accessible discussion of the theoretical aspect of the subject. Nagle discusses the ongoing (or lost?) cultural war between Tumblr liberalism vs. 4-chan inspired alt-right while both of the terms comprises of highly heterogenous elements. Internet, once lauded as the free, “horizontal” space of a new kind of anarchical democracy (not long ago but around 2013 many of the liberal left still saw and hailed the new “democratic” terrain of the Internet) today has been dominated by the misogynistic, Nazi-sympathizing Man’s Rights activists. Her historical account of what happened over the last 10 years is remarkable. Once a place of “progressive boosters” of the first-generation users of 4-chan, the transgressive and cynical culture of the website becomes a fecund terrain for rape and death threats, organized bullying that leads to suicides and depressions, complete annihilation of lives of regular teenagers and famous scientists alike. The discussion of transgression for transgression’s sake is great. When one considers the inter-war and post-WWII origins of the proliferation of “transgressive” politics or what I call “Nietzschean left”, the turn of events become even more remarkable. A remnant of the transgressive left politics of 1960s, actually 1968, how transgression and cynicism is weaponized by the extreme-right vanguard (in the base, only a fierce anti-PC sentiment is prevalent) seems more contingent than it is a necessary trait of this line of thought. The turn of events looks like it resulted because of numerous failures of the Left. Nagle argues that the pain, suffering and victimhood-affirming culture of Tumblr-liberalism is one of these reasons for the failure and I think she is right. “Kony 2012” videos among others comes to mind in this rush to collect “virtue points” in this scarcity of virtue market on the Web. Also, the intra-left purge and exclusion of the critics of this self-pleasing activities is another example (Nagle gives the example of Mark Fisher who sadly committed suicide this year). One other aspect of the failures of the left in my opinion is how the Left overlooked the realm of Desire that is almost necessarily not satisfied in our contemporary societies. Nagle discusses the frustrated sexuality of the regular young male today and it is a legitimate discussion insofar that it makes up a portion of the frustrated young male who is not politicized until he is pushed towards the misogynistic underbelly of the Web which is again, not necessarily Nazi, but a couple of steps away from it at best. Desire, in this case, is also a desire for the commodity, of course, which also necessarily dissatisfies. When you have the means to buy a given commodity, it fails to restore a sense of satisfaction but rather perpetuates it even further. When you are not able to buy it, well, in an intuitive fashion, you are dissatisfied in a world of instant satisfaction, pornographic images and incessant advertisements. The left’s complete immersion and self-satisfaction with identity politics (LGBT and the alphabet goes on as Zizek was lambasted by critics from the Left when he criticized some of the aspects of the politics of gender in a recent article debate, you can Google it) leaves the room for this new brand of extreme right to tap into the frustration and insecurities of the young male. The weird question to be asked is then how to answer such an effective version of “Gramscian” right who successfully waged a cultural war against the cultural Marxism? (this is an incredibly effectively misnomer as the war is waged on politically correct liberalism) Nagle doesn’t shy way from the question in an equally strong conclusion chapter. She claims that “trolling the troll” is not effective. One should definitively leave the trenches of privilege-checking, victimhood-loving trenches of identitarian politics for a start. Staunchly anti-xenophobic and also positively built left populism might be one of the answers. “Chocolate eating-vibrator waving” (in Nina Power’s immortal words), consumer-friendly feminism of Lena Dunham did not help Hillary much as one can see. Another question to be asked could be if a newly reinvigorated left aesthetics is possible along the lines of Guy Debord, Beatniks and others or the 1960s wave of transgressive left-wing aesthetics is completely compromised by the alt-Right. While the economic (what Nagle calls “materialist”) left has never been in a complete alliance with the anti-authoritarian aesthetics of the 1960s, it is a question that should be re-asked again. ~ Baglan Deniz, Reviewer at Koç University, Istanbul (NetGalley)

Just so there’s no mucking about, let me say up front that it is a rare and fleeting pleasure to read Angela Nagle. She is delightfully well read, distills the nonsense of the world calmly and directly, never loses her dispassionate center, and doesn’t descend into pop culture citations. She is effortlessly authoritative. Would there were more like her. In Kill All Normies, things online have gone unaccountably negative. The internet was supposed to be a giant uplifting community party. Instead, it is a morass of trolls, alt-right, and out and out hatred, from racists to neonazis to feminazis. Even the arts have turned negative, and to criticize them as such just makes you outmoded – and subject to vicious threats. “The whole online sensibility is more in the spirit of foul-mouthed comment-thread trolls than it is of bible study, more Fight Club than family values, more in line with the Marquis de Sade than Edmund Burke. “ Her criticism of her own generation stings. They “come from an utterly intellectual shut-down world of Tumblr and trigger warnings, and the purging of dissent in which they have only learned to recite jargon.” They couldn’t even debate the hollow showman Milo Yiannopoulos; they could only prevent him speaking. We are approaching anarchy. The right is at least as fractured and disorganized as the left. There is no longer any typical or classical right; every individual colors it their own way. So despite Republicans’ control of all the levels of government, they continue to fight amongst themselves and make no headway in their agenda. Because they can’t even agree on the agenda. Nagle takes an entire chapter to deconstruct the character Milo Yiannopoulos, who embodies all the contradictions in one neat package. The feeling you’re left with is that barriers to entry need to at least exist. Today, the internet offers equal time and space to every flavor of hate and ignorance going. Nagle doesn’t go far enough. Unsaid is that all of her characters have one thing in common: a tiny bit of power. It is easier to wield negative power than positive power, so they armchair jockey hatred, and laugh at their own cruelty. It is ignorant and outrageous, and that is the whole point. It is a deadly combination of too much time and too little future. The other thing unsaid is that it is infinitesimal. Almost none of the characters has real fame, much less popularity or value. They are their own audience, insignificant in the scheme of things. The occasional Milo is a shooting star than soon fades to black. I look forward to Nagle leveraging her talents into a deeper examination of a heavier issue. This is a terrific intro. ~ David Wineberg, NetGalley

I was expecting to be interested in this, but I didn't expect to be so impressed by it. Angela Nagle writes so even-handedly and with such a fair critical eye about recent iterations of disruptive political groupings on both the right and left. On the right is the now-notorious alt-right, divided between the 'alt-light', typified by meme-making/gleefully antagonistic trolling/use of 4chan-derived argot, and the more genuinely fascistic tendencies often masked by the headline-grabbing behaviour of alt-light figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos. On the left is what Nagle sometimes refers to as 'Tumblr-liberalism', the extremely performative culture of calling-out, victimhood and competitive identity politics that seems driven by (and here I will quote Nagle quoting the late Mark Fisher, as it couldn't be paraphrased any more perfectly) 'a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd'. Nagle draws a line through history from the 'culture wars' of the 1960s to those of today, arguing that the transgressive, countercultural spirit historically embodied by the anti-establishment left has been sublimated much more effectively by the modern right. She also undertakes an in-depth (though concise) review of the many, many factions of what is often sweepingly referred to as the alt-right, from 'chan culture' to the alternately pathetic and terrifying 'manosphere'. Not only is this pretty fascinating in itself, it also brings to light the serious theoretical and academic roots of certain strands of this movement – something often ignored by liberal pundits who concentrate instead on clutching their pearls at the outrageous antics of high-profile figures like Milo and Alex Jones. The idea of a handful of demagogues and professional trolls riling up people who essentially don't understand politics has been a common theme (deployed with varying levels of sensitivity) in analysis of the Trump and Brexit victories; Nagle's study shows this to be dangerously reductive. Kill All Normies is an accessible but unpatronising study, perfectly balancing academic critique, political commentary and assured, intelligent, non-embarrassing writing about the internet and its unique subcultures. It is so refreshing to read something like this, that comes at the topic from a left-leaning perspective but refuses to toe the line with regards to the frustrating, ever-shifting rules of engagement that now seem to define online discourse. The version I read had some typos and needed a bit of tightening up from an editorial perspective, but it was a review copy. And that is genuinely my only criticism. Somehow Nagle also manages to write a conclusion that tears everyone a new arsehole AND ends on a contemplative note. I thought I knew quite a bit about this topic already, but I learned so much from this book, particularly about the historical context of these movements. Thoroughly and enthusiastically recommended to anyone with an interest in the current political climate as it manifests in online culture. ~ Blair Rose Hartley, GoodReads

Excellent study of the alarming rise of the 'alt-right' movement treating the subject with the scholarly care and attention that it (unfortunately) deserves in respect to its influence on the current political climate. Very readable and sobering, especially in respect to the complete failure of the left to respond to the challenges raised in any meaningful way. ~ Ben Hart, NetGalley

Excellent study of the alarming rise of the 'alt-right' movement treating the subject with the scholarly care and attention that it (unfortunately) deserves in respect to its influence on the current political climate. Very readable and sobering, especially in respect to the complete failure of the left to respond to the challenges raised in any meaningful way. ~ Ben Hart, NetGalley

Angela Nagle is one of the few writers anywhere who has consistently refused to hold a double standard for virulent racism and misogyny even when it came in edgy countercultural packaging. Kill All Normies is a brilliant exposé of the new faces of online nihilism and fascism, which can no longer be explained away as doing it “for the lulz”. ~ David Golumbia, author of The Politics of Bitcoin: Software as Right-Wing Extremism

Amidst the chaos of our times, it is a relief to have a brilliant and fearless critic like Angela Nagle to turn to. Unwilling to stomach the liberal shibboleths that fail to adequately explain the emergence and significance of right-wing subculture, she's the only one willing to descend into the grimiest of Internet grottos and give us the benefit of her incisive and cool-headed analysis. ~ Amber A'Lee Frost, Chapo Trap House

With a liberal left dangerously lost in the stormy waters of middle class self-flagellation, Angela Nagle is the lighthouse keeper showing us the way out. Her writing is unsparing in its diagnosis but never cruel. Unlike much of the Left who've grown far too accustomed to marginalization and defeat, Nagle still believes in politics as the only way of changing an increasingly brutal world. She is the writer and social critic I've been waiting for. ~ Connor Kilpatrick, Jacobin magazine

Angela Nagle
Angela Nagle Angela Nagle's work has appeared in the Baffler, Jacobin, Current Affairs, the Irish Times and many other journals. Since completing her PhD...

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