Politics as Identity

 /  Feb. 4, 2018, 4:13 p.m.


Over the past year or so, Angela Nagle has emerged as one of the more serious and helpful writers on the alt-right beat. Her book Kill All Normies, published in June 2017 by the leftist British imprint Zer0 Books, is a guide for the perplexed that neither minimizes nor exaggerates the movement’s influence. Zer0 appears to be a bit of a shoestring operation, and Kill All Normies is disastrously underedited; incomplete sentences abound, there seem to be half a dozen copy errors on every page, and the book is not very well organized. Nevertheless, Nagle’s research is thorough and to the point, and as a young, connected leftist she is in a much better position to write about the alt-right than the older and more centrist writers who dominate the journalistic establishment.

For most American political journalists, the world of politics consisted until quite recently in debates among right-liberal and left-liberal elites. But Nagle is part of the internet milieu around a new set of left-of-the-Democratic Party cultural organs like the magazines Jacobin, The Baffler, and Current Affairs and the podcast Chapo Trap House, and thus has a familiarity with new political modes that many mainstream alt-right commenters lack.

For it is the terribly strange truth that today, on the left and the right alike, great ideological battles are being fought, converts won and lost, and alliances formed and broken not only on the internet but in the internet’s painfully juvenile idioms. The political movements of a less ironic age named themselves after Spartacus, Cincinnatus, or Fabius Maximus; the alt-right has taken as its mascot Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character who isn’t even so much offensive as just kind of weird and gross. Slang terms from online role-playing games become rallying cries for new factions. Operatives conceal their meaning beneath layer upon layer of esoteric half-irony. The whole business feels terribly unserious, and the most interesting and helpful aspect of Kill All Normies is Nagle’s description and analysis of the carnival quality of the alt-right, its insistent self-conception as the last refuge of mirth and lightness in a hyper-moralized and self-serious political culture.

But Nagle makes it pretty clear that although the basement-dwellers of 4chan’s /b/ board tell themselves and one another that everything is a joke, no one, least of all them, is really in it for laughs. The men of the new order cut pitiful figures. They are the angry and intensely self-conscious losers of what they see as a darwinian battle for sex in a post-marriage world. They are also, she argues, the inheritors of the 60s culture of transgression, which valorized the shocking and the disgusting as means of resistance against a hegemonic bourgeois order. The great founding revelation of the alt-right, repeated by everyone from the neoreactionary sophist Curtis Yarvin to the Infowars correspondent Paul Joseph Watson, is that transgressive liberalism, in which everything is permitted except violations of the autonomy of others, has become bourgeois morality. That leaves the autonomy of others as the last frontier to be transgressed.

In other words, alt-righters aren’t online for fun: they’re trying to make a place for themselves in a society that has rejected them and the pursuits they think are worthwhile. Sometimes that means sharing bizarre advice on how to get laid; sometimes it means rejecting women altogether and seeking fraternal male companionship; but most of all it seems to mean politics.

That Reddit, 4chan, and the manosphere have turned from jokey forums for advice and pornography into ideological organs seems odd but is ultimately unsurprising. For a couple of centuries now, economic and social liberalism has been at work undermining and delegitimizing every human commitment that is not autonomously chosen. Family, city, region, language, nation: the liberal order and its enforcers attack all of these characteristics as parochial and contingent, sources of bigotry rather than meaning. Extended families break up, regions are homogenized, the whole world learns to speak English, and capital and human beings circulate freely from nation to nation and continent to continent. Perhaps liberals are right that the old commitments only made us hate one another, and that’s it’s ultimately for the best if they are abolished.

But human beings are identity-desiring creatures, and as our former sources of identity disappear it becomes more and more difficult for us to define ourselves as anything more than human beings simply. Religion looks like an autonomously chosen commitment on its face, but as Michael Sandel and others have argued, proceduralist liberalism only tolerates religion as long as it does not place any overruling commitments on the self. In any case, binding religious commitments seem simply implausible to many people in late modernity, and they have to be believed in if they are to mean anything.

What’s left to us, then, are political groupings. Such groups are intimate and urgent; they are sources of great loves and great hates; and they at least seem to be freely chosen by their members. They are embraced with religious fervor, but they do not require faith in unseen gods. And in the information age, political bonds can be developed and shared by complete strangers, even strangers who have never seen one another’s faces.

It is instructive to draw a formal comparison between the alt-right and the Reaganite fusionist conservatism that it wants to replace. Reaganism emerged because a group of American elites came to believe that they and their countrymen would be happier and more prosperous if the government instituted laissez-faire economic policies and restrictive social policies. Under the economic and social conditions of the late 70s, they were able to persuade a large part of the electorate that such policies were in their interest. That is, the politics of the Reaganites emerged out of a set of philosophical commitments that they held in common and that they then entered the political sphere to pursue.

The alt-right, on the contrary, doesn’t have an ideology—only a politics. As Nagle tells it, the online alt-right sprang from a set of loosely organized online communities, notably 4chan’s /b/ and /pol/ boards. These communities became strangely close, using ironic and continually changing shibboleths to identify and exclude normie outsiders. The more in-jokes they developed, the tighter and more meaningful the bonds among their members must have become. In other words, the boards were communities in which developing social capital was an end in itself. The trouble is that social capital is virtually never developed as an end in itself; as Robert Putnam has argued, it nearly always emerges as a byproduct of collective action for the sake of a common goal. The new men of 4chan must have realized that there was immense power in the community they had built, and that this power would dissipate if it continued to go unused. Strong communities exist for the sake of common projects; they needed to find a common project if they wanted their newly discovered power to endure.

Gamergate, which Nagle identifies as the decisive event in the emergence of the new political sensibility, seems to have showed them what that might look like. The controversy, which was too complex and distasteful to summarize here, provided the occasion for 4channers and others to engage in a series of horrifying, coordinated online attacks on semi-public figures who had angered them. Suddenly the seething masses of /b/ were fighting together for something—or, to be more precise, against something. They attracted international media attention, and they managed to provoke several police actions and frighten at least one of their targets into leaving her home.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign provided them with their next project. It seems immensely unlikely that any substantial proportion of the young, secular, libertarian-tending nerds of the alt-right had any special interest in Trump’s brand of economic nationalism and law-and-order social conservatism before 2015. But Trump was weird and universally detested by polite company, and that was enough for them. 4chan threw itself into politics, and the rest is history.

In contrast to the Reaganite right, then, the alt-right started as a social group without any substantial projects in common. It developed a politics not in order to pursue a set of pre-existing aims, but out of simple boredom. Its members, lacking a coherent identity, created one for themselves by taking up an arbitrary position on the political spectrum. They seem to have defined the content of their ideology exclusively by what normies found offensive. But this politics built on nothing had real material consequences. The online alt-right became a network of highly committed, coordinated Trump partisans who created propaganda and encouraged one another and probably others to vote. Obviously Trump’s online fanbase was only one factor among many in his victory. Nevertheless, it’s terribly strange to see people for whom ideology originates purely an identity marker have a real effect in the world of material objects and material need.

In his 1998 book A Place for Us, the late Benjamin Barber argued that automation in industry could usher in a new golden age of democratic politics. The participatory democracy of ancient Athens was made possible by slave labor; if the robots can do all our work for us, then it might be possible to institute new and universally inclusive democratic political forms. But the rise of ideology as identity suggests that for the moment, at least, such a future is more to be feared than desired. Human collectivities from the village to the nation-state have always been organized as communities of production and consumption. Barber may be right that with material needs secured we could all turn to the work of politics. But if, under a perfect system of administration of material goods, the old common needs that bind us together disappear, we could see the emergence of a politics that exists as an end in itself rather than as a means for securing our welfare. Automation could free us from our ancient bondage to the material world and give us access to a new sphere of pure political thought unmotivated by any shared material interest. And that, as our current online culture wars suggest, might be just about the worst thing that could happen.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons license. The original can be found here.

Malloy Owen

Malloy Owen is a fourth-year in Fundamentals and philosophy. He wrote his Fundamentals junior paper on the political theology of Plato’s Laws and is currently working on a BA essay about Kierkegaard’s uses of the Kantian concept of autonomy. He has interned at The American Conservative magazine and spent last summer teaching high school students in the Great Books Summer Program at Stanford University. On campus, he is the publicity chair of UChicago Students for Life.