Reviewed by Joan Braune
Angela Nagle’s and Alexander Reid Ross’s methods and diagnoses differ, but both authors share a repugnance for the right, and both seek to help the left by warning about the neo-fascist right’s appropriation of left ideas and tactics. Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies is a fast-paced, provocative cultural commentary on the forces that gave rise to today’s U.S. far-right, focusing on the role of the internet. Alexander Reid Ross’s Against the Fascist Creep is a detailed, carefully annotated history of fascist attempts to infiltrate the left.
In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle explores the convergence of bullies and far-right activists on the websites 4chan and Reddit and the excesses of liberal identity politics and “call-out culture” on the website Tumblr. As Nagle notes many progressives were initially hopeful about transgressive hacker cultures and “leaderless” internet-based revolutions. Yet, as she also points out, the culture of internet “insiders” is not inherently leftist and has spawned a troll army that has extended offline into a hateful, violent far-right movement. (Gratitude is owed for Nagle’s years of probably painful research in some of the smarmiest — racist, sexist, explicitly violent, nihilistic — niches of the internet.)
Nagle traces the shift in United States conservatism from the idea of a “silent majority” tied to traditional values, to a counter-cultural, hipster right-wing celebrating “transgression” and rebellion. In contrast to the famed debate of the 1960s that counter-posed the restrained conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. to the transgressive liberal Gore Vidal, today’s U.S. far-right looks more like Vidal than Buckley. While in the 1960s cultural change was the province of the left, today the far-right emphasizes culture over traditional politics.
As Nagle astutely points out, the new internet-dwelling hipster far-right is fraught with contradictions. These are populists in love with hierarchy, social Darwinism, and a reactionary elitism inspired by their reading of Nietzsche. They complain about decadence while wallowing in decadence. They are political activists who claim to be comedic performance artists, and their messages are presented in an “online style that hides itself from interpretation through a postmodern tonal distance” (26). They are bullies claiming to be defenders of the victims of “political correctness.” They are advocates of tradition, while their tactics revolve around absolute license.
According to Nagle, the new far-right is partly a response to failures of the left. Nagle argues that the left’s online obsession with identity politics and call-out culture “has made the left a laughing stock for a whole new generation” (117) and has shut down debate with opponents, empowering right-wing figures like Milo who claim to be defenders of free speech. She praises Mark Fisher’s 2013 article “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” which argued that class consciousness was being inhibited by a culture of well-off outraged liberals he called “the Vampires’ Castle.” Fisher wrote:
The Vampires’ Castle specialises in propagating guilt. It is driven by 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. The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if…one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements (Fischer’s italics).
Like Fisher, Nagle writes that the left is being set back by a “mixture of performative vulnerability, self-righteous wokeness, and bullying,” self-flagellation, and competition for the “currency” of appearing righteous (74-77).
I have principally three critiques of Nagle’s book.
First, the pathologies of the left do not have the explanatory power Nagle ascribes to them. Her internal critique of the left’s excesses is not wholly unwarranted, but perhaps could use more caveats than she offers, since much of the left discourse that the right condemns as excessively “politically correct,” is reasonable and the positive outcome of movements by marginalized groups. More to the point, although she is right that clickbait articles like “8 Signs Your Yoga Practice is Culturally Appropriated” may be superficial and may even drive some people on a search for meaning that does not land them on the left, it is insufficiently existential-scream-inducing as to provoke a neo-Nazi renaissance or misogynistic mass shooters. When the fascists provide their own genealogical narrative for rhetorical purposes, claiming that they are simply cultural transgressors reacting against liberal censorship, she takes them too much at their word. Over-the-top sensitivity on the left is better seen not as a major causal factor in the rise of the far-right, but more as a tool used by the far-right to advertise its supposed relevance and to mock and distract the left.
Secondly, Nagle adopts the right’s critique of left “virtue signaling” uncritically. The term “virtue signaling” was coined by conservative British writer James Bartholomew in a 2015 article for The Spectator. Bartholomew pointed to a growing inclination to show off by expressing moral outrage. He had a point – it is better to be good than to appear good – but he failed to distinguish moral posturing from legitimate ethical concerns. His examples of virtue signaling ran the gamut from Whole Foods advertisements (moral posturing) to calls to raise the minimum wage or calling Nigel Farage racist (legitimate ethical concerns). The term “virtue signaling” is now frequently used by the right, including Breitbart, to dismiss ethical concerns. For example, when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg expressed support for Muslims facing prejudice, Breitbart considered that “virtue signaling.”
4chan’s and Reddit’s worst users will never be accused of virtue signaling, because they care about neither virtue nor sincerity in expressing it. However, the fact that the left is more sincerely virtuous than meme-making, Nazi-saluting trolls, means that Nagle may be correct when she suggests that it is time for the left to abandon an aesthetic of “transgression.” As the right’s bullying “joking” unfortunately forces the left to seem like dour-faced party-poopers, interpreting all jokes in the most literal manner possible, we may have to sacrifice ownership of our image as cultural transgressors. It is more important to accurately assess the risks and opportunities of the present, than it is to be snarky and “in the know.”
My third and final concern about Nagle’s analysis is related to why Alexander Reid Ross’s book Against the Fascist Creep is so important. Since Nagle compares and contrasts the present with dominant cultural trends of the 1950s and 1960s, instead of the 1920s, the alt-right/alt-lite can appear deceptively original. Comparing Milo Yiannopolous to Pat Buchanan, as Nagle does, can make Milo appear like a new breed of conservative (flashy, joking about his sexual exploits, etc.), or even a new kind of hippie. But rewind to the 1920s, and he seems unoriginal and more like a traditional proto-fascist. 2016 is not the first time the right has tried to be transgressive and avant-garde.
Alexander Reid Ross’s book Against the Fascist Creep offers wider historical background than Nagle’s book. All major fascist organizations in the U.S. and Europe from the early twentieth century to the present seem to be addressed in Ross’s book, with emphasis on fascists’ attempts to recruit from the left or to present themselves as left, as well as fascists’ occasional tendency to confuse themselves into thinking they are leftists or that they transcend political categories.
Ross’s exploration of fascist “entryism” (attempting to infiltrate and capture the left) includes fascist folk bands, pagan and occult religious groups with fascist ties, entryism in environmental organizations to promote eugenics or racialized deep ecologies, and entryism in the anti-globalization movement (which fascists have been trying to rebrand as an “anti-globalism” movement, opposing multiculturalism instead of capitalism). Ross introduces readers to fascists operating a counter-cultural squatter community in Italy called CasaPound (named after fascist poet Ezra Pound). He shows the founder of Greece’s fascist Golden Dawn party calling himself a Nazi and an anarchist in practically the same sentence. He discusses British “National Anarchist” fascist Troy Southgate, a partisan of “blood and soil” ecology who dabbles in occultism and paganism, inviting environmental activists to a confusing “Anarchist Heretics Fair.”
Against the Fascist Creep does not induce paranoia that fascists are lurking everywhere around the left, nor does it advance a horseshoe theory according to which the extremes of the political spectrum are similar to one another. “Fascist creep” occurs because of fascism’s nature and fascism’s strategy and tactics, not because the left has some inherently fascist side.
Proceeding chronologically, Ross begins by examining such figures as Maurice Barrès; the white supremacist theorist friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Madison Grant; Max Stirner and Friedrich Nietzsche; Georges Sorrel and Benedetto Croce; and the “integral nationalism” of Charles Maurras. He even devotes a chapter to Julius Evola and similar occultist and neo-pagan fascists, including Savitri Devi (who influenced right-wing Hindu nationalism). Most of the book is devoted to post-World War II fascist movements, including Third Positionism (neo-Nazis claiming to belong to a syndicalist tradition within Nazism that was targeted by Hitler on the Night of the Long Knives); the Gramsci-reading French New Right (Nouvelle Droite) and the related neo-fascist anti-immigrant European Identitarian movement; fascist “National Bolshevism” and Aleksandr Dugin in Russia; and fascists involved on multiple sides of conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and more recently in the Ukraine.
Now fascism creep is even in the White House, Ross seems to suggest, in the form of White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who edited Breitbart and was influential in the Tea Party.
At one time declaring himself a Leninist who sought the destruction of the federal government, Breitbart’s former chief Steve Bannon maintained the Tea Party line criticizing “state capitalism” and parasitic elites while positioning Christian values at the fore of productive capital and national unity, as opposed to radical Islam and undocumented citizens (277).
That one of the most important positions in the U.S. presidential cabinet is occupied by someone like Bannon makes it urgent that the left be aware of the phenomenon of fascist creep.
Ross’s book occasionally discusses left resistance, including the Antifa movement, which has played a role in some recent skirmishes, including one in Berkeley resulting in cancelation of Milo Yiannopoulos’s talk. Ross does not believe that silencing far-right figures empowers them or makes the left too extreme. While Angela Nagle concludes Kill All Normies with a concern about what the skirmish in Berkeley might mean for the future of a left that she sees as censorship-obsessed and unable to engage in debate, Ross presumably sees that day as a victory for the left. Although there are debates to be had about the morality and effectiveness of some tactics, liberal hand-wringing about left “censorship” and the newly concocted term “the alt-left” (militant leftists who are painted as being equally bad or worse than actual Nazis by liberals and the mainstream media), surely miss the mark.
As fascists are rebranding themselves as “alt-right” and being normalized by the media and Trump administration, Ross’s book is a crucial reminder that fascists (as long as they stay fascists) are never potential allies for the left. When Richard Spencer and his cronies hold rallies against bombing Syria, for example, they are neither complex nor original; they are just fascists doing what fascists always do (creeping).
Fascist ideology “has no grounding in history or reality,” Ross writes in his conclusion; fascism is based on false ideas and inflated egos masking an inner emptiness. “The germination of fascism requires mass glorification of absurdity and the championing of meaningless cruelty” (331). He concludes that the left needs to respond with reason, hope, and action. No doubt other scholars and activists need to continue this work of reason and hope by (1) further studying the economic conditions that make fascism more likely to emerge as a “live option,” and (2) framing positive left alternatives addressing economic need and the hunger for community and meaning.
Final note: Ross and Nagle draw attention to the ways that philosophers read by some on the left, including Nietzsche, Bataille, and postmodernists, are being used by the far-right. Philosophers may want to revisit two books that seek to warn the left about the dangers of philosophical fascist creep: Richard Wolin’s The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (which Ross cites) and Georg Lukács’s The Destruction of Reason (Wolin’s title alludes to Lukács’s). The point is not that philosophers should stop reading thinkers employed by fascists or who were fascists (e.g. Heidegger). Rather, we should increase historical and political study, to read such thinkers with greater insight and to ensure that our intellectual projects with emancipatory intent are helped and not hindered.
4 August 2017