It’s not until I sit through An Entertaining Evening With Nigel Farage in Melbourne that I realise he’s not just a seven-times failed UK parliamentary candidate, but a bona fide YouTube star. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without YouTube,” Farage tells his audience of young men. Men who, when I ask, what do you think of Nigel Farage, say: “He’s an absolute legend.” Or: “He’s the dog’s bollocks.”
How did you come across him, I ask, Alex, a programmer who lives locally? “On YouTube. I was watching a Jordan Peterson video. He was recommended to me.”
I watch the speeches. They have titles like “Who the Hell [sic] You Think You Are? Nigel Farage throws egg in Eurocrat faces.” And “Can’t Barrage the Farrage [sic].” They’ve been viewed millions upon millions of times.
Richard Corbett, the leader of the Labour party in the European parliament, explains how it works. “Farage turns up once a month and often what he talks about has absolutely nothing to do with what’s being discussed. You think, what’s going on? And then you realise it’s got nothing to do with the parliament. It’s just for his social media output. Sometimes he doesn’t even hang around for the answers. Two minutes later, he’s back on the Eurostar and gone.” (Statistics for voting and attendances show Farage is ranked 738th out of 751 MEPs for productivity.)
Robinson is set to visit Australia in December for a five-city speaking tour with the Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes. The pair call themselves The Deplorables, a reference to Hillary Clinton’s name for some of Donald Trump’s supporters. On the website advertising the speaking tour, Robinson describes himself as an “independent journalist, political activist, author, and man of the British people”. Tickets for the events cost are priced at between $85 and $995.
How many speaker tours like this are taking place? How much money is being generated by them? Are there service companies which assist in putting them together? How well do tickets for them sell? Who goes to these events and what motivates them? How much is driven by entertainment and how much is (costly) political participation? Do these events change the behaviour or attitudes of those involved? There are lots of questions here and if anyone knows of attempted answers, I’d love to read them.
In the conclusion to Alt-America, David Neiwert indites liberalism for its contribution to the circumstances within which Trumpism has emerged. These are circumstances within which, as he puts it on loc 5859, Trump “is simultaneously responding to and creating the conditions that could easily lead to the genuine growth of fascism”. From loc 5981-6001, he takes aim at the smugness of contemporary liberalism:
modern liberalism as a social force is weighed down by its most consistent flaw: an overweening belief in its own moral superiority, its heroism, as it were. (Not, of course, that conservatives are any better in this regard; if one factors in the religious right and the “moral values” vote, they are objectively worse.) This tendency becomes especially noticeable in urban liberal societies, which for all their enlightenment and love of tolerance are maddeningly smug, intolerant of the “ignorance” of their rural and “fly-over country” counterparts. It’s not an omnipresent attitude, but it is pervasive enough that others’ perceptions of it are certainly not without basis. There’s a similar stigma attached to religious beliefs as well, especially among more secular liberals, and that in turn has given birth to a predictable counterreaction that is only partially a result of misunderstanding.
We might add that this sense of superiority is entrenched by an epistemic confusion. Liberalism understands itself as uniquely tolerant because it offers equal freedom for the pursuit of different conceptions of the good. But it does so on the assumption these are mere conceptions, unlike liberal principles themselves which deserve to be treated as unquestioned rules of the game. The ‘right’ may indeed be prior to the ‘good’ but this is something argued for by liberals committed to a conception of the good. When they deny their own role within the political, it negates antagonism at a symbolic level while inscribing their own principles as hegemonic. This is the context within which the break-through of ‘alt-america’ can come to acquire such force.
For a book of only 126 pages, Kill All Normies covers a remarkable amount of ground. Inevitably, the argument is underdeveloped at points and it perhaps offers less empirical detail about the alt-right than it promises, largely restricting its analysis to the study of (relatively) high profile cases and the inferences that can be made from them. But the underlying thesis is a provocative one, moving beyond the hyper-specificity of online culture and placing these politicised developments in an historical context.
Nagle’s argument is that the alt-right should be understood as an online politics of transgression, a cultural movement which has generated a political upheaval through a particular confluence of circumstances: internecine war with the ‘Tumblr left’, interaction with a more traditionally politicised far-right culture within online spaces and platform dynamics which have accelerated the development of this strange cultural mix. But at the root of it is an uncoupling of transgression from progressive politics. From pg 28:
Transgression has been embraced as a virtue within Western social liberalism ever since the 60s, typically applied today as it is in bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress. So elevated has the virtue of transgression become in the criticism of art, argued Kieran Cashell, that contemporary art critics have been faced with a challenge: ‘either support transgression unconditionally or condemn the tendency and risk obsolescence amid suspicions of critical conservatism’ as the great art critic Robert Hughes often was. But, Cashell wrote, on the value placed upon transgression in contemporary art: ‘In the pursuit of the irrational, art has become negative, nasty and nihilistic.’ Literary critic Anthony Julius has also noted the resulting ‘unreflective contemporary endorsement of the transgressive’.
Those who claim that the new right-wing sensibility online today is just more of the same old right, undeserving of attention or differentiation, are wrong. Although it is constantly changing, in this important early stage of its appeal, its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against. It has more in common with the 1968 left’s slogan ‘It is forbidden to forbid!’ than it does with anything most recognize as part of any traditionalist right.
Her claim is that the association of transgression with the left has been predominately contingent, reflecting a past context in which new social movements organised against a broader culture which participants found stifling. We can see this in the “ease with which the broader alt-right and alt-light milieu can use transgressive styles” (pg 28) and the power incipient within the “new transgressive rightist sensibility” which has now begun to make itself felt politically (pg 33). While the transgressive sensibility strikes me as an inarguable feature of some of the cultural forms being subsumed under the category of ‘alt-right’, it is by no means true of all, though perhaps this points to the limitations of the category. There’s a straight-forward empirical question here but one tied in fascinating ways to a much broader array of emerging issues in political theory, political philosophy and progressive politics.
Towards the end of Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle discusses the chilling effect liable to ensue from the online harassment which journalists critical of the alt-right often now find themselves subject to. From pg 118:
Multiple journalists and citizens have described in horrifying detail the attacks and threats against those who criticize Trump or figures of the online Trumpian right, especially if the critic is female, black or Jewish, but also if they’re a ‘cuckservative’. They now have the ability to send thousands of the most obsessed, unhinged and angry people on the Internet after someone if they dare to speak against the president or his prominent alt-light and alt-right fans. Although the mainstream media is still quite anti-Trump, it would be naïve to think this isn’t going to result in a chilling of critical thought and speech in the coming years, as fewer and fewer may have the stomach for it.
Perhaps I’m being a pedant but I found myself frustrated by the phrase “ability to send” here. I’m not denying this possibility, in fact I’m fascinated by what I’ve come to think of as ‘shadow mobilisation‘, but it’s not obvious to me this is what happens here. There clearly isn’t anything approaching a command-and-control dynamic, something which I think Nagle wouldn’t dispute, hence we need to be careful about how we characterise the co-ordination and coercion which operates in different cases. I’ve rarely encountered an issue for which empirical research seemed so politically urgent.
A fascinating Jacob article about the roots of contemporary alt-right racism in mainstream elite discourse in Conservative America: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/12/richard-spencer-alt-right-dallas-texas/
Reading the excellent Selected Exaggerations, a book of interviews with Peter Sloterdijk, I was struck by his remarks about taxation and the state in an interview from 2001. He bemoans the punitive taxation he claims exists in Germany, arguing that it reflects a broader domination of society by the state. German citizens are “punished for success” and the trust society is based on gradually finds itself eroded. On loc 1798-1813 he goes on to call for a ‘social movement of entrepreneurs’:
SLOTERDIJK: Precisely. There are countless areas of redistribution that could be organized much more intelligently and efficiently by alternative means. I am thinking of unemployment benefits, of the whole welfare state that should be organized more in terms of incentives, much more in terms of entrepreneurship and less in terms of the consumer state.
METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: Are you saying that entrepreneurial thinking is supposed to save the welfare state?
SLOTERDIJK: Yes, entrepreneurs will raise the banners of hope again. Without a movement of entrepreneurs, as there was once a workers’ movement, the economy can no longer explain itself adequately to society.
METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: And what will be written on the banners?
SLOTERDIJK: ‘Entrepreneurs of the world, unite’ –what else? At the moment only entrepreneurs can convincingly represent the interests of the industries and services that produce the hardware, that is, the real value of productive industry, against the phantom superstructure of speculative finance economy. Only an entrepreneurs’ movement can act in the anti-capitalist way that is needed now. It is time for entrepreneurial anti-capitalism.
METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: The entrepreneur as alternative to the distorted picture of globalization, of the anonymous flow of money around the globe?
SLOTERDIJK: Entrepreneurs must show that an operative economy, not the dictatorship of the lottery bosses, is the foundation of the market economy. Entrepreneurs are the social democracy of tomorrow.
METHFESSEL/ RAMTHUN: Are you serious?
SLOTERDIJK: Of course. At the moment entrepreneurs may describe themselves in neoliberal terms, but this is becoming increasingly false as the years go by, because in the end they can only justify themselves as producers of the net value that serves the other side of redistribution.
It’s a fascinating interview, filled with remarks I object to deeply. What struck me was the parallel to the themes (though not their articulation) of the contemporary populist right, both in the US and the UK. The awkward combination of populism and capital, fulminating against the 47% while framing it as a progressive revolt in the universal interests against a overweaning state captured by dependents. Genealogically speaking, it’s obvious that Sloterdijk was not a progenitor of the Anglo-American populist right. But philosophically speaking, it’s perhaps meaningful to suggest that he was. At least in so far as what he’s doing here can be classified as philosophy, though that’s perhaps a topic for another post.
From Rethinking Social Exclusion, by Simon Winlow and Steve Hall, pg 73:
Political protests these days are taken not as an indication that something is going wrong and that a significant number of the population are dissatisfied with the nation’s political leadership. Rather, they seem to indicate that a healthy and vibrant democracy is in place, one that welcomes political contestation and vigorous public debate about government policy. ‘Look at the wonderful world liberalism has created!’, our politicians proclaim. ‘Political protests like this would never be tolerated in a non-democratic totalitarian regime!’ Of course, when the demonstration is complete, nothing has changed. The political protest ends up continuing only for a short time as an online blog or a Twitter post, offering nothing more than a cathartic opportunity to vent one’s spleen accompanied by the sad recognition that in all likelihood no one is listening, and no one really cares. It is also worth considering whether the peaceful protest now offers nothing more than an opportunity for the protestor to relinquish their subjective sense of duty to battle injustice. Once the protest is complete, and the world continues unchanged, the subject is allowed the comfort of having registered her dissatisfaction; whatever happens, it does so ‘not in my name’.
It’s this line I’ve put in bold which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. How much of what is seen to be ‘trolling’ online represents a frustrated, even mutulated, impulse towards collective action?
In a way Winlow and Hall are too rosey in their framing here, positioning the pseudo-catharsis of social media as something that follows from the frustrations of contemporary public protest. What about when there is no prior collectivity, however frustrating and frustrated? What does the individualised rage we see seeking satisfaction through social media mean for the possibility of collectivity in the future?
What about the experience of mediated collectivity: how does a symbolic sense of ‘us’, others like oneself seeking outlets for ‘our’ rage, leave what might otherwise possibly become a solidaristic impulse locked into this destructive register?
They make a similar point with other co-authors in Riots and Political Protest. From pg 164:
If the remaining logic is simply that the protest enables pissed-off individuals to cathartically release their pent-up frustration and momentarily draw strength from being around others who feel the same way, before returning to their lives to again be subject to the same objective causes of their frustration, then we can begin to see the limitations that have been imposed upon democratic political protest.