I found this review of Trump and the Media by Nicholas Carr in the LA Review of Books immensely thought-provoking. His focus is on the book’s historical contribution, contextualising the enthusiasm with which social media was greeted in terms of long term concerns about the centralisation of mass media. We can’t understand the ideal of a radically decentralised media without understanding the anxieties provoked by its initial centralisation:

Trump’s twitter stream may be without precedent, but the controversy surrounding social media’s political impact has a history stretching back nearly a century. During the 1930s, the spread of mass media was accompanied by the rise of fascism. To many observers at the time, the former helped explain the latter. By consolidating control over news and other information, radio networks, movie studios, and publishing houses enabled a single voice to address and even command the multitudes. The very structure of mass media seemed to reflect and reinforce the political structure of the authoritarian state.

It is against this backdrop that social scientists began to “imagine a decentralized, multimedia communication network that would encourage the development of a ‘democratic personality,’ providing a bulwark against fascist movements and their charismatic leaders”. Fred Turner traces these initial speculations from their originators, through the 1960s counterculture and the incipient computer industry, before it became an article of faith within present day Silicon Valley:

In the early years of this century, as the internet subsumed traditional media, the ideal became a pillar of Silicon Valley ideology. The founders of companies like Google and Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, promoted their networks as tools for overthrowing mass-media “gatekeepers” and giving individuals control over the exchange of information. They promised, as Turner writes, that social media would “allow us to present our authentic selves to one another” and connect those diverse selves into a more harmonious, pluralistic, and democratic society.

Carr frames Trump and the Media as “orbiting” around “the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy”. These are the terms in which I’ve recently tried to analyse ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’, as solutionist framings by technological, media and political elites which circumscribe a much broader set of transformations and shape likely responses to them. It’s often struck me that these represent a peculiarly populist form of reasoning in their own right: isolating an incoming element which is seen to undermine a previously stable system, whether this is ‘populism’ or ‘social media’ itself. In the process, the claims of populists and social media firms are taken at face value, vastly inflating the power they have:

One contentious question is whether social media in general and Twitter in particular actually changed the outcome of the vote. Keith N. Hampton, of Michigan State University, finds “no evidence” that any of the widely acknowledged malignancies of social media, from fake news to filter bubbles, “worked in favor of a particular presidential candidate.” Drawing on exit polls, he shows that most demographic groups voted pretty much the same in 2016 as they had in the Obama-Romney race of 2012. The one group that exhibited a large and possibly decisive shift from the Democratic to the Republican candidate were white voters without college degrees. Yet these voters, surveys reveal, are also the least likely to spend a lot of time online or to be active on social media. It’s unfair to blame Twitter or Facebook for Trump’s victory, Hampton suggests, if the swing voters weren’t on Twitter or Facebook.

This is not to say that social media doesn’t exercise influence, only to dispute the assumption that it works through one-to-many communication. The media elites bemoaning the rise of fake news and filter bubbles in the dawning post-truth age are themselves complicit in the dynamic they see as being ‘out there’:

What Hampton overlooks are the indirect effects of social media, particularly its influence on press coverage and public attention. As the University of Oxford’s Josh Cowls and Ralph Schroeder write, Trump’s Twitter account may have been monitored by only a small portion of the public, but it was followed, religiously, by journalists, pundits, and policymakers. The novelty and frequent abrasiveness of the tweets — they broke all the rules of decorum for presidential campaigns — mesmerized the chattering class throughout the primaries and the general election campaign, fueling a frenzy of retweets, replies, and hashtags. Social media’s biggest echo chamber turned out to be the traditional media elite.

What this short review suggested to me is the necessity of revisiting basic concepts (such as centralisation, gatekeepers, publics and influence) in response to the wreckage of techno-progressive orthodoxy. We need a bleak social theory for bleak times and if it doesn’t begin by examining the assumptions inherited in core concepts, as well as their implications for making sense of the present conjuncture, it is unlikely to get very far.

I came across this extract on loc 1342-1360 of Frenemies, Ken Auletta’s new book about the declining fortunes of the advertising industry, detailing an intervention made by thought leader extraordinaire Rishad Tobaccowala, chief strategist at  Publicis groupe. It was in the context of a meeting between executives from a range of agencies and Bank of America to discuss the challenging climate facing the latter:

the thoughts of soft-spoken Rishad Tobaccowala, their principal outside strategist, who she privately describes as “the smartest guy in the room.” They appear to have very different personalities. She wears oversized eyeglasses and is capable of commanding a conversation. He wears round, frameless eyeglasses and his slight frame conveys an almost professorial air, which is enhanced because he sits, Buddha-like, and does not rush to speak. In a voice so soft people craned forward or sideways, as if it would help them hear, he cautioned: “We are at the beginning of this journey.” When the bank talks about its environmental deeds, for example, it is not “a targeted, one-on-one message. It is a narrative, and it relies on emotion. Lou is right: We will know, increasingly, what people want because of their behavior. But the struggle is what does the consumer want from Bank of America. Successful companies realize we outsource the work to the customer. We do the listening and the responding. The reason Amazon in its deterministic form—or Facebook—can tell you everything is because you are creating your own bundle of what you want.” But don’t confuse a single product or purchase with what consumers want from a brand. “What Americans are asking for is, ‘Who is on my side?’ Sanders and Trump built surprising support because the message sent is: ‘They are on my side.’ If you think about a bank’s purposes, no one is as close to aligning with them as you are.”

Has anyone encountered other instances of the advertising industry explicitly invoking populists in this way? I’d be really curious to see them if so.

I’ve long been drawn to accounts of the everyday lives of politicians. This isn’t so much a matter of biographical curiosity, as much as a preoccupation with temporality. It is not that the temporal character of our lives moulds us but rather that the things which do are always inflected through temporality.

I’m convinced you can learn a lot about why someone is the way that they are through understanding how time operates in their life. There’s a really rich description of the disjointed temporality encountered by senior American politicians in Joe Klein’s novel Primary Colours, a fictionalised account of Bill Clinton’s run for president in 1992. From pg 11:

Politicians work—they do their public work, that is—when civilians don’t: mealtimes, evenings, weekends. The rest of the time, down time, is spent indoors, in hotel suites, worrying the phones, dialing for dollars, fighting over the next moves, living outside time; there are no weekdays or weekends; there is sleep but not much rest. Sometimes, and always at the oddest hours, you may break free: an afternoon movie, a midnight dinner. And there are those other, fleeting moments when your mind drifts from him, from the podium, and you fix on the father and son tossing a ball out past the back of the crowd, out in the park, and you suddenly realize, Hey, it’s Saturday; or you glance out a hotel window and spot an elderly couple walking hand in hand, still alive in each other’s mind (as opposed to merely sharing space, waiting it out). The campaign—with all its talk of destiny, crisis and mission—falls away and you remember: Other people just have lives. Their normality can seem a reproach. It hurts your eyes, like walking out of a matinee into bright sunlight. Then it passes. He screws up a line, it’s Q& A time, it’s time to move.

What is it like to live like this? How would it shape you if large swathes of your life are lived in this way? How does it influence your sense of what is normal and what is not? It’s a fictionalised account, produced by a political journalist but imputing experiences on the basis of second hand experience, leaving it accuracy a rather ambiguous matter. But it such a rich description that it’s interesting to reflect on the significance of these experiences, if accurate.

In his wonderful October: The Story of the Russian Revolution, China Miéville uses the phrase ‘epochal tetchiness’ to describe the political contribution of Russian liberals prior to 1917. Their angry, disjointed responses to events failed to influence the changes which provoked their outrage, leaving them acting frantically without consequence as they were superseded by history. While the political context couldn’t be more different, it strikes me this is a remarkably apt description of contemporary centrists in the UK and the USA.

It is a political emotion, irritability conjoined with concern, reflecting political coordinates which are disintegrating while it feels more urgent than ever to have an adequate grasp on what is going on. Understanding this political emotion is important because it plays a part in how centrists are adapting to shifting political ground, regardless of how much stress we place on it as the explanation of their actions. What does it feel like to be a self-identified centrist when the centre ground feels under threat? What does it feel like when your experienced certainties, things any fool knows, bewilderingly seem to be called into question by unpredictable events?

I’m not offering this as an explanation of contemporary centrism, as much as a speculative interrogation of what it feels like to have your assumptions about politics repudiated, facing the prospect of being left behind while remaining determined to avoid this. I suggest it plays a part in a whole array of current trends, ranging from the recalcitrant centrism of Labour moderates through to the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of American democrats towards Russia and the shrill proclamations of the post-truth era by liberal commentators. I was delighted to find Evan Davies describing the latter as “an expression of frustration and anguish from a liberal class discombobulated by the political disruptions of 2016”.

There’s a wonderful description by Alex Nunns on loc 4468 of The Candidate, an incisive account of Jeremy Corbyn’s path to the Labour leadership, conveying the role of the ‘centre ground’ as touch stone for the Blair and Brown establishment. It is where you are supposed to be and it is where you should always return to:

The political centre ground, in this view, appears as a clearing in a forest—a fixed location—and politics is a simple orienteering exercise where the parties are given a map and a compass and told to go and find it. Occasionally they inexplicably wander off into the woods and have to be scolded by journalists until they take their navigation task seriously again. The great, unpredictable social and economic forces that constantly sculpt new historical terrain are, in this Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme version of politics, merely gusts of wind that must not blow the parties off course. Nothing changes.

What happens if you find yourself in the centre ground and nothing happens? What happens if you find yourself in the centre ground and no one recognises you’re where you’re supposed to be? What happens if you find yourself in the centre-ground and people begin to query whether you are where you think you are? Perhaps your compass is broken, you’ve forgotten how to navigate or the map itself is somehow flawed? This would be a disconcerting experience and I suspect a frustrating one. This accounts for the tetchiness and its epochal character stems from the fact that the times are indeed changing, as opposed too this being a misunderstanding that has resulted from insignificant contingencies.

This is Jaron Lanier’s memorable description of social media in his new book Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. Social media is a technology for asshole amplification. To be clearly seen in the fact that “since social media took off, assholes are having more of a say in the world” (pg 43). His point is not that social media is a haven for trolls because it’s “not helpful to think of the world as being divided into assholes and non-assholes or if you prefer trolls and victims”. On pg 44 he cautions that each of us has our own inner troll:

It’s like an ugly alien living inside you that you long ago forgot about. Don’t let your inner troll take control! If it happens when you’re in a particular situation, avoid that situation! It doesn’t matter if it’s an online platform, a relationship, or a job. Your character is like your health, more valuable than anything you can buy. Don’t throw it away. But why, why is the inner troll there at all? It’s such a common problem that it must be a deep, primal business, a tragedy of our inheritance, a stupid flaw at the heart of the human condition. But saying that doesn’t get us anywhere. What exactly is the inner troll? Sometimes the inner troll takes charge, sometimes it doesn’t. My working hypothesis has long been that there’s a switch deep in every human personality that can be set in one of two modes. We’re like wolves. We can either be solitary or members of a pack of wolves. I call this switch the Solitary/ Pack switch. When we’re solitary wolves, we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also capable of more joy. We think for ourselves, improvise, create. We scavenge, hunt, hide. We howl once in a while out of pure exuberance. When we’re in a pack, interactions with others become the most important thing in the world. I don’t know how far that goes with wolves, but it’s dramatic in people. When people are locked in a competitive, hierarchical power structure, as in a corporation, they can lose sight of the reality of what they’re doing because the immediate power struggle looms larger than reality itself.

The evolutionary language here can seem off-putting to a sociologist. But it can be recast in terms of internal and external goods. Sometimes we are driven by the rewards internal to what we are doing while at other times we are driven by rewards external to what we are doing. What makes social media platforms so insidious is their tendency to, as Lanier puts it, make “social status and intrigues become more than immediate than the larger reality” (pg 49). I don’t agree with his account of why this is so but I think the underlying direction of his argument is correct. Social media is asshole amplification technology because it lends such force and vivacity to external goods, particularly recognition and reputation, leaving internal goods hard to sustain.

We often do sustain our relationship with these goods, as can be seen in the continued existence of thoughtful and intelligent exchange online. But we do so in spite of rather than because of the asshole amplification architecture of social media. It’s grasping the bivalent nature of this relationship, as internal and external goods co-mingle within platform architectures which are continually modulating in response to our (ambivalent) actions, which is crucial if we want to understand and perhaps even overcome the asshole amplification propensities of social media.

There’s a fascinating passage on pg 164-165 of The Unwinding by George Packer, talking about the evolution of lobbying in the United States:

Quinn and Gillespie considered themselves the smart guys in the business. Lobbying was no longer about opening one door for a client—power in Washington had become too diffuse for that. It was about waging a broad strategic campaign, hitting different audiences through different channels, shaping the media’s view of an issue, building pressure on legislators in their home districts. Quinn Gillespie was expert at forming temporary “grasstop” coalitions—enlisting local citizens in a cause as if there had been organic grassroots support. The firm didn’t flinch from controversy. When Quinn’s legal client Marc Rich, a billionaire fugitive living in Switzerland, received a presidential pardon on Clinton’s last day in office, the uproar consumed Quinn for weeks. But an alternative view of the affair was available: Quinn had gotten a tough thing done for a client. Old Washington—the press, the social establishment, the upholders of high standards—pretended that its moral sensibilities had been scandalized. New Washington understood that the Marc Rich pardon was good for business.

What I’d like to understand is how these changes map onto the expansion of the sector ($1.25 billion was spent on lobbying in 1997 and this tripled by 2009). Furthermore, what’s the relationship between power in Washington becoming diffuse and lobbyists developing new strategies and tactics? How does the multiplication of ‘broad strategic companies’ impact upon the likelihood of any one campaign succeeding in its objective? Does this in turn drive further ‘innovation’, as lobbyists compete with each other to find new ways of pursuing the interests of their clients?

In other words, might developments of the sort invoked in this extract be driven at least in part by the sheer numbers operating in the established ways? How do the unintended consequences of lobbying accumulate and what does this mean for the practice of lobbyists? I don’t recall having read any political memoirs which address this transformation and I would like to. I’m curious about the everyday changes this gives rise to in the lives of politicians and those running their offices. I find it hard not to wonder if a sort of attentional fortification becomes necessary, even amongst those eagerly embracing corporate sponsors, as well as what the consequences of this are for how they manage their political activities and ongoing careers.

#DQComm2018 The Deliberative Quality of Communication Conference 2018
Citizens, Media and Politics in Challenging Times: Perspectives on the
Deliberative Quality of Communication

November 8 – 9, 2018
Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Mannheim, Germany

Keynote Speaker: Kaisa Herne (University of Tampere)

Roundtable on the Future of Deliberation Research with:
André Bächtiger (University of Stuttgart)
Céline Colombo (University of Zürich)
Christiane Eilders (University of Düsseldorf)
Hartmut Wessler (University of Mannheim)

Call for abstracts

Western democracies nowadays face a number of challenges induced by
political developments. These challenges have been affecting the way in
which citizens, the media and political elites communicate about politics.
Critical observers witness a deteriorating quality of political
conversations between ordinary citizens. It appears no longer possible to
discuss politics normally. A high-choice media environment facilitated by
online and in particular social media enables citizens to refrain from
exposing themselves to counter-attitudinal information and engaging in
cross-cutting political talk. The polarization of opinions within society
is promoted by increasingly fragmented media systems and a reporting style
that favors sensational and scandalous over a balanced and multifaceted
reporting. Rapid media cycles shorten time for balanced and thorough
argumentation and media outlets are steadily confronted with the accusation
of producing fake news. Political actors adapt to the media logic by
employing ever more simplified and emotionally arousing communication.
Instead of deliberating publicly on complex problems and finding
compromises or solutions, political elites rather prefer to communicate
through short soundbites and populist messages to promote their positions
and eventually attract voters at election time. Overall, these dynamics
indicate a deteriorating deliberative quality of political communication
among and between citizens, the media and political elites. While this
phenomenon has caused concern among scholars from both political and
communication science, it still needs further empirical substantiation and
demand a reflection on extant theories.

This conference aims at addressing the deliberative quality of
communication among and between citizens, media and political elites.
Within this research context, we welcome both theoretical, empirical and
methodological contributions focusing on the deliberative quality of
communication. The proposals can address – but are not limited – to the
following questions:

* To which extent does ordinary citizens’ talk about politics come close to
the genuine type of deliberation? Who participates in political talk, who
does not and why? Do citizens talk to those with viewpoints that conflict
with their own? What are the underlying motives and condition that give
rise to homogenous or heterogeneous talk about politics? Which variables
affect the quality of informal civic discussions? Do citizens’ daily
exchanges resemble reasoned and well-argued debates or harsh fights at the
expense of proper justification?

* To which extent does the online sphere of political communication promote
respectively impede deliberation? Are platform interventions (e.g.,
Facebook’s proposed policy of removing hate speech and fake news) a panacea
to improve the quality of online deliberation and to save deliberative

* To which extent do different features of the media systems influence
mediated deliberation? How does the increased polarization and
fragmentation of media environments translate into the deliberative quality
of the media? How deliberative is the media system as a whole? How
deliberative are individual media types, formats, or programs?

* How do political, national and cultural climates shape deliberation? To
which extent do different types of the political system affect the
deliberative quality within the public sphere? How does the increased
polarization of the political environments affect formal deliberation? How
do political elites engage with populist actors who decline to engage in
reasoned and constructive dialogue?

* Which opportunities and challenges do big data offer for the analysis of
deliberation? What are the methodological challenges and pitfalls when
measuring deliberation? To which extent, and if so how, may computational
methods help in identifying the criteria for deliberation?

Submissions are due by June 15, 2018 (23:59 CET) and must be submitted via
this Google Form.


Abstracts must not be longer than 500 words (excluding title and
references). A committee composed of communication and political science
experts in deliberation will review each abstract. Only one proposal per
first author can be accepted. Notifications of acceptance will be issued in
July 2018. Limited funds are available to cover accommodation and travel
expenses of conference presenters. In order to host a family-friendly
conference, the parent and child room of the University of Mannheim can be
used for self-provided childcare.

Further questions, please visit the website

or contact the organizers directly: dqcomm2018@mzes.uni-mannheim.de

Christiane Grill, Anne Schäfer, Charlotte Löb and Chung-hong Chan
Organizing Committee of The Deliberative Quality of Communication
Conference 2018

Notes for week 2 of the CPGJ Platform Capitalism reading group 

Both readings for this week treat utopian hopes of the internet bolstering democracy as anachronistic relics, looking in different ways to the murky reality of the politics which platform capitalism is giving rise to. Tufekci accepts some of the claims made about the affordances of digital technology while stressing the new inequalities which come with these developments, as we operate within a “data–analytic environment that favors the powerful, data–rich incumbents, and the technologically adept”. This is what Mark Andrejevic has elsewhere described as the ‘big-data divide‘. New strategies take advantage of this divide, entrenching it in the process through the collection of data and the development of techniques, giving rise to “more effective — and less transparent — “engineering of consent” (Bernays, 1947) in the public sphere”. This is neatly conceptualised by Tufekci as  computational politics:

As a normative (but contested) ideal, the public sphere is envisioned by Habermas (1989) as the location and place in which rational arguments about matters concerning the public, especially regarding issues of governance and the civics can take place, freed from constraints of status and identity. The public sphere should be considered at once a “normative ideal” as well as an institutional analysis of historical practice (Calhoun, 1993). As actual practice, the public sphere pertains to “places” — intersections and commons — where these civic interactions take place, and which are increasingly online. This shift to a partially online public sphere, which has brought about the ability to observe, surveil and collect these interactions in large datasets, has given rise to computational politics, the focus of this paper.

Computational politics refers applying computational methods to large datasets derived from online and off–line data sources for conducting outreach, persuasion and mobilization in the service of electing, furthering or opposing a candidate, a policy or legislation. Computational politics is informed by behavioral sciences and refined using experimental approaches, including online experiments, and is often used to profile people, sometimes in the aggregate but especially at the individual level, and to develop methods of persuasion and mobilization which, too, can be individualized. Thus, computational politics is a set of practices the rise of which depends on, but is not solely defined by, the existence of big data and accompanying analytic tools and is defined by the significant information asymmetry — those holding the data know a lot about individuals while people don’t know what the data practitioners know about them (U.S. Federal Trade Commission, 2014).

Tufekci is careful to note that the use of ‘big data’ for politics and marketing predates the internet. But her concern is digital data facilitates “significantly more individualized profiling and modeling, much greater data depth, and can be collected in an invisible, latent manner and delivered individually”. The possibilities for interacting individually, privately and asymmetrically increase enormously, leading to a qualitative change in how public the public sphere will tend to be. Engineering consent is not a new ambition but the tools now available to undertake this are radically different to what has come before:

  1. availability of big data
  2. shift to individual targeting
  3. the potential and opacity of modeling
  4. the rise of behavioral science in the service of persuasion
  5. dynamic experimentation
  6. and the growth of new power brokers on the Internet who control the data and algorithms

I suggested Kate Crawford’s essay for this week because it highlights public understanding of computational politics. What happens when there is direct and indirect awareness of this? We might hope this will take the form of organised political action but her suggestion we will see cultural response is deeply plausible. What other reactions can we imagine? How might recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica contribute to this? I haven’t got time to write proper notes about her essay now but I’ve written about it in the past, albeit briefly.

  1. Will computational politics necessarily erode the public sphere? What action can we take to prevent this? Will technocratic solutions to problems defined as ‘fake news’ and ‘computational propaganda’ help the situation or make the problem worse?  Is there any way to put computational politics back in the box? Can we have platform capitalism without computational politics?
  2. Tufekci wrote in 2014 that “there has been fairly little conceptual theory–building especially about the political and civic consequences of big data” and mainstream media “rarely goes beyond exploring big data as a hot, new topic and an exciting new tool, and rarely consider issues of power”. Is this still the case? What would such work look like? Is it ‘remastering’ existing concepts to make them digitally adequate or developing new ones?
  3. Is a coherent public understanding of computational politics taking shape? What are the consequences of this? What’s the relationship between cultural responses to computational politics and political responses to it?

One of the prevailing motifs of the Trumpist era has been the recognition on all sides of the social and political costs of deindustrialization, even if this recognition is typically subsumed into a prior political stance. There’a really powerful account on pg 52 of George Packer’s Unwinding which conveys the scale of this change and the curious manner in which it remained obscure, a profound change for the worse in the lives of a vast aggregate which stubbornly resisted becoming the object of contention one might otherwise have expected:

John Russo, a former auto worker from Michigan and professor of labor studies, started teaching at Youngstown State University in 1980. When he arrived, he could look down almost every city street straight into a mill and the fire of a blast furnace. He came just in time to watch the steel industry vanish before his eyes. Russo calculated that during the decade between 1975 and 1985, fifty thousand jobs were lost in the Mahoning Valley—an economic catastrophe on an unheard-of scale. Yet, Russo said, “The idea that this was systemic didn’t occur.” As a resident expert, he would get a call from Time or Newsweek every six months, with a reporter on the line asking if Youngstown had turned the corner yet. Apparently it was impossible to imagine that so much machinery and so many men were no longer needed. It was happening in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Buffalo, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem, Detroit, Flint, Milwaukee, Chicago, Gary, St. Louis, and other cities across a region that in 1983 was given a new name: the Rust Belt. But it happened in Youngstown first, fastest, and most completely, and because Youngstown had nothing else, no major-league baseball team or world-class symphony, the city became an icon of deindustrialization, a song title, a cliché. “It was one of the quietest revolutions we’ve ever had,” Russo said. “If a plague had taken away this many people in the Midwest, it would be considered a huge historical event.” But because it was caused by the loss of blue-collar jobs, not a bacterial infection, Youngstown’s demise was regarded as almost normal.

It highlights the relationship between deindustrialisation as a socio-economic process and individualisation as a cultural phenomenon. A growing tendency to resist structural explanation, interpretation causes and consequences in terms of individuals and their lives, constrains attempts to collectively force these changes onto the political agenda as a matter of contestation.

How do politicians understand their own status? It’s a question I’ve often wondered about without being sufficiently motivated to explore what I’m certain must be a significant literature investigating this question. I was made to ponder the question again by a lovely extract in Unwinding, by George Packer, describing the meritocratic self-regard of politicians and how this leads them to treats others working with Washington. From pg 65:

In Washington, elected officials considered themselves a higher breed. They were “principals,” had shown the moxie and endured the humiliation of standing before the public, and in their eyes, staff were a lower form of human beings—parasites that attached themselves to the front man for the ride. Connaughton knew that he had nothing to teach Joe Biden, a political natural who had been doing this for almost two decades, with a fingertip feel for what the American people wanted. Connaughton was thoroughly expendable, unless he could prove himself a workhorse.

It immediately made me think of this scene in The Thick of It, with Hugh Abbot expressing the bewilderment ‘normal’ people provoke in him and the contempt he feels for them:

It’s easy to see how politicians might come to feel strangely about the electorate. They are dependent upon them, yet largely  insulated from them. They take decisions which shape the lives of the public, while the fact of being decision-makers leaves them at a remove from those who these decisions impact upon. It seems plausible many of them see themselves as superior, even if simply in the polite meritocratic guise of being ‘high achievers’, while their role expects them to be continually polite to the public. The whole edifice of Westminster operates at an epistemic remove from everyday life, leaving politicians with a sense of themselves as seeing how the world really works. One which is perhaps indistinguishable from a pronounced déformation professionnelle, as the peculiar conditions which obtain at one particular phase in long history of a specific parliament are ontologised and taken as the conditions within which all democratic politics will necessarily operate. If you don’t believe me, we can meet at the centre ground to discuss it.

Those politicians who thrive enjoy a connection with ‘normal people’. They have a ‘finger tip feel’. They recognise emotional  patterns, learn to identity sympathies, become adept at interpreting concern. Or at the very least, they are able to successfully perform these capacities in a way which leaves them prone to being written about as charismatic, caring and connected to ordinary people. There’s a confirmation bias liable to exist here, as instances of successful connection are much more noteworthy than the countless occasions upon which a member of the public fails to be persuaded by a politician. Nonetheless, there is  significant interpretative work taking place, across a profound and growing structural and cultural divide. If that gap continues to widen, which is crudely speaking what I take post-democratisation to be, what does this mean for politicians whose political fortunes exist within and through it?

Earlier this week, a leading figure in Italy’s governing centre-left PD party explained how they were looking to Emmanuel Macron for inspiration in the pitch they were making to the electorate. Their prospects look rather bleak, as an internally divided party trails the populist Five Star Movement in an election most predict will lead to a right-wing government. Perhaps even one led by Silvio Berlusconi. Are the PD worried? It seems not because they believe history is on their side:

Gozi, who is fluent in French and English and was educated at the Sorbonne and LSE, sees himself as part of the “Erasmus generation”, a group of younger leaders who see the European Union not just as a bulwark against nationalist wars, but as a multiplier of sovereignty.

He has also been at the centre of the argument that a stronger Europe can halt populism, rather than feed the alienation on which it thrives. “This has become the real new political cleavage in politics. It is now so obvious,” he said. “Are you confident that Italy can be a key actor in a new Europe capable of taking back control on immigration, security and achieving growth through reshaping the eurozone? Or do you believe the answer lies within our national borders?

What I find bewildering is how this ‘new’ division is cited as a reason for confidence. A party whose ‘third way’ centrism has led them into an electoral dead-end will effectively offer the same thing to a weary electorate, convinced that the tide of history is turning. Whereas in reality, the open/closed dichotomy has governed the imagination of liberal politics for decades! The capacity to repeat what one has already done, with ever increasing confidence about its relevance in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, represents a pathology likely to elude any explanation other than the psychoanalytical.

My fascination with the technological fantasies of billionaires might seem like a peculiarly nerdy version of a familiar preoccupation with the super rich. However as Yuval Noah Harari observes on loc 3304 of Homo Deus, the dreams of technological salvation which the rich and powerful invest themselves in have important consequences for the rest of us because they condition how these groups orientate themselves to the existential risks which we all face:

How rational is it to risk the future of humankind on the assumption that future scientists will make some unknown discoveries? Most of the presidents, ministers and CEOs who run the world are very rational people. Why are they willing to take such a gamble? Maybe because they don’t think they are gambling on their own personal future. Even if bad comes to worse and science cannot hold off the deluge, engineers could still build a hi-tech Noah’s Ark for the upper caste, while leaving billions of others to drown. The belief in this hi-tech Ark is currently one of the biggest threats to the future of humankind and of the entire ecosystem. People who believe in the hi-tech Ark should not be put in charge of the global ecology, for the same reason that people who believe in a heavenly afterlife should not be given nuclear weapons.

As a Guardian article last year put it, “Among the tech elite, space exploration is now the ultimate status symbol“. This reflects the ascendancy of a distinct elite, with converging dispositions reinforced by the peculiar niche within which they have accumulated their wealth and power. There are cultural and biographical explanations we can offer of their preoccupations, as well as sociological ones of how these ambitions spread amongst this intensely self-referential group of elites. However it also worth inquiring into the potential consequences of this passion given the control these people have over the future direction of technological development and the opportunity costs they confront in doing so:

Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, is arguably the most visible billionaire in the new space race. The apparent inspiration for Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark character in Iron Man, Musk has become a god-like figure for engineers, making his fortune at PayPal and then as CEO of luxury electric car firm Tesla and clean energy company Solar City. Yet it is his galactic ambitions, insiders say, that really motivate him. “His passion is settling Mars,” says one.


When pondering this stuff, it’s hard not to wonder occasionally if you’re being overly cynical, throwing sand at people seeking innovations which could transform human life. But when I hear Jeff Bezos say that “You go to space to save Earth” I feel renewed confidence this is something we ought to critique. If these investments fail then our engineering philosopher-kings have wasted countless billions of dollars pursuing the endless frontier which could have been better spent improving our life here on earth. If these investments succeed then what does this mean for those left on earth when the super-rich go to space?

The evidence would suggest I’m not alone in being somewhat gripped by Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury. One of the central themes of the book is how no one, including the candidate himself, expected Trump would win and what we have seen since then has been a rapid adaptation, self-serving and bewildered in equal measured, as the apparatus around him tried to make sense of a situation in which they never expected to find themselves. From this standpoint, the ‘post-truth’ character of Trump’s administration with their ‘alternative facts’, comes to look like a pragmatic adaption to a chronically incapable candidate rather than anything more sinister. From loc 873:

The media, adopting a “shocked, shocked” morality, could not fathom how being factually wrong was not an absolute ending in itself. How could this not utterly shame him? How could his staff defend him? The facts were the facts! Defying them, or ignoring them, or subverting them, made you a liar—intending to deceive, bearing false witness. (A minor journalism controversy broke out about whether these untruths should be called inaccuracies or lies.) In Bannon’s view: (1) Trump was never going to change; (2) trying to get him to change would surely cramp his style; (3) it didn’t matter to Trump supporters; (4) the media wasn’t going to like him anyway; (5) it was better to play against the media than to the media; (6) the media’s claim to be the protector of factual probity and accuracy was itself a sham; (7) the Trump revolution was an attack on conventional assumptions and expertise, so better to embrace Trump’s behavior than try to curb it or cure it. The problem was that, for all he was never going to stick to a script (“ his mind just doesn’t work that way” was one of the internal rationalizations), Trump craved media approval. But, as Bannon emphasized, he was never going to get the facts right, nor was he ever going to acknowledge that he got them wrong, so therefore he was not going to get that approval. This meant, next best thing, that he had to be aggressively defended against the media’s disapproval.

This isn’t just a matter of gossip about political leaders or a corrective to the excessive abstraction pouring forth from an intellectual class on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It allows us to recast politics in micro-social terms involving absence, failure and incapacity rather than simply telling stories of the powerful exercising that power in pursuit of their established projects. Fire and Fury tells a vivid story of how the Whitehouse revolves around managing the incapacities of Trump, as the staff struggle to come to terms with their willingness to play this role (in a manner which can just as readily be cast in terms of incapacity). From loc 1989:

Here was, arguably, the central issue of the Trump presidency, informing every aspect of Trumpian policy and leadership: he didn’t process information in any conventional sense—or, in a way, he didn’t process it at all. Trump didn’t read. He didn’t really even skim. If it was print, it might as well not exist. Some believed that for all practical purposes he was no more than semiliterate. (There was some argument about this, because he could read headlines and articles about himself, or at least headlines on articles about himself, and the gossip squibs on the New York Post’s Page Six.) Some thought him dyslexic; certainly his comprehension was limited. Others concluded that he didn’t read because he just didn’t have to, and that in fact this was one of his key attributes as a populist. He was postliterate—total television. But not only didn’t he read, he didn’t listen. He preferred to be the person talking. And he trusted his own expertise—no matter how paltry or irrelevant—more than anyone else’s. What’s more, he had an extremely short attention span, even when he thought you were worthy of attention. The organization therefore needed a set of internal rationalizations that would allow it to trust a man who, while he knew little, was entirely confident of his own gut instincts and reflexive opinions, however frequently they might change.

However the incapacities of others provide a valuable object for one’s own strategic capacities. The point is not to counterpoise a strategic and agentive analysis to a non-strategic and non-agentive one. This misses the obvious ways in which absence, failure and incapacity structure the field of opportunities to which agents strategically respond. As Wolff recounts on loc 2009:

It was during Trump’s early intelligence briefings, held soon after he captured the nomination, that alarm signals first went off among his new campaign staff: he seemed to lack the ability to take in third-party information. Or maybe he lacked the interest; whichever, he seemed almost phobic about having formal demands on his attention. He stonewalled every written page and balked at every explanation. “He’s a guy who really hated school,” said Bannon. “And he’s not going to start liking it now.” However alarming, Trump’s way of operating also presented an opportunity to the people in closest proximity to him: by understanding him, by observing the kind of habits and reflexive responses that his business opponents had long learned to use to their advantage, they might be able to game him, to move him. Still, while he might be moved today, nobody underestimated the complexities of continuing to move him in the same direction tomorrow.

As he writes on loc 2046, “If Trump cared about something, he usually already had a fixed view based on limited information. If he didn’t care, he had no view and no information”. This created openings for all the senior figures in their pursuit of power and influence. Bannon styled himself as the high priest of Trumpism, exercising power over the President and others through becoming deeply conversant with his writing and speeches, able to quote back Trump’s intentions in a way which cast him in the role of a consistent and strategic actor. Wolff’s description of this is particularly resonant:

Bannon’s unique ability—partly through becoming more familiar with the president’s own words than the president was himself, and partly through a cunning self-effacement (upended by his bursts of self-promotion)—was to egg the president on by convincing him that Bannon’s own views were entirely derived from the president’s views. Bannon didn’t promote internal debate, provide policy rationale, or deliver Power-Point presentations; instead, he was the equivalent of Trump’s personal talk radio. Trump could turn him on at any moment, and it pleased him that Bannon’s pronouncements and views would consistently be fully formed and ever available, a bracing, unified-field narrative. As well, he could turn him off, and Bannon would be tactically quiet until turned on again.

Meanwhile Priebus was able to offer endorsement from the political establishment which has previously loathed him, while Kushner brought the prestige of the business elite who had never taken Trump seriously. The president seemingly wanted all of these, representing an important vector through which chaos ensued within the Whitehouse, alongside many others at all levels of the organisation. Reading these accounts, it’s hard not to be sceptical of accounts of ‘post-truth’ et al as overly abstract and epochal accounts which obscure a messy all-too-human reality, albeit one that could ultimately produce outcomes of epochal significance.

In his recently released book Collusion, Luke Harding briefly discusses the media cooperation taking place behind the scenes, as media organisations grappled with a rapidly changing landscape. On loc 898 he writes:

At the Guardian we were pursuing leads from both sides of the Atlantic. Among them, how UK spy agencies had first picked up suspicious interactions between the Russians and the Trump campaign and the role played by Deutsche Bank, Trump’s principal lender. We made an investigative pod—Harding, Hopkins, Borger, and Stephanie Kirchgaessner, a talented former Washington correspondent, now based in Rome. We built up a portfolio of sources. There was healthy competition still, but reporters on different titles began working together on some stories. There were formal press consortiums and ad hoc conversations between one-time rivals. I talked to the New York Times, the Post, the Financial Times in London, Reuters, Mother Jones, the Daily Beast, CNN, and others. Such conversations took place in New York, Washington, London, Munich, and Sarajevo. Some happened in glossy conference rooms, others in the corners of pubs over warm ale. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, argued that the “gravity of the matter” called for a change in the press’s behaviour. Trump meant a new era. And new post-tribal thinking. Abramson wrote: “Reputable news organizations that have committed resources to original reporting on the Russia story should not compete with one another, they should co-operate and pool information.”

This has been one of many such collaborations. The most prominent have been the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers but others have taken place without receiving such prominent coverage. I’d like to understand the process by which (potential) competitors become (actual) collaborators and how this is enacted through day-to-day processes of collaboration. Does anyone know of first-person accounts of working on these projects?

The formation of the International Consortium of Investigate Journalists has been a central part of this process, with media partners and supporters from around the world. This is how they describe their organisational mission:

The need for such an organization has never been greater. Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.

The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most.

Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams – eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team.

Their work relies on a complex ecosystem of organisations, teams, media partners, co-researchers and supporters, including possibly unexpected elements such as analytical support from Palantir. They have published their methodology and workflow for one of their investigations, providing a fascinating level of transparency. Is this a worthy project which sits at the periphery of journalism? Or can we see in it the lineament of what journalism will look like in the future?

One of the most obvious ways to read Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States is as the emergence of a neoliberal populism. The popular backlash against a socio-economic system unable to provide an acceptable quality of life for the majority of its citizens is harnessed by entrenched elites, with the intention of leveraging this uprising to support an intensification of precisely the conditions it is a response to. We can see this through the near wholesale adoption of the Ryan policy platform by the Trump administration, as well as the rapprochement with elite donors facilitated through the Pence vice-presidency:

On Election Night, the dissonance between Trump’s populist supporters and Pence’s billionaire sponsors was quietly evident. When Trump gave his acceptance speech, in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, he vowed to serve “the forgotten men and women of our country,” and promised to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, and hospitals.” Upstairs, in a room reserved for Party élites, several of the richest and most conservative donors, all of whom support drastic reductions in government spending, were celebrating. Doug Deason, a Texas businessman and a political donor, recalled to me, “It was amazing. In the V.I.P. reception area, there was an even more V.I.P. room, and I counted at least eight or nine billionaires.”


Despite the superficial civil war taking place in the Republican party, the political topology of its near future can be seen as in many ways as a continuation of what came previously. This ideological alchemy is rendered possible by market populism, skillfully analysed by Thomas Frank over many years, framing the expansion of ‘economic liberty’ as the extension of democracy. The subordination of democracy to capital is coded as democratisation against the wishes of cultural and political elites, allowing a deeply reactionary movement to style itself as a radical insurgency acting on behalf of ‘the people’.

However, the role of the far-right in Trumpist populism potentially complicates this analysis. This is a genuine uprising, pulled towards the Republican party by elite donors (or rather their strategists) and pushed towards it by the quasi-Leninist vanguard within the far-right (supported by the cultural shock troops of the online armies they influence). It is a combustible mix, inherently unpredictable in its outcomes. But it doesn’t exhaust neoliberal populism per se. In fact, it’s deeply shaped by the American political scene, not least of all the idiosyncratic figurehead around which these trends have coalesced.

We can expect that neoliberal populism in Europe will take a different form. Enter the figure of Emmanuel Macron, described by Selim Nadi in a recent Salvage essay:

Macron, rather than breaking with the established trend toward more racist authoritarianism, is leading us into a new kind of authoritarian populism that fits perfectly with the neo-liberal reform he wants to pursue in France. Indeed, Macron is reorganizing France precisely so as to secure the neo-liberal hegemony which has had such disastrous effects for the whole French working class, and especially for those workers originating from France’s former colonies.

Moreover, instead of ending the state of emergency, Macron seems intent on creating a legalized permanent state of emergency, which will not be the exception anymore, but rather the rule—and whose effect will be to repress any attempts coming from the Left to organize against Macron’s reforms.


This ultra-insider, whose has cultivated power and influence with astonishing effectiveness since his teens, styles himself as an outsider: leading the doers, the sayers, the actors of France in an uprising against the sclerosis that has gripped their country. It’s easy to be sceptical of the crowds surrounding him but I’ve become convinced the more I’ve read, watched and listened that En Marche! is very much a movement. It has drawn its strategy from the mainstream ‘centre-left’: David Plouffe, Jim Mesina, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell all advised the campaign. The consultancy specialising in ‘grassroots campaigns’ which planned their strategy was founded by three Harvard-educated French former Obama volunteers (pg 200-201). But these strategies changed by being pursued outside the shell of an existing political party, producing energising scenes of the would-be Jupiterian screaming at a crowd hungry for change:

If we take their claim to have produced a movement seriously, it raises important questions about the sectors of society who have been mobilised in this way and the potential outcomes of this mobilisation. How will their nascent politics be shaped by the likely conflicts arising from Macron’s contested economic agenda? My hunch is that there’s a reactionary politics lurking behind the superficially optimistic rhetoric of grassroots democracy and start-up culture. En Marche! and the Tea Party strand of Trumpism could not be more different but this is because the French bourgeoisie and the reactionary part of the American bourgeoisie could not be more dissimilar. The underlying class composition of these movements seem to have some commonalities, as Nadi hints at here:

Hence, Macron really appears as a new embodiment of the different sections of the French bourgeoisie — dispensing with the artificial boundary between the Socialist Party, the Center and the right-wing Les Républicains. Macron’s bourgeois bloc managed to unify some sections of the traditional right-wing, a section of social democracy, and even some elements of ‘civil society.’ The mythical division between state and ‘civil society’ is a very important source of legitimacy for Macron. By assembling politicians who are not members of established political parties, he created a sort of contemporary Third Estate in order to secure the political hegemony of the French bourgeoisie.


His authoritarian intentions are (arguably) a matter of record, as he has spoken at length about the French longing for a Napoleonic figurehead and his intention to fill this perceived gap. His apparently liberal stances are belied by his commitment to normalising the state of emergency, as Nadi describes:

While Macron seems to want to end the formal ‘state of emergency’, his proposal is in effect to legalize it, to include it in the common law. Hence it will no longer be a state of ‘emergency’ but just the regular state under which France will exist. As a matter of fact, his current draft legislation, entitled ‘law for the reinforcement of the fight against terrorism and for the reinforcement of homeland security,’ legalises many of the tools of the state of emergency. These include home-search, house arrest, closing of places of worship (obviously, this will mainly target Muslims), monitoring private communications, and so on.


His government could pave the way for far-right rule in the future, as Phil BC pointed out immediately after his election. However, I’m increasingly wondering whether sections of his base might themselves transmute into organic supporters of the far-right in the unfolding of the social conflicts which pursuing his agenda will inevitably aggravate. Much as we shouldn’t assume fascism in America will come in the form of jackboots, we shouldn’t assume neoliberal populism in western Europe will come in the form of a reactionary reality television star.

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.

A fascinating insight from Steve Howell, deputy to Seumas Milne, concerning how to kick back against the ‘political rulebook’ beloved of the centrists:

In his interview, Howell, who is writing a book called How the Lights Get In – Inside Corbyn’s Election machine, also described how the team around the leader faced scepticism from other parts of the Labour party at the start of the campaign.

He said the group around Corbyn were warned that there were “certainties” in election campaigns that could not be shifted, including:

  • that you can’t move opinion more than 2 or 3% in a campaign
  • that online voter registration campaigns don’t work
  • that manifestos are irrelevant
  • that the reason “non-voters” are labelled as such is because they do not vote
  • and that the drop in turnout among young people was a “law of nature that was irreversible”

Howell said Corbyn’s team could not “be a mirror image of their certainty” and be sure that their ideas would work, but they did believe it could be different, “that an online voter registration campaign could work; that you can expand the electorate; [and] that a transformative manifesto would have a broad appeal and excite people”.


In the last few days, I’ve been reading Hilary Clinton’s What Happened and reflecting on it as an expression of a political centrism which I suspect is coming to an end. These self-defined ‘modernisers’ sought to adapt their respective political parties to what they saw as a new reality, necessitating that they be ‘change-makers’ while responding to change. The claims of the modernisers usually play out in two registers: the psephological and the epochal. The former is straight-forward as a case to adapt to shifts in the electorate themselves and their distribution across constituencies. These changes might be driven by other parties, necessitating adaptation to a changing political landscape. From loc 3544:

I came of age in an era when Republicans won election after election by peeling off formerly Democratic white working-class voters. Bill ran for President in 1992 determined to prove that Democrats could compete in blue-collar suburbs and rural small towns without giving up our values. By focusing on the economy, delivering results, and crafting compromises that defused hot-button issues such as crime and welfare, he became the first Democrat since World War II to win two full terms.

However, the epochal claims modernisers make are more ambiguous. As an empirical exercise, it is obvious that there are connections between social change and electoral change e.g. how post-industrialisation leads to a recomposition of the working class. There nonetheless tends to be a discursive separation between the two, in terms of how modernisers account for their strategy and tactics, which invites explanation. For instance, Tony Blair was prone to speaking in terms of epochal change, framing the new labour project in terms of globalisation and technology changing the landscape within which politics takes place. The influence of Anthony Giddens was undoubtedly key here, but this is nonetheless something which was drawn upon after the psephological case for new labour was already formulated.

This raises the question of the relationship between them: is the epochal language of modernisation merely a flowery idiom in which a basically psephological case is being made? I wonder if it serves a more subtle role, as switching between the two displaces the moment when political axioms confront empirical reality. If the psephological case is challenged, it’s possible to fall back on talk of modernity and globalisation. If the talk of modernity and globalisation is challenged, it’s possible to switch to a case framed in terms of electoral strategy. This ideology of moderation and empiricism postpones an encounter with its own empirical limitations, ensuring its adherents remain able to sustain their identity as pragmatists surrounded by fanatics.

In other words: the world ‘out there’ becomes oddly charged for modernisers, invoked continuously but in ways that distance themselves from it. It is a traumatic real which they avoid at all costs. It blinds them to their own role in creating the conditions to which they claim to be responding. Declining trust in politicians, disengagement from the political process and the subordination of politics to the media are presented as epochal shifts to which parties must respond strategically, as if this relationality plays no part in driving these political transformations. At one point in the book Clinton reminds me of Adorno, opining that “Solutions are going to matter again in politics” as she places her pragmatism in a bottle floating forward into an uncertain future (loc 3264). What Happened? The end of modernisation.

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.