Angela Nagle is the author of a provocative book Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the alt-right, with which she has, while trying to present an analysis of Internet subcultures, shaken up the Western left and opened many heated discussions. The book is actually opening a really interesting subject, and that is the way in which the Internet, especially social networks, influence our views and approaches to politics. Kill All Normies is an attempt to analyse the pathology of human alienation in the oceans of Internet, which resulted in movements such as American alt-right. Nagle also wrote for publications such as The Baffler and Jacobin, where she was dealing with similar subjects as in Kill All Normies.
Your book Kill All Normies has been out for a while now. Douglas Lain, editor of Zero Books, mentioned it is one of their bestsellers. How do you feel about all it? Did the reaction, both positive and negative, meet or exceed your expectations?
The success of the book has been a huge surprise. I’ve barely had time to stop and think about it. It’s certainly a surreal feeling to have everyone fighting about you online. I got some abuse form the alt-right and some from people in academia trying to protect their little patch, and witchToday my main unease with feminism is the extent to which is has been caught up with a very American corporate style of work obsession and this really is noticeably worse in the Protestant countries hunters on the liberal left who didn’t like to see their own behaviour reflected back to them. I’m not going to make myself out to be a victim here though. It’s been a great success and I’m proud of it.
What made you write a book on "online culture wars" in the first place? What drew you to this subject? Also, to do this, you had to dig into the deepest cesspools of the Internet filled with misogyny, racism, fascist apologia, etc. How did you manage to read all this nonsense and continue with your work?
I was interested in how the new right wing movements emerging from forums like 4chan had the aesthetic sensibilities of the countercultural left and how the new online cultural left had the sensibilities of something more puritanical and humourless and the confusion this led to. I wanted to compare and contrast it to the culture wars of the pre-internet past. I first started looking at online anti-feminist forums because I had a feeling they were going to be very influential.
I am not sure that many Croatian readers will know exactly what the alt-right is, and what makes it different. How would you explain the difference between alt-right in the broad sense, and its constituent parts and classical European extreme right wing?
It’s really just the far-right with some irreverent transgressive countercultural styles and a total rejection of establishment conservatism. The more serious hard core of the alt-right was influenced by the French New Right but there was an entire constellation of forums and subcultures aroundIt’s a time of Victorian levels of obsession with purity and McCarthyite levels of obsession with ideological purity. It’s a very bad time to be a writer. One badly phased tweet and you can lose your career them, in their broader orbit, that gave them a more irreverent, trollish, meme-making online culture. They had the feeling of a youth subculture and became associated with 4chan which also gave birth to Anonymous. They also want to smash the conservative establishment and like to rethink and reformulate establishment rightist politics.
Why do you think the alt-right get so much media attention, despite being much more marginal and irrelevant compared to European parties like Jobbik, AfD, Golden Dawn etc.? It is simply that it is an American thing and it stands atop the global pyramid?
I think it is possibly because of American exceptionalism. We expect to see fascism popping up here and there in Europe but not so much in the US. America is also a place that tends to lead the world in trends and it has been the model for the melting pot in the West. If that fails in the major western superpower, it’s hard to see it lasting anywhere else. I regard moral and other questions as hugely important, though what I do advocate is a return a focus on material concerns on the left over cultural ones
When I was a teenager and I was getting into left wing politics, namely anarchism, dominant type of Internet communication ware mailing lists and forums. Maybe I am being nostalgic, but I remember really good discussions on some mailing lists or on forums, for example pre-2011 libcom.org, from which one could learn a lot. However, with social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, discussions moved from there to various Facebook groups, etc. But this new type of communication reduced the quality of content with it constant need for simplification of both content and language. In the end, we can say that most dominant form of communication today is communication through memes. What can Internet communication offer us today and is it just making us more and more alienated from ourselves and the real world?
I am deeply pessimistic about what social media is doing to us. It brings out our worst impulses - narcissism, intellectual conformity, cruelty - and discourages our best – contemplation, nuance, mercy. People have become stupid and monstrous on platforms like Twitter. I can barely stand to look at it.
Your book has received a lot of attention on social media. Most of it coming from the left has been dishonest, both in how they approached the book and you as the author. I can imagine that some of the so-called critiques might upset you, but haven’t they proven your thesis about leftist identitarianism, and the conformist campaigns of the modern left? A similar thesis was expressed by Mark Fisher in his now well known essay, Exiting the Vampire Castle. Is it just a "loud minority" among the left that is spreading these behavioural patterns, or are we talking about something larger and with genuine staying power? How can the left become useful for the working class whose interests it should, at least in theory, reflect and express?
Some people tried to claim that I was "attacking the left" but in fact the book is attacking those who constantly try to destroy the left from within. It’s really just the far-right with some irreverent transgressive countercultural styles and a total rejection of establishment conservatism. The more serious hard core of the alt-right was influenced by the French New RightIt’s the people who try to get any successful media project boycotted and say that Jacobin is a secretly Strasserist publication. It’s the people who cause division and drag people into endless online debates over moral purity on some issue that doesn’t concern the vast majority of people.
If we do not find a way to jettison these people the left will always be unattractive and crankish to most people forever. The interesting thing too is that most of them are not seasoned activists or anything, they’re people who were liberal just a few months or years ago but have since been caught up in the hysteria of the internet.
Earlier in our conversation, but also in your interview for Vox, you stated that you started studying, and following transgressive internet subcultures as a result of your interest in "anti-feminist Internet subcultures". At the same time, a lot of leftists have attacked your book, because of their interpretations of your relation to gender politics. What is feminism to you? Both as your personal political position and as a movement.
I think any self-respecting woman should defend herself against misogyny, you don’t necessarily have to be a feminist to do that. To me, feminism as a mass movement was a product of major material changes like the vast post-war expansion of western economies after. Feminism was then an attempt to think through women’s deracinated position in modernity and to embrace the independence that gave us instead of holding on to old roles.I am deeply pessimistic about what social media is doing to us. It brings out our worst impulses - narcissism, groupthink, intellectual conformity, cruelty - and discourages our best – contemplation, nuance, mercy
But today my main unease with feminism is the extent to which is has been caught up with a very American corporate style of work obsession and this really is noticeably worse in the Protestant countries. Women have replaced the meaning of their lives in traditional societies with deriving all meaning from their jobs. To me this is terrible because I love leisure and hobbies. To me work is just a necessary evil. Anyway, I’m glad that I live in a society that takes feminist issues seriously and I wouldn’t want it any other way but I increasingly feel more in common with those who share my economic interests than I do with women as a group and ultimately that’s what feminism is – organising women as a group in their collective interest.
What do you make of the criticism of Kill All Normies that it is not "materialist enough"? Are online political and cultural subcultures phenomena that are not suited to hard headed class analysis? Or did the book take the shape it did because it was a Cultural Studies PhD thesis that became a book?
I think that criticism came from people who were desperately trying to refute the claim that they’re just radical cultural liberals and not really Marxists or materialists. I’m not a dogmatic materialist when it comes to understanding the caused of things, I regard moral and other questions as hugely important, though what I do advocate is a return of focus on material concerns on the left over cultural ones. I want to hear more about housing and infrastructure and wages and less about calling fatphobia or kink shaming.Some people tried to claim that I was "attacking the left" but in fact the book is attacking those who constantly try to destroy the left from within
I’ve read in your Irish Times Q&A that you are interested in literature and writing in general. How can somebody be a leftist writer in 21st century? To me it looks like today there are two types of writers - those that are playing safe with mediocre content that is pandering to certain social scene and those that are trying to express their critique and run into strong social phalanx of conformism. How do you handle this?
It’s a time of Victorian levels of obsession with purity and McCarthyite levels of obsession with ideological purity. It’s a very bad time to be a writer. One badly phased tweet and you can lose your career. But it’s just the general atmosphere of crushing intellectual conformity. I hope it passes. It will require more people to speak up but based on my experiences of the book, I suspect they’re not going to and the dunces will continue to be the loudest. I envy artists, musicians, novelists and documentarians. I think those still allow some room to think.