In March 2016, Nagle’s extensive and brilliant essay, documenting the emergence of a specific political sensibility, ‘The New Man of 4chan’, for ‘The Baffler’ was circulated with much interest among those documenting the emerging ‘Alt-Right’. Developing the observations made in this essay – a by-product of her ongoing research on online communities for her Doctorate – Nagles’ ‘Kill All Normies‘ is one of the latest entries in Zero Books’ excellent series of timely polemics, including titles such as the late Mark Fisher’s ‘Capitalist Realism’.
Nagles’ work presents a very specific developmental thesis of the rise of the Alt-Right, following a critical recounting of the stages of argumentation that, in retrospect, cultural critics of the mid to late noughties employed to pronounce the seemingly inevitable advantages offered specifically to progressives by the anarchic and decentralised features of an emerging landscape of political communities moulded by, and primarily operating within, the medium of social media, to which the experiences of Occupy and the Arab Spring, both heavily employing social media, gave succour. The emerging realities of the far from progressive political orientations to which this medium could be utilised accompanies the beginning of her account into the politics, trolling, ironic sensibilities and shock humour of 4chan and the embryonic Alt-Right, and the inability of the aforementioned cultural critics to foresee this is attributed to a fetishisation of the notion of societal transgression, rooted in the countercultural movements of the 1960s and institutionalised in certain brands of postmodern and libertarian thought.
This core thesis is then expanded towards the end of the book into a broader analysis of the values and practices of both sides in a hypothesised ‘culture war’ to mirror that in the US of the ’90s between what she terms ‘Tumblr-Liberalism’ and the Alt-Right. Both movements, for Nagle, in their beliefs in the political virtues of transgression, fused with their use of the same medium, display similar dynamics and forms of behaviour (this is most emphatically not, however, for Nagle, an assertion that the two sides are interchangable and that the politically content of both is morally equivalent, despite assertions to the contrary in some critical reviews). The cultivated ironic ‘edginess’ and shock humour of Anonymous and the Alt-Right, although defended often on different grounds of a Right-Libertarian invocation of free speech by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, is regarded as especially deserving due to its transgression (Nagle often invokes the example of the extreme misogynist De Sade for a salient point as regards the political content of transgression not always being inherently anti-conservative). Central to both stages of her argument is a rejection of the notion that both transgression as a cultural value and the decentralising, anonymising features of social media inherently have any political content.
Suffice it to say, this is not strictly a historical overview of the development of the Alt-Right, and those looking for such a work should look elsewhere – Nagle has a very specific thesis to advance. It has to be said, though, that some treatment of the Right-Libertarian movement in the United States around the time of Obama’s first presidency, and its possible contribution to the growth of the Alt-Right, would have been a useful contribution and one would have thought a natural point of analysis for her thesis. Also on a critical note, although on a formalist one, one has to say that some footnotes for the theoretical texts Nagle employs would have been useful, although given the short and polemical nature of the work, this is to be expected.
Overall, this is an extremely timely work, putting forward a provocative thesis with significant explanatory value for the background of the political background of the online culture wars – it deserves a wide audience and serious engagement, whatever one thinks of the thesis. Personally, this reviewer finds it quite convincing.