online culture wars pt. 2
The phenomenon of Alt Right is a complicated palimpsest of post-ideologies, media considerations and associations of marginalized social groups.
The main identity cohesion of the group, as well as the birthplace of the movement, is the online culture, mainly linked to 4Chan.
4Chan, a real cultural and visual phenomenon more than a simple pseudo-social platform, has in fact codified, even before the openly political descent of the movement, a series of identity factors easily assimilated to the concept of reactive transgression.
The social (and political) history of mankind has always seen alternating moments of stabilization of a hegemonic narrative with others of rupture. These moments almost always have to do with a fundamental transgressive charge. The transgressive act is in this sense read as a style, in itself not a bearer of precise ideological structures, but a heterodirect narrative system, codified to provoke a precise reaction of a specific social group.
And it is precisely in light of the consideration of the transgressive act as exempt from any “partisan” or ideological descent, that today it is possible to affirm that the aesthetics and narratives of the American Alt Right share quite a lot with the policies of social-liberal transgression of the 1960s. The online sensibility of the American extreme right has in fact much more to do with the 1968 motto “It is forbidden to forbid” than with any section of the traditional right (by political status hardly aligned to any form of transgression).
According to Angela Nagle, “The Pepe meme-posting trolls and online transgressive follows a tradition that can be traced from the eighteenth-century writings of the Marquis de Sade, surviving through to the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, the Surrealists, the rebel rejection of feminized conformity of postwar America and then to what film critics called 1990s ‘male rampage films’ like American Psycho and Fight Club” (Nagle 2017, p. 29).
It is therefore not surprising that a personalities like Milo Yiannopoulos – one of the leader and face of this culture – can claim that “the conservatism is the ‘new punk’, because it’s ‘transgressive, subversive, fun'” (Nagle 2017, p. 29). In short, the ease with which leading exponents of Alt Right can appropriate concepts such as punk, on the one hand, gives us back the “a-partite” nature of transgression and, at the same time, confirms how Alt Right is a product extremely far from any traditional “right-wing”. It is rather to be traced back, at least in its communicative identity, to the broader and more historicized anti-establishment strand.
Part of the communicative power of this specific online culture is attributable to the centuries-old and ambiguous fascination for the figure of the moral transgressor (of which the channers proclaim themselves digital heirs) and, even better, for that of the mentally ill, of whom the channers are often accused for the moral gravity of their externalities. But the psychopath, as a wide and famous bibliography teaches us (from Foucault to R.D. Laing), is also, by statute, free from social, sexual and moral constraints and superstructures. If we consider the community of channers as a non-compliant and “sick” subject, it is fully understandable how the growth of consensus and credibility (within the same group) has grown over time. Growing mainly in reaction to the definition of the “politically correct” establishment, which recorded its parable in America from the early 2000s to the second Obama presidency.
A culture, that of the community of channers, which is not defined through a manifesto of values. It is instead characterized by numerous and very elaborate collective operations that the channers have carried out over the years (Operation Birthday Boy, RIP page trolling or the entire “ironic cult” for Kek https://pepethefrogfaith.wordpress.com/). Operations with a very high degree of complexity and codification, but which are not resolved in a concrete work or a broad-spectrum and long-lasting social purpose. This process, typical of transgressive models, shares an interesting common ground with the anti-instrumentalism of the first cyber utopias: Nagle argues that “the culture that produced both Operation Birthday Boy and elaborate RIP page trolling became what you might call the unwanted gift, a twist on Mauss’s The Gift, that early Internet theorist used as a central metaphor for the non-instrumental culture of sharing that it nurtured” (Nagle 2017, p.34).
An optic, the anti-instrumental one, that is associated with a wider anti-reproductive feeling. The sexual component plays a central role in many of the transgressive discourses of Western 20th century history. Online transgression and channer narrative also align themselves with this trend. It is interesting to note that, always following a reactive mode, the sexuality of these online communities shares an anti-feminist and openly homophobic feeling. Two characteristics that codify not a repressed homosexual impulse, but rather an opposition to, as Nagle calls it, the “overabundant procreative nature” (Nagle 2017, p. 37) snaking in the identity policies of the social substratum to which the channer narratives react.
The Gift model, as well as the anti-reproductivity model, lead us to notice a further and unexpected alignment with philosophical positions far from those of online communities and their political descent. Much of the queer literature sees in the overcoming of the reproductive sexual act, and therefore in anality, a strong instrument of socio-political claim. Now, that the online community at the base of the American Alt Right has an involuntary queer propensity is, as pleasant as it is to imagine, definitely forced. Anyway, the association is interesting because it leads us to confirm the unique nature of the Alt Right phenomenon, equidistant from any form of traditional right or far-right and liberal-left politics. In essence, it is clear how the social basin of this transgression shares an a-moral (as well as anti-moral) push, but in its association with economic awareness, it decrees its openly political descent.
Returning to the specificity of the online communities that are the protagonists of our analysis, I think it is important to underline how this form of community reaction bases its power on coherence with the media zeitgeist of our time. In other words, the online base of the American Alt Right, owes much of its strength to the fact that it has been able to consistently manage the medium that most defines our time: the web. This political evolution was among the first, based on the breadth of its community, to generate a political platform on and for the internet. In short, a discourse that retraces once again the practices of remediation of life and that decrees winners the narratives that have the greatest awareness of the media they use.
As already said, the characterization of the Alt Right as “right”, has a nature, I dare to say, accidental, linked to the polarity of the substratum in which this online culture is grafted (as well as a more complex and certainly not secondary socio-economic context). But its aesthetics and narratives have certainly helped its success and, consequently, its descent into the tangible, social and political change.
In this sense is interesting a comparison with what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call Folk Politics. In Inventing the Future (Srnicek and Williams 2015), the term Folk Politics “indicates a set of ideas and insights that within the contemporary Left guide the common sense from which organization, action and political thought derive” (Srnicek and Williams 2015, p. 19). In terms of content, the Folk Politics advocates a return to “human-scale” politics, linked to reactive claims (rather than active political projects), and favours short-term practices and ambiguous nostalgia for XX century-style models such as the fascination with Keynesian “good capitalism” (Davidson 2009), as well as a suspicion of everything institutional. The Folk Politics – in itself absolutely not harmful as much as problematic for radical projects to overcome capitalism – show the will to reduce a complex system, not linear and not spatially placeable as the intricate interweaving of contemporary global dynamics, to an understandable and modifiable micro-system. This type of reduction defines a political action that “becomes a simple feeling of personal legitimacy, which in turn masks the absence of real results” (Srnicek and Williams 2015, p. 17). In summary, “popular” action defines a virtuous micro system, but owes its survival to the macro system of late contemporary capitalism. An action, therefore, in itself positive and desirable but which, as many experiences confirm (this is the case of the Occupy movement or the Spanish 15-M), have a political and social descent that cannot be spent in the long term and on a global scale.
The Folk Politics case works in our analysis as a perfect counterpoint to the Alt Right and the related online communities. Ça va sans dire, no value judgment is being given here, nor is support expressed for narratives like those of the American Alt Right and its social-political exponents. However, for the purposes of a precise understanding of the phenomenon, it is interesting to note that unlike Folk Politics and the related processes of simplification, the American Alt Right online community does not claim to understand or simplify an irreducible contemporaneity, but adapts to it, ending up decreed among the most faithful representations.
The comparison with Folk Politics is therefore functional to mark on the one hand the strong anachronism (and a certain form of nostalgia) by narratives and aesthetics aimed at reactive political change on a small scale. On the other hand, the comparison sanctions the cultural (and above all media) “victory” of the models of the American alternative right: “Today, the movement that has been most remarkably successful at changing the culture rather than the formal politics is the Alt Right” (Nagle, p. 39). The Alt Right has defined in the United States a “youth bridge” between the various factions of the extreme right (Far Right) and mainstream trumpism, to which the Alt Right has provided an enormous basis for electoral consensus.
To pull the strings of the discourse expressed so far, the great success of Alt Right, and of its online community, is concretized in its ability to shape a precise cultural basin. A process that, with a discreet forcing, can echo a Gramscian flavor: “Although the tactics of the online right are updated to a digital age, it is hard to think of a better term than Gramscian to describe what they achieved, as a movement almost entirely based on influencing culture and shifting the Overton window trough media and culture, not just formal politics” (Nagle 2017, p. 39).
Nagle, A 2017, Kill All Normies, Zero Books, UK.
Srnicek, N e Williams, A 2015, Inventare il futuro, per un mondo senza lavoro, Nero, Roma.
Davidson, P 2009, The Keynes Solution: The Path to Global Economy Prosperity, Palgrave Macmillan, UK.