The Revenge of Folk Politics
Does the appropriation of transgressive cultural expressions and tactics by right-wing subcultures mean the end of the road for progressive and playful subcultures? In their conversation “Better Think Twice: Subcultures, Alt-s, and the Politics of Transgression” at transmediale 2018 face value, Florian Cramer and Angela Nagle discussed how this question is related to an excessive faith in the inherently progressive and left-wing character of subcultures as well as to a longer history of ambiguous youth, pop and experimental art practices. However, given today’s interaction between alternative and mainstream public spheres and political life, David Garcia’s response to the Cramer and Nagle discussion demonstrates that a “folk politics” of the Left can still matter.
2016 witnessed the revenge of “folk politics.” Of all the assumptions that were overturned by the success of the Alt-Right insurgency, one of the most surprising is the widespread belief on the Left that we have outgrown grassroots media activism. Increasingly, activists have come to be seen as victims of “communicative capitalism’s perfect lure in which subjects feel themselves to be active, even as their every action reinforces the status quo. 1 A general assumption has taken root along the lines that if these interventions posed any genuine threat to the status quo, they would be immediately suppressed. However, the success of the Alt-Right in using the full armory of tactical media in the Meme Wars of 2016 not only repudiated this assumption but also reminded us that there is nothing intrinsically progressive about transgressive subcultures or the disruptive aesthetics of the avant-garde.
Of the many commentators who have written about the rise of the Alt-Right, Florian Cramer and Angela Nagle stand out as having important and original perspectives on its underlying dynamics and origins. In the 2018 edition of transmediale, these two thinkers came together for an eagerly anticipated discussion. 2 So here we take the opportunity to reflect on this conversation in the context of wider efforts to understand these developments and learn from the failure of the Left to anticipate and counter-attack more effectively.
It is important that we see the rise of the Alt-Right against the background of a profound political reorientation based on two parallel strategies; firstly, the US Far Right has effectively occupied established leftist countercultural territories, deploying the tactics of subversive humor and transgression while moving to replace the traditional conservative Right. This was the point emphasized by Cramer in the discussion as he described a new kind of politics in which “the fire-walls separating traditional conservatism and the new generation of far-right extremism have been all but burnt down as part of a larger tendency to effectively replace mainstream conservatism.”
To some degree both Cramer and Nagle could be seen as building on years of important work by online ethnographers such as Whitney Phillips, Jessica Beyer and notably Gabriella Coleman, whose best-selling book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistle Blower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous 3 has done a great deal to illuminate the world of internet group Anonymous in the context of the wider 4chan message board landscape. Moreover, Coleman’s position as a well-known expert enabled her to act as a bridge to the mainstream media and has helped to reduce the sum total of general journalistic ignorance.
Whatever differences exist between Coleman, Cramer, and Nagle—all three share a belief in the political importance of the online subcultures associated with the message boards and their distinctive “ludic mode of spectacular intervention” 4 as an important element in understanding the appeal of the movement.
Coleman’s book gave a detailed account of this ludic aesthetic, once dubbed “Lulz” as essentially a trickster brand of anarchic and occasionally spiteful online mayhem that had been a key constituent of hacker culture long before the message boards. But Coleman’s research only really began in earnest in 2008 when Anonymous’ campaign against Scientology signaled that something of greater political importance was emerging.
Inevitably, like all research, Coleman’s book has fallen victim to the passage of time because it charts a period before the center of political gravity on 4chan shifted decisively to the right. But Nagle and Cramer have argued that malignant far-right sentiments were clearly visible and active within 4chan’s culture from early on. And we can see evidence of this in Coleman’s own research, particularly in her account of exchanges with the influential troll Andrew Auernheimer, aka weev, whose comments made his later emergence as a fully-fledged neo-Nazi completely unsurprising. The question we are left with is this: Was Coleman’s reluctance to more-fully call out Auernheimer’s obnoxious anti-Semitic comments a necessary tactic in researching the subject (undoubtedly he would have shut down communications had he been called out)? Or was Coleman exhibiting aspects of the academic Left’s tendency to be too tolerant of those exhibiting far-right tendencies when they are edgy subcultural actors?
Coleman’s book makes it clear that Anonymous is a subculture in the sense that Dick Hebdige would recognize as “disruptive noise that makes us see the world anew.” 5 Coleman portrays the semiotic landscape of Anonymous as a “quintessential example of what folklorists define as argot—specialized and esoteric terminology used by a subcultural group. Since argot is so opaque and particular, it functions to enact secrecy or, at minimum, erect some very stiff social boundaries […] the Lulz are unmistakably imbued with danger and mystery, and thus speak foremost to the pleasures of transgression...” 6
In a later journal article from 2012, Coleman 7 posited the driving force behind her research as, “the need to discover how and why what had once been an anarchic 'hate machine' (which was the caricature of Anonymous in its early stages) had been transformed into one of the most adroit and effective political operations of recent times.” Now, six years later, we are being forced to reflect on how 4chan was transformed into a realm increasingly associated with neo-Nazis? Nagle and Cramer’s work helps us to address this question against a background in which 4chan’s founder, Christopher Poole, has never abandoned his stance on “political incorrectness.”
Both Cramer’s lecture, "Mapping the Alt-Right" 8 and Nagle’s book, Kill all Normies, 9 succeed in identifying different moments of symbiosis, in a sequence of steps leading to the point of irreversible change when established neo-Nazi enclaves, such as Stormfront, began actively recruiting on 4chan, opportunistically capitalizing on youthful grassroots malcontent, so helping to propel white supremacist narratives back into mainstream political discourse. This narrative of cooption was later amplified into a more questionable belief that the Alt-Right had played a significant role in Trump’s victory. The opportunity to evaluate the evidence for these claims gave a special urgency to Cramer’s lecture, delivered in Rotterdam in November 2016 shortly after the US election. Nagle’s book was published later, in mid-2017, and so she had more time to draw the threads of her years of research together and weave a more complex set of arguments and assertions.
Research in Real-time
Cramer’s lecture reflects his background as a media theorist and was the direct result of his research on memes, undertaken for a visual cultures course in the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam. His investigations coincided with the increased intensity and volume of memes circulating at the height of the Trump campaign. It was immediately clear that however malign this movement was, it was also one of the most vibrant and well-networked subcultures of our time and the Left had made a serious error in underestimating its potency. As Trump’s campaign team began to increasingly adopt Alt-Right memes and tropes, Cramer appreciated the importance and topicality of the world he was uncovering and decided to deliver a public lecture and to do so at speed. It was an instance when research that acts swiftly pays real dividends as his lecture included shocking examples of Alt-Right content captured and disseminated weeks or sometimes days after being posted. This was real-time research in action and although the lecture was over two hours in length, it retained a unique sense of urgency.
What separates Cramer’s work from many other researchers working in this area is his emphasis on the way expressive media subcultures can be formative in influencing outcomes in key battles for the social mind. Though not easy to define, subcultures are often recognizable as such through the act of creating an in-group, often by the use of coded or esoteric language. Cramer’s lecture tracks this process as he undertakes a detailed piece of semiotic analysis of the complex but relatively stable compound of realities that constitute the Alt-Right, through its language and memes. He anatomizes the use of esotericism and explores the ways in which it mixes the humorous and the sinister. He details the evolution of the Pepe the Frog meme as it migrates from harmless ‘feel-good’ emoji to its connection to the ‘God-Emperor Trump’ meme (as Lord of Misrule) and on to Kek–the Egyptian God of chaos, infusing the embryonic Alt-Right with an occultist sheen of glamour. Building these layers of coded knowledge creates a cultish sense of an inner world for the elect while at the same time projecting a subtly different image of themselves to the wider public, all of which contributed to their partially successful efforts in making fascism cool, fashionable or ‘fashy’ as Alt-Right liked to call it.
Nagle’s book, though prompt, still came later and was the result of research developed over the last eight years into online anti-feminist networks. From its origins in the so-called manosphere, Nagle captures the constellation of activities as they coalesce into a diverse mix of actors including “teenage gamers, pseudonymous swastika-posting anime lovers, ironic South Park conservatives, anti-feminist pranksters, nerdish harassers and meme-making trolls.” 10
Nagle continually brings us back to her central point: To treat the Alt-Right simply as a political movement is to miss the fact that an important reason for its appeal is that it is a highly aesthetic movement with its own internal language exhibiting the classic traits of a subculture. A greater awareness of this dimension by the Clinton team might have helped her avoid the “basket of deplorables” debacle. It was, after all, Andrew Breitbart, founder of the far-right news service Breitbart, who declared that “politics is downstream from culture.”
Nagle emphasizes her intellectual debt to an earlier generation of feminist thinkers who, writing more than twenty years earlier, were already alive to the dangers in some of the biases and assumptions of the Birmingham School Cultural Studies movement. She credits the work of Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton as historically important in convening the discussion on the tendency in the cultural studies movement to mistake certain kinds of subcultural aesthetic traits for something politically progressive. In the conversation at transmediale, she took the time to quote the following passage from Sarah Thornton’s essay The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital (1995) that she says encapsulates the core argument of her book:
“Vague opposition is certainly how many members of youth subcultures characterize their own activities. However, we can’t take youthful discourses literally; they are not a transparent window on the world. Many cultural studies have made the mistake of doing this. They have been insufficiently critical of subcultural ideologies, first, because they were diverted by the task of puncturing and contesting dominant ideologies and, second, because their biases have tended to agree with the anti-mass society discourses of the youth cultures they study” […] ”While youth have celebrated 'underground', the academics have venerated 'subcultures'; where young people have denounced the 'commercial', scholars have criticized 'hegemony'; where one has lamented 'selling out', the other has theorized 'incorporation'. In this way, the Birmingham tradition has both over-politicized youthful leisure and at the same time ignored the subtle relations of power at play within it
–Sarah Thornton, The Social Logic of Subcultural Capital (1995) 11
This, Nagle contends, is essentially the argument of her book: that there are quite reactionary, misanthropic and nasty elements that were there for a very long time in this online world that came to full fruition in the form of the Alt-Right.
The Double-edged Sword of Transgression
One of the most effective weapons in the Meme Wars was the tactical use of irony to undercut serious criticism. Although profoundly different in all other respects, Lulz culture shares this use of irony as a double-edged sword with the much earlier subculture of Camp. I mention this because Susan Sontag’s masterful essay "Notes on Camp" is extremely useful in illuminating how a sensibility that is alive to the double sense in which things can be taken so that “everything is in quotation marks” can be operationalized as “…a solvent for morality. It neutralizes moral indignation.” 12 It was a tactic effectively deployed by Alt-Right troll Milo Yiannopoulos before his spectacular fall from grace.
Towards the end of the discussion in Berlin, Nagle raised one of the central questions of her book, the role of transgression in progressive politics, when she asked whether we ought to conclude that subculture itself is just a neutral thing and that it can take on any political form. In Kill all Normies her position is clear enough. She argues that subcultures (at least in their more transgressive mode) are far from neutral. In fact she suggests that it constitutes a nihilistic thread running through the heart of the modernist avant-garde stretching from de Sade to the Surrealists and the Situationists (who she concedes at least “have a better world in their hearts”) en route to the 1960s counter-culture and culminating in the Manson Murders which are the “logical culmination of throwing off the shackles of conscience and consciousness, the grim flowering of the id’s voodoo energies.”
Cramer also contends that this is a very old subject. He points to both recent and historical expressions from Laibach to Peter Soto’s magazine Pure, whilst reminding us that this is a recurring naiveté in which successive generations repeat the same mistake of seeing transgressive subcultures as embracing just one political orientation. The implication is that we should have outgrown this assumption as Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment was at least in part an investigation into how progressive discourse can turn into barbarism.
Although both speakers are equally aware of the issue of transgression being uncritically celebrated by the academic and artistic Left, I would argue that Cramer’s attitude to subcultural transgression is more ambivalent than Nagle’s. In a number of lectures and interviews, he gives a positive spin to the fact that the message boards founded on principles of anonymity are probably the “last unregulated spaces on the internet.” In these and other pronouncements, there is a suggestion of loyalty to principles that harks back to the early days of the internet, where the right to anonymity was a key formative feature of early digital cultures.
In an interview with Eric Davis’s on the Expanding Mind podcast 13 Cramer even playfully suggested the possibility of what he calls an “ecology of nihilism”, positing that impulses essential for creativity in art might usefully be siloed into a kind of separate arts category, while simultaneously suggesting that areas like politics or banking could be kept deliberately boring as the damage that occurs when these areas become creative are there for all to see. I recognize that it’s unfair to quote from a relatively informal exploratory interview in which Cramer was simply indulging in a kind of “what if” thought experiment, but let's be clear, the Gramscians of both the Right and the Left continue to demonstrate the importance of the arts in the affective dimension of politics and that the siloes imagined here are neither possible nor desirable.
One controversial element of Nagle’s book that was left relatively untouched in the transmediale discussion are the assertions for which she has received some of the most sustained criticism from some sections of the Left. Unsurprisingly this springs from her proposition that one contributory factor in the emergence of “a new right sensibility among a younger generation” was as a reaction to an overzealous brand of identity politics (with a particular emphasis on gender fluidity) that was ultra-sensitive in its policing of even trivial or inadvertent infringements of linguistic norms and exhibiting a punitive ethos typified by “call out culture.” Nagle argues that some of the more extreme examples of what she calls “Tumblr Liberalism” inadvertently fuelled the free speech fundamentalists on 4chan, seeking to resist “preachy, performatively ‘woke’ Tumblr-style identity politics.”
Learning the Right Lessons
The shock and surprise at the success of the Alt-Right insurgency not only overturned entrenched assumptions about the intrinsically progressive nature of the transgressive impulse, it also, as I argued in the opening paragraphs of this essay, undermines a growing consensus on the Left that DIY grassroots media activism is fundamentally futile. Typical proponents of this view are Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams who in their influential critiques of what they call “folk politics” target the practices that aim to “bring politics down to the ‘human scale’ by emphasizing the temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy.” 14 To Srnicek and Williams, the tactics of withdrawal, resistance, localism, and above all autonomous spaces, “represent a defensive game against an uncompromising and incessantly encroaching capitalism. “As our political, economic, social, and technological world changes, tactics and strategies that were precious and capable of transforming collective power into transformational gains have now been drained of effectiveness.” [….] “Capitalism”, they argue, “is an aggressively expansive universal, from which efforts to segregate a space of autonomy are bound to fail.” 15 It should now be clear that the impact of the new autonomous zones of 4chan and 8chan demonstrate that the desire for unregulated spaces remains unabated. Though some of the consequences of anonymity are highly problematic, these domains remain a vital expressive affordance in a world in which the near universality that is “platform capitalism” appears to obviate any genuine sense of agency.
Nagle’s response to these problems is to advocate a kind of aesthetic conservatism, which increases in intensity throughout her book, culminating in her conclusion that the real lesson of the Alt-Right’s success in snatching the mantle of radicalism from the Left is that counterculture ideals themselves have outlived their usefulness. And that it is now time to stop “flogging the dead horse of ‘edginess’, […] to […] lay the entire paradigm to rest and create something new.”
Although Nagle makes important points, we should heed her warnings without following her advice too slavishly. Whilst we might recognize the need for taboos, I would argue that we should not follow Nagle all the way down a road that leads to Freud’s oppressive social conservatism. Nagle’s examples (inevitable given the shortness of her book) are too selective and limited for us to conclude that they demonstrate the inevitable destination of subcultural transgression are the horrors of the Manson Murders or the malignancy of the Alt-Right.
In the conversation with Cramer, Nagle declared that identifying the Alt-Right as a subculture was somewhat surprising to her as a consensus had arisen among cultural studies critics and scholars that subcultures were a thing of the past. This was, I assume, a throwaway line, as it is far from being the case, as black working class subcultures based around hip-hop, grime and, most recently, “drill” have been thriving for decades, embedded into the life of the streets, a powerful mix of music, spoken-word, video, and dress codes, with an increasing awareness of its potency as a political force in campaigns from Black Lives Matter to Grime4Corbyn.
As far back as December 9, 2010, journalist and later activist Paul Mason, then still economics editor for the BBC, covered a story in which 40,000 students converged on London’s Parliament Square under the headline “The Dubstep Rebellion.” Shortly after his blog 16 was posted, some protesters made “vigorous representations to him via Twitter [...] that it was not Dubstep but Grime. ‘It was the Grime Revolution, duh.'" Mason goes on to describe the genre as “so dangerous it was effectively banned in the clubs teenagers frequent.” Eight years later grime artists are mainstream international celebrities, winning Mercury music awards and today it is Drill, with its taunting lyrics and association with violent street gangs that has become the default “scary” genre.
So if we follow Nagle’s assumptions of the inevitably nihilistic destination of transgressive subcultures too closely and abandon this kind of risky terrain as “problematic,” then the vacuum will soon be filled.
Another possible instance of the operation of this principle is the likelihood that the dominance of the Alt-Right on the message boards might have been more effectively challenged if the US state had not moved so decisively to suppress Anonymous. It was not just the US but also the actions of a number of states worldwide that created paralysis and paranoia not only by infiltrating Anonymous networks but also by delivering a series of cruelly disproportionate prison sentences. Nagle herself points out that this suppression “created a vacuum on the image boards that the rightest side of culture was able to fill with their expert style of anti-PC shock humour and memes.” The unintended consequence of this campaign was to effectively neutralize the one entity with the technical skill, the kudos, and the cultural capital to have mounted a credible challenge to the Alt-Right.
It should now be clear that the world of subcultures and their associated “folk politics” are as dynamic and urgent as ever but the setting they inhabit is very different from the ideals of the internet radicals of the 1990s. Today’s online sub-cultures are operating at a juncture when digital cultures have become the environment, or what sociologist Marcel Mauss called a “total social fact.” This new reality constitutes a direct challenge to the concept of the spaces of participation as autonomous, as “today’s technologies of participation materialize the very opposite circumstance; here participation becomes deeply entangled with the conduct of everyday life.” As social theorist Noortje Marres argues, “the outstanding feature of digital participation is its insertiability into other practices and settings.” 17 It is against this backdrop that the continuing quest for unregulated quasi-autonomous spaces are playing out, spawning unpredictable social movements that have demonstrated the continued potency of subversive countercultures and their disruptive politics. But there is an additional dimension to consider; this new backdrop of the insertiability of digital interventions into all aspects of daily life might help to account for the enhanced capacity that these forms of activism have demonstrated to progressively undermine traditional media’s capacity to manufacture consent by releasing a proliferation of ever more extreme expressions of dissent.
The title of theorist Michael Seemann’s book Digital Tailspin 18 is a useful shorthand term to describe our predicament and a reminder of the high stakes of any intervention. The political success of the Alt-Right reminds us that the territories occupied by transgressive subcultures must continue to be contested as we have learned to our cost that any vacuum will be swiftly filled by the raw and malign simplicities of a resurgent far-right. But above all the success of the Alt-Right should have taught us that the true revenge of folk politics depends on the realization that protest movements that occupy the streets, the squares, the message boards, and the campuses alone are not enough. They must be accompanied by serious engagement with technical and political infrastructures that enable access to the seats of institutional power, up to and including government.
- 1. Jodi Dean, Publicity's Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Cornell University Press, 2002).
- 2. Angela Nagle & Florian Cramer, Discussion: “Better Think Twice: Subcultures Alt-s and the Politics of Transgression”, transmediale 2018 face value, Sat, 03.02.2018.
- 3. Gabriella Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistle Blower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (London: Verso, 2015).
- 4. Noortje Marres, Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research (London: Verso, 2018), 146.
- 5. Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Routledge, 1979), 31.
- 6. Coleman, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistle Blower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, 31.
- 7. Gabriella Coleman, “Our Weirdness is Free”, in triplecanopy (Issue 15, 2012)
- 8. Florian Cramer, “Mapping the Alt-Right” Lecture, Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam, (Nov 28, 2016)
- 9. Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, (Zero Books, 2017).
- 10. Ibid., 35.
- 11. In K. Gelder & S. Thornton (Eds.), The subcultures reader (pp. 200-212). London: Routledge. 1997. p 185
- 12. Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp'”, Partisan Review (Fall, 1964)
- 13. Erik Davis & Florian Cramer, “Alt-Right Meme Magic” Podcast, Expanding Mind (February 17, 2017).
- 14. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015).
- 15. Ibid.
- 16. Paul Mason, “Dubstep rebellion - the British banlieue comes to Millbank” BBC (9 December, 2010)
- 17. Marres, Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research, 146.
- 18. Michael Seemann, Digital Tailspin: Ten Rules for the Internet After Snowden (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2015).