The negative dialectics of moralism

I.  Angela Nagle should be delighted by the debate about her new book, Kill All Normies. A great deal of the reaction is not about her book; it is overdetermined. Plaudits are far too excited, and critics are far too incensed. This means that, with a good title and a terse, accessible style, she has struck a motherlode of jouissance. The book will sell.

As a book, it reads like a collection of thematically linked essays, of varying quality. In fact, I think the book reads a lot better if taken that way. An essay, as essays about essaying keep saying, is an attempt. It is a necessarily incomplete, open-ended, speculative foray into a subject or an idea. You can get away with a lot more if you say that what you've written is an essay. You can be playful, wrong, unfair, uninformed, downright contradictory, and still write a good essay. For some of the best writers, ignorance is their metier; and it is, as Wilde once put it, a delicate, exotic fruit.

Nagle writes well. But her forte is not so much ignorance as a kind of Usonian parochialism, disfigured only occasionally by displays of insight and intuition. The ground her book covers will strike most educated left-wing readers as very familiar, and at times rather flat -- a dash through the wheat-fields, to borrow Theresa May's metaphor, rather than a journey up the mountain.

II.  Terra familia begins with a rehash of that malevolent dialectic wherein certain Sixties ideas about liberation -- above all, of freeing the id from the taxing demands of civilisation -- have become a new mode of reaction.

If nothing else, this genre has been done to death by Adam Curtis in what I would estimate is the majority of his documentaries. Zizekians have made a small cottage industry out of a more sophisticated version of this argument -- the demise of symbolic efficiency, death of the big Other, the superego taking the side of enjoyment, and so on.

While making some excellent points about the specificity of Trump and alt-right conservatism, she also overstates the novelty of the alt-right's politics of 'transgression' (according to Corey Robin, this is far more constitutive of reaction, historically, than order and peace), and of the idea that transgression is politically complicated.

Nagle is also far too glib and summary in gesturing toward historical patterns. Of the workers who unionised in the Thirties, she says: "Ideas of transgression and cultural radicalism were largely irrelevant to this working-class left." This is an historical projection. Merely to cite an example from the top of my head, it would take little time for an historian of the incipient civil rights movement of the Thirties, or anyone looking into the cultural side of the Works Progress Administration, to find many of the elements that came to the fore in the Sixties cultural revolution.

Ungenerously, one could claim that what Nagle is doing constitutes a kind of occulted snobbery and a back-handed apologia for the social conservatism that she says characterised radical politics in the era. By suppressing the complexities of working class cultural radicalism at the time, she allows us to imagine a prelapsarian proletarian politics, one that was able to focus powerfully on the 'real' issues of class and capitalism.   

A more generous but still far-from-inviting reading would be that Nagle is simply reducing "transgression and cultural radicalism" to the fetishised forms of online activism and identifications that she finds problematic today, and that ultimately her point would be that if the Left were a little less impressed by all that and a little more interested in building working class power, it would have some power.

III. The critique of 'identity politics' is similarly cliched. It has, first of all, the great disadvantage of mistaking Walter Benn Michaels for an interesting and informative commentator on this area. This, I think, is symptomatic of its intellectual provincialism and extreme narrowness of reference. It also posits an unavailing dichotomy between 'economic equality' and 'identity'. The problem with posing the problem in this way is that it leaves us with only two choices: either we take the 'economistic' side or the 'identitarian' side.

There is a slight tendency toward reasoning-by-word-cloud, as when Nagle characterises the tendencies that have passed from Sixties counterculture to alt-right counterculture: "libertinism, individualism, bourgeois bohemianism, postmodernism, irony and ultimately ... nihilism". Not that I don't see the point that is being made here, and not that I don't see its partial truth; but I also see the writer-on-autopilot making it. 

In the broad and familiar sweep of this history, the left gives up on the working class, joins the academia, and unhooks itself from materialist roots. The 'cultural turn' is faulted here, and we are told that Judith Butler offered an account of sex, gender and sexuality which argued that the categories were "entirely culturally constructed". The explosion of genders on Tumblr, then, is "the subcultural digital expression of the fruition of Judith Butler's ideas".

There are two things going on here. The first is that Nagle has read more about Butler than by Butler. The characterisation of Butler's theory of performativity as though it were a prospectus for limitless protean malleability, is another meet-exemplar of the book's parochialism. Why bother reading an obscure theorist when you can read the summary?

The second is that Nagle is supremely incurious about what she is commenting on. For example, the clumsy attempts to find an inclusionary discourse around disability, as in the often indigestible 'spoonie' language, is treated rather casually. We are told that caring about disability is something "humans have been doing for centuries" and "certainly uncontroversial". But humans have been doing a lot of things to disabled or mentally suffering people "for centuries". Neoliberal capitalism has not been kind to anyone who suffers, and there is a long history of women in particular being told that their symptom isn't real, that they're just hysterical, that their illness is feigned.

It's striking that this reality, which is the context for the difficult and often fumbling efforts to provide a language adequate to concrete experience, is not part of the picture in Nagle's book. Instead we get only one-dimensional characterisations of issues and individuals who are represented either as figures of fun, or of menace, or both.

IV.  It would be absurd to pretend, however, that Nagle's distemper with "Tumblr liberalism" is totally without foundation. That is, the idea that this nebulous formation has incubated at times a self-regarding cult of suffering and victimhood, of which the obverse is a matchless viciousness, is patently obvious.

I am delighted to discover, in this connection, the term "cry-bullying" in Nagle's book, to describe a form of passive-aggressive online sadism. And not at all surprised or disheartened to see the online feminist, 'Stavvers', called out -- yes, that's the term -- for her comments on Mark Fisher's death. 

But this kind of reality is gestured toward with all the subtlety and sensitivity of a trainwreck, and the alleged transition of this "Tumblr liberalism" into campus politics is demonstrated with examples that are given at best a cursory and desultory review.

Nagle begins with three cases of campus conflicts from the United Kingdom, viz. the 'no platforming' of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell, and the Islamic Society's heckling and disruption of Maryam Namazie at Goldsmiths University. Now, it is clear what Nagle thinks of these actions. It's the "procensorship left". Fran Cowling refusing to appear on a platform with Tatchell is the specific incident that provokes this designation. It must be said, to his credit I think, that Tatchell himself stressed that he didn't have a problem with Cowling's tactic. He merely disputed the political foundation for it, which was that he was Islamophobic. And here is the problem. Whatever one thinks of 'no platforming' -- and I do think the tactic, designed for use against fascists, is used far too indiscriminately -- one really needs an evaluation of the criticisms lying behind them. That makes all the difference between, say, a tactical misfire in dealing with individuals whose behaviour and statements have been genuinely invidious, and an outright malicious and slanderous attack on people with whom one differs.

What, for example, should one say about Greer's writing on transgender and transsexual politics in The Whole Woman, which is essentially a regurgitation of Janice Raymond? If sex is not "entirely culturally constructed", should we agree with Greer and Raymond that it is entirely biologically determined in such a way that trans positions must be in some sense delusional or fraudulent? I think I could guess, at a push, what Nagle's position is, if nothing else from the fact that she puts the word 'transphobic' in scare quotes. Yet, blunt and brutal elsewhere, she is opts for abstention here.

Likewise, what of the claims that Tatchell has been in effect part of a liberal Islamophobic tendency in British politics, most prominently at a time in which there was an escalation of state attacks on Muslims, from CCTV surveillance to extraordinary rendition? How should we evaluate those? One would have to, just to take one example, go back and trawl carefully through the facts and contending claims about East London Mosque, the subject of an extraordinary state-led witch-hunt in the 2000s, in which Tatchell was a prominent voice. My recollection is that there was, as part of a general liberal Islamophobic bent, a discredited attempt to represent homophobic violence in the capital as being particularly high in Tower Hamlets, which has a large Muslim population, owing to the influence of the Mosque and homophobic preachers. To be clear, there was an increase in homophobic violence in London at the time; it wasn't specifically worse in Muslim areas. Now I think, for his own politically overdetermined reasons, Tatchell ended up pink-washing anti-Muslim racism. Nagle says nothing about all this.

Lastly, what of the criticisms of Namazie and the strange cult of Hekmatism from which she emanates? Roughly around the time that half of the London liberal intelligentsia was turning Islamophobic, Namazie suddenly appeared as a slightly celebrated figure. What drew cheers were her dogmatic and indiscriminate attacks on Islam, and the way in which she segued from a quite valid critique of right-wing Islamists to a general position, amenable to the know-nothing belligerati at the time, that Islam didn't have an acceptable or 'moderate' faction.

There was, just by way of illustration, an extremely odd cultural moment when some European newspapers circulated, as though in brave defiance of an actual threat, Islamophobic cartoons closely resembling antisemitic stereotypes from the Thirties. In London, a coalition of secular liberals, reactionaries and outright fascists descended on central London for what one of the organisers called a 'Viking Jihad', in defence of the publishers. I went to watch the event unfold, and I've never seen such a motley alliance. Tatchell on the platform, tattooed St George's Cross-bearing fascists members in the square. Namazie was also a speaker and participant, and came bearing the racist caricatures on placards: as though she were defying ancient feudal power and blasphemy laws. As though the armed force of all the states of Europe and North America were not behind her.

Again, though, Nagle says nothing of the background. What she does apprise us of is that Goldsmiths Feminist Society defended the Islamic Society's disruptive protest, and -- "to put in context those who the liberal students were defending" -- that the president of the Islamic Society was a homophobe. The irony is that his homophobia was discovered by people trawling through what they inferred was his Twitter account. As soon as that became clear, the Islamic Society sacked him, saying: "Hate speech of any kind has no place in our society."

Without this context, we are left with the insinuation that these were gay-bashing religious fundamentalists, and that the Tumblr liberals had gone mad out of some misplaced faith in the ethical incorrigibility of identities. It's also worth adding that I suspect Goldsmith Feminist Society would be extremely pissed off to be unilaterally pigeon-holed in as 'liberals'. To call them such is an Americanism that makes little sense in the context of British student politics.

V.  Nagle, by such expedients, elisions and evasions, almost certainly keeps the same cycles of outrage, condemnation, defensiveness, bravado, bullying, and sanctified victimhood perpetually going on.

After all, who would respond well to such a one-sided scolding? Who would rise to their best, and think most critically and openly, in response to such a fierce blast of superego spite? Who would begin to question their own moralistic reflexes in the face of what is itself a form of moralism? This is the sad thing about Nagle's book -- prompted, no doubt in part, by online moralistic sadism, it is itself punitively moralistic.

Stylistically, these evasions help produce a superficially clean, brisk, uncomplicated and uncompromising polemic. There is, first of all, an introduction to the problem, the some-time rising and increasingly frisky and triumphalist alt-right. There is, then, an historical arc sketched out linking the Sixties radicals to the 2010s reactionaries. There is a dark portrait of online culture, of an "intellectually shut down world of Tumblr and trigger warnings", linked to a censorious campus culture.

And that culture, it is argued, is a product of the same intellectual decline which gave ground to the alt-right and makes it impossible for campus progressives to argue against Milo Yiannopoulos. As though the reason for pickets outside the Yiannopoulos talks was so that no one would have to think up a clever answer to the insinuation that transwomen just want in the women's bathroom in order to rape little girls. Here, one can see part of the pull for Nagle's book: it's for a part of the left who can't imagine that their opponents are anything other than thick. This is surely looped into exactly the same affective and libidinal economies as those of the cry-bullies.

One doesn't have to buy this analysis, however, to partly see where Nagle's argument is coming from, and where else it might have gone. Nor need one think that Nagle's version of the problem, "Tumblr liberalism", is a well- and accurately-defined object, to agree that something like this exists in the real world. Nor does one need to subscribe to this increasingly stale theory about the fall of the American Left, to think that there is something to the idea that the alt-right and "Tumblr liberalism" are mutually co-constituting.

But what one needs then, surely, is not the increasingly hokey attacks on a straw 'identity politics', but a political (and psychic) economy of social media. What one needs is an account of how attention is engaged, retained, bought and sold; how online platforms are structured and structuring in their effects on users; how existing social and cultural tendencies are selected and accentuated by these technologies and their corporate organisation; and so on.

What this book does, sadly, is circle around the familiar, well-trodden terrain, not only in terms of its theory, but in terms of its unreflexive 'backlash' anti-moralist moralising. It perpetuates the dynamics that it purports to anatomise, scold and shame.

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