It is easy to have dark, foreboding intuitions about what apocalyptic movements might be developing on the internet and social media. It is far harder to observe the birth processes of those rough beasts slouching towards Twitter to be born.
Of course, this is the nature of the development of extremist movements. To any outside observer, the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party would have presented nothing more than serious men in beards arguing incomprehensibly over party organization and dialectical materialism. Nor would watching angry veterans get drunk in Bavarian beer halls in 1921 have been much more enlightening about the threat to civilization steeping there.
It would have been helpful, when 20th-century totalitarianism was developing, to have someone like Irish journalist Angela Nagle around. The author of Kill All Normies: The Online Culture Wars from Tumblr and 4chan to the alt-right and Trump is a sensitive and critical observer with the stamina to wade through enormous quantities of dreck. She has studied the tiresome and combative worlds of the online alt-right and identitarian left, managing to balance empathy, analysis and common sense. With the election of Donald Trump, her Marxisant publisher Zero Books recognized that this research was onto something big, and rushed to get this book out. In some places, the hurry shows: names are misspelled, minor errors abound and some chapters seem more finished than others. But overall this is an indispensable work of reporting and analysis.
Nagle starts by situating the dystopic worlds she is about to talk about in the recurrent "cyberutopianism" that periodically characterizes discussions of new communications technologies. The likely ur-text of cyberutopianism is John Perry Barlow's 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1) which announced to the "Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel" that they had no sovereignty in the pure land of cyberspace, a "world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth," in which the only law would be the Golden Rule.
In her first chapter, Nagle points to how this trope of cyberutopianism, despite apparently being buried by the absurdities of the dot-com era, was revived around 2011 with the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. She documents romanticization of the "leaderless network" enabled by technology, pointing out that this ideology disabled Occupy from taking on either programmatic form or tactical flexibility. She then turns to the development of the current online right. Kill All Normies shows more compellingly than any other book I am aware of how a nerdy male online subculture oriented toward video games became an increasingly dangerous alt-right.
Nagle describes an older generation of paleoconservatives around Pat Buchanan, who have long viewed politics as a battleground of...