Atlas and the Hesperides , John Singer Sargent, 1925
From Radical Philosophy:
The socialist left were once the champions of science and reason, of the rationally planned society directed towards meeting the material needs of humanity. The neoliberals stole that crown. But it was, arguably, the poststructuralist collapse that led the left off down the garden path in this respect. When language is cast as the fabric of reality itself, how one feels became equivalent to what one is. For others to deny that those feelings constitute truth claims about the world is then to erase the core of one’s being. The neoliberals’ credentials for hard-headed rationalism have also undergone a slow rout since 2008, their supply-side economics shibboleths exposed for what they always were: wealth transfers from labour to capital and a managed decline for the vast majority. In this context the alt-right were able to portray themselves as the reasonable defenders of the ordinary person. And so the great insurgent force of our times came not from the left, but from the fringes of the right.
Nagle makes much of how ‘Milo and his 4chan troll fans are in many ways the perfect postmodern offspring, where every statement is wrapped in layers of faux-irony, playfulness and multiple cultural nods and references’, but this is really only half the story. It is an important half, because it was no mean feat to make the aged tropes of the far right cool again. The other part is, however, precisely an appeal to rationality and reason. Witness Rebel Media’s Lauren Southern mobilise science in her anti-feminist crusade. Or how Bannon packages the various motivating concerns of the alt-right into a compelling story of Western decline and how it can be reversed. In an anecdote indicative of the intellectual deprivation of Tumblr-liberalism, Nagle tells of how Buzzfeed published an interview with Bannon ‘presumably thinking this was a ready-made hit-piece that would destroy his reputation’, but instead he ‘came across in the interview as darkly fascinating and, relative to many Buzzfeed listicle writers, as quite a serious and intriguing person.’ Vice journalist Elle Reeve’s interview with Richard Spencer, in which Spencer is awarded open season to portray himself as a wronged and misunderstood individual, might also be cited here. The bar has been set so low, and the left’s resources become so depleted, that Bannon, a Z-list pseudo-intellectual, found himself cast as a luminary of the zeitgeist and a household name across the Anglophone world.
But for all the success of the alt-right in reaching the mainstream, as Tumblr-liberalism did, it remains, as Tumblr-liberalism has, an elitist formation. They may have helped catapult Trump to the White House, but ‘behind the “populist” president, the rhetoric of his young online far-right vanguard had long been characterised by an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture.’ It is this conception of the popular that underpins the shared problematic – the ordinary person is either an unreformed racist or a feminised loser, depending on which side you ask. The effect is to decisively undermine the currently circulating view that the socialist left should be re-branded as ‘alt-left’. Nagle demonstrates that, if anything, the commonality lies in the other direction. But she, rightly, never goes so far as to make the move and dub Tumblr-liberalism the alt-left. It is implicit, although never adequately stated, that for all its weaknesses Tumblr-liberalism draws from emancipatory discourses. All the edgy gloss of the alt-right should not be permitted to conceal that it remains, by contrast, firmly anchored to a long tradition of dangerous reaction.