Here’s a thread from a few weeks ago reacting to the controversy that unfolded surrounding Natalie Wynn‘s twitter remarks on the complexities of asking for pronouns in certain contexts. This was written before her more recent video ‘Opulence‘, and the second act of that particular clusterfuck. It gave me an opportunity to articulate some of my thoughts on the problems of left-wing political culture, and the way these problems are exacerbated by its transposition and sometimes transmutation into various forms of online discourse. These are closely related to my thoughts on zero-sum politics, and will likely be relevant to some other things I want to say in future, so I think it’s good to get them down here.
The left-wing politicisation pipeline still seems to be doing its thing (#contrapoints). Each new crop of radicals think they’ve had the eternal truth of <the current year> revealed to them, and then confuse politics with interpersonal struggles of affirmation and denunciation.
Unfortunately, by the time people have learned not to dissociate from their past, ignorant selves by fervently criticising anyone they associate with that ignorance, and more generally chill the fuck down, there’s another batch driving the same dynamics.
Worse, it’s now possible to remain in one’s political adolescence forever, never moving past the stage of identity formation through overcompensation, because there’s a now an endless pipeline of political adolescents from which to spin a distributed network of peers.
If you think this is about age, consider: the Brexit vote began a process of polarisation, and thus politicisation, that is ongoing, which mainly acted on older people that either had no need for politics, or for whom politics had no need. These are old political adolescents.
This makes a lot of sense of the completely crazy politics in the UK since the referendum, because there have been opportunists on both sides who have taken advantage of the political naivety of the newly radicalised: embracing signalling and ignoring strategy.
To be completely explicit: I’ve met 18 year old students who are more politically self-aware than their Gen X parents, I’ve also met ageing millennials who think that politics is principally a matter of who you cleave to on twitter in disputes over Game of Thrones hot takes.
There are various reasons to pay attention to politicisation, but none is more pressing than polarisation, which goes well beyond Brexit. What we see here are interactions between processes of politicisation that drive demographics into separate communicative worlds.
I may not have agreed with every aspect of Nagle‘s analysis in Kill All Normies, but it’s hard to deny that she put her finger on something: the origins of a pair of processes of politicisation that drove each other in opposite directions over the course of the last decade.
Now I’ve gone from one cancelled person to another, the problematic circle is complete. After all, what is Absolute Spirit but self-cancellation?
The issue with this thread is that interpreting it correctly requires further information about my actual views regarding Contrapoints, which aren’t always obvious to someone reading an isolated twitter thread that’s been retweeted into their timeline. This connection between the proliferation and de-contextualisation of communicative content is a non-trivial feature of the social dynamics I’m talking about here. So, here’s how I made the relevant context explicit:
It appears I was not clear enough in the thread, so here’s a few clarifications: 1) I’m not critiquing Natalie Wynn, I have nothing but praise for her and what she does; 2) in openly discussing the internal problems of the (online) left, I am not thereby praising the right.
Here’s a crucial difference between the (online) right and the (online) left: the former prioritises belonging over doctrine, and this is reflected in the way their politicisation pipeline functions, where one moves from ironic endorsement to outright endorsement.
The left is famous for ripping itself to pieces over tiny doctrinal differences, whereas the right sees these sorts of things as downstream from whether you’re ‘one of us’ or not. They’re happy for people to come in with minor attachment (e.g., ‘I’m just a gamer’), and grow it.
It’s about capturing the negative reactions that certain demographics have to other demographics, and then capitalising on them. But even this is to give too much agency to the right in the (online) process of polarisation.
Forgive me for skipping straight to fascism, but it’s important to understand just how ideologically flexible it is. This is not so much design as it is a matter of the conditions that occasion it: fascism is the spontaneous ideology of authoritarians.
It doesn’t need a doctrine in the way that the various factions of the left do, it just needs symbols around which to organise belonging and cultivate power, and it doesn’t really matter what these symbols are. Even anime schoolgirls driving tanks will do in a pinch.
I’d rather side with those thinking and talking about what it means for there to be a better world, than those who would encourage the worst aspects of the world as it is, even if the former are a fucking nightmare and the latter are ‘really nice, once you get to know them‘.
However, if you could all try to be less than a fucking nightmare to deal with, it’d be much appreciated.
As Alex Williams pointed out to me, my account of the online right is somewhat limited, not just in the sense that it excludes the social dynamics that are either not specific to, or in excess of the online sphere, but also in the sense that it ignores the petty rivalries, purity tests, and internecine power struggles that inevitably emerge at the level of discrete political units (e.g., Breitbart, the Proud Boys, StormFront, etc.). When it comes to the latter, things obviously get more complicated, and it’s important to remember the lessons of the pre-internet period. I think the way to extend my story here is to really trace how the link between theory/praxis and solidarity/adversariality is in some sense inverted between the left and right.
I actually think this is where mine and Benedict Singleton‘s interests in understanding micropolitical interactions (e.g., sincerity and betrayal) interface with Alex’s macropolitical interests in hegemony and institutional dynamics. Moreover, I actually think working this out properly is fleshing out his idea of negative solidarity, which I maintain is one of his greatest contributions to political discourse. I think there might be a useful sense in which we can read negative solidarity as complicity and articulate these issues that way. I have no worked out theory of this yet, but I think this requires examining the different strategies that are available for communicating ‘we, group A, are united in an adversarial relationship with group B’ between the left and the right, and how this communicative ecology shapes the way that organisation actually occurs. However, this is work for another day.