Nagle’s book begins around 2011, when a new wave of net-utopianism emerged. Occupy and the Arab Spring, along with Wikileaks, demonstrated that the Internet could produce concrete political results as opposed to the more generalized utopianism that marked nineties web culture.
Meanwhile, at both party and cultural levels, the Right was preparing for a large-scale confrontation. The Left — not without exception — was too busy navel-gazing to notice. Like Laura Poitras’s recent film Risk, which documents how cyber-libertarianism failed to recognize the possible misuse or systemic control offered by digital technologies, Nagle reveals that the storm had been brewing for some time. She writes:
Just a few years ago the left-cyberutopians claimed that “the disgust had become a network” and that establishment old media could no longer control politics, that the new public sphere was going to be based on leaderless user-generated social media. This network has indeed arrived, but it has helped to take the right, not the left, to power.
By focusing on the actual content of both camps’ messages, Nagle reveals that the belief in neutral digital spaces was only ever a collective delusion. The national news media could afford to learn this lesson as well.
The trolls who became warriors and generals in “World War Meme” only make up part of this subculture. Nagle’s account of the “alt-right” provides a much more general and far more concrete overview of this political movement than anything that has appeared in print so far.
She identifies a brief genealogy of misogyny-focused message boards and platforms — among them Breitbart News — that operate as separate factions in a decentralized and successful attempt to shape media narratives. Some elements of this history will be familiar: Gamergate, in which male video-game enthusiasts attacked female gamers and game critics, or Pizzagate, in which even the mainstream news picked up a truly bizarre conspiracy theory about the Democratic Party, cheese pizza, and child sex abuse.
Nagle’s overarching claim is troubling: the trolls, loosely allied with Trump’s itchy Twitter finger and Steve Bannon’s far-right platform at Breitbart, discovered a way to control what links get clicked. While some scholars have questioned these techniques’ efficacy and others have argued that the alt-right “hacked the attention economy,” Nagle surpasses them all by focusing on the messages themselves.
Nagle names these media manipulators the “Gramscian Alt Light,” after the Italian Marxist whose notion of hegemony introduced the interpretation of cultural messaging into Marxist theory. We can see how the alt-right borrows from Gramsci — as well as from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School — in Andrew Breitbart’s motto: “Politics is downstream from culture.”
Indeed, Breitbart founded his news organization to counter the liberal Huffington Post, where he had previously worked. For Breitbart and his protegé Steve Bannon, “alternative facts” and “fake news” simply translate what Western Marxism has been saying for nearly a century: cultural messaging not only reflects political and economic struggle but also influences the forms that struggle takes. Dominate the message (boards), and you will dominate politics. As Nagle summarizes:
[The] Gramscian strategy has been successful beyond any predictions . . . It appears as though in the online culture wars, those heeding the ideas of the left most closely, from Chomsky’s idea of manufacturing consent to Gramsci’s theory of hegemony and counter-hegemony, and applying them most strategically, were the right.
As Nagle shows in detail, the trolls create the content for this manipulation, styling their explosive and multimedia memes as rejections of a dying liberal culture. These images are galvanizing, heady, and always vile:
It was the image- and humor-based culture of the irreverent meme factory of 4chan and later 8chan that gave the alt-right its youthful energy, with its transgression and hacker tactics.
Nagle traces the rise of this sensibility through Milo Yiannopoulos, whose far-right queer persona could hardly be further from Pat Buchanan’s paleoconservatism. She characterizes today’s right as “more in the spirit of foul-mouthed comment-thread trolls than it is of bible study, more Fight Club than family values, more in line with the Marquis de Sade than Edmund Burke.” Irony, she argues, separates Yiannopoulos from Buchanan.
The alt-right’s ironic pose helped smash the Overton window. On 4Chan, Nagle writes, it allowed users to “cover for genuinely sinister things.” The meme warriors who marshaled irony in this way saw themselves as the vanguard of a world-historical process. The Right, Nagle points out, now identifies itself as countercultural — and perhaps they’re right. They made irony into a Gramscian weapon.
The ease with which this online culture coopted transgression, she argues, shows how “superficial and historically accidental it was” that counterculture “ended up being in any way associated with the socialist left” after the 1960s. As a result, the alt-right signals a resurgent conservatism no more than “the rise of Tumblr-style identity politics constitutes a resurgence of the socialist or materialist left.”