Issue 4/2017 - Net section
Last August 12, in Charlottesville, the “national flag of Kekistan”1 marched along with National Socialist flags, Deus vult and Iron crosses, Swastikas and Valknot symbols,2 making apparent an ideological affiliation the alt-right had hitherto kept (half) hidden.
Irony and fascism make for strange bedfellows. Fascism, however amoral, is on the whole self-serious: the discipline, the devotion, the fanaticism, none of these sit comfortably with witticism or the degree of critical awareness ironic commentary implies. The rapid rise of the far-right movement, which became known as alt-right, was nonetheless fueled by its “transgressive” or anti-PC slant, and its bitterly cutting or caustic mindset.
“The standard online shtick,” Angela Nagle argued, “has been to flirt with Nazism but then to laugh at anyone who took these gestures at face value.” This strategy combines plausible deniability with a non-conformist, countercultural flair, which widened its cross-spectrum appeal. When the London-based LD50 gallery3 reopened after protesters had forced it to close, the videos it exhibited under the aliases TV KWA and Kantbot mimicked the widely recognizable visuals of Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. and the flippant, campy content of Adult Swim––both of which are references for a left-leaning audience. Shot in mockumentary style, their meandering tirades had no apparent political allegiance, aside being hosted by The Daily Stormer,4 a neo-Nazi website.
Irony, here, is in the eye of the beholder: because liberal audiences have been trained to misrecognize affirmation as critique, LD50 could exhibit Brett Stevens’ The Black Pill; an image of Pepe the Frog as antebellum slave-owner; and a quote by Hitler alongside a picture of Taylor Swift, whilst their audience remained “unsure as to whether it was an ironic critique of the current social climate or overt promotion of the alt-right agenda.”5 The ironic frame has a strategic function; it allows one “to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise.”6 But irony also enables a form of “entryism:” in online image boards détournement and appropriation are themselves co-opted, drawing users to the causes of the right, whilst fantasies of transgression are used to mask a matter-of-fact complicity or jaded cynicism that lets one “disclaim a real commitment to far-right ideas while still espousing them.”7 The alt-right’s anti-establishment sentiment also proved challenging for the segments of the left traditionally invested in the concept of alternative, even though fascism always had a spectral or syncretic quality, extremely apt at combining “positions not typically understood as commensurate.”8
According to the image board lore, the “Cult of Kek” and “Pepe the Frog” sprang from an obsession with numerology, which lead users to suspect divine intervention was looming behind a series of numerical coincidences. Pepe the Frog thus became a modern avatar of an ancient deity, while Kek manifests his presence via meme magic. It was he who––hyperstitionally, to employ a term dear to the alt-right––had Trump elected. Whether or not you believe in the paranormal is beside the point, meme magic operates via attention management: you can advertise a movement into existence.9 But the Pepe/Kek meme also functions mythopoetically, as a form of personification that stems from fiction rather than fact.
Morgan Quaintance describes this appetite for non-conformist epistemologies as a form of searching, which engenders a cultic milieu, permeated by cyber-obscurantism. Particularly appealing to those “unburdened by histories of oppression,” a “syncretic collection of white supremacism, Egyptology, magic, eugenics and gematria” spawned an aesthetic style “quite capable of accepting the adoption of questionable tendencies,” as “instances of jaded affectation.”10
Though often associated with the 1960s’ counterculture, the cult of transgression has in recent years ––after the left had won the cultural wars––drifted towards the right. While seldom associated with conservative or reactionary movements, the desire to disrupt moral codes is not politically aligned, but contingent on the current consensus. The transgressive ethos is a double-edged sword, which can be tied to either deviancy and queerness, or to masculinity and nihilism; to the literary genre of transgressive fiction or to the Manson family murders. Because transgression is an artistic genre, plenty of careers were built on rendering aesthetic experience as a direct extension of moral outrage. The psychology of transgression even spawned a particular persona: the contrarian––the mediascape has an insatiable appetite for misogynistic women, reactionary gay men, and proto-fascist minorities.
As a rejection of collective identity and mutuality, transgression is also an economic doctrine, known in finance as “disruption.”11 It is this competitive versus cooperative description of social interaction that allows easy passage to selfishness and nihilism, whilst the porous border between white-supremacism, the far-right, and conservative or even liberal ideology facilitates the creeping of fascist tropes into mainstream discourse. Richard J. Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), the touchstone for “scientific racism” (aka racial realism), was originally published by The New Republic. Opposing the egalitarian ethos of the post-war years, Herrnstein and Murray sustain that contrasting social outcomes are better explained by low IQ than by exclusion and oppression. When neo-reactionaries argue that socioeconomic status is a “strong proxy for IQ” or that a “genetically self-filtering elite”12 is divorcing itself from those of average and below-average intelligence, they are simply parroting The Bell Curve. The view that Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior is also pervasive among educated whites––self-evidently, “everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” Whiteness is thus a political doctrine, which can even “help minorities get ahead.”13
Unsurprisingly, for the neo-reactionaries (NRx’ers) who push this creed to its logical limit, whiteness does not necessitate whites, it can be performed by nerdy Asians, or even by AI.14 Whereas the alt-right pines for ethno-nationalism, NRx would gladly shed the red states, which they consider a drag on the economy. But because they virulently reject egalitarianism, their hatred of democracy easily bleeds into outright racism.15
NRx––a Silicon Valley based form of crypto-fascism––champions an opt-in society or “gov-corp,” run by a CEO-king. Though they do not identify as neo-reactionaries, Balaji Srinivasan, Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman also advocate opt-ins that restrict citizenship rights to investors (stockholders) barring mere stakeholders from representation.16 Instead of democratic rights, people would have the right to leave: NRx envisions competing authoritarian seasteads based on the model of Singapore.17 While in the 60s, cyberlibertarians believed that the convergence of computing and communications would inevitably lead to direct democracy and “turn their non-conformist principles into political fact,”18 NRx endows the Californian ideology with an authoritarian spin. Their brand of transhumanism has a fascist sheen, anticipating “a powerful leader making use of intelligence enhancement technology to put himself in an unassailable position.”19 In NRx’s incentive-based techno-monarchy “if a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are objectively not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality,”20 hence their hostility to attempts to redress injustice, fostering inclusion or solidarity.
Though a transhuman hyper-race might seem thus far unlikely, existing technology is already immersing us in the radical disruption proffered by cyberlibertarian doctrine.21 Think how the gig economy skirts the social contract. The Valley is also heavily invested in Bitcoin, a technology whose social and political functions, as David Golumbia argues, far outstrip its technical ones. Economically speaking, Bitcoin is the answer to the wrong question: the problems with value fluctuations are not formal but political, they cannot be solved by software engineering: “Without direct regulatory structures,” any financial instrument can be “used as an investment.”22 Ideologically, however, Bitcoin reflects deep-seated anxieties about “foreign” control of the Federal Reserve, and more broadly, an anti-Semitic creep marked by the putative illegitimacy or unnaturalness of financial capital.
Needless to say, there is a rhetorical slippage between the alt-right’s contempt for “cultural Marxism” (code for Jews),23 and what NRx calls the “Calvinist left.” But anti-left sentiment is not the exclusive preserve of the far-right: terms that circulate in wider circles such as “regressive left,” “folk politics,” or “self-loathing liberal” retain the idea of the “left” as an undifferentiated, bad object, or chimeric antagonist, which blocks the future from becoming actual. Accelerationism typically fetishizes “scale” and “speed.” But “scale” and “speed” are rhetorical operations that tend to conflate resistance to sublation with “miserabilism” or technophobia. There is also a hidden racial dimension to the codification of technology as a unidirectional forward motion. Aligning technology and futurity, the “global” appears as a frictionless space of total connectivity, ultimately located in free zones and smart cities, rather than a simultaneity of different temporalities.24
It is by no means coincidental that the point of intersection between white-supremacism, the alt-right, NRx and seemingly random events like the anti-diversity manifesto penned by a Google employee or LD50’s program is evolutionary psychology. A scientifically sanctioned form of misogyny, evolutionary psychology typically posits that the family structures of homo sapiens’ distant past are remarkably similar to those of the 1950s; women are subservient by design and rape is an evolutionary strategy.25 Bionics, too, tends to follow bigotry, eliding the far-past and thus, near-future humanoid robots are gendered according to traditional roles: military technology is male, service technology female.
Nowhere, however is the triangulation of Prometheanism, potency, and power more visible than in NRx’s weaponization of AI, personified as a distilled form of white-maleness-without-white-men––here, “the elision of class antagonism is literally obscured by machinery.”26
AI, as Matteo Pasquinelli puts it, is first-world animism, but the crucial question regarding machine learning is the question of ownership, not self-awareness. Having private companies––Amazon, Google, Facebook, IBM, and Microsoft––wielding the authority of the inscrutable27 implies a fundamental social division between a digital plutocracy (that owns all the assets) and a vast underclass of users (who pay for access.)
Dramatizing competition and selective pressures, be it as theory or thuggery, tends to inscribe social relations within a matrix of supremacy and suppression. Whether this matrix is rationalized via the rhetoric of merit or mythologized as the survival of the fittest, is less relevant than the impact and consequence of its coding into law and policy.
One could describe NRx’s techno-futurism in terms of a coming paradigm shift: whereas modernity and the modern forms of social organization were predicated on a separation of church and state––downgrading the status of the church––we are now witnessing a further decoupling, this time between the political and the technological. As a result, the political is downgraded, pushed to the margins of the decision-making process. Another way to describe this transition would be to say that the alliance between finance and digital-tech changes the social processes through which technology is accumulated as capital; whatever we choose to call it—–digital feudalism, klepto-fascism, post-democracy—–the ongoing restoration of corporate profit and power cannot sustain what it means to have a life.
1 Kekistan is a fictional country invented by users on 4chan’s /pol/ board. Their flag mimics the Reichskriegsflagge, with a 4chan logo in the upper left corner.
2 For a detailed examination of the white supremacist iconography present in Charlottesville see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/local/charlottesville-videos/?utm_term=.eabf60025e84.
3 LD50 organized an “alt-right inspired” exhibition and symposium, see: https://thebaffler.com/latest/ld50-nolan or my essay “Artwashing”, https://www.textezurkunst.de/106/artwashing/.
4 The Daily Stormer’s website was delisted by webhosting service GoDaddy after its founder Andrew Anglin wrote a derogatory article about Heather Heyer, the victim of the vehicle-ramming attack in Charlottesville.
5 See: http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/34830/1/london-art-gallery-accused-of-having-alt-right-agenda.
6 Christy Wampole, How to Live Without Irony, in: The New York Times, 11/18/2012, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/?mtrref=www.google.at&gwh=CAE9D875DA2F359797C54C3CC04B30C0&gwt=pay&assetType=opinion.
7 Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, Media Manipulation and Disinformation Online, Data & Society Research Institute, 2017, https://datasociety.net/pubs/oh/DataAndSociety_MediaManipulationAndDisinformationOnline.pdf.
8 Alexander Reid Ross, Against the Fascist Creep, AKPress 2017.
9 The opposite does not hold true, however, as the “Streisand effect” does not apply here. The material economy does not follow the same logic as the attention economy.
10 Morgan Quaintance, Cultic Cultures, in: Art Monthly, #404, March 2017, pp. 6–11, https://morganquaintance.com/2017/05/17/our-cultic-milieu/
11 Historically, the conflation of the moral and economic meanings of the word transgression is tied to the birth pangs of capitalism. The counter-intuitive argument that better people make the world a worse place was first put forth by Bernard Mandeville’s “The Fable of the Bees” in 1705. In his plea for sociopathy, wolf-of-Wall-Street-style, Mandeville argued that so-called vices such as egoism or greed stimulate industry, whilst altruism or honesty result in divestment. Though his cynical rejection of mercy and compassion were a great offense to contemporary readers, Mandeville was recovered and popularized by the British Utilitarian School. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” parable is a tamer version of Mandeville’s fable.
12 Nick Land, quoted in Shuja Haider, The Darkness at the End of the Tunnel: Artificial Intelligence and Neoreaction, in: Viewpoint Magazine, March 28, 2017, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/03/28/the-darkness-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel-artificial-intelligence-and-neoreaction/.
13 See http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/commentary/paying-the-price-for-breakdown-of-the-countrys-bourgeois-culture-20170809.html.
14 Unlike NRx, the alt-right takes whiteness literally, i.e. as identical to white people.
15 Park MacDougald, The Darkness Before the Right, in: The Awl, September 28, 2015, https://www.theawl.com/2015/09/the-darkness-before-the-right/.
16 The concept of “digital native” also functions as a form of ethnicity: millennials are nudged to align their identities with digital tech, much as their parents did with “America” or “capitalism.” See for instance, Christopher Kulendran Thomas’s New Eelam (2016), an art project-cum-start-up for global housing that advocates tying citizenship to shareholding instead of birth place or parentage.
17 Cf. MacDougald, op. cit.
18 Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, The Californian Ideology, in: Mute, #3, Autumn 1995, http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/californian-ideology.
19 Haider, op. cit.
20 MacDougald, op. cit.
22 David Golumbia, Bitcoin as Politics, in: Geert Lovink, Nathaniel Tkacz and Patricia de Vries (eds.), MoneyLab Reader, Institute of Network Cultures 2015.
23 The alt-right claims that the Frankfurt school (a code word for Jews) created cultural Marxism (another code word for Jews) to destroy white civilization. The neo-reactionaries replace cultural Marxism with the Calvinist left and the Frankfurt school with The Cathedral. The major distinction between these two far-right movements is anti-Semitism, embraced by the alt-right but not by neo-reactionaries.
24 Andrew Stefan Weiner, The Art of the Possible: With and Against documenta 14, Biennial Foundation, August 14, 2017, http://www.biennialfoundation.org/2017/08/art-possible-documenta-14/.
25 See Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, MIT Press 2000.
26 Haider, op. cit.
27 See Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, Crown/Random House 2016.