ANTISOCIAL: More Thoughts on Counterculture and the New Right (PART 3)
If it isn’t obvious by now, my accounting of counterculture throughout these posts treads very close to the mainstream. The reason for this is that my goal is to track trends as they rose from the higher and more visible echelons of the underground into the mainstream. Plenty of work was made during this period that was far more genuinely resistant in its commitment to existing outside the churn and grind of the market.
However I should also add the caveat that I remain guided in my thinking by Thomas Frank’s book “The Conquest of Cool” — which means I am suspicious of the “co-optation thesis” where once dangerous and truly revolutionary things become co-opted by the mainstream, commodified and defanged. In Frank’s telling, rebellion has always been packaged and tethered to market incentives for new products that will replace the old. Transgression, in this reading, creates demand. Destroying what is old creates an open space for the market to provide what’s new. Authenticity as a widespread value is the ideological hook that underwrites this form of demand creation. Insufficiently transgressive things are insufficiently authentic, therefore need to be purged to make way for the next crop of better, truer, more authentic things. Applied to the social web and the politicization of everything as virality juicer, this principle took on a sinister life.
I also focus on counterculture products very close to the mainstream threshold because one of the things that hit me about 1,000 times during Marantz’ book was that while these folks espouse a rebellious, counterculturist set of values, those values are consistently embraced and at the most normie, jocks-are-into-Metallica-now level. For anyone who wasn’t there when “Nothing Else Matters” became the new “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” it should probably be explained…the jocks no longer felt like jocks. They had been sold their own transcendence out of those categories.
This is an important part of how this process functions: the normie is flattered into the stern belief that they are no longer a normie, which breeds a new kind of narcissism. Those with social power based on traditional measures of physical strength, beauty, and/or money (what we now call “privilege”) now imagine themselves to be one of the resistant. What this reveals is how deeply susceptible they are to what Frank describes as a pure marriage of counterculture values to market directives; to uncritically accepting and internalizing each new iteration of rebellious values.
When we say that Mike Enoch had once been into radical leftist politics, and we trace his age with the cultural trends of the time, he was into the radical left right around the time Radiohead, the biggest rock band on Earth, was putting Noam Chomsky quotes in their CD single packaging. I know this because he is one year younger than me. The first Rage Against the Machine record came out when I was 16 and Enoch/Peinovich was 15. What we find is not that these folks were doing things that were unpopular, difficult or imposed any cost on them, but rather that they were following cues from a popular culture that was rewarding these political postures. I was there, I had the CDs and the books. Bragging to people that I emailed with well-known anarchists was a flex indistinguishable from getting certain records.
So, if you’re prone to uncritically internalizing each new regime of market-saturated counterculture values (which, paradoxically, will always be framed as your courageous criticality!) what would come next in the attention economy of social media? This regime’s demands were, broadly speaking, that one craft oneself into a brand, develop a technique for broadcasting content that grabbed the most attention and engagement. Settled questions don’t get engagement. Disrupting consensus did. Provoking people did. Politicization of everything, especially cultural production, worked extremely well
No group had been better primed to imagine that they were enlightened to secret truths the normies weren’t. No group was better primed to assert their utter normie-ness as if it was the opposite. This has always been the apparent joke to me about those who built a brand out of disagreeing with Jezebel feminists. They were playing the exact same game. This is why it’s necessary to separate dynamics from values. The fad for rejecting every parallel between the radical left and right comes in part from a poor vocabulary for (and understanding of) what’s the same and what’s different. The virality power of consensus destruction through SEO culture war issues is just a big cannon. It can be pointed at anything and everything. And that’s pretty much what the alt-right did.
The same way they got into radical left politics and postmodern shock in the 90s, they answered the new set of implicit instructions, this time refracted through social tech companies, with an enthusiastic willingness to participate. They would, of course, frame and understand this as a refusal to participate. But the jock is meant to believe he’s not one. He can prove it, he just bought “Kill ‘Em All” on his way to football practice last week. The “co-optation” thesis is garbage. These are products of and servants of the marketplace. Their religious belief that they are not makes them all the better at it.
This is why the notion that the new online extreme right merely packages neofascism in counterculture to make it more palatable again fails as a descriptive or analytic framework. Because once we understand these figures as market products, created within the milieu of Big Tech, we start to see how the market and the social media industries bend towards fascism. We start to see new levels of sinister hilarity in Trumpism 2.0 hopefuls like Josh Hawley claiming to “fight” Big Tech when he, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and all the rest, are its offspring.
Marantz references this metaphor in “Antisocial” many times. The arc of history bends the way we bend it, he says. I agree with the way he posits this as a means of disagreement with the tech-utopian and progressive fantasy that the arc of history bends towards freedom. I want to take it further, though. If social media and the internet are Gutenberg press levels of revolutionary, meaning they are world-historical forces, and if those forces are driven by naked market incentives to place profit ahead of truth, democracy, and the social good (usually in the naive belief that the marketplace creates these things) — then we have a serious problem. The arc of history, in this sense, appears to me to be bending towards fascism.
This is why the electoral defeat of Trump hasn’t brightened my outlook nearly as much as hearing that Joe Biden hates Facebook and wants to FDR our way out of the COVID-19 crisis. Only new foundation-altering standards for social platforms combined with new market incentives (and skepticism!) can really do anything meaningful. As long as the viral internet shapes political discourse, as long as counterculture keeps imagining itself in the terms that the platforms set out, it’s difficult to imagine any significant shift away from our current trajectory.
My favorite chapter of the book is a standalone, in which he charts the strange path of a girl named Samantha into and back out of the alt-right. This chapter for me was the most powerful because it frustrates most of the moralized reasoning people cling to when they attempt to explain how people get radicalized. A deep, already-existing moral failure; a personality defect; awarped upbringing — these are the preferred ways of thinking about the new right. But Samantha just had a bit of a malleable identity — the kind that’s increasingly to be expected as identities are formed in online space.
She constructed her social identity first, often around a boyfriend, and her values followed. She was susceptible to glossy arguments and edgy content which meant that could be progressive or anti-progressive. She was the sort of person who seemed to experience life as something happening to her. Far from being unique defects, these are increasingly the resting conditions for identity, social life and political ideas as they cluster in online spaces. Samantha, I worry, isn’t an outlier - hers is a far more threatening story than most in the book. It suggests to me that as currently designed, the social web doesn’t just allow for this permutation of political identity. It encourages it.