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Against the Edgelords

Today's far-right has been shaped by an online landscape of edgy content. But the solution isn't to lament the internet – it's to find a way to build antifascism in its image.

(Credit: AP / Getty Images)

In the 2010s, you could often get a sense of what was coming if you looked in the right places; the question was how seriously you took it. Looking at the apparently triumphant horror everywhere in sight in 2022, your mind races back to moments in which it was clear there was something lurking under the surface and you dismissed it, ignored it, or downplayed it. Reading Post-Internet Far Right, a short and urgent book on the culture of contemporary fascism by the antifascist podcasters Twelve Rules for What, I thought back to events or moments that I had noticed and then shelved away in the back of my mind in the recent past.

I remembered a 2012 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, on ‘The New National Art’: a compendium of Polish nationalist kitsch ranging from comic books to memes to realist paintings to flower arrangements, much of it motivated by conspiracy theories about the Smolensk Plane Crash of 2010. It wasn’t clear if the (almost entirely left-liberal) curators considered it all a bit of a joke or a charming eccentricity, and what their own position was in relation to it. Now, a decade later, one of Warsaw’s most open, progressive spaces, the Centre for Contemporary Arts, is in the hands of religious right edgelords. I thought back to a holiday on the Bulgarian Black Sea coast in 2014, and the souvenir stalls with a muscle-bound, shades-wearing Vladimir Putin on ‘Crimean Tour’. How ironic was this? Not remotely, it turns out, as he wages a maniacal ethnonationalist war on Ukraine, supported via memes.

Closer to home, I remember LD50, the Dalston art gallery who put on a show in 2017 featuring various far-right memes and artworks. Was this, as they claimed, just a way of showcasing some uncomfortable objects in the name of ‘the free exploration of ideas’, or was it, as protesters said, a place of actual organisation for the far right? It’s patently obvious now it was the latter, though in the end ethnonationalism would be transmitted far more effectively by the ruthless targeting of England’s aunties and uncles by the Britain First Facebook group.

One of the reasons it’s these cultural events I thought of might have been Twelve Rules for What’s choice of title—it evokes the term ‘Post-Internet Art’, a phrase devised in the 2010s to describe some of the extremely online, deliberately oblique and paradoxical artworks being made by those who grew up with the internet from childhood. The culture of the contemporary far-right, they argue, is similarly screen-damaged. One of the most disturbing passages in a very disturbing book is on the online reaction to the Christchurch Shooter, who filmed his massacre of Muslims in the New Zealand city in March 2019. The video was, they write, ‘endlessly manipulated on 8chan, overlaid with the score-counting graphics of video games… if the appearance of memes after the shooting seems predictable, less so was their appearance in (the shooter’s) manifesto itself’. But what they also point to is the link from these dank, seedy online spaces to the mainstream, in this case through the fact that in the aftermath of the massacre, a spokesperson from Generation Identity, a group the shooter had donated to, was invited onto the BBC to discuss ‘their ideology and its connection to the murders’.

A lot of this is new territory, and the motivation for Post-Internet Far Right is in trying to get antifascists to understand how the far-right propagates their ideas online, and what techniques are and are not likely to be successful against them. ‘It would be a disaster’, the authors argue, ‘if the far right’s opponents were not to update their models, and either find fascism everywhere they looked, or instead find nothing worthy of response’. Obviously, the internet is central, and here their argument resembles the critique of social networks in Richard Seymour’s recent The Twittering Machine; ‘the media architecture of the internet lends itself to something like conspiracy’, they write, and the far-right has taken spectacular advantage of this. ‘Medium posts give way to encrypted Discord servers, where invite-only groups plot in secret, or a mislabelled link leads suddenly into ugly panels of high-turnover anonymous imageboards… all the internet’s parts are in principle linkable. Port-holes can open up at any time’.

Yet this is also the territory onto which antifascism has to adapt, rather than simply scolding the disgusting children lurking on the corners of the internet: the authors caution against the idea that ‘the internet itself must be made scary, the safe path provided only by blue-check Twitter accounts and traditional news outlets’; ultimately, ‘there’s nothing occult’ in the way the far-right use the internet, and their means of using it can be understood and countered.

These far-right spaces are pervaded by a certain kind of ‘humour’, one where ‘order and chaos are intertwined’: a near-nihilistic maleness that, as Seymour notes in The Twittering Machine, is also shared by ISIS (‘Join the Islamic State, Bro’). There are the online videos where a chosen hero OWNS or DESTROYS an opponent in a form of YouTube ‘bloodsports’; then there is a liking for reductive taxonomy, a world of ‘Cucks’, ‘Simps’, and ‘Soyboys’. This, they argue, closely resembles the traditional fascist fear of women and sexual fluidity analysed by Klaus Theweleit in Male Fantasies, his classic analysis of the culture of Germany’s protofascist Freikorps. The online right have propagated much of this worldview through memes, which have been ‘successful… because they delineate real, very general patterns in the world. They participate in a playful dynamic of abstraction and absurdity. Their spread relies on fitting highly various situations into the same basic pattern’, one which has a striking rigidity and pessimism. ‘The image of a world oriented around the typical, and completely inevitable, behaviour of ‘chads’, ‘betas’, ‘femoids’ and so on, rather than around the nuanced behaviour of real people, can itself be radicalising’.

They argue that there are intrinsic weaknesses in this kind of organising-through-online-radicalisation. The Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ march of 2017 that culminated in the killing of Heather Heyer actually splintered the right into several pieces, as the ‘separation from existing IRL organising’ meant its various factions were undisciplined, chaotic and unable to communicate outside their various in-groups. Since then, however, they’ve shown much more capacity to adapt. They modify their language according to platform—in one example, the authors show how the far-right ‘influencer’ Mark Collett of ‘Patriotic Alternative’ makes sure that any racism that goes on his YouTube channel is plausibly deniable, while ‘on smaller platforms with fewer restrictions… his antisemitism is much more explicit’. They also warn against an approach based on ‘unmasking’. Yes, ‘Tommy Robinson’, English nationalist would-be folk hero is actually the petty crook Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, but the contemporary far-right are much less interested in authenticity than we might assume. It doesn’t matter who ‘Tommy’ really is, because figures like him are ’embodiments of a movement’s self-image’. People are already in on the joke.

So what is to be done? This is a book that is much more about understanding than it is about organisation—it is a tract about how the new far-right thinks, how it organises, and how it memes, more than it is one about how to organise resistance to it. Its virtue is in clarification and caution. One of the major problems the authors identify is that much of the politics of the likes of Generation Identity can be found in the political and media mainstream—the route from Melanie Phillips to their clean-cut ethnonationalism is a very short one, and both have to be fought.

They also end on some cautionary notes about the culture of antifascism. The movement against fascism, they note, has to be a mass movement for it to win, which they suggest means it needs to be less subcultural, and less ‘founded on particular cultural objects’ and ‘shared aesthetic values’, and instead constituting ‘a diverse culture in its own right’. What might that look like? Here, the example is unexpected—the YouTube videos of Natalie Wynn, aka ContraPoints, which they claim have done more to drag young people away from online fascism than any number of handwringing broadsheet articles. This is precisely because Wynn takes ideas, memes, and visuals seriously as being part of politics—which is also the major virtue of this book.