Adolph Reed caused a minor uproar recently with an off-hand comment about one of his fellow theorists, Angela Nagle: she ‘got got’ by the reactionary side for writing articles on the left case for borders in a right-leaning magazine. At first glance, I felt this was just another tempest in a teapot. Angela Nagle’s article was nothing special – one could make leftist arguments against open borders for our current stage of development and there was nothing inherently racist about her framing. As far as I was concerned, Reed had simply overreacted and Nagle was still a good socialist. Imagine my surprise when I decide to tune into one of Nagle’s most recent podcast appearances and heard her begin by denouncing the left as a lost cause for rejecting what she considered to be a pure common sense position. The left according to her, even publications such as Jacobin, had been overtaken by culture warriors, and was unsalvageable.
So yes, Nagle has gotten got, let’s settle that right out of the gate. She’s not the only one. She, along with podcaster Aimee Terese, form the most visible personas of what has now been termed the post-left – not to be confused with post-left insurrectionary anarchists and left communists who first claimed the name. Perhaps, to differentiate, we could call them the post-left populists rather than the post-left anarchists/communists. This is, after all, how Nagle refers to herself now – as a non-denominational populist. This cohort is characterized by extreme antagonism to wokeness and identity politics, and identifies itself against a “professional-managerial class” which they believe has taken over the left either as its own authoritarian project or in the service of capital. It lacks, however, many concrete positive commitments besides nostalgia for trade-unionism and social democracy.
It is true that the left, much like the right, is infested with cultural warriors, and that these people are both annoying and destructive ( Mark Fisher perhaps put it best in his classic essay Exiting the Vampire Castle). It is also true that the intellectual fads within this culture war are generally incompatible with a principled Marxist socialist politics. Nagle’s principle work, Kill All Normies is admirable in its attempt to dispassionately and factually describe this culture war from both sides. Yet, there are a number of socialist intellectuals and commentators who attack this culture war while remaining steadfast in their political commitments to socialism: Slavoj Zizek, Vivek Chibber, Douglas Lain, Amber Lee Frost, and Adolph Reed himself just to name a few. They have been steadfast in their commitment to working class struggle and the possibility of another society. Why exactly have they remained steady, while the post-left populists have not?
I believe we can identify both theoretical errors and cultural pathologies pushing them in these strange directions.
In terms of theoretical errors, we can find perhaps the original thesis of post-left populism buried in Nagle’s book, even in its title. Kill All Normies has often by criticized by liberals who superficially suggest that Nagle is blaming the rise of new reactionary movements on “SJWs” through backlash, but in fact, Nagle doesn’t really give a causation for the culture war at all besides certain cultural pathologies about transgression. Despite claiming to be a socialist at the time, there is no materialist analysis explaining how atomization, alienation and loneliness are being caused by tendencies in capitalism. There is, however, at the end of the book, the discovery of a new political subject which has become the center of political struggle per the post-left populists.
That subject? The titular normies who are being threatened by both the right and left culture warriors. Nagle emphatically rejects the “hipness” of online subcultures as embedded in “anti-mass society discourses”, and critiques cliquish rejection of a supposedly feminine mainstream. Nagle identifies this feminized mainstream with the ordinary people that subcultural elitism rejects.
The left-wing professional managerial class is the perfect stand-in for the polar opposite of normies. Obsessed with elite in-culture, and policing transgressions against their cultural mores, the PMC is the antithesis of the normal people. The New York Times is PMC, the DSA is PMC, the Democratic Party is PMC, etc etc. There is little grounding for this class on a material level distinct from workers, capitalists and petty bourgeoisie, besides education, which is not a relationship of production to begin with. It exists more so on the same cultural level as normies.
And that is exactly the problem. The struggle at the heart of post-left populism is a struggle of idealist categories. Normal person versus PMC. To be normal, much like to be a centrist, is to define yourself purely in relation to contemporary discourses rather than personal principles. Nagle arrives at the Normie political subject by critiquing subculture theorists who bought into the idea that there is indeed something special, something radical about these in-groups. But rather than escaping the idealist framework of cultural analysis, Nagle simply inverted this position.
Why she did this is quite simple when we realize that the normal political subject at the end of the book who enjoys trashy mainstream music is supposed to be a self-insert. Nagle, as well as Terese and their cohort have confronted the hyper-subcultural ingroups of the left and come away scarred. The dizzying factions, callouts, posturing and absurdity can be traumatic to many in the same way that imageboard culture can be to outsiders. I can hardly blame them. The betrayal at the heart of this trauma cuts deep, as it is often the betrayal of our hopes for the future of our world, coming at the hand of those we thought would be our allies, or even friends.
This trauma prevents them from escaping the paradigm of cultural analysis, and adopting principled, scientific understanding of capitalism. It is this trauma, in fact, that prevents themselves from attaining the normal political subjectivity they so covet, once it happens, there is no going back. Normalcy is a tortured subjectivity – it can only be understood once it has been permanently lost, and any attempt to regain it only moves one further away. Much like how a pure obsessive might try to fix their obsession by further obsessing over their patterns of thought, the cultural analysis of the normal people vs the PMC only pushes the post-left populists further away from normalcy, into obscurantist gobbledygook. But so long as they are trapped in this framework, there is no choice but to focus all their attacks on these cultures, these discourses, which offend them.
It is precisely for this reason that the post-left populists don’t try to turn reactionaries to socialism by appealing to their transgressive aesthetics, something Nagle rejects in her book. Instead, of changing form to spread the content of socialism, and doing something to slow the slide towards reaction of atomized young men identified in Kill All Normies, the post-left populists change their content according to what they perceive aligns with the cultural form of normal people, regardless of how reactionary.
There comes a point in every leftist’s life when they realize their participation in the political realm, fighting for liberation, will not cure their alienation, atomization, loneliness or whatever other traumas they bring with them. In the face of this disappointment, we cannot give up and embrace reaction, or else we would have stood for nothing in the first place. There yet remains the possibility of a better world with a logic not dictated by cringeworthy subcultures or capitalist overlords.