The Social Industry and the ‘Lone Wolf’ Phase of Fascism
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #7: Towards the Proletarocene, our relaunch issue. Subscriptions to our twice-yearly print issue can be set up here. Issues are also available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content.
What makes fascism dangerous is its molecular or micropolitical power, for it is a mass movement: a cancerous body rather than a totalitarian organism.
—Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus.
I. Fascism without fascism. In an age in which things are unclear, tendencies yet to congeal, political substances yet to find their settled form, we have to resort to contradiction. Theory must be as indeterminate, and speculative, as reality itself: a roll of the dice.
There has not been a better time to be a fascist since 1945, and yet there is no sign of a mass fascist party or paramilitary movement forming, let alone of a potential revolutionary-nationalist capture of state power. There are fascists, but this is not the classical fascist situation. The present political sequence is marked by a string of far-right successes. ‘Lone wolf’ attacks from Thomas Mair to Robert Bower. Trump, Bolsonaro, Jobbik. And the consolidation of an alt-right subculture. For all this, though, what is most clear is how unlike the past our current dilemmas are.
Historical fascism was, as anti-colonialists, Black internationalists and Trotskyists intuited, a concentrated expression of the imperialist will-to-power. Or, from the perspective of the Algerian Front de libération nationale’s journal Résistance Algérienne, ‘colonialism when rooted in a traditionally colonialist country’. Historiographical breakthroughs, from Ute Poiger to Mark Mazower, have substantiated this connection. German fascism is incomprehensible without its colonial drive, in rivalrous emulation of the British. Italian fascism cannot be apprehended without studying the genocidal application of General Douhet’s ‘Total War’ doctrine in Libya, and the invasion of Abyssinia. And Franco’s re-colonisation of Spain could not have succeeded without the prior pacification of the Rif rebellion in Morocco, from whence his ‘reconquista’ was launched.
That particular garrisoned version of global white-supremacy is dead, probably forever. Today’s world-system, still formed by racial capitalism and policed by imperial violence, is now organised as a legal framework of nation-states enmeshed in the institutions of liberal globalisation. Notwithstanding Donald Trump’s challenge to the ‘globalists’, these institutions are not yet seriously endangered. There is no immediate prospect of a return to the autarkic context of interwar capitalism, with its pressures towards inter-imperialist war.
The centralised systems of racial sovereignty known as slavery, segregation, apartheid, concentration camps and ‘ghettos’ are unlikely to return even under the securitarian and border crackdowns of liberal states: the American carceral-state is exceptional in its scope. Race-making under neoliberalism follows a more capillary logic. Sexual morality and demographic regulation are unlikely in the future to return to the format of pre-war patriarchy: indeed, the emerging anti-liberal Right can be understood partly as a reaction against patriarchal decline. Despite the hauntological anticommunism of the new far-right, moreover, the prospect of a revolutionary challenge to capitalism of the sort that Mussolini’s fasci and Hitler’s stormtroopers sought to crush, appears remote. There is no equivalent today to the civil war that characterised European societies from 1914 to 1945. As Dylan Riley argues in the New Left Review, interwar fascism was built out of mass political participation, a ‘thick’ civil society that simply doesn’t exist today.
Which is not deny that many of the traditional sources of fascism still obtain. Capitalism remains a crisis-driven system. Middle-class discontent continues to fuel reaction. Imperialism ongoingly produces new constituencies of armed right-wing murderers, from Vietnam to Iraq. The stalemate of the liberal state and the crisis of representation presents the opening for new far-right tendencies. The crisis of traditional gender relations and the torment of sexuality galvanises, as similar crises have before, the lurid masculinism and homosocial bonding of the far-right. The question, however, is what are the novelsocial and cultural sources of fascism in the twenty-first century?
What is particularly visible in today’s far-right is its networked nature. In place of traditional fascist cadre organisations, there are online labyrinths, ephemeral street movements, flash mobs, brands and microcelebrities, electoral campaigns, milieux in which fascists and fascist ideas circulate freely but are not yet dominant. We see the logic of the swarm, the online shitstorm, the troll, spill over into meatspace. There are loose and deliberately ambiguous relations between followers and leaders, organisations and ‘lone wolves’, far-rights and alt-lights. Where symbols like the swastika or the iron cross once embodied a ‘leading idea’ with which millions identified, what Paul Gilroy once called ‘logo solidarity’, now Pepe the Frog (or the St George Cross, or the ISIS black flag) represents a memeified version of the same in vastly different circumstances. Recent right-wing mass killers, from Alek Minassian to Brenton Tarrant, have used the language of memes to express identification and belonging. Alberto Toscano has spoken of the ‘intensely superstructural character of our present’s fascistic traits’, referring to the crisis of capitalist politics. Might one just as well say that these traits are substructural? If fascism doesn’t present itself in a finished form at the molar level, is it nonetheless fizzing away at the molecular level? Can we sensibly speak, as Deleuze and Guattari did, of ‘microfascisms’, knowing how necessarily indeterminate such a concept must be? Indeed, given recent shifts in the scale of political action, from the rise of nanotechnologies to the digitalisation of capitalism, ought we now speak of ‘nanofascisms’?
II. Consider Donald Trump, the ungainly global mascot of the new far-right. A real-estate salesman and television personality who built his brand and electoral campaign on Twitter, he is in no sense the leader of a fascist regime. Captive to a liberal state, attaining at best a pragmatic comity with large capital, he has struggled to define a viable policy agenda. He effects, not a radical statist concentration of power, but tilts and escalations in the administration of American imperialism, bionatalism, racist-carceralism, and the judicial consolidation of what left theologian William Connolly calls the ‘evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’. Even in this respect, his record is patchy, as shown by his willingness to sign off on a bipartisan prison reform bill, streamlining sentences and saving taxpayer money.
Nonetheless, among his unique selling points is his hitherto scandalous ambiguity with regard to actually-existing-fascism. In the Salvage double-negative, he is ‘not not a fascist’. From former Klan leader and neo-Nazi David Duke to ‘white power’ demonstrators in Charlottesville, Trump’s refusal to offend these energetic parts of his base seems entirely kneejerk: ‘his actual default position’, as Bannon put it. When, following a series of death threats targeting Jews, Trump implied that Jews themselves might have made the threats, he was seemingly unreflexive in his reiteration of a far-right trope. When, a mere two days after the murder of Heather Heyer in a vehicular assault by a neo-Nazi on a crowd of antifascists, Trump found both ‘blame’ and ‘very fine people’ on ‘both sides’, he was likely dialling down his instinctive sympathies. Trump’s affinities, that is, appear to be spontaneous and unmediated by historical knowledge, formed more by the culture industry than by reading the copy of Mein Kampf he allegedly kept by his bed.
Trump is as automatically attuned to the unconscious fascist potential in American society and mass culture as are alt-right trolls. A successful fascist agitator, Adorno remarked, meets the unconscious of his audience simply by turning his own unconscious outward. He ‘resembles them psychologically’, thinks in stereotype, participates in ‘the brotherhood of all comprising humiliation’, and is distinguished only, but spectacularly, by his ability to express latent ideology without inhibition. Thus Trump. The operational equivalent of 4chan, as writer Dale Beran put it, he is a labyrinth with no centre, a flow of swastikas, snuff footage, war porn, trolls, racist cartoons, antisemitic jokes and leaked celebrity nudes, his promises as empty as memes. Not a conscious fascist leader, let alone commander of a fascist apparatus, but a spontaneous conductor for the microfascisms of his audience. There will be others with more historical consciousness of their role.
Liberal astonishment about the ‘return’ of fascism, as though it had ever entirely gone away, reflects a blind-spot about its own potentials. Fascism, as Nikhil Singh put it in a perceptive essay on its ‘afterlife’, is a ‘deviation of democratic regimes’. Far from being the ‘monstrous Other’ of liberal-democracy, it might be better understood as its ‘doppelgänger’. It engorges the exclusionary will-to-power already discernible in liberal societies, from the internal frontiers policing racialised minorities to the martial expansionism through which liberal states routinely outwit their domestic constitutional constraints. Nor, we can only speculate, does it persist only in the macro-political organisation of states, parties and grand spectacles. Rather, it is scattered in micro-political enclaves, in atomic relations of force in friendship and kinship groups, in unconscious identifications, routine forms of authority, submissiveness, sadism and manipulation all capable of crystallising and congealing given an appropriate catalyst. It is essential to address fascism at this level, rather than satisfying ourselves that the classical fascist situation does not hold, and the classical fascist mass party is not marching to power, precisely in order to orient ourselves in the ambiguous political situation that we are in.
‘What set fascism in motion yesterday’, Félix Guattari warned in his rebuttal of post-war triumphalism, ‘continues to proliferate in other forms, within the complex of contemporary social space.’ Liberal society may be blind to the fascist potential, the microfascism, that it incubates. Is the Left, as Guattari insisted it was, likewise blinded by its ‘molar’ preconceptions?
III. Today’s networked far-right is a resonance machine. In the era of Bush fils, Connolly’s ‘evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’ described a mutually confirming, catalytic relationship between anti-democratic forces. Deploying the Deleuzian concept of resonance thus, he described how distinct social logics became enfolded in, magnified and potentiated one another. The fruits of this alliance, crystallised in the Republican Party, are nowhere more evident than in the judiciary, where the legal far Right are militant for both capitalism and conservative Christianity. An analogous relationship of mutual catalysis can be found in the networked far Right.
We see, on the one hand, how much attention and profitability far-right spokespersons bring to the digital platforms which host them. Donald Trump, it was estimated in 2017, was worth $2 billion to Twitter. Not only had he built a political career in this volatile medium, but he accounted for most of its revenue. On the other hand, when Facebook reluctantly followed Apple, Spotify, and YouTube in terminating Alex Jones’ Infowars accounts over his claims that the Sandy Hook massacre was a false flag, it became very clear just how much profitable attention they had enabled him to generate, when the Infowars site lost half of its 1.4 million daily visits. Jones’s profits, $5 million in 2014, depended on advertising to a large fanbase mostly built online, chiefly for male supplements such as ‘Super Male Vitality’ and ‘Caveman’. After the ban he was left begging fans to send in donations, to help him fight the beast. His co-dependent relationship with his online platforms is likely to become more apparent now that the courts, handling a civil suit filed by Sandy Hook families, have demanded to see his accounts.
The major online platform brands, under tremendous pressure, are undertaking some reluctant moves to curb the worst of its far-right product. Infowars is just one egregious node in a volatile online ecology of far-right cultures. But a similar series of moves recently befell Tommy Robinson, former member of the fascist British National Party, and founder of the racist street gang, the English Defence League. PayPal stopped processing his donations in November 2018, YouTube cancelled his advertising revenues in January 2019, and Facebook banned him in February 2019. This will have been a significant financial blow. Robinson, while in prison for endangering the prosecution of child sex offenders, had been able to use his Facebook and Twitter accounts to raise £20,000 worth of Bitcoin donations. He was also generating revenues from advertising on his YouTube account, which had 270,000 subscribers and whose individual videos received millions of views. To put this in monetary terms, YouTube paid the average user $7.60 per thousand views in 2013, so Robinson’s single most watched video alone would have garnered $15,200 at that rate.
Yet, the extraordinary success of far-right ‘personalities’ such as Stefan Molyneux, Gavin MacInnes and Richard Spencer, is thus far mostly untouched by bans. And it is extraordinarily lucrative. Molyneux, over a period of five years, made £1 million in Bitcoin donations thanks to his online presence. And the more money they made, the more valuable they were to the social industry. There is no reason to assume the majority of these far-right microcelebrities will suffer, either financially or in terms of publicity. Jones was, after all, explicitly targeted for making tasteless claims that damaged the media he operated on, not for his politics. Mark Zuckerberg was clear that he saw no reason for Facebook not to host far-right material, even Holocaust denial, if some users wanted it. Zuckerberg recanted. And under considerable pressure from Washington over the social industry’s contribution to the 2016 presidential election outcome, most platforms are taking steps to mitigate their economic involvement with the far-right. YouTube now says it will ban overt Nazi material and Holocaust denial. Yet this will inevitably rely on algorithmic surveillance, and it will only target the crudest, most overt and unreconstructed forms of paleo-Nazism. Most successful far-right figures, however deranged their politics, have proven adept at avoiding the kinds of statement that got Jones booted, are careful not to openly affiliate to Nazism, and moderate their speech to evade detection by the ‘community standards’ algorithms that are supposed to root out ‘hate speech’.
If Twitter is now fuelled in large part by Trumpism – and the erotically imbricated reaction against Trumpism, #theresistance – YouTube has become the talk radio of the millennial far-right. It is the most linked source on alt-right websites, and a report by the investigative outfit, Bellingcat, found that YouTube was the single platform most credited by fascist activists for their ‘red-pilling’. If, as Zeynep Tufecki has found, YouTube’s ‘up next’ feature consistently points viewers toward more ‘extreme’ (generally, fascist or conspiracist) content, what sort of affinity does this betray? Are the ‘parasocial’ relationships, or libidinal bonds, that users form with far-right microcelebrities particularly selected for by the medium? If, after mass shootings, YouTube and Google consistently promote rightist conspiracy videos promoting a ‘false flag’ narrative, is the relationship between the emerging far Right and their online platforms anything other than incidental? Is theirs merely a mutual instrumentality, no different from the relationship between social networking sites and any other political tendency, or are they symbionts?
IV. To even consider this, one has to clear away the conceptual clutter. We are not speaking here of ‘social media’. All media, all technologies, are social. Calling Twitter, Facebook and their equivalents ‘social media’ is like calling cigarettes ‘friendship sticks’. They can be used in that way, but that is not what they’re for. Rather, to take the appropriately Adornian detour, we are talking of a social industry. Among Adorno’s critical contributions to antifascist thought was his concept of the ‘culture industry’. In the dialectic of Enlightenment, the culture industry represented a step in the catastrophic subordination of life to instrumental reason at the service of capital. Since culture was effectively subsumed into the logic of capital, its rules of verisimilitude and legibility derived from capital, the ‘borderline’ separating it from ‘empirical reality’ had been obliterated. Integrating consumers ‘from above’, administering them as objects of sales techniques that became indistinguishable from artistic technique per se, it imposed an underlying production-line uniformity on culture. The individuality of cultural products was pseudo-individuality, a variation on a limited range of templates, reinforcing a narrow repertoire of mental habits.
This, arguably a simplification and exaggeration of the integrative trends in mass culture, feels almost clairvoyant as regards the social industry. For it is not merely a new mediationor augmentationof sociality, but its mass production along sophisticated algorithmic lines. It is sociality as simulacrum: an image generated by digital writing that does not represent an underlying social link so much as produce one. We engage as ‘users’, much as one might ‘use’ crack. Or, in the insufferable neologism of the industry, ‘produsers’: both workers and addicts. When we spend more time interacting with screens than meeting people face to face, the simulacrum isour social life. And when the entire process is subordinated to the production of revenue-generating data, the timeline, the feed, is a production-line. PaceJonathan Beller, looking is not labouring: but it is an inducement to labour. To contribute to the feed, to clickthrough, to scroll. The social industry requires of us, who are neither customers nor paid workers, constant work. Its techniques for integrating over three billion people into an unprecedented, rapidly mutating system of surveillance, and goading them into incessant production, are based on a model of addiction. However crudely reductionist that model is, in its emphasis on delivering a ‘dopamine hit’, it nonetheless works. Whether we are surfing waves of approval, or anxiously hitting refresh on a contentious thread, it is irresistible. Having secured participation, however, the social industry permits engagement only on the basis of a narrow set of protocols. Far more than cultural products, all tweets, statuses, vlogs, posts are fundamentally identical, riffs on a formula, the eternal recurrence of the same in an ‘infinite’ flow.
Social life is, thereby, programmed. It is reified in as much as relations between people appear as digital objects: ‘likes’, ‘shares’, ‘retweets’. The protocols of the social industry form the written code, the constitution if you will, of an emerging technopolitical regime. Ideologically, they are inflected, as Alice Marwick’s research suggests, by Silicon Valley neoliberalism. They are so designed, from the avatar to the ‘like’ function, as to focus users on the production of branded identities, celebrity and the pursuit of status in a competitive hierarchy. But they don’t prescribe these behaviours; they don’t argue for them. They bend social life around them; they are in the reality-shaping business.
Even this is not the whole story. For, the conscious ideology of the social industry, the curious mixture of Gingrichism and Clintonism that pervades northern California, is not necessarily consubstantial with its ideological effects – or, to be more precise, its contingent politicisations of the unconscious.
It is not simply that the machine engages the unconscious. Even the most rudimentary machine does that. Joseph Weizenbaum’s experiments with ELIZA, the computer programme that simulated Rogerian therapy, demonstrated that people will readily form transference relationships with a bot that by today’s standards is extremely crude. Rather, it digitises the unconscious, in its very mechanisms of accumulation and control. The information collected on users is extraordinarily precise, including length of time scrolling, hovering over a particular post or comment, typing, how many words and characters were typed, watchtime, clickthroughs, and so on. These metrics, social-industry spokespersons affirm, say a great deal more about our real wants and propensities than our articulate claims or demands. They know us, in a crucial sense, better than we know ourselves. And, aggregated, analysed and algorithmised, the data shapes what we see so we remain riveted. They work because we work; they harness passions and pleasures we know nothing of, and we provide them the means to more accurately play us. The social industry has produced something like Lacan’s ‘modern calculating machine’, ‘more dangerous than the atom bomb’, which can always outplay a human being because it can work out the ‘sentence that, unbeknown to him and in the long term, modulates a subject’s choices’. A Freudian robot, as Lydia Liu puts it. A machine that is to us as Deep Blue is to a club chess player, guessing our moves long before we considerthem.
This is the social industry: the unprecedented subsumption of social life under the logic of computational capital. An early stage in the evolution of a more sophisticated machinery, which is likely in the future to incorporate augmented reality, integrated with ‘smart city’ technologies, and involving far more extensive surveillance and real-time manipulation capacities. A machinery that is already complexly interwoven with state bureaucracies, university and corporate research, intelligence services and various sectors of media, entertainment, gambling and amusement capital. An equipment that fuses with the existing culture industry and advertising sectors to produce, in Guy Debord’s terms, a new diffuse spectacle. New fusions, subsidised by venture-capitalist profits, are likely to continue to appear.
The question is this. If the social industry shows a tendency to promote far-right content, if Google elevates ‘false flag’ conspiracy theories, if YouTube sends users along a conveyor belt toward ‘extreme’ content, if Twitter can help make the political career of the first ‘alt-right’ president of the United States, what signals is the machine picking up on, magnifying and reflecting back to us? YouTube’s recommendations system, for example, acts on the basis of the clickthroughs and watchtime of its users. If it directs us to Nazi material, or 9/11 Truth videos, this is because this material is somehow riveting for its viewers. And what, you might ask, is so addictive about an hour-long Prison Planet rant about ‘libtards’?
V. These are not the questions we expected to ask when the social industry made its breakthrough. A mere five years before Trump’s election, the industry was experiencing its utopian moment, fuelled by massive industrial gains made possible by ubiquitous smartphone ownership. In this moment, the globalising zeal of traditional Washington briefly coalesced with the emancipatory hopes of Occupy, Anonymous and Pirate Parties. The Clintonites in the White House expected the industry to further US commercial interests, modernise its industrial base, and destabilise geopolitical rivals. The cyber-utopians of the Left, however, staked a claim on the technological future in which networked flows of information would bypass hierarchy, destroy the old informational monopolies, reduce the costs of political participation, and afford novel, ‘rhizomic’ principles of association. At the peak of the Occupy movement, for example, Guy Aitchison and Aaron Bastani pointed out that the emerging networks had delivered results by challenging and outflanking traditional institutions. Information and social coordination need not be so hierarchical or centralised.
They were not entirely wrong about the potentials they identified, but such potentials were not the whole story, and their political valence was not as it seemed. Far from bypassing hierarchy, the social industry is nothing but hierarchical systems of informational control wherein – generally under the rubric of ‘free speech’ and ‘privacy’ – the little Napoleons of the industry assert a monopoly on all data generated by users. While seriously weakening traditional forms of ideological control, throttling print media, and catalysing a crisis of representation, they have laid the foundations for more sophisticated controls. While reducing the costs of communication and political participation, they have also reduced the costs of disaffiliation, infiltration and disruption. Their proprietary algorithms were designed to advance individual networking, not collective organisation. Insofar as they are harnessed by organisations, Paolo Gerbaudo has shown in his excellent book The Digital Party, they tend to favour a form of leadership principle, wherein largely passive supporters have a consumer relationship to a charismatic personality, and are engaged on the basis of thin forms of ‘participation’ and ‘feedback’.
Moreover, occluded in the utopian moment was the profoundly anti-social dimension of the social industry. One of the paradoxes of the industry is the way that it lubricates a form of sociality without sociality: a connection that is also a disconnection. This is not to reiterate the sentimental Levinasian idea that the face-to-face is the ultimate situation in which one encounters the other. One of the emancipatory potentials of modern communications technologies is precisely that we need no longer depend on a ‘primary proximity’ to form a social bond. Rather, it is because the whole industry is based on the model of addiction. Indeed, it might be said that addiction, wherein we can get enjoyment seemingly without laborious social mediation, is foundational to the current paradigm of capitalism. Whether it is gaming and amusement, infotainment, gambling, pills, ‘male supplements’ or the social industry, capitalism promises to satisfy our wanting while allowing us to evade the other.
Sociality may appear to be the substance of the social industry. It is just a ‘platform’, after all, existing to facilitate interaction. But the most important layer of interaction is not between users and other users, nor even between users and screens, but between users and the Freudian robot. A robot which solicits our engagement by showing us an edited stream of messages ostensibly written by other users. They could in principle be entirely the work of bots, for all the difference that it makes to our libidinal relationship with the machine. Indeed, the frequency with which users engage in behaviour that would be deemed shameful in offline life, indicates that perhaps on some level we don’t believe the other users are real. What matters, what keeps us there, is not the presence of other users in the form of written traces, ghosts in the machine, but that little fix of jouissance when we’re bored, anxious, depressed.
This is where the social industry exacerbates long-term trends in late capitalism, toward the disintegration of the social bond, and the domination of competitive atomism. The industry models user relations along the lines of a constant struggle of all against all, of billions of micro-enterprises, little celebrities, vying for flows of attention. The system’s ‘rewards’ – ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and so on, with monetarisation possible at the higher reaches of popularity – are metrics for attention, which is struggled over as a scarce resource. There is no spontaneous solidarity among users: quite the opposite. There are only temporary alliances that can turn, on a dime, to enmity. The more-or-less ruthless will-to-power induced by such a machinery can always be rationalised, moreover, on the grounds that it’s ‘only the internet’. Besides which, the ‘logic of aggregation’, as Jeffrey Juris calls it, means that minute individual actions of little consequence can accumulate into collective action of enormous consequence. In such a social system, the aggression, hate and will-to-domination that is usually restrained in daily life, is more permissible: encouraged, even. The economically incentivised hunger for approval gives added force to conformist propensities, and empowers those who would police social conformity. Moreover, in such a system, a certain degree of paranoia is logical, since you can never be sure who to trust, and are always in danger of becoming the object of the kind of quasi-randomised crowd furies that you might otherwise participate in. These are among the tendencies we might call ‘microfascisms’. And they are clearly implicated in another salient dimension of the social industry which is its tendency to generate raging (and highly profitable) culture wars. With users working diligently to cultivate a self-image responsive to a stock market-like flux of sentiment and attention, they are easily drawn into moralised battles, strategies of anathema that rigidify existing cultural differences. The social industry doesn’t just atomise, it also segments. Cultural lines which were as mobile and porous as weather fronts become hard borders in a balkanised terrain. The modern alt-right has been the major force to congeal from such wars, from #gamergate to #birthergate.
Given the consequences of these patterns of social breakdown ‘offline’, this is worrying. A spate of research has shown that, alongside the rise of social inequality and a crisis of masculinity, the prevalence of such competitive, dog-eat-dog atomism is a major contributor to the rise of mass shootings in the United States. The measurement of social breakdown is, of course, necessarily value-laden, and rests on such dubious metrics as ‘social isolation’, typically ascribed to the mentally unwell, or, in the case of Ichiro Kawachi’s study of violent crime, ‘social capital’. Nonetheless, it seems relatively uncontroversial that such breakdown exists: indeed the social industry, while exacerbating the trend, offers itself as a remedy to this trend. Among its reported clinical manifestations is a marked increase in the prevalence of paranoia and persecution fantasies. And if, as Stephen Frosh argued, paranoia is a way of being adapted to modern, surveillance societies, that goes many times over for the users of the social industry, who really are being watched, who can never be sure of the good faith of interlocutors, and for whom the unpredictable rewards and punishments built into the machine are impossible to make sense of.
We can see how paranoia and the sense of persecution can be politicised by looking at, for example, the formation of Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) communities, galvanised by their belief in an oppressive sexual regime lorded over by the potent ‘Chads’ and ‘Stacys’. MRAs, alongside fascists and jihadists, have been well represented among recent ‘lone wolves’. They represent a militantly reactionary response to the fraying of the conditions of social reproduction, scapegoating the accomplishments of feminism for growing precarity and the breakdown of the ‘good life’. But they are also one case in the broader trend of rising conspiracist paranoia. Such conspiracism, though it has its ‘alt-left’ declinations (think of the leftists drawn to 9/11 Truth, or exaggerated versions of the ‘Israel Lobby’ thesis), overwhelmingly conduces to far-right ideologies.
With the postmodern ‘waning of historicity’, as Toscano dubs it, has come a general epistemological crisis. The declining authority of politicians, journalists and experts is widely remarked upon. But the sciences are also afflicted by a notorious ‘reproducibility crisis’, in which the results of experiments are increasingly difficult to replicate. This is in part due, according to Philip Mirowski, to the growing privatisation and commodification of scientific practice. The basis for authoritative knowledge has been eroded, and the major culprit in each case is the subordination of knowledge to the logic of capital. The social industry is part of this trend, inasmuch as it has fuelled the infotainment-based, clickbait-driven crisis of journalism: a sort of stock market of memes, driven by transient amusement, ephemeral passion. Sensationalist infotainment is not intrinsically more appealing than any other format for delivering information. True, the idea that being informed should be fun, rather than work, is an appealing one. But the persuasiveness of this idea derives from the underlying conditions of near-universal commodification. Choices in a market are made in micro-seconds. Do I click on this link, watch this broadcast, buy this newspaper? And while there are other proven ways to build and keep audiences, clickbait and sensation are cheaper to produce, more congruent with capitalism’s interest in serving consumers rather than citizens and, precisely because of its jouissances, ideologically more effective. However, the market-driven degradation of information is not limited to the production of news. Google once proposed a similar, stock-market-like system for the scientific research, wherein investors would bid for the best research ideas. This, as with the social industry’s devastation of print journalism, would only have accelerated trends already underway.
In the gap produced by the collapse of authoritative knowledge, small groups of amateur sleuths, citizen journalists, have taken to reconstructing the ‘truth’ on the basis of extravagant theories from 9/11 Truth to, for example, #Pizzagate. The latter, originally purveyed by a fascist publication, asserted that a pizza parlour in Washington DC was serving as a front for Hillary Clinton to traffic in child sex slaves. The claim went viral, helped along by the social industry’s ‘logic of aggregation’, and resulted in a string of vigilantes turning up to investigate: one of whom, heavily armed, took control of the premises from terrified staff, before eventually giving himself up to police. Confronted with such paranoia, we might recall Ernst Simmel’s claim that antisemitism is a flight from psychosis. That is, the delusion is not the symptom but an attempted self-cure. It is a way of being adapted to a society afflicted by a crash in meaning. It is both infotainment, delivering the narcissistic thrill one gets from outsmarting both ‘sheeple’ and ‘elites’, and critical theory for the meaning-bereft.
The social industry, as relentlessly productive as it is, continuously secretes this clickbait-theory, in the form of memes, infographics, short videos, and interactive games, and generates surges and frenzies supporting its distribution. If, in so doing, it tends to signal boost Islamophobic paranoia, Sandy Hook revisionism, ‘white genocide’ theory, and so on, it is hardly out of editorial malice. Rather, the question is how it puts to work, as the spur to attentional flows, paranoia, fantasies of restitution and revenge, desire for domination, the authoritarian need to be right, the capacity to humiliate, approval-seeking ingroup conformity and converse tendencies toward malice and social sadism. All of these tendencies are simply part of the quiddity of late capitalist life, what might be considered ordinary fascist jouissances. Or, as Foucault put it, the ‘fascism in us all … in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.’ Arguably, what the programmed sociality, the simulacrum of sociality produced by the industry, brings to this situation is that it activates, aggregates, and accelerates the flow of these microfascisms. It provides rallying points, points of congealment in routine memetic surges of attention, points where political subjects are convoked.
These surges spill over into meatspace. The logic of the online shitstorm, wherein the aggregation of sentiment produces transient excitement and empowerment, devolves into flash mobs, makeshift occupations, demonstrations at short notice, and perhaps just enough mobilisation to tip electoral outcomes. It has even, given what we know of the online recruiting practices of ISIS, supplied much of the kinetic force for an ad hoctheocratic state. Yet it may be the phenomenon of the ‘lone wolf’ that raises the most troubling questions about the future of the networked far Right.
VI. Fascism is eschatotropic. Wherever it starts, it bends toward apocalypse. This is not to say that all Armageddonophiles, even on the far Right, are necessarily fascist. Rather, since it is a ‘swindle of fulfilment’, in Bloch’s phrase, fascism and apocalypse have an elective affinity, a kinship of meaning, and tend toward mutual reinforcement.
There is no fascism without the cult of heroism, as Umberto Eco writes, and the ‘Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death’. The achievement of fascism, Deleuze and Guattari insist, is to liberate a popular desire for suicide: its ‘crowning glory’ the death of the very ‘people’ whom it summons into existence. Anthrax, deadly pathogens, ‘organised executions of multiculturalist traitors’, weapons of mass destruction, atomic weapons turned against ‘cultural Marxists’. Compulsively, performatively, Anders Behring Breivik’s ‘manifesto’, 2083, rehearses these scenarios with palpable erotic delight. Bypassing the institutions ostensibly captured by ‘cultural Marxists’, Breivik intended his murders in Oslo and Utøya, with gun and bomb, to rally his allies to a continent-wide race war. Starting with ‘military shock attacks’ like his own, he imagined it cresting toward the nuclear obliteration of the enemy.
In enthralled imitation, the Christchurch mass murderer Brenton Tarrant sought to turn himself into a meme presaging global race-war by live-streaming his massacre of fifty Muslims. His manifesto was a self-consciously memetic document, packed with Easter eggs for lulz-hungry admirers on the gamers’ site, 8chan. Within weeks, yet another 8chan-embedded fascist killer had struck, this time at a Synagogue in San Diego, leaving yet another meme-packed manifesto. Like the incel killer Alek Minassian’s cheerleaders, these killers were formed in and propelled by an online community of the lone-wolfish. And they were ghoulishly entranced by the prospect of annihilation. Like their alt-right co-ideologues, they evoked a last stand against a fantasmatic ‘white genocide’. With this fantasy in the foreground, they pursued what Tarrant called ‘heroic’ death in murderous ‘service to some grand crusade’. As Pankaj Mishra put it, the religion of whiteness has become a suicide cult.
Nor is this just the fantasy will-to-the-end of the ‘lone wolf’. Millenarian tendencies are, of course, politically polyvalent. They appear in the English Civil War, early modern Catholic mysticism, the American revolution, the Zionist movement, twentieth century communism, and among certain Evangelicals who see in Trump a potential John the Baptist figure. As Catherine Keller has argued, any politics of counterapocalypse that doesn’t take its own messianic drive seriously, ends up mimicking its opponent. Nonetheless, if ever the apocalypse was fervently and unconditionally willed, and even brought to the point of being materialised, it has been as a consequence of fascism. The Falangist slogan exhorted: ‘Long Live Death’. The Ustasha chiliastically gloried in the ‘bones, blood and spirit of martyrs’. Nazi war policy, as Adam Tooze has shown, was substantially driven by their apprehension of an apocalyptic war with Jews, from Operation Barbarossa to the Wannsee Conference. Faced with defeat, the Nazis embarked on a scorched earth policy to eradicate German churches, museums, state records, anything that constituted the historical memory of a ‘German people’. Goebbels proclaimed: ‘Germany must be made more desolate than the Sahara.’
The concept of the heroic, death-seeking, right-wing ‘lone wolf’ is, nonetheless, particularly geared toward an End Times crescendo. ‘Kill me,’ Minassian shouted at armed police after his vehicular assault on pedestrians in Toronto. ‘I have a gun in my pocket. Shoot me in the head’. ‘I’ve done my job’, Darren Osborne told police after ploughing a van into a crowd at Finsbury Park mosque, ‘you can kill me now’. Breivik, before being apprehended by police, was mulling over whether to shoot himself in the head. Dylann Roof, before embarking on his massacre at a black church in Charleston, left suicide notes for his parents. ‘Pray that I become a martyr,’ German ISIS killer Riaz Khan texted his recruiter, before attacking passengers on a train with an axe and knife. Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec mosque killer, had spent months planning his suicide, and researching mass shootings and suicide attacks. ‘Kill me,’ Florida mass shooter Nikolas Cruz begged police, ‘Just fucking kill me.’ This desire for a culmination, a final showdown, to be done with life, resonates with the original strategic intent of the ‘lone wolf’ concept.
The beginnings of the far-right ‘lone wolf’ lie in Vietnam and the Civil Rights era. As Kathleen Belew’s history of the US ‘white power’ movement shows, the Vietnam War had forged a realigned far Right. For most of its history, white supremacy was an openly respectable policy in the US. The Ku Klux Klan, through three ‘waves’, had been a vigilante white-supremacist movement with mainstream support, which acted as a parapolitical auxiliary to state power. But the Klan scene that emerged post-Vietnam and in the post-Civil Rights state, was different, indicative of a new insurrectionary subculture. On the one hand, the alliances that white-supremacists had with politicians, police and the judiciary had been dislocated, and they now encountered the Federal government as an enemy. On the other, they had just gleaned invaluable direct combat experience, killing communists in Vietnam. Many of them cheerfully put this experience to work during the Greensboro Massacre in 1979 during which, with the connivance of local police, members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party shot and killed members of the Communist Workers Party in the streets. The new alignment put Klan members, neo-Nazis, fascists, Christian Identitarians and anti-tax activists in the same milieus and often the same organisations. And increasingly it was contemplating culminations, final solutions, genocides.
While the term ‘lone wolf’ was coined by the FBI, with a discernible trace of romantic admiration, it was from within the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the organisation founded by former Nazi student agitator David Duke and future Stormfront proprietor Don Black, that the idea of was formulated. Louis Beam, Grand Dragon of the Texas Klan, had killed with distinction in the Vietnam War, organised militias to attack Vietnamese migrants on his return, and was charged twice with bomb attacks on leftist headquarters. But he recognised that any formal armed hierarchy could be too easily infiltrated and dismantled. ‘Leaderless resistance’ was an idea first advanced an ex-CIA agent, Col Louis Amoss, for the purposes of anticommunist struggle in Eastern Europe. It entailed the dispersal of armed force into tiny ‘phantom cells’ of ones and twos, who would act without instruction from a leadership. Beam was impressed. An ardent anticommunist, he foresaw a dark night of Federal ‘tyranny’ over the white race comparable to communist dictatorship. ‘Patriots’, should they wish to resist, would need a new division of labour between a propaganda arm which disavowed violence, and armed individuals who would commit in the privacy of their minds to insurrection. Ironically, whether he knew it or not, by adopting the idea of ‘phantom cells’ Beam was partly emulating the Viet Minh, his victorious opponents in Vietnam.
This was a tactic borne of political isolation and millenarian impatience. In previous waves of fascist terror, from Ustashe assassinations to the Bologna massacre, the far right had significant institutional and sometimes even popular support. Not so the ‘lone wolf’. One of its most vocal advocates after Beam was neo-Nazi Tom Metzger, who launched the brand organisation, White Aryan Resistance (WAR) in the same year that Beam’s article was publishing. Adopting Beam’s rationale, it self-consciously eschewed formal membership, inviting supporters to identify with its precepts and act on them. For Metzger, the ideal would be to have mass paramilitaries take on the government: ‘the SS did it in Germany … we can do it right here in the streets of America’. The necessity of the ‘lone wolf’ arose from the fact that most whites were ‘brain dead’, a ‘herd’. He was deeply impressed with the organised firepower of jihadist networks striking on US soil, and their ability to provoke escalating conflict. As with Breivik, Metzger’s hope was that the demonstrative violence of individuals would provoke an apocalyptic race war, a final struggle in which whites would be forced to take sides.
VII. There is a marked gap between the formulation of the concept and its increasing appearance as a political reality. While the glamour of ‘patriotic’ insurgency struck a chord in the new insurgent subculture of the far-right, strikingly few ‘lone wolf’ attacks actually took place. Most of those that occurred were carried out by organised white power groups.
Mark Hamm and Ramón Spaaij have documented a spike in ‘lone wolf’ incidents in recent years. Between 2001 and 2013, there were forty-five lone wolf attacks carried out by forty-five individuals in the United States. By comparison, between 1940 and 2000, they count 171 attacks carried out by thirty-eight individuals. An important nuance to register here is that none of the recent attackers were repeat offenders. In counterterrorism idiom, they are ‘chaos’ killers rather than ‘career’ killers. Their attacks almost all had a certain finality about them, and most of the attackers either killed themselves or made little effort to evade capture. Recent lone wolf activity has mainly been far-right in source, but can in no obvious way be attributed to the strategic guidance of Beam and Metzger, not least because of its necessarily disorganised, disaffiliated nature. The perpetrators have more in common with those carrying out almost-daily mass shootings in the US, than with the hardened fascist cadres that Beam and Metzger hoped would listen to their words. Moreover one is struck, looking at the recent spate of killers, by the apparent thin-ness of their formal political and ideological commitments. This applies both to lone wolves and organised combatants. ISIS recruits who are religious novices, training for jihad with ‘Islam For Dummies’. Individuals like Darren Osborne, ‘red-pilled’ and turned into racist murderers in a matter of weeks. Mass killers like Roof and Minassian, forming their ideologies almost entirely on the basis of engagement with online right-wing subcultures. ISIS recruited for both Caliphate-building and overseas attacks by putting to work the logic of online swarms, exploiting the social industry’s affordances through hashtag-jacking, memes, Hollywood-style video clips, interactive games. A propaganda campaign very different from the elaborate theological and jurisprudential output of Al-Qaida.
The question is what constellation of circumstances converted reactionary pipe-dream into quasi-accurate description? To the extent that this trend has appeared outside the United States, it may reflect an Americanisation of the far-right. Breivik’s cut-and-paste manifesto, drawing largely from the John Birch Society wing of US conspiracism, is some evidence of that. More generally, the ‘war on terror’ era saw a marked transition in the ideological orientation and leadership of successful far-right groups. The inherited hostility to the US and Israel, on racist grounds, was displaced by a new geopolitical axis guided by a new, imagined struggle for civilisation against Islam. Vlaams Belang, the English Defence League and even the Front national under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, like Breivik, all tended to align themselves with the ideological obsessions of America’s islamophobia industry. And this is now a highly profitable sector of media production in the social industry. Whereas far-right gangs once had to carry out robberies and forge money to fund their operations, they can now monetise racism provided they outmanoeuvre the ‘hate speech’ algorithms. This is the dark underside of old, liberal Washington’s ambitious Silicon-led globalisation project.
Americanisation or not, however, that doesn’t by itself explain why anyone answers the call to spontaneous, reactionary murder. If an ISIS spokesperson urges supporters to kill, using the nearest available weapon from a knife to a vehicle, why does anyone take it up? And why does anyone act on far-right propaganda, incel paranoia, islamophobia industry infotainment, conspiracy theories, with armed, murderous heroics? The popular conceptual short-cut to describe this phenomenon, is ‘stochastic terror’, a term that was coined anonymously online and has since become widely used in news commentary. Much as climate change produces ‘stochastic’ weather events, so the diffuse ecologies of online reaction reliably produce terrorist violence, even if the specific occurrences are unpredictable. This captures something about the way effects are produced through the social industry. Algorithms administer, not populations of individuals per se, but data populations. They anticipate a distribution of x effects over y population, given a certain stimulus. The problem is that, like the dud concept ‘radicalisation’, ‘stochastic terror’ assumes that jihadist or far-right propaganda is extraordinarily efficient at producing its own audience.
It may be that the social industry helps such propaganda find its audience. For this industry, as Geert Lovink enigmatically puts it, ‘calculates with and not against the apocalypse’. In a striking early analysis of the social media strategy of ISIS, the security intellectual J. M. Berger argued that the group was succeeding because it turned Twitter into a ‘metronome of apocalyptic time’, a ‘carrier wave for millenarian contagion’. The messaging of the Islamic State pivoted on its apprehension of an end times battle, al-Mahama al-Kubra, which in Islamic eschatology is to take place in Dabiq, a Syrian town that fell under ISIS control. The appeal of this narrative to ISIS’s online supporters Berger attributes, in part, to the unique properties of the medium. In millenarian experience, there is a combined sense of temporal acceleration, social contagion and subjective immersion in an exceptional situation. When major upheavals, military victories, political upsets, appear to be coming ‘out of nowhere’, it lends itself to the sense that the normal rules don’t apply, and licences extraordinary action. Such, indeed, must have been the experience of ISIS supporters on Twitter during its upswing. ISIS accounts were hyperactive, posting incessantly about doings, achievements, victories. They were prolifically productive, too, of easily shareable and digestible content: first-person shooter footage, video games, snippets of battles or executions, iconic images of the black flag flying over fields of flowers, and short Q&A sessions with jihadi leaders. They exploited successful hashtags to make their content go viral and, having discovered their latent community of support, they carefully identified potential recruits and virtually surrounded them, bombarding them with intimate interpellations, such that they were extruded from the saeculum into the realm of ‘apocalyptic time’.
This, then, may also offer some clues as regards the acts of disorganised violence that fly out of the social industry’s culture wars like sparks from a furnace. ‘Apocalyptic time’ is the time of the industry. It is the accelerating temporal experience of a machinery that is ever cresting toward yet another climacteric. Merely by dint of the way it connects data point to data point, aggregates sentiment in a flash, produces ever more complex ‘stochastic’ effects, it ensures that those who are predisposed to it, who hunger for the clarifying and simplifying violence of the end, will find their eschaton. Even without the focused efforts of recruiters, it bathes users in interpellations that reach them just as efficiently as a voice whispered in the ear. And the routine political shocks to which it now contributes are sufficient to create a sense of miraculous possibility. Yet, whence that hunger? What ignites the desire for an end in the first place? Inevitably, news coverage, scholarly articles, books and think-tank reports zero in on the mental health problems of perpetrators. In the case of killers who aren’t Muslim, and thus don’t come with a ready-to-hand Orientalist story of incorrigible barbaric Otherness, there has been a tendency to resort to mental illness as if this was a sufficient condition for their outbursts. Many of the ‘lone wolves’ are indeed demonstrably unwell. The stereotype of the ‘lone wolf’, the socially isolated, depressed, paranoid, unemployed older white male, is not totally inaccurate, at least in the United States. However, as the contemporary obsession with ‘wellness’ indicates, we are ubiquitously unwell. Anxiety and depression have measurably increased. And the social industry’s power in part derives from its ability to monetise this distress, as a ready-to-hand remedy, a stopgap for the dysfunctional effects of neoliberal capitalism. The question is how pervasive mental distress becomes contingently politicised.
How does the ‘red pill’ become the attempted cure for subjective desolation? Why, when a subjective black hole appears, should it be the semiotic fragments of fascism, rather than some other content, that it gluttonously consumes? What accounts for the consolatory or compensatory power of racist, jihadist, masculinist, or fascist propaganda? What, to repeat an earlier question, is so enthrallingly addictive about this product, for many more users than have ever contemplated killing? And what happens when the ‘stochastic’ event, the spontaneous ‘lone wolf’, is subject to the logic of aggregation? We have seen armed standoffs between American reactionaries and the US government, from Ruby Ridge to Amon Bundy. At what point might we see the armed shitstorm? These are questions that beg for further research, and which I simply pose here, without trying to answer them.
These are early days in the social industry, and early days in the networked far-right resonance machine. We cannot say for certain how this machine might morph or falter in the face of opposition. Traditional Washington, mounting a fightback against Trumpism, is leaning hard on the social industry to crack down on ‘fake news’ among other nebulous entities. The industry’s major brands may have peaked in terms of their ability to capture attention, and being overtly associated with the far-right, however profitable, risks significant user defection.
Nonetheless, despite everything, the social industry looks like an overwhelming success, economically, culturally and politically. Its ability to lure billions of users into a novel and dystopian form of sociality has yet to be seriously challenged. There is no indication, even amid backlash, that the machine will stop working. And this machine makes fascists.
Richard Seymour is a founding editor of Salvage, an author and a broadcaster. His latest book is The Twittering Machine (Indigo, 2019). You can support his writing on Patreon here.