The Culture Wars Online, Revisited

Scott reminisces about the rise and fall of the online culture wars

The whole process was a very clear example of a respectability cascade. There’s some position which is relatively commonly held, but considered beyond the pale for respectable people. In the beginning, the only people who will say it openly are extremely non-respectable people who don’t mind getting cast out of normal society for their sin. Everyone attacks them, but afterwards they are still basically standing, and their openness encourages slightly more respectable people to say the same thing. This creates a growing nucleus of ever-more-respectable people speaking openly, until eventually it’s no longer really that taboo and anyone who wants can talk about it with only minor stigma. It’s the same story as atheism, gay rights, and a hundred other things that were once taboo but eventually became mainstream. Except in this case it was kind of cannibalistic, because the main complaint the anti-SJWs had was that they couldn’t talk about how much they hated SJWs. Once they could, their case kind of lost relevance, which is probably one reason the search term is trending down these days and nobody talks about the IDW anymore.

The alt-right started completely separate from any of this. The name was invented by Richard Spencer, a very serious movement white supremacist more on the “hold scary rallies full of skinheads” side of things than the “gripe about SJWs on Reddit” side. Although there have been white supremacists on the Internet forever – Stormfront was founded in 1996 – they didn’t interact much with the early anti-SJW movement, who (again) were mostly liberal Democrat nerds who found geek feminists annoying.

The high-water mark of the alt/dissident-right, which can include the red pill and related movements, was mid-2017, and the grand finale was the Unite the Right rally, after which things began to falter. A major reason: social media companies (Twitter, Facebook), payment processors (Paypal, Patreon, etc.), and platforms (Reddit, YouTube) began to aggressively crackdown on any content to the right of Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson, and such companies colluded. It was the digital equivalent of the Kristallnacht. Dozens of content creators lost their YouTube channels, their ability to process payments and donations, lost their social media accounts, etc. Second, there was considerable enthusiasm in 2016-2017 that Trump would reverse at least some of the damage done by the left over the past half century, and the belief that Trump had an ear to dissident-right, but by early 2018 it had become apparent that such optimism was unfounded (especially given that anyone with connections to the alt-right, however tenuous such connections were, had departed). Third: data leaks, hacks, and the doxing of important individuals.

The alt-right didn’t become ‘unhip’, rather it had its roots pulled out by the very platforms it depended on, and the more ‘respectable’ alt-lite/middle filled the void, and no one cared. Trump, understandably, didn’t want anything to do with the alt-right, and the alt-center/lite groups were happy to have their competition gone and not having to be associated with the far-right.

From 2017 to today, the far-left gained power, in part by using the alt-lite/center groups as a foil. Scott says no one is talking about the IDW anymore, but the IDW, like the alt-middle/center, is more popular then ever in terms of YouTube views, subscriber revenue, and Twitter engagement. Jordan Peterson and others have helped raise plenty of awareness about the left, but this has not weakened the left. The IDW, by protesting non-binary pronoun usage, trans inclusivity, and other issues, made the left dig in deeper, and also give the left new ideas “we can now force people to use preferred pronouns” Pre-2017 hardly anyone was talking about pronouns, trans women being allowed to compete against cis-women in sports, kids being allowed to transition, or gender fluidity, but now those topics have been thrust to the fore of discourse and culture, and in a way that benefits the left. Tech companies are now requiring compliance with these new rules, such as adherence to preferred pronouns. Now we’re stuck with these problems. The private sector and local and state governments have considerable discretion and power to make people comply with this new social convention. As Scott writes, “…after the George Floyd protests, all Google Trends about race shot up, and haven’t fully returned back to their pre-protest trend even now, a year later. The woke stranglehold on corporations, governments, and now the CIA is stronger than ever.”

Conservatives have always been at disadvantage in this regard because they cannot just force companies to become ‘un-woke’. The only way firms will abandon woke policy is if it costs them enough money, but there is no guarantee of that, or what ‘enough’ is.

He continues:

And so I predicted that hip young people would go far-right. Nobody would confuse them with the maximally-uncool people, the obese white Boomer who shops at Wal-Mart and plasters their car with anti-Obama bumper stickers. And it would distinguish them from the corporate consulants and Hillary Clintons of the world. A few hip young people seem to have tried this – I think this was a little bit of what gave the alt-right its original appeal, especially after Clinton’s speech.

But overall I was wrong. Hip young people and conservatism remain as antithetical as ever. Instead, we got the rise of socialism, of the DSA, Bernie Sanders, and Chapo Trap House variety. By this point, you won’t be surprised when I propose the name New Socialism, as a direct analogy to New Atheism, etc. Like atheism, socialism is age-old. But like atheism, it had a moment where it became more online, more confrontational, more celebrity-based, and more popular among a fanbase of mostly well-educated young men.

They went to both extremes: the far-right and the far-left (but mostly the far-left). This is not too surprising. Socialism has always appealed to idealist youth. There is a reason why revolutionaries tend to be young and their revolutions are led by young people.

Why did the hope that New Socialism would slay wokeness fail? If I had to guess, I’d say wokeness outgrew the Internet fashion cycle. Unlike its predecessors, it took over mainstream institutions. Mainstream institutions are sticky. You can take control of them by being cool. But once you have control of them, you don’t need to stay cool.

Cause it’s socialism? C’mon Scott. The answer is right there.

How did the counterculture eventually win, and the patriotic/Christian amalgam civil religion of the 1950s – 1990s eventually collapse? I don’t have a great understanding of this (though see Part III here), and I’d love to learn more so I can develop a real game plan. Where is the cultural-change equivalent of Progress Studies, and what might we be able to do if we had it?

I think a mistake Scott makes is he treats these trends or phases as being sequential and separate. Rather, there are overlaps. The ‘Christian right’ from the ’50s onward still exists (evangelicals are still a major voting bloc), and overlaps with the counterculture-left, which began in the ’60s and also still exists (is now under the umbrella of ‘woke culture’). It is not like one completely subsumed the other. Although the left has control over cultural and educational institutions and in terms of most policy (such as Covid restrictions or immigration), the growth of the prison-industrial-complex, defense spending, and the trend towards lower taxes, are ‘wins’ for the ‘right’. Prison sentences are longer and the incarceration rate higher than ever, and the war on drugs more entrenched than ever, in spite of all this liberalism and efforts by the left at prison reform. Too bad though the right completely dropped the ball on the culture wars though.

I think ‘corporatism,’ although overused by the left in the ’90s to describe companies like Walmart and cronyism, is applicable now. It would seem the arc of policy over the past few decades has been towards increasing power and concentration of large firms and well-connected individuals, and the demand for compliance of everyone else. It’s like we’re living in Amazon and Google’s world. If they need a pandemic to boost sales, they will get one.