Rebellion as entrepreneurial strategy is leagues away from stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. / Sebastiaan ter Burg
Laurie Penny,  September 11

You Are Not a Rebel

Who benefits from the far right’s pose of permanent insurrection?

Rebellion as entrepreneurial strategy is leagues away from stealing from the rich and giving to the poor. / Sebastiaan ter Burg
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In real life, nobody has the decency to realize that they’re the bad guy until it’s too late. The worst thing about the historical record is that it is usually written after the fact. Just think, if we could only get our hands on advance copies of tomorrow’s historical bestsellers, we could work out once and for all how we fit into this cruel and anxious age we’re living through, and get a sneak peek at the ending to see who ends up dead, decked out with medals, or living incognito in South America. Sadly, that would hardly help those of us who are most dangerously confused. The people who most urgently need to consider which side of the moral ledger their story will be written on tend to read few books in which they are not the hero.

It’s hard realizing that you’re the bad guy, because then you have to do something about it. That’s why the most aggressive players on the gory stage of political melodrama act in such bad faith, hanging on to their own sense of persecution, mouthing the plagiarized playbook of an oppression they don’t comprehend because they don’t care to. These people have a way of fumbling through their self-set roles till the bloody final act, but if we can flip the script, we might yet stop the show.

Let us remember, then, that in the violent psychodrama going on in their own minds, modern reactionaries, almost to a man, think that they are the hero. They think they’re the plucky underdog. They continue to think this even with their tiny-fingered mascot bellowing over the White House lawns and their agenda ascendant around the world, and I know, I know it makes no sense. But dogma doesn’t have to. And one of the articles of faith uniting all our modern proto-fascists, crypto-fascists, baby-fascists, whining 4chan fascists, and the growing number of fascists for whom any sort of prefix is redundant is that they all think they are rebels. 

The new far right has recognized the enduring appeal of adventurism and appropriated its rhetoric for reactionary ends.  Propaganda hubs like The Rebel repackage far right ideas as edgy and avant-garde, reassuring recruits that they are hip outsiders in a mass of squares and normies. This is a time-worn trick. As George Orwell observed in a review of Mein Kampf, “whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” 

This is what happens when we fetishize the romance of rebellion while making actual social change impossible.

Fighting for people who are less privileged than you to become even less privileged than you is hardly a revolutionary mission. CEOs do it all the time. Last year I was interviewed for a Vice documentary about the relationship between Gamergate and the new far right. I remember that to get the shot at the right level, I had to half-sit and half-stand on a fancy sideboard. While I was engaging my core muscles trying to balance, the affable hipster doing the interview asked, “But aren’t the guys a bit underground? Aren’t they a bit counter-culture?” I was so flabbergasted that I fell off my perch. Yes, I told him, they are underground, a bit. But even Vice magazine, which is woke enough as long as woke sells ads—another Vice editor told me authoritatively a few years ago that “it’s not cool to be stupid anymore”—even they can surely see that simply being “underground” does not make something fit to dredge up. A lot of things run underground that would be better off staying there. Sewers, for instance.

This is what happens when we equate “anti-social” with “anti-establishment.” The far right think they’re the resistance. They think they’re Mel Gibson in Braveheart, when they’re actually just regular old Mel Gibson, screaming about bitches and whores and Jews and then wondering why no one answers their phone calls anymore. Well played, Rob Roy. 


The Shitler Youth come in many flavors of plausible deniability, but none are quite so woefully iconic as everyone’s favorite ship of fools: the fake pirates of Defend Europe. 

In case you hadn’t heard, a few months ago some white supremacists decided that the rescue boats trying to save desperate people from drowning in the Mediterranean were a threat to “European” way of life. (I will not dignify them with the term “activists,” because activists have meetings and have read things that aren’t spittle-flecked sexually paranoid internet retro-rants about white people being bred out of existence.) They decided to solve the problem by pursuing a merry life of adventure on the high seas. No, really. These rudderless twits went ahead and chartered a boat, with the initial, unabashedly evil intention of impeding the rescue ships, a plan which was quickly changed to “monitoring” said ships, as apparently nobody had any idea how to do actual sea battle, because whatever the copyright people told us, downloading a lot of free porn does not, by itself, make you a pirate.

They got a lot of press, of course, which was part of the idea—there’s no point being a rebel if you can’t get your picture in the paper. They even got Katie Hopkins, Britain’s own dollar-store Eva Braun, to come along for part of the ride, presumably as some sort of totem against shipwreck, because any self-respecting god of the ocean would spit Hopkins right back out again. Deliciously, before they had even managed to embark on their main voyage, they accidentally smuggled twenty-one Sri Lankan asylum seekers into Europe. Then their boat stalled in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. The founder of the Sea-Eye, the NGO ship that was sent to offer aid—the pouting stalwarts refused help—told the public that “to help a ship in distress is the duty of anyone who is at sea, without distinction to their origin, color, religion, or beliefs.” Hopefully the Sea-Eye was also stocked with burn cream.[*] 

The very worst part about this entire episode is that an actual rescue ship was diverted to help these cretins, a rescue ship that could have been saving people who are really fleeing for their lives, rather than simply fleeing reality. I’m not going to permit myself to wish the baby-fascists had fucking drowned, but I do hope the stalled vessel gave these quisling Quixotes time to check out their own reflection in the surface of the sea and wonder whether being “underground” was quite so much fun anymore. I also hope that when they make the movie of this, every single one of them is played by Nicolas Cage in a variety of unconvincing wigs.

Claiming that anti-fascists are morally equivalent to fascists is a little like claiming that, as both take a toll on the body, cancer and chemotherapy are basically the same.

In the United States, radicalized extremists on the far right are also due for a rebrand, having been embarrassed on the international stage in Charlottesville by fellow travelers who took the street-fighting-Nazi live-action roleplay too far, marched around screaming about being replaced by Jews, and murdered someone. The Shitler Youth are now going through desperate conniptions trying to claim that anti-fascists are morally equivalent to fascists, that “all sides” are aggressive and forthright, which is a little like claiming that, as both take a toll on the body, cancer and chemotherapy are basically the same.

Shit got real, eh? One minute you’re a nice normal boy with hobbies and internet friends, and the next, your picture’s all over the place holding a torch and doing the Nuremberg uglyface and your parents won’t talk to you because everyone thinks you’re a militant racist, and they’re right. If I may talk directly to these self-deluding subterraneans: I’m sorry to be the one to point this out, but you have been radicalized. There’s a reason people call you Vanilla ISIS. ISIS think they’re rebels, too. Have a good hard look at these Defend Europe twits with their rickety armada. These are your people. They’re your compadres. You are paddling beside them in the shallow end of political discourse, screaming when anything living nibbles your toes. 


This is what happens when we fetishize the romance of rebellion while making actual social change impossible. My guess is that the ruling class, the people whose agenda these people’s mean-spirited credulity serves, aren’t standing about with flaming torches screaming that they’re about to be replaced by Jews. They don’t spend their time harassing girls on the internet. They outsource that shit. To suckers. For free. Meanwhile, the ruling class is just writing the speeches and jerking the strings and watching gullible, self-anointed rebels make fools of themselves on television.

These are the very people whose names the Shitler Youth wear on their unbelievably ugly hats and t-shirts, which incidentally is exactly what happens when you let straight white guys who consider gold a neutral design your neo-fascist aesthetic. The one problem with calling these faux-rebels Nazis is that it suggests they know how to goddamned get dressed in the morning. The left are out-styling them as well as out-thinking them right now. The left! Some of us wear hemp! And t-shirts with weak science puns! And we let our flatmates cut our hair! And we spend half our time fighting each other over tiny ideological debates that started before we were born, and they still make us look good. They make us look good because they’ve swallowed the fake oppression story cooked up by propagandists on the right to recast their most reactionary opinions as risqué. 

So let’s be clear: getting fired because you hate women is not an equivalent hardship to getting fired because you happen to be one. People who have been disowned by their parents for being gay or transgender aren’t going to have sympathy when your mum and dad find your stash of homophobic murder fantasies and change the locks. Getting attacked for being a racist is not the same as getting attacked because you are black. The definition of oppression is not “failure to see your disgusting opinions about the relative human value of other living breathing people reflected in society at large.” Being shamed, including in public, for holding intolerant, bigoted opinions is not an infringement of your free speech. You are not fighting oppression. You are, at best, fighting criticism. If that’s the hill you really want to die on, fine, but don’t kid yourself it’s the moral high ground. I repeat: You cannot be a rebel for the status quo. It would be physically easier to go and fuck yourself, and I suggest you try.

The fact that some people—the women, people of color, immigrants and queer people you want put back in their proper place—disapprove of you does not make you edgy. A bag of cotton wool is edgier than you lot. Fighting for things to go back to the way they were twenty or thirty or fifty years ago does not constitute a bold resistance movement. It constitutes the militant arm of the Daily Mail comments section. Fighting real oppression involves risk, and before you start, I’m talking about real risk, not some girl on the internet calling you a cowardly subliterate waste of human skin, like I just did.  

This was gig-economy bigotry from the beginning, every bedroom hatemonger his own self-facilitating media node.

Of course, the fragile self-image of American nationalism has always been grounded in the idea of rebellion, in an aesthetic of protest and struggle for individual liberty powdering over the ugly worship of authoritarianism and  hierarchy that was also baked in from the beginning. The United States has never truly stopped fighting its civil war, but the tropes and language of that war have been re-appropriated by net reactionaries in an effort to dress up their racism as rebellion, which by coincidence was part of what the war was about in the first place. That’s why there’s such attachment to the confederate or “rebel” flag among conservatives, even in states which fought for the Union; even in states which did not exist at the time. And this investment in maintaining a state of permanent rebellion is why net reactionaries have no idea what to do now they’re technically in power, like the confused golden retriever who finally catches that Ford Focus, except far less fluffy. 

Mewling subluminaries have, for years, approached backyard fascism as a growth industry—why stop now? These enterprising intellectual bantamweights did not wait for the mechanisms of state and party to show them how to goose-step or gather seed money—this was gig-economy bigotry from the beginning, every bedroom hatemonger his own self-facilitating media node, like a sort of fascist Nathan Barley. The millennials among them have merely done what the television told us all to do as kids: find your passion and make it your career. It’s just a shame that their passion happens to be the creation of a white ethnostate with a stack of sexually frustrated video rants as a transitional demand.

So propping up the establishment does not sit well with their sense of themselves as brave, entrepreneurial outsiders battling the forces of something-or-other. Perhaps it feels strange to be told you have won when nothing in your own actual, material life has changed. Perhaps winning didn’t taste as good as the picture on the package. They were promised thrills and spills and danger and adventure and instead they’re on the haunted teacup ride through the wreckage of civil society and they’re feeling a bit sick but they’ve given the man their money, so they can’t get off.

And in any case this is not the sort of game you just win or lose. Politics doesn’t work like that, although in fairness, the sense that it does is one of several delusions they share with the political elites they claim to despise. Playing by those rules is a great way to make sure that the house always wins. What’s changed in the world in the months since their team supposedly won? The rich are still running things, they’re just a lot less shy about it. Living standards have gone nowhere but down. The planet is still sizzling towards climate collapse, and I know they think that’s not real, but you don’t have to believe in a train to get run down by it with everyone you care about while you stand in the middle of the tracks screaming about cucks and Jews like a prize prick.

One major thing, however, has changed, and that is that an awful lot of people who happen to be foreign, or female, or members of a different race or faith from these fools are suddenly living in fear of violence, violence the Shitler Youth and their crewmates helped whip up to make themselves feel like big damn heroes. Because they wanted to feel like they were fighting the power without actually having to challenge anyone who had it.

If you’ve a niggling suspicion I might be talking about you here, it’s time to take a look at your own reflection in whatever screen you’re reading off. If you want to cosplay as a revolutionary from a made-up time before brown people and liberated women existed, go and drink mead at a Ren fair like a normal person. If you just want to be famous on the internet, go and make some porn. If you can’t get over your fetish for fake oppression, go and hang out in a club where people wear expensive black rubber and get yourself consensually flogged by someone with legitimate rage to work through. But don’t call yourself a revolutionary just because you can’t stop running in circles.

[*]  Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly suggested that the crew of the Defend Europe vessel had been rescued by the Sea-Eye. Although the Sea-Eye was temporarily diverted to travel toward the Defend Europe boat and offer aid, the latter crew refused help and the rescue ship carried on its operations. The fascists’ boat later restarted.

Laurie Penny is a writer, journalist and critic from London. She has contributed to The Guardian, The New Statesman, the New York Times, Time Magazine and many more. She is the author of six books, the latest of which, Bitch Doctrine, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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