On “Trying to Find Their Own Oppression”: An Interview with Simon Strick about Digital Fascism and the Climate of Germany’s Elections

Simon Strick’s Rechte Gefühle: Affekte und Strategien des digitalen Faschismus (Right Feelings: The Affects and Strategies of Digital Fascism), published in Germany in May 2021, asks that we reframe our discussions of the Alternative Right. Rather than understand the growing strength of the so-called far right as a matter of political program championed by distant extremists, Strick argues that we need to consider how they transform the emotional climate of everyday life. Rechte Gefühle shows how right-wing radicalization takes place not only through murder manifestos and the actions of right-wing populists and white ethnonationalists, but also as online “small talk,” in memes, and as a series of affective responses and scripts performed on a variety of social media—YouTube, 4chan, Telegram, and Parler. Strick offers the idea of “reflexive fascism” to capture behaviors that both produce and are produced by perceived threats to categories prized by the right: whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, conservatism, etc. His book, which was awarded the 2021 Hans Bausch Media Prize, brings a vast and often discomforting archive of the ephemeral content that undergirds this affective strategy and helped produce the conditions for what Strick calls a “klimawandel” (climate change) that has shifted debates about race, gender, and the contested notion of the “normal” in Germany as well as the United States.

With the German national elections less than two weeks away, I met with Strick on a quiet side street of Berlin’s Schöneberg to discuss his recent work and the nation’s current affective climate. The conversation with Strick, who, along with researching gender and media at the Brandenburgisches Zentrum für Mediawissenschaft, serves as the dramaturge for the performance collective he co-founded, PRKR, begins with the origin of Rechte Gefühle as the experience of a certain type of performance he witnessed in the American gamer community. Our conversation then crosses the Atlantic and wanders out onto the streets of Germany’s elections, onto which the Internet too has seeped, taking form in trolling billboards and Querdenker (unconventional thinker) protests that have roiled the nation.

—Sanders Isaac Bernstein for EuropeNow

 

 

EuropeNow In Rechte Gefühle you mention that the book originated from Gamergate. How was this a defining moment for you in your conception of the right’s contemporary resurgence?

Simon Strick The initial idea of the book begins in Virginia in 2012, with the question “what is digital fascism”—though I did not know yet to call it that. I had just finished my dissertation on nineteenth-century race and gender constructions, and I wanted to go contemporary for the next book. What fascinated me were computer games, especially a queer scene of programmers and artists who were making independent computer games. I wanted to explore the idea of bringing queerness and the computer together, to talk about the digital space as a queer space. I followed some very interesting people’s work, like Anna Anthropy, Liz Ryerson, and Porpentine, as well as journalists like Leigh Alexander. There were people on YouTube and Reddit, talking about queerness and the digital condition, offering a new brand of game journalism, writing emotionally about games and game experiences. I wanted to write about them from a queer media studies perspective—and then the thing that we now canonize as Gamergate happened.

There were YouTube people who I had watched before doing “let’s plays,” playing games and talking about them while playing, like ludic soliloquies. All of a sudden they all had a penchant for “What’s this feminism? Why is Anita Sarkeesian talking about my games?” What I experienced was a whole sea-change towards the idea that feminism, queer issues, or politics were infringing upon gaming culture. That escalated toward what we now know as Gamergate: harassment and violence and a coordinated effort. Most of the queer makers I liked disappeared from the scene—my objects of study disappeared. Many completely exited the game industry and game culture because it was so toxic. What I was left with were all these people I had watched before talking philosophically about games—many of these now became heavily opinionated against feminism, doing “let’s plays” not about games but about “social justice warriors” (SJW) and the decline of gaming culture, or America. What I experienced was less Gamergate as a concerted effort—which it was (and which people have shown preceded the tactics of the alt-right, even including the same people)—but I saw it as a profound shift in Internet culture toward the right.

These people calling themselves gamers were all of a sudden about politics. They were about being against a very particular sort of politics. It is what Steve Bannon then described as “rootless white males with monster power.” That is so appropriate to what I saw in gaming forums, on YouTube and elsewhere. It was an army which wasn’t yet an army, but just a bunch of guys, a lot of guys with a lot of follower power and energy, who were coming from the position of  “generic white gamers” and happily moved towards styling themselves dissident cultural critics from the right. Many of them were not explicitly or originally right-wing, but they slanted right because they deemed feminism “leftist.” This group of antifeminist YouTube ranters was my initial focus, around 2015–16, what Leigh Alexander called then, “wailing hyperconsumers.” I followed the reverberations of this moment into the pre-Trump, early Trump Era, and through Charlottesville 2017, where the same guys demonstrated with National Vanguard, literal militant neo-Nazis. Charlottesville fused several movements: internet shitposters and violent anti-SJWs met with neo-Nazis on a mere hunch that they had something in common–transgressiveness.

This cultural rupture, Gamergate, points to something my book talks about: there was an immense emotional and cultural power of all these people who had deemed themselves unpolitical before. Most of them were adolescent white men, who now turned political and even extremist on a vague hunch that “feminism is stupid.” From that hunch they were able to emotionalize huge publics around antifeminism and even versions of neofascism.

And that is the thing the book is about, a broad phenomenon. Digital Fascism means not just extremists taking over the Internet, but right-wing and fascist dynamics emerging from digital processes and cultural shifts.

EuropeNow Did your focus on examining emotion and affect, rather than “ideology” per se, have to do with how these right-wingers position themselves as non-ideological and the left as the bearers of ideology?

Simon Strick I turned to affect because of the digital, basically, because of how people interact with social media, how they perform on social media—and you can take anything from Twitter to 4chan to YouTube—that’s an affective world. In Germany we have a long tradition of talking about right-wing extremism as hate, anger, fomenting fears—as mass psychology, Gustave Le Bon. We talk about mass movement: a dictator moves, he manipulates the masses with these big emotions, infectious ideology. What you find on social media is very different from that—it’s about very small things: people feel out the discursive space to find out what sort of performance or transgression works there for them, for the moment. People do affective work on YouTube. They try to talk about their everyday lives and then relate that in an emotive fashion to their audiences: their irritations, quarrels, their orientations. The way I use affect theory is that I attend to this very mundane, micrological, and boring affective work that people do on social media—and how contemporary neofascist influencers or people on Parler do that same work.

The way people approach “ideology” on social media might be as such: they feel their way around some event or something, and find it rubs them the wrong way. They come to conclusions like “this is a global ideology against me.” How do they do that? They prove it by declaring: “the TV show I looked at the other day had a female lead that I found was irritating.” This is a weird way of gathering evidence for and constructing an ideology like “feminism,” but “this is how it affects me in a minute way” works on social media. We all do that: we react to media events or bits of info and then explain how it rubs us to make a larger conclusion about X. And then other people might pile onto that, and then you have a hashtag, and then you have a shitstorm, and then you have a movement, which might dissipate the next minute. But these are the processes I wanted to talk about, to show that right-wing extremism, anti-feminism, anti-Semitism, and many other things can unfold as very mundane practices on social media—as genres that people use to orient themselves in a mediatized world. I also wanted to talk about how these practices are influenced and manipulated by explicit right-wing activists working on social media in terms of real disinformation and propaganda. These are the two processes I look at.

The idea of being anti-ideological is a through-line of fascism, which I think is interesting. As long as you are white (and whatever) it is your natural inclination because everyone else is trying to take away your Lebensraum (living space), as the Nazis called it, and your freedom, as the alternative right today says. I guess it is just a staple of the way fascists construct their world: everything else is ideology and we (the Volk) are not.

This is what the white mainstream always did in Germany. We are the mainstream. We are normal. And the others—minorities, deviants, activists—infringe on that normalcy. What the contemporary alt-right comes up with, and also what these gamers came up with in 2014, is a militant normalcy, which is ultimately a form of militant whiteness, made explicit. This is the basic figure that I describe: to model the majority as the minority. White supremacy is not always explicit but sometimes and frequently implicit under these descriptions. The unpolitical is a transcription of whiteness as normalcy.

EuropeNow I’m curious about this “militant normalcy,” which is the condition in which the current Wahlkampf (election campaign) is being waged—particularly in regard to the Corona (COVID-19) protests, which seem to be attempting to work in concert with social media to redescribe the “normal.” These protests seem to follow the structure of the case studies that you describe in Rechte Gefühle: the production of an event (in this case, the actual protest, and any film taken), a monologue (an endless production of content describing the event), and then an insistence on heterogeneity (as this content ends up being produced from different positions, insisting that the Querdenker who attend these protests are not all, say, committed Neo-Nazis). How is this “militant normalcy” being distributed?

Simon Strick I think the Corona protests are a decisive change in how we should conceptualize the right or, even, the alternate “commons” they imagine in this moment. This is a phenomenon that I have traced through QAnon and Querdenken in the book. The right has been refining these parallel publics for years. And they have multitudes of channels and people and organizations—from Prager University, a multibillion dollar undertaking, to weird solitary influencer types with a hundred followers that do a permanent canvassing of reality according to right-wing pressure points and sensibilities. They find stuff everywhere that speaks to their own victimization and to the general decline of the West—they provide real-time counter-readings of reality for their audiences.

The general idea for talking about the alt-right is that they are manipulators who manipulate people into “right-wing ideology.” What you find on the Internet is swarm dynamics: people tether themselves to ideas, scenarios, or descriptions of the world, and then they untether and go someplace else. They join dynamics; they go where stuff seems to be happening. One oppression scenario dissipates, and then they cluster around something else, different events, which right-wing influencers produce. They cluster around little scandals: the scandal of migration, of vaccines, of the conspiracy of Jewish control, or of feminism and the devaluation of men. Whatever really.

What to me was so interesting about January 6 and the COVID-19 protests is that, apart from what the right-wing parties and organizations were doing—what Donald Trump was doing, what the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) was doing, and what the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (National Democratic Party of Germany) was doing—people organized online to do these protests around some issues that they thought were important. For example, the speech that Trump gave on January 6, which was then subject to the impeachment, was a rehash of what 4chan, Reddit, and Parler had been talking about for six months prior. It was a just of sampling, a remix of that. What Trump was saying was just a best-of of what right-wingers on the Internet had been saying. This is something that I call “stochastic politics”—where right-wing populist parties just take stuff off of the Internet and regurgitate it because that can be construed as what the Volk are saying. You just have these re-sampling machines that become politicians. Trump wasn’t really in connection with the crowd; he was just giving them what they wanted, the hits that they themselves had come up with. And a little nudge, maybe.

They assembled into this weird crowd of people that thought the election was stolen, and then they meandered violently into the capitol building and didn’t know what to do there. Was it a violent overthrow? Was it an attack on democracy? They didn’t know. They took selfies, vandalized things, assaulted people. Maybe they would have shot a couple of people. We don’t know. It’s weird shit—and from their perspective it was white empowerment.

The same thing happened here a couple of weeks ago in Berlin for the COVID-19 protests. People came from all over Germany, especially from the Southern part: Schwaben, Stuttgart. Deep West Germany. They came in buses and were unloaded in Charlottenburg. “Here: have your protest against the Corona regime, against the dictatorship.” Of course, there was no dictatorship except for a police line that said: “Don’t enter this street.” There was a video on Twitter I found remarkable: fifty-year-old housewives from Southern Germany attacking the police and saying, “you are the fascists.” And the police attacking them back. And I thought this was so weird. These are people who thought they were unpolitical, who thought they were the epitome of German normal, now saying, “I’m here on this street in this city where I don’t live, and I have the right to enter this street, and if the police say no, it’s got to be fascism, Against me!” On that day—it was the beginning of August—the people meandered throughout Berlin with no direction whatsoever (they were organizing on Telegram live, saying “go here, go there”). They went down streets uncoordinated, with no police protection whatsoever. They went through traffic. They didn’t care. What they were doing was looking for their oppression. They were looking for the dictatorship that oppresses them.

And they found it in instances because the police, if they were attacked, would draw people out of the crowd. If people were blocking traffic, they were removed from the street because the cars had to go through. And that generated video evidence of being oppressed—because they weren’t allowed to walk on the street that they paid for with their taxes. That’s always the tagline: “I paid for the street with my taxes, I’m allowed to stand here.” (It seems such an American way to think about society.) Everything is good enough to demonstrate your own oppression on social media. And this is something I want to work on more because it’s not in the book enough: cases of people being completely out of touch and being in touch with a different world in which Germany doesn’t exist, in which the war was never lost, there is a secret cabal of Jewish people controlling stuff, and it’s a good idea to attack Berlin policemen in riot gear because they pay taxes. This for me is not something that the AfD controls but something that emerges from the weird counterworld that the right-wing Internet has grown into.

The worrying thing about these alternate worldviews is not even their counterfactuality. Media often ask what to do about conspiracy theories. In my view, conspiracy theories are not inherently bad because a lot of them have proven to be accurate. The FBI did infiltrate the Black Panthers. The Verfassungsschutz (intelligence services) did finance Neo-Nazis in the 1990s. There have always been alternatives to official truth. We have a problem because all of the wildly popular and influential counter-narratives to official truth currently are right-wing—and by right-wing I really mean racist. This is what German discourse always forgets about. The problem with fascists is not only that they’re fascists, but that they’re racists. Ultimately, they want to get rid of many people.

EuropeNow In Rechte Gefühle, you refuse the language of symptom. You say in your book: “Der reflexive Faschismus ist keine Symptom, sondern eine oder viele aktive Bewegungen.” (“Reflexive fascism is not a symptom, but rather one or many active movements.”) It seems that you associate the language of symptom with a certain distance, that fascism is out there, not here, and that the speaking “we” describing this situation is somehow protected from infection. What are “we” to do about this collapse of the “we”?

Simon Strick Perhaps this is where the transnational distinction is important, because the American discourse on this is very different. In Germany the “we” that is publicly available is a white “we,” a white professedly post-fascist “we,” supposedly the self-definition of Germany (“we are not fascists anymore”). And then the public performs these rituals of distance from hateful extremists. At least, that is what I learned as West German—these rituals of how you learn about the Holocaust, national socialism and fascism, and how you are now different. There was always the question when I was growing up white and middle-class in West Germany: “Would you have been part of national socialism? Would you have been a Mitläufer (fellow traveler)?” A silly question really. People were not Mitläufer between 1933 and 1945; they were fascists or anti-fascists. Nazis were regular people in Nazi Germany. The people at the Corona protests are precisely saying “Ich bin kein Mitläufer, ich bin gerade Antifaschist.” They are answering this old question of West Germany—“what would I have done?”—and they are answering with “I am anti-fascist” by attacking police and protesting against Merkel’s so-called dictatorship. They are answering to this old, vague description of the “we.” Because what West Germany has always done is come up with this abstract self-definition of “we”; “we are not fascist anymore” because we have the Grundgesetz (constitution). But the implicit self-definition was always white, has remained white. The unspoken self-definition of Germany is white, a “good white” nation, as opposed to the bad Nazi-Germany. The right is just making that unspoken consensus explicit.

The other central idea of the German nation relies on the smallest common denominator that “We are not the right.” That is not a self-definition. And this is something that Armin Laschet performs all day long. We don’t know what we are, but we are at least nicht-rechts, die brandmauer (non-fascist, the firewall). This is not enough. We are post-migration. We are a diverse society. And we need a new positive definition of what the “we” is about.

EuropeNow Is this need for redefinition part of why you repeatedly cite the essay collection Eure Heimat ist unser Albtraum, “Your Homeland is Our Nightmare,” in your book, with its reflections from many first-generation Germans and writers with minoritized backgrounds?

Simon Strick The common definition of Germany relies on the idea that we’re not fascist anymore, yet the “we” is still white—white nonfascist Germans, good Germans. All. The other people are extras; they are migrants or Deutsche mit Migrationshintergrund (Germans with a migration background). And this is what the right collapses because they make the white position explicit.

This is why I’m not satisfied with the “we,” which publicly says that right-wing extremism attacks democracy. This is the shorthand that official discourse uses: why is it dangerous to have fascists in the country? Because they attack democracy. No, because they kill people. They kill people very actively, be it through guns or eugenics or Abschiebung (deportation) or Frontex (the European Union’s Border Control Agency). And they are very clearly a racial project, of one life being worth more than another life. This is not an attack on democracy. It maybe is in the second degree, but the first thing that you have to do is propose a community, a “we,” that understands that certain parts of the “we” are under attack and other parts are not. They are under attack because they are non-white, or any non-normalcy the rightwing designates as enemy du jour. And this is why I’m not satisfied with all of these formulas about the “we” that has to fortify itself against the “attack on democracy.” German democracy has always had fascist corners. Gastarbeiter (migrant workers) in the 1960s were subjected to treatment that the Nazis would have been proud of—medical check-ins, dehumanizing working conditions, social and political isolation, and ghettoization. And we still have that in largescale industries where contract workers live in camps and basically work for slave wages, or as slaves.

I wanted to talk about this ongoing racism in the book—few scholars do in extremism and populism research. They talk about how the right-wing shift has been triggered by globalization and how people were untethered from economic progress. This is the symptomatic language that does not talk about the problem, because the problem is a militant racism that has a large cultural narrative—a large cultural program, if you will, maintained by the residual racism that structures German society. The right-wing sits comfortably on the unspoken racial contract that has been there the whole time.

EuropeNow Your comments here about how the right-wing nestles so easily amidst mainstream Germany’s tacit assumptions make me think about the AfD’s campaign, “Deutschland. Aber Normal,” which features television spots of a world without masks, almost completely white, heterosexual, “cleansed of others.” It is this erasure under “normal” of so many existences, and one that ultimately seems in step with the ongoing political climate that has, in many ways, shifted the base further to the right. The major campaign of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) seems less about being “nicht-rechts” and more about suggesting that Die Linke (The Left party) is too far left, the real extremists, the real threat.

Simon Strick You could actually parse that in recent weeks, a shift towards anti-communist language, which is to my mind quite absurd in the current neoliberal party-landscape. A group affiliated with the AfD put up billboards with mock Green Party posters that said “Ökodiktatur” (eco dictatorship). All over Germany. They were saying that what looms with the Green Party is Ecofascism, Öko-terror (eco terror), a totalitarian system. Negative campaigning to the max. A couple of weeks later the CDU comes up with the same rhetoric. There is a large, what Martin Sellner appropriately calls “the far-right continuum,” which goes from conservative portions of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) to the AfD and further to the right. And they participate in the same strategies, which is what I call the “climate change” because it is not merely normalized or more acceptable, but becomes the frame for how reality is perceived. People now talk about the Green Party as a Verbotspartei (“No” Party); it is the party that wants to forbid stuff. (All government does that by the way; it is an important function of the state).

EuropeNow And it seems that these billboards are shitposting, a form of trolling—online tactics that have migrated into the real world.

Simon Strick Yeah. That is what Steve Bannon said: “Walk toward the fire. Do all the crazy shit they say you do. If they call you a Nazi be a Nazi. If they attack you as totalitarian, attack them back. Make them spin their heads.” And it works most, if not all of the time. The general public has gotten a bit smarter about these shock tactics, but it still happens every day. Here is a bad example from yesterday. This top AfD candidate, Tino Chrupalla, says, “People should learn more German folk songs and German poetry.” White culture stuff. And then some kid reporter says to him, “Well, we learn so much German poetry, what is your favorite German poem?” And the AfD guy can’t name a single poem. And the point people take away is: look how stupid the Nazis are. They are so stupid that you can’t take them seriously. But at the same time everybody is talking about nothing else but about what these Nazis do, and people start reciting the German poems they know on Twitter. That is the attention economy. I think we need to change radically the “we” that is talking about stuff and also the very stuff we are talking about.

EuropeNow Is it the function of the attention economy that has provoked you to consider this German election as one that Americanists are particularly suited to understand?

Simon Strick I learned as an Americanist to be versed in thinking about different public spheres as well as questions of representation. We need to think about how the political choice of the moment is being modeled—how, for example, Trump came as the nonparty outsider candidate, to drain the swamp, to disembowel the political machine of Washington, to shoot the traitors and optimize everything. He came as the Republican party candidate and destroyed the Republican party. This is plain to see. And this is what parts of the CDU are doing to themselves now, because we are shifting toward a very personalized Wahlkampf in Germany. People voted for CDU for sixty years without asking who was at the top. We had three, four, five parties to choose from. But what Laschet and others are doing at the moment is to put particular populist points before the party, saying politics per se must be changed. This is what Hans-Georg Maaßen does, for example. He is a CDU candidate, and he says the party politics of his own party need to be reversed. He’s talking about Merkel’s allegedly liberal migration politics from 2015 (which is not even true). He doesn’t really talk about his party anymore. He just talks about populist points: The public sphere is being manipulated by the media. Conservatives are being oppressed. Migration is the biggest catastrophe in Germany for the last twenty years. Everything the left does is a lie. These are his points. He’s Tucker Carlson with glasses and an election campaign. He doesn’t care if he is CDU or AfD, or whatever. This is a Trumpist position, a culture war. Trump didn’t care and attacked everyone. And then he got funneled into his white supremacist agenda by the people around him, who were indeed white supremacists.

People like Maaßen are destroying the party landscape very consciously. They are talking less about party politics and candidates and programs, and more about what the populist talking points are: the people versus whatever system there is. They want to instill a movement logic: “the people against the system; the people are being duped.” And the people are always white. I learned this from watching the American catastrophe of the past five or six years. For Germany, this is rather new, though not without precedent, to have a person like Maaßen who doesn’t care about the party, just populist disinformation, which fractures the ideas of parties, politics, and consensus. This is something that one should learn from being an Americanist—to deal with people who are not interested in the political process anymore, but in destroying it: a Steve Bannon lesson.

EuropeNow Is this not a lesson of fascism itself, fascism as classically considered? The movement against the system, against institutions, toward, rather, some new world—what you talk about as worldbuilding or a new landscape of feeling…

Simon Strick It is a different world. It is a different world where the media lie to you, where there is no political alternative. This is the basic point of fascism, which parts of the Internet make explicit: there is no political solution. This is what the far right loves to post. “Whatever you do, there will be no political solution. There are no politicians doing what you want (which is white supremacy being reinstated). Nobody does that.” And people like Maaßen point towards such formulas. Reichsbürger in Germany—the people who deny the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Bundesrepublik—do the same from a grassroots perspective. They say that the party system is not the solution, but rather the problem. The end goal of populism is to do away with parties and reinstate the Volk as the only party that matters. I learned that from Trump. The stuff that they do is interested in disrupting the political process, dismantling it, and coming up with a different logistics, which is affective—about irritation, disinformation, putting out fake events, fake evidence. Germany is learning about that, the Trumpian lesson: even if they lose elections, they’re winning in terms of disrupting the system itself.

Germany doesn’t have a good mainstream populist, luckily. But we’re on the way with people like Maaßen and Friedrich Merz and the heterogeneous right-wing dynamics that work bottom-up. People who care about disrupting the process and not about programs or elections or whatever. If they have their way, people will feel that everything is a lie, and they will go to Corona protests and try to find their own oppression.

 

Simon Strick (Dr.) is a researcher of gender and media studies at ZeM Brandenburg and the author of Rechte Gefühle:Affekte und Strategien des digitalen Faschismus (Transkript, 2021) and American Dolorologies: Pain, Sentimentalism, Biopolitics (SUNY Press, 2014). Strick has held positions at FU Berlin, Universität Paderborn, and the University of Virginia. His research and teaching focus on theories of race and gender, popular culture, affect studies, and media and cultural analysis. In 2009, with Susan Neuenfeldt and Werner Türk, he founded the performance collective PRKR. Simon Strick lives and works in Berlin. 

Sanders Isaac Bernstein is an academic and writer in Berlin. As a PhD Candidate in English Literature at the University of Southern California, he is completing his dissertation project, “American (Proto)fascism, 1914-1933,” an examination of how American culture informed the shape of fascist movements in the United States and Europe in the interwar period. He also holds degrees from the University of Oxford and Harvard University.

 

 

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