When you feel like your life has no meaning it’s tempting to turn inwards, blame others, and see violence as a means of communication, writes sociologist Mike Grimshaw.
The “radical loser” is a concept I first came across in 2005 in a long essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger explaining what he meant by the term and thinking through its implications.
I was teaching a course on religion and terrorism at the time, and found the radical loser an interesting way to get students thinking about what was happening in society and politics. As many of them started to note, the radical loser – or at the least the potential radical loser – seemed to be increasingly expressing themselves all over the internet.
Enzensberger argued that the basic fact of our existence is that we are in the end all losers – that is, we die. The question is, what we do in the face of this fact? While we all have the existential experience of being a loser, the radical loser lives out an aggressive response to his loserdom in the political and social realm.
The radical loser isn’t the same as the loser who accepts his fate and resigns himself to it. He isn’t the victim who demands satisfaction nor the defeated who plans for the next round of conflict. Rather, the radical loser adopts as his self-identity the judgement of those who consider themselves winners. We could say radical losers see society not as something they experience, but as something that is done to them by those with power. In response, as Enzensberger puts it, “the radical loser isolates himself, becomes invisible, guards his delusion, saves his energy, and waits for his hour to come.”
What does this mean? The radical loser operates out of an obsession “with a comparison that never works in his favour”, always blaming “omnipotent, nameless aggressors” who are “the guilty ones who are responsible for his plight”. He usually has a list of “threatening powers” out to get him; Enzensberger’s list from 2005 has very telling commonalities with today’s alt-right message boards and manifestos. “The threatening powers that are out to get him are not hard to locate. The usual suspects are foreigners, secret services, Communists, Americans, big corporations, politicians, unbelievers. And, almost always, the Jews.”
The radical loser, feeling he lacks control and meaning over his existence, works himself toward a point of explosion in a spectacle in which his sense of powerlessness is expressed in a “fatal sense of destruction”, aligned with the propaganda of the deed – a term for a direct political act, usually violent, that is meant to inspire others to action.
In other words, what radical losers do and say is an act of nihilistic communication seeking to diminish and destroy others to make themselves exist in a meaningful way.
We can see the connection here with shitposting – deliberately posting ugly, provocative or off-topic comments on social media or internet forums. A shitposter doesn’t start out as a radical loser, rather they can become one by being drawn into the message boards and dark web of what Ezensberger would call the “loser collective” where they find a “loser-home”.
We know YouTube is a very important pipeline to such extremism because of the way its analytics operate, feeding users more and more extreme material in an effort to keep them on the platform. Social media can quickly become what I term anti-social media, where such loser collectives become increasingly focused on (Ezensberger again) “radicalising and eternalising their own status as losers”.
It seems radical losers are almost always young men and this is something that society needs to take more notice of. What is it about modern society that can make young men so lost and nihilistic that they slip into radical loserdom?
Having meaning in your life enables you to live with – and not against – others. A lack of meaning is what the pioneering French social scientist Émile Durkheim called anomie; the theorist Peter Berger called it the loss of the nomos. Both sociologists saw this loss as central to the experience of modernity. We all need a structuring nomos that provides us with stability, predictability, a frame of reference in which to live. The alternative is the chaos and terror of anomie.
We need to ask: why do so many young men feel they live lives without meaning?
It is here the radical loser concept collides with the experience of diversity, and helps illustrate why the shift in focus from society to community over the past 40 years has been so problematic. Unlike societies, communities tend to be inward looking, composed of those who are like you. That is why Community of Strangers, a NZ project that uses neuroscience, psychology and sociology to study radicalisation and hate, is such an important and challenging starting point.
Community of Strangers proceeds from the fact that all of us begins as strangers to each other. We need to be open to the strangeness, to revel in it, and use it to discuss and explore what we might have in common. If anything is going to defeat the radical loser, it’s diversity – whatever form it takes.