The alt-right: identity politics on steroids
Today's white nationalists draw inspiration not from the Nazis, but from the identitarian left.
Over the past five years, the ‘alt-right’ has been one of the most abused terms in Anglo-American political discourse. The label has been used to refer to a range of figures, from US president Donald Trump to best-selling psychologist Jordan Peterson, from any member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet to full-blown neo-Nazi thugs and avowed racists.
This stretching of the term is not only disingenuous — it is also dangerous. By making the alt-right a mundane catch-all smear, the hideousness and danger of the actual alt-right is hidden.
Such intellectual laziness has another negative outcome: it fails to understand the deeper reasons that gave breathing space to the alt-right. Because if we scratch the surface, we are in for a surprise: the alt-right is not the resurrection of Nazi Germany or the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, but the unwitting by-product of some of the dominant mainstream ideas of our time.
Over the past decade we have witnessed the development of various forms of anti mainstream conservatism and even a countercultural right. But the alt-right is a distinct phenomenon. It has certainly been a fellow traveller of the countercultural right, hence the appropriation of the term ‘alternative’ from 1960s hippiedom. And it received an initial boost by associating itself with the transgressive ethos and euphoria around Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Yet the alt-right should not be confused with people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich, and other noisy figures and provocateurs who have been at the forefront of the culture wars. Rather, what differentiates the alt-right from the rest of the transgressive, anti-mainstream right is its distinctive racial worldview. And at the centre of its racial worldview lies white nationalism.
For the alt-right, whiteness refers to an identity, to a culture, and to a race. Richard Spencer, the 41-year-old godfather and de facto spokesperson of the current alt-right movement, sums up this worldview as follows: ‘Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.’ This is why the alt-rightists proudly declare themselves to be ‘identitarians’.
According to the alt-right identitarian worldview, identity, in terms of one’s race, culture and heritage, defines who one is. This would mean that there is a white culture, a white history and, therefore, a white worldview; in short, a white mind. This is race tribalism at its purest. According to this view, individuals see themselves, others and the world around them through the prism of the group – in this case, the racial group. Using such a worldview, other groups are viewed with suspicion, or even hostility, and communication with them is difficult. After all, they have their own distinct worldviews and minds.
Do these themes sound familiar, and have we heard them elsewhere? As we will shortly see, the answer is yes.
Since different groups of people think, act and view the world in different ways, the next logical step, politically speaking, is segregation. Thus, Spencer and others in the alt-right movement envision the establishment of a white ethno-state, where the white race can fulfil its destiny. Such an ethno-state will be built on traditionalist values, and will reject many of the tenets of a supposedly alienating modern world.
Predictably, Spencer and the alt-right are sceptical of Enlightenment ideas and critical of the gains of modernity. The modern, Enlightenment view of individuals as sovereign agents, capable of making sense of the world through reason, which is universal and unrelated to race or identity, stands against everything that the alt-right stands for. Being philosophically opposed to individual agency and autonomy, most alt-rightists even have a disdain for capitalism, insofar as it manifests a form of individual freedom. As Spencer said in a video now removed from YouTube (as most of the material related to the alt-right tends to be), ‘a nation based on freedom is just another place to go shopping’. Despite some of its prominent members flirting with libertarianism in the early days of the alt-right, its politics are small n-and-s national socialist, and they apply in one state: the white ethno-state.
One of the ugliest parts of the alt-right, which links it to the dark tradition of national socialism, is its anti-Semitism. For Spencer, including Jews in the white ethno-state would be problematic, as ‘the preservation of their identity as Jews was and is contingent on resistance to assimilation, sometimes expressed as hostility towards their hosts’. Another alt-rightist is overt in his hate towards Jews: ‘When any element of the organised Jewish community is the counterparty in an agreement, like the fable of the frog and the scorpion, the compulsion towards betrayal, even against allies, is irresistible for the Jew.’ (1)
One might wonder how the sewer of history broke, and such ugly and vile racist views resurfaced. The answer is not that it is a resurrection of national socialism, or of older forms of white supremacy and racism. Its members might view such movements sympathetically, and consider themselves heirs to their legacy. But the alt-right is a distinctive 21st-century phenomenon. This is because the worldview of the alt-right is the logical result of the dominant ideology in the West today — namely, tribalism. Spencer’s talent, such as it is, lay in his ability to adapt his racist message to the prevailing cultural climate of our times. Thus, the alt-right is focusing on two areas possessed of a strong currency in today’s politics: identity and victimhood.
We are constantly being told that our identity is special, that we should be proud of it, and that it makes us who we are. It tells us we are not sovereign individuals; rather, we are male, female, cis heterosexual, LGBT, BAME, minorities… the list goes on. The alt-rightists see this trend, nod approvingly, and simply add their identity to the list. We are white, they say, and this is who we are.
In this sense, the alt-right is entirely on trend, intellectually speaking. In academia, for example, racial thinking has also experienced a powerful revival in recent decades. But it has come back wearing a progressive face. Critical-race studies, and similar disciplines, tell us that colour-blindness is problematic, and that ‘whiteness’ is an inescapable predicament for white people. Indeed, critical-race theorists present whiteness as something close to a modern form of original sin.
The alt-right has seized on this revamped concept of race, and appropriated it for its own ends. In its hands, whiteness becomes something that must be defended. As Jared Taylor, a sixtysomething ‘race realist’ intellectual, who is popular in the alt-right movement, puts it:
‘What do you call a black person who prefers to be around other black people, and likes black music and culture? A black person. What do you call a white person who listens to classical music, likes European culture, and prefers to be around white people? A Nazi. All non-whites are expected to have a strong racial identity; only whites must not.’ (2)
Whiteness, here, has first been turned into an identity, and then into a source of pride, equivalent to blackness in mainstream identity politics. This shows how the promotion of identity politics by the progressive left has fuelled, and paved the intellectual ground for, the adoption of identity politics on the right.
This is why the identitarianism of the left has been a boost for the alt-right. As Spencer wrote in 2015:
‘Conservatives like to demean such things as “identity politics”, as just another car on the gravy train. But the reality is that leftists are engaging in the kind of ideological project that traditionalists should be hard at work on – the formation of “meta-politics”.’
By meta-politics, Spencer means the culture wars. He views this arena as a battle for cultural hegemony, a rightist version of the long march through the institutions, in which the alt-right aspires to turn its values and beliefs into the socially dominant values and beliefs. If all this sounds redolent of the thought of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, that’s because it is.
This is due to the strong ideological influence on the alt-right wielded by the French New Right (Nouvelle Droite), an intellectually peculiar movement that emerged during the 1960s, which argued that people should be segregated according to their ethno-cultural backgrounds, and subsequently set the tone for rightist identitarianism in Europe and the US (though it avoids some of the ugly racist overtones of the alt-right). Its leader, Alain de Benoist, was influenced not just by reactionary traditionalists (such as Italian thinker Julius Evola), but also by intellectuals associated with the New Left, including the Frankfurt School and, of course, Antonio Gramsci.
Some right-wing identitarians even call themselves ‘Gramscians of the right’. They understand well the importance of culture and of ideas in shaping the development and direction of society. And in a society in which the idea of identity plays such a prominent role, the alt-right has made itself firmly at home. The alt-right’s worldview could be characterised as identity politics on steroids.
The other mainstream value the alt-right embraces is that of vulnerability, which is both a status requiring special recognition and a basis for political organisation. Ironically, it is perhaps more accurate to portray the alt-right as a white-vulnerability movement, rather than a white-supremacy one. After all, this is the ultimate justification for the alt-right’s dream of an ethno-state — namely, that it will provide a ‘safe space’, as Spencer himself puts it, for white people, threatened, as they allegedly are, by globalism and multiculturalism.
Indeed, Spencer, Taylor and others in the alt-right openly claim that other races have, on average, a higher IQ than whites. Such a claim would have been unimaginable for old-style white supremacists. But here it provides another reason as to why whites need their own racial ethno-state – because they are not as bright, as, say, Asian people.
Fortunately, a world of ethno-states is not going to happen anytime soon. The actually existing alt-right has always had a very limited appeal, despite many mainstream commentators and politicians boosting the actual size and threat of the movement. The ugliness of the Nazi-like parades, the Aryan salutes, and, most importantly, the horror show of the Charlotesville riots in 2017, which cost the life of a counter-protester, have delegitimised Spencer and his movement. In fact, many on the anti-establishment right have gone out of their way since Charlottesville to distinguish their position from that of the alt-right.
Yet, a danger remains. Until the tribalism and anti-humanism, so prevalent in mainstream culture, are properly challenged, a more sophisticated version of the alt-right could still have a wide appeal. This is why we need to challenge identitarian ideology as a whole. We need to challenge the idea that people are mere members of groups, and start seeing people as individuals again. Too often, someone starts a sentence by saying ‘as a person of…’ x race, or of y gender, or of z sexual orientation, ‘I think…’. We need to reply that we don’t think with our skin colour or our gender, but with our minds – minds that are universally capable of reason and sympathy.
We are constantly being told that our ethnicity, our gender, our upbringings and our culture define who we are. We need to stand up to this view, and defend our individual free will and our capacity to change our predicament. Only then, perhaps, will it be possible to change the world for the better. This is how we will defeat the alt-right and its misanthropy – through a defeat of tribal thinking and identitarianism in general.
Nikos Sotirakopoulos is a lecturer in sociology at York St John University and the author of The Rise of Lifestyle Activism: from New Left to Occupy. Follow him on Twitter: @Nikos_17
(1) ‘What the Alt Right Isn’t’, by P Le Brun, included in The Alternative Right, edited by G Johnson, Counter-Currents Publishing Ltd, 2018, loc, 1936
(2) ‘Race Realism and the Alt Right’, by J Taylor, included in The Alternative Right, edited by G Johnson, Counter-Currents Publishing Ltd, 2018, loc, 594
All pictures by: Getty.
What we could do with your £5 per month
For less than the cost of two copies of the Guardian, you can help spiked become bigger and better and bolshier than ever. All of our articles and podcasts and essays are free, and we want to keep it that way. But to do so we ask our wonderful readers, if they can afford it, to chip in – ideally with a monthly donation. It might not sound like much, but donating as little as £5 per month has a transformative impact on our work. Knowing that we have your regular support means we can keep going and growing. So if you like our work and want to support us, please do consider signing up.
To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.