Long-read

The alt-right: identity politics on steroids

Today's white nationalists draw inspiration not from the Nazis, but from the identitarian left.

Nikos Sotirakopoulos

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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’.

White nationalist Richard Spencer speaks to select media in his office space on 14 August 2017, in Alexandria, Virginia.
White nationalist Richard Spencer speaks to select media in his office space on 14 August 2017, in Alexandria, Virginia.

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.

Members of the alt-right clash with counter-protesters during the 'Unite the Right' rally, 12 August 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Members of the alt-right clash with counter-protesters during the 'Unite the Right' rally, 12 August 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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.

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Comments

Hugo van der Meer

4th May 2020 at 2:09 pm

Neo-marxist trots are the real danger. An undermining of nationalist identity and the vilifying of anyone whose antecedent history is Anglo-Saxon is the danger. The taking over of universities by racist snowflake paranoid megalomaniac student unions is the danger. The enemy is not the alt right, whatever that means, the real enemy of the islands of Albion are those that will not accept the way of life led by the indigenous peoples of these islands. Not fascists but the English, Scottish, Welsh. Nationalist movements will uphold the historical ancestral importance of life lived and for those who died to preserve that way of life. May our brave forefathers never be forgotten or disgraced by the false notions so prevalent and fomented by the soap dodging do gooders of Spiked.

Mor Vir

4th May 2020 at 9:12 am

This is straight to the head of Moxon.

All of the trade representatives of British capital have united to pile pressure on the TP to make sure that capital gets all of the workers that it needs from abroad after the end of the Brexit transition period and EU free movement.

Capital is quite clear that ‘taking back control’ of mi gration must be squared with the interests of capital. Capital welcomes that the TP has scrapped any notion of a limit to immi gration and that the TP has lowered any salary threshold.

British Capital wants effective influence over the new points-points based mig ration system to make sure that all sectors of the economy get all of the workers that it needs, including ‘low skill’, low wage workers. Indeed, that is the entire point of a points-based system.

Every business and every sector must get all of the workers that it needs, and any other consideration must be squared with that.

British capital is entirely united – CBI, CIPD, FSB, BCC, IoD and all of the others – in pushing for as much mig ration as the economy can support.

The British state is a capitalist state and it exists first and foremost to represent the interests of capital. That has meant the expansion of the domestic workforce in the post-imperialist era, after the loss of the Empire and the colonies that British capital previously relied on to expand labour and capital.

Mass immi gration is not a ‘Marxist conspiracy’, it is a British capitalist state strategy that is entirely intended to facilitate the interests of British capital. This society is based on the accumulation of capital, money-grabbing. The sole reason for mass imm igration has been money for British capital, just as that was the sole reason for imperialism and colonialism.

The metropole is the colony now, and indeed, what goes around truly does come around. So at least have the honesty to admit what has happened and what is going on. You are a British capitalist state loyalist, so own the strategy of your state and its consequences, and stop trying to ‘blame’ everyone else.

> Business unites on future immi gration system

Leading business groups and trade associations issue a joint call for a new immi gration system that delivers for firms of all sizes and sectors, across all UK regions and nations.

24 January 2020

In an open letter to the Home Secretary, the CBI alongside CIPD, FSB, BCC, IoD and over 30 leading trade associations offer government help with designing the new immi gration system.

The signatories welcomed recent indications from government about reducing the £30,000 minimum salary threshold and scrapping the net mi gration target, which have sent positive and important signals around the world that the UK is open for business.

The letter makes clear that business understands the immi gration system must change in order to re-build public confidence. It also outlines how business can provide insight to help build a new points-based system that both provides greater control, as well as access to the labour and skills needed to support the economy.

The letter sets out four key priorities that will help to ensure the new system works on day one for all UK regions and nations:

– A minimum salary threshold can work if it is set at a level that supports the economy and protects wages
– Flexibility for skilled workers to enter the UK through a points-based system
– A temporary visa route which supports all sectors of the economy
– A radically reformed sponsorship process in place for the first day of operation.

It concludes by highlighting the need for a simple, streamlined and affordable system that meets business’ needs of all sizes, sectors and across all UK regions and nations.

– CBI

steve moxon

4th May 2020 at 1:55 pm

Baloney ideo-nut conclusion as usual from this troll.
Uncontrolled mass immigration is the product of ‘identity politics’, not ‘capitalism”.
In any case, there is no such entity or agency as ‘capitalism’: there are all sorts and all sizes of entities engaging in trade — trade being a time-immemorial activity, which always produces surplus (incuidng for ‘the workers’ and even in the worst factories in history), entirely contrary to Marx’s contention.
Most lobbying for immigration of workers comes from zombie firms who cannot easily survive without cheaper and already-trained workers — the very sort of entities that lose out in the normal competition in commerce that you berate as ‘capitalism’!
Uncontrolled mass immigration is a political policy of Left backlash against the mass of ordinary people as a direct expression of the Left’s elitist-separatist hatred towards them.

Mor Vir

4th May 2020 at 3:26 pm

I repeat, British capital is entirely united – CBI, CIPD, FSB, BCC, IoD and all of the others – in pushing for as much mig ration as the economy can support.

Capital relies on the expansion of the labour force and on the health of all economic sectors. Capital is entirely untied in calling for unlimited mi gration, as much as the economy can absorb, both high and low skilled, and the TP has agreed to that. Capitalism in that political sense may be taken as the dominance within society of the organised interests of capital. Mass imm igration is a capitalist state strategy in the interests of capital, it has got absolutely nothing to do with Marxism. Be clear, ALL of British capital is united in calling for unlimited mi gration.

Who let in six million mi grant workers, three million net, over the last 10 years, Marxists or the TP? It is absurd to try to blame Marxists for the strategy of the capitalist state, behind which all of British capital is united and insistent.

Zombie firms are not an exception, the zombie-fication of the capitalist economy is universal across all ‘mature’ capitalist economies as profitability and productivity growth tend toward terminal zero. Regardless, capital has always relied on an expansion of the labour force for the expansion of capital since the beginnings of capitalism. The two cannot be separated.

Capitalism has not always existed. It is not defined as the presence of trade in a society but as the dominance of wage labour and trade as the dominant form of the organisation of productive activity within a society.

Just as socialism is not defined as the presence of sharing, or charity, or the Co-op, within a society but as the dominance of communal ownership and the dominance of the communal direction of the means of production. Otherwise you may as well say that socialism always existed b/c ppl have always shared stuff, in the family, the community and wider society. ‘And behold we would now live in a socialist society.’

Wage labour and trade were not the dominant form of productive activity for 1000 years under feudalism, nor for thousands of years under classical slavery. It is a modern economic system, capitalism, that was made possible by the development of the industrial means of production. Likewise, socialism will be realised only when communal ownership and direction become the dominant form of economic activity.

So yes, capitalism does exist as the dominance of wage labour and trade within our society. The British state is a capitalist state that exists first and foremost to politically facilitate the interests of capital. And capital is entirely united in calling for unlimited imm igration, which is essential to the interests of capital, as much mi gration as the economy can absorb – which is just what capital has long called for, since the loss of the Empire and the end of imperialism and colonialism.

You are the colony of capital now and you have no one to thank or to blame for that but the British capitalist state, organised capital and the state political parties like TP that are the political representatives of capital.

Marxists have no interest in mi gration. If anything mi gration helps capitalism to keep going. Capitalism will have run its course when it has run its course, and that has got nothing to do with Marxists any more than mi gration has. Marxists have no interest in hastening the demise of capitalism and if they did then they certainly would not actively support the very mi gration that allows capitalism to keep going.

steve moxon

4th May 2020 at 4:49 pm

Guffaw!
Labour REDUCTION has been the main trend.
Your completely false economic analysis is through blinding by extreme nonsense ideology.
There is no such entity or agency as ‘capitalism’: there is simply trade, as there has always been since prehistory, where both sides — and whether investors or workers — are in surplus. Surplus is WHY there is trade, and inherent in it. Trade is between two parties who each have a comparative advantage in producing what they are trading (directly or — via money– indirectly).
Commerce does NOT rely on some supposed infinite expansion of labour. On the very contrary, expanding labour rather than productivity leads to zombie firms that eventually have to give up the ghost. The British textile industry is a case in point, Instead of investing in new technology, the mill owners imported an Indian night shift, only to find that this merely put off the day when to be competitive they had to invest, by which time the threshold of cost was too high.

Mor Vir

4th May 2020 at 7:24 pm

You are the only person on this website who habitually relies on mockery Moxon, and I do not know what is going on psychologically there but please cut it out like a normal adult would. In any case the reliance does not bespeak confidence but a lack of it.

You have already been adequately answered on the character and historicity of capitalism.

In fact capitalism does rely on both an expansion of profits and a related expansion of labour. That much is empirically verifiable. The trend toward a reduction of labour through efficiency does not negate the more general trend to an expanded workforce. The expansion of the global economy itself is testimony to that. Capitalism as a profit-based economic system needs to constantly expand profits in order to function and to survive but technological improvements in efficiency are necessarily limited as development is gradual and costly; capitalism thus depends on the multiplication of production through expanded labour in order to increase profits rather than merely on the improvement of the quality of the means of production. Moreover, capitalism relies not only on production but on consumption; thus expanded profit can only mount from sales, which in turn requires an expanded wage pool, and thus an increased labour force. Thus capitalism relies on expanded labour both to compensate for the slow improvement and implementation of technology and to provide consumers to purchase goods.

Falling profitability does not result in general from zombie-fication, rather vice versa; the cycle is vicious but the long-term trend is caused by falling profitability. Lower profit rates cause lower rates of investment which leads to zombie-fication. The trend to zombie-fication is self-reinforcing. Generalised low profitability causes low investment which in turn causes low increase in wages, which allows a smaller increase in the value of sales, which leaves little to be gained by investment where it would otherwise be possible; thus zombie-fication increasingly spreads through the market as profitability falls. Thus zombie-fication causes an expansion of labour rather than vice versa. Again profits may only be increased on a market-wide scale through the employment of more workers to buy products with their wages; labour increase allows for the cheaper investment that a zombie-fied market can justify and it adds consumers to the market to consume products and to keep the cycle going.

In any case, however far one wants to take the detailed analysis, to volumes upon volumes of circles upon circles, the empirical trend is toward an increase in the labour force. Indeed ALL of British capital is united in demanding unlimited access to migrant workers. That is how British capital perceives and expresses its interests, so your argument is not with me but with British capital in its entirety. ALL of British capital agrees with me that the expansion and survival of British capital relies on an increase of labour and therefore on unlimited access to mi grant workers. Even if you disagree with the entirety of organised capital, that would still not change the fact that it is their interests, their demands, that have entirely driven mass imm igration into Britain. Your argument that it is a Marxist conspiracy would still be ridiculous.

In sum, organised British capital in its entirety agrees with me that the expansion and survival of British capital depends on an increase of workers and therefore on unlimited access to mi grant workers; you think that you know capitalism better than the entirety of British capital, and you have some ridiculous conspiracy theory that a tiny number of Marxist intellectuals have driven mi gration policy rather than organised British capital itself, even though it is empirically verifiable that CBI, CIPD, FSB, BCC, IoD and all of the other representatives of organised British capital have openly driven the strategy along with their state party representatives in TP and LP and that they continue to do so. It is a public fact. You may as well argue that the sky is not blue when everyone can see that it is. This is not so much a debate between me and you Moxon, it is public facts vs. your conspiracy theory.

steve moxon

4th May 2020 at 8:32 pm

?! There’s no “mockery”, just justified contempt towards you for your extreme ideological bindness and absence of knowledge about economics — and politics, or anything much.
Your cod analyses are bilge, in long posts of pointless lengthy blather.

steve moxon

4th May 2020 at 8:36 pm

?! There’s no “mockery”. Straight talk and no device is needed in justified contempt towards you for your extreme ideological blindness and absence of knowledge about economics — and politics, or anything much.
Your cod analyses are just blather.

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