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Where the Alt-Right Really Comes From

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“As Ross Douthat says, you may have hated the religious Right but wait until you see the post-religious Right.” 

The Alt-Right has been in the public eye for several years now. This loose grouping of far-right ideologues and their followers has captured the public imagination with its public stunts, its divisive and ugly rhetoric, and its descent into violence. Despite their claims to the contrary, we can recognize them and their narrative as a rebirth of white supremacy for the digital age. This is crucial, as the Alt-Right’s growth came along with technology; it gave the movement itself a means of communication, while simultaneously contributing to the social conditions of increased individualism and isolation that provided fertile ground for people to become receptive to their messaging.

Our technology today is perfectly suited to our hyper-individualism, tailored as it increasingly is to our every whim and individual taste. This growth in choice stemming from a reduction in boundaries, a reduction both good and bad, has gone along with a reduction in meaning, something people are desperately searching for. The lack of a core sense of meaning makes us vulnerable to those selling an apocalyptically-redemptive bill of goods. This is what the identity politics, of which the Alt-Right is the far-right manifestation, offers. It places us all at risk, and it risks shattering our societies into pieces.

In an essay for First Things entitled “The Anti-Christian Alt-Right,” Matthew Rose lays out the intellectual roots of Alt-Right thought. He traces an intellectual lineage from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, to the works of Julius Evola, the Italian traditionalist mystic, to more modern thinkers like Alain de Benoist. These writers provide the basis for the Alt-Right’s canon. An earlier writer who provided the intellectual foundation for the far-right from the 19th century to today was the minor French nobleman Arthur de Gobineau, who promulgated the racialist theory of decline with which Arthur Herman begins his book The Idea of Decline in Western History. Gobineau took a vitalist view of race, which held that each racial group had a unique animating spirit that drove them in different ways. Of course, given this was the 19th century, the white race was held to be superior and to have a stronger animating spirit.

This racial vitality, inherited from the pseudohistorical Indo-European Aryans—the racial forefathers—was supposedly steadily diluted through the years. This led to the catastrophes that befell France in the 19th century, particularly following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. This worldview was informed by the latest advances in scientific inquiry, specifically by Darwin’s The Descent of Man which, among other things contained the argument that man would degenerate if weaker specimens were allowed to survive and propagate themselves. Those like Gobineau who thought and wrote in this vein believed it an inevitable tragedy that the Aryan-descended white race would be progressively contaminated and eventually subsumed by contact with “lower races” like Latins, Gauls, Chinese, and other groups.

Civilizations rose and fell based on who had the strongest racial profile. In this worldview, there is no room for the sacred individual. There is no room for the soul. There is no room for individual destiny. There is no room for ideas. There is only the racial group, animated by a racial spirit, driven to compete, fight and die with other races. 

These ideas allied with the cultural pessimism that abounded in Germany and Europe more widely after World War I. In Germany, this cultural pessimism drove the intellectuals of the Revolution on the Right. This included people like Ernst Junger and Oswald Spengler and others. Spengler was arguably both a cultural and a historical pessimist; he believed the culture of pre-war Germany was dead or dying. It had drifted too far from its vital, energetic roots and had instead metastasized into dry, lethargic Civilization. German Kultur, the driving force of German advances, was running out of steam, running out of time. This view was hardened and confirmed by the catastrophe of World War I, which only seemed to prove his beliefs even more.

Spengler’s monumental testimony to historical despondency, The Decline of the West, aimed to show how civilizations rise, triumph and fall in discrete stages. As with Gobineau, there was little room for the individual or local communities in this history. Anticipating Carl Schmitt, the world comprises groups based in race and racial culture, friend and enemies made to feel alive in the red in tooth and claw competition for power. Needless to say, Spengler thought Germany and the wider West was at the end of its life-cycle. He tied this theory of historical pessimism to the ideas of racial vitality. In order to save Germany, the current society would need to be dismantled so that the free spirit of vitalist German Kultur could be free to start again. As with other works of this time, there was a sense of emergency: that time was up and that only a miracle could save the day. 

This sense of hopelessness was given its most esoteric and, frankly, crazy voice by Italian nobleman Julius Evola. He has been mocked by Umberto Eco and condemned by Pope Paul VI for his theories on tradition and much else. He is the furthest right you can go; there is no further. Like Gobineau, he rejects fundamental ideas of human equality, spiritual and temporal. Everything we accept as normal regarding the sanctity of the individual soul and its expression in our legal systems was for Evola the sign of our Dark Age. His metaphysical view led him to see mankind as best ruled by a kind of spiritual aristocracy. Different individuals and races were closer to or further from transcendence. Political order, if it was to reach his conception of transcendence, can never come from below but can only be imposed by those from above. For Evola, traditional societies were ordered under an absolute ruler, “who embodied the sacral order itself.” As Evola says, “It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around.” Any conception of equality, whether spiritual or political, therefore undermines this order and dooms humanity.

For them, the white race is their primary identity; nothing else matters. Ideas do not come first, as ideas grow out of racial community. If you extinguish the racial community, you extinguish the idea.

There is a sense of hastening apocalypse among Alt-Right rhetoric, echoing Spengler and Evola’s doom-laden writing. The Alt-Right belief that mass immigration is the tool of the evil globalists, designed to snuff out the white race in their homelands fits right into this. The Alt-Right’s us-and-them zero-sum rhetoric on this and other issues reverberates with Spengler’s view of culture and Evola’s view of human nature. At the height of the movement’s activities in 2016–17, the general tone was one of “act now or all is lost.” For them, the white race is their primary identity; nothing else matters. Ideas do not come first, as ideas grow out of racial community. If you extinguish the racial community, you extinguish the idea. The boring biological reality of skin color is raised to metaphysical truth, endowed with a spiritual meaning. This is the end result of our culture’s ever-increasing emphasis on the self as the be-all and end-all of existence. This is where the panic over what they term “white genocide” comes from: kill the race and you effectively kill God. The view that ideas aren’t confined to races, that skin pigmentation does not dictate who can hold what idea, seems not to matter.

The investment in these beliefs, combined with the feeling of apocalypse, points to a feeling of personal insecurity among those who adopt the Alt-Right’s beliefs, an insecurity felt to a lesser or greater degree by many today. If you’re a failure at life, living at home with little prospects, drowning in resentment at the world, adopting what seems a compelling narrative can seem like the best course to take in the search for seemingly authentic purpose. The same thing happens for those who adopt the ideology of jihad partly out of a sense of alienation at being trapped between two cultures in the West, lost in the land of shadows between the modern consumer individualist culture and the traditional communitarian life of one’s parents.

None of this is to excuse what the Alt-Right and their jihadi opposite numbers believe or do. Comprehension does not mean one condones either side. However, understanding what lies at the bottom of what drives people to sign up to these causes can enlighten us as to the source of our own lassitude. Those who become Alt-Right or Islamist are still human, as are we.

Both belief systems offer a seemingly higher purpose, a chance to elevate one’s own insignificant existence in a more glorious collective endeavor and experience. Feeling as though one is part of a heroic vanguard, fighting to turn the tide in a millennial struggle, suffering the costs and consequences with one’s group, can instill a sense of divine purpose. None of this is to excuse what the Alt-Right and their jihadi opposite numbers believe or do. Comprehension does not mean one condones either side. However, understanding what lies at the bottom of what drives people to sign up to these causes can enlighten us as to the source of our own lassitude. Those who become Alt-Right or Islamist are still human, as are we. As this story in The New Yorker demonstrates, the descent in Alt-Right racial nihilism can be shocking in its banality. These stories are arguably the extreme manifestations of the malady of the meaninglessness of our time.

These groups offer a sense of meaning in a world cut adrift from that which offers us consolation with which to face the vicissitudes of life. This meaning used to be provided by our families, communities, religion, and employment. All of these buffers against the tides of liquid modernity are dissolving into an amorphous mass of atomistic hopelessness, where people are left thrashing for a life jacket to stay afloat. More and more people are being pulled under. Families are breaking up, and they are also forming less and less to begin with. Communities are degrading from a lack of civic engagement, broken by the loss of social capital that dies when institutions like the church and other civic groups no longer provide the basis for living a good life. We are all increasingly bowling alone, shut away in our connected isolation, seeking pseudo-communities online which only serve to suck away any lingering sense of value from our relationships to each other.

Even when present, religion in its Christian form is often devoid of depth or challenge, taking on a therapeutic façade that more and more hides the lack of serious investment in belief. A weak religion cannot provide the foundations that undergird the aforementioned civic institutions. It also encourages people to look elsewhere for their sense of meaning found in communal belief and ritual. As Ross Douthat says, you may have hated the religious Right but wait until you see the post-religious Right. Employment meanwhile is being automated or degraded by the gig and just-in-time economy, leaving individuals and communities devastated by its destructive qualities. Businesses increasingly lack any feeling of ethical obligations to both their employees and their consumers. The loss of the view of the sanctity of individual souls, grounded in our Christian heritage, has given way to the view of people as consumer widgets, to be pursued for their spending power and moved around according to their utility. Those who matter are shareholders. Any responsibility to those who produce and buy is left by the wayside.

There is now too much focus on Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, not enough on his Theory of Moral Sentiments. In his Moral Sentiments, Smith discusses the idea of the impartial spectator, the part of us able to see ourselves as others see us. This external view encourages feelings of connection between souls. This raises human relationships above the level of contractarian individualism that has reigned for the last 30 years. This focus on excessive individualism meets its antithesis in the identity politics of Left and Right, which appeals because, at bottom, it recognizes that the self is not “freely self-constructing or dependent on personal choice.” To identify as one of today’s identity markers, “is to be bound to something which defines one’s desires and situates one in a category of similarly self-­identifying people.” Identity politics is an attempt to depict oneself not as a “rootless and rational consumer browsing lifestyle options, but as a bundle of meaningful attributes whose desires are neither arbitrary nor arrived at by utilitarian calculation, but are rooted in his personal nature and fulfilled in something like a community.”

And yet, adopting one’s racial heritage as a form of heroic identity is like accepting a pretend prize without actually having had to work for it. It is an undeserved gift based on one’s skin color. In order to escape the circumstances of their lives, those who adopt the Alt-Right’s ideology are pursuing something just as fragile as their past. Adopting one’s skin color as a psychological crutch to compensate for one’s inner failings is the sign of someone who can’t bear to see who they really are; looking in a mirror reveals the source of external pride. Looking inwards would reveal the source of internal shame. Better to take the easy way out, accept the narrative laid out earlier, and project your flaws and faults onto those supposedly victimizing your race. What a wonderful excuse to never take responsibility for yourself. What a wonderful reason to never do the work to mature and become a fully rounded and fully-fledged member of your local community.

As with those on the Alt-Left who are given a little faulty knowledge, they think they have knowledge and wisdom. In reality, they understand nothing and know only enough to risk destroying everything. The problem is that we’re just as susceptible: to repeat, we are all human. We are all vulnerable to the narratives on the fringes that feed and grow in times of chaos when we’re searching for meaning.

Today, the threat to the spaces that cultivate our ordered liberty, that provide the foundation for the family and wider community is a radical individualism that leads to this cleaving of social ties and bonds of mutual loyalty and affection. This has, I would argue, led to the reactionary seeking for the tribal community that the Alt-Right represents. As Patrick Deneen argues in Why Liberalism Failed, liberalism has succeeded in elevating the individual above everything, leaving each of us exposed to the winds of changing fortune with nothing to fall back on.

The loss of the aforementioned mediating institutions leads to a search for meaning that ends up in the shelter of the tribe of skin color. Our excessive individualism is arguably directly responsible for laying the groundwork that led to the identity politics we are currently witnessing. As I’ve said before, “people need something to hold onto, and when everything that once supported them has been degraded beyond recognition or memory, tribes of race and ethnicity easily fill the void.” A return to liberal principles as an antidote to this, as modern Classical Liberals advocate, is not the answer, as these principles contributed to the current crisis. I do not know what the answer to this is, but we need to start working our way towards one, or else the forces of tribalism that are birthed by our lack of meaning will become ever stronger and could tear our societies apart.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.

One thought on “Where the Alt-Right Really Comes From

  1. Interesting article though it fails to show how any of the beliefs of the Alt right are actually false. The article is just de rigur “point-and-sputter” we have all come to expect from the intellectually bankrupt Progressive establishment.

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