In my first post about the alt-right, I wondered how Richard Spencer was accepted as the spokesman for the masculinity-obsessed alt-right, since Spencer is, for lack of a better word, effete. The answer is strangely academic, being enmeshed with art history and philosophy in addition to– you guessed it– racism and Nazism. The more I consider what to call the philosophical history of the alt-right, I don’t think ideology is even the right word, because that suggests some sort of cohesion. I think it’s more of a perspective or a world view. Frankly, I don’t think the alt-right even understands its “ideological” or aesthetic lineage, since they are merely mimicking their Nazi predecessors, but I want to trace it here because it proves both the hypocrisy of the alt-right and makes solid parallels between the alt-right and the Nazis of 1930s Germany. This latter argument is especially important since the alt-right has outright denied being Nazis, despite overwhelming similarities.
Unsurprisingly, as a masculinist movement, the alt-right imagines itself to be hyperlogical and rooted in sound philosophy. In reality, it’s anything but, being little more than reactionary hate speech– and dare I say far more emotionally unstable than anything they’re accusing the left of demonstrating. Like the Nazis, they claim to be acolytes of Nietzsche, though they have misread him so completely as to disprove that entirely. To make an unflattering-yet-true analogy, these guys are “masters” of philosophy in the same way that phrenologists were “masters” of science, which is to say not at all. While in true Nietzsche fashion the alt-right claims to renounce Christianity and religion in general, they can’t grasp the point of doing so. Sean Illing explains the alt-right’s total lack of comprehension of Nietzsche:
“When Nietzsche famously declared that “God is dead,” he meant that science and reason had progressed to the point where we could no longer justify belief in God, and that meant that we could no longer justify the values rooted in that belief. So his point was that we had to reckon with a world in which there is no foundation for our highest values.
The alt-right skipped this part of Nietzsche’s philosophy. They’re tickled by the “death of God” thesis but ignore the implications.
‘Nietzsche’s argument was that you had to move forward, not fall back onto ethnocentrism,” Hugo Drochon, author of Nietzsche’s Great Politics, told [Illing]. “So in many ways Spencer is stuck in the ‘Shadows of God’ — claiming Christianity is over but trying to find something that will replace it so that we can go on living as if it still existed, rather than trying something new.'”
This is my point about the alt-right’s perspectival basis. It is similar to being religious in nature, and resembles nothing close to logic or a coherent set of philosophies. Not only was Nietzsche totally opposed to the Nazi regime and everything they stood for, Richard Spencer’s ideals parrot much of what is already status quo or backwards.
The alt-right’s other influences are of course a mash-up of various forms of hatred and white/European supremacy. However, much of this stems back to romantic nationalism, a form of nationalism that came out of the political philosophy and art from the romantic period of the 19th century. I told my friend this, and she freaked out over the (imagined) prospect of the alt-right co-opting her beloved Shelley and Yeats. I reassured her I found zero evidence on twitter that Nazis read poetry. Nonetheless, her reaction interested me, as the elite scholars and art aficionados amongst us doubtless do not want to imagine that great art could be used for such nefarious ends. Writer Ross Douthat explains this leftist fear:
“This is an idea with a powerful hold on the liberal mind — that great literature and art inoculate against illiberalism, that high culture properly interpreted offers a natural rebuke to all that is cruel, hierarchical and unwoke. The idea that if Mike Pence really listened to “Hamilton” he would stand up to Donald Trump … that Barack Obama’s humanistic reading list was somehow in deep tension with his drone strikes … that had George W. Bush only discovered his talent for painting earlier he might not have invaded Iraq … these are conceits that can be rebutted (with Wagner or Céline or Nazis-at-the-symphony references) but always seem to rise again. […]
The defeat and moral disgrace of fascism, the eclipse of traditional religion, the philistinism of American conservatism and the narrowing of post-1989 political debates have all helped forge a political monoculture in the arts and the academy, making the link between literature and liberalism seem natural, inevitable, permanent.
But it isn’t. […]
So from the point of view of liberalism’s present cultural position, its belief in aesthetic-political unity, the past can be a very dangerous place indeed. […] And when a movement like the alt-right tries to appropriate that past for crankish, racist purposes, it’s understandable that people would be jolted — not by the intellectual power of that appropriation, but simply by the reminder that there is nothing natural or inevitable about the way we think about aesthetics and politics today.”
However, this explanation also does not account for the (white, elite) left’s willful blindness towards the problematic aspects of great art from the past. So let us now acknowledge that harmful racist ideas came out of the romantic movement. Romantic nationalism in and of itself was the idea that a nation deserved to exist solely because of its culture based on race, language, art, etc. Furthermore, this led to arguments for primacy, or claims to land based on culture and race. This is precisely the argument the alt-right uses to uphold its supposed need for the white ethno-state, which they plan to bring about via “peaceful ethnic cleansing,” a term which should terrify everyone. Leftists in the academy: the romantics didn’t just make cool art about beauty, they also paved the way for later imperialist and colonialist ideas like the White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny.
What started out as a romantic movement glorifying the art and culture of the common folk came full circle, ending in promoting the superior cultures of various European nations and therefore arguing that the cultures of non-Western nations were deficient. These ideas heavily influenced later early racist German movements that later heavily influenced the Nazis. Also, German romantic nationalist art, for example the music composed by the famously anti-semitic Wagner, became a favorite of the Nazis. Though Wagner wrote music well before the Nazis came to power, it’s clear that the early anti-Semitism that arose from romantic nationalism influenced Nazi Germany.
Art itself continues to form part of the alt-right’s claim of white supremacy. The alt right uses pictures of sweeping Gothic cathedrals– medieval revival was an important part of romantic art, reflecting its populist roots– juxtaposed with modern buildings to prove the superiority of traditional white Western European culture over modern buildings which supposedly embody what they call “cultural marxism.” Modern art is supposed to appear to the alt-right viewer as self-evidently ugly and degenerate compared to the art of the 19th century. Again, 19th art represents to the alt-right, and also represented to Europeans and Americans in the 19th century, the supposed cultural superiority of the whiteness of the European or American nation. Obviously, this visual argument the alt-right makes lacks any basis in fact whatsoever, and is simply an emotional appeal to white supremacy.
While Richard Spencer and the alt-right have no actual idea how they would execute their ideal of the white ethnostate, Spencer did have a daydream about what that ethnostate would look like, aesthetically. Get ready, because if racism is ever comical, then this is a great example:
“If the alt-right were in power, we would all have arrived here via magnetic levitation trains. We would have passed by great forests and beautiful images of blond women in a wheat field with their hands, running them through the wheat. It would be a wonderful sight.”
Though the audience tittered at the ridiculousness of this description, this appears to be a collectively shared image of alt-right society, as the photo at the top of the page illustrates. Apparently only young blonde women will be allowed into the white ethnostate. What happens to them when they surpass the age of thirty… well, it’s probably not good. But never mind that. I’m not sure what the train thing was all about, except maybe a nod to the basement-dwelling, tech-obsessed 4chan guys who make up a portion of the alt-right. One can only speculate. Either way, Richard Spencer clearly fancies himself one of the 19th century landed gentry, which makes sense given the alt-right’s connections to 19th century ideals. Heroism in particular seems very important to the alt-right. One alt-right essayist wrote about the contemporary West’s lack of the “classic virtues of heroism, high culture, [and] nobility” while Spencer says the alt-right longs for “something that is truly European and truly heroic.” White culture for the alt-right is at once the height of grandeur while still maintaining its rustic–but white!– charm. These are the very themes of romantic nationalism, which presented folksy art– such as pastoral scenes— and yet also the purported elite majesty of white culture.
We do the left a great disservice if we imagine any sweeping similarities between ourselves and the alt-right, both for the obvious reason that the left strives for anti-racism even if it does not always succeed and also because we are not logically bankrupt.
“… there is no victory of the left without the broad alliance of all anti-establishment forces. One should never forget that our true enemy is the global capitalist establishment and not the new populist right which is merely a reaction to its impasses.”
Um, okay Slavoj. Is this the scholarly equivalent of becoming sexually jaded with age? Like, Zizek needed to do something totally out there just to feel something, so he decided to “spice things up” with this ode to Steve Bannon? He actually praises Steve Bannon multiple times, calling him “worth his weight in gold” and the “beacon of the alt-right.” Let the record show that this, right here, is why people call academics masturbatory. By the way, Richard Spencer re-tweeted this article on his twitter account with a white skin tone raised fist emoji as his caption– a pretty damning endorsement.
Why Richard Spencer would want to team up with Bernie supporters is obvious. He imagines them to be a bunch of racist white guys, which isn’t far from the truth. Now, let me preface this by saying I was and am a huge Bernie supporter, but Bernie supporters overall do, in fact, have a whiteness problem and a racism problem. Many people have pointed out that the “Bernie-or-Bust” folks, largely men, defected to Trump when Hillary defeated Bernie. But the left overall, even the far left, is not guided by what even Zizek acknowledges is reactionary behavior, though he dismisses the dangers of said behavior.
We, the left, are guided by a cogent set of logics, ideals, ideologies and philosophies. This essay from 2004– though it has its problems– talks about the split between the left and right as the Enlightenment versus romanticism, respectively. I want to make it clear: I disagree that the left embodies the height of logic. However, when compared with the far right and the alt-right, certainly, the rationality of the left appears in stark relief. The author says that “modern conservatism is defined not by ideology but by a meta-cultural perspective — Romanticism” and goes on to cite examples where this perspective actively inhibits reasoning and problem-solving. For example, with welfare, he rightly points out that many on the right cannot get past the idea that “welfare encourages indolence,” ignoring evidence to the contrary. Many on the left are more concerned with alleviating the problem of poverty, which has very real social costs. Even on the very far left, most are concerned with solving problems, even if only in theoretical ways, but the application of logic is at least attempted. The author states, rightly I think, that the very far right such as fascists are even more demonstrative of the romantic perspective, their ideas being, as he says, based on “passionate rebellion,” and an “a-rational” worldview. This would come as a great shock to the alt-right, as they believe themselves to represent the only clear-eyed political movement in the United States, when they are the literal antithesis. They embody everything they claim they cannot stand. They are a bunch of pseudointellectuals throwing a collective, nauseating rage tantrum as they attempt to propel all of society backwards along with them.