“the inability of postmodern thought to efficiently tackle many of the new issues to have appeared in our digital postindustrial societies and to properly address the felt societal concerns of all citizens, to which mainstream society remains just as clueless, has thus opened the door for the Alt-Right to dictate public discourse for years to come.”
Attempting to describe the Alt-Right in terms of concrete political ideology entirely misses the mark. Rigidly insisting on equating it with the political proposals of some self-identified Alt-Right advocate or another is as inadequate an approach as equating the term “fascism” with the political program of the Italian Fascist Party of the Interbellum Period. Not only does such an approach omit the many individuals who don’t identify with either of the abovementioned movements, but nonetheless are considered part of these currents. Neither does it reveal the underlying psychology and social mechanisms that have come to signify the broader semantic meaning of these terms.
Speaking of which, there seems to be a lot of similarities between the Alt-Right and traditional fascism. However, the former is to be seen in light of the unique societal circumstances of the present and we should therefore, as stated in a previous post, be careful not to draw too literally inferred parallels with fascism. The Alt-Right should be interpreted in a contemporary context that, albeit exhibiting rather similar political conditions and almost identical social mechanisms as those of the Interbellum Period, indeed is very different.
The Alt-Right is a child of our time, a memetic mutation born from dissent, anger and resentment towards a perceived ruling elite thought to be out of tune with popular opinion, not least in cultural terms. As such it has emerged from similar conditions to those of fascism almost a century ago. But being a phenomenon of the current, postmodern, era also means that it has appeared at a time in history when all the old ideologies have died out. We live in a time where all notions about grand narratives have lost their legitimacy and the only trustworthy response to any great prophet is a quick and preferably witty dismissal, one that with a smug ironic attitude effortlessly rejects such pompous claims and effectively reveals them as nothing but highly inadequate fairytales based on naive assumptions – often while refraining from mentioning if such claims, despite their shortcomings, have any merits worth mentioning after all, and usually without making any suggestions to how they could be improved or presenting any counter proposals to how the issue at hand could be more adequately addressed. In the postmodern era we usually settle for the anti-thesis, a proposal dismissed is a job well done.
Postmodernity has in later years come to dominate a substantial part of intellectual and cultural life in the West, and its unrelenting aspirations to make the anti-thesis the only acceptable outcome of any intellectual discussion has largely succeeded in elevating the status of the critique to stand above all other concerns. Its associated schools of thought, such as queer-feminism, discourse analysis, post-colonialism and critical theory, are highly antithetical and expertly master the delicate craft of deconstructing oppressive discourses; they rigorously reveal all the faults and errors of our assumptions and audaciously scrutinize the legitimacy of those in power – all with a confident and ironic smile on their lips when executed most skillfully. But postmodernity hasn’t had the same success in creating new narratives to replace those it has artfully dismantled. Although such attempts have been made, it hasn’t managed to narrate any tales with the same inclusive power and popular recognition as those of the modernity yesteryear.
This is the point of departure of the Alt-Right. Postmodernity has fostered an intellectual climate that has alienated a large part of the population and created an ideological vacuum from which the Alt-Right draws its power. In addition, the inability of postmodern thought to efficiently tackle many of the new issues to have appeared in our digital postindustrial societies and to properly address the felt societal concerns of all citizens, to which mainstream society remains just as clueless, has thus opened the door for the Alt-Right to dictate public discourse for years to come.
But even if the Alt-Right above everything else should be seen as a counter-reaction against postmodern ideology and discourse, it’s just as much a postmodern phenomenon itself. It differs from previous currents to oppose postmodernism in the way it has adopted certain postmodern methods and insights to conduct the resistance. So even if the Alt-Right in many respects entails the absolute opposite to postmodern values, as a societal development it’s inherently postmodern.
“…we’re talking about a political current where people who differ on as seemingly critical issues, like whether they’re nazis or not(!), still seem to find common ground and use the very same political label, in the most surprisingly carefree manner.”
1) The Alt-Right is an Antithetical Movement:
The Alt-Right is as antithetical as many of its postmodern adversaries, perhaps even more antithetical since the only thing that seems to unite its many different adherents is opposition itself. The Alt-Right identity is one of opposition.
You see, the Alt-Right doesn’t generally make claims to a brand new overarching ideology, it’s too postmodern for that; instead it attacks those very same postmodern schools of thought (feminism, multiculturalism etc.) that it perceives as being too idealistic and thus in violation of the postmodern discourse that prevails today. The Alt-Right people feel that the idealistic struggles for social justice are based on too much faith in progress, not too little.
The Alt-Right criticizes postmodern thought of having become an ideology in itself, often termed “cultural Marxism” or something similar, based on the postmodern assumption that all ideologies are inherently bad. And it complies with its postmodern roots by refraining from offering any coherent ideologies in its stead. The Alt-Right doesn’t present a new great narrative, invalidating its opponents is enough. It simply settles for the anti-thesis – so very postmodern of it.
The thing is that the Alt-Right is a non-ideology. It’s not even a proper movement, which is why I use the term “current” instead. It’s more or less defined by its opposition against postmodern ideologies alone, such as feminism, multiculturalism and so on, and the new ways in which the resistance is conducted (we’ll return to those in point three and four).
Now, you might object by pointing out the fact that most of these Alt-Right dudes actually tend to adhere to some ideology or the other – usually some form of conservatism or fascism. This is often correct. But we all tend to subscribe to one ideology or the other, even when we don’t want to acknowledge it. After all, when the joy of landing every discussion in an antithesis and the fun of tearing apart the ideology of one’s opponents’ is over, even the most postmodernly inclined and anti-ideological of us usually find comfort in an ideology when the pitch black abyss of nihilism threatens our prospects of a good night’s sleep. In that regard, the Alt-Right people aren’t different.
So just like postmoderns, proclaiming to be the antithesis of all ideological constructs, at the end of the day tend to settle for some ideology or the other, usually some kind of Marxism, the proponents of the Alt-Right likewise tend to find recourse in some traditional rightwing ideology, neo-nazism, libertarianism, conservatism, pro-Russian neo-traditionalism or Putinism, and so on, after having rejected all ideologies as pure evil.
But these ideologies in themselves are not what the Alt-Right is about. For all, the abovementioned schools of thought are not very compatible, and if you listen carefully, you’ll discover that these people, all things considered, have very little ideological common ground. So what is the Alt-Right about then?
Well, as mentioned, opposition seems to be the one thing that unites this group. Among the myriad of incompatible views, their resentment of “social justice warriors”, “political correctness” and perceived associated ideologies such as feminism, multiculturalism and so on, tends to be the only common denominator of the Alt-Right. As such it would be a mistake to just consider it a white nationalistic movement.
But I admit it’s a tricky one. Even if the Alt-Right isn’t exclusive to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, as it evidently gathers support from people who don’t hold such views, many proponents of the Alt-Right still tend to be racists, misogynists and homophobes. But as a political current the Alt-Right is neither in favor of such views, nor is it against them, it’s more that it really doesn’t care. Whether one of its adherents is racist or not is actually not a concern, it’s simply preoccupied with other issues – and since it’s not an ideology, it doesn’t demand any ideological purity either.
The non-ideological stance of the Alt-Right thus has the perplexing consequence that we’re talking about a political current where people who differ on as seemingly critical issues, like whether they’re nazis or not(!), still seem to find common ground and use the very same political label, in the most surprisingly carefree manner.
Now the only way to explain this paradox is that it isn’t about the above issues. In fact, when we label people as Alt-Right who don’t even identify with the movement (as we do), and who obviously have very opposing views on a number of topics, we do so because this broad term seems to be the best way to describe them and because their attitudes and actions appear to be in accordance with the overall societal current and sentiments that now has become known as the Alt-Right.
So what is that sentiment about? Well, if we dwell into the matter we’ll find another very postmodern feature.
“beneath the frequent misogyny and silly hyper-masculine compensations we’ll find a sincerely felt hurtful loss of esteem, entitled yearnings to reassert one’s masculinity and regain the pride of being a man and an honest – though perhaps poorly executed – attempt at establishing a male identity project.”
2) The Alt-Right is an Identity Project:
The Alt-Right guys are predominantly white, and that’s not a coincidence. The Alt-Right has emerged as a result of the last few decades’ attention to racial matters such as white privilege, the subordinated status of minorities in white majority countries and the many atrocities performed by whites in the past and the present. The Alt-Right perceives this debate as one-sided and unfair criticism of white people. It claims that whites are constantly accused of being the bad guys and that it’s simply an excuse for bashing white people since it doesn’t sufficiently include atrocities performed by other ethnicities. As such the Alt-Right is largely a group of people who have grown tired with all the criticism tied to whiteness that they perceive as unjust attacks on themselves.
The Alt-Right is also a reaction against, or even a continuation of, the various “identity projects” that have appeared in later years. In a way, the Alt-Right can be seen as a white identity project itself. I’d admit that its obsession with identity issues to a large extent stems from feelings of annoyance with such identity movement, that it’s simply based on frustration with the attention these groups have managed to get – a common inclination of humans when things don’t revolve around ourselves.
But I believe there’s more to it. A lot of minority groups have emphasized their right to be proud of who they are; made it an explicit goal to reclaim the pride they feel majority culture has deprived them of. Consequently a lot of whites have questioned why they shouldn’t have the same right, why it’s perceived as racist to feel proud of being white, arguing that it’s unfair that they are the only group in society who aren’t allowed to declare pride in their racial identity.
Now, it’s a sound objection to stress the silliness of finding pride in ones’ whiteness, or nationality for that matter; after all it’s not a personal accomplishment, it’s just something you’re born with and a superficial feature that doesn’t entail anything worth of recognition. However, that also applies if you’re black, or gay for that matter. I’d agree that the context differs, the purpose of emphasizing pride of belonging to a minority is a measure to counter the opposite, namely shame. The gay pride movement, for instance, is the result of having been told to feel ashamed about one’s sexuality. But the white people who want to assert their racial pride don’t care about that; they probably don’t understand it either. Most of them simply don’t like that blacks and gays want to feel proud, don’t feel they deserve the recognition they desire and some even find that things like blackness or homosexuality are things to consider inferior or even shameful.
Still, some of these inclinations towards white pride may actually stem from sincere and justified emotional needs of feeling proud about who they are; a desire among white marginalized people to get recognition and to be listened to. It’s a telling sign that we rarely see successful people enjoying a large amount of recognition who claim to be proud of being white. Those who most vigorously emphasize their racial identity or nationality, or take excessive pride in the historical accomplishments of those they perceive to be their peers, are usually people who are marginalized in one regard or the other. Feelings of marginalization are a feature of all postmodern identity projects. So in that regard the Alt-Right is actually no different from the other identity projects out there and thus a postmodern phenomenon too.
You may have noticed that I’ve used the word “guys” a lot, that’s not a coincident. Even if the Alt-Right isn’t restricted to males, the vast majority still happens to be men. There’s a reason for that too. Its fixation and resentment of feminism is part of the explanation. Many men are simply fed up with the critique of gender relations they claim to constantly accuse them of being villains – an inclination similar to that of the abovementioned perceived racial vilifying of whites. But such sentiments can be found among many other groups, and aren’t even restricted to males either. No, the thing about the Alt-Right that makes it such a male-dominated current is that it criticizes the changes to the gender roles of men in late modern society and the new normative perceptions of masculinity. When we look at the things the Alt-Right puts forth it’s not only a critique of feminism, it also seeks to foil a perceived loss of masculinity, resist what’s perceived as an agenda to “feminize” men and defend traditional gender roles – simply declaring that it’s okay to be a macho man. As such it can be seen as a branch of the men’s movement, though I’d admit a largely pathological one that often resorts to misogyny and advocacy of male dominance.
But still, beneath the frequent misogyny and silly hyper-masculine compensations we’ll find a sincerely felt hurtful loss of esteem, entitled yearnings to reassert one’s masculinity and regain the pride of being a man and an honest – though perhaps poorly executed – attempt at establishing a male identity project. It’s an inevitable result of the current confusion and insecurity many men experience in face of a rapidly changing gender discourse; developments they fear will marginalize them, and thus an identity project as postmodern as the other ones preceding it.
It’s an identity project. Hence the heroes of the Alt-Right become the ones who most successfully are able to pull off narcissistic displays: the brash and vulgarly rich Trump, the posh, arrogant Milo, the beautiful Tomi Lahren, the buffed and self-grooming “Golden One”, a nationalist weightlifter youtuber from Sweden – see pictures below. These are sexually potent resistors of political correctness, inviting their followers to mirror themselves in their public images. And there’s the hairdo of Dutch politician Geert Wilders. Blondness seems to be the rule. Smile to the camera.
“the most seasoned and analytically well-founded postmodernist doesn’t avoid the risk of being caught off foot when suddenly confronted with the sophisticated and convincing rhetoric of a right-winger well trained in postmodern semantic word games.”
3) The Alt-Right has adopted postmodern methods:
The Alt-Right differs from most contemporary conservatives and other rightwing movements in the past in the way it has learned to competently master the valuable methods of its postmodern adversaries, and thus acquired the means to win the battles its predecessors lost.
The Alt-Right has a modern and/or traditional point of departure for its content, but its methods are derived from an ostensibly postmodern cultural logic. This entails that the Alt-Right, obviously, hasn’t adopted the values associated with the postmodern schools of thought, such as gender and racial equality, tolerance or inclusiveness, but it has acquired some of its analytical tools like discourse analysis and deconstruction, and learned the valuable craft of critiquing normativity. Equipped with these powerful measures the brightest and savviest exponents of the Alt-Right can thus effectively reveal the unfounded assumptions of their opponents and critically expose the underlying and often unstated values that sometimes are hard to defend. Even when such attacks occasionally turn out to be highly unreasonable and analytically sketchy, the most seasoned and analytically well-founded postmodernist doesn’t avoid the risk of being caught off foot when suddenly confronted with the sophisticated and convincing rhetoric of a right-winger well trained in postmodern semantic word games.
Some Alt-Righters are also capable of accurately deducting the universal principles from where the arguments of their opponents are derived, and with analytical validity determine when they happen to violate their own principles. You may object that although that’s what they are trying to accomplish, they usually fail to do so in a legitimate manner; that I’m simply overestimating their analytical abilities and what I’m referring to are nothing but flawed, manipulative techniques that the Right has used for decades to only make it appear as if the argument has been won. This is, admittedly, often the case. But some of today’s right-wingers are actually not just attacking the Left with intentionally misrepresented straw man arguments falsely asserted to be evidence of double standards, they are not just exposing ideological contradictions that only appear as such on the surface, no, some of them actually manage to expose contradictions that, under closer scrutiny, in fact are contradictory. This includes valid objections to some of the double-standards and ideological contradictions of feminists and multiculturalists, such as gender and racial antagonization, free-speech infringements and assumptions based on lacking sociological and biological evidence.
Now, these right-wingers obviously don’t offer any resolutions to these inconsistencies and they don’t even address the many ethical discrepancies of not at least acknowledging the intentions and utility of the principles they have scrutinized. But they don’t have to. They simply settle for the anti-thesis, and when their critique doesn’t imply any opinions of their own to be subjected to the same treatment they can leave the debate untainted. Without any opinions to defend, they’re able to secure the higher ground.
However, I’m not claiming that the people of the Alt-Right aren’t proposing any ideas at all, far from it, the Alt-Right scene is evidently full of obscure and incoherent opinions that can easily be ripped apart and deemed not only analytically inconsistent, but also ethically flawed. Neither am I saying that everything originating from the Alt-Right are solely anti-theses and mere analytical objections to the inconsistencies of Leftist ideology and lines of argument. I’m not even claiming that they always have the correct analyses or that this political current is overwhelmingly dominated by sharp-witted thinking. On the contrary, it’s difficult to find a place with more stupidity, analytical inconsistency and unfounded opinions than an Alt-Right internet forum. But the vast majority who isn’t capable of coming up with any sound arguments themselves are still able to acquire those of the competent few, which doesn’t invalidate the arguments as such. This makes them a threat to the Left.
So what I’m saying is that the abovementioned intellectual accomplishments of the Right are a novel development that happens to have appeared in these Alt-Right circles. And because it’s not really a unified movement with baggage of its own to defend, some of these more intelligent thoughts are capable of posing a severe threat to the Left on an analytical level.
This is a rather new development. In the past it has usually been the Right who’s suffered bitter defeats when they’ve slipped and fell on their own unsubstantiated assumptions, ideological inconsistencies and blatant double standards. The analytically weaker right-wingers of the past have on an intellectual level generally been defeated in engagements with their often much more consistent and well-founded leftist adversaries. But that seems to have changed somewhat in later years. A new generation of rightwing intellectuals has cropped up who actually have rather solid arguments and thus increasingly manages to challenge the Left, not only in terms of winning popular opinion, but now also analytically. It doesn’t mean they are generally more right about things, or that their underlying ideology is capable of providing better solutions, but on single issues they are sometimes correct, and the overall criticism of Leftist ideology has merits that demand further deliberation.
The thing about the Alt-Right is that it has grown out of an age where notions about gender and racial issues have been on the political and intellectual agenda for quite some time. We have to do with young right leaning persons who have grown up in a time and age where postmodern ideas such as feminism and multiculturalism have become commonly known, but the knowledge about how to analyze societal discourses and deconstruct social norms have likewise become widely available. This means that whereas the older generations of conservatives barely knew how to spell the word feminism, some of these younger fellows know it by heart and can more easily oppose it. And the feminists and other postmoderns have accordingly taught them how to deconstruct ideologies, how to challenge the social norms that surrounds them and how one effectively changes public discourse. They have also learned the secret trade of constructing narratives of victimization and how they can be used to counter what one perceives as unjust oppression.
But that’s not all.
“The Alt-Right, self-identified or not, knows how the mass media works and how its intricate, and ludicrous, social mechanisms subordinate our physical reality to its own peculiar and counterintuitive logic.”
4) The Alt-Right is a Media Phenomenon of the Internet Age:
The Alt-Right also differs from other rightwing movements in the past in the ways it more competently makes use of the media and successfully navigates the postmodern hyper-reality it has brought about. When we look at television clips of older conservatives they often appear frightfully apologetic when confronted with their apparent ethical shortcomings, always excusing themselves and embarrassingly wanting to appear more moderate than they actually are. Over and over again they have mismanaged their media appearance, failed to understand the disastrous consequences of always appearing to be on the defense and overestimated the importance of looking respectable at any price. The Alt-Right, self-identified or not, knows how the mass media works and how its intricate, and ludicrous, social mechanisms subordinate our physical reality to its own peculiar and counterintuitive logic. Or at least they seem to have an intuitive understanding of it.
It looks as if this new movement from the Right is one to have finally grasped what every noteworthy postmodern philosopher has warned us about, namely that since mass media not only reports what goes on in the world, but increasingly constructs our perceptions of it, those who most skillfully master the use of the media will be the ones to decide how we see the world, and thus what’s to be done with it. The Alt-Right seems to understand that this new reality is a fierce Darwinian battle for attention, and that the ever shorter attention-span of contemporary media-saturated consumers favors the simple over the complex and the spectacular over the well-thought-out. They have also discovered that it’s actually not so bad to be considered offensive. On the contrary, as long as you stand your ground and don’t appear weak a well-executed media firework can be used to your advantage – and you don’t even need to tell the truth. It’s not the facts themselves that shape most people’s understanding of reality anyway, but the way in which the world is presented to them through the media.
In addition, the Alt-Right has learned a valuable insight about human psychology that most postmoderns don’t seem to have realized, or don’t want to acknowledge or take advantage of, namely that appearing morally superior is less important than appearing strong. As such the Alt-Right has calculatedly and accurately estimated that the loss of moral points by asserting aggression and dominance will be richly compensated in the end. This makes the Alt-Right appear to be on the offence, it overshadows its weaknesses and makes their adversaries who prefer to take the moral high-ground look frail and powerless in comparison.
As a media-savvy phenomenon in contemporary society the Alt-Right relies heavily on postmodern irony. It has to, because of the peculiar feature of our postmodern age dictates that anyone without a well-developed sense of irony and a witty rejection of too much sincerity automatically is to be deemed untrustworthy. This is something that’s perfectly compatible with the new media logic of the internet. Accordingly the Alt-Right has learned to master the delicate craft of trolling, how to manufacture contagious internet memes, upon which it heavily relies, and how to refine their sense of irony and esthetic expressions to accommodate the language and tastes the internet generation has grown accustomed to. Here’s a few examples:
One of Yiannopoulos’ memes illustrating the perceived ridiculousness of feminist males in contemporary Sweden, with undertones of lost masculinity and yearnings for the greatness of the past.
A meme from Anti-FemComics satirizing the perceived overreaction of feminists towards harmless everyday life-situations.
A meme, that with a slight addition to a Nike advertisement for a sports-hijab humorously seeks to call attention to the perceived contradiction of female empowerment through sports, which the ad suggests, and that of female subordination in Islam. It’s an attempt to ridicule the celebration of diversity, which it symbolizes, and expose the naivety of multiculturalism. Another adaptation of the meme even includes a photoshopped black eye and a bruised lip on the depicted woman, showing how memes can take on a life of their own and mutate over time.
The Alt-Right deliberately seeks to be offensive; its goal is to cause provocations for the sake of provocation alone as it thrives from heated debates and highly emotional disputes. And it works as long as it’s done in an entertaining manner – which is perfectly attuned with the nature of our internet driven media reality. Being outrageous is far more likely to get people’s attention. So even if the essence of the Alt-Right probably is a matter of style rather than substance and its sincerity often seems rather questionable, its challenge to social norms and speech taboos conducted in a fun and entertaining manner may very well be a mere door-opener for a more sincerely felt reactionary and traditional rightwing agenda to which the Alt-Right is just a tool.
This is something the internet richly satisfies. In fact, the Alt-Right wouldn’t even be possible without it. It’s the political incarnation of the angry comments field from the online tabloid newspapers, a group of people who largely conduct their political activism from behind their computer screens who would never have joined forces and established a movement in real, physical life. The Alt-Right would never have had a chance without the internet since it otherwise would have been censored or simply ignored by traditional media outlets. As such it’s the far-right non-ideology of the internet age. A truly postmodern phenomenon.
As postmodernism has taught us, since its first appearance in the arts, the world consists of surfaces, images and the points of view from which these are perceived. Smile to the camera.
Wanting to renounce the Alt-Right as nothing but plain neo-nazis – and accordingly with no legitimacy to exist since they are just evil – would be a grave mistake. First of all this simplified interpretation is simply incorrect. Secondly it’s inhibiting your ability to conduct an accurate analysis of one the most influential political currents today, which consequently will make you incapable of countering it in an effective manner.
Still, and even if the Alt-Right is predominantly an antithetical endeavor: anti-feminism, anti-multiculturalism, anti-political correctness and so on – it is not – anti-sexism, anti-racism or anti-nationalism. Its whole raison d’être is that it opposes the former – but all while excusing the latter. As such it would be equally unwise to trivialize its significance and write it off as merely a harmless trifle. It’s a telling sign that you rarely hear an advocate of the Alt-Right who finds it worthwhile to condemn the oppression or any of the humanitarian atrocities carried out by white (non-socialist) males they mostly agree to be terrible things, but only acknowledge in a digression when confronted with the obvious ethical difficulties of excusing them.
So even if the Alt-Right doesn’t necessarily entail a fascist agenda, it’s not really dismissive of it either, and that alone makes it a challenge we need to address.
But we have to rise to the postmodern challenge, to beat them at their own game. How about going beyond the postmodern altogether and present new metamodern visions of society? In the marriage of sincerity and irony we have the means to turn this regressive tide.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here.