What’s Alt-Left and What’s Not

So what is the Alt-Left? Currently there’s a discussion going on about what exactly constitutes the Alt-Left, and as expected a lot of misunderstandings exist regarding what such a position would entail and what it is that justifies the introduction of a new term. I have therefore given a brief and accessible introduction to this emerging political phenomenon in a series of blog posts the last couple of weeks (here you can read the first post with links to the rest of the series). But of equal importance is what the Alt-Left is not, what doesn’t qualify to be treated as belonging to a new branch of the left wing. Here I’m going to shed some light on a few of the most prevailing misunderstandings.

First of all, it should be obvious that it doesn’t suffice to merely advocate the same ideas that have been floating around for the past 30 years or more when claiming a supposedly new political position (such as post -68 humanist Marxism or critical theory). In order to be an “alternative” a new position is required that drastically differs from any former stances. This means that those who self-describe as Alt-Left but only seem to disown the prevailing Left without anchoring this criticism in a greater framework of thought, and without an elaborated analysis of what exactly it is that constitutes this new political position, eventually won’t have the necessary means to back up their claims of representing a new ideology worth its name.

Now, it’s no secret that the Alt-Left has emerged as a response to the current surge in nationalist and regressive tendencies in Western politics, in that sense being the namesake of the Alt-Right. It’s also a reaction against the many postmodern tendencies that have permeated the Left for the last many decades – and, to some extent, have paved the way for the recent success of the reactionary Right. However, the Alt-Left is not just an anti-movement; it’s not just a counter reaction to other phenomena out there, but just as much a political program in its own right. The Alt-Left is a child of our time, one that seeks to address current societal developments in a proactive manner by proposing new ideas about how the world could be made better.

“The Alt-Left actually endorses feminism; it seeks to support all forms of sexual and gender-based equality, including even the men’s movement”

No, it’s not about Misogyny and Bigotry

So with this said we can might as well begin with the first grave misunderstanding you’re probably thinking about right now: “the Alt-Left as just another excuse for bigotry and misogyny, merely a copy-paste of the Alt-Right in leftist disguise.” – This, is very far off the mark.

Now, it’s true that many who identify as Alt-Left use it as just another excuse for misogyny and bigotry. However, such nonsense doesn’t qualify for a new political position, and, since it’s not aligned with the core values of progressive leftist thought it should not be considered as such. A critical stance towards feminism and multiculturalism, which is part of the Alt-Left, does not mean one should endorse bigotry. On the contrary. The criticism only has merit as long as it stresses the lacking capabilities of the aforementioned schools of thought to actually generate greater sexual and ethnic equality.

So even if many proponents of the Alt-Left have a critical stance towards today’s feminism, it should not be mistaken for anti-feminism. To be considered progressive one has to acknowledge and include many of the advances of the women’s movement, strive towards gender equality and stress the equal value of all sexual identities. The Alt-Left actually endorses feminism; it seeks to support all forms of sexual and gender-based equality, including even the men’s movement (in its non-misogynic forms). Accordingly, the Alt-Left should not be misinterpreted as simple anti-feminism when it criticizes current views on the matter, but instead, when done in an appropriate manner, be seen as a further development of feminism that includes and gives equal value to all genders, all sexual orientations and all lifestyles – even the issues of males, heterosexuals and traditional gender roles.

The Alt-Left’s critical stance towards multiculturalism should likewise not be mistaken for plain bigotry. Any progressive movement needs to emphasize ethnic and religious equality, protect the rights of minorities and endorse cultural expression in all its diversity. However, celebrating diversity in itself does not suffice for societal harmony, peace and coherency. The multiculturalist emphasis on the communication part, attempting to bridge differences and conflicts across cultural barriers by intercultural dialog alone, is simply seen as a highly inadequate measure to reduce tensions and conflicts that often arise in multicultural societies. So instead of multiculturalism, the Alt-Left goes one step further towards transculturalism.

Transculturalism is the idea that cultures are ever-evolving non-static entities that – often, but not always – reach the most beneficial outcomes when they are challenged, opened up for outside influences, transgressed and fused with other cultural elements. It’s the view that cultures and other identities are merely sliding semantic categories, changing over time, overlapping and interacting with other sociological variables in a myriad of ways and that the best way to go about this is to refrain from seeing cultures as sacred entities that should be respected and preserved no matter what. Cultural expressions, just as religious ones, shouldn’t stand above criticism. Some tendencies may in fact be harmful. So of equal importance to the multicultural emphasis on intercultural understanding and dialogue are thus the deliberate, but sensitive, attempts to change and shape cultures so as to foster more optimal conditions for peaceful co-existence and productive collaboration. This includes majority as well as minority cultures, but obviously does not endorse the hegemony of one specific culture above others. Transculturalist intentions should never be used as an excuse to oppress minorities and it does not remove tolerance, sensitiveness and inclusion from the equation.

“The Alt-Left is not nationalistic, it doesn’t harbor any romantic ideas about the nation state. Quite the contrary, it’s actually less nationally inclined than the old established Left”

It’s not against Immigration

This brings us to the next major misunderstanding: that the Alt-Left is an anti-immigration movement. The Alt-Left does not oppose immigration as such, in fact, it sees the freedom of individuals to settle where they wish as a long term goal and something worth fighting for when it’s practically and politically possible. However, the Alt-Left has emerged in a time and age where the Left’s liberal position on immigration has proved rather socially unsustainable and caused severe disorder in the social fabric in rich countries (as well as many poor countries, albeit in other ways). This circumstance is one of the primary contributors to the rise of populist and nationalist sentiments in recent years. The Alt-Left accordingly seeks to take the necessary measures in order to address the anxieties and alienation experienced by a large part of the population, especially those who feel marginalized in the new global economy.

But, it is not a matter of endorsing nationalist sentiments or making a virtue out of “protecting the borders” of the nation. The Alt-Left acknowledges that immigration is often a valuable contribution to society, so minimizing the influx of immigrants is not a goal in itself. It’s more a matter of adjusting the number of immigrants and refugees to a more socially sustainable level that doesn’t foster resentment, while simultaneously encouraging the forms of immigration that seem to cause less friction. It’s therefore a simplification and a misinterpretation that the Alt-Left is just against immigration.

The Alt-Left often criticizes the way in which the asylum system works (or more specifically, doesn’t work) and how it doesn’t really create morally justifiable outcomes. A similar line of rhetoric is often used by the Right, however, unfortunately mostly as an excuse to relieve the rich world from its international responsibilities. The Alt-Left position is quite the opposite. It’s a sober, utilitarian assessment that in deeply altruistic terms emphasizes a more efficient use of the rich countries’ resources. For instance, by encouraging further investments into foreign aid, increased transnational collaboration and humanitarian interventions conducted in a more anthropologically sensitive manner you can simple relieve much more human suffering than by using the same resources for helping refugees. The Alt-Left is not opposed to receiving asylum seekers as such; it may very well be the only ethically justified solution in many instances, but it does stress the fact that it is a very expensive and inefficient measure that can never solve an acute humanitarian crisis. Asylum in rich countries is poised to remain an option to the privileged few who have the means to travel abroad, only capable of giving relief to a very small fraction of the world’s refugees. Accordingly other, more efficient, measures should be sought to address these dire international issues.

So when the Alt-Left challenges many of the liberal positions of the established Left regarding immigration, refugees and the role of the nation state, it’s simply a misunderstanding, derived from ignorance about the underlining values and reasoning from which the Alt-Left reaches its conclusions, that impels the defenders of the above position into deeming the Alt-Left as nationalistic, anti-immigration and no better than the regressive Right.

The Alt-Left is not nationalistic, it doesn’t harbor any romantic ideas about the nation state. Quite the contrary, it’s actually less nationally inclined than the old established Left as it has a more elaborated and well-founded program, one that is in tune with the current state of the globalized information economy and that explicitly seeks to go beyond the narrow confines of the nation state. By virtue of its emphasis on transnational solutions to the many problems that can’t sufficiently be addressed on the level of the nation state, and not even between states (viz. the “inter-”national aspirations of the old Left), it’s therefore less national. And ironically the Alt-Left is more faithful to the ethos of the old socialist International than is the old established Left. which still considers the nation state the primary political unit and the predominant arena for political change.

“the Alt-Left’s stance on religion should be seen as a form of secular spirituality rather than an advocacy of atheism.”

It’s not Atheistic

The third common place misunderstanding regards religion, namely: that the Alt-Left is anti-religious, zealously atheistic or even, especially in regards to one specific religion, outright islamophobic. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The Left has always been critical of religion and religious authorities. But this has changed somewhat in later years as the number of religious minorities has increased and the postmodern, identity-based Left has risen to the task of protecting the right of religious freedom (for good reasons, too). But in doing so some of the criticism may have been thrown out with the bathwater. Many, of which some identify as Alt-Left, have accordingly reacted against this tendency and attempted to reclaim the Left’s critical stance towards religion, especially that of Islam, which many consider to have dodged the criticisms that usually apply to the majority religion. However, some of the views out there, claimed to be derived from an Alt-Left position, can be rejected as nothing but outright islamophobia when they cross the delicate line between criticism of religion and discrimination. The general stance of the Alt-Left should not be misinterpreted as an attack on religious freedoms or tolerance. Islamophobic tendencies and attempts at revoking the religious rights of any group are never aligned with anything worthy of the Alt-Left label. Such notions have no justifications in a progressive movement.

The Alt-Left is not anti-religious. Quite the contrary, it actually encourages and wishes to support spiritual growth and personal development as these phenomena bring value to people’s life, and, even have the capacity to further the emotional and ethical development of society as a whole. This is one of the aspects that make the Alt-Left radically different from many of its leftist predecessors. The old Left often considered spiritual practice inappropriate and counter-productive as a means for societal development. In many historical cases the Left has even attempted to eliminate religious sentiments in favor of atheism.

However, even if the Alt-Left deems spiritual practice valuable, it does retain the Left’s critical stance towards religious authorities. It’s observant and wary of religious oppression, sectarian tendencies and harmful mythologically founded assumptions that hinder scientific thought and political progress. Instead, it seeks to encourage spiritual growth and personal development in ways that are scientifically supported and thoroughly documented to generate positive results. So in a way, the Alt-Left’s stance on religion should be seen as a form of secular spirituality rather than an advocacy of atheism.

In short, if it isn’t clear by now, being a misogynic, racist and islamophobic old-school liberal or social democrat does not make you Alt-Left even if you identify as such – this position doesn’t need a new term and therefore shouldn’t qualify as Alt-Left.

“The Alt-Left shouldn’t be rejected as just another leftist movement out to abolish capitalism either, or a defeatist leftist stance lacking in determination and means to challenge the capitalist world order. Instead, it seeks to outcompete capitalism.”

It’s not Reactionary Leftism

The fourth misunderstanding is that the Alt-Left is merely a return to the old liberal or social democratic virtues of yesteryear. As mentioned, the yearning to go back to a time before Leftist politics became too postmodern doesn’t justify the usage of a new political label. So simply stressing the interests of the working class in favor of the many minority issues that have permeated the Left in recent years is not an adequate response to the current crisis of the Left. Even if the interests of the common working class may have been neglected and do deserve our attention, it’s a reactionary stance to merely turn the clock back and reassert old-school policies in accordance with an industrial proletariat that doesn’t really exist anymore in the developed world. Neglecting minority issues is not the way forward.

The Alt-Left has emerged as a response to the outdated programs of the old established Left, as an answer to how the Left ought to reform many of its traditional views and adjust to the new social and economic circumstances in the global information society of today. So simply relying on older notions about how labor and production worked in the industrial age, while rejecting all the new ideas about gender, race and identity, is an extremely insufficient approach to tackle current issues that never should be mistaken as Alt-Left.

However, that doesn’t mean that an Alt-Left position necessarily rejects everything associated with the established Left. That would be silly. So even if the endorsement of a big welfare state in itself is not an Alt-Left position, it can still be perfectly aligned with the Alt-Left to advocate expansive and widely available welfare programs (as those in Scandinavia), and in some instances (especially in the US) it can even be a top priority as such measures are likely to be a prerequisite for successfully implementing any Alt-Left policies at all. This means that even if the Alt-Left is critical towards the single minded practice of simply pouring ever more money into established welfare programs and relentlessly expanding the public sector, as usually proposed as the solution to everything by traditional social democrats, it doesn’t mean that it opposes the stance on universal welfare. In fact, it actually seeks to further develop and expand the scope of welfare measures to include many of the emotional needs of humans that aren’t sufficiently covered by the current systems, such as psychological well-being, self-esteem and self-realization.

The Alt-Left shouldn’t be rejected as just another leftist movement out to abolish capitalism either, or a defeatist leftist stance lacking in determination and means to challenge the capitalist world order. Instead, it seeks to outcompete capitalism. This rather unconventional approach towards capitalism has led to quite a bit of confusion, from the Left as well as the Right, both falsely accusing the Alt-Left of being regressive or reactionary – but for very different reasons. Since the Alt-Left isn’t outspoken anti-capitalist it’s often seen by the old Left as reactionary as this is the only critical stance towards capitalism imaginable by many traditional leftists. Right-wingers, however, often sees anyone who talks about capitalism as a problematic way of organizing society as a regression to Soviet styled communism.

But outcompeting capitalism is neither.

Painfully aware about the many failed attempts to abolish capitalism in the past, and seeing that the forces of the market can’t really be removed even in planned economies, the Alt-Left seeks to develop alternative means of coordinating people’s economic actions that are superior to capitalism while reducing the dominance of monetary exchanges in society, making the economy less dependent on money capital, which essentially is what makes societies capitalist. (This isn’t how most people define capitalism, but I will explain and defend this definition in a near-future post and in coming books. Stay tuned.)

Not being explicitly anti-capitalist doesn’t mean the Alt-Left is pro-capitalist. It shouldn’t in any way be seen as an apologetic stance towards the many injustices, exploitations and unfortunate effects of modern capitalism. It’s simply a crucial understanding, acquired from bitterly learned lessons from the past, that only by strengthening other means of coordinating human labor and activities (than monetary exchange) is it possible to go beyond capitalism. This is not a resignation. And it’s not a centrist position either – which leads us to the last misunderstanding I wish to address here.

“Wanting to “abolish” capitalism is not very radical, really, it’s just silly. Outcompeting capitalism is actually much more radical”

It’s not Centrism

Finally, the Alt-Left should not be seen as just another centrist position. It’s not a new disguise for traditional social liberalism, socialism “with a human face”, or a mere rebranding of the “Third Way” and so forth. The Alt-Left is an attempt to couple pragmatism with radicalism. But it’s very far from just a middle ground between socialism and capitalism, and neither is it just another pragmatic application of leftist values devoid of any aspirations for radical change in face of current realities. In fact, it’s probably more radical than any other leftist movements, present or in the past, because it actually seeks to alter and further develop the most intimate and innermost aspects of human psychology and how they play out in society.

The Alt-Left doesn’t settle for any static notions of “human nature” but seeks to deliberately alter how we function as emotional and social beings. It doesn’t settle for mere regulations of the current economy to become more socially sustainable either, but actually goes one step further to deliberately alter and transform the supply and demand of the economy through inner transformations of the cultural and psychological roots that determine our behavioral patterns and participation in the economy. It does so by stressing some of the aspects that usually aren’t considered in our conventional views on the labor market and the economy. Most importantly, it scrutinizes the most basic properties of our lives, namely time and attention, and seeks to develop ways of economizing with these scarce resources to generate optimal utility in terms of well-being and human happiness. (You can read more about this in my upcoming book titled Outcompeting Capitalism: a metamodern guide to the economy).

Accordingly, the above mentioned notion of not being anti-capitalist should neither be considered a form of reactionary leftism, nor a centrist position. Wanting to “abolish” capitalism is not very radical, really, it’s just silly. Outcompeting capitalism is actually much more radical (and feasible). It is a more radical stance because it has a transformative view of the economy, our culture and society which it actively and deliberately wants to change – not just wish away.

The Alt-Left is a necessary, new and creative adaptation of progressive action. That’s what it is.

It’ll take a while for this to sink in. People will keep claiming that is nothing new, or try to pin it onto any of the above. Okay. So let’s do a little challenge. Point me to one source, more than a few years old, that takes this general political position. Links please.

You cannot. Nobody can.

Because the Alt-Left is a new position on the political spectrum.

Or you can take these ideas and start using them politically. Whoever does it first will trash the Alt-Right and play an important role in shaping society in the coming age.

It’s called first mover advantage.

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.