The ethnonationalism typified by Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, and the ‘alt-right’ has come home to campus. American universities have seen a surge in intimidation and violence against students of color, a rise in the creation of white power student groups, and the organization of campus speaking tours of alt-right microcelebrities. Academics, then, need to be aware of the contours and function of this ideology: we are on the front lines.
Adequately understanding the alt-right ideology requires us to see how it is different from other strains of racism, how it is different from political frameworks that it might seem superficially similar to (e.g. Marxist critique) and how it understands and responds to the left’s own narratives, frameworks, and discourse. Once we have a grip on the ideology, we can better see its first-order falsehoods, failures, irrationalities, and inconsistencies. This will, hopefully, help us better deal with it in our classrooms and on our campuses, and allow our students to see its practitioners as the intellectual charlatans that they are.
An adequate academic response to this ideology will require a proper analysis of its components: e.g. the theory of race and gender that it assumes, the theory of political economy it defends, and the political positions it both explicitly and implicitly claims. Jed Purdy has given a very useful overview of two important components of this ideology: it’s rejection of constitutional constraints, on the one hand, and democratic principles, on the other. Below I say a bit about the theories of gender, race, and political economy the ideology assumes. My discussion here is based on some core documents of neoreactionary thought, including Nick Land’s “Dark Enlightenment” manifesto and the publications of Richard Spencer’s Radix journal.
The alt-right is ethnonationalist. For ethnonationalists, it is taken as fact that races are natural/biological kinds and that different races have different abilities/talents/dispositions. Appeals to scientific racism, IQ disparity, and ‘human biodiversity’ serve as putative evidence for this claim. Nationality/national identity (American, English, French, etc) is then taken to be a political manifestation of ethnic/racial/tribal identity. This explains how Muslim and Latinx Americans are not REAL Americans. The picture claims that just as gender is the ‘natural manifestation’ of sex, nationality is the ‘natural manifestation’ of a race/tribe.
The alt-right is also what we might call heteropatriarchal determinist. For heteropatriarchal determinists, it is taken as fact that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are innate/natural/biological categories, that men and women are dimorphic such that gendered differences in, e.g., behavior just are genetically determined differences, that men and women have naturally different abilities/talents/dispositions, and that men and women have different natural roles in sexuality, the gendered division of labor, and family structure.
For the alt-right, social darwinism/survival of the fittest is true, might makes right, and some (mercantilist?) form of capitalism is necessary for human prosperity. There is no Lockean proviso. Anarchocapitalism is therefore legitimate because for any sphere, it is either rational to get yours before someone else gets theirs, or because it is what you ’deserve’ by ethno-national birthright.
Globally, the economy is a zero sum game between nations/races for the benefits (nb: there are no burdens?) of capitalism (e.g. jobs, wages, wealth, prosperity, welfare/wellbeing) — e.g. ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Historically, (white) Americans were winners (in wages, job security, quality of life), but because of negligence and interference by a political class/degeneracy of a culture (see below), (white, male) America is ‘losing’ (see: economic devitalization, deindustrialization, drug addiction, housing crisis, etc).
The degeneracy story goes something like this. Because capitalism is necessary for human prosperity, owners/bosses are heroes (read: ‘small businessmen’ and ‘entrepreneurs’) rather than villains. However, a global POLITICAL (not economic) class of elites (elected officials/establishment political parties/lobbyists/overseas allies, aided by media and academia — sometimes this is explicitly racialized as Jewish conspiracy) have materially undermined (through domestic regulation, global trade, and permissive immigration) the ability of the entrepreneurial class to allow wealth and prosperity to ‘trickle down’ to workers via jobs, growth, etc. ‘Degeneracy’ then manifests materially via immigration/migration from Latin America (bringing ‘drugs’ and ‘rapists,’ lowering wages) “Islamization,” the ‘contagion’ of Black violence and poverty, and ‘dependency’ on government assistance.
Academia, the news media, and Hollywood are the cultural arm of this political class. They have aided degeneracy through culture via an ideological program of marginalization and denigration of white identity and masculinity (e.g. the woman-fronted Ghostbusters remake), manipulation/propaganda (“paid protestors”), censorship (“political correctness”) and unfair advantage (affirmative action vs. All Lives Matter). This is what the floating signifiers of ‘political correctness,’ ‘safe spaces,’ ‘privilege,’ and ‘identity politics,’ are about, and at least partially where the hostility toward e.g. feminism, campus activism, Black Lives Matter, etc comes from.
The alt-right has a thoroughly individualist and amaterial understanding of oppression. Material conditions of racial and gender oppression (e.g. segregation, redlining, violence, employment discrimination) are a thing of the past — now, American social institutions are either (a) equal and meritocratic or (b) ‘rigged’ to unfairly favor women and people of color. This explains why ethno-nationalists hear words like ‘racism,’ ‘sexism,’ ‘misogyny,’ and ‘privilege’ as hurt feelings rather than legitimate claims of wrong or harm. Because there are no longer any underlying material conditions that cause or constitute race/gender oppression, critique is all symbolic — e.g., (performance of) offense and oversensitivity.
This is also why critique against actually existing structures like patriarchy and white supremacy is so perversely ineffective here: it is heard as name-calling/ad hominem, hypocrisy, censorship, emoting, pearl-clutching, and scolding from a class of political elites ostensibly committed to egalitarianism against the words, values, interests, and beliefs of political non-elites (again, sometimes explicitly racialized as an ‘ethnic minority’ of whites).
Despite Trump being elected, American democracy is in crisis. Elections are ‘rigged’ either de facto or de jure (e.g. “voter fraud”) voters are too stupid/complacent to make correct choices anyway (either through being ‘duped’ by ideological mechanisms like those above or by inaction/inertia) and ‘white genocide’ means there will be fewer and fewer ‘real American’ voters in the future. So democracy is in crisis. For some this crisis means democracy itself is illegitimate/a failed experiment, and we would be better off with either a benevolent strongmen or doing away with federal government altogether (the latter is Peter Thiel’s take).
I think it is important to recognize this story for what it is, because it gives us a way of identifying points of vulnerability in the story — e.g. race realism is false, might does not make right, democracy is essential for human freedom, and anarcho-capitalism is a disaster. Our engagement in the classroom and on campus in the age of the alt-right needs to help students foster competing narratives, frameworks, and political alternatives that better describe and explain social reality, and that give students a stake in creating a better world.
Such competing alternative frameworks will include a defense of old-fashioned moral principles like freedom and equality, democratic legitimacy, and the social contract. Also important will be coherent arguments against (anarcho)-capitalism that defend the value of rule-of-law based markets and/or help refocus critique on the economic classes responsible for exploitation, deprivation, and immiseration in the first place — Bernie Sanders’ recent town hall in Kenosha county is a good example of what the latter might look like. We can also help our students by refocusing on the structural and material reality of race and gender oppression. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations” is a good paradigm for this kind of work.
Finally, we can also model to our students what better political alternatives look like in practice: e.g. by standing in solidarity with unionizing graduate students and striking staff, by aligning with anti-deportation student and community groups, and by taking a stand in defense of civil liberties like free speech and freedom of association as well as defending the welfare state against forthcoming legislation.
The alt-right has come home to the American campus. Academics must understand how it sees the world if we are to resist it.