Zeynep Gambetti | How “alternative” is the Alt-Right?

By Zeynep Gambetti

1.

This is the first time that I’m actually reading book-length texts by individuals who identify themselves as the Alt-Right. And although I couldn’t help but laugh at the sloppiness of the claims half of the time, an uncanny feeling kept creeping up the rest of the time. The exercise was worth the while, not only because it helped demystify the source of the invectives, but also because it showed how much the Alt-Right owes to the Left in terms of tactics and concepts. It gave me all the more reason to look beyond the ideology or the manifest content of the populist/fascist discourses that are increasingly shaping political agendas in so many countries today.

On a literal reading, the Alt-Right rehashes old fascistic doctrines (“uniting thought and action,” “identifying friend and foe,” deploying conspiracy theories, and so forth), creates neologisms (such as “metapolitics” and “Socratic trolling”), and inverts as well as it perverts progressive terms (among others, hate speech, anti-racism, and humanism). There are very easy analogies to draw between Alt-Right texts and, say, Mussolini’s “Doctrine of Fascism.” But this in itself is barely surprising. The point, I think, is to go beyond analogy and try to discern the practices envisaged or entailed by the vision and the ressentiment that guide the Alt-Right.

The Alt-Right, for instance, would like to represent itself as an alternative to the existing political system, to a purported dissolution of identities owing to immigration, to a liberal-Left hegemony that allegedly conceals and defies “reality,” and to consumerism and globalization. Taking Alt-Right discourses at face value would only reinforce this representation. It is imperative that we refrain from assuming as given what needs to be subjected to thorough examination. We must first ask ourselves whether the Alt-Right actually constitutes a break with existing practices and discourses, and what exactly are the existing practices and discourses that we think the Alt-Right has set out to destroy. If we have an idealized version of liberal democracy in mind (rule of law, universal rights, free and fair elections, independent judiciary, and legitimacy based on rational debate and scrutiny), we might like to ask ourselves whether that ideal hasn’t been hollowed out even before the Alt-Right burst onto the political scene as a major force.

The idea of break is suspicious in another respect: it would serve to exonerate us, liberals or progressives, in that it would provide us with a comfortable position of externality from which to critique Alt-Right ideology without asking the question of whether we, too, might be involved in reproducing some of the practices fostered by Alt-Right discourses. I’m worried that believing in our own purity would hamper our chances of waging an efficient struggle against fascistic tendencies in contemporary societies.

I propose instead that we comprehend the Alt-Right as a specific mode of re-politicization in an age of neoliberal depoliticization, but one that exacerbates the problems plaguing political systems instead of effectively overcoming them. Construed in this way, the Alt-Right is not so much an alternative to, say, the Obama Administration that was willing to sacrifice small debtors for the sake of big ones on grounds that the prosperity of the population depended on the wellbeing of corporations, or the Merkel government that relinquished Greek democracy for the stake of the stability of markets. The Alt-Right aims to radicalize and politicize such practices, which liberals themselves have helped constitute and normalize. It poses itself as an alternative to the Left, knowing that liberals have evacuated that end of the ideological spectrum. But it goes even further: the Alt-Right usurps the heritage of the emancipatory struggles to twist it to its purposes.

2.

It is indeed striking to realize how much an Alt-Right figure such as Daniel Friberg appropriates tropes from the Left and the New Left. Friberg critiques the egotism and consumerism that market society disseminates, as well as the hyper-individualism that underlies it. He complains about what he calls “mechanical humanism”, where parts are interchangeable and disposable. He thus reiterates the Marxist critique of exchange value, but then proceeds to offer a totally different solution to the problem. The basic analysis underlying Marx’s critique, as we all know, is that the commodity form of the product and the money form of the commodity are abstractions from real expenditure of labor-power and from the real properties of objects of use. The abstract and hence formal equality established through production geared towards exchange permeates bourgeois society at all levels, such that “everything that is solid melts into air,” as the Communist Manifesto famously states.

Contemporary Left-wing discourses have indeed pointed to how Marx’s premonition was ultimately verified by neoliberal capitalist accumulation processes that commodify not only use objects but also built environments, natural resources, lifestyles, and even protest cultures. We also know how the limits of commodification are being continually displaced through accumulation by dispossession and uneven development (David Harvey) or by shock doctrines and catastrophe capitalism (Naomi Klein).

After the decline of socialist regimes and party politics across the globe, more horizontally organized mobilizations such as the World Social Forum or the Occupy movements have tried to reconstitute a politics of the Left against neoliberal globalization. The problems they aimed to resolve were more diverse than those identified by the socialist Left. The production of informal and extra-legal economies exploiting a surplus supply of cheap and flexible labor, the generalization of risk and the extension of precariousness to those portions of the population that cannot adjust to fluctuations in markets, the commodification of indigenous livelihoods, and the deployment of biopolitical methods of surveillance and discipline were conditions that anti-globalization movements sought to politicize and address. Their contention was that mainstream political parties either failed to generate adequate responses to such conditions, or were complicit in creating and aggravating them in the first place. Indeed, neither liberals nor conservatives (nor for that matter, the more openly socialist or social democrat parties in Europe) problematized biopolitical governmental methods based on indirect interventions at the level of populations, which consisted of using privatization, financialization, deregulation, and differential performance criteria to induce modifications in aggregate behavior. Constant spatio-temporal shifts, the demand for flexibility, differential outcomes, a lack of guarantees, and above all, the amplified speed of change have become normalized aspects of life under neoliberalism. One of the most conspicuous mistakes of liberal establishments was to turn a blind eye to the fact that the disposability of certain portions of the population was crucial for the functioning of neoliberal governmentality. Unless everyone was potentially put at risk, it would have been impossible to produce the aggregate desire to conform and adjust. It is only when constitutional guarantees against reducing individuals to manageable inert matter are systematically ignored, and effective guarantees such as universal health care, unemployment benefits, public housing and transportation, and universal access to public goods such as roads, schools, and natural resources are dismantled that risk becomes productive. Only then is each and every citizen faced with the prospect of being disposed of by the system. Only then do we start considering ourselves as commodities with a market price and marginal utility.

Reconfiguring bits and pieces of Leftist critical analyses so that they serve the extreme right end of the ideological spectrum, Friberg holds not only immigration, but also plastic and fluid consumer identities responsible for the dissolution of what he takes to be an authentic identity based on language, culture, and ethnicity.[i] So what exactly does the Alt-Right propose in place of the citizen-consumer? It advocates an ethnicity-based identitarianism that is supposed to produce a recoding or re-stratification of societies based on tradition, hierarchy, and values such as honor and self-sacrifice.

Now, if we allow ourselves to remain at the level of the ideology, we would consider this authoritarian remedy to fluidity as proof of the Alt-Right’s will to break with the system. But at a closer look, it is possible to notice continuities between the neoliberal biopolitics of fluidity and the cures that the Alt-Right proposes.

3.

The Alt-Right does not advocate a return to the intrinsic value of each and every life, but wants to authoritatively pre-arrange disposability. Instead of spreading out the risks associated with the predatory version of neoliberal capitalism to the whole population, it designates an out-group that would need to be disposed of so as to presumably reduce the precarity of the in-group. Note, however, that this in-group is equally biopolitical, in that it is defined through demographics, lifestyle choices and purportedly biological traits. Thus, the aim is to secure the very curves that derive “normality” from the demographics of the majority and to dispossess targeted populations instead of leaving things to chance or to the market. Ironically, the Alt-Right wants to authoritatively reproduce the ways in which neoliberal biopolitics functions, since those whom the Alt-Right wishes to dispossess are in any case the first to be hit through, say, climate change or the fluctuations in financial algorithms. But it nevertheless politicizes the distribution of aggregate levels of precarity: the selection is now to be made by human willpower instead of by impersonal forces.

The question of identity is a case in point. What should we make of the Alt-Right’s hijacking of “the right to difference,” a right that is recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? The Alt-Right’s ethnicity-based reformulation of the right to difference is not just directed against universalism and egalitarianism, thereby making the Alt-Right straightforwardly anti-liberal. Their strategy is rather to appropriate the terms of the liberal politics of identity and to push identitarian arguments to their logical conclusion. To be sure, the Alt-Right obscures power differentials by putting Whiteness or European descent at the same level as minority identities. But the so-called “differential anti-racism” that Alain de Benoist develops is supposed to be “free of value judgments”, since it purports to acknowledge “actually existing” differences in culture, lifestyle and language, but intends to keep them apart to avoid both hybridity and the flattening out of differences through globalization.[ii]

Once again, the return of authoritative identitarianism and the reconfiguration of difference as fixed and strictly segregative can be construed as a re-politicization of the peculiar types of differentiation already at work in contemporary societies. Here is why. The self-representation of neoliberal market fundamentalists is that today individuals and populations are free to move, grow, create, invest, develop livelihoods, and take care of themselves and of their future on their own, without being aided by governmental protections or public services. The glitch, however, is that the freedom that befits neoliberalism is not assumed to be readily given; it has to be constructed through governmental action. The government does not institute this type of freedom through constitutional provisions and the threat of legal sanctions against encroachment, but through the multiplication of societal and economic risks in such a way as to stimulate the drive towards self-investment. Despite the fact that liberal rights remain universal in theory, they become conditional in practice. As Wendy Brown has convincingly shown, we are all expected to freely and creatively construct ourselves into responsibilized forms of human capital. The “equal right to inequality” is a neoliberal slogan.[iii] Not rights, but active participation in the game of neoliberal governance is what determines each citizen’s share in power.

The peculiar type of freedom promoted by neoliberalism is doubly treacherous: on the one hand, it turns the individual into a “dividual,” as Gilles Deleuze puts it, that is, into data to be prompted, modulated and controlled through networks of communication and capitalization. On the other hand, citizenship now entails the willingness to accept austerity measures, personal and collective sacrifices, wage and budget cuts, and the unequal distribution of the burdens of the debt economy.

This results in a reconfiguration of pressures towards conformity. The millennial neoliberal task is to achieve sameness without recourse to the Leviathan. Tocqueville’s suspicion of democratic government as a soft power that takes care of everything, leaving citizens passive and uncritical, seems to have been replaced by the impersonal power of marketization, demanding active but equally uncritical adjustments by citizens. The tyranny of the majority is exercised by the statistical curve whose lower end spells social death. Those that end up there are not only left to die, but they are also moralized. They are the leeches, the losers, and the unfit. They are no longer considered as equally rights bearing individuals as all others.

Against this background, the Alt-Right wants to retain the conditionality of rights but sets ethnic identity as the condition for enjoying them. The provocative claim to make here is that the Alt-Right is probably more rational than neoliberalism in this respect, since at least it politicizes the conditionality and thereby sets it up for contestation.

The irrationality lies elsewhere, I think, namely, in the inversions operated by the Alt-Right to define anti-racism as a lack of respect for differences. In Alt-Right texts and discourses “difference” does not refer to any action-based, performative or creative individuation, but to a fixed and axiomatically constructed boundary. On the one hand, the Alt-Right craves for difference as opposed to the uniformity imposed by the market, but cannot construe of any other difference than that related to identity. On the other hand, it craves for identity as opposed to constant fluctuation and differentiation through the impersonal laws of the market, but cannot construe of any other identity other than that which is axiomatic. By this I mean that the risks associated with neoliberal practices of freedom are projected onto an alien or enemy, which then comes to epitomize risk. Paradoxically, the Alt-Right does reject the neoliberal redefinition of unity as unity in subjection to market forces or unity in societal insecurity. But it replaces these with unity in subjection to an ethnically determined form of authoritarianism and unity in fear of the Other.

Unfortunately, it is not only the Alt-Right that is caught up in an indeterminate dialectics of identity and difference. It has to be said that this is also what certain puritan and moralizing forms of politically correctness perpetuate as well. Notwithstanding the immense gratitude that we owe to centuries-long struggles for equal rights, dignity and recognition, I would like to advance the cautious hypothesis that there are two problems plaguing identity politics today: first, a single-handed focus on identities as the sole axis of social struggle leads to neglecting the task of developing alternative economic and political visions. But such visions are crucially necessary in order for the liberated identities to coexist. Under neoliberal conditions, no true liberation is possible without contesting the freedom to become human capital, and no true unity is possible without contesting unity in insecurity. And second, even when they are instigated by progressive concerns, witch-hunts, finger pointing and outbreaks of mass hysteria tend to redraw boundaries instead of opening them up. This harms the egalitarian struggle because it imputes blame on certain identities for “being” what they are while uncritically exonerating others. This inconspicuously recreates the type of essentialism that the Alt-Right preys upon. Again, it must be said that under neoliberal conditions, not only is there an ever-present temptation to construct difference through identity or identity through difference (a temptation from which progressives are not sheltered), but also given the amount of trolling that contaminates the social media, uncritical and unsubstantiated witch hunts in the guise of politically correctness may serve to reproduce the already existent indifference to truth or facts that we now call “post-truth.”

4.

One last point I want to make concerns whether liberal institutions are being undermined by the Alt-Right, in which case the Alt-Right would indeed be considered as an alternative and revolutionary formation, or whether the implosion of institutional structures over the past 30 or 40 years is the basis upon which Alt-Right discourses gain currency. Here again, we must at all cost avoid facile conclusions.

Reading Alt-Right texts on political strategies lands one in a strange landscape where Left-wing methods of agitation, propaganda and guerrilla warfare become indistinct from Nazi tactics of spreading and normalizing poisonous memes as part of psychological warfare. This is also “called spontaneous organization”, and although it is by no means a grassroots form of collective action, the Alt-Right does indeed appropriate the organizational tactics of various anti-globalization and occupy movements as well.

Although some commentators are quick in classifying all extra-institutional activism as populist and potentially illiberal and irrational, the point I want to make here is that assuming institutions are intact in the present era prevents us from looking into the abyss. We can evoke the decades-long debate on the democratic deficit or on how states have become instruments of the market, but I want to go a bit further.

Take, for instance, the transformation of education. The proliferation of sites and methods of education in our day may be considered as a welcome alternative to elitist modes of knowledge acquisition. And yet, practices of perpetual training in sites other than the school or the university, the corporatization of the latter that turns research into a function of funding, the literal explosion in data collection and expert reports, including by corporations themselves, online courses and DIY-type of learning and publishing instruments and last, but not least, the precaritization of educational staff implies that education is no longer much of an institution. This is not only because it is no longer lodged in the closed space of an institution, but also because there is no institution that retains the authority to set standards in education.

I do not have to go into detail on how the functions of the state as an institution were also immensely altered by the privatization of its services, the devolution to civil society of the state’s duty of maintaining order and the simultaneous étatisation of society through neighborhood watch or vigilante practices, the zones of indistinction opened up by abundant but incoherent regulations, and the recurrent deployment of states of exception. The idea that the neoliberal economy would push back the state with its centralized mechanisms of rule and replace them with more participatory forms of governance has proven to be extremely ambivalent. Citizens have indeed become “more participative,” but more in policing dissent, handing out guilt verdicts, patrolling the country’s borders, and keeping class conflict at bay, than in effectively exercising power.

So my provocative question is this: to which liberal institution is the Alt-Right considered to pose a challenge? If we do not have a clear answer to this, perhaps we should question the facile pitting of the Alt-Right against a presumed liberal institutional order, and instead turn our attention to devising conventions and cultures that are not merely directed at conserving our actual positions. It is chilling to notice how the Alt-Right uses strategies that put liberals and Leftists on the defensive by taking the initiative out of their hands. The Alt-Right has read Gramsci well enough to know how a hegemonic struggle is to be waged. And they correctly suppose that the Left still retains the upper hand in the creation and maintenance of culture – not the culture produced by the culture industry or by the society of spectacle, of course, but the culture that binds individuals around common horizons of meaning and humanizes the world we share. For all its babbling, the Alt-Right cannot create culture since it is fully pragmatic and reactionary. But we still can and must.

Notes

[i]Daniel Friberg, The Real Right Returns, London, Arktos, 2015, p. 28.

[ii]Ibid., p. 65.

[iii]Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare. Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization”, Political Theory 34(6), 2006, p. 690-714, and Undoing the Demos. Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, New York: Zone Books, 2015.

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