Bernard E. Harcourt | Introduction to “Critique & the Alt-Right”

By Bernard E. Harcourt 

The relationship between the Alt-Right and Left critical theory is puzzling, to say the least. For many in the European Alt-Right, Gramsci and the Frankfurt School are the very source of what they believe is the decline of European civilization. So you will read, for instance, on the very second page of the Swedish New Right thinker Daniel Friberg’s new book, The Real Right Returns: A Handbook for the True Opposition (2015), that the origin of all social and cultural problems today—e.g. of the decline of the nuclear family and end of ethnically homogenous Europe—is “the Frankfurt School and its concept of Critical Theory,” and the “Marxist sociologists and philosophers at the Frankfurt Institut fur Socialforschung.” (Friberg, 2)

As Andreas Huyssen writes over at Public Seminar, there is a baffling “obsession with the Frankfurt School as bête noire not just in Breitbart himself, but in the wider circles of American white supremacists and their publications.” The connections run deep—both intellectual and biographical. Richard Spencer, one of the leading American Alt-Right actors and founder of the website Alternative Right, for instance, wrote his master’s thesis at the University of Chicago on Theodor Adorno and his relationship to the music of Wagner. Julia Hahn, a Steve Bannon protégé who was formerly an editor at Breitbart and is now a special assistant to President Trump at the White House, wrote her senior thesis at the University of Chicago on Leo Bersani and “issues at the intersection of psychoanalysis and post-Foucauldian philosophical inquiry.” (You can watch her present her research on Bersani here).

This obsession with critical theory is not just a matter of curiosity, it actually motivates the entire praxis of the Alt-Right, insofar as the movement believes that the central political struggle is at the cultural and ideological level—and that ideologie kritik needs to be appropriated by the Alt-Right. The core concept of “metapolitics,” central to European Alt-Right thought, is intended to redeploy the Frankfurt School’s notion of ideology: to undo what the Alt-Right sees as all the deconstructive cultural work that has been accomplished by the Left since the mid-twentieth century. American Alt-Right actors also embrace “the metapolitical dimension,” in Colin Liddell’s words (Shaw, 15), and its key influence on politics, emphasizing that still today, “the left entirely dominates the metapolitical realm in America, through its control of Hollywood, the media, and academia.” (Shaw, 16)

If Friberg identifies critical theory as the greatest weapon of the Left (1945 to 1989), he also identifies it as the most important tool to deploy on the Right: the key strategy is to “understand” metapolitics and “turn[] it to serve our own ends.” (4) In the same way in which counter-insurgency theory in the 1950s would strive to, first, understand Maoism so as to, second, do it better, Friberg here calls for, first, understanding metapolitics in order to, second, do it better “to serve our own ends.” The ambition is to appropriate Gramsci’s insights (21-22): “Metapolitics, simply put, is about affecting and shaping people’s thoughts, worldviews, and the very concepts which they use to make sense of and define the world around them.” (25) Gramsci it is at the heart of Alt-Right praxis.

In terms of the Alt-Right’s cultural and ideological struggle, it is important to emphasize, first, that the model of politics is warfare. The European Alt-Right explicitly adopts a warfare paradigm of political conflict. For Guillaume Faye, a leading thinker of the French New Right, his vision of power and politics resembles the Foucault of the early 1970s, for whom power relations had to be modeled on the matrix of civil war. “The history of the world,” Faye writes, “is a history of the struggle between peoples and civilisations for survival and domination.” It is, he emphasizes, “a battle-ground of wills to power.” (37) This Nietzschian theme of the will to power—which importantly infuses Friberg’s work as well (see e.g. 67, 109)—is central. In fact, Friberg expressly draws on Faye’s earlier work, Archeofuturism, for the reference to a “historical and political will to power.” (Friberg, 67)

There is a strong Schmittian dimension in Faye—of friends and enemies, and of politics as warfare. Faye references “the common enemy, who everyone well knows” in a context in which it clearly denotes Jews and Muslims. (263; see also 270) Faye talks explicitly about “war.” (270). He writes about “attacking, like a cobra, quickly and decisively, once the moment of opportunity strikes.” (270). In the end, the history of the world, Faye elaborates, is “an uninterrupted succession of prolific tragedies resolved solely through the creative powers of the determinant forces.” (37) Struggle and will to power are key to survival: “A people or civilisation that abandons its will to power inevitably perishes, for what doesn’t advance, retreats—what doesn’t accept life as struggle hasn’t long to live.” (261)

Second, it is important to recognize that, for the Alt-Right, political warfare is over race, religion, and sexuality. The American Alt-Right readings are centered on race—specifically on the threat of the Left to whites. The editor of A Fair Hearing, George T. Shaw, emphasizes in the very first sentence of the book, that “If alt-right ideology can be distilled to one statement, it is that white people, like all other distinct human populations, have legitimate group interests.” (Shaw, ix) “White genocide is underway,” Shaw warns, and those responsible are the Jews and non-whites (xii), as well as sexual minorities.

Third, the Alt-Right texts clearly advocate counterrevolution. The entire Part V of Shaw’s volume A Fair Hearing, called “Counterrevolution,” addresses the more radical effort to rout the Left. It includes an entire chapter on how to “physically remove” Leftists, discussing everything from Pinochet’s methods of throwing opponents out of helicopters (not efficient enough) to Japanese internment camps (a preferred solution). “Civil war is already upon us,” Augustus Invictus writes. (Shaw, 214) And what war calls for are counter-insurgency strategies. “Physical removal and the restoration of order is possible within the bounds of the Constitution,” Invictus adds. “To delay the ultimate showdown is simply to postpone the inevitable, and to surrender the initiative.” (Shaw, 214)

These and other dimensions of the Alt-Right texts raise a number of questions about the exact forms of praxis that the movement advocates, as well as their relationship to Left critical praxis.  In order to help us think critically about “Critique & the Alt-Right,” we are delighted to welcome Karl Ekeman from Uppsala University, Sweden, Zeynep Gambetti from Bogazici University, Renata Salecl from Birkbeck, University of London, Jason Stanley from Yale University, and Michael Taussig of  Columbia University.

Welcome to Praxis 4/13!