By Julian Huertas
As Zeynep Gambetti mentioned in her intervention (35:35), one would hardly be motivated to read The Real Right Returns, Why We Fight or A Fair Hearing, if they were not the basic materials for the November 14th Critique & Praxis 13/13 Seminar. Daniel Friberg, George T. Shaw and Guillaume Faye are not the kind of authors we are accustomed of in Academia, at least in typical Western academia. I am not only referring to the style, which is sometimes pretending to sound intellectual while some other times is simple shouting of what their racism prompts them to say. I am also thinking about their strong beliefs, diagnoses and proposed solutions to what they see as failures of our society. Certainly, one possibility when reading those texts is not only to pay attention to the ideas they express but chiefly to the atmosphere they create (a dream world), as Karl Ekeman (1:04:46) suggested in his post:
“These documents are, therefore, not only interesting to study in terms of what is being said – as if the point in each of them is to primarily convey a line of argument –, but also, and, perhaps, even more interesting in terms of how they relate to the practice of manifestation as such: that which is brought about by the activity of saying something, the rallying behind a thing, a gathering.”
In any case, I perceived the Critique & The Alt-Right Seminar as an exercise of watching oneself in a (distorted) mirror. It is always interesting to know what different people think about own’s world and what one believes is normal. The best way to understand the political challenges we face today is to grasp how the extreme-right sees the — let’s call it that way — traditional liberal democratic society. Some of the things one might wonder is whether they sincerely believe that the liberal (let alone progressive) values deserve such despise and disdain. Are they ready to loathe as losers the people who financially and “electorally” fail, instead of just unfortunate unemployed or, in politics, worth rivals? Despite the possible answers to these questions, it is not only enriching to try to appreciate the world through the eyes of this angry alt-right. It is also useful and strategic. As the leading question of the 2018-2019 Praxis Seminar has been “What is to be done?”, we should receive many of the panel reflections from that perspective.
I will focus this post-seminar contribution on the debate about some causes of the emergence of the contemporary extreme-right. A strategy that aims to tackle the ongoing cultural earthquake will succeed only through the understanding of why relatively wealthy and democratic societies embrace politicians like Trump and the like. In that sense, I will address three of the main topics discussed during the seminar: race, language, and — with an especial emphasis — the relationship of markets and psychology. A final thought will be devoted to the necessity of assessing what went wrong in the last decades and how to confront the new-right.
- Racism and identity
Kendall Thomas exposed his surprise when the general debate was opened with the issue of markets and consumerism, as he thought that race should be the main theme in the discussion (1:32:48). However, race is by far the clearest element in the extreme-right. White supremacy is such an evident trait in the movement that it poses little debate, at least to the point of its existence. The mythical identity of white Americans or pure Europeans serves the purposes of excluding minorities, reducing the role of women in society, denying healthcare to immigrants and so on. Although the question of race is essential when analyzing the alt-right ideology, it should be taken for granted.
More generally, race should be interpreted as an important part of the politics of culture and identity. In my opinion, the critical question about race refers to the relationship between racist leaders in the world. As my field of study is international law, I tend to receive many of the Critique & Praxis 13/13 Seminar debates through that lens. One fascinating aspect of discussing the consolidation of the extreme right is that it involves both an international and a domestic strategy of dismantling whatever could work as an obstacle to achieving their objectives. The rise of the alt-right can only be understood by a direct reference to globalization and the electoral accomplishments of other leaders in America and some European countries, but also in places like Brazil and the Philippines. The extreme-right politician seeks to unite people not around values — Western values, as in the Cold War —, but around identity. However, identity seems to be a very loose and malleable concept (just as values are). Instead of being a problem, this fact has proven to be useful to the alt-right ideologists.
The radical-right leader appeals to a somewhat ambiguous, although functional, notion of identity, that may include: gender, race, morality, nationality, religion, but also productivity (or at least a hard-working mindset) and even a “winner” mentality (in the form of social Darwinism). This is why “identity” is manipulated by so different leaders like Trump, Duterte or Bolzonaro. Not all of them resort to racism in their speeches, but all of them share a preference for identity politics. Therefore, it is not clear that race is the main element of the new-right, and I think it should be analyzed as part of a broader strategy based on culture and identity. If the society desired by the alt-right is a building under construction, identity (that may include racism) would be the glue, the cement, that unite its diverse and contradictory bricks.
- Language as a weapon: fascists in the 21st century?
This was one of the main topics during the debate. There is a general agreement on the importance of words in political discussions. As we think with words and through words, the game of using language as a tool is a perennial theme. Until now I have not used the word fascist here, but only extreme-right or alt-right, even if it was one of the strong points raised by Jason Stanley. Maybe it is naïve to follow the claim of that movement and just call it Alternative-Right, diminishing the dangerous elements it contains. As some interventions during the seminar highlighted, the adjective “alternative” connotes a different option and conceals the real radical ideology behind this movement. I agree with that analysis, but still think that it is not definitive for today’s politics.
Let’s suppose, and we are not far from that, that analysts, commentators and the media agree on avoiding the use of “alt-right” and begins calling it just “fascist”. For the average informed and educated person, that would be seen as a great insult, but would it make a real difference in politics? We are in front of politicians who defend the use of torture and the separation of families who have illegally crossed the border. And many people have voted for those ideas in countries that range from the US to Brazil and the Philippines. Would it be so hard for these politicians to defend their ideology as a necessary and even a desirable form of fascism? What about a moderate fascism or a fascism lite? Beyond the irony, of course, it is preferable to unveil the ideology by calling it fascist, but I think it would not have great impact in electoral politics, which is the ultimate battle-ground in the short term. The academia and liberal voters tend to agree on denouncing the alt-right as fascist and would most likely not vote for it. The big debate relates to voters willing to support a politician who would be ready to portray himself as a fascist.
For many voters, especially the young ones, fascism is a historical reference that does not tell much in the current environment. Even worse, for some people, the term fascist can be distant and ambiguous, to the extent that it may not work as an insult. We need more creativity, even at the cost of less sophistication. Bernard Harcourt’s proposal of “neo-fascist” (see his post-seminar analysis) is one attempt on that direction, but I think it is not enough to appeal to the ordinary citizen. Maybe “anti-American” or similar labels could resonate more effectively.
- Markets and consumerism: why they fight
The intervention of Renata Salecl provided one of the most refreshing perspectives in the debate (22:00). As social studies usually focus on big trends and general patterns, it is easy to ignore the personal, individual perspective. But today’s crisis in America and in the European countries cannot be explained without analyzing the average citizen and why she/he is so angry. At this point is where psychology and macroeconomics meet. In the age of globalization, the market creates — or at least promotes — a fearful and anxious citizen that, paradoxically, can undermine the viability of the neoliberal model. Maybe Marx was right when he wrote that capitalism carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction (Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, 1850), but he did not imagine that it would be a far-right leader the one who would threaten the system.
Salecl’s first remarks, as announced in her post Emotions and the Praxis of Alt-Right, focused on how the extreme-right breeds itself from the helpless individual who has nothing to rely on. A key question is: Why this era has been a fruitful ground for fascism and how has the radical right taken advantage of this situation? With the end of Cold War, the capitalist ideology emerged as the indisputable champion. It had defeated the socialist model and was ready to claim its prize. Free markets proved to be more efficient than a state-controlled economy, and the Hayekian idea of deregulation was praised as the answer to our misfortunes. As the Chicago School had been boosted since the Reagan era, the role of the state in society needed to be reduced to its minimum expression. Alternative models in Asia, Africa, and Latin America lost their appeal, under the promise of receiving foreign investment and tariffs benefits to their exporters. The number of free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties rose exponentially during the nineties and the first decade of 2000. Neoliberalism, understood as an economic model but also as a comprehensive ideology, had prevailed and some thinkers declared the end of history.
However, the corporations that promoted the last wave of globalization were not satisfied with their gains and wanted more. Thousands of jobs were transferred from developed countries to places with poor and almost lawless labor standards. There were new jobs in poor societies and some of those workers flowed to the North, where they were ready to work for lower wages. The equation seemed perfect for both developed and developing countries. The global equilibrium may come at the cost of some uneducated workers in the developed countries, but it was not so shocking since those externalities appeared as the just cost of the blessings brought by the neoliberal system. The problem was that the — usually white — first-world worker did not find it fair. In the modern capitalist society, the value of a person is measured mostly on her work. A life without a job looks insignificant, as the gateway for frustration.
The present technologies just make it worse. TV and social media play an important part here. Everyone has access to it, everyone can comment and create content on social media, and everyone can amplify a message. When people are anxious, finding a “role model” is alleviating. Someone with a comprehensive speech or a strong character can become the north for communities in search of answers. It is not only unemployment but also having unmeaningful jobs; the feeling of being left behind, while other guys, here and abroad, are having a great time. That is why some people see their anger endorsed in social media, and they identify themselves with the self-proclaimed representatives of that anger.
Sometimes, they just do not want to improve their position in the existing model. They want a different model, and the far-right politician smells the fear. The extreme-right thinkers also understand the convenience of attacking the source of that rage. They have read Gramsci, studied the School of Frankfurt, and have identified a unitary concept that envelopes the sum of all evils: “cultural Marxism.” Quite helpful on time was Samuel Moyn’s article on cultural Marxism. Moyn is well-known for his controversial theses on human rights and the human rights movement, but that did not prevent him from writing a note on the alt-right approach. The extreme-right wants to conquer culture, and thus society, through metapolitics. “Our method, once again, is the metapolitical method — the gradual transformation of society in a direction which will be beneficial to us and, more importantly, the population in general.” (Friberg, 35).
This transformation includes capturing the mind of the frustrated citizen, who perhaps only preserves her unmeaningful job (if any) and her right to vote in the next election. “It is precisely in this recognition of people’s feelings that populism, alt-right, and authoritarian leaders today excel.” (See Salecl’s post). They excel because they have interpreted the fears of society and learned how to use technology in their favor. “Alt-right leaders actively promote using psychological warfare to get their message across (…). Friberg describes how one can become an influencer and how one can skillfully transmit alt-right ideas through the online media.” (Id). The markets and the exploitation of fear through new technologies are vital for getting a sense of the forces that support the alt-right. Here lies the importance of dealing with the manipulation of anxiety and the attack against consumerism as one of the clever alt-right strategies. The desperate citizen does not want to be only a consumer, as the neoliberal paradigm demands, and the far-right leader comforts that citizen through social media channels. In this way, the neoliberal world ideology is the bridge between the traditional liberal society and today’s disarray.
- A time for reflection… and for action
We cannot forget Zeynep Gambetti’s criticism of the role played by liberalism and the left here. This new-right owes a lot to the left, who has not opposed sufficiently well to the surge of neoliberal values. At least in the US and Europe, the liberal establishment turned a blind eye to the fact that a share of the population could be dispensable. The alt-right has also been successful in bringing politics back. The hope of getting rid of politics by focusing on economics demonstrated to be false. The institutions changed, and the ordinary citizen saw herself in the midst of market forces, without the aid of the government, because the government was not necessary, and the market would take care of everything. It now makes sense the provocative question presented by Zeynep: “to which liberal institution is the Alt-Right considered to pose a challenge?” In other words, “is the alt-right really constituting a break with contemporary practices?” (34:34) Is this so different from what we had before? In her post, she also asks “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.”
I think this analysis is crucial. In order to avoid repeating the mistakes made in the past, we should acknowledge what went wrong. Maybe it has been a gradual decline of the political culture and institutions that paved the way for the radical right to reap its fruits. If the leading question is “what is to be done?”, we must also question “what should not be done?” In this regard, self-criticism will be useful, but not to the extent of paralyzing the forces of change or keeping us in a sort of nostalgia for the lost opportunities.
Before concluding, I would like to return to one of the ideas that barely appeared during the discussion. Perhaps the speakers in the panel felt it was not necessary because it was implicit in other analysis, but the point raised by Etienne Balibar (1:58:12) was noteworthy. He missed the absence of the term “populism” in the debate. On that subject, the book by Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism, contains valuable ideas. Just to mention one, Müller argues that the essential trait of the populist leader is the will to eliminate pluralism (See Müller, chapter 2). The alt-right politician may be a fascist and racist, but what defines him is his determination of accepting only one (his own) correct point of view. This is one significant piece of the puzzle of the alt-right. If an essential trait of the new right is that it despises pluralism, it is probable that the path to confront it should start by forming a truly inclusive and pluralistic movement of citizens who do not tolerate the present situation. Accordingly, culture and humanism will be instrumental. Gambetti’s reference to the upper-hand of the left and the liberals in the creation of culture may shed a gleam of hope in the current battle for the soul of our society. It is time to fight back.