STANDING ATHWART HISTORY YELLING CUCK -The reactionary mind and the libertarian roots of the Alt-Right
Ever since the French revolution we have placed the differing political philosophies and their respective proponents on a left-right political spectrum. The left stood for radical change. The right for tradition and order. The left for equality. The right for hierarchy. A more nuanced discussion would mean adding a libertarian-authoritarian axis to the left-right spectrum resulting in two left’s and two right’s with the added prospect of left-libertarians possibly having more in common with right-libertarians and left-authoritarians with their authoritarian counter-parts on the right. You could even take this one stage further and add liberal/populist or even (some would argue,) open/closed into the mix but lets not get ahead of ourselves.
There have been always been two political left’s from the very beginning. The French revolution had Jacobins AND Girondists, later there were Bolsheviks AND Mensheviks – contemporary political battles between the likes of Momentumites/Corbynites and New Labour stalwarts alligned with the Progress ginger group in the UK Labour party are like a watered down/diluted version of these age-old battles – both espousing the same goal – equality – but via radically different means.
One side preaching moderation and incrementalism via an accommodation with ‘bourgeois’ representative/parliamentary democracy (liberalism) whilst the other proving more sceptical of such ‘elite’ institutions and instinctively prefering more direct forms of democracy instead enabling it to bypass intermediary institutions (populism.)
Reformers versus revolutionaries basically but what of the political right? are there two political right’s too? the work of scholar Zeev Sternhell provides us with a clue. In ‘The Birth of ‘Fascist Ideology – From Cultural Rebellion to Political Revolution’ (1989) Sternhell explains that Fascism was every bit as much a revolutionary movement as its Marxist counterpart. Indeed, we learn that, in regards to its intellectual origins, Fascism actually initially emerged from the revolutionary left itself, specifically revolutionary syndicalism and the revision of Marxism found in the thought of Georges Sorel in particular. Later, Sorelianism was combined with ‘blood and soil’ nationalism (and also Futurism) to form the Fascist synthesis.
This turns left-right political spectrum logic on its head somewhat. The left are meant to stand for radical change and the right for status quo/tradition. If Fascists are also revolutionaries then doesn’t that mean that they belong on the political left alongside Communists and not on the political right alongside conservatives and libertarians?Certainly some on the liberal-right have tried to argue as much – albeit more on the grounds that the cardinal feature of right-wing politics (in their opinion) is a commitment to freedom/liberty (liberalism) – conveniently ignoring the fact that there are two left’s (liberal/libertarian AND authoritarian) and also two right’s (liberal/libertarian AND authoritarian.)
This argument serves as a convenient sleight of hand in order to place ALL authoritarians on the left side of the political spectrum but it isn’t, in truth, a very accurate appraisal of the differing political philosophies and their real underlying motivations. To be fair to the likes of Jonah Goldberg and others, there are plenty of people on the political left who get this confused too. Corey Robin (left-socialist) wrote a whole book about the ‘The Reactionary Mind’ (2017) in which he conflated conservatism itself with reaction but as Mark Lilla (left-liberal) has pointed out (correctly in my opinion) in his book about reactionaries entitled ‘The Shipwrecked Mind’ (2016) conservatives are not necessarily revolutionaries whereas true reactionaries, on the other hand, most certainly are.
The reactionary mind and the form of politics which flow from it presents us with a contradiction in terms of political categorisation: the reactionary on the right, like the the revolutionary on the left, stands, not for order, like the conservative, nor for freedom, like the liberal, nor for equality, like the democratic socialist, but for radical change.
What of the libertarian? the libertarian, like the liberal, stands for freedom but, unlike the liberal, above all else and above any other concern. This tendency was typified in my mind by a Twitter exchange I had with a libertarian interlocuter in which they asked me earnestly, seriously and without intended malice: what would be wrong in letting someone who was psychotic and delusional about their food being poisoned from starving themselves to death if that was their choice?
The left-liberal may balance love of liberty with a preference for some degree of economic security and the redistribution of wealth (social democracy) whereas the right-liberal may balance his or her love of freedom with a strong need for order (conservatism) as manifested by such policy preferences as the advocation of a strong military, border control and punitive measures for certain kinds of criminal offences for instance, but for the libertarian, the gordian knot of politics is made so much simpler by cutting through all other competing priorities and replacing them with just one above all others: maximising freedom/liberty.
How then has it come to pass that so many modern day American right-wing authoritarians have come to the ‘Alt-Right’ – the intellectual home of modern-day reactionary thought and the loose intellectual descendants of 20th century Fascism – via libertarianism?
Authoritarianism and libertarianism are precise opposites right? How can it be that one could serve as a conduit to the other? the answer lies in Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958.) Berlin differentiated between negative liberty – freedom from – and positive liberty – freedom to or freedom for. Libertarianism is primarily concerned with negative liberty/freedom from.
Why is that? Because libertarianism itself is a form of political reaction just as Fascism was. Libertarianism was not formed in a political void, it was a reaction to something (it still is) and it is that something which libertarianism is seeking freedom from. Fascism was a (belated) reaction to the Englightenment, libertarianism? a reaction to communism. Libertarians are seeking negative freedom from the state, to avoid what they see as the road to serfdom.
Looked at in this way we can see that reactionaries on the right have a symbiotic relationship with their counterparts on the left. As the left evolves, so, in turn, will the reactionary right because: if what they are reacting to has changed and evolved, it logically follows that so will they in tandem. So what are modern-day reactionaries reacting against? What is fuelling their reactionary fire?
They are reacting to a double-bind. The double bind is this:-
- The ‘progressive’ left contention that ALL politics is identity politics
- The implicit asymmetry to ‘progressive’ identity politics and the institutionalised asymmetric multi-culturalism which sustains and perpetuates it. Ben Cobley, in his 2018 book ‘The Tribe,’ describes this as the system of diversity. This asymmetry could best be summed up as: identity politics for me but not for thee.
As I have discussed in earlier blogs (here and also here) identity politics subverts the integrationist message of the civil rights movement lead by Martin Luther King instead preaching an implied message of segregation. The message is: “stay in your lane.”
The lanes in question are based upon your respective gender/sex/sexuality/race/ethnicity. These identarian-based ideas have then influenced what is seen as ‘punching up’ and ‘punching down’ in progressive circles, which have then, in turn, filtered through into the wider culture, informing the construction of an elaborate speech code (alongside corresponding social taboos to sustain it,) which we generally refer to as ‘political correctness’ or even: ‘egalitarian discourse policing.’
The taboos designed to scare everyone into staying in their lane are leading us towards a situation whereby certain forms of essentialism (based on race/sex/gender/sexuality etc) can now be viewed as progressive even though, in truth, they mirror attitudes we would once only associate with the far-right.
Multi-culturalism is the idea that an ethnically diverse society which advocates a ‘salad bowl’ model of integration is preferable to the ‘melting pot’ assimilationist model which preceded it. Multi-culturalism flips E pluribus unum —Latin for “Out of many, one” the 13-letter traditional motto of the United States and adopted by an Act of Congress in 1782 – on its head. Instead of “out of many, one” it advances the idea of “out of one, many.” Amartya Sen described this, in his 2006 book ‘Identity and Violence,’ as ‘plural mono-culturalism.’ The best description of the internal logic of multi-culturalism played out in the real world that exists.
All politics is identity politics? The Alt-Right WHOLEHEARTEDLY agree with this seemingly PROGRESSIVE sentiment. 100% agreement.
So how do we get ourselves out of this mess? Well, the asymmetric identity politics and the asymmetric multi-culturalism (Eric Kauffman coinage in his 2004 book ‘The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America) of the so-called ‘progressive’ left – you can have any identity you want as long as it isn’t white, male, cis-hetero or English
is fuelling the reactionary fire on the right and not just the extremist fringe that exists primarily online - which we refer to (euphemistically) as the ‘alt-right’ (an explicitly racist and neo-Fascist movement) but also the much more more coded ethno-cultural appeal of right-wing populism which has grown and grown in popularity across the world since the turn of this century.
The fundamental asymmetry of identity politics/multi-culturalism is helping to fuel a backlash against post-1989 liberal triumphalism and the hyper-globalisation which has accompanied it – the putative ‘end of history’ proving to be a chimera – a backlash in the form of a right-wing version of populism that is increasingly serving as an alternative to the hegemonic ‘progressive’ liberalism which had previously prevailed in the 1990/2000s in many Western countries.
Libertarianism, largely (albeit not solely) via the thought of Murray Rothbard in particular, has embraced a right-wing version of populism which (as Cas Mudde’s tweeted definition above demonstrates) is ironically a class-based analysis of society.
This is ironic because libertarianism formed largely as a reaction to Marxism – Adam Smith, as even Murray Rothbard conceded (he basically called him a proto-Marxist!!) was categorically NOT a libertarian – and Marxism is based upon, you guessed it, a class-based analysis of society.
This form of populist libertarianism is Marxian rather than Marxist. It differs from the materialist/economic analysis of Marxism in one rather important aspect: it posits that the ‘corrupt elite’ in question is fundamentally a cultural elite.
Right-wing populism is therefore, in many respects, like a form of Marxism which has been flipped on its head. A useful way of selling economic libertarianism to non-university educated, white, male, cis-hetero, blue-collar, WWC voters – who are the ‘metropolitan liberal elite,’ that bete noire of right-wing populists everywhere, but an updated version of the old Marxist enemy of the bourgeoisie? – via the milking of their cultural resentments. Targeting a demographic who have no status in the modern iteration of left-wing/liberal/progressive politics which has embraced asymmetric plural mono-culturalism, segregationist identity politics and post-industrial hyper-globalisation.
The way out of this mess is therefore to identify what is fuelling this backlash first of all (which I have tried to do in this blog and in previous blogs here and also here) and then to STOP fuelling it. Unfortunately, far too often, the only critique of asymmetric identity politics/multi-culturalism is coming from a form of populist libertarianism which too often serves as a pathway/gateway drug to radicalisation i.e the Alt-Right. What is needed is more people on the liberal-left and the liberal-right to join forces, as it were, in this critique to serve as a pathway towards democratic/parliamentary socialism, liberalism and conservatism but NOT fascism (the alt-right.) Thankfully, this has started in the last few years but so far it is a trickle rather than a flood.
In the political sphere disparate figures like John Denham in the United Kingdom and Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany have recognised the dangers of current trends and the huge importance of cultural status in regards to the ‘selling’ of the left-wing/liberal/progressive political ‘product.’ Which is why we have the English Labour Network and now the Aufstehen. The common denominator being that the progressive/liberal-left desperately needs to find a place for localism in its politics to complement its commitment to Enlightenment universalism and to not see one necessarily as a contradiction of the other.
The ‘open v closed’ dichotomy which now dominates thinking on the liberal-left and even on the liberal-right is a false dichotomy which too often results in the knee-jerk demonisation of particularistic attachments – an openly patriotic standpoint and/or an advocation of immigration restrictionism is too easily dismissed as ‘nativist’ and therefore ‘crypto-Fascist’ - which is self-defeating and counter-productive in terms of building a broad-church political coalition. Communitarians have always understood that the route to the universal is via the particular. We need that insight now more than ever.