Adam Smith to Richard Spencer: Why Libertarians turn to the Alt-Right
If you’ve paid attention to politics on the internet as long as I have, you might have noticed a worrying and confusing trend: traditionally libertarian figures transitioning into alt-right supporters. I’ve followed the ‘classical liberal’ faction of the internet since about 2014, the year I started becoming interested in politics. I was watching Christopher Cantwell before he became known as the ‘crying Nazi’, when his chant was ‘taxation is theft’, not ‘Jews will not replace us’. I remember Stefan Molyneux when he was debating whether we should have a government, not whether government should be used to promote eugenics.
This fascinating transition from the libertarian right to the authoritarian right has been mirrored in just about every single alt-right figurehead. Think Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Alex Jones, and Tim Gionet (known as ‘Baked Alaska’). The latter used to identify as “a carefree, easygoing libertarian” who “firmly opposed the war on drugs, and championed the cause of Black Lives Matter”. But now, he’s being banned from Twitter for promoting white supremacy and ranting about how Jews control the media. The creator of the Right Stuff, a Neo-Nazi blog that hosts such unsavoury podcasts as the ‘Daily Shoah’ openly acknowledges this, saying “We were all libertarians back in the day. I mean, everybody knows this.” Jeffrey Tucker wrote “They’re doing to libertarianism what they did to Pepe the frog, or Taylor Swift — to co-opt it. They know that no normal American is going to rally around the Nazi flag, so they’re taking ours.” But what exactly makes these people so vulnerable to conversion to the alt-right?
“We were all libertarians back in the day. I mean, everybody knows this”
To understand why libertarians are so susceptible to white supremacist ideas, we have to look at the history of it, specifically within the United States. The fact is that libertarianism has always been a refuge of racism and implicit support for authoritarianism, despite direct contradiction to their supposed ideology. Throughout history, the men who are considered the cornerstone of the right libertarian philosophy supported brutal dictators. Look at Mises’ support of Mussolini, or Hayek and Friedman’s backing of Pinochet. It is clear that the these people have always been willing to put aside ideology for what they see as an end that justifies the means, even in such morally abhorrent cases as supporting Apartheid in South Africa or the Confederacy under the pretence of ‘states rights’. This lingering white supremacy in the libertarian movement carried on beyond the mid twentieth century, into the ideologies of Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell. Rothbard himself wrote that “The proper strategy of libertarians and paleos is a strategy of ‘right-wing populism” Essentially, that means appealing to the racism held within the right of American society (not dissimilar to what we see in Donald Trump).
We can see this again, with strands of white supremacy throughout Ron Paul’s two presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012, perhaps the clearest place where internet libertarianism flourished. Paul was the favoured presidential candidate by libertarians, and if you spent a lot of time on websites such as Reddit in 2012, you almost certainly saw massive amounts of support for him. Of course, while not everyone who supported Ron Paul was a racist, he was surrounded by racists and they had a strong place in his campaign, including future alt-right leader Richard Spencer. But it wasn’t until the collapse of New Atheism that right libertarianism would reach the peak of its internet success.
New Atheism was the primary shelter for teenage white middle-class men around 2010 (and I’m ashamed to confess I was one of them). Reddit was originally one of the biggest places on the internet for New Atheism, with /r/Atheism being one of the biggest subreddits on the site. Over time, it transitioned from hating religion to hating ‘Social Justice Warriors’, supporting Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, and fighting for libertarian issues like legalisation of marijuana. Just as we can draw a direct line between Right Libertarianism and White Supremacy, we can do the same with New Atheism and the Libertarian movement. We just need to look to YouTube to see that ‘rational skeptics’, like TheAmazingAtheist or Sargon of Akkad, transitioned from New Atheism to Classical Liberalism to the Alt-Right (here’s an interesting inside perspective on that here). All of these communities carried over a similar audience, the previously mentioned white middle-class demographic, mainly on platforms such as YouTube or Reddit. Indeed, it could be argued that part of what made New Atheism so popular among this demographic was not only the counter-culture rebellion against traditional societal values, but strands of islamophobia. Obviously, both of these traits are core components of the alt-right. So, with the transition from New Atheism to right libertarianism, the alt-right had a clear target for conversion and recruitment.
“The YouTubers had to give their audience something else besides religion to fight because it became boring, and so what they chose was Social Justice Warriors and feminists”
As hinted at by its historical development, libertarianism is particularly appealing to white middle class men. It seems fairly obvious why; this group is perhaps the most privileged in our society, and sees little reason for a change in the societal order in place. Similarly, the alt-right and all levels of far-right politics hold exactly the same goal, though admittedly they aim to achieve them through different means. But when the advantages start to erode, that’s when they are forced to turn to more reactionary, authoritarian ideologies. Immigration is an ideal example for this, since under a libertarian ideology, immigration should not be restricted in any way. Borders are one of the major constructs of the state, and we shouldn’t be restricting the right of people to choose where they live. However, if you actually talk to libertarians, very often you’ll find that they are far more against immigration than their supposed ideology would suggest. The same rhetoric around the ‘undeserving poor’ is used both towards people on welfare, and immigrants who are apparently coming to live on welfare. This is also due to the idea that immigrants will vote for left-wing parties more (which they do), and then lead to a stronger welfare state. Time and time again, libertarians have shown to be willing to abandon what they would claim as their core principles to uphold the societal order, which places them at the top.
To understand this fully, I think it’s essential to separate the similarities between the alt-right and libertarianism into two categories; the emotional aspect and the ideological aspect. The emotional similarities between the two groups allows libertarians to become sympathetic to the alt-right, then the ideological aspect allows them to become fully integrated.
The emotional similarities of these two groups can best be understood as the language and attitudes that they both share. To begin, both groups are primarily opposed to the same thing: Social justice. When watching a libertarian and a neo-fascist complain about feminism, it’s almost impossible to tell the two apart. It’s very rare to see a classical liberal attacking the alt-right or racists, instead feeling far more comfortable targeting the left. Both use the same language and buzzwords, with words like SJWs and western values constantly being tossed around in both spheres. This makes it incredibly easy for the alt-right to reach out to libertarians; they’re both already literally speaking the same language. Socialists control the media? Swap ‘Socialists’ out for ‘Cultural Marxists’ and you’re halfway to becoming the new Richard Spencer. Hillary Clinton was clearly the social justice candidate in 2016, and Trump was against it. If you’re somebody who bases their entire ideology around opposing social justice, you’re going to be drawn towards the candidate who describes Neo-Nazis as ‘very fine people’.
The rhetoric that libertarians consume acts as a lubricant for transitioning to the alt-right, especially around free speech. The concept of free speech is held in such high regard in libertarian circles, that when a leftist suggests that giving Nazis a chance to advocate for genocide isn’t a good idea, the libertarian is forced to defend the Nazi so as to stand up for their ideas. Obviously, the alt-right aims to limit free speech when they eventually come to power, but since they are yet to achieve power, they just don’t mention it. Instead, they absorb free speech as a rally cry, using it as a method for advocating their ideas. This links to the broader problem of the alt-right, that since they have yet to come to power, they’re able to hide some of their ideology that would be most disturbing to libertarians, such as anti-drug policies and mass surveillance. Instead, they’re concerned with free speech, immigration, and progressivism.
We should also discuss the failings of the left here, as much as I am reluctant to do so. Quite frankly, the left is pretty terrible at explaining its ideas. I’m a Marxist, but if I started talking to a libertarian and using words like Proletariat and Leninism, they would bolt back to their reactionary ideology straightaway. The left just isn’t as accessible as the alt-right is to them. Libertarians are also easily pushed to more authoritarian ideas by groups such as antifa, who they see as a threat to them due to the absurd myth that antifa attacks anyone right of centre. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to crush fascists, it just means we have to accept we’re going to scare away some libertarians in the meantime. We also have to acknowledge that capitalists will always side with the far right over the far left. Historically, when faced with a choice between the two, the capitalist will side with the fascist. Now is no different. In this time of extreme polarisation, we’re seeing reactionaries flocking to the side they are closest to. Private property is perhaps the strongest libertarian principle, above any other, and socialists are the ones who want to abolish it, not fascists.
We can also simply examine the personalities of libertarians. David Boaz explains this best, saying that “Some people may become libertarians because they’re angry. For a while, it’s enough to be angry at the government. But ultimately libertarianism is about peaceful cooperation―markets, civil society, global trade, peace―so it just isn’t angry enough for some people. Racial intolerance is a way to be angry at the whole world.” However, I’d like to offer another explanation. It’s not just anger that draws people to libertarianism, it’s contrarianism. Libertarianism has traditionally been a way for young middle-class teenagers to be nonconforming to both the left and right wings. They get to argue with their peers about social justice, while rebelling against their parents by advocating cannabis legalisation. It’s very easy to see the appeal of such an ideology if you just want to argue and hold provocative views. However, this means it’s very easy for libertarians to end up defending the ideologies of some of the worst groups out there, in their attempt to constantly shock, namely fascism.
“Libertarianism is about peaceful cooperation―markets, civil society, global trade, peace―so it just isn’t angry enough for some people.”
I’ve already covered a lot of the ideological similarities previously in the article, but there’s a few more that are important to mention. First of all, we can look at the fact that right wing politics in the western world is fundamentally rooted in the imagined idea of decline, the notion that our society is being slowly ruined, and all that used to be good about it is being removed. This is a firm belief of both groups, with libertarians citing the days of smaller government, and the alt-right advocating for a return to the subjugation of women and immigrants. To a libertarian, the narrative of a nation of takers destroying our society has become less and less feasible as the welfare state has slowly been stripped away, and they continue to elect right-wing politicians who deprive the poorest in our society of basic rights. Instead, they turn to the alt-right, who offer a message of diversity and liberalism as the scapegoat for our society’s deterioration. The alt-right offers a message not of independence, but of victory over the left and social justice, which is seen as more compelling. This links back to the point of libertarian attitudes to immigration, but also to the New Atheist ideas of ‘western culture’ being superior to that of ‘Islamic culture’. These prejudices are deeply rooted in the average libertarian’s mindset, and they are easy to exploit.
In both the libertarian and authoritarian right, you have a strong appreciation of ideas of strength. Unemployed people are characterised as stupid, lazy, or weak. If someone is being exploited by their employer, they should just deal with it and continue to work 60 hours a week. If you’re someone who suffers from institutional racism, you should just ignore it. You can see how easily this would transition into the alt-right. Furthermore, both base their foreign policy in ideas of isolationism, and it’s very easy to rally against the Military Industrial Complex in the USA. There’s also the possibility that white supremacists were drawn to the libertarian movement in the first place, simply because if you believe the government is a Jewish plot to wipe out white people, you’re going to advocate for it to become smaller. As for their views on free trade shifting radically towards protectionism, it seems to me that most were never that passionate about defending it. Instead, they view the global economy as a large threat to white identity, since lost economic ground to Mexican and Chinese workers impacts white workers. Ideas around positive discrimination (or affirmative action) are also fairly central to both philosophies, with both viewing it as deeply unfair. This can be an easy way for the alt-right to convince libertarians that ethnic minorities have it easier than whites, and that whites need defending. Freedom of association is yet another core principle of their ideology, and this can easily be extended to discriminating against ethnic minorities. If you seriously believe that businesses should be allowed to refuse service to black or gay people, you’re going to be arguing on the same side as racists. I’m reluctant to listen to these people, since the claimed reasons for their conversion they give are almost always propaganda, but I think the argument around freedom of association is supported here, with ‘crying Nazi’ Christopher Cantwell writing:
“In libertarian philosophy, nobody ought to be compelled to associate with anyone else. If blacks are committing crimes, or Jews are spreading communism, discriminating against them is the right of any property owner.”
This is the part where I should give some kind of advice, explaining exactly how we stop the alt-right targeting libertarians and converting them. The truth is, I don’t know how, and the most interesting part is I don’t really think it matters that I don’t know how. The libertarian movement is essentially dead at this point, with all its major figureheads supporting Donald Trump, and at least embracing parts of a crypto-fascist ideology. There’s really not many people left for us to ‘save’ from the clutches of the alt-right. Instead, we just have to focus on preventing the alt-right from becoming more powerful.That question is for far smarter people than me to figure out, and that’s a different article for another time.
All we can do is make sure this doesn’t happen again. If the libertarian movement does ever seriously resurge, (politics is cyclical, after all) then we have to prevent them from falling for the same tricks that they fell for this time. It seems to me that any right wing ideology is inherently susceptible to far right authoritarian conversion, so maybe this is supposed to be some overarching point about how all right wing ideologies are evil and we need to fight them as a united left. I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that the transition from libertarian to authoritarian seemed pretty much inevitable for the right.