It is a TV/Movie cliché: the wall covered with pictures, maps, documents all connected with string or yarn, usually red (so it shows up on camera I suppose) to signal that something big is going on. TV Tropes call the cliché “String Theory.” There are usually two situations where we see such walls depicted. The first is the detective drama: it is posted on a whiteboard in the middle of the squad room so our characters can stand around it do some plot exposition. Another detective drama trope is when our hero has been taken off the case by the captain because he’s gone rogue one too many times. Our detective goes home and, to the surprise of no one, there is a wall covered with all the clues connected with the obligatory red yarn.
The other situation is more ominous. The wall is being constructed by the bad guy. Maybe a serial killer, maybe someone who has lost control of their faculties. String theory has now been transformed into a “Crazy Wall” Crazy walls are usually signs of conspiratorial thinking. Someone who is convinced that some evil person or group is control of the whole situation and must be unmasked. Someone who thinks the world is controlled by Colonel Sanders and his friends. The Crazy Wall signals to the audience that there is an unbalanced mind at work:
The trick for the audience is to try to figure out if the character is onto something or has gone off the deep end.
The Crazy Wall has always annoyed me as a lazy bit of writing. Maybe it is because I’m not a very visual thinker, but I’ve never understood how the wall was supposed to help the character figure things out. Maybe it is because I’m not very crafty and I could never figure out how that yarn always looked so tidy. And you can forget about your damage deposit what with all those thumbtack holes in the wall.
So I never saw the use of such a wall. Naturally, now I’m working on a Crazy Wall of the Alt Right.
Now, look, I’m not crazy…. (something, I realize, is usually only said by a crazy person) but there is a method to my, uh, madness. The question I face is how to characterize the historical actors I’m writing about?In broad terms, I’m interested in tracing connections between the libertarian right and the antisemitic/segregationist right. How should I characterize the groupings I find? I’ve always been more of a lumper than a splitter in most of my work, and really do believe that big buckets are better than tiny cups.
The biggest bucket is to write about “neoliberalism” a capacious term that denotes an ideology that “denotes a preference for markets over government, economic incentives over social or cultural norms, and private entrepreneurship over collective or community action.” Quinn Slobodian‘s recent book, The Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism in an excellent of example of the history of this broad, trans-Atlantic movement. You should buy it and read it.
As important and useful as such work is, I can’t really use it to organize my project. For one thing, the term is highly contested, and I’m not interested in trying to sort that contest out. For another, lumper I may be, but any term that can be applied to both Reagan and Clinton does not make enough distinctions to isolate the folks I’m interested in. This is not to deny the value of the term or the work of those who explore its history it is just that for my purposes the term doesn’t seem to do useful work.
The other potential problem with the term “neoliberalism” is it tends to be an analytical category imposed on historical actors who would not use that term to describe themselves. It isn’t like there is a some letter between Mises and Hayek where Mises asks, “How’s the neoliberalism coming along? Everything running smoothly?” No one ever listed “neoliberal” on their tax return. There are historical purists who would say that the historian should never impose a term or idea on the past that did not exist in the past. As it happens, I am not that pure. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 1924 as the earliest use of the word “racist” but I have no problem describing Madison Grant as a racist for his 1916 book, Passing of the Great Race. Historians have to balance their obligation to describe the past in its own terms with their interpretive task of making sense of the past for a present-day audience. Sometimes imposing a term on historical actors that they would not themselves recognize is a legitimate form of interpretation.
There are ways to describe and interpret the past that uses the terms and categories of the past itself. But that runs into problems too. Angus Burgin in his The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression uses the Mont Pèlerin Society to bring focus to a group that otherwise has no adequate name:
As will become apparent, in the interwar and early postwar years “neoliberalism” held a valence, on the rare occasions when the term was employed, that diverged significantly from that associated with it today. The word “libertarian” was unfamiliar to most members of the society and was only infrequently used. The society’s members were almost unanimous in their rejection of “conservatism,” which they associated with the preservation of a status quo that they sought to overcome. “Traditionalism” and “neoconservatism” were to emerge as political signifiers only in an unforeseeable future. Occasional attempts to rehabilitate the concept of “Whiggism” were impaired by its archaic undertones. And the word “liberal” — otherwise a favorite — had been irrevocably altered by its increasing association with a progressive worldview. It is sometimes possible to use these terms without distorting their contemporary valences: most of the early members of the Mont Pèlerin Society believed that they were reconsidering the foundations of liberalism in order to prevent its further decline, and free- market economists became active participants in a world of conservative publications, policy makers, and advocacy groups in the postwar United States. (p.10)
Small wonder that Philip Mirowski called this “The Political Movement that Dared not Speak its own Name.” He names this diverse group a “thought collective” which will do as a placeholder if nothing else. It sure beats playing a game of “no true libertarian” with the libertarians. Which brings us back to my Crazy Wall Social Network Analysis. Right now, I’m more interested in connections between historical figures than I am with labeling who belongs in what right-wing box. If I begin muttering about strawberries and a separate key to the wardroom, you kind people might want to stage an intervention before I steam over my own tow line.
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Originally published at altrightorigins.com on April 28, 2018.