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By J.T. Stokes
For the past year I have been fascinated with the progressive left’s most versatile enemy to date – the Alt-Right.
This fascination stemmed from two main sources. Firstly, from an earnest academic interest in the nature and dynamics of digital communities. And secondly, from an aesthetic interest in internet anonymity and its potential to produce colourful alternative movements – both in art and politics.
There was one issue, of course: it was hard – and remains hard – to operationalise and measure concepts in this new wave of cyber-social phenomena. The tools of political science cannot poke and prod at the internals of these virtual worlds; too much happens and it happens too fast. The dizzying growth of online movements, memes, and e-memories humbles the ego of conventional social science.
But I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand what made these people tick, where they wanted to go – what they wanted to do.
So I went native. I immersed myself in their communities. I learnt their language. I watched, read, listened to their caustic media. I winced and groaned and shuddered my way through the most stark and naked misogyny and racism I had ever encountered. And after a year, I finally put my finger on exactly what the Alt-right is, where it comes from, and what it represents.
Hear me out, because it’s going to sound more than a bit bizarre: the alt-right has been completely misunderstood. The core of its nature, properly understood, is that of a modern-day cult of death: a faceless memetic force guided by the teachings of an unspoken worldview of destruction that has emerged from anti-globalist, racialist, and militantly-sexist rhetoric. It champions an implicit eschatology that preaches the coming of an apocalyptic holy war between Righteous Christianity and a coalition of global elites, ‘international Jewry’, and the world’s racially and spiritually inferior cultures. United by a shared chaos-lust, the Alt-Right preach an ethnocentric cosmology that serves as a call to arms for an existentially-threatened White Race.
Absurd? That’s not the half of it. I’ve not even mentioned their Frog God yet…
The prevailing narrative – in the media at least – is that the “Alt Right” and its members are simply the digital, decentralised continuation of white supremacist and neo-Nazi movements that have bubbled under the surface of American society for the past century. This account, however, does not track the true genesis of the movement. The actual ideological and structural roots of the alt-right can be traced to two distinct threads of alternative, ‘outsider’ right-wing thought: paleoconservatism and the European New Right.
The former camp – paleoconservatism – solidified in the neoliberal age. As communism fell, the grand coalition of the American right-wing fell with it. Minus a common enemy, the various strands of “fusionist” conservatism pulled apart. Neoconservatives – with their hawkish foreign policy, embracement of globalism, and staunch Zionism – became the ruling faction of the American Right. Opposed to them were the Paleoconservatives: ideological descendants of European Christian Culture. Their anti-Zionist, anti-globalist, and social conservative beliefs resonated with much of rural white America. Popular support was significant. But elite support was all but non-existent. A global war on terror, relative financial stability, and an increasingly confident and influential progressive centre-ground doomed paleoconservatism to electoral insignificance; the steady neo-liberal coup had rendered traditional American rightism an ideological non-starter.
Parallel to this very American conservatism was a current of European New Rightism. If the Alt-Right is mothered by a paleoconservative rejection of globalism, it is fathered by the racial and sexist scientism of the European New Right. The ‘Nouvelle Droite’ arose in late 1960s France in opposition to decolonisation and multiculturalism, soon spreading to the rest of Europe. With shades of fascism mixed with an imaginative reworking of class warfare, the dark logic of the movement lends a rationality to the rejection of progressive social democracy. And it is from here that the alt-right gets its real venom, inheriting a superficial credibility and deference to minimally-acceptable enlightenment ideals.
It is in this lineage of electoral irrelevance and hyper-rational scientific racism that a significant element of the Alt-Right’s character was formed. Whilst paleoconservatism and the European New Right lacked the causal efficacy to change institutions directly, they maintained significant intellectual and cultural capital. Their message still resonated with alienated indigenous populations – and intellectuals who rejected the normative claims of the progressive left. The status of being outsiders only further convinced these ‘alternative right’ movements that their focus and energy should be on changing the narrative at the metapolitical level – at the level of ideology. The seeds of a cultural war had been sewn.
Ideology, of course, can only manifest – and be made coherent – within history. The first actual articulations of an “alternative right” emerged post-crash from a muddled and imprecise reaction against globalism. Richard Spencer – now infamous for being publicly punched in the face by anti-fascists – is considered the originator of the term “alternative right”, utilising inherent counterculture rhetoric to form a new “radical traditionalism”. Quickly, a new identity grew. Publications were formed, think tanks emerged; the outcasts of the right – national-anarchists, dissident intellectuals, and even black conservatives – soon levied this collective instrumentation. Growth was rapid, and a new big-tent framework was laid, offering an alternative to identity politics and the neo-liberal consensus.
In time, however, Spencer seemed to grow disillusioned with the very movement he’d birthed. He disowned the broad appeal of the alt-right in favour of a more explicit white supremacist ideology. The power vacuum he left was immense in more than one way; no one individual could ever be charismatic enough, and seemingly sadomasochistic enough, to carry a flag stained by thinly-veiled anti-semitism, racism, and sexism. No one individual could bear the shrill weight of going against the mainstream progressive consensus.
And it is precisely because of this that the unique dynamic of alt-right leadership was formed. The burden of leadership quickly became decentralised. Writers, bloggers, and online activists used anonymity and digital self-havens to reconstruct the groundwork laid by Spencer and the original “Alt-Right”. No one individual dictated or guided consensus. In a free-flowing fashion, white and civic nationalist ideas diffused through the lawless zones of the internet – 4chan, 8chan, various Reddit sub-communities – and were mutually reinforced and given legitimacy by new, more savoury alt-right publications. By the latter stages of 2014, the alt-right had settled on a sustainable structure: the public face of the movement would draw from the more extreme communities, sanitising their message for the masses, and deploying them into the public sphere through digital guerrilla marketing. This symbiotic relationship was one of effective cooperation between zealots and pragmatists who fundamentally were ideologically indistinguishable – the pact was just never publicly acknowledged.
This coming of age of the alt-Right was marked by a conscious break from conventional neo-Nazi and white supremacist thought – as well as from individuals who dipped into and out of alt-right ideology whenever it suited their own personal (financial) agenda. The collective hive-mind of the alt-right rejected these individuals not just on an ideological basis – but on the basis of public methodology. The goose-stepping Spencer and the flamboyantly gay Milo Yiannopoulos simply weren’t effective weapons to awaken the masses; they were absurd caricatures, living strawmen. They were a danger to what the alt-right perceived to be a sombre system of beliefs.
We have a cause, we have agents – so what of the instruments of the Alt-Right? This is where things become a little more puzzling and fuzzy. It is relatively easy to see the historical lineage of the movement – but it is a much more difficult task to get a conceptual grip on their allusive strategies.
The community employs an almost esoteric language, intuitive to a post-millennial internet, which makes outside understanding complicated. There is no handbook – no field guide – for new members of the movement. Rather, through gradual memetic osmosis, individuals became “red-pilled” by communal rhetoric. Self-proclaimed elders would produce and repost infographics and memes exposing a global Jewish conspiracy to annihilate the white race through a gradual degradation of sexual morals, an economic and cultural assault on the traditional nuclear family, and through political multiculturalism.
The sheer incredibility of these beliefs meant an alternative approach was required to get the message to the masses. Thus, an alt-right art of war was written, preaching the effectiveness of persistent and widespread deployment of brutal memetic combat. Leveraging the immense power and reach of ideas in and of themselves, memes expressing the alt-right narrative flooded the internet in late 2015 through 2016. Reddit’s “The_Donald” and 4chan’s “Politically incorrect” (“/pol/”) were the ideological barracks where a non-stop assault against the mainstream media, Hillary Clinton, and the global elite was formed. Even these communities were amazed at the success of their methodology. The conventional media – with its slow, cumbersome bureaucracy and non-dynamic platform – were simply outmuscled by the sheer quantity of pro-Trump memes, and by the surprising quality and coherency of this new anti-progressive narrative. It’s cliché, but ideas are more than a little bit difficult to fight – and nothing showcases the tactical edge of ideas more than what the alt-right romantically refer to as “The Great Meme War”.
It is the pivotal role of 4chan and other anonymous message boards that highlights the elephant in the room: the actual heavy-lifting of the movement is almost exclusively done by a social niche of alienated, sexually disenfranchised young males. These are individuals who feel their masculinity has been unjustifiably neutered by progressive politics; they feel that global economics, media, and academia is against them and their very identity as men. In almost messianic fashion, these individuals convince themselves that they are the true heirs to the white, morally-righteous West.
Fundamentally then, these online communities are formed from male tribalism – as a communal reaction against organised feminism. An initial sexual frustration draws young men to anti-Semitism, scientific racism, and anti-globalism: it is these factors, combined into a single alternative history, that makes legitimate their deep-rooted social-sexual frustration. The public face of the movement is much more measured, much more sensible. But the alt-right engine is still ultimately driven by the raw rage of men who feel the progressive world is against their very existence.
All this can be still be gleamed from a superficial look at the movement. But going native brought me to a much darker, more malevolent understanding of the group. For here is the rub: there is an emergent cosmology to the alt-right above and beyond the conventional claims of traditionalism. From the social and political flux they draw an ultimate narrative. And taking this narrative to its logical end, the collective subconsciousness of the Alt-Right conclude that the struggle of the white race against global degeneracy must necessarily end in an apocalyptic ‘last-stand’.
This implicit anticipation of doomsday seeps from ideas to practice. Spurred by this eschatology, the alt-right dabbles in the occult; whimsically proclaiming the existence of “meme magic”, playfully pointing out the hidden explanatory power of numerology. The Egyptian God of Chaos – Kek – is appropriated as the movements semi-satirical God of memes; Pepe the Frog is this God’s manifestation in the information age.
All in jest? It almost certainly started this way. 4chan especially was built on trolling – on causing chaos for the sake of hilarity. But the feeling cannot be shaken that an absurd seriousness has crept in. A deterministic gloom has been adopted by the internet’s original pranksters. Suddenly, society’s outcasts found themselves in the midst of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil.
Here things get a little crazy. Real individuals have espoused eerily similar beliefs. Specifically, the worldviews of Steve Bannon and Russian academic and political advisor Alexander Dugin are held up as prophecy. These individuals are the real kingmakers, manoeuvring a series of social and political chess pieces for a final war against global elites and their progressive instrumentation.
Absurd? To us, yes. But it is all internally coherent. Like the class in a Marxist view of history, the Alt-right manages to fit snuggly any observation into their historicism. The rapturous thrust of their apocalyptic expectation is reinforced by their every waking moment. Calling them anything less than a death cult ignores their support – explicit and implicit – for real life politics that espouses real destructive aims.
There were times where I genuinely found myself agreeing in part with what they were saying. I agree that corporatist globalism is a malevolent force in the world. I agree that contemporary society exhibits frightening pathologies of alienation and self-mutilation – and I further agree that these pathologies will inevitably get more extreme, more intense, more destructive until something gives. But ultimately, my views on race, gender, sexuality were already set in stone; I was still fundamentally at odds with their worldview, despite seeing many of the same problems in the world and the human condition.
I have taken one tangible moral from all this. In many ways, the progressive left is a victim of its own success. The rapid violence levied against patriarchal norms of gender, sexuality, and family in the past few decades has been dealt at such an unfathomable pace that considerable sections of society have been unable to adapt. For all the glory of the onward march towards equality, a number of individuals – the majority men – have failed to be swept up in the ecstasy of liberation. And those wedded within the internet’s darker depths have found a new tribe, a new ideology, a new means of collective being; a new counter-culture for generation Z.
I wish I had space to say more. There is much still to discuss – the quasi-institutionalisation of alt-right ideology through Trump, the movement’s involvement in civilian investigative journalism; books can and will be written on these subjects. But if there is anything to take from this brief discussion, it should be this: the Alt-right looms above us as a natural reaction to Western progressiveness. Within the solace of the internet, individuals have had the intellectual space to develop a coherent, expansive world-view which yearns for natural order through chaos, spiritual liberation through destruction.
A coalition of internet all-sorts are leading the final stand of traditionalism – and don’t doubt for a second that they won’t happily make a meme of the end of the world.