Every activist political movement eventually becomes a caricature of itself. This is certainly true of the so-called alt-right that blasted onto the cultural stage with its “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Part 2 in Washington, D.C., is revealing the irony. The lasting effect of this movement has been to unite the left. And not just the left: it is uniting most normal people who want to live a regular life, get along with others, and reduce the polarizing effects of politics in our times.
Writing about this subject a year after my book came out always leads people to tell me that the alt-right is dead. I won this. I should stop writing about the issue.
There is truth to this but it is mostly a superficial observation. Yes, the formal movement called the alt-right has become a caricature of itself, one particularly useful to the left-socialists who need an enemy and a threat to scare everyone about the coming dystopia.
What’s not dead, and has been a problem for 200 years, and which is still not understood, is the philosophical outlook that motivated the rise of the alt-right in the first place. It is more properly called Right Hegelianism.
Hegelianism (which split into left and right branches) was born in Germany in the early years of the 19th century as a reaction to the rise of liberalism in Europe and the world. This new movement rejected the core claim of liberalism that society can regulate itself and that individuals should be free to live good lives, believe what they want, say and print whatever they desire, and trade with anyone, so long as they didn’t hurt people.
Frederic Bastiat summed up the liberal view in the phrase “social harmony.” People figure out how to get along and build great things together so long as they are left alone by state authority. That was the liberal idea and it unleashed wealth creation and peace on the world, built the middle class, dramatically expanded living spans and population, and transformed life on earth. It gave birth to the idea of progress and eventually spread the idea of equal freedom for everyone: no more slavery, no more legal impediments to trade and association, universal rights to everyone, diplomacy instead of war, and free trade between all peoples.
Conflict Not Harmony
Hegelianism posited something very different. The social order cannot be left to the devices of Individual choice; it must acquiesce to forces of history that are more powerful than the randomness of human volition. These historical forces are the major player in revealing intractable conflict alive in the world. What is this conflict? Over many decades and centuries, the narrative would change. The struggle could be between classes, nations, languages, religions, sexes, mental abilities – really you can take your pick depending on the time and place. The agent that would harness the conflict and make it right would be the state.
There were two broad political branches of Hegelianism that became instantiated in Marxism and Nazism but this was much later. In the intervening years, each side built its intellectual edifice brick by brick. Left Hegelianism took on many iterations before the Bolshevik variety finally achieved victory. Right Hegelianism began with the idea that history would culminate in total authority being granted unto the Prussian state and church, but it later became the animating force behind nationalism and bourgeoise statism in general.
The right Hegelian rogues gallery is huge. It involves protectionist Friedrich List, great-man theorist Thomas Carlyle, the luddite John Ruskin, the reactionary faux-aristocrat Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the race theorist Frederick Hoffman, the Darwin preservationist Madison Grant, the eugenicist Charles Davenport, the IQ theorist Henry Goddard, the communist turned Nazi philosopher Werner Sombart, the officious puritan misogynist Edward A. Ross, the brooding historicist Oswald Spengler, the anti-Semitic poet Ezra Pound, the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, the radio populist priest Charles Edward Coughlin, the pretend-baron and violence lover Julius Caesar Evola, the jailed whacko Francis Parker Yockey who influence postwar rightists, and so many more.
What They Believe
Read enough of this material and you begin to notice certain themes. Yes, anti-liberalism unites them in every way but what about their positive agenda?
First, they reject social harmony in favor of the friend/enemy distinction, which they believe brings essential drama to the course of what would otherwise be a boring life. There must be struggles. There must be battles. There must be war and violence. To take part is what gives life meaning.
Second, they believe in the centrality of nationhood over the individual, and this takes many forms depending on how one defines the nation. The nation can be based on race, geography, language, religion, or dynasty, or some combination thereof. Whatever it is, it is not for you to choose. It certainly isn’t an affair of the heart. This is terrain in which identity politics takes hold.
Third, trade protectionism is central because the things we use and the services we consume need to reinforce our attachment to nationhood. Free trade is too random to tolerate. Plus free trade lessens our attachment to the leader.
Which leads to, fourth, the leadership principle. The leader must be strong and compel assent. He is the central organizer whether in peace or war. He embodies the nation, instantiating the will of the people and their national identity. He must have a great story of overcoming every obstacle to triumph over all.
Fifth, an essential part of the right Hegelian vision is rooted in demographic panic and opposition to the randomness of human reproduction. For them, there is always some crisis going on beyond our immediate control. The white race is disappearing. Christianity is dying. English is no longer normative. Manhood is disappearing. Nothing is made in America anymore. The wrong people are getting rich. The Jews are taking over. And so on. The presence of crisis necessitates panic that leads people to surrender control of their lives to some external savior.
Ideas Not Marches
It’s a mistake to think that the fate of the alt-right is bound up with public perceptions toward clownish marchers at some rally where people are waving flags and shouting threatening slogans. The real problem is the underlying philosophy that regards peace as a threat, prosperity as deracinating, and freedom itself as nihilistic chaos that cries out to be replaced by dictatorship, law, and imposed order.
That philosophy is still with us, and it triggers the rise of left Hegelianism, which is another problem to address on another day.