Who or what is the “alt-right”? Answer to that very soon, but to the delight of that antediluvian bunch of self-described white nationalists previously confined to the more fetid parts of the internet, the Republican nominee has been forthrightly spreading their memes [read here for background] and in a major speech last week the Democratic nominee has now put them firmly on the map.
Clinton’s attack on this movement she says has “taken over” the Republican Party is “in no small part part, aimed at telling moderate Republican voters and GOP-leaning independents that their values aren’t truly represented by the nightmare ideology otherwise known as Trumpism.”
He may be the GOP nominee, but he has perverted and distorted Republicanism into something so twisted and horrifying, so unlike anything else we’ve seen in modern times, that they shouldn’t feel bound by party loyalty or political habit to stand by him.
The attack is calculated to drive a wedge between these traditional Republicans and the candidate and his team whom they would otherwise be beholden to support.
This crowd of racist-right circle-jerkers being attacked however couldn’t care less about political calculations. The only thing for them worse than being calculated about is not being calculated about. So even if they’re being insulted, they’re a happy bunch of Trumpanzees.
Hoping to collect votes from both Republicans and Democrats appalled at their party’s respective nominees is Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, who’s been running a very strong “I’m-the-sane-candidate” strategy against the loony tunes winging their way either side of him.
Confusingly however, many commentators mistake libertarians for these alt-right meatheads focussed on “white identity politics, many nascent libertarians themselves have found themselves seduced by the siren songs, and “more than a few” alt-rightists even claim some relationship to libertarianism – or once had one before sadly shedding their libertarianism later on.
What are the differences in outlook between alt-right ideology and libertarianism? Jeffrey Tucker reckons they come down to five – five different views on history, humanity, order, on trade & migration, and on emancipation & progress:
1. The Driving Force of History
Every ideology has a theory of history, some sense of a driving theme that causes episodic movements from one stage to another. Such a theory helps us make sense of the past, present, and future…
Ayn Rand argued that what drives history most fundamentally is ideas, of which reason and liberty are the most potent, but are by no means inevitable.
There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man’s rational faculty—the power of ideas. If you know a man’s convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man’s choice. There is no fatalistic, predetermined historical necessity.
Libertarian Murray Rothbard reckoned the specifically libertarian story of history is of that liberty against power. “I see the liberty of the individual not only as a great moral good in itself,” he said, “(or, with Lord Acton, as the highest political good), but also as the necessary condition for the flowering of all the other goods that mankind cherishes: moral virtue, civilisation, the arts and sciences, economic prosperity. Out of liberty, then, stem the glories of civilised life.”
The alt-right reject this outright. On the question of liberty versus power, they come down completely on the side of power.
The movement inherits a long and dreary tradition of thought from Friedrich Hegel to Thomas Carlyle to Oswald Spengler to Madison Grantto Othmar Spann to Giovanni Gentile to Trump’s speeches. This tradition sees something else going on in history: not liberty vs. power, but something like a more meta struggle that concerns impersonal collectives of tribe, race, community, great men, and so on.
Whereas libertarianism speaks of individual choice, alt-right theory draws attention to collectives on the move. It imagines that despite appearances, we all default in our thinking back to some more fundamental instinct about our identity as a people, which is either being shored up by a more intense consciousness or eroded by a deracination and dispossession from what defines us. To criticise this as racist is often true but superficial. What’s really going on here is the depersonalisation of history itself: the principle that we are all being buffeted about by Olympian historical forces beyond our control as mere individuals. It takes something mighty and ominous like a great leader, an embodiment of one of these great forces, to make a dent in history’s narrative.
Hence the union of white identity politics (an inversion of the identity politics of their political opponents) and the wistful longing for their “man on horseback” to wall out the barbarian hordes.
2. Harmony vs. Conflict
A related issue concerns our capacity to get along with each other. Frédéric Bastiat described the free society as characterised by a “harmony of interests.” In order to overcome the state of nature, we gradually discover the capacity to find value in each other. The division of labour is the great fact of human community: the labour of each of us becomes more productive in cooperation with others, and this is even, or rather especially, true given the unequal distribution of talents, intelligence, and skills, and differences over religion, belief systems, race, language, and so on.
And truly, this is a beautiful thing to discover. The libertarian marvels at the cooperation we see in a construction project, an office building, a restaurant, a factory, a shopping mall, to say nothing of a city, a country, or a planet. The harmony of interests doesn’t mean that everyone gets along perfectly, but rather than we inhabit institutions that incentivise progress through ever more cooperative behavior. As the liberals of old say, we believe that the “brotherhood of man” is possible.
The libertarian believes that the best and most wonderful social outcomes are not those planned, structured, and anticipated, but rather the opposite.
To the alt-right mind, this all seems ridiculous. Sure, shopping is fine. But what actually characterises human association is deep-rooted conflict. The races are secretly at war, intellectually and genetically. There is an ongoing and perpetual conflict between the sexes. People of different religions must fight and always will, until one wins. Nations fight for a reason: the struggle is real.
The libertarian understands that when force is barred from human interaction and all human interaction is voluntary, that each other individual is a net benefit to us, For the alt-righter however, every other human being is a threat, especially those who are “not like us.”
Hence their inevitable racism, a “barnyard” form of collectivism -- “ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors. Racism;” explains Rand, “claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control.”
Hence for them society is irretrievably divided “vertically” on racial lines, over which each tribe is determinedly in conflict. Ludwig von Mises captures this parallel brilliantly in his identification that, “Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.”
As Tucker observes, “Here, as with many other areas, the far right and far left are strangely aligned.”
3. Designed vs. Spontaneous Order
The libertarian believes that the best and most wonderful social outcomes are not those planned, structured, and anticipated, but rather the opposite. Society is the result of millions and billions of small acts of rational self interest that are channelled into an undesigned, unplanned, and unanticipated order that cannot be conceived by a single mind. The knowledge that is required to put together a functioning social order is conveyed through institutions: prices, manners, mores, habits, and traditions that no one can consciously will into existence. There must be a process in place, and stable rules governing that process, that permit such institutions to evolve, always in deference to the immutable laws of economics.
Again, the alt-right mind finds all of this uninspired and uninspiring. Society in their conception is built by the will of great thinkers and great leaders with unconstrained visions of what can be. What we see out there operating in society is a result of someone’s intentional and conscious planning from the top down.
If we cannot find the source, or if the source is somehow hiding, we imagine that it must be some shadowy group out there that is manipulating outcomes – and hence the alt-right’s obsession with conspiracy theory. The course of history is designed by someone, so “we” might as well engage in the great struggle to seize the controls – and hence the alt-right obsession with politics as a contact sport.
Oh, and, by the way, economics is a dismal science.
4. Trade and Migration
Of course the classical liberals fought for free trade and free migration of peoples, seeing national borders as arbitrary lines on a map that mercifully restrain the power of the state but otherwise inhibit the progress of prosperity and civilisation. To think globally is not a bad thing, but a sign of enlightenment. Protectionism is nothing but a tax on consumers that inhibits industrial productivity and sets nations at odds with each other. The market process is a worldwide phenomenon that indicates an expansion of the division of labor, which means a progressive capacity of people to enhance their standard of living and ennoble their lives.
The alt-right is universally opposed to free trade and free migration. You can always tell a writer is dabbling in alt-right thought (or neoreactionary or Dark Enlightenment or outright fascism) if he or she has an intense focus on immigration or international trade as inherently bad or fraudulent or regrettable in some sense. To them, a nation must be strong enough to thrive as an independent unit, an economic or cultural sovereignty unto itself.
Today, the alt-right has a particular beef with trade deals, not because they are unnecessarily complex or bureaucratic (which are good reasons to doubt their merit) but because of their meritorious capacity to facilitate international cooperation. And it is the same with immigration. Beginning at some point in the late 19th century, migration came to be seen as a profound threat to national identity, which invariably means racial identity.
5. Emancipation and Progress
The libertarian celebrates the profound changes in the world from the late Middle Ages to the age of laissez faire, because we observed how commercial society broke down the barriers of class, race, and social isolation, bringing rights and dignity to ever more people. Slavery was ended. Women were emancipated, as marriage evolved from conquest and dominance into a free relationship of partnership and consent. This is all a wonderful thing, because rights are universal, which is to say, they rightly belong to everyone equally. Anything that interferes with people’s choices holds them back and hobbles the progress of prosperity, peace, and human flourishing. This perspective necessarily makes the libertarian optimistic about humanity’s potential.
The alt-right mind can’t bear this point of view, and regards it all as naive. What appears to be progress is actually loss: loss of culture, identity, and mission. They look back to what they imagine to be a golden age when elites ruled and peons obeyed. And thus we see the source of their romantic attachment to authority as the source of order, and the longing for authoritarian political rule. As for universal rights, forget it. Rights are granted by political communities and are completely contingent on culture. The ancients universally believed that some were born to serve and some to rule, and the alt-right embraces this perspective. Here again, identity is everything and the loss of identity is the greatest crime against self anyone can imagine.
It should be obvious from Tucker’s analysis that where libertarians view each of us individuals with the power to think and choose, the Alt-Right views each of us instead as part of a “tribe,” our identity irretrievably given us at birth and needing “leadership” to be grafted into its proper whole.
So while libertarianism is indivualistic, the alt-right is demonstrably collectivist. This on its own should stop the mainstream media from lumping us all together. (Yeah right.) And make no mistake, says Tucker: the alt-right knows exactly who its enemies are, and we libertarians are among them.
To Tucker’s five main differences I would add two more: two contrasting views on The Power of Reason and The Impotence of Evil.
Following Rand, Libertarian Objectivists recognise both the power of Reason and the impotence of Evil – recognising reason to be not just the driving force of history but man’s unique means of survival and flourishing, and evil (being its negation) being essentially parasitic, unable even to survive without mooching on those it would seek to destroy. (This is just one reason a religion like Islam essentially resides in the moral, cultural and historical vacuum created by others, and always has.)
The Alt-Right however consciously reject this thesis. For them it is not man’s mind that has power in the world but his blood. They repair instead to the notion that “intelligence,” culture and all values are simply a product of race, over which none of us has any control; and they see themselves as the true guardians of “white culture,” which is beset on all sides by evil hordes who cannot be reasoned with yet who somehow possess the power and the means to destroy us.
Evil itself has power therefore, and humanity itself becomes our enemy.(“Humanity as a whole is still sub-human” says one former NZ Objectivist, who desperately need to be “wiped out” by some “intervening cataclysm” so that “we” can start over.)
The irony is that in talking up the power of those forces they feel are arrayed against them, so powerful that they must be banned, barred, wiped out and walled out, they implicity stress both power of evil and the impotence of reason to address its challenges; they argue for the power of the culture they damn and the weakness of the culture with which they identify to stand up to those forces. In other words then, the culture they protect they view implicitly as weak and cowardly, and the “intelligence” that they so fitfully measure has no power for them to ultimately move the world.
In that then, the alt-right is not just a racist movement of un-reason, it is one of irredeemable cowardice.
Objectivist Amy Peikoff discusses the Alt-Right with Stuart Hayashi, who’s recently been analysing Stefan Molyneux’s brand of “race realism”: