What is the 'alt-right' really?

In this short essay, I want to engage with the question above, where the term 'alt-right' comes from and what can be viewed as important links between the 'alt-right', fascism and colonialism or coloniality.

The phrase 'alt-right' - denotes the alternative right, a loosely connected far-right, white nationalist movement based in the United States.

1. Who coined the term?

In 2010, the American white nationalist Richard B. Spencer launched The Alternative Right webzine. His term was shortened to "alt-right" and popularised by far-right participants of /pol/, the politics board of web forum 4chan. Critics charge that the term "Alt-right" is merely a rebranding of white supremacism.

Richard Bertrand Spencer (born 1978) is an American neo-Nazi - whose political activities are well known. He has been banned from public speaking in several European countries. He has called for the reconstitution of the European Union into a "white racial empire," which he believes will resemble the Roman Empire.

2. What is the link with Trump?

Spencer was closely associated with Stephen Miller at Duke University - Trump's senior advisor for policy. Ironically, Miller born in 1985, was the second of three children in a Jewish family. His mother's ancestors—Wolf Lieb Glotzer and his wife, Bessie—immigrated to the United States from the Russian Empire's Antopol, in what is present-day Belarus, arriving in New York in 1903, on the German ship S.S. Moltke, escaping the 1903–06 anti-Jewish pogroms in Belarus and other parts of the Russian Empire.

Miller and Spencer engaged in political activism while at Duke. Miller served as president of the Duke chapter of Horowitz's Students for Academic Freedom. He was a strident right wing voice, accusing poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou of "racial paranoia" and describing student organization Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán (MEChA) as a "radical national Hispanic group that believes in racial superiority. Spencer claims to have mentored Miller at Duke.

"I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country."

Dr. David S. Glosser, uncle of Stephen Miller

Spencer left Duke before completion of his dissertation and degree "to pursue a life of thought-crime". He later became president and director of the National Policy Institute (NPI)

3. Where did the term 'alt-right' come from?

Arguably, it came from alternative right webzines on the internet. Spencer met Miller while attending college at Duke (in Carolina) and subsequently Spencer carried out the 'Unite the right' rally in Virginia. Both these confederate states succeeded from the union during the civil war, which began primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people.

The economies of many Southern states were based on plantation slave labour. They developed segregated forms of schooling and life based on slavery. After the civil war, these states continued to enforce segregation based on Jim Crow laws until the advent of the civil rights movement.

Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by white Democratic-dominated state legislatures after the Reconstruction period.The laws were enforced until 1965. In practice, these laws mandated racial segregation in all public facilities.

Duke University is a private research university in Carolina. Based in Durham, the founding place and headquarters of the American Tobacco Company. Carolina is home to some the largest plantation holdings in the South. African slaves were brought to labor on these farms and plantations. As a result of its substantial African-American community, including many courageous activists, a prominent civil rights movement developed in Durham. Multiple sit-ins were held (including the Greensboro sit-ins (1960), and Martin Luther King, Jr., visited the city during the struggle for equal rights. 

Spencer was listed as an organizer on posters promoting the Charlottesville, Virginia, Unite the Right rally. The Colony of Virginia as the first permanent English colony in the New World. Virginia's state nickname, 'the Old Dominion', is a reference to this status. Slave labor and the land acquired from displaced Native American tribes each played a significant role in the colony's early politics and plantation economy. Southern states alongside Carolina and Virginia were subject to a series of landmark rulings such as Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States (1964), and Loving v. Virginia (1967) which banned segregation in public schools and public accommodations, and struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage. These rulings also helped bring an end to the segregationist Jim Crow laws prevalent in the Southern states. 

4. Why does it matter? 

It matters for a number of reasons, but primarily because the shadowy 'alt-right' has a material reality to it, and a contextual history that can be traced back to certain people. It is effectively a political project that is embodied by certain individuals and groups who have particular goals. But it also a project that across the longer arc of history, can be seen as stemming from colonial rule, empire and the creation of modern citizen subjects that was primarily driven by European colonialism - or at least according to people like Spencer this is the case. Finally, in a real sense, as adjunct to this it appears driven by a kind of retrotopia (Zygmunt Bauman) or nostalgia embodied the slogan 'Make America Great Again'. It appears to have drawn on the declining influence and hegemony of capitalist economic and military dominance that the USA has embodied within the late 20th century in certain ways. 

 The question then would be; is this just the death throws of a form of American and European white supremacy, inherent within the formation of historical blocs based on colonial domination? The last gasp of American 'greatness', and all that it was founded upon? 

My short answer: No - definitely not. 

 I'd rather suggest that isn't at all the case. Racism and racial ideologies are constantly in the process of evolving, or discovering and developing new power bases from which to re-invent themselves. In the longer arc of history, it makes more sense to see the alt-right as an example of racial ideology re-inventing and redeploying its networks and resources through a political movement, through technology, and through ideologies that are constructed to be flexible and operate as carriers of authority and legitimacy in strategic and opportunistic ways. This isn't a death throw for racial ideology and capitalism any more than the defeat of Nazi Germany by Allied forces was able to defeat antisemitism or the ideology of racial superiority in 1945. 

It is true that the late 20th century saw the end of totalitarian regimes across the world and the rise of democratic liberal regimes in many previous European colonies with independence movements. But whether you see the genocide in Rwanda and the end of Apartheid in South Africa as horrific injustices that led to victories in this sense against the racial ideologies generated by coloniality - depends often on where you stand. 

The resolution of both of these racial conflicts through reconciliation processes can be seen as a victory of a kind of course, but this can also be seen as only partially addressing the horrific injustices that continue to affect millions of people in these countries to this day. And in both of these contexts these ideologies did not 'die' out afterwards as a consequence of reconciliation, nor did many deeply embedded 'common-sense' understandings of racial superiority suddenly vanish from the mainstream of politics and the media. In Europe the survival and rise of far right Fascist political groups and their entry into mainstream politics appears to have been quite gradual in the last 10 years or so - but fascist groups have never really ceased to play a role within mainstream politics in Europe since the end of the 2nd world war. 

Racial ideologies and ideas about white supremacy are alive today - many of these ideologies have constantly evolved from their roots in colonial regimes, certainly. But in their current form with the 'alt-right'in the USA, they are simply the evolution of various ideologies and of networks of power into a new and semi-coherent political force. 

Firstly, the term is associated with far right political activism and white supremacy movements that are directly linked with Trump. Many of Trumps policies are aligned with alt-right thinking on immigration etc..consequently this is real power and influence on a global stage. 

 Secondly, the term is often represented as originating from the internet on a global stage. This is a claim that is hard to evaluate, but given the rise of populist and far right groups across the world over the past years - it seems possible. It is true however, that the 'alt-right' is trying to make itself look bigger than it really is. Strictly speaking, the 'alt-right' directly originates from institutions and right-wing groups and particular figures based in the USA with clear links to far-right white supremacy groups. This is a group of people with a political agenda - who have a presence on the internet. But obviously, they aren't 'the internet' and their existence and resources are real, in material terms. 

 Thirdly, it matters because the alt-right's proponents and advocates are intent on portraying it as a 'global movement' against 'liberalism', liberal institutions and cultural pluralism. This backlash against liberal democracy is harder to explain, but it is a wave that the 'alt-right' in the USA has clearly exploited. This can be seen simply as a point of strategy - not necessarily as a coherent political stance. The claim to being a global 'movement' rather than a political group can simply be seen as an act of reflexively fashioning yourself a convenient origin story that is appealing. 

The 'alt-right's origins appear to be linked with deep historical forces and symbolic grievances which appear to stem from the civil war and slavery in the South. However, it is important to note how quickly these groups will jump to co-opt other narratives to suit their agenda, creating a multiplicity of origins and a 'broad church' that can be molded to fit with different narratives. In a very real sense the racism and racial ideologies of the 'alt-right' may appear to be driven by historical forces and deep grievances - but a key difficulty that anti-racist and civil rights movements have to face is that racist and white supremacy movements and groups are in the business of continuously re-inventing themselves. They continuously fashion new origin stories and narratives and ideologies, and tend to operate strategically to infiltrate political organisations and institutions. In this sense, they more closely resemble traditional European facist political movements of the 20th century in terms of their adoption of strategies to manipulate the media and to leverage populist rallying calls in their favour, through political figures like Trump. 

 The Palestinian American literary theorist Edward Said was fascinated by how the people of the Western World perceive the people of and the things from a different culture. Thus Edward Said is a founding intellectual of Post Colonial criticism. I find his writing instructive in how it attempts to make sense of the impact and force of Western Empire and also on how these forces operate within Europe and the West to sustain and reproduce themselves. His understanding of the mechanisms by which empire infiltrates the 'common-sense' by "disregarding, essentializing, denuding the humanity of another culture, people, or geographical region.” As he puts it: 

  “There is nothing mysterious or natural about authority. It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.” ― Edward W. Said, Orientalism 

His work is also fundamental for understanding how the state and ruling capitalist classes make use of cultural hegemony and cultural institutions (aka akin to Gramsci) to maintain power within capitalist societies through colonial regimes and how this project extends well beyond the actual project of coloniality itself. He is pointing out that ideologies of racial superiority are productive, they play a role within Empire and their reproduction is inherently part of maintaining this hegemony. A key point that Gramsci also makes here is that this is critically sustained by members of the traditional intelligentsia that tend to regard itself as a class apart from the rest of society. It is no accident that the alt-right's origins can be traced back to the association of a PhD student at Duke University and are embedded and indeed protected by institutions such as the National Policy Institute (NPI) in the USA, and subsequently also by elites within the Republican political machine. As Said puts it: 

 “my whole point is to say that we can better understand the persistence and the durability of saturating hegemonic systems like culture when we realize that their internal constraints upon writers and thinkers were productive, not unilaterally inhibiting. It is this idea that Gramsci, certainly, and Foucault and Raymond Williams in their very different ways have been trying to illustrate.” ― Edward W. Said, Orientalism 

 His writing also makes clear that coloniality, its origins and the subsequent ideologies stemming from it are deeply inter-related, but not in a chicken vs egg type of way - he describes them as mutually imbricated. As he puts it: 

 “To say simply that Orientalism was a rationalization of colonial rule is to ignore the extent to which colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact.” ― Edward W. Said, Orientalism 

 And finally he makes a similar point about the idea of superiority within 'European culture', as if to ask 'which came first?': “indeed it can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made that culture hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures. There is in addition the hegemony of European ideas about the Orient, themselves reiterating European superiority over Oriental backwardness, usually overriding the possibility that a more independent, or more skeptical, thinker might have had different views on the matter. In a quite constant way, Orientalism depends for its strategy on this flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.” ― Edward W. Said, Orientalism 

It is indeed this attempt to quash the 'skeptical thinker' that is a key project shared by both the 'alt-right' and also many fascist and nationalist movements. This requires that they constantly appear to be 'audacious' in their actions (a modus operandi first proposed by Mussolini) and are constantly on the attack. They seek to build a justification for their intolerance by any means, and do so by constantly attacking any who oppose them (particularly intellectuals) and do so in a vengeful way, often using emotional language or arguments intended to trigger emotional responses. Trump's twitter feed is a case in point here. 

 This strategy is in fact one of intentional scare tactics, and it is very effective. It allows them to 'quash' and silence their opposition slowly through the media, while appearing to adopt the language of the mob and the 'people' to debunk any 'skepticism', and in doing so claim legitimacy in the public eye. The fact is that many of the key culprits of this in the USA are in fact traditional intellectuals, or indeed are organic intellectuals who are direct mouthpieces of the establishment (and appear on Fox News). The alt-right makes use of both, and these people appear on TV, they write books and generally have attended universities. Many could be called 'pseudo intellectuals' who are apparently out to make a name for themselves, like Milo Yiannopoulos, Bannon and Stephen Miller as Trump's attack dog. They have made a career here out of serving powerful interests and act as the spokespeople for Trump in the case of the USA. 

 Personally, whether they are intellectuals or not is immaterial. In the UK, Dominic Cummings would like to see himself as an intellectual or as a 'disrupter', but not at all as part of the traditional intelligentsia. Fundamentally the difference between being a member of the traditional intelligentsia and being an 'organic' intellectual that does the bidding of the establishment isn't always that clear in the real world. Both do the bidding of those who hold power. Indeed, Cummings is aloof, and claims to be a 'disrupter' - but he also does the bidding of the establishment. There is not a massive difference but there is a more extensive discussion of these typologies here. I would argue that this is more about political entrepreneurship and opportunism than anything intellectual, and is simply about manipulating the media as much as anything else. 

The fact that Cummings and Johnson in the UK, are adopting many of the strategies employed by Trump - isn't based on any intellectual strategy or even an affiliation with the 'alt-right'. It is because these tactics appear to work in terms of helping to differentiate them from the 'establishment' at the level of visibility - it is superficial but it taps into the same sources of legitimacy that the 'alt-right' movement is attempting to tap into in the USA. However, it was always the case that fascist establishment intellectuals would play this game of trying to appear to be anti-establishment while continuing to operate from within the establishment. Indeed, again this is the move that Mussolini also adopted as a journalist and in his call to always be audacious as a leader. Hitler also worked from within the establishment effectively, after failing with his 'Beer Hall Coup' and spending many years in prison. 

It is in fact a kind of intellectual scare tactic on the part of these figures, whether they are affiliated with the 'alt-right' or not, that is a common thread here. It is the attempt to make yourself seem all encompassing and frightening, to sensationalise, to appear as a monstrous and threatening entity. This is embodied by Milo Yiannopoulos's in his book 'Dangerous' and his strident form of cultural libertarianism which is intentionally sensationalist. It is also embodied to an extent by entities such as Breitbart news, whose headlines are also intentionally misleading, constantly attempting to stir up emotional reactions, while making out that alt-right are under attack or are engaged in some form of conflict with establishment figures. But it is also embodied by Cummings and his disdain for experts and authority. It is part of a well rehearsed act to appear to be 'aloof' or even 'dangerous' and 'engaged', while in fact seeking to work at a very banal level to influence people via the media and the internet. This is simply an opportunistic form of 'trolling' to capture attention and to exploit that attention to maximum effect. 

 A second commonality is this adoption of a flexible positional superiority, that characterises the 'alt-right' in terms of a mode of re-inventing and seeking to re-engineer a power-base for racial ideologies as part of a broader political project that has many heads. This is one that encompasses it's origins within colonial dominance, but it is a legacy that it fundamentally leverages without needing to deeply understand or embrace. The link with fascism is coherent; fascism exploited and created its own mythology (adopting it's key symbol from the Hindu religion) and made use of an eclectic mix of philosophies and ideologies. Indeed, a key strategy for fascism was to appropriate the discourses of other political movements such as socialism. So to an extent, it is true that the 'alt-right' is basically the product of the internet, and of various groups working together. It is able to simply draw upon a colonial legacy as one source of power and legitimacy, but its real project is to re-invent itself as a modern political 'movement' in a way that is entirely opportunistic. 

This isn't the death rattle of the forces that gave rise to colonial rule, genocide and fascism - it's just them being somewhat hijacked, or their evolution into a modern form of flexible intolerance and supremacy, a form of banal violence that certainly has its roots in coloniality and white supremacy. In the USA we find its roots, but it has worked strategically to re-invent itself within Europe, and arguably it has infiltrated nationalist movements across the world that are linked with a backlash against globalisation. Take for example the rise of Hindi nationalism in India or indeed the rise of authoritarian rule in the Philippines. 

The point of this short think piece has been to to put together some ideas about what the 'alt-right' is (and what it is not) and its links with fascism, and what kinds of evidence that be used to possibly understand it as a phenomenon. It is purely a scrapbook for my own reading, and as such is partly used to collect my thoughts, as part of my current work for my PhD in South Africa which is looking at the issue of social cohesion and initial teacher education. 

More to follow :)