During Hillary Clinton’s speech today attacking Donald Trump for his associations with the so-called alt right, she made at least one important point: that rise of the Right in the US is part of ‘a broader story ― the rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism around the world’.
Clinton squandered the moment somewhat by immediately pinning the blame for the far-Right surge on the ‘godfather of this global brand of extreme nationalism … Vladimir Putin’. Countering Trump’s ‘dark conspiracy theories’ with beltway-approved conspiracy thinking did not enhance her point about the international dimensions of the problem.
But even if Clinton’s point was blunted by opportunism, the Left needs to start thinking about the way in which the US-based alt right is intertwined with a broader far-Right resurgence in a number of advanced democracies, including Australia.
Although the origins of the alt right are in US-based far-Right circles, the man who coined the term – white nationalist Richard Spencer – did so under the influence of the European ‘Nouvelle Droit’ or New Right, and its leading figures, like Alain Benoist.
Spencer told me that he was attracted to those ideas because he and others were ‘deeply alienated, intellectually, even emotionally and spiritually, from American conservatism’. They were disillusioned with Republican interventionism, but also with what they perceived as a softening on immigration and race.
Along with the reactionary tradition that includes Nietzsche and Heidegger, Spencer engaged with the New Right’s ‘identitarianism’ – which links race and identity – and its hostility to egalitarianism and democracy. By defining America as an outgrowth of Europe, he was able to adapt the ideas to his own political context.
This international circulation of ideas on the Far Right is not one-way traffic, nor has it stopped. ‘Cultural Marxism’, for example, arises from a conspiracy theory claiming that the Frankfurt School seeded the New Left and identity politics as a way of undermining Western values.
The theory was first pushed by Americans William S Lind and Paul Weyrich in the early 1990s, as they tried to develop ways to get Republicans to unite around culture war issues at Weyrich’s think tank, the Free Congress Foundation.
It has gone onto be an organising idea for the Far Right throughout the world, including in Europe, where it showed up in the manifesto of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik, and in Australia, where versions of the argument have repeatedly been made in mainstream venues, like the Australian.
The Far Right and their ideas have been given a significant push by the great recession of 2008, the orthodoxy of austerity in Europe, and a slow recovery in the United States. Adding fuel to the fire is one of the principal legacies of the West’s war in Iraq – the Syrian conflict and its 4.5 million refugees.
The refugee crisis has allowed a kind of ‘white internationalism’ to coalesce. The Far Right has not renounced nationalism, but it has foregrounded a whiteness defined in civilisational terms, and defined against the alleged threat posed by Muslim immigrants and refugees throughout the West, and by Latin-American migrants in North America.
When these ideas become entangled with social media, this transnational whiteness – or transcontinental Europeanness – becomes the basis of a new kind of political subjectivity, which allows theory-building, proselytisation, and other forms of collaboration across national borders.
White, European heritage becomes a rallying cry to be deployed against anyone from the global south who would enter, or stay within the borders of any Western nation, against established non-white ethnic groups, and against the descendants of slaves.
The alt right’s memes make all of this easy to digest for the adherents of a movement with an intensive, socially mediated existence. Their IQ charts, and bogus crime rate statistics are a way of making the bogus ‘racial science’ that underpins their beliefs more easily accessible.
Alt right Twitter accounts are as apt to talk about an alleged ‘rapefugee’ crisis in Syria as they are to make arguments about racially determined IQ, or black crime rates.
More generally, the shibboleths of white internationalism – Halal panic, sexualised racial anxieties, the notion of civilisational struggle, and primitive images of the other – are shared among Far Right actors across the west, and can be seen as readily as Reclaim Australia rallies are on social media.
Still, the cartoonish character of the online alt right – its memes and jokes, its clear links to nerd culture, and its disinclination (so far) to street violence – should not lead us to underestimate the potential danger here.
If nothing else, a networked, globalised political racism may forge a more generalised, adaptable, and ‘shareable’ set of political concepts. In a time of overlapping crisis, we can’t allow white internationalism to become a durable response.
Image: crop from (1924).
Writers and artists, enter our Fair Australia Prize!
- How do we make a fair society? What are the things that need to change?
- What would a sustainable future or a just justice system look like?
- How can we improve labour or employment practices?
- What might a fairer planet look like in twenty years?
Closes 31 August. Visit the 2016 Overland NUW Fair Australia Prize page for details. Entry is free.