What has been called the “alt-right” is only the mirror image of certain elements on the left who call themselves “progressive”, but are regarded more pejoratively by others as “politically correct” (PC) “Social Justice Warriors” (SJWs). Although those in either camp would usually be loath to admit this symmetry, there are exceptions. Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, in an article written for Breitbart, characterises the alt-right as “mostly white, mostly male middle-American radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritises the interests of their own demographic.” And according to a recent article published in Salon, it was “inevitable, from the beginning, that white nationalism would arise as a necessary outgrowth if liberals [in the American sense of the term] kept up with their identity politics obsession, and that is precisely where we find ourselves.”
In focusing obsessively on the identities and subjective experiences of oppressed or marginalised groups, the “progressive” left has taken the principle that the “underdog is always in the right” (or what Bertrand Russell called “the supposed virtue of the oppressed”) to its logical conclusion. This has created an intellectual environment (at least in academic and mainstream media circles, where “progressive” ideology reigns) in which the moral “trump card” in any argument is always held by the most oppressed person. It has also created the perception, not without merit, that white males are themselves an oppressed minority: oppressed by a nefarious “globalism” that is indifferent or even cheery about their demographic decline, by affirmative action, which goes out of its way to avoid employing them in positions for which they may be qualified and contemporary feminism, which treats them like “rapists-in-waiting”. When the heterosexual and “cis-gender” qualifiers are added as well, the remaining subset is made to feel its minority status even more acutely. In the new hierarchy of virtue, these white males are, through no fault of their own, placed irredeemably at the bottom. From their point of view (with a few self-flagellating exceptions), this is plainly the height of unfairness. But from the point of view of the “progressive” left, the unfairness is that these white men occupy an unearned position at the top of Western society’s hierarchy of privilege. The inversion of that hierarchy is thus–whether consciously or not–felt necessary to right this wrong.
In other words, the progressive/PC/SJW left and the alt-right really are two sides of the same coin. At the extremes of each group, one finds small bands of fanatics willing to use violence to impose their vision on society, notably “Antifa” or Black Lives Matter on the left and neo-Nazis or white nationalists on the right. To the extent that President Trump was drawing a moral equivalence between these radical factions when he condemned the extremism and violence on both sides during the Charlottesville protests, he was spot on. The fact that the mainstream media and even some establishment Republicans found this rather obvious point to be scandalous is a testament to how far to the left the country’s elite has shifted on cultural matters. Another useful term introduced into the discussion by the president is that of the “alt-left”. This is perhaps better than the other available terms discussed above, which may mean different things to different people.
Nevertheless, both the alt-left and the alt-right remain difficult to define or to delineate neatly. Like the Supreme Court’s standard on pornography, one simply feels one knows an alt-righter or alt-lefter when one sees one. The diagram below is an attempt to make sense of the alt-left and alt-right as loose groupings still largely outside mainstream culture, but at the same time growing in number and influence, whilst also moving towards the extreme ends of the spectrum. Another crucial feature that should not be left out of the definition is internet presence or activity. Social media in particular has acted, albeit unwittingly, as a gigantic sorting machine, enabling like-minded people to meet in cyberspace and egg each other on to further extremes, without encountering any antiphonal voices. As people drift further apart online and in their heads, when they encounter each other in the “real world”, they often do not know how to deal with differences in opinion other than by shouting angry slogans or even committing violent acts. This is not to say that the broad categories of the alt-left and the alt-right do not contain some reasonable or well-intentioned people; quite the opposite in fact. The problem is that it has become harder than ever to find common ground when people in different ideological camps have come to view their opponents as fundamentally wicked or stupid rather than merely mistaken.
The alt-left and alt-right have even developed very similar epistemology. It is common for alt-lefters, on the one hand, to talk about being “woke”. This means that they have been awakened to the reality of the privilege enjoyed by white, male, heterosexual and cisgender people in society, whereas previously they were oblivious to this. If they do not belong to all of these categories themselves, they become aware of their own oppression and concomitant virtue. If they do, they can still achieve some measure of (but never total) redemption by “checking their privilege” and “staying woke”. The alt-right, on the other hand, speaks of red pills, or being “red-pilled” in verbal form. This is a popular culture reference to the 1999 movie The Matrix, in which the protagonist is asked to choose between taking the red pill, which will show him the disturbing reality of the world, or the blue pill, which will return him to the comforting delusions of his former life. He boldly chooses the red pill. In both alt-left and alt-right circles, it is common to watch Youtube videos which purport to reveal to us the way things really are. One emerges intellectually “shell-shocked” with a feeling of having attained profound knowledge, after stumbling around for so long with the wool pulled over one’s eyes. However, one sometimes fails to consider the possibility that what one now believes is not necessarily the truth; rather, it is just that one has been disarmed by hearing a radical perspective that one had not considered before.
The effect of the “woke” or “red pill” video can wear off and as one re-enters the real world, in all its complexity, one realises that this cannot be the whole truth. Perhaps a young black feminist from New York is inspired by a video of Linda Sarsour, a fellow woman of colour from an oppressed religious minority, bravely speaking out against the “white supremacist” President Trump. Sarsour and women like her are just what we need to smash the “patriarchy”, she comes to believe. She then finds out, however, that Sarsour’s views on women’s issues are more conservative than those of many fundamentalist Christian Republicans in Congress. Meanwhile, a young unemployed white man from the Midwest watches a video about race and IQ. Whites have higher IQ on average than blacks, he learns. Suddenly, everything is clear to him. This is why so many blacks have to resort either to welfare or crime in order to get by. If only we cut welfare programs and end affirmative action, I will be able to take up my rightful place in society, he comes to believe. He then turns on the television and sees Neil deGrasse Tyson explaining black holes, and quickly realises that this black man is much smarter than he is, and that even if group differences in IQ do exist, this tells us nothing useful when comparing two individuals. He may also start to wonder what differences of a few IQ points really mean for society in the long run, given that artificial intelligence is poised to overtake even the smartest human beings.
However, Youtube algorithms being as they are, one can easily go back for another, perhaps even stronger dose. One can become addicted to this “political pornography”, reaching ever higher levels of “wokeness” or popping ever more red pills. One then ironically exits the real world and enters a pure ideological realm, in which no counter-evidence to one’s position can be entertained.
Although its power may now be waning, the alt-left is still a much stronger cultural force than the alt-right. There are several reasons for this.
It emerged much earlier and almost without anybody noticing, spread throughout society’s elite (universities, the Supreme Court, news media, Hollywood, etc.) as the radical anti-establishment generation that came of age in the 1960s, itself became the establishment. This process was largely complete by the 1990s, to the extent that conservatives by then had ceded ground on virtually all the culture war issues and were hardly fighting back. The fact that George W. Bush sought to promote “compassionate conservatism” was a tacit admission that “conservative” had become a dirty word. Theresa May’s recognition that the Tories in Britain were seen as the “nasty party” was a similar gesture of surrender, although admittedly Britain’s left-wing culture has much deeper roots than that of the US. The alt-right was a pushback against this tendency, an insistence on no longer playing by the left’s rules, only to keep losing to it. “Conservative” figures who tried to play by these rules became known as “cuckservatives”, or simply “cucks” for short, and the search for “true” conservatives began.
The alt-left also has the advantage of being seen as morally superior, due to the more general association of the left with the moral high ground. It is perhaps in part a testament to the left’s superior PR abilities that this association remains in many people’s minds despite the fact that in the 20th century, movements of the extreme left (Communism, anti-colonial “liberation” movements) caused far more death and suffering than movements of the extreme right (Nazism, Fascism and colonial regimes). This perceived moral superiority has also enabled those on the left to adopt a holier-than-thou attitude, which in the narcissistic age of Facebook and Twitter has morphed into what James Bartholomew has called “virtue signalling”, the mere advertisement of one’s virtue (usually unaccompanied by taking any real action) for the purposes of improving one’s social standing in left-wing circles.
The alt-right’s rejoinder to this is “vice signalling”, which involves alt-righters saying the most provocative things possible, with the intention of causing maximum offence to alt-lefters, thereby impressing their fellow travellers on the right. Milo Yiannopoulos and Blaire White are excellent examples of this phenomenon. An openly homosexual man and a “trans woman”, respectively, even taking into account the possibility of self-hatred, they surely cannot mean every derogatory comment they make about groups to which they themselves belong. Although initially the alt-right was happy to tolerate these figures, due to their pungent attacks on the cultural left, as the alt-right has grown in strength and even helped to elect Donald Trump to the presidency, it has tended to shed them.
This “eating of one’s own” had hitherto been the preserve of the left; the old saying that “the right seeks converts; the left seeks traitors” may only have reflected the power differential between the left and the right prior to the rise of the alt-right. Although the alt-left can just about hold together, as long as it has right-wing bogeymen to point towards, its internal divisions have become more severe in recent years. A telling article appeared in 2015 entitled, “The Rock Paper Scissors of PC Victimology.” Although the author provides a largely compelling critique of the alt-left victimhood hierarchy or “oppression Olympics”, he is apparently also aggrieved for the less principled reason that even he, as a “gay, Jewish man” is no longer near the top of the hierarchy, where he should be. “Like gay men, Jews have been relegated to the bottom of the progressive victim pyramid, a low ranking that has held fast in spite of the rampant bigotry and violent attacks directed at them,” he seems to whine.
The solution to the ever-intensifying “oppression Olympics”, however, is obviously not to keep tinkering with the hierarchy until everyone is happy (which is impossible), or in order to squeeze the electorate for more votes (which seems to be the strategy of the Democratic Party in the United States). Nor is it to appeal mainly to aggrieved whites, who are still in the majority in that country, as President Trump has done. Trump is in any case not the champion of alt-right causes that many (on both sides) thought he would be. He seems to have few, if any, strong political convictions. Rather, he is just much better at reading the electorate than any pollster or talking head; a charismatic figure who said what many were thinking but were too afraid to say out loud, in order to get elected. The only real solution to this great divergence and separation into hermetically sealed ideological camps must be to bring the alt-left and the alt-right back into the mainstream, and to force them to talk to each other. In order to do this, however, Western societies will have to recover the respect for freedom of speech that they once had. All ideas must be up for discussion, no matter how looney they may seem to some, and there should no policing of the boundaries of permissible speech or “hate speech”. Whatever one’s political convictions, when one really thinks about this for a moment, it is clear that there is no palatable alternative.
[Note: In this essay, I only discuss the cultural aspects of the left-right divide, and leave the economic aspects to others who have a far better grasp of these. Of course, culture and economics are not entirely separable, and I regret any blind spots that may result from this.]