This post marks the return of my Modern Philosophy series, in which I talk about the most prominent ideas facing the modern world from an Epicurean perspective. After this post, I have at least three more Modern Philosophies to cover, which I’ll be writing on weekly instead of fortnightly, so look out for that!
After World War 2, it was assumed that far right ideology and its racist underpinnings had lost all credibility. The Holocaust had exposed the horrific consequences of such thinking. The philosophical roots of Nazism- anti-Semitism, social Darwinism and extreme nationalism- had all lost any merit in the eyes of the world. While authoritarian regimes continued to exist, such as Francoist Spain, they became increasingly isolated. The world became divided between the liberal capitalist West and the Communist countries. Following the fall of the Berlin wall, the latter too had lost respectability, leading to the liberal international order we see today.
However, there is a radical movement in the United States that regrets the dominance of liberal internationalism worldwide. Like Plato, they believe democracy is inherently flawed because it leads to mob rule. In Platonic terms, they want government by autocratic philosopher-kings. They draw inspiration from the writings of Nietzsche in their rejection of our society’s norms of morality and their embrace of post-modernism. For the most part, they reject Christian teachings of altruism and the believe in the equality of all men before God. But they defend Christianity insofar as they see it as a key component of Western civilisation, which they contrast with the inferior cultures of the non-Western world, particularly the Islamic world. They also reject Jewish culture for being non-Western. In terms of policy, they want the creation of an ethno-state, with an almost exclusively non-Hispanic white population. This movement has come to be known as the Alt-Right- a loose coalition of Trump supporters, internet trolls, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis and KKK members. As ideologically diverse as they may seem, they are all united in their rejection of mainstream conservatism for capitulating to the notion of America as a diverse and pluralistic nation.
A week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, Alt-Right protestors gathered to demonstrate against the removal of statutes of generals who had fought for the Confederacy. In theory, this should have been uncontroversial. A plurality of Americans support keeping Confederate-era statues as part of remembering the past. But the Alt-Right used the occasion not only to demonstrate the removal of their statues, but to publicise themselves and their radical beliefs. Confederate flags, swastikas and KKK-style white hoods were on full display. Phrases like ‘Jews will not replace us’ and ‘white lives matter’ were chanted. The protest soon became violent due to clashes with counter-demonstrators. A car drove into the counter-demonstrators, killing one person and injuring at least 19 others. At first, Trump’s response was equivocal, condemning violence on both sides, but he later condemned the far-right extremists explicitly. Nevertheless, his response was praised by the Alt Right, including outspoken Klansman David Duke.
It goes without saying that the Alt-Right’s values are totally incompatible with Epicurean notions of equality and justice. But it would be a grave mistake to condemn the Alt-Right as if it exists in isolation. The truth is that although ultimate responsibility for the Alt-Right’s existence lies with its members, mainstream America has made choices that have contributed to the rise of right wing extremism in what is meant to be a post-fascist world order.
Republicans have been far too tolerant of right wing extremism, even if they aren’t extremists themselves. Conspiracy theories like Obama not being American have been allowed to fester. Anti immigration rhetoric hasn’t been rebuked sharply enough in conservative circles. Too many conservatives believe that ethnic minorities are responsible for their own problems. They don’t accept there are actions the government and society can take to improve things for them. It’s this kind of neglect, along with the underlying belief that racism isn’t much of a problem anymore, that has contributed to the rise of the Alt-Right. Many conservatives believe that white people are just as discriminated against as blacks. The route from white victimhood to overt racism is a short one.
Democrats are nowhere near as much to blame for the Alt-Right as Republicans, but they aren’t guiltless either. By creating a culture of political correctness, and by not making the case for liberal values properly, the Left has created a demand for a reactionary anti-liberalism. If you create a taboo, some people will inevitably want to break it. At some universities, discussing any potential drawback of immigration and/or multiculturalism is viewed as racist. Social conservatives, feeling alienated from mainstream society, may become radicalised online. As a society we should debate matters more openly, instead of shutting people down all the time.
The socialist belief in the Alt-Right as a byproduct of capitalism’s failings is a very shaky one in my view. Members of the Alt-Right are no more likely to be poor than anyone else; in fact because they are white, they are more likely to be rich. They are no more likely to be unemployed or face any other hardships. The Alt-Right are not the result of capitalism or neoliberalism. Rather, their appeals primarily comes from a disillusionment with the broadly liberal consensus that has dominated politics across the developed world since World War 2. Having said that, it’s vital that we do not compromise on our values in order to appease the Alt-Right, in the hope that by becoming slightly less liberal, they will go away. If we give them an inch, they will take a foot. The Alt-Right will only be defeated by making the strongest possible case for a free society. We have to defend our record, not run away from it.
To end on a positive note, the Alt-Right may be frightening, but they only command the support of a tiny minority of Americans. Casual prejudice is all too common in the world, America included. But very few Americans want an ethno-state, believe that whites ought to have de jure superiority over non-whites, or view Nazism with anything other than total disgust. Thankfully, anti-Semitism is increasingly rare. Just like with Islamic terrorists, the Alt-Right will only win if we lose our nerve. Epicurus may have advised not participating in politics, but a defence of basic human rights is needed now more than ever.