What are the origins of the alt-right? Hint: It's not as new as you think

White supremacy is rooted in centuries of white civilization, not a deviation from established norms: Part 1 of 2

Published November 5, 2017 6:00AM (EST)

Pat Buchanan; Richard Spencer; David Duke (AP/Getty/Salon)
Pat Buchanan; Richard Spencer; David Duke (AP/Getty/Salon)

One way of conceptualizing so-called far right movements since the end of World War II has been to marginalize them sociologically, and view them as “cults.” British social scientist Colin Campbell is a prime exponent of this viewpoint, as he articulates the culture and institutions of what he calls the “cultic milieu,” though he is smart enough to also pose almost unanswerable questions such as these:

How does it (the cultic milieu) manage to survive in face of the continuing disapproval and even outright hostility of the organizations repressing cultural orthodoxy? Through what channels are new cultural items introduced into the milieu? What are the circumstances which facilitate the transformation of deviant cultural items into variant or even dominant ones? What general functions, in fact, does the milieu fulfill?

Campbell rather tamely concludes that “we lack the information to answer such questions,” and no wonder, because it seems to me that an unsustainable normative judgment is implied in the very idea of separating cultural orthodoxy from cultural deviancy, i.e., the cult.

To call a tendency deviant — as we might be tempted to do with the alt-right — is already to discount the responsibility of the orthodoxy in breeding the deviancy. Could it be that “new cultural items” are introduced into the cultic milieu through the agency of the orthodoxy to the extent that the cultic milieu becomes a useless concept? How, in fact, do we separate the dominant and the variant? When the president of the United States is in large part sympathetic to the so-called cultic deviancy, and when he is in fact backed by nearly half the population, then the framework really falls apart.

We fail to understand the alt-right to the extent that we apply the framework of heresy. The alt-right and contemporary white nationalism or white supremacy — represented by such figures as Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin, Jared Taylor and Matthew Heimbach — is a heresy against liberalism. We wonder about the easy accessibility of such heretical views, and we think it serves a useful purpose to try to block such access. We want to apply “scientific” grounds of exclusion to this heretical community, in order to recertify our own liberal/religious/orthodox credentials. It gets to a point where the self-presumed “positive reference group” — again to use Campbell’s terminology — cannot stand alone, because it can only assert its own validity by standing in opposition.

What happens is that in order to fight the heresy, the orthodoxy enacts sanctions (exile from YouTube, bans on rallies, speech codes on campus, passage of hate speech and hate crimes laws, etc.) that give the lie to the idea that one is free to adopt any beliefs of one’s choosing.

Liberalism, in enforcing sanctions, becomes evangelical and starts undermining its deal with science and rationality, in the guise of taking on the heresy on the grounds of rationality. The discussion soon shifts — as it has in 21st-century America — to rigid parameters: who belongs in the scientific/rational community and who stands outside it. The orthodoxy likes to believe there is no passageway or easy entrance back and forth between the cultic milieu and the institutions of orthodoxy (the media, academy, government, military, etc.) it has laboriously established. In the case of the United States, that has happened  since the end of World War II with the particular kinds of institutions that have gone along with our current form of undeclared empire.

In other words, liberalism has conceptualized itself as a religion. Yet outside the strict codes of this religion are those (the alt-right) who claim to be the true believers (in the Constitution, for example). We are, in essence, looking at an internal religious war, with both sides feeding off the strengths of the other; in such a standoff, any clear demarcation between cult and orthodoxy is a fool’s errand.

Ben Klassen was one of the leaders of the earlier wave of American white supremacy, in the period lasting roughly from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. This founder of the Church of the Creator wrote a book called "The White Man’s Bible" (1981), which is an important foundational document, and whose influence can be detected to this day among contemporary alt-right exponents. This is particularly true when it comes to racial-biological thought, or what Klassen’s Bible calls “the white man’s criminal negligence in protecting the survival of his own kind,” supplemented by chapter headings such as these:

Human cells organized into a body: nature’s model for organized white society on a global scale

Only a homogenous society can be governed and can endure

The melting pot — the ugly American dream

Civilization without a racial religion — a self-destructive process for the white race

The glory and the catastrophe that was Rome — a lesson for all time

Colonization — a basic urge in every creature of nature’s realm

The Magnificent white race

Is any of this out of tune with the main thrust of Western civilization since its origins? How did the philosophers of American civilization feel during the centuries of African-American slavery and Native American extermination? What was the nature of the colonizing impulse from its beginning down to the present day, if not what Klassen, the arch white supremacist of the latter part of the 20th century, articulates?

Klassen correctly notes:

This is only the start. We will not rest until the entire world is the home of the White Race. The rest of the procedure need not be spelled out. We will know what to do once we get started. We have ample precedence in the building of America or the expansion of the British Empire. Nor is what we are proposing anything new. It is merely a return to sanity that was abrogated only in the last forty years.

Precisely; Klassen is correct about the history of white racism, and in fact of all racism. In the West, racism — in the Progressive era, the so-called reformers were a supreme example of racism applied to governance, and were in fact an inspiration for Hitler and his like — has been carried to the highest scientific elaboration. Both the American and British empires are proof of this, in contrast to the earlier Spanish empire, which did not, for example, treat conquered people with quite the quality of scientific detachment that the British and Americans did.

The so-called heretics are supremely interested in the negative effects of "mongrelization," for whom they blame, above all, the Jews. Some agency needs to be held responsible for the impurity that is creeping into the white race, which ought to be able to scientifically separate itself, and that agency for a long time has been seen as the Jews. This is a “scientific” approach to racism, not an “emotional” one.

As Klassen notes, “Nature plays no favorites as to ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys,’ and those we deem ‘bad’ are given an equal opportunity to survive, expand and multiply, whether they be rats, parasites or disease germs. Fertility is proof of superiority, and is essential for survival — in the pure form.” Those agencies that get in the view of this scientific maximization of race potential ought to be exterminated; and according to Klassen or Hitler, and today Richard Spencer and Andrew Anglin, there is a scientific basis for that.

The entire modern Western economic superstructure operates according to the same zero-sum philosophy. The parallels between Klassen’s racist philosophy, with exact correspondences among the contemporary alt-right, and Western economic philosophy at the most generalized level, are absolute and undeniable.

Within the cultic deviancy, the liberal orthodoxy likes to distinguish between mere evangelicals and the so-called Satanists. Anton LaVey is probably the best-known among these latter-day American Satanists. But according to his biographer Blanche Barton, in "The Secret Life of a Satanist: The Authorized Biography of Anton LaVey," what did LaVey, the self-described “very happy man in a compulsively unhappy world,” think was basis of his attraction to Americans? Barton says that LaVey links “pain, overpopulation, carnival rides, jogging shoes, Christianity and Capitalism together, in ways that only he could, to show exactly what is happening to the American psyche.”

Satanism is perhaps another name for masochism, and LaVey, according to Barton, notes that “masochists have been on the rise over the past 40 years.” Capitalism, evangelical Christianity and white supremacy have been on a parallel path as they pursue, unwaveringly, a Darwinian process of natural selection to which they are dedicated to the point of self-extinction, should that turn out to be the case.

Is Steve Bannon, self-declared “economic nationalist,” a populist? Is Donald Trump? How does their thought stack up against these ideas of LaVey? This is the latter:

There’s an unrecognized war going on in this country right now, an economic war. War will not come from without, it will come from the people who have the most money to gain right here in this country. The Great Consumer wars. All the other “causes” are just misdirection devices. Any supposed protesting going on is carefully contained rebellion. Otherwise people would be rioting in the street when they have to pay $30,000 for a three-day stay in the hospital. But the warfare now going on is much more sophisticated than science fiction writers ever imagined.

Here is a bridge in thought between populism, conspiracy theory, evangelism, economic orthodoxy and, yes, Satanism — or white supremacy. It is all on the same continuum, with liberalism providing the clues as to how to proceed along this philosophical spectrum, where people are divided between the worthy and the unworthy. So in contrast to true economic justice, LaVey sees society as burdened by those who get a lot but don’t deserve it, just as Trumpian populists do; the race element is actually fairly gratuitous, and even without that, we have seen that it is at the core of (Satanic) economism.

What are our constructs of individualism and the work ethic? Are they Satanic/cultic milieu/deviationist constructs, or are they within the mainstream orthodoxy? How easy, or difficult, is it to move back and forth between orthodoxy and heresy?

Consider the example of David Duke (one cannot go far in discussing white supremacy in America without coming back to Duke). Susan E. Howell and Sylvia Warren — in their chapter “Public Opinion and David Duke,” in Douglas D. Rose’s edited compilation "The Emergence of David Duke and the Politics of Race" (1992) — write that scholars have identified

a new form of racism, symbolic racism, which includes both a general antiblack feeling and a belief among whites that many blacks fall short of the American ideals of individualism and the work ethic. Symbolic racism is heavily infused with the notion of individual responsibility; it holds that every person is responsible for his or her own well-being and rejects treating individuals as members of a group. In that way it differs from “old-fashioned racism,” which is expressed in beliefs about the innate inferiority of blacks. Old-fashioned racism, which is now socially unacceptable, has been replaced with symbolic racism, and it is the new attitude that has the strongest political effect.

There is a lot to unpack here. Howell and Warren, and the scholars they rely on, are referring of course to Duke’s expert conversion of general racial unease into transparent racism, based supposedly on the issue of individual responsibility. This would be measured, in public opinion surveys, by questions about whether blacks (and other minorities) are benefiting unfairly from public policy in comparison with whites. There is the point that neoliberalism, over the past 40 years, has been the prime vehicle of the ethic of personal responsibility, which denies the existence and reality of history, its effects on discrete present groups.

Furthermore, identity politics plays into this too, to the extent that aggrieved groups (the targets of Duke’s ire) rely on precisely the ethic of personal responsibility, or claim to do so, even as their compromised economic status has much to do with primarily this ethic of personal responsibility, lately operating through neoliberalism. Again, this is an illustration of the deviancy of orthodoxy and the orthodoxy of deviancy; the services of a bona fide Satanist might be required to free us of this trap in ideological obfuscation.

Duke has learned -- unlike Klassen and other white supremacist theologians, but like the contemporary alt-rightists -- to frame his discourse not in terms of a desire to seek a heaven on earth, but as a matter of pragmatic, race-neutral public policy. The contemporary alt-right, from what we can tell about its aesthetic orientation, desires to take Christians (or any believers) away from charismatic breakthroughs operating according to divine intervention. From Reconstructionist (or Christian Dominionist) philosophy, we are already familiar with the concept of altering society from the bottom up, before hoping for large-scale political transformation.

In an earlier essay I discussed the parallels between how Pat Buchanan, operating as white supremacist, pressured the conventional political system to change itself in response to the white supremacy bubbling from below, and succeeded, to a large extent, in changing the Republican Party. The full fruits of his efforts are visible today, in the Trump presidency, to a much greater extent than we saw even in the era of George W. Bush.

Next week: The ingenious strategic rebranding of white supremacy in the age of the alt-right

By Anis Shivani