Prospects for an Alt-Left

The day of Donald Trump’s election to the office of US President should be remembered as “the day that the liberal elite of the American coasts learned of a world outside its Facebook feed”, according to Asad Haider and Salar Mohandesi of Viewpoint Magazine. The delusions of Trump’s rivals should play an important part in any analysis of his success. Hillary Clinton not only attempted to represent the numerous marginalised communities in the US, but she also proposed that her election to the high office would reflect the embodiment of love trampling over hate.

Clinton’s definition of “love” amounted to a peculiar combination of Wall Street fanaticism, hawkish interventionism and pseudo-progressive identity politics. Finance meets gender politics. Derivatives and drone strikes meet YouTube channels railing against cisgender privilege. And while liberals smugly report that Clinton won the popular vote (winning 1.7 million more than Trump) even if Trump won the election, a slightly less complacent response to these results is to point out that Trump’s supporters were much more evenly distributed across the country, whereas Clinton voters were crammed together in metropolitan enclaves of cultural studies departments, naval-gazing live TV “satire” and egomaniacal talk show hosts. This close alignment between genuinely progressive cultural values and the mechanisms of finance and politics allowed many Trump supporters to associate neoliberalism with a range of metropolitan cultural platforms (sometimes accurately, but usually not).

When Clinton supporters chose to rally almost solely around a general anti-Trump message, rather than a message which actually proposed something new and distinct, they paved the way for disillusionment and demoralisation. Even feminism was little use in the end. An astonishing

53% of white women voted for a man whose respect for women barely reaches Henry VIII levels. Yet in an establishment culture which promotes and celebrates Bono as “Woman of the Year” (as Glamour magazine recently and absurdly did) as a way to desperately and aggressively promote the ultimate fluidity of gender identities, it should hardly be a surprise if millions of women have become tired of Clinton’s ultimately pathetic “vote for me because of my gender” rhetoric.

Common womanhood may be a fine way to promote over-the-counter vitamins, but when it comes to how society as a whole should be led and represented, it appears to have lost its never-very-substantial efficacy. Kathleen Geir offers a perceptive take on this point: “If you’re a woman living paycheck to paycheck and worried sick over the ever-diminishing economic prospects for you and your children, you’re unlikely to be heavily invested in whether some lady centimillionaire will shatter the ultimate glass ceiling.” Allegiances and opinions often range far beyond personal identities, something Trump understands very well, unlike much of the left.

Geir continues with a number of lessons for prominent, middle-class white feminists:

“Class differences among women are an all but taboo subject. But scholars such as Leslie McCall have found that economic inequality among women is just as large, and has been growing just as fast, as economic inequality among men … [P]rofessional-class women, who have reaped a disproportionate share of feminism’s gains, have dominated the feminist movement, and the social distance between them and their less privileged sisters is wide and growing wider … Yet mainstream feminist groups and pundits have consistently stressed the social and cultural issues that are most important to affluent women, while marginalizing the economic concerns of the female masses.”

The same critiques can apply to virtually all strands of identity politics. Cultural problems far too often overshadow economic grievances. Cultural issues are more easily comprehensible and often come with a degree of emotional investment and relatability, unlike the cold, detached world of finance and the high courts. But when leftists care more about men sitting on tubes with their legs apart than harmful neoliberal economic policies, we have undoubtedly reached a very peculiar moment in the political history.

A new post-Trump video series, ‘Transition to Power’, recently aired its first short episode featuring Felicia Holman, who claims that “the revolution can really kick off” simply through “marching”, “creative communities”, “experimental performance”, and what she calls “spaces”. These forms of “resistance”, however, are not likely to have all that much impact on dominant structures of power. What is really needed is not just a radical new interpretation of Shakespeare, but progressive think tanks, alternative media to combat the rise of ‘alt-right’ (read: far-right) internet channels, and the slow restructuring of the Democratic Party through the promotion of candidates like Bernie Sanders.

It is beyond doubt that sexism and racism contributed massively to Trump’s success. Yet simply campaigning for any future democratic change or presidential candidate solely on an anti-sexist and anti-racist platform will only widen the divide between the two major camps. This is not to say that we should pat Trump loyalists on the back and tell them it’s OK to be bigoted. It does suggest, however, that sometimes the most effective way to combat a threat is not to head directly towards it guns blazing, but to flank it from the sides.

Cinzia Arruzza argues that the anti-Berlusconi resistance during the Italian prime minister’s time in office in fact strengthened his position, and given the close parallels between Trump and Berlusconi (chauvinist reactionary demagogues from the business world who use their political inexperience to their favour) it is likely that something more than a simple anti-Trumpism will be needed in the US.

In the moralising minds of radical leftists in Italy, Berlusconi’s voters were all racists and misogynists, and it is precisely this peculiar form of snobbishness which discouraged them from cooperating with the centre-left in Italy, who were more willing to form a larger alliance against the prime minister. Radicals in Britain and the US can form new parties like Left Unity and pretend that Bernie Sanders will become president in 2020 if he either runs as an independent or if a new party is formed, but the historical record suggests that these forms of isolationism will only bolster the Tories and Republicans.

As Arruzza points out: “Immediately after the presidential elections, the white working class has been targeted by Democratic public opinion-makers as the source of Trump’s victory and dismissed as intrinsically racist and grossly uneducated. Attempts at explaining both working-class voters’ support for Trump or abstention in light of the effects of neoliberal globalization and disillusionment with Obama’s presidency have been mocked as economic reductionism.”

The lessons from this should be clear. If your politics involves associating a group of the electorate with some particular societal evil (e.g. blaming Leave voters for the post-Brexit vote outburst in racist street attacks) then it is unavoidably hollow and directionless, not only because we are all ultimately responsible, but because it results in the exact same sin leftists call out Trump for when he labels Mexicans rapists – it places blame and error on a vulgar stereotype and ignores root causes such as economic injustice. We can either blame working people for the rise of Trump, Farage and other reactionary demagogues, or we can blame the powerful.

The term ‘social justice warrior’ (SJW) has been used sneeringly by the alt-right to demonise leftists who have the gall to try and achieve social justice. The term is almost universally used pejoratively to label progressives rather than understand their grievances, and typically carries the implication that the individual promoting progressive causes is doing so largely for personal validation rather than to achieve a concrete political goal. It’s meaning can perhaps most succinctly be summarised by the following satirical News Thump headline: “Hipster claims he was into Syrian refugees before it was cool.” Yet there are a number of features of those labeled SJWs which should be interrogated and subject to critique, even if the vast majority fall far outside the cliché of SJW culture and are genuinely engaged in achieving reform. Undermining some of the more reactionary, hidebound and self-destructive urges of the so-called SJW left could potentially pave the way for an ‘alt-left’ which could more directly and effectively combat its ideological opponent.

Currently, much of leftist activist culture whose proponents are ultimately deemed worthy of the label SJW end up feeding into the hands of the alt-right, providing them with useful ammunition. Consider the infamous case of ‘Hugh Mungus’, in which Rudy Pantoja visited the construction of a new police station in Seattle because the police had saved the life of his heroine-addicted daughter. Zarna Joshi, an activist with her own Facebook fan page, walked up to Rudy and asked for his name, shouting and demanding he speak to her. Rudy responded ‘Hugh Mungus’, referring, as he later reported, to his over-weight body, and not his genitals. Zarna accused him of “sexual assault”, and later asked her YouTube followers to donate to her personal fund to help her recover. Rudy, in contrast, asked people to donate to women’s charities, and invited Joshi and her friends for a drink to get over the drama, an invitation Zarna declined.

This episode is a very poor reflection of the reality of genuine sexual assault and sexism more broadly. But Joshi’s ‘shout first, think later’ behaviour also generalises across the left. Indeed, many leftists who lean towards SJWism are typically on the side of extremely important causes (Palestine, international humanitarianism, gender equality, anti-rape culture), but their actual execution far too often serves to alienate the public, increasing the likelihood of Trump-like successes. Compare the largely ineffective, sectarian UK far left to the hugely successful and popular Jeremy Corbyn.

Sweeping generalisations, a major tool of SJWs, are also unhelpful. Chris Hedges once recounted how in a speech to Occupy in New York he lampooned the police, only to be met by a cop afterwards who was a fan of his books. Hedges immediately felt guilty and ashamed, and made sure not to engage in unhelpful simplifications in future talks. Norman Finkelstein has recently talked about similar issues, confessing how he used to be an obnoxious, moralising Maoist in his teenage years, only to deeply regret this behaviour in adulthood due to it having the primary effect of pushing away many of his friends and colleagues from the kinds of causes he genuinely cared about.

The case of Africa-American writer LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka, is also instructive. Because of his relative class privilege and education, Jones felt a degree of similarity with whites during the 1940s and ’50s, and it was this degree of alignment which instilled in him a deep identity crisis. As Asad Haider recounts:

“He came to embrace black separatism, and attacked white people in his politics and poetry. In one particularly infamous instance, at an event in [Greenwich] Village after the 1964 Harlem riots, Jones was asked by an earnest audience member if there was a way for white people to help. He replied, ‘You can help by dying. You are a cancer.’ When another questioner brought up two white civil rights activists who had recently been murdered by the Klan in Mississippi, Jones dismissed them, declaring, ‘Those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences.’ [Jones] would later acknowledge in his autobiography that such remarks were fundamentally hypocritical, since these white activists ‘were out there on the front lines doing more than I was!’”

Consider also the recent protest against a Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition permitting visitors to try on a kimono. Protestors claimed this was “cultural appropriation” and racist, while local Japanese-Americans were perplexed by this bizarre accusation. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, “cultural appropriation” has often been a highly progressive force throughout history, stimulating cross-cultural integration and alleviating numerous forms of alienation common to immigrants. Of course, big business and Hollywood can also exploit unfamiliar cultures, but the vast majority of appropriation is rather a common, helpful form of assimilation.

The basic SJW principle, then, is this: Eliminate anything that a “marginalised community” may perceive as oppressive, regardless of the impact and moral implications. A number of forums and writers propose the elimination of “ableist” words like “stupid” and “crazy”, as if cleansing ordinary working people of their common vocabulary will somehow win them away from supporting charismatic demagogues and allow them to see just how wrong and backward they were for ever using such words. As if changing one’s “ableist” vocabulary will increase the quality of NHS care to disabled patients. The prospects for such an eventuality are not great.

Terms like “violence” are also often extended far beyond their original meaning (connoting “triggering” verbal and gestural forms of communication, for instance), almost to the point that one wonders whether SJWs ever use the phrase “literal violence” to refer to actual literal violence. As Scottish rapper Darren “Loki” McGarvey argues, this form of activism “is about punishing people for holding different points of view, or not knowing the approved language, whilst entertaining the delusion that such a culturally unsophisticated strategy will engender anything but resentment and bitter opposition.”

Many of these core SJW features pervade the young, leftist commentariat. On the day that the Daily Mail was blaming Jo Cox for her own murder, Abi Wilkinson published an article which can only be described as peak Guardian, entitled: “The ‘tears of joy’ emoji is the worst of all – it’s used to gloat about human suffering.” Getting triggered by an emoji, and not the UK chancellor’s recent autumn statement or the number of other urgent issues of the week, is a peculiar feature of many young journalists. When I appeared on a podcast for Vice, for instance, the young, white middle-class writers got genuinely frustrated when they were questioned about whether or not they should use their position and influence to write a piece about something other than ironic trivia. Wilkinson’s other white, middle-class writers (such as Ellie Mae O’Hagan and the ever-pretentious Sam Kriss) cheered her along on Twitter, seemingly oblivious of the world outside their supportive followers.

Since the election, when they aren’t tweeting about emojis many of the left have focused overwhelmingly on instilling guilt into Trump voters. Regardless of whether certain voters should have felt guilty about their level of relative privilege, it’s undeniable that the pragmatic effect of this guilt-promotion only serves to turn most listeners away. Of course trigger warnings and micro-aggressions are nowhere near as destructive a force as the financialisation and privatisation of universities, but their impact should still be scrutinised and measured. The language of privilege-checking is also often a self-defeating one, discouraging, for example, academic workers and lecturers from protesting against their working conditions too much because, after all, many of them are white and middle-class, so what do they have to complain about?

Bernie Sanders recently called for Americans to enhance their identity politics through forging a more resilient, coherent class politics. This route will be essential since class politics cannot ever be discussed in isolation from identity issues like race. Social psychologist and self-professed “objective” academic critic, Jonathan Haidt, also rallied against identity politics, but for different, more dubious reasons. He spoke to Vox about how “[m]ulticulturalism and diversity have many benefits, including creativity and economic dynamism, but they also have major drawbacks, which is that they generally reduce social capital and trust and they amplify tribal tendencies.”

The reaction of Sanders and Haidt is reflective of the two major responses to identity politics: a progressive critique of its limitations, and reactionary scaremongering. Mark Lilla, writing in the New York Review of Books, leans towards the former (although he also reproduces some harmful, dismissive interpretations of policies aimed at specific communities, as if all political campaigns have to be geared towards everyone). His remarks about Clinton’s identity politics capture some important truths for the left: “But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, LGBT and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.”

Lilla notes how many leftists are “indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life”, and are interested only in appealing to like-minds. Many British leftists rightfully condemn the racist “banter” found in white working class pubs, but show no interest whatsoever in improving the lot of those whose cultural values differ from their own, which is, in itself, a subtle form of discrimination.

The conclusion to Lilla’s piece should serve as a powerful message to the left:

“[T]he whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by ‘political correctness.’ Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

There is always a risk, as Katherine Franke writes, that ideas like Lilla’s may simply aid “the re-centering of white lives as lives that matter most in the U.S.” But so long as Black Lives Matter activists, queer theorists and other leftists have a welcome voice in any emerging alt-left, in reality it would be fairly difficult to morph progressive identity liberalism into a form of white supremacy.

And although it may not reflect real-world racial injustice, the left has to come to terms with the simple fact that many white Americans and Europeans feel marginalised and forgotten. In an SJW culture that promotes Buzzfeed and Vice articles like ‘Fuck White People’, ‘Why Are White People Terrible?’, and ‘21 Things White People Ruined in 2015’ (imagine a headline like ‘21 Things Black People Ruined in 2015’), it should come of little surprise when millions of whites start to feel agitated and offended and start to give power to fascistic forces, either through votes or active participation. There are far too many left-wing writers and bloggers and commentators, and nowhere near enough left-wing organisers and activists and campaigners.

A certain caveat is needed at this point: Many who are railing against identity politics blaming it for Trump’s win already hated it and are largely just using Trump as an excuse to attack it. But this is not to say that identity politics should not be criticised. One of its major limitations is that it can lead to apologism for neoliberal figures such as Obama and Clinton simply because of their race and gender. Britain is currently enjoying its second female prime minister, awash in feelings of gender equality as Theresa May intensifies the Tory’s assault on public services, in many instances going beyond what David Cameron hoped to achieve. Identity politics in Britain tends to be more connected with anti-capitalism than it does in the US, but there is still much progress to be made if the left’s talk of “intersectionality” can be cashed out properly. As Jeff Sparrow recently argued in the Guardian, a greater promotion of the potential links between economic democracy, class politics and identity struggles needs to be developed if the left is to have any chance of reclaiming office across Europe and the US.

Not coincidentally many of these criticisms can be applied to the alt-right. It is certainly not just SJWs who are being triggered. Contrary to cliché, alt-righters tend to get triggered much more than leftists, and the levels of aggression and ad hominem displayed by both sides almost always quickly turns a discussion about campus no-platforming into a frustrating meta-discussion about how we should go about discussing our discussions. Milo Yiannopoulos visibly shakes at the accusation of being a white nationalist, and referring to an alt-righter as a (neo-)Nazi has similar effects.

The left should be clear and unapologetic here: the alt-right is one of the most dangerous cultural and political forces in modern history. Consider Milo’s attacks on the transgendered. In his best Christopher Hitchens impression, he once claimed that there are only three genders: Male, Female, and Retard. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s evil twin, Steve Bannon, likewise gets triggered at any mention of the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’ which isn’t accompanied by unthinking praise and optimism.

The popular alt-righter Ben Shapiro was recently interrupted during a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison by protestors while his audience (almost entirely white males) shouted at them to leave. Universities are the workplaces and homes of students and faculty, and the protestors were wholly within their rights to protest against what they reasonably saw as hate speech on the part of Shapiro. The problems arise in their execution of the protest: their chants were simply composed of “safety!” and the usual sub-theatrical “Whose streets? Our streets!” type of delivery. No concrete criticisms of Shapiro were presented at any point, either through chant or the signs they held. Concerns over “safe spaces”outweighed any concerns for deconstructing Shapiro’s vulgar rhetoric and arguments.

The forms of political correctness promoted by the left are often helpful and are designed to treat others with respect, referring to them in the way they choose to be referred to, and generally not lead to offense or hurt. Yet this tactic can also been used by reactionary state forces in the form of “collateral damage”, “enhanced interrogation technique”, and similar terms. Witness a new law recently proposed by a State Senator in Washington which would permit authorities to charge street protestors with “economic terrorism”, punishable with up to 5 years in prison.

There is far from being any universal principle which can be used to gauge whether the application of political correctness is legitimate, and whether a term should be respected or challenged. The same degree of ambiguity applies to cultural and artistic products. The BBC show Happy Valley was initially criticised by feminists due to its depiction of violence against women, only to be later celebrated by a later generation of feminists for the same reason. Numerous other examples abound.

The online behaviour of many alt-righters and SJWs is perhaps best captured by John-Paul Sartre’s description of anti-Semites:

“Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicated by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

In brief, the day that class politics is replaced with privilege-checking is the day left-wing politics lies in its grave. We urgently need an alt-left which reorganises progressive agendas around traditional socialist and anarchist principles and movements but rejects much of the millennial forms of identitarian politics and instead promotes more traditional forms of collective action and direct engagement with existing democratic institutions. I’ve long been an anarchist, but anarchist organisations in Britain have been a total failure and have largely served to divide the left. Indeed, it wasn’t until the rise of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader that a substantial part of the British left even considered engaging with traditional parliamentary structures, which many considered too mainstream to be a useful ally in class struggle.

Haider recently made a similar criticism of identity politics and the era of microaggressions, trigger warnings and privilege-checking: “Bewildered by New Times and Skeptical Ages, the Left is far too caught up in petty squabbles, on the one side an ahistorical absorption in spectacular postures of undirected rebellion and identitarian narcissism, and on the other, a stodgy and unattractive orthodoxy. The art of politics is nowhere to be found.” Haider rightly objects in another piece to “reducing politics to identity performances, in which positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming-political.”

As Haider concludes, placing personal identity at the forefront of one’s politics comes with major, almost universally unacknowledged risks: “If the “personal is political,” it is in the sense [that] we are left with no practice of politics outside of the fashioning of our own personal identities, and surveillance of the identities of others.” Class politics and the fight against economic injustice and imperialism are replaced with solipsism, often a narcissistic variant.

There is also the more empirical question of whether, for instance, trigger warnings are even useful to begin with. In some situations and on some academic courses, it makes perfect sense to warn students in advance of the course content. But at the same time, as Haidt has pointed out, trigger warnings can also often have the reverse effect and increase the level of anxiety students experience.

A viable alt-left worthy of the name would fiercely oppose the alt-right’s insistence that white Europeans are somehow superior and should never integrate with the rest of the world. An alt-left would directly combat the alt-right’s white supremacism, Islamophobia, antifeminism, and traditionalism, along with its other reactionary tendencies as laid out in Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos’s quasi-manifesto for Breitbart earlier this year. Matthew Arnold’s brother, Thomas, demonstrated a great level of penetration into the issue of breaking with mainstream political convention (and we should not underestimate the extent to which SJW culture, self-identified as marginal, has indeed become mainstream), exploring in a letter what John Goode called, commenting on his writings, “the ineradicable hostility which the progressive mind must feel towards society”:

“Take but one step in submission, and all the rest is easy … satisfy yourself that you may honestly defend an unrighteous cause, and then you may go to the Bar, and become distinguished, and perhaps in the end sway the counsels of the State … All this is open to you; while if you refuse to tamper in a single point with the integrity of your conscience, isolation awaits you, and unhappy love, and the contempt of men; and amidst the general bustle of movement of the world you will be stricken with a kind of impotence, and your arm will seem to be paralysed, and there will be moments when you will almost doubt whether truth indeed exists, or, at least, whether it is fitted for man. Yet in your loneliness you will be visited by consolations which the world knows not of; and you will feel that, if renunciation has separated you from the men of your own generation, it has united you to the great company of just men throughout all past time; nay, that even now, there is a little band of Renunciants scattered over the world, of whom you are one, whose you are, and who are yours for ever.”

Elliot Murphy is a writer based in Houston, Texas, and the author of Arms in Academia: The Political Economy of the Modern UK Defence Industry (Routledge, 2020) and Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature (Zer0 Books, 2014).