As a content warning, this article contains detailed analysis of the alt-right movement, including direct quotes from alt-right pundits and links to their articles.
My goal in writing this article is to explore the relationship between the alt-right and left-liberal, “social justice” politics, otherwise known as “privilege politics” or “identity politics”. This is an exceptionally sensitive subject; between the far-right and the “brocialist” left, the dominant critiques of privilege politics come from the right, rather than the left. Although this article is not simply a critique of privilege politics, I must be very careful to level my criticisms from the left, from the Marxist perspective, in service to the special oppression movements (national liberation, women’s liberation, etc.) rather than as a hindrance. I want to make clear that ‘identity politics’ are not synonymous with movements of oppressed groups. National liberation, women’s liberation, LGBTQ+ liberation, etc. are not divisive, but rather vital in our fight against the monopoly class.
The alt-right is a heterogeneous movement, with its most common unifying principle being white nationalism. The term “alt-right” was coined in 2010 by Richard Spencer, head of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist think tank. The “movement” is a mixture of far-right groups and individuals, including neo-Nazis, neo-reactionaries, paleo-conservatives, men’s rights activists, anarcho-capitalists, and right-libertarians. The alt-right tends to condemn “establishment conservatism” as timid (hence “cuckservative”, a common insult deployed by the alt-right).
For the time being, the alt-right is mostly unorganized as a whole, and tends to operate on internet forums like 4chan and reddit, in addition to various organizations and publications like the National Policy Institute, Breitbart, American Renaissance, the Daily Stormer, and Radix Journal. Well-known alt-right figures include Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Trump’s Senior Counselor, Steve Bannon. The alt-right is a petit-bourgeois movement that seeks to unite white people across class lines. Its ideology of fear and separatism is essentially a white supremacist response to neoliberal decay and the crisis of imperialism.
Race science, scientific sexism, and other forms of biological essentialism are popular beliefs within the alt-right. “Proto-”alt-right publication American Renaissance promotes “race realism”, the idea that race has a biological basis. “Race realists” (read: white supremacists) have a tendency towards white separatism:
…it is entirely normal for whites (or for people of any other race) to want to be the majority race in their own homeland. If whites permit themselves to become a minority population, they will lose their civilization, their heritage, and even their existence as a distinct people.
The alt-right’s propensity towards white separatism borrows both from traditional US white supremacy and also from Zionism; Richard Spencer has cited Zionism as an influence on his conception of a white ethno-state. Breitbart’s Steven Bannon admires Israel as an example of separatist nationalism. A common goal within the alt-right movement is the creation of a white ethno-state within the United States. The purpose of a white ethno-state is to preserve the cultural autonomy of the white nation, and is often paired with a sense of traditionalism, or even primitivism. This demand is born out of a sense of victimization that is common among white supremacists.
White nationalists see themselves as victims in an increasingly multicultural society; immigration and integration look more like an infestation to white nationalists. White supremacists among the alt-right are known to cry about “white genocide”. The “white genocide” conspiracy states that things like immigration, interracial relationships, abortion, and multicultural policy exist to exterminate the white race. Breitbart is currently running a smear campaign against communist and Drexel professor George Ciccariello-Maher for his recent satirical Tweets in support of this concept of “white genocide”. As indicated by this campaign, the alt-right is less interested in mainstream liberal ideals than traditional conservatives are. They take no issue in attempting to silence the Left, despite the apparent contradiction with liberal notions of “free speech”.
The white nationalism of the alt-right is essentially Third Positionist, a defining aspect of fascist ideology. White separatism is situated in opposition to both the Big Business conservatives who have been “cuck[old]ed” by the “globalists” and the “SJWs” who have been “cucked” by the “Soros-controlled MSM”. Like fascisms past, the alt-right’s Third Positionism is rooted in anti-Semitism. Breitbart itself emphasizes white culture over white economics:
For natural conservatives, culture, not economic efficiency, is the paramount value. More specifically, they value the greatest cultural expressions of their tribe. Their perfect society does not necessarily produce a soaring GDP, but it does produce symphonies, basilicas and Old Masters. The natural conservative tendency within the alt-right points to these apotheoses of western European culture and declares them valuable and worth preserving and protecting…
…Alt-righters describe establishment conservatives who care more about the free market than preserving western culture, and who are happy to endanger the latter with mass immigration where it serves the purposes of big business, as “cuckservatives.”
In many ways, the alt-right bears the same marks of any other white supremacist movement: white separatism, a sense of victimhood, and a desire to return to “traditional values”. Although at this point in time the alt-right remains essentially scattered and unorganized, I do think it can be characterized as a nascent fascist movement.
The “Social Justice” Left
Privilege politics are the politics of left-liberal “social justice activism”. This political ideology exists chiefly as a liberal critique of special oppressions. However, the structures of the various systems of oppression are conceived in a highly idealist framework, rather than a materialist one. White supremacy is understood as “white privilege”; homoantagonism becomes “straight privilege”; further, there’s “cis privilege”, “male privilege”, and so on.
Privilege politics tends to characterize the relationship between various oppressive structures in a static, mechanical way. Rather than tracing the roots of oppressive structures in the social relations that maintain society, and understanding how these structures relate, privilege politics views oppressive structures as a checklist of privileges. Misogynoir = misogyny + anti-black racism; transmisogyny = transantagonism + misogyny, and so on.
Archetypal privilege politics publication Everyday Feminism emphasizes that “privilege is the other side of oppression” and that “privilege describes what everyone should experience.” It must follow logically that, according to Everyday Feminism, “what everyone should experience” is the other side of oppression. Interesting. Should everyone have the experience of carrying out genocide, slavery, and imperialist conquest? The “privilege” framework completely overlooks the centrality of violence and exploitation inherent in all oppressive structures, highlighting the benefits of being a member of an oppressor group without considering where those benefits come from. The exploitation of capitalism is obscured; class society is conceived as “classism”, in which rich people merely have privileges over poor people, rather than violently exploiting and oppressing the working class.
According to this framework, oppression is the absence of privilege, and privilege is the absence of oppression. But if this was indeed the case, why would oppression exist? Oppression, in the final instance, exists for the purpose of exploitation. Privilege politics, however, muddles the distinction between privilege and power. In the words of Black Agenda Report contributor Dolores Vek:
Privilege-centric discussions, like the White Privilege framework itself, deal exclusively with individual identities. If, as the mainstream liberal accounting had it, [Dylan] Roof received kid-glove treatment on account of his White Privilege, then the police response was based primarily on who he was rather than what he did…
…the US ruling class’s relationship to supremacist violence is a lot deeper than free Whoppers. So given this history and the material interests at play, when a Dixie-loving admirer of Africa’s apartheid settler-colonies murders 9 black people as part of a “race war,” it seems ahistoric and reductive in the extreme to label his treatment the result of anything so narrow and minimizing as mere “Privilege.”
A weakness of privilege politics reveals itself: it blurs the distinction between, on the one hand, privileges of the oppressors that the oppressed should have (fair wages, equal access to education) and mechanisms of power that should be done away with altogether (slavery, imperialism). The ruling class finds this ideology useful because it objectively covers for imperial exploitation and white supremacist terror. Equality of opportunity for Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to carry out war crimes (against Black and Brown people across the globe) is given the same stamp of “progressivism” as an end to working class job discrimination and other genuinely anti-racist measures.
Privilege politics rarely play out on an organized level beyond small reforms due to its political impotence. The goal of privilege politics is the subversion of privilege, which in this framework exists at the level of the individual subject (e.g. safety pins). (Individual) privilege is undermined by being “checked”; the privileged individual recognizes their position of power and works in their daily life to achieve Purity. This is done through small gestures, like conducting yourself with basic decency in gender-neutral restrooms. The framework itself tends to conceptualize this Purity as unachievable, condemning every subject as eternally “problematic” sinners. The instance of “privilege checking” ultimately plays out as white guilt.
As the oppressors “check their privileges”, the oppressed are given the opportunity to define the narrative through their “lived experiences”. This focus leads to a subjectivist understanding of special oppressions and promotes lifestylism rather than collective, radical change. Privilege politics locates capitalism in the psyche of the subject; thus, it can only be undermined by correcting individual behaviors that “perpetuate toxic capitalism” (as if there’s any other type of capitalism!). Huffington Post tells us How To Be A Better Ally In 2017 by educating ourselves and accepting our privileges. Not a word is said about movement building or fighting for liberation.
II. The alt-right: the evil twin of the SJW-left
In addition to white nationalism, the alt-right is in part defined by what it stands in opposition to. The alt-right movement has been known to oppose “multiculturalism”, “political correctness”, non-binary gender identities, the Black Lives Matter movement, and generally anything even mildly progressive. The alt-right attacks anyone who advocates for oppressed groups as so-called “social justice warriors”. We can characterize the alt-right as a reaction to left-liberal privilege politics.
The logic of identity politics
The relationship between the alt-right and privilege politics goes much deeper than their mutually antagonistic development; the inner logic of the ideologies of both the alt-right and the social justice left have many similarities. Both political outlooks are essentially identity politics, one of oppressed identities, and the other of oppressor identities. While obviously these identities cannot be compared, in many ways, the alt-right seeks to merely invert the logic of privilege politics. Richard Spencer has described the alt-right movement as “identity politics for white people”.
While “safe spaces” are a core tenet of privilege politics, the alt-right have “safe spaces” of their own. Alt-right publications regularly make arguments that white people have the right to be around other white people. To Spencer, a white ethno-space itself is “safe space for Europeans”, keeping whites safe from multiculturalism and so-called white genocide. This white separatism closely reflects the essentialist view of identity and culture that underpins privilege politics. Cultures are seen as eternal and innate to certain groups, rather than historical developments. Identities are given an innate quality instead of historical contingency.
The preservation of white culture is its own “identity politics” fighting “cultural appropriation”. White supremacists, who depict themselves as marginalized, wish to protect their culture from being “eroded” or “tainted” by multiculturalism. In accordance with historical far right movements, the alt-right has appropriated leftist (“social justice”) rhetoric. Richard Spencer once told journalists that “the alt-right is willing to work with allies of color”.
One of the most glaring similarities between alt-rightism and privilege politics is biological essentialism, which centers power dynamics on biological traits rather than concrete social relations. Perhaps the most common form of biological essentialism is race science, which locates race in genetics rather than in the ideology of colonialism and imperialism. The alt-right, as made clear by American Renaissance, explicitly takes up “race realism”. The biological essentialism in the liberal left is slightly more subtle.
Perhaps the best example is the notion of “white passing”, the idea that some people of color “look white” and therefore experience relative “privilege”. This understanding of white supremacy is essentially subjectivist in that it relies on subjective perception rather than objective social relations. Non-white people in fact inherit a legacy of super-exploitation and belong to a community, and it makes little sense to call them “privileged” just because they can pass a paper bag test. This framework hinges on biological essentialism, because it locates race within biological characteristics (skin color, other features) and how they’re perceived. Equating “whiteness”, a dynamic and evolving social structure, with white skin, is essentially race science.
The core problem of privilege politics’ account of race is that it universalizes the particular racial dynamics of settler-colonial North Amerika. Eastern European nationalities, who have had a complicated, vacillating relationship with whiteness, are seen as white full-stop, because they’re treated as white in the United States. Irish people are conflated with the Irish diaspora, and the struggle for a united Ireland is dismissed out of hand. It should not come as a surprise that this framework encourages narrow nationalism and inaction. If the racial dynamics of North Amerika are static and universal, it follows that national liberation is impossible because of the inherent and eternal antagonism between nations.
Privilege politics, like the alt-right, tends to undermine working class unity in favor of the cross-class alliance of white supremacy. There have been swathes of thinkpieces in the left-liberal media about the interests of the “white working class”- at first it appears to be an attempt to condemn or punish white workers for backwards ideas (as opposed to “sophisticated” rich whites) which of course is already anti-worker, but it’s even more pernicious than that- it in effect reinforces the divide in the working class, and asserts that white workers have cohesive interests separate than that of workers of color.
There’s two sides of the coin: the alt-right attempts to turn the white workers against workers of oppressed nations by blaming e.g. immigration for the general crisis of capitalism. On the other hand, the “anti-racist” left-liberal condemns the white worker as inherently racist, furthering the class divide and obstructing the unity of the multinational working class. Each, in their own way, tells the white worker that their lot is with white supremacy, effectively discouraging them from becoming race traitors and class partisans.
White workers certainly benefit from and can reproduce white supremacy– that is undeniable. But to place the onus of white supremacy on white workers not only serves as apologism for the main purveyors of racism– the slaveowners, the land aristocrats, and the monopoly capitalists– it also undermines the potential for a multinational alliance of the working class against imperialism, racism, and capitalism. It’s crucial to encourage white workers to betray their whiteness, and embrace their class– white chauvinism is a death trap, and anti-racism is the way out.
Although the alt-right, a reactionary white supremacist movement, cannot be compared to left-liberal privilege politics, they operate on the same plane. As Shuja Haider said, “it should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable. The problem is that they are compatible.”
The development of fascism
Fascism is one organization of the state under capitalism, contrasted with liberal democracy. Historically, the fascist movement arises in a general crisis of imperialism, when the anti-capitalist left poses a real threat to the state. Bourgeois democracy is no longer sufficient, and the most reactionary strata of finance capital reorganize the state as the open, terroristic rule of finance capital. In this way we can describe fascism as “pre-emptive counter-revolution”.
The fascist movement finds its social base in the petit-bourgeoisie, declassed lumpen elements, and certain disillusioned sectors of the working class. This base is unleashed, channeled, and bankrolled by the most reactionary strata of finance capital when they decide that liberal democracy no longer sufficient. It is important to emphasize that fascism is not the preferred method of rule for finance capital; fascism is the unstable, messy, last-ditch effort of capitalism to preserve itself. Fascism is born out of internal struggle among the bourgeoisie during a crisis of imperialism; it is not simply a policy.
In the United States today, there is no Left threat to the bourgeois state. The Left in the US is tiny, fragmented, and unorganized; it has no significant influence on politics as it stands today. Because of this, it stands to reason that the majority of the US ruling class does not need fascism yet, and thus will not yet “activate” the nascent fascist movement of the petit-bourgeoisie.
The alt-right’s rising popularity is alarming, indicative of the utter decay of imperialism; fascism very well may be on the horizon, or at least much closer than we may have thought a year ago. What the alt-right still (mostly) lacks is the wide support of finance capital. However, the election of Donald Trump certainly is a frightening development, especially given Trump’s selection of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as Senior Counselor. The alt-right tends to view Trump as a sympathetic figure, hopeful that his presidency will be a step in the right direction.
Alt-right publication Radix Journal has been sympathetic to Trump throughout his campaign. “Hannibal Bateman”, a contributor to the journal, is hopeful about a Trump presidency:
My generation has been defined by great events we had no control over, from 9/11 to the 2008 financial crash… We’ve been indoctrinated with every lie under the sun about race, about sex, about history and above all we were fed the big lie: Equality… Our grandparents remembered a world where Europeans could be proud of who they are, but we’ve never known a time when we weren’t blamed for every evil in the world. Then came Trump.
Like a bolt of lightning it was as if we could dare again. Trump may not be one of us, but he’s given our people something that we haven’t known in decades, pride. For those millennials who support Donald Trump it has awakened a fire that has long been suppressed. As the media and their lackeys among the younger generation become more shrill to their contemporaries, “RACIST, BIGOT, SEXIST!”… When Trump says “We either have a country or we don’t” he’s making politics existential and personal. Perhaps for the first time, many are realizing that America has been in the process of becoming nothing more than a global favela. Where we once put men on the moon, today we’re just content with out of this world bargains.
Andrew Joyce is optimistic about the prospect of American (white) nationalist unity:
Most significantly, the Trump campaign has brokered a new spirit of defiance among the White masses, brow-beaten and exhausted by the silent diktats of political correctness and a slavish adherence to the political status quo. Trump’s ‘truths’ are, in a sense, revolutionary.
He has created a pathway for voters to openly acknowledge that their government is corrupt, that globalist interests have too much power, that law and order is a national priority, that they have a right to maintain the traditional character of their nation, and that in the sphere of foreign policy it is a moral good to place the interests of America first.
Richard B. Spencer himself is hopeful that Trump’s presidency can be a practical step in advancing the movement by undermining mainstream conservatism:
…the Alt Right, far more plausibly than the “conservative movement,” can lay claim to being the new Trumpian vanguard.
Before Trump, the Alt Right could be criticized for being a “head without a body”; it was engaged in meta-political and scientific discussion, but lacked a real connection with practical politics and the hopes and dreams of average Americans. In turn, Trump’s populism—with its half-baked policy ideas and sketchy vision of the future—could be criticized as a “body without a head.”
Now we are the whole man. The Alt Right and Trumpian populism are now aligned much in the way the Left is aligned with Democratic politicians like Obama and Hillary. The American Right always lacked a true vanguard. In the form of “conservatives,” it had only a “rearguard” or “muffle” or “hall monitor.” We—and only we—can say the things Trump can’t say . . . can criticize him in the right way . . . and can envision a new world that he can’t quite grasp.
The alt-right is a relatively weak yet steadily rising movement. On this basis, I will put forth the following thesis: the alt-right will only fully advance as a fascist movement when privilege politics are replaced with something more directly threatening to finance capital.
Finance capital would come under more direct danger by a genuinely anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement than one based in privilege politics. Beyond the fact that privilege politics tend to be soft on capitalism and cold towards existing socialism, I would argue that a Marxist political program also does a far better job accounting for special oppressions.
Capitalism, more than any other mode of production, requires a strict division of labor between productive and reproductive labor. Specifically, women are relegated to the role of reproducing labor-power through performing reproductive labor (i.e. domestic labor and sex work). This division of labor ensures the capitalists always have a market of labor-power; state repression and ideology are both requirements to maintain this division. Thus, the state finds it useful to oppress both women (because their reproductive labor is devalued) and workers who transgress gender expectations (trans people, gay people, etc.). It follows that to attack patriarchy is to attack capitalism.
Capitalists do their best to streamline the labor process in order to increase the intensity of work and the rate of exploitation. Any worker whose ability hinders the labor process is deemed inadequate. And thus, ableism is useful to the ruling class in order to increase productivity. And so to attack ableism is also to attack capitalism.
Characterized by uneven development and the formation for the first time of nation-states, capitalism also breeds national oppression. In the era of finance capital (imperialism), the necessity for advanced capitalism to expand into new markets prompts the invasion, super-exploitation, and underdevelopment of oppressed nations. Imperialism, colonialism, and neo-colonialism are the material basis of race (and thus of racism). In the United States, white supremacy is the effort of the ruling class to consolidate a cross-class alliance on the basis of whiteness in order to oppress and super-exploit the internal oppressed nations (e.g. Afrikan, Chicanx). Racism is the ideology of (capitalist) imperialism. To attack racism is to attack capitalism.
Such an analysis of special oppressions is an invaluable tool for the liberation movements, and if they were to take up such anti-imperialist politics, the advancement of the women’s liberation struggle, LGBTQ+ struggle, or national struggle would constitute a direct threat to the entire capitalist system. At that time, it would make more sense for the most reactionary elements of the US ruling class to “activate” the fury and anxiety of the petit-bourgeoisie onto the working class and oppressed. Although the Left remains weak and divided, the national struggle is starting to advance, evidenced by both the Black Lives Matter movement and the fight at Standing Rock.
III. Building resistance
You fight fire best with fire…
Privilege politics is not a viable tool to defeat neoliberalism, imperialism, or rising reaction in the United States. Privilege politics can be subverted and contradicted within its own inner logic. Its inconsistencies can be wielded for reactionary purposes, and thus has been found useful by the ruling class at times, particularly by the Democratic Party.
A common argument by the liberal left during the 2016 US presidential election was that white men or otherwise privileged people should vote for Hillary Clinton (rather than abstaining or voting third party), because they have the privilege of not having to worry about the implications of a Trump presidency. Privilege politics has a tendency to characterize all phenomena as essentially corrupt (“problematic”), and yet the act of casting a vote for a heinous war criminal and white supremacist militant like Clinton is seen as the white man’s duty of solidarity. This is closely paired with the idea that members of oppressor groups should “stay in their lane”, which is often deployed by privileged people to justify inactivity, pacifism, and reformism (should John Brown have stayed in his lane?). Thus, the ruling class is able to use privilege politics to reinforce the status quo.
An operating assumption in the above argument in particular is that marginalized groups are politically homogenous. The argument goes something like, “well if you actually talked to the LGBT community, you’d know you should vote for Clinton instead of Trump!”, both ignoring that oppressed people can be right-wing, and also ignoring revolutionary leftists among the oppressed, e.g. the Black radical tradition and its criticisms of electoral politics.
Privilege politics has also commonly been deployed to justify imperial terror and anti-communism. In the wake of the death of revolutionary communist Fidel Castro, many left-liberals were quick to condemn Castro for his past homophobia and repression carried out by the Cuban government. Non-Cuban, Pro-Castro leftists were told to “listen to Cubans”, which in practice meant upholding the narrative of Cuban ex-pats in Miami, rather than the millions of Cubans in Cuba mourning Castro’s death. Fidel’s legacy of solidarity with anti-colonial freedom fighters in Angola, South Africa, and countless other countries, Cuba’s groundbreaking advancements in LGBTQ rights, and Black Lives Matter’s tribute to Fidel are rendered meaningless by Castro’s fundamental ‘Impurity’. This ultra-left cynicism that “everything-is-bad” in effect provides cover for imperialism, given that its victims and adversaries (Castro, Bashar al-Assad, etc.) are demonized by privilege politics far more than its perpetrators (Clinton, Obama).
Perhaps counterintuitively, another problem with privilege politics is sectarianism. The propensity of privilege politics to divide oppressions into increasingly fine-grained instances and “rank” oppressions tends to produce separatism, narrow nationalism, and division. Solidarity becomes increasingly difficult when oppression is essentialized and individualized; isolation is encouraged over unity.
The subjectivist primacy that privilege politics gives to “lived experiences” can also quite easily serve the forces of reaction. Reactionary white men tend to perceive themselves as victimized, often believing the illusion that they are an oppressed or marginalized group. A core basis of the alt-right is self-victimhood of oppressor groups (e.g. White Rights, Men’s Rights). If “lived experiences” rule, then the narratives of the oppressors must be deemed valid as well.
As a political worldview, privilege politics tend to neutralize and quell left-wing fervor rather than channel it into any sort of effective political program. The subjectivism of privilege politics amounts to a total rejection of the existence objective truth, which gives up ground to the forces of reaction. If truth is in the eyes of the beholder, unfortunately you might not like what some eyes behold.
…or you put fire out best with water?
In the words of the late Fred Hampton:
…some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.
What is the Marxist-Leninist orientation towards privilege politics?
Firstly, we must defend progressive organizations and movements of the oppressed from right-wing attacks, regardless of their political orientation. Despite the flaws of “social justice” rhetoric, it is essential that we oppose injustice and political repression everywhere it is found. Privilege politics must be defended insofar as they are progressive and insofar as they are critiques of actually existing oppression.
However, on its own this orientation would amount to tailism. We must level our criticisms of privilege politics with materialist analysis in a principled manner. As communists, it is always our job to meet the masses where they’re at and pull them forward. It’s imperative that we struggle with the rank-and-file of left-liberalism and win over all who can be won over to a revolutionary socialist program.
Ultimately, the only way to fight rising reaction is a mass movement independent of the Democratic Party. As Leninists in the United States, it is our duty to unite all progressive forces in a united front against racism and imperialism. Left liberalism is not enough; in fact, it could very well be the death of us. We need revolutionary socialism, and we need it yesterday.