19 August 2017

Alt-right? All ‘lite’

From The Death of Major Peirson, John Singleton Copley, 1783

It’s as I’ve been saying for awhile now. My biggest problem with the nouvelle nouvelle-droite, or the ‘alt-right’, is that they’re philosophically weak. I believe I had them pegged as a ‘rancid mixture of free-speech absolutism, postmodernism and white identity politics’; to that I’d add that they haven’t gone anywhere far enough down their rabbit hole. Certainly not as much as they like to pretend they have. Nothing bores so much as a poseur, and the ‘alt-right’ are pretty much all low-calorie fizzy drinks.

Think about it this way. If the ‘edgiest’ thing they have on offer is the idea that the races are not equal, then there’s no real difference between the views they’re offering and the original formulations of, say, Kant or Hume (and arguably Locke as well, though it seems from the primary sources that Locke was less doctrinaire in his ‘race realism’ – or at the very least inconsistent in it). Kant and Hume both posited ‘scientific’ hierarchies of the races, which look remarkably similar to those proposed by the ‘human biodiversity’ people today – with whites being blessed with superior intelligence and blacks with inferior intelligence but greater ‘brute’ strength. So, if anything, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite are really just peddling weak tea from the used teabags of the original Enlightenment. If your only, or even most prominent, objections to Enlightenment liberalism are based on race, then you don’t actually have any.

The easiest way to understand the fundamental insipidity of the alt-right and the milquetoast, limpwristed nature of their intellectual pretensions to ‘reaction’, lies in the confluence of the alt-right’s intellectual lodestones with transhumanism, eugenicism and technological utopianism, primarily through the LessWrong crowd. The fact that there are so few teleological differences between the alt-right’s ideal society and the ideal society most ‘progressive’-minded Americans of the 1910’s and 1920’s envisioned, should drop a massive hint that these guys are all guff. There’s very little of Voegelin’s belief in epistemic limitations in any of the nouvelle nouvelle-droite, less of the characteristic caution of Kirk (whom Vox Day, speaking for the alt-right, explicitly rejects), still less of the ‘small-is-beautiful’ sensibility of Carlson, and nothing at all of the tragic classical sensibilities of Strauss or Bloom. For someone whose introduction to the American tradition of classical conservatism was through the anti-fascist poet and historian Peter Viereck, the nouvelle nouvelle-droite strikes me as so thoroughly lacking in any of the vital, creative or self-reflective elements of this tradition as to be a complete non-starter.

Then, consider that the opposition to the growing infatuation with Enlightenment ideas at the time was basically on the other side of the contemporary argument about race. The Anglo-American Tory moralist tradition (represented by such people as Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, Beilby Porteous, Richard Oastler, John Strachan, William Wilberforce, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, enriched by dialogue and practical coöperation with the Quakers) proceeded from the belief that black people were not ontologically inferior to whites. And all of these people, in one way or another, were also strident critics of what they saw as a sustained assault by Scottish and French philosophes on the traditional social strictures of Church and state.

But to these voices were joined, on the Continent, the Counter-Enlightenment thinking of – in particular – Johann Gottfried Herder (‘Notwithstanding the varieties of the human form, there is but one and the same species of man throughout the whole earth’), Karl Wilhelm Friedrich von Schlegel (who took an admirable linguistic interest in South Asia) and August Franz von Haxthausen (a devout Catholic and counter-Enlightenment thinker, whose sociological work in the German East and in Russia was aimed squarely against the anti-Asiatic racism of Custine). The work of the Orthodox Slavophils, in particular Khomyakov with his opposition to British imperialism in China, may be seen in this vein as well. Clearly there was something in the return to the Church that both the Anglo-American Tories and the Continental Counter-Enlightenment thinkers that strongly militated against racism and colonialism.

As a brief aside: poor Schlegel is emphatically not to blame for that later, perverse Franco-German interest in South Asia. Schlegel, like Tolkien later, was interested not in race ‘science’ but instead in linguistics, and attempted to show how European languages, and ‘Eastern’ Indo-Iranian languages like Sanskrit and Farsi, derive from a common root language. Rather, that Franco-German perversion is what happens when you try to bastardise the Romantics by attempting to fit them into pseudo-scientific categories of thought, of the sort pioneered by Carl Linnæus.

But let’s consider a group of ‘alt’-thinkers who actually did threaten the thought-establishment – to the point where the CIA took actions against them. Whatever their other faults, it is not an accident, and should not be seen as such, that many of the twentieth-century voices for pan-African regionalism and the non-aligned movement migrated to Apostolic Christianity – likely following the example of Broad Church Anglican convert and abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano. Many were either Roman Catholic (Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Kambarage Nyerere) or Orthodox (HM Haile Selassie I, Bp. George Alexander McGuire, Fr. Raphael Morgan, Bp. Christophoros Reuben Spartas Mukasa Mugimba Ssebanja). These pioneers of African political philosophy and religious thought saw clearly the links between liberal Enlightenment thinking and the oppression they were then still under, and hearkened instead to the classics of Christian thought, which offered a far truer account of the human person and the virtue-oriented potential for freedom.

Speaking of the last, the great classical virtue-ethical philosopher Plotinus was born on the African continent, and should rightly be considered as much part of the legacy of Africa as of the West. The ‘conservative, reactionary and right-wing’ (in the elder sense) Imperial British poet Lawrence Durrell even made reference to Plotinus’ ‘great square Negro head, reverberating with the concept of God’! Take special care to see that it’s a British Old Rightist speaking up against the notion of black intellectual inferiority, in the context of the classical Western world.

To tie all this up: this recent comment from the excellent modern-day Roman Catholic High Tory commentator, David Lindsay, not only rings especially true, not only echoes Herder and not only cuts straight against the current gender-ideological and identitarian silliness on both sides of the political moment, but it is fixed quite firmly in the spirit of Johnson’s High Toryism. A spirit I profoundly endorse.
Any two human beings, no matter how divergent their ethnicity, can produce a child. Provided that one of them is a man, and the other is a woman.

All human beings belong, not only to a single species, but to a single subspecies, with less biological difference between any two than there is between a Labrador and a
dachshund. The differences that there are, have been changing constantly ever since they first began to emerge, since they have not always been there.

But the difference between the two sexes has always been there, and it is written into the chromosomes of every cell of the body, no matter how the tissue may or may not be cut up.

On the first of these realisations depends every past and future achievement of the anti-racist movement. On the second depends every past and future achievement of the women’s movement. There must be no compromise on either as a matter of political principle. There actually can be no compromise on either as a matter of scientific fact.
Well said indeed.


  1. Apropos of the philosophical thrashing in the shallows of these pseuds, I recall that, until his doxxing, Mencius Moldbug, eg., Curtis Yarvin, was quite the vogue amongst the Right, and not only the alt-Right and neo-reactionaries, but among more than a few more intellectually inclined right-wingers. Nonetheless - and this is indicative of the great intellectual poverty of conservatism itself - all of Yarvin's logorrhea could be distilled down to the following proposition: The corporate form of organization, most especially the plenary power of the CEO, may be transposed to society as a whole, and governance reconceptualized, and reconfigured, as the rule of a CEO-god-king endeavouring the maximize the exchange-value (ie., profit) generated by that society, which is essentially a megacorporation. Any want of performance would be registered via the Magic Market Mechanisms, and his board, other titans of Capital, would vote him out - depose him - and replace him. This category error was ringed about by countless baroque historical references and allusions, by which Yarvin attempted to persuade his readers that his so-called neocameralism had something in common with pre-Enlightenment absolutist traditions; moreover, the sheer torrent of verbiage, and the mock-prophetic style of his prose, tended to produce an impression of the oracular, the profound, the epiphanic, as though the accumulated muck of two-thousand years of egalitarian thought would be consumed by the refulgent splendour of the god-capitalist, wielding the legal instruments of both state and business - a parody, intentional or not, of the old imperial double-eagles.

    For, in the end, Yarvin was promulgating nothing more than an ideal of the corporate/totalitarian rule of the Silicon Valley singularity fetishist, heaping up great piles of words in order to obscure the fundamental silliness of his conception. Conservatives, though, want to be so deceived, because few of them really believe in anything so concrete as the local, the particular, and the familiar. Rather, most of them believe in the great abstractions Hierarchy and Inequality, which they have posited against the barely-understood tenets of (what they take to be) Leftist thought. Conservatism, in the span of a century and a half (if we assume that it ever existed in the United States, which is perhaps doubtful), has degenerated from valorizing accepted local ways to valorizing hierarchy and inequality in themselves, for themselves, almost without regard for the substantive content of any particular hierarchy. One might wish for them to spend some time, if they must be right-wingers, with the collected works of Voegelin, for example, not least because his first several works treat of the absurdities of modernist race doctrine; but even this would be too much, for their concerns do not touch upon matters of the spirit, merely upon certain relations with their fellow men, which they have falsely spiritualized (roughly inspired by readings of Nietzsche): the pathos of class distance.

    That, I think, is the pathology of modern conservatism in a nutshell: the whole of its spiritual energies have come to be concentrated upon the boring, and base, material end of preserving and extending class hierarchies - the greater their depth and number, the better. And no amount of florid rhetoric can disguise the banality of that.

  2. Hello, Maximos!

    Having read your comment in full twice over, I feel sadly compelled to agree. The American conservative movement in the United States has unfortunately petered out into a mere knee-jerk defence of certain inequities as 'natural', regardless of whether or not they actually are.

    This is one of the reasons why I tend to think the rejection of Kirk did not portend any good. Kirk at least had the intellectual acuity, imagination and self-awareness to understand that, beg pardon for the many levels of irony, not all privileges are created equal. There's an ugly kind of levelling implicit in the idea that all hierarchies are equally just.