Branding and Necessity
At the end of my post on disruption I put forward four theses. Eventually I hope to defend them all, but I intend to bracket the first three (which are about the nature of rhetoric, ideology, and civilization) while I address the fourth thesis, about the structure of the Alt-Right.
The first three theses could (at least in theory) be defended without any reference to recent events, so one could conceivably accept my general theories about rhetoric, ideology, and civilization but nonetheless hold that the AltRight which exists today is a divided movement with one (or more) major defining internal fault-lines.
I will tackle the messy quasi-empirical problem of describing the structure of the AltRight first, to forestall this type of objection. Hopefully in the process of answering the hardest question we will discover that we’re already well on our way to answering the other three.
I say quasi-empirical intentionally. If you read QL regularly you probably know that I’m not going to write a field guide or plot your friends onto the appropriate quadrant of a political compass (or triangle).
I’m also not going to talk about political phenomena as though they were brands that people can invent, popularize, and own. There are people who see politics as branding, and God love ‘em. What they do — colonizing labels, profiting off labels, chasing off people who try to misuse a label — is necessary to semantic stability, but boring (to me).
Consider a vortex, or a wave. You can formally describe a wave or a vortex without specifying whether it is traveling through water, orange juice, or maple syrup. Empirical features of the fluid through which a particular wave travels might affect how much energy the wave carries, or how steep it can get before it collapses. But formal features of waves are substrate-neutral. Indeed, what a wave is “made out of” is in constant flux; as a wave travels, its formal dynamics cause new particles to adopt the wave-structure as it ejects particles it had assimilated earlier.
To my way of thinking, a new political phenomenon is interesting only to the extent that it corresponds to a formal structure, like a vortex or a wave, which can be described independently of its constituent parts and which uses those parts to perpetuate and propagate itself.
Another way of phrasing my point: had events gone slightly differently, and the people and factions currently associated with the Alt-Right never coalesced, different people and different factions could have been drawn into the same structural relationship to one another and given birth to the same movement under a different name.
By the way, it may well be that no label for any political movement ever makes its mark until the self-appointed guardians of the brand have slipped up enough new users learning the term for the first time no longer know that it designates a certain set of men, but only recognize a structural pattern in the recruitment of new members. Dick Spencer has taken credit for popularizing “Alt-Right” on the strength of founding an Alternative Right website in 2010, but I wonder if it isn’t the failure of the website that was instrumental in baptizing the larger movement! (In other words, if Alternative Right had been successful, we would use “Alt-Right” the way we currently use “NPI”/“Radix” and some other name would have crystallized.)
What A Coincidence
The Western world has been hurtling leftward for a long time, and in a worrying way. To quote from Resisting Assimilation:
> In the last two centuries elite political consensus has moved rapidly towards the Left. The pace is only accelerating. Radical theories go from absurdity to orthodoxy at ever-increasing speeds. Institutions forged to hold back the left are coopted so quickly that some of them seem to have been born pozz’d.
Within this overall trend, each institution has had its own unique trajectory, slightly different from all the others. An important part of the overall acceleration is the trend in party politics, and one half of that story is the birth of cuckservatism, ably narrated by Paul Gottfried here. Gottfried’s list of (actual) conservatives purged from the conservative movement also functions as a reading list of witnesses to everything the twentieth-century Right was failing to conserve. (The same essay, or rather the speech on which the essay was based, also introduces the use of the term “Alternative Right”.)
Cuckservativism is self-perpetuating because every new change in public opinion can justify a new round of purges of “unacceptable” views, which destabilizes political debate and allows public opinion to drift further left. Once cucks start the self-destructive cycle of internal purges, organized political and ideological resistance falls apart.
The public’s leftward ideological drift could in theory have continued indefinitely because of these self-perpetuating dynamics… if leftist ideas were good. However, most leftist ideas are wildly inaccurate, and leftist policies which do not lead to suffering immediately either erode institutions or are open to various forms of exploitation. As a leftist society degenerates, suffering proliferates — and the sufferers rebel.
As Americans’ views on a range of issues change, leftists enact legal and institutional reforms. Each new round of reforms leads to massive changes in multiple social spheres. The reforms create both winners and losers but on net losers (and over time, more and more losers). They also increase the power of the reformers, generate rent-seeking constituencies, leave the institutional framework exposed to further reforms, and create new social problems (remember all those losers!) for reformers to try to solve.
The ranks of the Left’s victims start to grow exponentially; so, too, does the variety of ways in which they have been victimized. This point is worth stressing! Sometimes, a leftist policy is so bad that the victims of that one policy, all by themselves, are numerous enough to create a political backlash. The Left will then suffer a setback, but it can also discard isolated catastrophic policies and adapt.
More often, the victims of a single policy are too few, too dispersed, or too indirectly affected to lead an immediate backlash. As these hard-to-resist policies accumulate, increasing numbers of people are seriously hurt by the aggregate effects of several leftist policies on different areas of their lives. Without having any single thread which runs through all of their personal complaints, they all develop an inchoate aversion to the left at around the same time.
What a coincidence!
Reality is Ugly
Racial issues and gender issues are probably the two most significant areas where where interlocking Leftist ideology, propaganda, and social policy channel disillusionment with specific leftist policies into self-conscious resistance to the Left. Perhaps this is not surprising; there are extensive parallels between the two areas.
- In both cases, people can categorize one another at a glance on the basis of a brief inspection of superficial traits, and can make inferences about non-observed individual traits on the basis of group averages.
- In both cases, there are real differences between average group traits caused by genetics (in races, recent shared ancestry; in men and women, chromosomal differences).
- In both cases, social outcomes for the group are affected by underlying biology, and so variance in different groups’ social problems may have biological explanations.
- In particular: in both cases, outliers may find it inconvenient to be confused with modal group-members (see #1), and may try to find ways (political or otherwise) to encourage/force strangers not to treat them like a modal member.
- In both cases, the pure form of Leftist ideology denies biological differences between groups, while the more moderate forms deny that biological differences should ever matter.
- In both cases, the Left comes up with creative fictions to explain social problems caused by group traits; inevitably these fables slide from absolving the group of responsibility for its own problems, to blaming other groups.
- In both cases, when reforms based on these fables fail to solve the problems, new fables with an even broader scope are concocted to explain how the scapegoat-groups sabotaged the original solution.
- In both cases, the categories coordinate one’s participation in a major social sphere: people self-segregate to form ethnically homogenous (and thus culturally harmonious) communities, and they pair off to form families wherein a husband and wife can each play a specialized role suited to their talents and tastes.
- In both cases, bizarre and constantly changing theories about how to solve “social problems” stemming from group differences (see #7) start to interfere with human flourishing within the relevant social sphere (community-formation is impeded in one case, and family-formation in the other).
- In both cases, the Left attempts to gain one group as a special constituency and increasingly adopts a platform of identity politics, pushing openly negative-sum policies that help the in-group only at the expense of the out-group (and in many cases do not help the group as a whole at all, but only its leaders and/or its most politically radical elements).
- In particular: the distribution of jobs, offices, honors and academic admissions is no longer viewed either as a private matter or as a matter of individual merit, but as political spoils for groups to fight over.
- In both cases, political debate and virtue-signaling increasingly come to revolve around insults (like “racist” and “sexist”) whose purpose is to create scapegoats for a group’s problems (see #7), and in particular to demean those who confuse outlier members and modal members (#4), who admit that group differences have biological roots (#2); ultimately, these labels come to refer to anyone who notices group traits at all (#1).
“Progress” in these two areas is a major contributor to the overall feedback loop which fuels leftward acceleration. These are probably also, out of all the Left’s issues, the ones which have ultimately caused the most suffering: partly because family formation and community formation are so central to human life, partly because so many different policies are gathered together under these two rubrics.
Indeed, progressives actively work to recategorize their pet issues under “race issues” or “gender issues” precisely because racism and sexism are so central to the Left’s rhetorical strategy. But people hate being slandered, so the very effectiveness of the rhetorical strategy is part of what makes its politically-incorrect targets notice its use and detest its users!
What’s more, race and gender are two topics where both personal experience and basic high-school biology demonstrate the absurdity of the ideology of political correctness. Everyone knows that the Left is lying.
All the news that’s fit to print
Once you know that the Left and its minions are lying about the big picture, you start to wonder whether they’re lying about particular stories whose political relevance hinges on the race or gender of the protagonists. And once you start to wonder…
The media is a funny thing. If you choose a guy at random and ask him how he feels about newspaper coverage of a certain topic and the topic happens to be one where he is personally well-informed, where he can rely on his own experience or expertise: he’ll probably tell you journalists are ignorant and the nonsense that ends up in their articles could only be explained by laziness or brainlessness. But if you ask him the same question about coverage of any other topic, he’ll probably be pretty satisfied with it.
This is not to say that we should all be experts about everything, or that we should only read the sort of research that experts would find intelligent and substantial. But it does mean:
- Our faith in the media can only be sustained by a certain kind of thoughtlessness (a failure to extrapolate from our judgment of the journalism we have the background knowledge to evaluate).
- Most people accept and even appreciate articles that they would consider lazy and brainless if they tried to verify them, so you can easily use journalism as a vehicle for dishonest propaganda.
- If experts in each topic agree the journalists whose work they’ve reviewed are lazy and/or brainless, all journalists are; if journalists are lazy/brainless, they will make lots of mistakes; if they make lots of mistakes, anyone who starts to poke around in his favorite newspaper or magazine will be disappointed by what he finds.
So once you start to treat every article skeptically, your digging turns up so many errors, half-truths and exaggerations that your faith in the media is irrevocably lost. Soon you are no longer asking whether the media is reliable but rather what misconceptions it is trying to spread.
This, by the way, is why Gamergate was so important. Yes, I know: video games, uncool! Many would prefer not to trivialize the Alt-Right by associating it with (a) petty and (b) nerdy (thus, low-status) concerns about video-game journalism. But I have repeatedly and without irony referred to Gamergate as the Alt-Right’s Spanish Civil War, because it recapitulated the entire social conflict between the Left and its victims on a smaller scale, and magnified some of its most important dynamics (in particular, the role of journalists).
Whether your first suspicions focused on race, on gender, or even on video games, once you start treating the media as unreliable you also move to a new understanding of how journalism works.
Previously, when you noticed a pattern in all the articles a paper published on a certain topic, you took the pattern as evidence of an underlying empirical regularity. Each additional report which fit the pattern was credible because it was consistent with the general rule; and our confidence in the rule grew stronger with each new report that confirmed it. Likewise, when all the articles published in different news outlets about a single story were similar, you reasonably inferred that the articles were similar because they were all accurate reports of the same story.
When you realize the empirical regularity doesn’t exist, that raises a question about what does explain the consistent bias. This gives rise to further research into the story that journalists are attempting to force on their readers: the Narrative.
It also raises questions about why journalists promote the Narrative at the expense of accurate reporting! These explanations can get very complicated, but for most people the arc is the same: once you realize the editor isn’t going to fire a lying journalist if you can get just a few more people to sign your petition, you start to see the media organizations themselves as political enemies.
Originally you were only concerned about lies in one area where the lies struck you as particularly pointless and painful: maybe race or gender, maybe video games, maybe something else entirely. Then you realized that journalism is lies. Once you get to that point, you are on the verge of realizing that the media also tells you many non-obvious lies that haven’t harmed you very much (yet).
Then you’re in the Alt-Right.
Last Stand of the Anglo-Saxons
Besides lying about reality directly (in the media, in the schools, in pop culture), the Left also exerts whatever power it can to discourage expression of open opposition to leftist policies and ideology. But of course, deception and suppression are two great tastes that taste great together; discussion of deceptive journalism is one of the most important targets to be suppressed.
There is a reason why 2016’s culture war was dubbed “The Revolt of the Comments Section”. As the losers the Left’s policies create multiply and ordinary people become increasingly hostile to the media, any space where people are able to discuss and critique deceptive journalism is bound to explode sooner or later. 2016 was the explosion.
All of these revolts (from those which took place in the comments sections of the individual articles, to social media, to the forums of long-established online communities) are interesting in their own right, as elements of the general struggle to spread accurate information in the face of a perpetual onslaught of deception. But the explosion in repression (and in particular, repression of debates about the factual accuracy of the Narrative) also triggered a new dynamic which rapidly strengthened the Right.
American progressives inherited an Anglo-Saxon country. They managed to get rid of most of the Anglo-Saxons, and many of its institutions, but only by paying lip service to at least some of the Anglo-Saxon principles.
Freedom of speech was an American principle which progressive have only recently felt free to dispense with. Current university students often (typically?) use “free speech” to mean the type of speech that is free, in contrast to (for example) “hate speech”, which is forbidden and subject to severe consequences. However, even a few years ago progressives still felt insecure enough that they needed to embrace the principle of free speech, even if they had to subvert it or pervert it to make it serve their ends.
(They may even have encouraged extreme, pathological enthusiasm about free speech! Certainly this enthusiasm was a rationale for the dissemination of obscene material. Free-speech enthusiasm is also a symptom of the progressive strategy of forcing opponents to defend exaggeratedly rigorous/internally-consistent positions.)
Whatever the explanation for this last relic of Anglo-Saxon values may be, most American adults still care very deeply about free speech, and this created a final line of defense against deceptive propaganda.
Suppression of political discussion typically works by declaring some topics, claims and attitudes out-of-bounds: they are hateful, extremist, or whatever else. Typically this tactic only succeeds if the community in question generally accepts that at least some of the claims targeted for suppression are, indeed, hateful/extremist/etc. Defenders of free speech are willing to agree that certain claims are hateful, but nonetheless argue against banning hateful claims.
Principled believers in free speech may think that it is empirically or theoretically wrong to believe X, and that as a matter of politeness or ethics it would wrong to say X; but this is irrelevant to a question of principle. The more claim X is suppressed, the more principled believers in free speech will stop discussing X and move to a meta-discussion about banning X.
Other principled friends of liberty may go further, and feel that the only way defend the right to say X is to actually say X. They may do this simply in solidarity, to make suppression more difficult and damaging. They may find it convenient to express their support as a public show of strength. Where part of the argument is about the harm X does to the audience, repeating X anyway is a form of tit-for-tat to deter further restriction of speech. One’s willingness to defend the right to say X in this way is likely related to the view that X is not all that hateful, and one may end up saying “X” simply to demonstrate that nothing bad will happen, that it’s not evil, and that you can reject belief in X without getting hung up on trying to stop people from saying X.
The ideological defense of speech and the expressive defense of speech are simply two different approaches to defending free speech. In most communities where dissident opinions are being suppressed, there will be a large number of people who support free speech, most of whom would prefer not to repeat any claims they think are false and hateful.
However, when there is a concerted attempt to suppress discussion in a community which flagrantly ignores principled opponents, free-speech supporters abandon their spontaneous, piecemeal defenses of the dissidents and can collaborate on an overall strategy which will lead to victory. And once ideological defenders are collaborating with expressive defenders and debating their overall strategy, they are likely to (a) befriend the expressive defenders, (b) realize that they aren’t actually saying hateful things because they are hateful people (remember the FAE!), and (c) start to respect the strategic logic of expressive defense.
Of course, just as ideological defenders and expressive defenders gain respect for one another once they are forced to cooperate and start to mingle, so too for expressive defenders and genuine dissidents. From the point of view of leftist henchmen who ban anyone who says “X”, genuine dissidents and their expressive defenders look exactly the same. However, once they are united by a shared fate, a shared strategy, and an equally low status in the eyes of anyone who trusts the Narrative, they are likely to befriend one another and start exchanging ideas about their situation. Very quickly the expressive defenders, who had previously rejected X as an absurd belief, will be exposed to all sorts of new reasons to believe X (and will use many of them in their expressive defense of X); they may even change their mind!
This pattern, wherein concerted suppression of free speech causes ideological defenders to associate with expressive defenders and expressive defenders to associate with genuine dissidents, does not depend on what is being suppressed, where, or by whom. However, if X really is unlikely or absurd (and if saying X really is hateful, or shameful in any other way), then this closer association is just as likely to force dissidents to consider objections which shake their faith, or expressive defenders to see the promise of a more respectful approach, as vice-versa.
When X is true, however, and the main reason most people rejected X to begin with is that inquiry into X was discouraged/stigmatized by low-level suppression, then intensifying the suppression to ban any debate about X has a catalytic effect. Ideological defenders will start to feel the pull of the expressive defense as soon as they start to meet expressive defenders, and will never look back; expressive defenders will only learn more and more evidence in favor of X from genuine dissidents, whose views they will have no power to change.
Collaboration in defense of free speech also catalyzes belief in the forbidden claim “X” much more quickly if the defenders are already skeptical about leftist ideology, leftist rhetoric and leftist “facts” in light of previous experiences, unrelated to free speech. They will be attuned to the possibility that the anti-X consensus was engineered, and open to evidence which confirms deception took place.
Of course it is also possible to be primed for catalysis by experiences which were related to free speech; and in particular, to different catalytic chains which overlap to create a larger reaction. Ideological defenders of the right to say X may start out too uncertain, or simply too embarrassed, to defend the right to say Y; as they are catalyzed towards a belief in X, they also find themselves among people who will defend the right to say Y, or involved in a common strategy defending the right to say X and Y; and thus gradually they gain a new appreciation of the importance of Y, and the catalysis continues.
The only way to avoid this dynamic while suppressing free speech is to make sure that only a tiny number of people value free speech in the first place, or to suppress it so forcefully that resistance is obviously hopeless (or at least very costly) from the beginning, depriving your opponents of an occasion to come together to coordinate their collective strategy.
Recap: Genesis of a movement
- Progressive acceleration produces a huge pool of people who have been hurt in complicated ways by social degeneration, and thus have grievances against the Left.
- Those with grievances against the Left become skeptical about leftist claims in a certain issue area, and openly hostile to political correctness.
- Skeptics about one aspect of the Narrative start to meticulously doubt and fact-check media sources; their faith in the media plummets as they discover systematic inaccuracies, they try to reach a new understanding about what the media is and how it functions, and their skepticism spreads outside the original issue area.
- As skepticism spreads, suppression of all political discussion (particularly discussions concerning the reliability of media sources) becomes a major flashpoint; vestigial fondness for free speech leads to a backlash which catalyzes the views of the American mainstream.
In the next installment I will come to — well, let’s call it “the varieties of reactionary experience”.
Series: What is the Alt-Right?
- Part I (Disruption is Easy)
- Part II (Recipe for Reaction) < You are here
- Projected: Part III (Reality and Rebirth)
- Projected: Part IV (The Political Onion)