How the Alt-Right Works

by Benjamin Studebaker

There’s a video of an Alt-Right rally doing the rounds on the web. The Atlantic posted it on YouTube:

Most people who share this video are just looking to say “wow, how disgusting is that”. And that’s worth saying. But let’s also take this opportunity to pick apart how this horrifying view works and what we can do to prevent more people from adopting it.

A lot of the video is empty braggadocio. But there is a bit where the speaker, Richard Spencer, does address opposing views:

We recognize the central lie of American race relations. We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us and not the other way around.

This should not be flippantly dismissed–Spencer calls this “the central lie”, which means he thinks it’s very important. And it performs essential work in his argument. Spencer not only denies that minorities are exploited, he believes they contribute nothing of value to white society. This allows him to tell a little story:

  1. In the beginning, America was white, and it was good.
  2. Then, motivated by a globalist/neoliberal ideology, the government began allowing all these non-white people to come into the country.
  3. The non-white people do not contribute to society. Instead, they sponge off white society, either by taking jobs, or straining public services, or consuming welfare benefits, or committing crimes.
  4. This means that when the government began allowing these people to come into the country, it acted against the interests of its original white citizens, and gave citizenship to people who were not willing or capable of contributing. This is wrong.
  5. Consequently white citizens are entitled to rectify this wrong by re-taking control of the state institutions and using them to expel the parasites.

All of this rests on a core premise, which is that non-white Americans don’t contribute to society. Or, to put it another way, diversity does not benefit white people. We can call this “the anti-diversity premise”. This leads the alt-right to make a friend/enemy distinction between other white people, who do contribute, and non-white people, who sponge. They are labelled an internal enemy, and this creates the justification for their destruction or expulsion.

All of this has its roots in fascist political theory, which holds that peoples are always entitled to redefine themselves to exclude groups which they feel are a threat to them or their way of life, and to expel or destroy those out-groups. We can call this belief “the core fascist premise”–it is very difficult to defeat the core fascist premise in argument, because it is something most people either intuitively strongly agree with or reject. For that reason the core fascist premise is often looked upon as a kind of terminal political disease which kills its victim by creating splits, either within one society or within groups of societies which might otherwise cooperate, resulting eventually in armed conflict and genocide.

So if we want to stop people from being fascist, we would ideally defeat the core fascist premise, but if we can’t do that we could nonetheless accomplish a lot by defeating the anti-diversity premise. So let me lay out the arguments against each.

Why We Should Reject the Core Fascist Premise

Fascists think that the productivity of different groups of people is grounded in either explicitly or implicitly racial differences. Here explicit racial differences refers to biological distinctions–some fascists think that non-whites are biologically inferior to whites. Implicit racial differences refers to looser cultural distinctions–some fascists think that non-whites are culturally inferior to whites.

The scientific community has long since rejected biological racism–indeed, the scientific consensus is that races are social constructs with no grounding in biology at all. But some fascists have adopted a conspiracy theory that the “true” science about race is being suppressed. These people cannot be reached through argument. They are lost to us.

Those who make cultural arguments recognize that socialization plays an important role in determining an individual’s productivity, but they mistakenly think socialization tracks race, when instead it tracks class. Non-whites are more likely to grow up poor, and that in turn reduces their economic and educational opportunities and makes them more likely to stay poor and to raise their own children in poverty. In communities where many white people grow up poor, they are every bit as likely to end up with negative social outcomes. When we make economic transfers to the poor, we are not allowing them to sponge, we are intervening to break the cycle of poverty and enable them to make more substantive contributions to society and to raise their own children in healthier environments.

All of our citizens are now raised under the various conditions our government policy creates in different areas for different classes of people. When they emerge from these conditions inadequately socialized, it is state policy which is to blame, because the state failed to intervene adequately to ensure these people were able to self-actualize. State policy failure can happen in any community, irrespective of race. The cultures that emerge from communities do not arise in a vacuum–state policy shapes the resource and opportunity environment which shapes the way cultures develop.

When fascists make a friend/enemy distinction between different internal racial groups, they are denying the state’s role in creating and perpetuating the unhealthy environments that generate the behavior they attribute to race, instead placing the blame on the various groups that are the subjects of state policy. So when we all live under the same state, we cannot permissibly decide to exclude groups at will on the basis of their under-performance when it is our own collective institutions and policy which are causing them to under-perform.

This is knockdown objection to the core fascist premise, but many people will not accept this argument because they have a strong intuitive belief in personal responsibility which causes them to disavow collective responsibility for the outcomes of individuals and groups. That split, between those drawn to personal responsibility and those drawn to collective responsibility, is the core right/left split. So when we are attempting to talk people out of the core fascist premise we are also attempting to talk them out of being right wing on a fundamental level, and that is very hard to do. The possibility of fascism only arises when many people have accepted the core right wing premise that people and groups are personally responsible for their own development, such that the state cannot be the object of blame.

So let’s try a less ambitious strategy…

Why We Should Reject the Anti-Diversity Premise

The simple retort to the anti-diversity premise is to highlight the immense historical contributions of non-white people to American prosperity–from the Asian-Americans who built the railroads to the African-Americans who developed the south. But these economic relationships were so exploitative. It would be little improvement to move fascists from wanting to expel non-whites to wanting to effectively enslave them.

So let’s instead talk about the contemporary contributions of these groups of people, because we have lots of great research which shows that non-white Americans are lovely people that we should be happy to have in our society. Fascists think immigrants bring crime, but they’re much less likely to commit crimes than native citizens are:

Immigrants also do not sponge off the welfare state and they do not strain our public services–they contribute more in tax revenue than they consume:

This is true even when we look primarily at poorly educated immigrants from low income backgrounds–the CBO study that chart is based on was evaluating the consequences of amnesty for undocumented migrants.

This doesn’t mean that our economy isn’t hurting, but non-white immigrants and minorities are not to blame for this. Responsibility rests not with the neoliberal establishment’s commitment to free movement but with its commitment to labor market and tax reforms which distribute wealth and income away from workers and consumers and to the investor class. Instead of seeing wage increases, workers are forced to borrow the money they should have been paid from investors, who then trade this debt as securities. When the debt burden grows too high and consumers begin defaulting on the loans, the state responds to the economic crisis by bailing out the investors and making consumers pay for it twice over with austerity. Then, to deflect opposition away from austerity, the right attempts to blame immigrants, minorities, and foreign states, inadvertently fueling the rise of the alt-right. These right nationalist challengers eventually kick them out of office and implement draconian policies that punish the victims without solving the problem.

That kind of argument can immunize people against the alt-right and potentially cure some of them before they embrace the anti-science biological racism cult and become completely lost. But instead we spend a lot of time yelling “racist” and “fascist” at people. All this does is make them think “well, if what I’m saying is racist, maybe racism isn’t so bad after all?” The most important thing is to show them that what they’re saying is substantively mistaken. The label is secondary.