There are a few terms that don’t really mean anything, but they convey enormous rhetorical power. ‘Neo-liberalism’, I’m sure, once meant something. Perhaps it still does in academic political science circles. But when it appears in the middle of an op-ed, it doesn’t actually convey any meaning. ‘Identity politics’ acts in a similar way, but from the opposite perspective. Perhaps ‘identity politics’ is stranger still, given that it’s so often invoked by people who are eyeballs deep in identity rhetoric: conservative white males who fear that Christians and Anglo-Australians and their way of life are under threat from migrants and lesbians and Marxists.
‘Alt-right’ has quickly jumped into this category of political labels that don’t signify anything in particular. The New York Times ran a piece about how the alt-right was staging ‘an Occupy Trump movement‘, but never got around to explaining precisely what it meant by the term. The BBC tried a bit harder:
The alt-right is against political correctness and feminism. It’s nationalist, tribalist and anti-establishment. Its followers are fond of internet pranks and using provocative, often grossly offensive messages to goad their enemies on both the right and the left. And many of them are huge supporters of Donald Trump. [Source]
What the hell does that even mean? Later, it’s suggested that they might be associated with calls for ‘an independent intellectual Right, one that exists without movement establishment funding’. Is the alt-right just everything an everything that left liberals hate?
NPR goes a bit further:
They are also suspicious of free-markets, a key tenet of conservatism, as they believe that business interests can often be in conflict with what they view as higher ideals – those of cultural preservation and homogeneity. [Source]
Not only should the suggestion that free-markets are a ‘key tenet of conservatism’ raise an eyebrow, but now the ‘alt-right’ space is so broad that it’s difficult to see what’s the real difference between ‘alt-right’ and the idiot underbelly of conservatism that’s existed since time immemorial.
And then Vox added another gem:
a movement of right-wingers who openly argue that democracy is a joke. That it’s weak, it’s corrupt, and it caters to the whims of a fickle electorate rather than the needs of the citizenry. [Source]
Hell, I know a lot of leftwingers who would agree with that position.
There is an instinct to sever a present issue from its historical past. A few years ago, everybody was abuzz with discussion about the Tea Party Movement and how it was anti-establishment, and that it opposed progressive liberalism, and that it was lurching everything to the right, and how it was anti-establishment, &c., &c., &c. And there were thinkpieces — so many thinkpieces! — that puzzled over how this political force sprang spontaneously autochthonic into the world.
And remember when we did the self-same thing but to the Occupy Movement, but from the perspective of the Left? That it was anti-establishment, organic, authentic, and would change politics forever? That it represented a failure of the political system? Blah, blah, blah…
The big secret of modern politics is that the vast majority of politics is ideologically indistinguishable. And I don’t just mean that the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party are stuck in the swampy pits of centrist liberalism (which they are), but also all of our protest movements occupy exactly the same space. The neo-Nazi protesting in the middle of Melbourne uses exactly the same justifying language as the anti-fascist who is protesting against them. Exactly the same.
We’re protecting our way of life. We are protecting our society. We are exercising our democratic rights to speak out in favour of our vision. Our speech is under threat from others who want to silence us. We face an existential threat if we do not speak up and speak for those who can’t be here today, the silent majority.
They use exactly the same language about rights. They use exactly the same language about the threat from the State, from the media, and from corruption in the political process.
The only thing they disagree about is the objects to which they apply these ideological frameworks. The engine is the same, but they’re driving on different roads.
We live in an age of compulsory liberalism. Anything that is even slightly illiberal is either nudged out of view, or it is branded ‘extreme’. We can’t have extremists.
It’s that last bit which is the problem. We don’t get radical new political ideas because there is no space within the space of compulsory liberalism. An easy example of this is how we police radical feminists: they’re not liberal enough to play in the political sandpit, they need to lean in and love grrrl power or they need to be shut down. I’m conservative so, of course, I disagree with the radical feminists but, holy frijoles, at least there’s somebody who is openly challenging the dreary contemporary political space.
The ‘no extremists’ rule is also why liberal critiques of the current malaise are so self-serving. In a review of a forthcoming book, Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics by Mark Thompson, the Financial Times discusses the way ordinary voters are rejecting authority through appeals to ‘authenticity’:
The language of authenticity, as we now hear it every day, is a means of allying with part of the electorate through their grievances, sometimes well founded, and their prejudices; it is a form of language that privileges emotion, claims primacy for personal experience and is deeply dismissive of those in power.
The account incorrectly dichotomises the problem between the Good — the objective, rational, scientific, mind-independent — on the one hand and the Bad — the subjective, emotive, first-person — on the other. In the first instance, nobody really thinks in this way. We have a wide spectrum of evidence from which we select in order to justify — sometimes even only to ourselves — the sort of people we are and the opinions that we hold. I’m very cerebral, so I prioritise a kind of rationality, but I know that this kind of rationality can coldly and unjustifiably lock out the voices of others who don’t participate in the same cold rational way. Similarly, the person who reasons mostly through intuition and feeling doesn’t reject all mind-independent fact. Only the most broken people are ideologically committed to one over the other.
But the other problem with the account is that it suggests one is the way of the future — the scientific way — and that everything else is obscurantist regression. ‘If only people would listen to the scientists, things would be better! Look at all the good things science has given us! Why do we keep having false balance between scientists and non-scientists?!’
But this is to cherry pick history, and the jingoism that surrounds contemporary narratives about science is worrying. There are people alive today who were alive when the best science of the day said that they were genetically inferior and would be bred out of the gene pool. I’ve written in the past about how scientific advancement is only possible due to hideous economic disparities. And nobody has been able to come up with a decent reply to Jonathan Swift’s complaints about the pointlessness of science.
The net result of these is the assertion of a particular space within political discourse that is objectively neutral. Have whatever political opinions you want, provided that you don’t question the science, that you don’t challenge the science, that you don’t doubt the presentation of the science. It’s fact-based politics and it separates us from the post-fact political world of the extremists.
It is a complete fantasy. The presentation of scientific evidence is always going to be political; it is never neutral. But if it’s not neutral, the liberal’s appeal to a kind of enlightenment mathematics about politics is rejected.
This is already way too long for a blog post, but let me argue one last thing. The current malaise in politics is the inevitable telos of the adolescent anti-authoritarian rhetoric of the Baby Boomers. Regardless of the political stripe of the Baby Boomer — from the draft-dodging, bong-smoking, free-loving Baby Boomers through to the ‘Fuck you, got mine’ everybody-gets-a-white-collar-job-in-my-utopia Baby Boomer — they hate being told what to do. Having experienced several political scandals and coming to the firm belief that they could trust nobody but themselves, isolated monads disconnected from the rest of their society, they performed to themselves identities of the free-thinking man who was sure somebody was trying to con them. Power corrupts, they told each other. If it doesn’t make sense to them, something must be fishy.
The most pressing political concern of the contemporary age is to restore the nature of authority in politics. That authority doesn’t come from scientific hocus pocus or appeals to mind-independent facts; it comes from culture and an intellectual understanding of what our obligations and duties are towards each other in a society.
While every single major party is a crude populist front, we are never going to see the much-needed rise of a party that can stabilise the chaos. The problem is not a rejection of science, truth, or facts; the problem is a total embrace of what our social systems have been preaching for forty years: reject authority figures because they’re all lying to you and decide things for yourself.