The apparent success of the ‘alt-right’ and ‘populist right’ movements in Europe and the US has analysts scratching around for explanations. It’s economics at heart, say the serious academics. The annoyed liberals counter that it’s really hidden xenophobia unleashed. The sensible centrists, Economist-reading types, agree a little with both and sagely add cultural nervousness: a symptom of too much change, too quickly. There’s some truth in each, but there’s one ingredient missing. For many people this newish radical right (by which I mean the very loose coalition of anti-globalisation, anti-left wing, populist right-wing groups) has become a rebellious counter-culture.
Deny it if you want! But the depressing fact for liberals and left-wingers is this: there is at least a possibility that groups like the alt-right have achieved the mysterious alchemy that transforms a scrappy rabble into a momentum fuelled counter-culture. I’m not suggesting this makes it morally any more defensible, merely that it makes it far more potent. (As this Vox article explains, the radical right has often had certain ‘cool’ style. Gavin McInnes, leading radical righter, also founded Vice magazine and is credited with starting the hipster aesthetic).
Every counter-culture – especially youthful ones – tends to share two features, both of which are currently found in the radical right more than anywhere else.
First, they oppose whatever the establishment values happen to be with a reckless, gleeful abandon. Granted, the word ‘establishment’ is often used to lazily denigrate opponents (hardly anyone says they are part of the establishment). But it is possible to identify a set of received wisdoms that are held by the overwhelming majority of people in positions of economic, political or cultural power. These include the value of cultural and religious diversity, the importance of certain limits on free speech, the need to fight certain forms of social and economic inequality, (relatively) open borders especially within the EU, and so on.
The radical right revel in tearing into all this, and plainly enjoy the offence they cause each time they trample over polite society’s holy screeds. Donald Trump at times appeared to run much of his election campaign on this very basis. Although only a small, and probably over-hyped, wedge of this new radical right, the ‘alt-right’ culture is a good illustration. Its origins are found in 4chan, the notorious image sharing board famous for its subversive memes, anything-goes trolls, hackers and general taboo breaking. Many alt-righters are grown-up 4channers, uncertain of where their genuine beliefs stop and gratuitous offence starts (and preferring to keep the boundary blurred).
Is it not thrilling to rebel with such a carefree attitude, after all? Is it not more exciting to take on every social taboo? Transgression against any kind of dominant idea is what people, especially young people, always do. Therefore, when those dominant ideas change, so do its recalcitrant challengers. Ask yourself what feels more rebellious: to demand safe space restrictions against free speech, or insist on no restrictions and invite the most odious and offensive speakers imaginable? To demand greater understanding of different cultures, in much the same way as your parents might have done twenty years ago, or decide that you’d rather defend some mythical greatness of Western civilisation and you’ll stick that to every po-faced sanctimonious politician and Twitter celebrity who disagrees. This is why the young Bloc Identitaires in France – a sort of French alt-right that supports Marine Le Pen – has more online followers than the youth wings of the socialist party and centre-right party combined.
Part of the problem has been the cultural success of the left. As a result of remarkable social progress over the last decade, many left-wing cultural and social aims have – thankfully – been accomplished. Subsequently they are reduced to doing battle against ever smaller dragons: fighting against micro-aggressions or gendered bathrooms. I’m not suggesting these things aren’t important, but they don’t add up to a bold and sweeping vision. Into the anti-establishment void has stepped the radical right.
You’re correct to note at this point that not all of this crowd is particularly young. But counter-cultures aren’t always comprised of only young people. One of the joys of living in a society that likes to remain in stunted adolescent as long as possible, is that counter-cultures can be enjoyed by all ages. ‘Whatevs’ Aaron Banks told Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian, when asked about why he was ignoring the Electoral Commission. ‘I don’t give a monkey’s what the Electoral Commission says’.
Spoken like a true rebellious angst filled teen. Whatevs.
Counter-cultures are also fun. Academics routinely underplay how important this is, since there are more sophisticated sounding theories to be had. But many people join groups and movements not because of the grand philosophies, but because they believe it will be an enjoyable way to spend a weekend. Allow me an uncomfortable example. While researching my new book Radicals, I spent several weeks intermittently following former EDL leader Tommy Robinson around Europe as he attempted to get his new movement ‘Pegida-UK’ off the ground. Yes, these people were frustrated by how the world is changing, and yes some (although not all) of them were xenophobes. But put that aside for a moment. The Pegida-UK trips were social occasions, and the adrenaline rushes were addictive. For a group of people who feel underrepresented and powerless, Pegida-UK offered the chance to be a hero: to fight against a mortal enemy, and to put yourself into a historic struggle of Western civilisation against its foes. Fighting with anti-fascists is exciting.
You rarely read this in the accounts of anti-Islam protests, which are usually portrayed as mean-looking skinheads angrily pointing and shouting vitriol. Miserable affairs full of miserable people. But from the inside it’s all camaraderie, backslapping, excitement, shared stories and messing around. Tommy Robinson, for example, is widely viewed as a hate-filled angry thug. And while he may have some thuggish tendencies, he is also a prankster and irreverent trouble-maker, who routinely plays practical jokes and pokes fun at everyone, including himself. Here’s the point: the trips with Pegida-UK people were actually fun. Significantly more fun than some of the trips with political groups I followed with whom I agreed with more. Protest how pig headed these groups can be if you want, and explain that it is certainly not fun if you’re on the receiving end of their offensive chants or YouTube videos. You’re right of course. But it won’t help you understand why groups like this seem to be doing well. The Pegida tour more closely resembled England Away than political activism. It was certainly more fun than the dour, sanctimonious, protocol-obsessed Marxism Today conference I’d attended a few weeks earlier.
I understand that by writing this I might help realise in a tiny way the very thing I’m describing. I am also vaguely aware that an internet popular alt right-ish blogger / video maker called Paul Joseph Watson is currently selling mugs that say ‘populism is the new punk’. Nothing’s quite so powerful as a sense of momentum, and I might add to it. But the prospect that it might be the other side that are capturing the natural counter-cultural urges society often feels ought to terrify the left, which has long seen itself as the natural political home for such impulses. But I fear many members of the left are too persuaded by their own arguments to worry. They too easily assume that the rebels belong to them, because they are the cool, the modern, the future. Unfortunately, almost by definition, no-one gets a permanent monopoly on rebelliousness.