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The Alt-Right and the Hatred of Politics

In a recent post, I provided something of a crash-course in the alt-right. I suggested that what they oppose unites the alt-right more than what they advocate, and I indicated that what they oppose is mainstream conservatism’s response to liberal progressivism. There is, however, something that unites the various factions of the alt-right on a deeper level than this, and even on a deeper level than the frenzied, desperate opposition to the reign of political correctness: a hatred, or perhaps a weariness, of politics itself. As a result—and not without some irony—these edgy right-wing transgressives end up looking a lot more like New York Times pundit Thomas “Ain’t Singapore Grand” Friedman—and even like distinction-without-a-difference technocrats like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton whose dream of a post-partisan “commonsense government” looks more like Moldbug’s “cameralist” fantasies than most alt-righters—not to mention Obama and Clinton themselves—would want to admit.

But let’s back up a step: what does it mean to be weary of politics? I’ll resist the “what is politics” temptation [Editor’s Note: …for about three sentences]. I propose a more or less straightforward definition of politics (one that anyone from Aristotle to John Rawls could have endorsed): politics is what happens when a heterogeneous community—that is, a community made up of different people, classes, interests, and understandings of justice—comes together in a lawful manner to govern itself. According to this definition, politics necessarily involves consent and therefore compromise. In an absolute despotism, then, there is no politics, because one person disposes of an entire country as if it were his personal property. We might say: if there are no citizens, there can be no politics.[1]

Where there are citizens, there are differences of opinion. Small “D” democrats believe that all free people in a community ought to have a say in how that community is governed, because justice is equality among free people. Oligarchs believe that those who have more invested in the community (and who have had the opportunity for better—and presumably more public-spirited—schooling) ought to have the main say in how that community is run. Aristocrats believe that the virtuous ought to rule. And that’s pretty much it: freedom, wealth, and virtue are more or less the understandings of justice that have been coextensive with human society. We could add birth, but being well-born has rarely been defended as the standard in itself—typically it was taken to be a stand-in or practical approximation of virtue (since those born to virtuous, public-spirited parents would have the same qualities taught to them in turn, or so the thought goes). Just about all other claims about justice ultimately reduce to one of these three.[2] It is important to note that none of this means that there isn’t any room for disagreement or difference between partisans of one view or another; there are small D democrats in both parties today… and oligarchs in both as well.

To crib from Aristotle, each of these factions has a portion of justice, but not the whole of justice. The whole of justice, in practical terms, means these factions coming together and agreeing on a compromise. Our Founding Fathers also held something like this view. In the words of Federalist 10, “society can eliminate factions by eliminating liberty; for factions do not occur in the absence of liberty. This cure is worse than the disease. Eliminating liberty, because it fuels factions, is like eliminating oxygen because it fuels fires. Like oxygen is necessary for life, liberty is necessary for a society that chooses not to be subject to tyranny.” For both the ancients and the best of the moderns, this mixed regime of balanced factions was the best practical form of government available to human beings. Politics is the structured arguments, debates, and compromises that exist in a mixed regime.

 By Justin Ormont - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14013485

By Justin Ormont - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14013485

Politics in this sense is different from administration or the current obnoxious buzzword “governance.” Governance (and administration) is government without politics. A despot administrates; a Senate conducts politics. In an ideal Communist state too there is administration instead of politics, because one class disposes of all property according to its conception of justice, without securing the consent of the other classes. Nor, for that matter, is there politics in Plato’s Kallipolis, where the philosophers rule without the consent of the governed. Finally, Thomas Friedman’s dream of a post-partisan technocracy, where we muster a grand bipartisan (i.e.,  we bring together BOTH the NPR listeners AND the NYT readers to form a grand coalition of professional-class coastal elite!) effort to put into place the policies that “just make sense” is not politics, but an attempt to divorce politics from government. This is a self-delusion. Specifically, it’s the self-delusion of the technocratic class that their class interest is the common interest. But that’s a story for another day.

Today’s story is not about the internationalist professional class’s hatred of politics, but the alt-right’s hatred of politics, because both of the major factions of the alt-right are tired of politics. Moldbug and the authoritarian-libertarians are explicitly tired of politics (just Ctrl+F “politics” in “Dark Enlightenment” and you’ll see what I mean). They consider “politics” to be synonymous with “democracy,” and “democracy” to be another way of saying “self-destructive rule by the least intelligent.” Of course, people have been criticizing democracy in these terms since the just after the first plebiscite; in fact, plenty of anti-democratic ire exists today—even in the Democratic Party (with all due respect to Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? does not paint a pretty picture of the common man’s ability to think for himself; and he’s not even close to worst of the anti-democratic Democrats). But of course there are better and worse ways to deal with those excesses of democracy that almost everyone would admit exist. The Constitution itself contains many provisions for the people to check themselves—our representative legislature, for instance, or the six-year terms in the Senate, or life terms for the Supreme Court, just to name a few.

And so I suspect that one of the things the alt-righters really don’t like is the annoying business of debating about justice and having to make some compromises with the people who disagree with you. Of course, to them, that just means making compromises with stupid people—and why should anyone want to do that? There are all sorts of practical reasons why we should prefer compromise and at least a measure of consent to a technocracy backed up by force—not least of which is the terrifying force that would have to be at the disposal of the technocrats if they are to repress the masses. But on a higher, more theoretical-philosophical level, the authoritarian-libertarians simply do not have the market cornered on justice… in fact, they don’t seem to care all that much about the term. Instead, they seem to think that, if the right people, the smart people, can get in charge and if they can run things effectively, then people will cease to care about politics. The Hobbesianism of this strand of the alt-right runs all the way down to the core: human beings are not naturally political, and if fed and watered and housed and sexed, they will not bother with politics.

I think there is ample evidence that human beings are political, and that they are going to take an interest in the way things are run. Even if we admitted that many people would keep their heads down, there is always the possibility of a class-traitor rabble-rouser whipping up popular resentment (I have no one particular in mind here) and—voila—politics reemerges. Not to mention that a cursory survey of current affairs should tell us something of the fate of materialist technocracy (it’s worthwhile to point out that all of these link to things the alt-right thinks are victories for their ideology, when in fact they point to the ineradicability of politics). But even if we ignore the evidence and just think about the claim, there is enough to make us hesitate. What does it mean to “run things effectively”? Does that mean ensuring that every citizen has a basic level of income and access to basic goods? Or does that mean maximizing growth for the country as a whole, regardless of what happens for individuals? Do we give corporations tax-breaks to attract them in the hopes of improving the economy? Or do we enact protective tariffs to keep manufacturing jobs here despite the increased labor costs? I might phrase the question this way: in whose interest will the absolute technocrat rule? The authoritarian-libertarian wing of the alt-right presupposes the possibility of a perfect common good among all classes in a society, a common good that can be neatly administered according to a enlightened scientific government (which again points us to the extreme modernity of neo-reaction, despite its rage against the Enlightenment). Otherwise they could not imagine that the disenfranchised will remain peaceful.

But there are many reasons to doubt that this is the case, and to believe instead that the way that we approximate or approach the common good in society is precisely through politics—through the give-and-take of political battles where sometimes one interest wins and sometimes another interest wins and sometimes we find common ground. According to Aristotle, the oligarchs have a point when they say that they’ve invested more in the country and they are better educated. But the democrats have a point when they point out that they are not slaves but free men, and part of being a free man means having a say in government.[4] And of course the aristocrats have a point when they say that the virtuous and intelligent should be in charge. But, he goes on to say, each of them only have a part of justice; not the whole thing. Somehow, political justice emerges through the practical interaction of these forces figuring out how best to balance themselves—a balance which includes not simply disenfranchising any single class (which would make that class a constant security threat). In almost every stable, healthy political community, every class has bought into the program for one reason or another.[5]

The nationalist-populist alt-right also hates politics, but their case is not as dramatic. They too have a tendency to entertain the dream of “policy without politics” ("if only white people would put aside their bickering and work for their racial goals!"). But the more interesting and in some cases the more insidious thing is their tendency to entertain fantastic visions of a level of solidarity which even an ancient city-state could not achieve, much less the grand national states dreamed of by the nationalist-populists. Their thought is that our politics would just work if we could get rid of X, Y, or Z minority, because then the rest of us would be unified. And yet, even within ancient Sparta and Athens, there were factions—and those were cities with citizen populations of roughly 10,000 and 40,000, respectively.

Thus far, I’ve tried to be relatively restrained in my criticism of the alt-right’s opposition to politics; however, here at the end I’m going to permit myself a little bit more latitude. For all their pretensions to toughness, realism, and civilizational history, the alt-right remains naive and unhistorical. They look at democracy and think: why should stupid people get to vote? There is a sense in which this betrays a freedom of mind and inquiry—Americans are raised on the manifest goodness of democracy and equality. But the thought never moves beyond fantasy, because the intended replacement for democracy—for politics in general—amounts to rule of the wise or rule of the virtuous. The nascent freedom of mind stalls out and stagnates in a pool of high-school faux-insight: hey, why should stupid people get a say? Why don’t we just let the smart people run things? That would, like, make so much more sense! *cough, wheeze* 

Again, this can be a liberating line of thought—but it must be a line that leads somewhere else or it becomes not liberating, but stunting and pointlessly subversive. That line of thought must then be educated by experience and argument to see, as Plato himself indicates in the Republic and as Aristotle argues explicitly in the Politics, that such a regime is simply not possible. The wise, assuming of course that they ever manage to get into power in the first place, will always have to compromise with the unwise. Neither the giants of the pre-modern world (such as Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas) nor that giant of the modern world whom the neo-reactionaries imitate consciously or unconsciously (Hobbes) ever seriously entertained any other possibility. The ancients rejected the philosopher-king as a practical possibility and Hobbes never defends his autocratic ruler as somehow more capable than his underlings. In fact, Hobbes recognized that that ruler will often be corrupt and incompetent; Hobbes merely thought that such a person would do less harm than people would suffer in the state of nature, which makes the autocrat the better choice. If any alt-righter could show me exactly how he thinks political power will consistently and invariably be married to virtue, I’d love to give him a chance… but a brief survey of world history, not to mention an education in the great works of Western philosophy (on this subject, I recommend above all others Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus), will be powerful counterweights to the contrary. 


[1] This would be snappier if Aristotle said it, because the Greek word for citizens (politai) has the same root as the word for politics, and thus: “without politai, no politike.”

[2] One could perhaps argue that the standard of wealth—and even of freedom—could ultimately be reduced to a claim about virtue, but let’s not complicate things.

[3] There is also a subdued current in Aristotle’s discussion of democracy pointing toward the practical necessity of empowering the people: in many places, they are the ones doing the fighting and the dying in war.

[4] The arguable exception would be a place like Sparta, although Sparta is only an exception if you consider the Helots to be a part of Sparta. If we think only of Spartan citizens, then Sparta managed to balance a republican form of a government with a royal element and an aristocratic or oligarchic element.

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