If you have ventured across the World Wide Web much further than cat pictures, recipes and nudie pics you might know of two eccentric movements in modern politics: the “social justice” Left and the “Alt-Right”. Both of them exist largely on the Internet and both of them represent extreme forms of the identitarian elements of left and right wing ideology. Both of them approach the culture war meaning business.
The social justice left came first. Fusing anti-racist, feminist and LGBTQ concerns, it is not a particularly coherent ideological or political movement, encompassing both communists as well as liberals. The left wing elements represent the tendency of Marxists, disillusioned by the lack of Western revolutionary potential, to pursue what Rudi Dutschke called a “long march through the institutions of power“.
Yet what made social justice so ubiquitous was its potential for subsummation by the capital class. As Rory Ellwood has argued, businesses have financial incentives to support immigration and female labour — and, importantly, one can seem cool and countercultural by endorsing progressive social opinions even if one is a millionaire corporate executive.
As cultural attitudes regarding race, gender and sexuality have changed, social justice activism has become counter-intuitively more radical. Kristian Niemietz argues that this represents the “economics of political correctness,” meaning that the status earned from holding progressive opinions is diminished as those opinions are normalised and so progressive standards have to become ever more extreme for its advocates to maintain their status.
Germaine Greer, then, once an icon of counterculturalism, is now deemed too regressive for public consumption. The radical representatives of social justice have been named, with both affection and disdain, “social justice warriors”. The older “SJWs” are often journalists and academics while their younger comrades tend to be students; protesting on campuses or posting on Tumblr.
Enter the Alt-Right. This is a catch-all term applied to different ideological strands, from the more anarchic elements represented by Milo Yiannopoulos and Paul Joseph Watson to the white nationalists grouped around websites like Radix and The Right Stuff. Its leading voices range from libertarians to national socialists, sharing a hatred of the progressive establishment and a desire to transcend their prolix, ranting, unpopular predecessors and appeal to a wider, younger, tech-savvier audience. What has energised them is an influx of ideological recruits from 4Chan fora and subreddits: young adults, mostly white and male, who have bombarded journalists and politicians with critical and insulting videos, memes and invective.
To a great extent the Alt-Right evolved as a response to the social justice left: its politicisation of pop culture, such as in Anita Sarkeesian’s infamous analyses of women in video games; its censoriousness, such as when Brendan Eich, co-founder of Mozilla, was drummed out of the corporation for opposing same-sex marriage; and its hypersensitivity, immortalised in “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”. Young men began choosing sides in the culture war, and picked against the people who seemed authoritarian and hysterical. They developed a political consciousness.
Such young men were obviously used to being irreverent but the idea that everything was offensive enabled the assumption that nothing was offensive. Faced with humourless hyperanalysis of “problematic” elements of Halloween costumes and music videos, and increasingly absurd and trivial “microaggressions”, they began to take a perverse pride in “triggering” people and, unencumbered by sensible standards of decent behaviour, some became ever more aggressive and obscene.
The white nationalist wing of the Alt-Right has also been inspired by the rhetoric of social justice, with its heavily polemical emphasis on identity. While “social justice warriors” would define themselves as opposing white privilege, sexism and heteronormativity, they often seem more simply against whites, males and heterosexuals. Like it or not, if a straight white man sees Lena Dunham post a video that features someone like him being crushed by a high heel, he will embrace his straightness, whiteness and maleness more fiercely.
The logic of social justice also leads, ironically, to conclusions favourable to the far right. When progressives emphasise the disproportionate amount of white men in positions of power and wealth, for example, and maintain that this can be reduced simply to bias and favouritism, their opponents follow this train of thought and apply it to Jewish individuals. This obsessive focus on identity and discrimination feeds right into a malignant anti-semitism.
What SJWs and the Alt-Right share is a sense of being enlightened as to the true, dark nature of society (“woke” for the former and “red-pilled” for the latter). In many this is an inchoate and non-ideological sense of the world not quite functioning as it should, but in others it has triggered fixation on obscure research, polemic and even outlandish conspiracy theories. Leftists have internalised the fashionable works of social critical theory while members of the Alt-Right have nosedived into odd areas of historical revisionism and fascist apologetics.
Recently, both of these movements have plunged into conflict. Leftists have begun to question the “identity politics” that some believe cost them the presidential elections, while the more libertarian wing of the Alt-Right have criticised the identitarian nature of their racialist cousins.
With no wish to lose myself in the nuances of these arguments, I think that both reactions are at least somewhat naive. SJWs and the Alt-Right may rise and fall but their identitarian inspirations will remain. “Identity politics” does not occur in a vacuum but arises when identity is unstable or endangered. Behind various, often anonymous, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels are young people who have little loyalty to the culture that produced them and little hope for the future that it offers them.
Beyond them, tens of millions of people who have never heard of SJWs or the Alt-Right are bitterly conflicted on matters of immigration, trade, war and culture. As different as they are, they are both products of atomisation and insecurity which will outlast all of these fleeting Twitter trends and memes.
Ben Sixsmith (@bdsixsmith) is an English writer living in Poland. Visit his website here.