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Sunday, 22 October 2017

Louis XVI in the White House?

What is the driving force behind the alt-right?  The obvious answer is that the alt-right is the modern iteration of traditional American white supremacism.  The fact that these guys associate themselves with the symbols of the Confederacy and march with the KKK is something of a giveaway.

But there is one major influence on the alt-right that has not yet been fully explored (although it has occasionally been noted).  This is the philosophical school that is sometimes known as the "Counter-Enlightenment", or the "Reactionary" tradition - using that word in its original and specific meaning.  This was the arch-conservative model of politics that originated in Western Europe among the losing side of the French Revolution of 1789.  I have written an entire blog about it.

The Counter-Enlightenment current largely petered out in the late 19th century, as liberalism and constitutional governance became more or less established across Europe.  Yet the tradition continued to have brief renaissances - for example, when some of its descendants (Charles Maurras in France, Julius Evola in Italy) collaborated with fascism in the 1930s and 40s; and during the rise of Alain de Benoist and his French Nouvelle Droite in the 1970s.

The theorists of the Counter-Enlightenment tradition are reported to be admired in alt-right networks reaching right up to the Trump White House.  Steve Bannon apparently likes Maurras and Evola.  Even the whitewashed guide to the alt-right which was published last year on Breitbart under the names of Allum Bokhari and Milo Yiannopoulos admitted that Reactionary thinkers were influences on the movement.  The recent Buzzfeed report on Breitbart internal emails revealed that Yiannopoulos solicited advice from Curtis Yarvin, a computer scientist who openly identifies as a neo-Reactionary, and Andrew "weev" Auernheimer, a neo-Nazi hacker who likes Evola.  Another link in the chain is Aleksandr Dugin, a notorious Russian Counter-Enlightenment ideologue from Putin's circle who apparently thinks that Bannon is his ideological soulmate.  His works were translated into English by the wife of the alt-right guru Richard Spencer.

The central idea of the Counter-Enlightenment is anti-egalitarianism, both in politics and in society at large.  Reactionary theorists favoured traditional monarchy over constitutional democracy - a style of thinking with which Trump is plainly sympathetic.  They also favoured patriarchy over women's emancipation - a fact which is not unconnected with the observation that a major impetus to the growth of the alt-right was the 2014 anti-feminist campaign known as "Gamergate" (this was the source of the ubiquitous alt-right cacophemism "cuck").  Oddly enough, one thing that the original Reactionaries weren't particularly concerned about was race - there were few black or Asian immigrants in 19th century Europe.  That said, from the late 19th century onwards, they began to promote the increasingly fashionable Jewish conspiracy theories of the day.

The original Reactionaries were also against capitalism, preferring instead a paternalistic, feudal economic order.  Charles Maurras even spoke favourably of trade unions:
In the economic order, the principle of freedom means that the interplay of the freedoms of individuals, from which a beneficial outcome is supposed to inevitably emerge, must be treated as sacrosanct.  All that is needed is laisser faire and non-intervention.  Terms of employment must therefore be an individual matter.  Both out of respect for his personal freedom and in deference to the way that the world works, the worker must obey the requirements of the Chapelier Decree, and strictly refrain from joining any association, group, federation or union relating to his employment which is of a nature to interfere with the free play of supply and demand, the free exchange of wages and labour.  Too bad if the employer is a millionaire with an absolute right to choose among 10,000 workers - freedom, freedom!  Economic freedom therefore quickly degenerates into the well-known freedom to die of hunger.
Parts of the modern alt-right mix Counter-Enlightenment ideas with small-state economic libertarianism; but there is nevertheless something of an anti-freemarket current in the movement, which is visible in Steve Bannon's commitment to "economic nationalism".  Something else that has an ambiguous place in the alt-right is religion.  The classical Reactionaries were mostly diehard Roman Catholics - indeed, several of them were prelates or popes - but the current ended up getting mixed up with esoteric and pseudo-pagan ideas, notably in the works of Julius Evola.  This seems to be echoed by the Catholic Bannon's reported affinity for new age mysticism.

These, then, are some of the ideas that are shaping the thoughts of the current presidential administration in the USA and its penumbra of supporters.  We have here an important clue to what these guys mean when they refer to defending "western civilization".  And this all helps to explain how we have reached a situation in which George W. Bush, of all people, has emerged as a spokesman for liberal values.