The Kids Are Alt-Right? The Hippie Energies Behind Brexit & Trump
, November 24th, 2016 10:47
Tim Burrows argues that the terrifying rise of angry, right-wing ideology is fuelled by the very same desires to 'stick it to the man' that fired up the 60s counterculture.
Turn on. Sign in. Then spout.
Next year, 2017, will be the 50th anniversary of the so-called Summer of Love. If current trends carry on, it looks set to provide a counter to the reefer-softened, LSD-warped events of 1967: a summer of hate, willed along by the possible surge of the "alt-right", the meme-powered, white supremacist cyber-tribe credited with helping Trump into the White House, and buoyed by Marine Le Pen's potential introduction of homegrown fascisme Francaise to the Élysée Palace.
Primarily a US phenomenon, the "alt-right" is a nebulous, strange, unquantifiable strain of far-right white supremacy that has fostered in the digital safe houses of Reddit and 4Chan and trades in savagely cynical memes and a thundering lexicon of insults for those they deem left or liberal: "beta cucks", "libtards", "social justice warriors".
This far right movement has been smuggled onto the newsstands via Trump's unexpected rise as President Elect, with the LA Times criticised for commissioning photo shoots or cosy interviews with its self-proclaimed leader, Richard Spencer. Despite hiring one of the movement's pied pipers, Steven K Bannon, as chief strategist, on Tuesday president elect Trump tried to distance himself from the nebulous far right grouping, much to the dismay of its members. But the "alt-right" still clings like a barnacle to its cherished avatar, now elected to the most powerful office in the world.
A colleague who works in tech journalism estimates that this new far-right movement's membership is probably in the tens of thousands, which is a sizeable number for a burgeoning tribe. Could the self-styled subculture draw the curious and the apolitical to it, bending social norms to its will, as past tribes have?
Some suggest it has already done so. The tech developer turned far-right thinker Curtis Yarvin – who believes the developed world should move back to 18th century gender norms and introduce eugenics – has attempted to frame it as the new 60s: "These young rebels aren't drawn to it because of an intellectual awakening, or because they're instinctively conservative," he says. "Ironically, they're drawn to the alt-right for the same reason that young Baby Boomers were drawn to the New Left in the 1960s: because it promises fun, transgression, and a challenge to social norms they just don't understand."
Although he would say that, wouldn't he, the half-century anniversary of the summer of 67 is still a useful vantage point from which to read the alt-right.
Western culture's likely future was, until this year, the liberal consensus formed in the 1960s. Sociologist Theodore Roszak defined the counterculture that bubbled up during the decade as the only hope for a society staring into a future of eminently reasonable technocratic drudgery. "It looks to me like all we have to hold against the final consolidation of a technocratic totalitarianism in which we shall find ourselves ingeniously adapted to an existence wholly estranged from everything that has ever made the life of man an interesting adventure," he wrote in the preface to his influential 1968 book, The Making of a Counter Culture.
Since then, the counterculture has slowly become the establishment, evidenced by the black, Bob Dylan-loving Barack Obama presiding over what was slowly becoming a more queer and trans-friendly political milieu for the past eight years. There was still much work to be done, of course, but now, the 60s counterculture's driving force of wanting to somehow "shake up" society has led to millions voting Leave or voting Trump.
Our current destabilised moment is sometimes referred to as the death throes of baby-boomer culture. After Brexit, Forbes described it as a "damn the consequences" trend from "The Baby Boom generation that brought us 'do whatever feels right,' is now doing exactly that, and it's producing one giant hangover after another." For many on the Trump Train and the Brexit Bus, the successive two-fingered salutes from the UK to the US were a chance to yet again stick it to 'the man' – only now 'the man' is brown, or Polish, or gay, or transgender or, indeed, a woman. A 60-something I know who travelled Europe on his bicycle in the 1960s and worships the Beatles, talks endlessly about resisting the rise of the elite, technocratic EU. To him and his fellow Brexiters, anyone who questions Britain leaving the EU is a wimp, a member of 'generation snowflake'.
This year's coalition of insurgencies – disgruntled Ukippers, "alt-right" pranksters, economic sufferers, plain old racists, lump-headed fascists - is emboldened in its attack on status quo, in the same way the counterculture was. Now the right, the far right and the fascists smell blood. Consider how Farage and his fellow Ukippers' described themselves as the "Brex Pistols" on their recent trip to meet The Donald, which culminated in yesterday's tweeted recommendation from Trump that Farage be ambassador to the US. The wider "alt-right", sat in front of computer screens showing Reddit, 4Chan and Twitter, takes heart from the rise in prominence of these insurgents.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the British tech journalist turned Breitbart figurehead for many on the alt-right (though he insists on playing down the connection) has declared a culture war. Yiannopoulos sees the minds of future generations up for grabs, and tours US college campuses, turning his free-speech crusade that sees him refer to feminism as cancer and Muslims as rapists into a form of entertainment.
Yiannopoulos's collective output is dissonant, dissident and contradictory, a melange of over-amplified hatemongering, catty asides and relentless self-aggrandisement: you can see why he's winning over some of the kids, in particular the disenfranchised young men currently being radicalised online. "I am the only person on the planet who has roots in every major dissident subculture," he boasted, in a Breitbart article entitled Why I'm Winning seemingly about how wonderful he is at this social media lark. "I've got little forts of influence fucking everywhere and they can be activated at any time. I joined Instagram a few days ago, posted three photos. Now? Over 1,500 followers and growing. Bam, new fort."
Last year in a Quietus Wreath Lecture I wrote about the digital fortresses we encase ourselves within, in a place called the Faceburbs: "Instead of houses, the Faceburbs is made up of islands of mediated information entities, ourselves included, based on accumulations of data, images, sounds, until a cultural figure can be anything from Adele, to Donald Trump, to the attacks in Paris, to you (if you generate enough clicks)... Comfort engulfs fear and fear comfort in a relentless cycle. What many will increasingly look for to save them from this befuddling state is a foghorn to show them the way. What if Trump doesn't turn out to be the buffoon we take him for?"
Alas, he didn't. And we should be wary of the other foghorns appearing in the chaotic mediascape. The new language of fascism that the alt-right bathes in follows our rather dull but pointed preoccupation with reality television, gossip sites and capitalism as entertainment such as The Apprentice. Like the show that turned Trump into the unscrupulous right's godhead, Milo and the people he purports to have a forged a bond with are in thrall to "success". You hear this word again and again in the posts of the so-called alt-right: "success" allied with the word we thought was left back in the halcyon days of Charlie Sheen's meltdown: "winning". Milo is winning. Trump is winning. Leave the libtard left conspiracy. They hate you anyway – they think you're garbage.
In Bomb Culture, Jeff Nuttall's incendiary explanation of the appeal of 1960s counterculture, he observed that, while many in the counterculture wanted to ban the bomb, stop troops into Vietnam, fight for equality and feminism, these various causes were welded to a sense of insatiable sexual and intellectual awakening. Not for Nuttall's generation the well-intentioned, duffel-coats, trad -jazz and pints of bitter of the CND supporter. However much he could identify with the movement's causes, it wasn't until the culture moved into questionable, dangerous, transgressive territory via absurdist theatre and Dionysian pop that it displayed the possibility of catching alight and spreading.
Whereas Nuttall described the squalls of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman, the potency of William Burroughs's prose and the electrifying rock poetry of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the psychedelic explosion as amounting to an alluring cacophony that powered the counterculture, today's squall is not a musical one.
The ever-so- slightly Nazi "alt-right" site Daily Stormer realised the movement doesn't have a music and so opted for the safely white non and largely-imaginary genre of synthwave; there have also been attempts to claim Taylor Swift as one of them. Yet these are afterthoughts. This counterculture's squall is not musical, but multisensory: a melange of conflicting mediated entities such as Milo spewing forth on Snapchat or Facebook, the "burrrrrrn!! Slaaaayyy!!" language of Twitter, rightwing rolling news, tabloid immigration scandals, reality television, YouTube vloggers, below the line trolling, realtime esports, bro-friendly misogy-comedies such as Million Dollar Extreme World… Underpinning it all is the late Andrew Breitbart's pledge to always seek to find "absolute truth" - presupposing that truth is never implicitly there in the first place, which in turn explains the rabid hunger for conspiracy theories such as the ludicrous DC establishment paedophile yarn #PizzaGate.
The fear is surely that with mainstream culture flatlining into a state in which a Netflix drama series about a young and cute Elizabeth II is something to look forward to, some of the younger generation will make a pact with bad faith to get their kicks. Like it or not Donald Trump, contradictory statements and all, is the most important cultural figure in the world right now. "The political effectiveness of contagious culture is a subject abhorrent to orthodox thinking for various reasons, not least among which is the threat embodied in the emergent fact that the root of political development is creative and irrational," wrote Nuttall. What we are now facing is the threat of far right amalgamations such as the "alt-right" owning the landscape of youthful rebellion.
"As children we observe the fact that the adults are doing the things they forbid the children and are often saying 'do as I say but not as I do'," said the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips at the launch of his book, Unforbidden Pleasures, in 2015. "In the forbidding, desire is always being created and that's unavoidable."
I am no believer that political correctness has somehow emasculated our culture; and if it has, all the better, if it's made for a better life for women and minorities. A proud cuck am I; my mangina is bristling with the glow of a good day's social justice warfare. But, unavoidably, there is something forbidding about the liberal consensus, in the same way there is something forbidding in any status quo or agreed-upon logic. This culture has created the false perception that questioning anything from the hegemony of globalisation, to the legitimacy of open gayness and women's rights, equality between races and secularisation all taboo subjects. They have become a fire for the racists, the nationalists, the dispossessed and the bored to dance around.
"At its best and its worst to forbid is to coerce attention and to guarantee interest," writes Phillips. "It is to arrange a haunting." Haunting is a good description of the 21st-century presence of the far-right in the US until 8th November. As The Atlantic's video of the "alt-right" meeting in Washington shows, the ghouls are now emboldened and visible and proudly saluting. But I'm not sure that makes them any easier to overpower. "Significant changes in manners and morals - periods of significant change in personal and cultural history - always involve the redescription of previously forbidden desires," Phillips adds. "One way or another the forbidden becomes less forbidden, or even unforbidden, and so provides a different kind of pleasure."
The 60s counterculture succeeded in smuggling in political gains by making it appealing to the id of subsequent generations. But pop music no longer surprises – how could it. Virgin Records begat Virgin Atlantic, the godawful Virgin Trains and Virgin Healthcare, which is stealthily circling around a seemingly doomed NHS. It's interesting that Richard Branson, horrified by the rise of Trump, tried to use his apparent influence to intervene in the US election by publishing an account of his personal experience of Trump's vindictive streak. Quite apart from the fact Trump behaving badly wasn't exactly news, it speaks to the cosy arrogance of Baby Boomer figureheads that they are somehow still at the wheel in the midst of this disrupted chaos. Ditto the imminent return of Tony Blair.
Away from the metropolis, as we are consistently reminded, people are suspicious of the status quo. Like the suited-and-booted teenage Ukippers I have encountered in the party's heartland of Thurrock, Essex, and the sub/Reddit-glued "alt-righters" rooting for Trump in secret, there is a desire to go against the grain, to knock the world off its axis to afford a kind of schism. Increasingly, young people might end up at fascism via a quest for danger. As the dust settles during what feels like an epochal shift, it's too soon to suggest what alternatives might grow out of the sudden realignments. But it must be one of resistance. Don't be afraid; be aware – those of us who reject the kind of thinking espoused by this disparate, digitally emboldened group of neo-fascists, still outnumber those who agree. But there is a need to be conscious of newly emboldened threats in the coming months and years.
If equality of all hues is to be defended, I can't help thinking there needs to be a re-evaluation of how cultural needs and desires are served as much as political and economic ones. Meanwhile the most rightward of the right surge on. According to Nuttall, it took the looming threat of a third world war and nuclear annihilation in the 1950s and 60s to kick off a cultural revolution – at least we're looking in good shape for that.