Why Discuss Anti-Modernist and Anti-Democratic Literature?
Roland has again found himself having to defend a post examining the “Alternative Right” or “Alt-Right,” on the charge of taking its ideas too seriously. He remains defiant: “[E]ven,” says Roland, “if every single person who we group into the ‘alt-right’ was just a troll looking for retweets, I think reading and discussing anti-democratic and anti-modernist literature [would still be] worth doing.”
In further discussion on the question of, in effect, the value of the self-same discussion, Roland expands upon his statement as follows:
We should read those texts for the same reason we should read religious texts that we know to be logically and empirically false. I know that the stories in the Bible are not real, but the outlook present in those tales provides a worldview and philosophical perspective that is worthy of consideration. Minimally, we should engage with said texts to reinforce our own ideological foundations. But I also think it is dangerous to think that we have reached the end of history and thus, need not consider alternatives to the current order.
I am approaching the alt-right from a more academic position that many folks here seem to. I’m simply not willing to discount an idea outright because its adherents are miscreants, and I find it worthwhile to consider what a world would look like had these ideas been implemented on a small or large scale.
Subjecting Roland’s off-the-cuff response to exacting scrutiny would be unfair to Roland. He clearly does not, for instance, mean to equate the latest post at Radixjournal with sacred scripture. Still, his answer remains problematic for me, precisely because I support his project.
Consider the notion of “ideological foundations.” Roland seems to be using the word “ideological” neutrally, in the contemporary manner, under the assumption that everyone has or even should have “an ideology.” Yet even if we agree that everyone has or should have ideological foundations – or fundamental beliefs – Roland’s position as enunciated is an ideologue’s position. 1 Why should we set out to “reinforce” rather than to test and, as appropriate, revise or reject our beliefs, even our fundamental ones?
The words “more academic” also point to the preemptive removal of challenges to our presumptions. They refer us to a purely intellectual or passive contemplation of the Alt-Right phenomenon, in the manner of an anthropological or historical study: To ask why Roland chooses the Alt-Right as his subject would therefore be like asking an Egyptologist why she studies Egypt, or a marine biologist why he studies mollusks, or a mathematician prime numbers, and so on: As interesting as the answer might turn out to be personally, it would be set aside as irrelevant to whatever scientific question, which is always to be presumed intrinsically valid.
We might say that Roland examines the Alt-Right simply because it exists, yet Roland is not treating the Alt-Right as one or another mollusk. Nor, for that matter, is his interest merely a hobby, mostly kept to himself: He is choosing to look at the Alt-Right and to share his thoughts about it with a lay audience in an online magazine. In addition, though this particular online magazine does not demand of its authors that they focus only on topical items or items of established broad interest, Roland clearly thinks that the Alt-Right will be of special interest to users of this site and to politically and culturally engaged people generally: In the title of the post, after all, Roland declares 2015 “the Year of the Alt-Right,” and he begins by likening the Alt-Right to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, in a manner some commenters found objectionable, as he may have anticipated they would. 2
Put simply, Roland considers the Alt-Right relevant. He clearly believes that the Alt-Right matters to us, or ought to matter in relation to practical political developments of general concern, even if he is quick to add that the Alt-Right does not matter in the way that the Alt-Right thinks that the Alt-Right matters or should matter. Furthermore, though Roland and his critics may disagree on the immediate practical-political significance of the Alt-Right, they agree that a political ascent of the Alt-Right would matter very much – thus, for example, the further discussion of the last argument Roland makes in his own defense or in defense of his interests, as to whether we already know “what a world would look like had [Alt-Right] ideas been implemented.” That world, according to the views offered in the thread, would be a world resembling the main totalitarian states of the 20th Century, or, alternatively, might be all of history prior to progressive improvements that neither Roland nor his critics would like to see reversed.
So, returning to the “honest question” on questioning at all: If we find Roland’s extemporaneous answer somewhat self-contradictory or otherwise unsatisfactory, and if we do not expect the Third Reich or the South or other defeated “Alts” to rise again, why study anti-modern and anti-democratic discourse?
The general answer is simply this: Because “every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth.”
This poet’s or poet-philosopher’s answer may be taken as unacceptable, quite fittingly for a “Proverb of Hell.” 3 The Hellish political-philosophical anti-doctrine presumes the theoretical defensibility of all premises. It would require us to treat the politico-religiously proscribed ideology, the enemy ideology, as potentially defensible – or even as potentially a part of the truly correct or superior doctrine, or at worst an inevitable doctrine under the right circumstances. 4
We resist this alternative presumption. For us the Alt-Right discourse represents – “re-presents” – a perspective or a set of perspectives which we have suppressed, and which we are able to suppress because, in short, we defeated those who maintained and acted upon them – and we did so at great cost. We can therefore re-frame the honest question to Roland again, this time as a challenge to would-be poet-philosophers: In what conceivable way, we might ask, do you wish us to believe that fascism or secessionism or white racial supremacism or imperial monarchism on the one hand, or the contemporary Alt-Right possibly on the other hand, or possibly on the same hand, presents an “image of truth”?
I will try only to provide some outlines for an alternative answer to this question. I do not intend here to analyze the elements of Alt-Right thinking, or to survey the vast body of anti-modern and anti-democratic thought from Plato to some blogger somewhere going by the screen-name “Plato.” I will not offer a testimonial.
I will instead begin by noting that in my view the resistance to considering fascism, white supremacism, and so on, as “images of truth” could not possibly be better-founded. Realized as suppression of demonstrated dangerous ideologies and movements, this resistance effectively defines the “mainstream” in the U.S. and the West. The to-be-suppressed-on-sight ways of thinking and acting are in some significant part what we vanquished, or tell ourselves we vanquished, in becoming what we are.
I emphasize the first person plural because I believe that who we are or aspire to be, all together, not just in the United States and the West but especially in the United States and the West, are the people who oppose those things: We are or are constituted as the beneficiaries, bearers, protectors, preservers, interpreters, and exponents of their defeat: We are the not-subjects of a Crown, the not-Confederates, the not-Nazis – as, incidentally and relatedly, we are also the not-Communists. For the same reason, we assume not just the right but the responsibility to suppress the symbols and literature, and to oppose typical social-political manifestations, of these vanquished ideologies, and we have encoded this responsibility in our customs and our laws in the form of foundational exceptions to the regime or anti-regime of political freedoms that we otherwise claim to embrace wholeheartedly.
In short, for us, the question of the Alt-Right is an either absurd or profane question, a question resoundingly, definitively, and definingly already answered, eventually by a “total,” “unconditional” victory. That victory defines the political, economic, and cultural system, a global as well as national system, built upon it. The character of this victory or cumulative series of victories defines our social and political character, the basis of a collective identity and self-justification concretely realized as the meaning of all of history to and for us, as systematically and progressively reinforced across the “modern” age, retroactively applied to all of the ages that preceded it, and extended across the face of the Earth and into outer space.
Yet for all that, or perhaps because of all that, the mainstream consensus and the institutions typical of it do not to some or perhaps to too many of us appear fully secure. We wonder if those “ideological foundations” are being undermined – thus Roland’s premise, that 2015 saw the Alt-Right moving closer to and influencing the mainstream, and thus his apparent conclusion that it might achieve some success if it modulated its tone. Equally, if Roland’s opponents felt secure in their world-historical triumph, one wonders if they would be so quick to criticize his examination of, and occasional very faint praise for, the thinking of those who still oppose it.
For whatever reasons, we have not been able to extinguish, and possibly cannot ever fully extinguish, and so instead find ourselves having to confront again – right now, for instance; repeatedly at this site in recent months – at cost at least to our equanimity, and possibly to our peril, those vanquished enemy ideologies. As psychoanalysis taught us to expect, “the repressed” never or rarely disappears forever: It continually “returns” in new forms – of which, presumably, at least if the mass social-political syndrome resembles individual neuroses, the Alt-Right would be only the most obvious and direct. 5
In the meantime, here expanding upon statements of Roland’s, to declare the entirety of the body of thought that inspires the Neo-Reactionaries valueless and invalid – from Plato to “Plato,” Alt-Right and Alt-Alt-Right, too – would be to claim that a pure democratic modernism possesses all of the answers to all of our questions, and that it offers all that is needed or useful for understanding political and social life and for living a good life, but taking this position would require setting aside the most basic component of the same perfect perspective: openness to the perspectives and ideas of all. If we are willing to admit that there are social and political problems – chronic, continually recurring (or “returning”) problems – that we, the children of modern democracy triumphant, do not yet seem to have solved, then an examination of other-than-democratist and other-than-modernist thought may not be merely interesting to a few, but useful for the many, or even necessary.
Further investigation will remind us that our system of government was founded on specific other-than-democratic and other-than-modern conceptual as well as historical bases, and that our precepts have always included and will always include the more-and-other-than-democratic and the more-and-other-than-modern.
(Featured Image: “Goddess of Democracy,” via Wikipedia Commons
- …though not the most extreme ideological position: Roland does not reject even the suggestion that his or our foundations might require reinforcement.
- Roland also mentions particular Alt-Right thinkers or factions as being of unique interest, but he never makes the argument that 2015 was the Year of Pagans and Radical Right Homosexualists.
- This premise is not a political premise, though it may become one, in the particular form of “philosophical politics.” “Philosophical politics” is a term used by the scholar Heinrich Meier in his discussion of Leo Strauss’s thought; I very much intend the same meaning here. Philosophical politics would be a moment in the interaction of philosophy (or science) and politics, rather than a political program or ideology – the meeting of the anti-ideological and the ideological, treated politically. It originates in the difference or the set of parallel differences between philosophy and politics, between political philosophy and political theology, or between knowledge and belief.
- The naive idea of the death of ideas – to be diminished and discarded as “hackneyed,” like artistic tropes, or as proven inadmissible – would be at best another such “image of truth.”
- Without discussing the further implications of this speculative diagnosis, and without making any argument as to whether this suppression/repression is a good thing or a bad thing, or a necessary thing, or an avoidable thing, we can pause to note, perhaps for future consideration, that the “online Alt-Right” – like some other adherents of the enemy ideologies, and for that matter like members of other “repressed” groups – displays what one might expect in relation to a long-maintained system of pre-emptive psychological defense: An aggressive, volatile, overcompensatingly emotional and combative voice: Or, our reactionaries are abreactionaries.