A Skeleton Key to the Alt Left

Last time we looked at the differences between the “Left” as manifested in the mainstream political discourse and those of a number of authors, blogger and thinkers that I’ve (somewhat arbitrarily) lumped under the umbrella of the Alt-Left. We listed a lot of their views, but what lies at the heart of the Alt-Left’s critique?

I think an answer to that question might be illuminated by this article: Kanth: A 400-Year Program of Modernist Thinking is Exploding (Institute for New Economic Thinking)

The article describes the ideas of a thinker named Rajani Kanth. Like some on the Alt-Right, Kanth is highly critical of many of the ideas which came out of the European Enlightenment. Kanth’s critique, thought, centers around what he calls Eurocentric Modernism, which he feels had come to define the current world order, pushing out any alternatives:

We’re taught to think of the Enlightenment as the blessed end to the Dark Ages, a splendid blossoming of human reason. But what if instead of bringing us to a better world, some of this period’s key ideas ended up producing something even darker?

In [author Rajani Kanth’s] view, what’s throwing most of us off kilter…was…a set of assumptions, a particular way of looking at the world that pushed out previous modes of existence, many quite ancient and time-tested, and eventually rose to dominate the world in its Anglo-American form…Kanth argues that this framework, which he calls Eurocentric modernism, is collapsing….

Many of the authors previously mentioned are critical of Eurocentric Modernism, even if they are not familiar with that concept. What is Eurocentric Modernism?

The Eurocentric modernist program, according to Kanth, has four planks: a blind faith in science; a self-serving belief in progress; rampant materialism; and a penchant for using state violence to achieve its ends. In a nutshell, it’s a habit of placing individual self-interest above the welfare of community and society.

Eurocentric Modernism is also intrinsically tied up with the concept of the One Big Global Market put into place by European economic liberals using strong centralized states and top-down state violence. The Market itself is the greatest “social engineering” project ever conceived, and is currently showing signs of fraying around the edges (or even collapsing outright):

Eurocentric modernism…delivered a society which is essentially asocial — one in which everybody sees everybody else as a means to their own private ends…[and] consigned us to an endless and exhausting Hobbesian competition. For every expansion of the market, we found our social space shrunk and our natural environment spoiled. For every benefit we received, there came a new way to pit us against each other…[P]eople are not at all like Adam Smith’s homo economicus, a narrowly self-interested agent trucking and bartering through life. Smith…turned the human race — a species capable of wondrous caring, creativity, and conviviality — into a nasty horde of instinctive materialists: a society of hustlers.

In fact, economics has been called the “crown jewel” of the Eurocentric Modernist project. Rather than any sort of actual “science,” it is a code of ethics and philosophical justification for the world as it is under Eurocentric Modernism. It prevents any challenge to it, depicting the current order as “scientific,” “natural” and “inevitable.” (i.e. “There is no alternative”). According to its adherents, any criticism of it is contrary to “human nature.” Every day, millions of people in every corner of the globe are indoctrinated in its tenets, like a modern-day religion. You can’t understand the political regime of Eurocentric Modernism without its philosophical handmaiden—Economics.

Modern orthodox economists frequently theorize and propose their models wrapped in algebraic expressions and econometrics symbols that make their theories incomprehensible to anyone without a significant training in mathematics. These complicated mathematical models rely on sets of assumptions about human behavior, institutional frameworks, and the way society works as whole; i.e. theoretical underpinnings developed through history. Yet, more frequently than not, their assumptions go to such great lengths that the models turn out utterly detached from reality.

This approach was promoted during the 1870s, in an effort to emulate the success of the natural sciences in explaining the world around us, and so transform Political Economy into the “exact” science of Economics. The new discipline, born with a scientific aura, would provide a legitimate doctrine to rationalize the existing system and state of affairs as universal, natural, and harmonious.

It is understandable that economists wanted their field to be more like the natural sciences. At the time, great advances in physics, biology, chemistry, and astronomy had unraveled many mysteries of the universe. Those discoveries had yielded rapid development around the world. The Second Industrial Revolution was well underway, causing a transition from rudimentary techniques of production to the extensive uses of machines. Physics and mathematics were validated to a great extent with the construction of large bridges, transcontinental railroads, and the telephone. There exists extensive evidence to establish that this success of the natural sciences and the scientific method had a big influence on the mathematization of what had been the field of Political Economy. Early neoclassical theorists misappropriated the mathematical formalism of physics, boldly copied their models, and mostly admitted so. Particularly guilty of this method were W.S. Jevons and Léon Walras; credited with having arrived at the principle of marginal utility independently…

The Borrowed Science of Neoclassical Economics (The Minskys)

Not only did it borrow the language of science, at around the same time it eliminated all class/institutional power relations from consideration, instead depicting us all as “equals” making mutually beneficial voluntary exchanges.

…Power was originally recognised as important by the Classical economists like Adam Smith. However this changed with the rise of socialism. Wealthy industrialists and rulers feared this threat and sought to find an economic theory that would debunk socialism and protect themselves. It was for this reason that economics began to downplay issues like inequality and poverty. It also de-emphasised production and therefore any resulting questions about social relations. Instead economics switched to discussing marginal utility of hypothetical individuals where none had power over the other. There was no boss or servant, but rather groups of individuals voluntarily interacting in mutually beneficial arrangements.

Crucially, economics became depersonalised and it was no longer possible to make value judgements. A dollar spent by a rich person on a loaf of bread was the same as a dollar spent by a poor person on the same loaf. It was no longer argued that one person may need the dollar more or that the starving may need the loaf more than the fat. Economics abandoned the idea that people have needs and assumed we only have desires. This change in focus did not happen by chance or due to superior argument but due to the politics of the time…

Economists and the Powerful (Whistling in the Wind)

Rather than the pseudoscience of Economics, Kanth suggests we take our social inspiration from a different source—human anthropology:

Utopian dreamers have often longed for a more hospitable way of living. But Kanth believes that when they look to politics, economics or philosophy for answers, they are missing the best inspiration: human anthropology…without which our forays into economics, psychology, sociology, and pretty much everything are hopelessly skewed…the Eurocentric modernist tradition, influenced by the Judeo-Christian idea that we are distinct from the world of nature, seeks to separate us from the animal world. We are supposed to be above it, immortal, transcending our bodies and the Earth…

As Kanth sees it, most of our utopian visions carry on the errors and limitations born of a misguided view of human nature. That’s why communism, as it was practiced in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, projected a materialist perspective on progress while ignoring the natural human instinct for autonomy— the ability to decide for ourselves where to go and what to say and create. On flip side, capitalism runs against our instinct to trust and take care of each other.

[D]idn’t Eurocentric modernism…give us our great democratic ideals of equality and liberty to elevate and protect us?…Kanth…notes that when we replace the vital ties of kinship and community with abstract contractual relations, or when we find that the only sanctioned paths in life are that of consumer or producer, we become alienated and depressed in spirit. Abstract rights like liberty and equality turn out to be rather cold comfort. These ideas, however lofty, may not get at the most basic human wants and needs.

The key is not to project ourselves into the future, but to learn from the practical, beneficial ways humans have lived in the past and still do, in some cases, in the present…

Now let’s introduce a related concept here called High Modernism. This concept was developed by James Scott in his book Seeing Like A State. It has some similarities and overlaps with Eurocentric Modernism, but is distinct from it.

Seeing Like a State (The Easiest Person to Fool)

Book Review: Seeing Like A State (Slate Star Codex)

High Modernism is associated with the project of state-building. To this end, it is intrinsically tied up with many elements of the mainstream Left/Right view–democracy, meritocracy, top-down technocratic management, rationalism, materialism, educational attainment, laissez-faire capitalist markets, centralized power, standardization, multiculturalism and globalism.

High Modernism is the attempt to standardize and regularize the world so as to make it legible for rational management and top-down planning by centralized bureaucracies. It places a premium on maximizing “efficiency.” The ultimate purpose is taxation–the funneling of resources from a periphery to a core. In Scott’s view, this process defines the creation of what we normally term “the State.” However, this process often has unforeseen consequences.

[James] Scott defines [High Modernism] as[:]

“A strong, one might even say muscle-bound, version of the self-confidence about scientific and technical progress, the expansion of production, the growing satisfaction of human needs, the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”

…which is just a bit academic-ese for me. An extensional definition might work better: standardization, Henry Ford, the factory as metaphor for the best way to run everything, conquest of nature, New Soviet Man, people with college degrees knowing better than you, wiping away the foolish irrational traditions of the past, Brave New World, everyone living in dormitories and eating exactly 2000 calories of Standardized Food Product (TM) per day, anything that is For Your Own Good, gleaming modernist skyscrapers, The X Of The Future, complaints that the unenlightened masses are resisting The X Of The Future, demands that if the unenlightened masses reject The X Of The Future they must be re-educated For Their Own Good, and (of course) evenly-spaced rectangular grids (maybe the best definition would be “everything G. K. Chesterton didn’t like.”).

Clearly both the Mainstream Left and Right are adherents of High Modernism. But more importantly, even the major so-called “Leftist” or “collectivist” movements of the Twentieth Century, such as Soviet Communism, were just as wedded to ideas of “progress” and High Modernism as was Western “libertarian” capitalism. The distinction between Left and Right breaks down here.

Many adherents of Communism were moved by Marx’s descriptions of Capitalism’s flaws and shortcomings, but they attempted to construct a “new and improved” top-down hierarchical system in its place which was just as much based on a flawed conception of human nature (the Soviet “new man;” a “classless society”). To keep this utopian project going also required state violence and oppression. Yet we forget that our Capitalist Systems rely just as much on state violence and social control. Note that the “free” societies of the West have now become just as much carceral/surveillance states as the fallen regimes of Eastern Europe, if not more so. As John Gray commented, “The Cold War was a family quarrel among Western ideologies. “

Both ostensibly “Left” and “Right” movements were obsessed with an idea of “progress” that left millions of dead bodies in its wake. As I’ve written before, we are taught to believe that One Big Capitalist Market came about organically through the “scaling up” of primordial farmer’s markets due to our “natural” instincts to “truck barter and exchange.” Yet this is horribly wrong. It’s another part of economics indoctrination.

As Karl Polanyi demonstrated, the One Big Global Market was an artificially constructed by aggressive top-down state violence. The Enclosure Movement, the Highland Clearances, the Poor Laws, Speenhamland, Work Houses, Debtor’s Prisons, the Luddite Revolts, the Corn Laws, Game Laws, Colonialism, the Gold Standard, state-granted corporate charters (e.g. the East India Companies), national banks (the Bank of England), and many other historical changes brought it about.

Millions of people perished in the construction of the Market, from Native Americans, to English peasants, to Irish subsistence farmers, to Indian and African villagers (to the unemployed coal miners overdosing in rural Appalachia today). Many institutions we take for granted in the modern world are band-aids put into place as a result of popular demands for some sort of protection from the destructiveness of this project (e.g. popular democracy, the Welfare State, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, environmental protections, etc.). These people were victims of Modernism just as much as the victims of the Holdomor, yet they have been erased from history. The top-down creation of the Market by central governments is what allowed Capitalism to form in Northern Europe and to project itself around the world.

It may be hard to believe given how much we’ve become inured to it, but the social dysfunction we take for granted today, with its rampant homelessness, mental illness, unemployment, abused children and elderly, beggars on the street, and so forth, would have been unthinkable to traditional societies. What was once shocking has become normal.

Scott describes in detail the processes by which local knowledge is supplanted by regularized systems. Some examples he gives are: the replacement of small-plot peasant agriculture with large-scale, “efficient” mechanized farms of monocrops, assigning people permanent last names (and later ID numbers), bulldozing neighborhoods of crooked streets and replacing them with planned, rectangular grids of wide-open streets, replacing vernacular architecture with cookie-cutter high-rise housing projects, the supplanting of regional dialects with a single “national” language, universal childhood education, and the standardization of money, weights and measures. For example:

…Enlightenment rationalists noticed that peasants [in 18th century Prussia] were just cutting down whatever trees happened to grow in the forests, like a chump. They came up with a better idea: clear all the forests and replace them by planting identical copies of Norway spruce (the highest-lumber-yield-per-unit-time tree) in an evenly-spaced rectangular grid. Then you could just walk in with an axe one day and chop down like a zillion trees an hour and have more timber than you could possibly ever want.

This went poorly. The impoverished ecosystem couldn’t support the game animals and medicinal herbs that sustained the surrounding peasant villages, and they suffered an economic collapse. The endless rows of identical trees were a perfect breeding ground for plant diseases and forest fires. And the complex ecological processes that sustained the soil stopped working, so after a generation the Norway spruces grew stunted and malnourished. Yet for some reason, everyone involved got promoted, and “scientific forestry” spread across Europe and the world.

And this pattern repeats with suspicious regularity across history, not just in biological systems but also in social ones…

With the advent of globalism, the High Modernist concept now has the entire world in its grip, and is driving us off a cliff. From the countless environmental catastrophes, to the breakdown of entire nations like Syria and Afghanistan, to the ultimate High Modernist project of China, it seems like this project has run its course and is leaving us with a destabilized climate and social situation.

Unemployment, violent crime, war, violence, depression, obesity, environmental catastrophe, social chaos, extreme inequality, mass incarceration–all are getting worse, and our leaders have no answers besides enriching themselves! No wonder we’re desperately searching for alternatives.

I see a lot of the criticism of the Alt-left stemming from a critical view of both Eurocentric modernism and High Modernism. The similarities between them are that both are fundamentally a Procrustean bed for humans, as opposed to the anthropology-centered approach advocated by Kanth.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb argues that we, the human beings inhabiting this planet, try to solve problems of great significance and complexity with the…Procrustean method. Instead of making the bed fit the travelers, we stretch and cut off limbs to do the inverse.

One example Taleb points out are schoolchildren who we pump full of medication so that they adapt to the unbelievably flawed education system, instead of altering the curriculum to suit the children. It couldn’t be that the 10-year-old boy is not meant to sit in the same chair inside the dull classroom for hours on end every day, and when he starts to fidget he’s diagnosed with ADHD, considered hyperactive and has a learning disability, which of course needs to be corrected by tinkering with his brain chemistry.

Situations like this are everywhere around us and they often bear grave consequences…[The Bed of Procrustes] represents Taleb’s view of modern civilization’s hubristic side effects:

  • Modifying humans to satisfy technology
  • Blaming reality for not fitting economic models
  • Inventing diseases to sell drugs
  • Defining intelligence as what can be tested in a classroom
  • Convincing people that employment is not slavery


Philosopher John Gray writes in Straw Dogs:

The chief effect of the Industrial Revolution was to engender the working class. It did this not so much by forcing a shift from the country to towns as by enabling a massive growth in population. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a new phase of the Industrial Revolution is under way that promises to make much of that population superfluous.

Today the Industrial Revolution that began in the towns of northern England has become worldwide. The result is the global expansion in population we are presently witnessing. At the same time, new technologies are steadily stripping away the functions of the labour force that the Industrial Revolution has created.

An economy whose core tasks are done by machines will value human labour only in so far as it cannot be replaced. [Hans] Moravec writes: ‘Many trends in industrialized societies lead to a future where humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife.’ That, according to Jeremy Rifkin, does not mean mass unemployment. Rather, we are approaching a time when, in Moravec’s words, ‘almost all humans work to amuse other humans’.

In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before secretly suspects that it is useless.

Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to nearly everyone. ..Bourgeois life was based on the institution of the career – a lifelong pathway through working life. Today professions and occupations are disappearing. Soon they will be as remote and archaic as the ranks and estates of medieval times.

Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles – the rest of us – live from day to day.

In Europe and Japan, bourgeois life lingers on. In Britain and America it has become the stuff of theme parks. The middle class is a luxury capitalism can no longer afford.

What is Kanth’s alternative?

Kanth thinks what we’d much prefer is to live in what he calls a “social economy of affections,” or, put more simply, a moral economy. He points out that the simple societies Europeans were so moved by when they first began to study them, conjuring images of the “noble savage,” tended toward cooperation, not competition. They emphasized feeling and mutual affection. Karl Marx got his idea of communism from looking at the early anthropological studies of simple societies, where he was inspired by the way humans tended to relate to each other.

“Today we are taught to believe that society doesn’t owe us a living,” says Kanth. “Well, in simple societies they felt the exact opposite. Everybody owed everybody else. There were mutual ties. People didn’t rely on a social contract that you can break. Instead, they had a social compact. You can’t break it. You’re born with it, and you’re delighted to be part of it because it nurtures you. That’s very different from a Hobbesian notion that we’re all out to zap each other.”

Note that this is very different from the Alt-Right, who celebrate capitalist Markets as Social Darwinist winnowing mechanisms eliminating the “weak” and “unfit” and argue that one’s intrinsic value as human being is solely a function of one’s Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and money-earning power. They celebrate a society of constant, unremitting conflict, where all one is entitled to is what he or she can claw free from the impersonal market, nothing more and nothing less.

The Alt-Right is, as one commenter observed, obsessed with the idea of inequality–between people, nations, and various “races.” They believe that the strong are entitled to rule, and that the weak must yield. They believe in a society where the “best” climb to the top, and anything that retards this, like “democracy” or “collectivism” is bad and leads to dysgenics or some sort of ill-defined cultural rot. The Alt-Right wants an “every man for himself” predatory world of relentless individualism, where society owes you nothing and you owe nothing to society, and the strong are free to prey upon the weak at every turn (“There is no such thing as society…there are individuals, and there are families…”).

In my view, one of the major mistakes of the Alt-Right is their refusal to accept that modern globalized libertarian capitalism is a project of the High Modernism of the Enlightenment, rather than a permanent feature of the human condition stemming from our “natural instincts” to “exchange value.” Note that “exchanging value” is not the same thing as maximizing profits. Most ancient thinkers saw profiting at the expense of others as unnatural, since by definition it implies an unequal exchange of value (which it must be). Furthermore, they made no distinction between “the economy” and the rest of society. This was a creation of economic liberals of eighteenth century Britain.

While there’s always been an elite with a lust for power, the desire to hoard and accumulate possessions was not a major factor until fairly recently. Neither was acquiring large amounts of money. The Alt-Right accepts the economics creed as gospel—that markets are “natural”, that we are instinctively inclined to maximize our own self-interest, and that anything that restricts this behavior is an affront to “freedom.” However, most societies before the present day recognized that runaway greed and self-interest would tear society apart and lead to collapse, not to “higher” states of civilization. They put certain limits on self-seeking behavior. It was the centuries-long process of breaking down communitarian values and privatizing the commons that led to market-based capitalism (along with mechanization). Capitalism is simply impossible without strong centralized states (meaning that “anarcho-capitalism” is an oxymoron).

The Alt-Right looks to the Victorian Era (and perhaps the Roman Empire) as their ideal society. Men rule, and women’s sexual behavior is extremely regulated. Constraints on social behavior are strictly enforced by restrictive social norms. Political control is restricted to the “best” people (the wealthy and property-holders) rather than the “rabble.” Monarchy is still a valid system of government, and power is often hereditary. The gap between rich and poor is extreme, and there is no “welfare state” to support the useless eaters. In this Dickensian economy, people are forced to struggle just to survive, and this breeds “achievement culture.” The winners (usually white males) are rewarded with higher reproductive success, driving Darwinian evolution to “superior” lifeforms. Without being able to satisfy their carnal urges, people instead channel their efforts into work and duty to empire. Europe is not on its back foot, but ruling over much of the globe (including Africans and Muslims) with no apologies, as it should be. The Market dominates the globe without all the pesky rules and regulations imposed by nanny states to protect the weak and unfit. Large-scale heroic engineering projects are launched on a weekly basis, from bridges to canals to railroads. Anything that departs from this ideal society is “decline”–an obsession with the alt-right.

Personally, I don’t think that most people want to live this way.

We may be able to perform dazzling technical feats, like putting a colony on Mars, but we will pay for it by working even harder and longer hours so that a few may get the benefit. A whole lot of lost time and suffering, and for what? Kanth points out that the Bushmen do not have a Mars rocket, but they do have a two-and-a-half-day workweek — something that most modern humans can only dream of. What’s more significant to the lives of most of us?

“We have become unhinged from our own human nature as heat-seeking mammals,” says Kanth. “What we really crave is warmth, security, and care — the kinds of things we get at home and in close social units.” Our greatest human need, he says, is something far more humble than launching rockets: we want to huddle.

The Alt-Left, from what I can tell, is much more focused on creating a well-functioning society where the rapacity of the elites is held in check. They believe in communitarian values–things like common ownership and worker self-determination. To this end, they oppose authoritarianism, institutionalized hierarchy, slavery, gender inequality, racism, bigotry, and conflict. They advocate that the needs of business and the market be subordinated to the needs of a healthy society, rather than society arranging itself according to the requirements of the global marketplace. They advocate environmental stewardship and living in harmony with the natural world (e.g. Permaculture in place of the industrial food system).

If there’s once commonality I see in many of the Alt-Left’s arguments, it is the replacement of large-scale, depersonalized, centralized, high-tech, authoritarian systems with communal, locally-based, more informal ones based in face-to-face relationships and intrinsic social ties such as family, friendship and community. This does not advocate isolationism; only that one’s local community is intact and more important than abstract notions of globalism. It is a vision of a convivial society. There is often more than a hint of nostalgia in their writings.

Thus, for example, James Howard Kunstler argues that we need to downsize and downscale, abandon suburban sprawl, move back to small and medium-sized towns, grow our own food in local farms and gardens, get the old train system up and running again (NOT build new high-speed rail) and reactivate downtown main streets in place of Wal mart. He sees much ill in the alienating suburban infrastructure America has built around automobiles (“Happy Motoring”) and big-box consumerism.

His fictional World Made by Hand series of books depicts a future America where we live essentially like modern-day Amish–with pre-Civil war technology in small towns connected by horses, canals and railroads, growing food locally and living in line with the seasons. Computer scientists, business executives and telemarketers have been replaced by dirt farmers, carpenters and blacksmiths. But the key is, he depicts this way of life, harsh as it is–as far more meaningful and emotionally satisfying than life in modern-day America, which is increasingly resembling the hellish dystopias envisioned by cyberpunk authors in the 1980’s.

When I go around the country, there’s a great clamor for ‘solutions.’ Whenever I hear that world solutions, it’s always invariably in connection with the wish to keep all our stuff running. The amount of delusional thinking that’s being generated by this set of very vexing problems is staggering. There’s understandably a wish to keep all the stuff running that we’ve got up running. That’s the psychology of previous investment. The only conversation they want to have at the Aspen Environmental Institute is all the nifty new ways we’re going to run our cars.

The most impressive part of the situation at the moment is our failure to construct a coherent consensus about what’s happening to us, and what we’re going to do about it…I think the young people especially are going to have to discover that hope is not something that is given to them by a politician or a corporation or by anybody else. Hope is something that you generate inside yourself by demonstrating to yourself that you’re competent–that you understand the signals that are coming to you from the universe…Life is tragic, and history doesn’t care if we pound our civilization down a rathole…


John Michael Greer advises us to “collapse now and avoid the rush.” He argues that we will increasingly be unable to sustain our extravagant ways of life due to decreasing net energy available to industrial civilization. This means that more and more people will inevitably be thrown into what is considered poverty by modern American standards, and we had best learn to live with it. He looks to the past to find inspiration about different and less resource-intense ways to live. He is highly skeptical of new technology, seeing them as “solutions in search of problems.”

His recent fiction work imagines a world where modern cutting-edge high technology has been replaced with older, simpler, more resilient technologies (Retropia). The imaginary country has “fallen back” to earlier levels of development, but these are far more stable and politically functional that the world depicted “outside” where the status-quo is failing and a slavish devotion to technology and “innovation” is increasingly becoming a burden for most people rather than a blessing.

First, industrial society was only possible because our species briefly had access to an immense supply of cheap, highly concentrated fuel with a very high net energy—that is, the amount of energy needed to extract the fuel was only a very small fraction of the energy the fuel itself provided…Second, while it’s easy to suggest that we can simply replace fossil fuels with some other energy source and keep industrial civilization running along its present course, putting that comfortable notion into practice has turned out to be effectively impossible. No other energy source available to our species combines the high net energy, high concentration, and great abundance that a replacement for fossil fuel would need…Third, these problems leave only one viable alternative, which is to decrease our energy use, per capita and absolutely, to get our energy needs down to levels that could be maintained over the long term on renewable sources. The first steps in this process were begun in the 1970s, with good results, and might have made it possible to descend from the extravagant heights of industrialism in a gradual way, keeping a great many of the benefits of the industrial age intact as a gift for the future. Politics closed off that option in the decade that followed, however, and the world’s industrial nations went hurtling down a different path, burning through the earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves at an accelerating pace and trusting that economic abstractions such as the free market would suspend the laws of physics and geology for their benefit…

Fourth, while it’s fashionable these days to imagine that this process will take the form of a sudden cataclysm that will obliterate today’s world overnight, all the testimony of history and a great many lines of evidence from other sources suggests that this is the least likely outcome of our predicament. Across a wide range of geographical scales and technological levels, civilizations take an average of one to three centuries to complete the process of decline and fall, and there is no valid reason to assume that ours will be any exception…Fifth, individuals, families, and communities faced with this predicament still have choices left. The most important of those choices parallels the one faced, or more precisely not faced, at the end of the 1970s: to make the descent in a controlled way, beginning now, or to cling to their current lifestyles until the system that currently supports those lifestyles falls away from beneath their feet…

Collapse Now and Avoid the Rush (Archdruid Report)

Dmitry Orlov advises us to disengage from the money economy and formal work arrangements, and instead develop informal, face-to-face relationships based on shared commonalities. He advises “investing” in practical skills and land rather than opaque financial instruments. He himself lives a peripatetic life based on sailing.

His book “Communities that Abide” looks at what are considered minority “out-group” cultures that nonetheless have managed to sustain themselves even as big, top-down hierarchical political systems have collapsed around them (like the Soviet Union, the original focus of his writings). These groups all have durable, time-tested ways of living that have largely resisted Scott’s “High Modernism” and retained earlier lifeways, for example, the Roma (Gypsies), The Old Order Mennonites (Amish), the Pashtun tribes of Afghanistan, and others. His latest book, “Shrinking the Technosphere” describes how our dependence on centralized high technology is increasingly antagonistic to genuine freedom and autonomy, and describes ways to minimize dependence on such technologies in our daily lives.

He cynically believes that large-scale institutions, including state, national, and local governments, are irreformable, and that any attempts to “fix” them are doomed to fail. Politics is nothing more than show business. Instead, he argues, we should actively disengage from them to the greatest extent possible, refuse to participate, and tend to our own business by forming ways to attend to our daily needs which do not rely on the existence of any large-scale institutions, whether public or private.

I would argue that all of the above authors are all “Small-C” conservatives, in the true sense of the word. They are highly suspicious of anarchic capitalist markets and banks and skeptical of all the new technology being foisted upon us. They see “innovation” as more often than not a dirty word. They all advocate less dependence on top-down hierarchical systems, an emphasis on local community, self-reliance for one’s daily needs, and a slower/simpler way of living.

According to Ran Prieur:

If I defined an alt-left, it would explicitly take no position on race, or on racially charged subjects like immigration. The core of my alt-left definition would be economics. Libertarians want a “level playing field” but I want a playing field slanted so hard that trying to turn a lot of money into more money would be like climbing a mountain, and being content with just enough money for basic dignity and comfort would be like coasting downhill on a bicycle.


Rather than the Victorian Era, the Alt-Left looks back much farther—to the hunter-gatherer past—in search of answers. It was a world of equality, sexual openness, freedom, spontaneity, abundance, and leisure. They are likely to see our decline as starting with the transition to sedentary agriculture where elites gained control of the political system, women’s reproductive behavior began to be strictly regulated, war became endemic, slavery was established, yawning gaps between rich and poor emerged, we destroyed our natural habitats, population exploded, people got sicker had to work far longer and harder to support the ruling class.

Or, perhaps they might look for inspiration to the European High Middle Ages, with the dissolution of the centralized Roman State and the re-emphasis on small-scale local economies. While the mainstream Left sees this as a time of backwardness caused by adherence to religion, the Alt-Left sees much to admire in societies not based on acquisition and overproduction, but instead focused on humanism and spiritual values (even if the behavior of the Catholic Church was less then admirable):

The Alt-Left has many antecedents, what Morris Berman calls the “alternative tradition.” This ranges from the old-school communist/anarchist thinkers such as Marx, Proudhon, Kropotkin, Owen, and others, to the American Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson, to voices from the 1960’s–Lewis Mumford, E.F. Schumacher, Richard Theobald, Kenneth Boulding, Jane Jacobs, Barry Commoner, and others. These views have always been suppressed by the dominant culture, which is dedicated to the religion of progress.

However, the religion of progress seems to be breaking down. It’s telling that many of the above writers are put in the “collapse” camp. Perhaps when Eurocentric Modernism has run its course and consigned to the dustbin of history, we can rebuild something more healthy and durable. Assuming there are any of us left, that is.

Kanth…senses that a global financial crisis, or some other equivalent catastrophe, like war or natural disaster, may soon produce painful and seismic economic and political disruptions. Perhaps only then will human nature reassert itself as we come to rediscover the crucial nexus of reciprocities that is our real heritage. That’s what will enable us to survive.

Hopefully it won’t come to that, but right now, we can learn to “step out and breathe again,” says Kanth. We can “reclaim our natural social heritage, which is our instincts for care, consideration, and conviviality.” Even in large cities, he observes, we naturally tend to function within small groups of reference even though we are forced into larger entities in the workplace and other arenas. There, we can build and enrich our social ties, and seek to act according to our moral instincts. We can also resist and defy the institutions that deny our real humanity. Rather than violence or revolution, we can engage in “evasion and disobedience and exile.”

We had better get to it, he warns. To put it bluntly, Eurocentric modernism is not compatible with human civilization. One of them has got to go.

7 thoughts on “A Skeleton Key to the Alt Left

  1. There is a movement to replace all the humanities with Economics. There’s also a movement to replace all sciences with Physics. They’re equally daft and both founded in a misguided fundamentalism.

    In parallel I’ve been reading about the Reformation. Seems right now we have a crisis in worldview rivalling that one.

    I favour soft collapse: things have to roll back to a simpler time, just not the stone age. For many years I’ve suspected the entire fantasy genre of preparing us for this: simple living, limited magic, reasonable social mobility, surprisingly good dentistry.

    • Just realised I wrote ‘fundamentalism’ instead of ‘reductionism’. But then: maybe they’re the same! Christian fundamentalism is a reduction to Scripture.

  2. One trait I often see in administrators and bosses that seems to track well with those who have power as well as those with affection or loyalty to the powerful is a love of complexity. I see it a lot in upper middle class liberal left circles but I think it probably exists on the right of the spectrum too, although I don’t run into these people as much. Where I work it simply drives me nuts. Why have a phone when you can spend tens of millions for a special video phone system or maybe we should set up committees or even a new full time position to do in-depth statistical analysis concerning why some college classes attract so many more students. In the last case, they might do well to notice that the classes with the highest enrollment are required by their own rules and offered at greater frequency and with more advertisement than other courses. Alas, we already have the phone system that allows us to do for nearly 20 Million what Skype would do on a bigger screen for free and the interviews have begun for a new administrator whose first task is to study why so many students enroll in required classes that are offered frequently as compared to say Medieval Studies classes offered every other semester if you can find via key word search on the online course catalogue. The odd thing is that so many people seem to love complexity and loath those who question it.

    I think this tendency is important indicator of something, I’m just not entirely sure what. Mainly it seems to be about class and status. When I mention that something seems a bit unnecessarily complex or officious to a working-class guy or gal I usually get a smile and the occasional agreement but the higher I go up the class ladder the more hostile the response is. That’s not entirely true, it’s more of a bell curve with hostility rising with social class up to a point and then beginning to decline a bit. I’ll never know the full trajectory because I’m not a close speaking terms with any billionaires.

    The well-educated upper middle classes, left and right, seem never to have found a complex problem that didn’t call for an even more complex solution. They also seem to have tremendous respect for authority and social standing which is expressed openly, on the right, or with a bit more subtlety, on the left. Along with it comes a view that the system works and a sort shock when it doesn’t. Something I see all the time at work. A high-ranking poohbah will do something brazenly ridiculous and damaging and people around me will be shocked as if this didn’t happen all the time and wasn’t basically built into the nature of hierarchies. I guess I’m shocked that leftists, however petit bourgeois, still believe the emperor is well dressed.

    Not sure how this falls into either side of the right-left or dichotomy although the alt-left as you describe it would presumably oppose unnecessary complexity and hierarchy.

    • Hell yeah, mtc. And then there’s software… the number of people at work who will defend to the hilt all the most egregious examples of bloat and bugs-as-features. What motivates them? They didn’t write it. What do they have invested? It must run way deep. Answers on a postcard please (or a 500 page thesis, or a flash animation…)

    • Actually my working hypothesis is the cult of ‘More’. In the modern absence of the Good, the only thing that can possibly matter is having More. Therefore More is always better, even if it isn’t.

        • Well like I say I’m hypothesising, but here goes. Once upon a time there was a Good towards which we were all striving. But now in post-modernity, doubt has been cast upon it: everything is relative, better or worse. But ‘better’ still presupposes the direction of the Good, and so it’s being replaced with ‘more’. Only what can be counted exists; and therefore the only definition of ‘better’ is ‘more’: faster, higher, stronger, further, taller, more GDP, more growth, more money. A gap was left by the rejection of the good, and something else has snuck in.

          An illustration: my wife used to work in air accident investigation. One day, management came round with a new list of Key Performance Indicators. One of these was ‘number of accidents investigated’. She stuck her hand up, like the final frame of a Dilbert cartoon: did this mean she could improve the performance of the unit by going out and sabotaging a few aircraft? Needless to say, the idea was dropped, but not before it had been seriously proposed and not without loss of face.

          In post-modernity, all belief systems are equally valid. But fortunately that includes the belief that they’re not.

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