Where the Alt-Right Goes Wrong

My musings on the alt-right seems to have engendered a larger reaction than I anticipated. It seems that there’s quite a bit of sympathy for many of the alt-right’s positions by people who wouldn’t typically self-identify as “right-wing” or with many of their other positions, which was, after all, a point I was attempting to make in the first place.

First, it’s worth noting that these observations are subjective by nature. No one—and I mean no one—can plausibly give a definitive definition of such a broad and amorphous category, and certainly not one that doesn’t simplify and exclude to some extent. I am basing this mainly on personal observations of what I have seen online. To some extent, anyone’s personal definition is the correct one: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

But what I mainly wanted to do was point out what I saw as the core linking all of the seemingly amorphous ideas together, and that, in my view, was clearly Social Darwinism. I do not recall seeing that fact pointed out anywhere else, even in the Wikipedia entry or the widely-cited Yiannoplis article (which defines the alt-right much more broadly).

Furthermore, Social Darwinism also links the modern alt-right to earlier strains of right-wing authoritarian thinking, including those which happened to be prevalent in Nazi Germany and other parts of Europe (and, it should be noted, in many circles of corporate America as well during that same time period). I stand by that assessment. To the commenter who claimed that the article I wrote amounted to nothing more than screaming “These are the NAZIS….baaaaahhh!,” well, I think you need to go back and reread it a bit more carefully and engage with some of the arguments. I feel the post was more explanatory that polemic or oppositional. It is you are throwing a tantrum, not I.

It’s worth pointing out that I did not systematically refute all of their points because 1.) That could run to book length; 2.) That was not my goal; and 3.) There are parts of their ideas and philosophies that are worth contemplating to some extent, as with nearly any political philosophy. My purpose was to engage, not to disparage, even though that’s exactly what I was accused of doing. I wanted to find commonalities between the alt-right and the alt-left (which I will define later). However, the sum total of the philosophy I do find objectionable on various grounds.

First, let’s stipulate that humans are animals. They (we) are biological creatures, and thus subject to the same laws of differential reproductive success and descent with modification as all other creatures. That includes the laws of physics and thermodynamics as well. This means that, of course, Darwinian selection is operating on us too. This can be a powerful tool for analysis of the biological world, and, yes, to some extent, human societies, as the recently-developed structural-demographic theories of history attest.

It’s the value judgements that get us, though. Right now, grey squirrels are outcompeting red squirrels in England. Does that mean that grey squirrels are better than, or “superior” to red ones? By what criteria? You could say that their very outcompeting makes them superior, but that statement is such a tautology as to render it meaningless–outcompeting in a biological niche makes them superior by the standards of outcompeting in a biological niche. Are invasive species by definition morally superior?

And besides, what do you do with this information? Does it necessarily lead to the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Birkenau? Are we condemned to forever repeat this tragedy? One is reminded of Whitaker Chambers’ famous review of Atlas Shrugged, which seems applicable to the alt-right in general:

…the mind which finds this tone natural to it shares other characteristics of its type. 1) It consistently mistakes raw force for strength, and the rawer the force, the more reverent the posture of the mind before it. 2) It supposes itself to be the bringer of a final revelation. Therefore, resistance to the Message cannot be tolerated because disagreement can never be merely honest, prudent, or just humanly fallible. Dissent from revelation so final (because, the author would say, so reasonable) can only be willfully wicked. There are ways of dealing with such wickedness, and, in fact, right reason itself enjoins them.

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: “To a gas chamber — go!” The same inflexibly self-righteous stance results, too (in the total absence of any saving humor), in odd extravagances of inflection and gesture — that Dollar Sign, for example. At first, we try to tell ourselves that these are just lapses, that this mind has, somehow, mislaid the discriminating knack that most of us pray will warn us in time of the difference between what is effective and firm, and what is wildly grotesque and excessive…

“From almost every HBD post and Neoreaction subreddit, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding…”

J.M. Greer had a good insight in response to a comment to one of his posts. Imagine, he said, if you gave chimpanzees the power to direct their own evolution. What would they select for? Most likely enhancing the very things that chimps already do – climbing trees, building nests, hunting colobus monkeys, etc. Or, very likely, aspiring chimp parents would select for the traits that make for an alpha–aggressiveness, physical intimidation, social cunning, and so forth.

Would you ever get to humans this way? No, you’d just have “super chimps.” And the arms race to become an alpha would most likely undermine the viability of the species anyway. That’s a slap in the face to the Social Darwinists who want to select for the traits that allow for success in “free and open” markets and think this will somehow lead to the “next phase” of human evolution. I’m sorry, the idea is just ridiculous.

Now, do the wealthy tend to survive more than the poor? Yes, just as before the advent of modern medicine, all things being equal, healthier people reproduced more than sick ones, and attractive people have more mates than ugly ones. But none of this is due to explicit social design. To some extent, this is unavoidable–it is a law of nature. It stands “outside” of social or economic design; you cannot prevent or encourage it. That was just as true of the middle-class society of the post-war era as the winner-take-all society constructed under Neoliberalism that we currently inhabit.

But that’s a long way from saying that we should intentionally design our societies to kill off large numbers of undesirables “for the good of the species.” Or that those we designate as undesirable in modern-day America truly are so. The bottomless greed, tolerance for risk and Stakhanovite work ethic that makes a good capitalist would probably not have been quite so adaptive in most historical time periods. Who can say which traits will be useful five hundred years from now?

For example, someone may have a mental illness that precludes them from achieving much success in the Market–especially in America where your willingness to blindly follow orders and engage in pointless hoop-jumping seem to have become the main criteria for success. But those same genes may lead to genius a few generations down the line. We simply don’t know, so wiping out those who are unsuccessful at making money right now would most likely backfire. Consider that many of our greatest artists would not have found much success in the Market–Vincent Van Gogh famously sold only a handful of drawings and paintings in his lifetime and was dependent on the charity of his relatives.

Someone posted this article: Survival of the Friendliest (Nautilus). That raises an important point. The Alt-right is very enthusiastic about “science” when it’s confirming their political biases, but when something goes against their preset beliefs, it is simply handwaved away–the very same behavior they accuse their critics of engaging in. Many on the alt-right will solemnly nod their heads at the irreproducability of a lot of scientific research, but then take the most wild and fantastic HBD speculations–devoid of any research at all–as the unvarnished “truth!” (not to mention their faith in economic pseudoscience). Any scientist whose conclusions do not align with their weltanschauung, regardless of the evidence, is a “Cultural Marxist.” Indeed, that’s the only consistent definition of the term I can find. And, yes, there are those on the nominal left who also wave away inconvenient facts as well–it’s not good when anyone does it.

Social Darwinism is based on a simplistic misunderstanding of evolution. Peter Kropotkin pointed out long ago that any species where the members were constantly at each other’s throats would not survive very long. Instead, competition is primarily with outside forces, i.e. securing adequate sustenance and avoiding predators. To accomplish these things, species’ primary strategy is cooperation not competition. And no species cooperates more than man, which is the very key to our success. Undermining that, as the Social Darwinists are wont to do, is suicidal! Yes, there are highly regulated and circumscribed competitions in various arenas, of course, especially for mates. But these are very structured and “ceremonial” in most species. Males butt heads, and then go home. They are certainly not constantly fighting with one another! If they were, they would make an easy meal for predators.

Kropotkin expected to see the brutal dog-eat-dog world of Darwinian competition. He searched high and low—but nothing. “I failed to find, although I was eagerly looking for it,” Kropotkin wrote, “that bitter struggle for the means of existence, among animals belonging to the same species, which was considered by most Darwinists (though not always by Darwin himself) as the dominant characteristic of the struggle for life, and the main factor of evolution.”

Instead he saw mutual aid—everywhere. “In all these scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes,” Kropotkin wrote, “I saw Mutual Aid and Mutual Support carried on to an extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species and its further evolution.” And it wasn’t just in animals. The peasants in the villages he visited were constantly helping one another in their fight against the brutal environment of Siberia. What’s more, he noted a correlation between the extent of mutual aid displayed in a peasant village and the distance of that village from the hand of government. It was just as the anarchists had suggested. “I lost in Siberia,” he wrote, “whatever faith in state discipline I had cherished before. I was prepared to become an anarchist.”

The Russian Anarchist Prince Who Challenged Evolution (Slate)

I read once that the old Roman saying “Man Is A Wolf To Man” (homo homini lupus) is disingenuous to wolves! Wolves, of course, cooperate on the hunt. And wolf packs do not typically fight one another; each has a circumscribed territory. To hear the Social Darwininsts tell it, every wolf would be in constant competition with the Alpha for even a morsel of food, and wolf packs would be constantly fighting each other for every scrap of territory. That’s not what happens. If that were the case, wolves would have gone extinct long ago. And certainly not even the Alpha claims 95 percent of the pack’s “resources.”

The ultracompetitive drive of market capitalism is a historical aberration, and demonstrating that has been the focus of my writing for much of this past year. The analogy between the Market and the competitive pressures in nature is fundamentally flawed. The idea that success in the Market somehow signals evolutionary fitness in a Darwinian sense is ridiculous (which is why Darwin never said it). It also ignores the fact that markets have been tangential throughout most of human history and yet somehow brought us to the society of the 1870s–the very society that produced Darwin, mind you–without any explicit recourse to eugenics, and for most of that time with economic systems based around combinations of reciprocity, redistribution, householding, religious sympathy, and mutual aid. It bears repeating: over 90 percent of our species’ existence has been as hunter-gatherers. It could just as easily be argued that the expansion of markets have made us less intelligent and capable, as indeed some have argued.

The idea that the anarchic market somehow always rewards the best and the brightest is absurd on its face. It’s hard to believe that George W. Bush and Donald Trump are truly the finest the human species have to offer in terms of competence or leadership qualities.

And now, there’s the emerging science of epigenetics, which is just getting started. Environment effects genetics! Our knowledge of evolution (like many scientific concepts) is constantly evolving and quite incomplete, so to say that we “understand” human evolution enough to justify Social Darwinism as policy is a political, not a scientific, stance. People are “undesirable” from a current economic–not a genetic–view. That’s a problem for our economic system, one that should theoretically be dealt with, not simply accepted as beneficial or “inevitable.” Is it truly the case, as Social Darwinists argue, that “if a person doesn’t produce quantifiable value, they are, objectively, not valuable. Everything else is sentimentality.” I don’t think it is.

Plus, there’s the old “ought-is” question. Even if nature were really as unremittingly harsh and cruel as the Social Darwinists depict it, does that means we should necessarily design human institutions this way? Or should we design them instead to lift up our species in general–all of us–and engage in symbiotic cooperation with each other and our natural environment, which is more likely the key to evolutionary success rather than the “war of all against all” promoted by Social Darwinists. It’s the classic Naturalistic Fallacy–the idea that anything “natural” is somehow good:

…In nature the weakest (least fit) die, so the naturalistic fallacy says that we should dismantle welfare states and withhold charity and health care, to leave poor and ill people to die, or even to exterminate the weak. This ignores Darwin’s actual definition of “fit”; not the strongest but the most adaptable and responsive to change, meaning that “Darwinism” would encourage social safety nets and disaster relief.

Appeal to Nature (Rational Wiki)

Social Darwinism rests on two premises: there exists a constant struggle for survival in nature, and nature is a proper guide for the structuring of society. This is not a scientific idea at all, as it is not a statement about what is but rather a statement about what some people think “should” be.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection describes the propagation of hereditary traits due to the varying “success” of organisms in reproducing. Basing a moral philosophy on natural selection makes about as much sense as basing morality on the theory of gravitational success: rocks rolling down the furthest are the best rocks.

Social Darwinism is basically a circular argument. A group that gains power can claim to be the “best fit” because it is in power, but then the group claims to be in power because it is the “best fit”. Any group in power can use Social Darwinist arguments to justify itself, not just right-wing groups such as fascists. Communists can claim that Communists are the best fit wherever Communists are in power. Ironically, many eugenicists and other racists will insist that DA JEWWS! are secretly in power, yet will never use this logic to insist that Jews are the “best fit”.

Social Darwinism (Rational Wiki)

If we design markets to wipe out large numbers of the human species, does that somehow guarantee “progress?” Who is “good enough?” Who makes that call? Claiming that these questions are somehow settled by “science” is not scientific, it is political. if you want large numbers of people to die, just come out and say it; don’t hide behind some sort of pseudoscientific claptrap.

Just like the fact that human are animals, I think we can also stipulate that they differ greatly in abilities, personality, intelligence and so forth. We aren’t blank slates, as some on the Left have argued, and things like gender are not merely “artificial constructs.” I’m not sure I’d classify those views as hereditarianism, however.

What I mean when I use that term is using genetic determinism to exclude all other factors, including institutional factors of class and power, and to bolster notions of Just-Worldism. Who are the wealthiest? The most capable. Why are they the most capable? Because they are the wealthiest!

To reiterate, it’s hard to believe that leaders like Dubya and Trump got where they are through dint of superior I.Q. Child poverty has exploded in one generation. It’s pretty hard to chalk that up to genetics. The share of income going to the one percent has increased by leaps and bounds within the span of a few decades. Are they getting smarter by the day? How can that be chalked up to genetic rewards to talent? It’s when genetics are used to justify all of this that I object.

[William Graham] Sumner was unabashed in his admiration for millionaires, and indignant at criticism lobbed in their direction. “The rich are good-natured,” he insisted, model citizens to be applauded for their initiative and patience with lesser souls. He approved the “aggregation of large fortunes” as “a necessary condition of many forms of social advance.” Toward that end, he argued strenuously against restrictions on Wall Street stockjobbing and other forms of speculative gain. “To denounce financial devices which are useful and legitimate because use is made of them for fraud is ridiculous,” he wrote. Also to be avoided were government investigative commissions, increased taxes, and Sunday-morning haranguing about how the rich owed something to the poor…

Sumner’s list of deadbeats and drags on society will be familiar to any casual observer of modern conservative politics. First were the social reformers (usually well-educated Northeasterners, preferably women), whom Sumner chastised for their arrogance, hypocrisy, and dangerous utopian schemes. Next came government bureaucrats, typified by the “obscure clerk” whose small-minded enforcement of rules threatened to crush the nation’s visionary spirits. Finally, there were the poor themselves—often “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly, and imprudent.” “A drunkard in the gutter is just where he ought to be,” Sumner argued with his trademark bluntness. He even went so far as to denounce democracy itself, viewing mass voting as a modern experiment perilously close to mob rule.

“A Drunkard in the Gutter Is Just Where He Ought To Be” (Slate)

Recall that the One Big Market is less than a couple centuries old, and even then only in Western Europe. Even the most “rapid” evolutionary traits which have been studied, such as lactase persistence and malaria resistance, take dozens if not hundreds of generations to propagate through a population by even the most generous estimates by geneticists. Evolution did not produce the Market.

By the same token, if you look at inequality in societies, it’s pretty hard to believe they are just due to “natural” genetic differences in ability, capability, intelligence, and so forth. Debt, nepotism, inheritance, the Law of Cumulative advantage, political factors, and just pure, dumb luck also play a role. Hereditarians would have us ignore all of this in favor of “Da Genez.”

Recall too, that nation-states are only a few centuries old, and then, too, only in Western Europe. To claim that entire nations are failures due to poor genetics and low IQ scores ignores the fact that boundaries were drawn up just a few generations ago around arbitrary and unrelated peoples in much of the world, who were then ruthlessly colonized and exploited. Somehow these “Low IQ” countries managed to be viable societies before Europeans arrived on the scene with the One Big Market, the Hut Tax, National Debt burdens, and other social “innovations,” (albeit at a lower level of technology). As much as I rip on mainstream economists, they did have a potent refutation of Clark’s hypothesis: a photograph of the Korean peninsula at night taken from outer space. Here was a population separated for only half a century, and yet half the peninsula blazed bright from one of the most advanced economies in the world, while the other half was almost entirely dark, mired in one of the planet’s most repressive political regimes.

Korea at night. Genetics? Or something else?

How much lower I.Q.’s do the North Koreans have than the South, I wonder? Or from North Americans? Is it genetics? Or is it something else?

When Westerners first came to Japan with their technology, many Japanese were quick to identify themselves as inherently inferior, and argued that their only hope was to systematically breed with the foreigners. Contra Clark, Japan managed to industrialize much faster than England did–bad news for the “genetic” theory. Now they are known for cutting edge high-technology. By the 1980’s the shoe was on the other foot–Japanese were depicted as clearly “superior” to lazy and spoiled North Americans. But then, their real-estate bubble burst and economic growth for all intents and purposes came to a halt. Now their society is quite stable, but their birthrate is among the lowest on earth.

So, are they superior or inferior?

The use of IQ testing has strayed very far from its initial origins. It was never meant by its developers as a winnowing mechanism and all-purpose silver-bullet explanatory variable that it has become in the fevered musings of the alt-right:

“Where did the IQ test start? When Alfred Binet came up with the IQ test, the point of it was to measure where people were as a way to target how they could improve. And then Lewis Terman and the eugenicists hijacked the IQ test and made it this permanent thing. Alfred Binet in 1909 said that this pessimistic tendency [had] developed in terms of what the I.Q. test is, and we have to fight that. If you talk to Carol Dweck who does all the growth and fixed mindset stuff, she’ll tell you that her whole career is basically devoted to undoing the damage of Lewis Terman. This is now a century old…”
[Tangentially Speaking, Episode 234, 41:00]

I.Q. was designed to assess people and help them improve. That’s a nice idea, isn’t it? And improve they have, as the Flynn Effect demonstrates. Its wasn’t meant to determine who was inherently superior or inferior, who is rich and who is poor, and certainly not who should live and who should die. Interpreting all of human history and social structures solely through the narrow lens of IQ and Darwinism, as the alt-right does, leads one down the path to the nihilistic and deterministic thinking that pervades their writings. Yes, using these as tools can be useful, but in the end they are just tools.

Of course, Social Darwinism and heritarianism cut across strict political boundaries, and have for a long time. The right loves to point out that many figures in the Progressive and other past social movements nominally considered “leftist” (mainly due to their efforts to reform capitalism) were proponents of eugenics. “You see, the left are the REAL Nazis!!!” Er, no, not really.

The idea that societies are structured as levels as if in a video game is also not a scientific proposition, and is consistently decried by actual scholars of sociology and anthropology. The concept that our ultimate destiny lies “among the stars” and that this is the end goal of the human evolution is just as much theological as the idea that it is the purpose of humanity to glorify God and sit at his right hand for all eternity. Is a high-tech civilization “better?” By what criteria? As with grey squirrels, by shoving aside competitors, perhaps. But I’m sure readers aware that by most measures of human happiness, well-being, health and sustainability, so-called “primitive” societies have us beat by a long shot: Were we happier in the Stone Age? (Guardian)

Finally, there is the thorny issue of tribalism. As one commenter wrote, “The alt-right is much more focused on the conflict’s [sic] generated by multi-racial or multi-ethnic empires/nations. They are also much more concerned with maintaining a high trust society for white people (europeans).” That’s a tricky subject I’ll wade into next time.

6 thoughts on “Where the Alt-Right Goes Wrong

  1. more good work. one additional point for your consideration. rarely do we take into account the evolution of the environments and contexts in which we live, which, as they change, change the traits necessary for “success.” an environment emphasizing brute strength changing to one requiring guile or insight changes who wins and loses. to be a long-term successful society/community/organization, it ends up being a justification not for “winner take all” but for more equal treatment of all as “eggs in one basket” turns out to be true one more time and the traits discriminated against or even eliminated now become the ones necessary. the skinny guy always picked on by the bulky and brawny becomes the hero when the baby falls down the well or mine shaft. we in the US are in the process of becoming the major historical example of the principle in a particularly horrendous way after having once been “the last best hope” for that ideal. on that cheery note, keep up the great work. we do appreciate it.

  2. I had never heard of the alt right until the Trump election. From what I have read of the alt right websites, I would have said that their main theme was inequality – inequality of individuals and states. You have take it one step further and connected it with Social Darwinism (not mistakenly, I think… see
    Their high priest Charles Murray does not advocate mass liquidation of the inferior, but rather pities them. Because their lack of IQ is genetic, it is not their fault and those of higher IQs have a responsibility to support them. By the way, the alt-right Bible The Bell Curve is based on dubious sources:

  3. Is it accurate to associate market fundamentalism with the alt-right? It’s something I associate with the ultra-libertarianism that was in fashion for a few years after the GFC, and of course it’s highly popular among the Republican Party donor class of elite business types.

    OTOH I see the alt-right as basically an ethno-nationalist / tribalist movement with reactionary elements; it has much more in common with – say – Zionism than with Ayn Rand.

  4. Unending exponential market growth: Left- or Right-wing?

    I can’t work it out. The Right blame the Left and the Left blame the Right.

    I think the original ‘Left’ (pre-Revolutionary France) were pro-market… but now it seems it’s eaten everyone in the ‘mainstream’ (obviously, because if you don’t support it, you don’t get to be on the telly). So now you’ve got the Right trying to set it loose upon us and the Left thinking they can collar it like some big happy puppy. But its only purpose is to eat the world.

  5. “Nothin’ gonna stop them as the day follow the night
    Right become left the left become right
    And they sing as they march with their flags unfurled
    Today in the mountains tomorrow the world

    Gonna ride across the river deep and wide
    Ride across the river to the other side.”

    – Mark Knopfler

  6. May I be so bold as to suggest a book that might provide you with a working mental model for understanding why there are people who view the world as dog eat dog, while others see the world in terms of cooperation?

    Here’s a link. Please don’t reject the book outright because of its focus on the spiritual. You can ignore that part of it entirely and there will still be plenty of wisdom to be had.


    After reading the book you’ll probably be better equipped to understand why some people are simply incapable of seeing the world and their fellow humans as being cooperative. They are at the level of development where they must compete fang and claw against everything. Worse, their world view makes perfect sense to them, so they are not vulnerable to persuasion.

    It’s not about DNA, their environment or upbringing, the way their brains are wired, or whether they are disconnected from the rest of us by the privileges of wealth.

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