Hillary Clinton gave a much-hyped speech last week denouncing Donald Trump’s racism and his ties to the “alt-right.” What the alt-right is, is a matter of debate, but I do think that both Secretary Clinton and self-professed members of the alt-right themselves are mistaken in labeling it an ideology. It is not an ideology, a coherent system of ideas and ideals.
The alt-right is instead, an anti-ideology, reflecting back whatever the dominant ethos has been most enthusiastic about denouncing. Hitler was the incarnation of evil? We’ll praise Hitler. Racism is America’s original sin? We’ll be extra racist. And so on.
There will always be some attraction of Aleister Crowley-style provocation, for saying what others say is day is night and what others say is night is day, and no doubt such provocation is particularly easy and attractive when a large number of young men have lots of time on their hands and the ease of coordination through the Internet.
But what makes that attraction particularly strong right now? It is not, really, economic circumstances or an increase in civil disorder, both of which have been worse at previous times.
I would guess, instead, that it is the sheer aggressiveness of the dominant ethos, the sense that the portrayal of the world through media and education has been abruptly shifted and skewed, with little care for believability or internal coherence.
Dostoevsky begins his famous novella Notes from the Underground with the following note:
The author of the diary and the diary itself are, of course, imaginary. Nevertheless it is clear that such persons as the writer of these notes not only may, but positively must, exist in our society, when we consider the circumstances in the midst of which our society is formed. I have tried to expose to the view of the public more distinctly than is commonly done, one of the characters of the recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still living. In this fragment, entitled “Underground,” this person introduces himself and his views, and, as it were, tries to explain the causes owing to which he has made his appearance and was bound to make his appearance in our midst.
To paraphrase Dostoevsky, such persons as the alt-right not only may, but positively must, exist in our society; they were bound to make their appearance in our midst.
The Underground Man who Dostoevsky introduces to us is also the expositor of an anti-ideology. He comes to us not to convince us of his point of view, or even (like the heroes and anti-heroes of Dostoevsky’s other great novels) to pit one ideology against another, like the three Brothers Karamazov, and watch their ideas bounce against each other and against the social and political circumstances of their time. Instead, the Underground Man is an intellectual masochist, like the alt-right eager to revel in the misery and degradation that he finds inescapable in his time, and to puncture and assail the self-satisfied opinions of the visitors who have come to speak to him (from whom we as readers never hear.) He introduces himself in these terms:
I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.
But while he tells us enough for us to believe him that he is not overly fond of himself, he is much more focused on pointing out the intrinsic errors in what he perceives as the dominant ethos of Saint Petersburg, “the most theoretical and intentional town on the whole terrestrial globe.” Rational materialism, and a belief in the capacity for humans to thrive through enlightened self-interest, is wrong, the Underground Man wants us to know, wrong not only because man fails to be rational but because even if he could succeed the prison of rationality would drive him mad, and he would give anything to be free to act irrationally, even at the cost of comfort and happiness.
Why was the Underground Man bound to make his appearance in Saint Petersburg? Why not London or Paris or Rome? It seems to me because the intrinsic contradiction of Dostoevsky’s society was of a nation both increasingly open to the West, modernity, and industrialization, and at the same time bound to the autocracy of the tsars, organized around the penury of the many and the luxury of a few, with millions released from serfdom only a few years before Notes from Underground was published. This is the society where Dostoevsky himself had been sentenced to mock execution by firing squad and shipped off to years of imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia for…reading a rather mild reformist tract by Belinsky at a friend’s gathering and for conspiring to assemble a home printing press. A society where Orthodox Christianity pervaded almost all aspects of life. That is, the Underground Man is inevitable because the emergent ethos of his times– modernization, rationality, materialism- is so at war with the foundations on which the same society is based.
The emergent ethos of our time is that the blood guilt of white men for conquering the world and enslaving many of its people must be expunged. But that same society that embraces this new ethos is built by white men, and continues to function largely by their actions. Hell, this contradiction is so obvious that our whole ruling class has recently gone into ecstasies of delight over a musical whose entire premise is “what if the Founding Fathers weren’t white?” It’s so obvious that kids in $60,000/ year private schools in Manhattan are being drilled in how to unpack their white privilege. This is the contradiction that produces the alt-right.
Like Dostoevsky’s spiteful and masochistic anti-hero, the alt-right is unsuited to any position approaching power; but their existence is as inevitable as his was.
(There may be a still deeper contradiction that we have not yet faced, and that contributes to our schizophrenic relationship with race among other things; I was struck by this passage from a Michel Houllebecq interview with Paris Review:
What is your concept of the possibility of love between a man and a woman?
I’d say that the question whether love still exists plays the same role in my novels as the question of God’s existence in Dostoyevsky.
Love may no longer exist?
That’s the question of the moment.
And what is causing its disappearance?
The materialist idea that we are alone, we live alone and we die alone. That’s not very compatible with love.
Your last novel, The Possibility of an Island, ends in a desolate world populated by solitary clones. What made you imagine this grim future in which humans are cloned before they reach middle age?
I am persuaded that feminism is not at the root of political correctness. The actual source is much nastier and dares not speak its name, which is simply hatred for old people. The question of domination between men and women is relatively secondary—important but still secondary—compared to what I tried to capture in this novel, which is that we are now trapped in a world of kids. Old kids. The disappearance of patrimonial transmission means that an old guy today is just a useless ruin. The thing we value most of all is youth, which means that life automatically becomes depressing, because life consists, on the whole, of getting old.)