When Donald Trump spoke of an “alt-left” in his appalling post-Charlottesville address, most people on the Left resented the insult. In that context, the specific offense stemmed from the suggestion that there was a “both sides” moral equivalency between the alt-Right and its left opposition.
But even if one denies that there’s any comparison between racist activism and anti-racist activism, there was a deeper implication that day, and it’s one that our political culture hasn’t fully come to terms with. The notion is that even if there’s no moral equivalency between the alt-Right and the hard-left, there is nonetheless a political equivalency at hand; that both movements are equally out of step with conventional political culture and therefore raise concerns that are, by tacit agreement among political elites, out of bounds for acceptable discourse. At perhaps the broadest level of abstraction, this centrist provocation insists that whatever the underlying merits of these hokey ideas, both the far left and the far right are disruptive to the status quo, and so it’d be better if they both just went away.
To an extent, this is only the latest recapitulation of French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye’s “horseshoe theory,” which imagines the far ends of the political spectrum bending toward each other in perverse attraction. Horseshoe theory is fun for students of political philosophy, but in the last year it has broken through to the mainstream conversation as well. Months before Charlottesville, there was a horseshoe encoded in a Vanity Fair article that declared, “the alt-left is a problem too.”
Almost a year after the Vanity Fair article, the idea hasn’t gone away. A recent piece for Quartz claims, “The alt-right are targeting disgruntled white male lefties to join their movement.” The Quartz article is mostly fascinating, providing a good rundown on how the far right has adopted a specifically anti-capitalist posture lately. But it’s unhelpful insofar as it peddles two unjustifiable ideas: first, that ideological leftism is characteristically white and male; and second, that a white, male leftist is just a few short steps away from Nazism.
Meanwhile, most traditional conservatives actively disavow ideological kinship with the alt-Right. One recent video from the conservative digital media company PragerU argues that the alt-Right is on the left.
Much of this is spurious. The straight line between anti-capitalism and neo-Nazism is refuted by the fact that women and people of color have been and continue to be visionaries and leaders in anti-capitalist movements, with contributions to theory and activism so numerous and well-known as to make recitation unnecessary and impractical.
But it also flies in the face of our common-sense expectations for political culture. This is a point to take seriously. If we understand anti-capitalism to be left-wing and neo-Nazism to be right-wing, then what does it mean for socialists when neo-Nazis start lining up against capitalism too?
There are two possibilities: either the facts are wrong—maybe the alt-Right is not actually anti-capitalist—or alternatively, there’s something deficient about the way we’re thinking about economics in right and left politics today.
Take a look at some of the key characters of the alt-Right. Steve Bannon is a curious species of cold-blooded Keynesian, which is an economic orientation much more comfortably associated with the Left than the Right. Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Bannon was talking about a “crisis of capitalism” and calling himself a Leninist. While in the White House, he reportedly favored tax hikes on the rich. At its core, Bannonism is (was) a program of economic nationalism, and that concept is not unheard of on the Left. Deeper in the pit, Richard Spencer is also a strange amalgam. He studied Adorno in graduate school, supports universal healthcare, and once tweeted the words, “Look, Marx was kinda right.” Even further out, in the world of obscure political philosophy, one can skim an essay by neo-reactionary forerunner Nick Land, only to find dense critiques of global capitalism in the tradition of Deleuze and Guattari.
It’s unjustified, perhaps even dishonest, to reject outright the possibility that a certain strain of far-right politics, however small, has taken a genuine turn for the anti-capitalist. Pointing this out raises the hackles of well-meaning socialists, because it runs the risk of sullying the Left’s reputation. When viewed from the center, there’s a real danger of unfair conflation between the far left and far right. But the Left does need to ask itself that dark question: Does it have anything meaningful in common with the alt-Right?
As indicated above, the second possibility recommends reexamining the way we think about political configurations. The standard political compass has two axes: an X-axis for left and right economic programs, and a Y-axis measured in degrees of political freedom. If we posit a genuinely anti-capitalist (or at least strongly Keynesian) alt-Right, we might have to put them somewhere in the authoritarian-left quadrant; roughly, somewhere just to right of Soviet communism.
Can that be correct? It certainly feels wrong. We can say that the result is wrong, but must do so without falling back on the first possibility above; we can’t merely split hairs over whether Bannonism is authentically Keynesian, or debate endlessly whether white nationalism is either a cause or an effect of the Right’s anti-capitalist populism. Ultimately, those explanations duck the question at hand.
Instead, consider the second possibility: the result is wrong because the chart is wrong.
What the standard schema doesn’t take into account is that fascism has been a political ideology mostly divorced from specific economic concerns. Because of a tendency to systematize and plug everything into the same grid, we’re tricked into the assumption that far-right, fascist economics must be the perfect inverse of far-left, communist economics. And if they can’t be handily characterized as mirror images, then we’re backed into a corner; we’re left trying to worm out of the uncomfortable conclusion that fascism and communism must be nearly identical to each other, particularly because they’re usually understood to embody similar levels of authoritarianism on the Y-axis.
This is the argument that traditional conservatives make. It’s maddening for leftists because it’s so clever. It simultaneously distances fascism from clean conservatism, and plausibly pushes fascism off on the Left. This is the “Nazism are socialists” argument. One might hate that argument with a passion, but based on the reasoning above we can see why it resonates with those interested in misrepresenting what the Left stands for.
But it’s all founded on a fundamental error that forms our basic difficulty to place the alt-Right anywhere on the political spectrum: the assumption that there should be a 1-to-1, inverse correspondence between fascist and communist economics across the x-axis.
That assumption is flawed for two reasons. First, it’s inaccurate to say that fascist political systems feature free-market economies as an essential characteristic. The topic is complex, but it bears admitting that the way fascist economies were managed under Hitler or Mussolini would’ve been abhorrent to the likes of Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand.
That point leads to the more important point: unlike Marxism and liberalism, fascism doesn’t entail any particular economic program. In Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, Frankfurt School scholar Franz Neumann argues, “There is no National Socialist economic theory… We must recognize once and for all that the structure of the National Socialist economic system does not follow any blueprint, is not based on any consistent doctrine.” Rather, fascism is most usefully characterized as pure politics; specifically, politics as understood by the fascist political philosopher Carl Schmitt, as an expression of the friend-enemy dichotomy. As a result, fascists are variously agnostic, ambivalent, or pragmatic when it comes to economic matters. Neumann continues, “For National Socialism, the primacy of politics is decisive… It has always insisted on the primacy of politics over economics and has therefore consciously remained a political party without any basic economic orientation.”
As a result, any number of economic arrangements can be consonant with fascism, as long as they serve the primary goals of racial purity, hysterical nationalism, and military imperialism. That’s why there’s so much confusion about fascist economics on both sides. Distancing themselves from accusations of fascism, right-wingers cite Nazi price controls, government instigated union domination, and full employment. Meanwhile, lefties point to the crucial role of private business and profit motive in the Nazi project.
But the truth is much less coherent: fascism is an economic mess.
Accordingly, if we’re really interested in understanding fascism and its relationship to socialism, then perhaps the traditional left-right distinction between planned economies and free markets isn’t helpful. It’s more accurate to characterize fascists as off the chart. And this explains the widespread difficulty in understanding where the alt-Right is coming from. When faced with eccentric political movements like the alt-Right, it’s easy to forget that the traditional political spectrum is a synthetic construct, and not a pre-set horizon of political possibilities. But this way of thinking about political oppositions is so ingrained that if we’re not extremely clear about what we stand for, the light of democratic socialism can be tarnished by the filth of white nationalism.
There’s a better way to view things, and that is by remembering that in the struggle between fascism and socialism, the important question is all about power.
The only reason socialists are interested in critiquing capitalism is because of its relationship to power: capitalism is the dominant structure through which most social power is wielded, maintained, and stolen from people. The alt-Right might also criticize capitalism, but for reasons that are entirely alien to a socialist ethos. Here, they’re perfect opposites. For fascists, globalization justifies hostility and abuse towards immigrants; financialization instigates classic anti-Semitism; and neoliberalism’s humiliation of the working class inspires, as projections of desperation and fear, childish national-romanticism and outrageous militarism.
The reality is that both the socialist Left and the alt-right offer grave critiques of the neoliberal consensus; and because the problems with that consensus are both real and readily apparent, there’s nothing unusual about the fact that both ideologies spring from common material circumstances. The crucial difference lies in the moral validity of the response to those circumstances.
For instance, both the socialist Left and the alt-Right recognize there are contradictions between the requirements of contemporary capitalism and social reproduction. Socialists believe in generous, universal public support for social-reproductive labor. Fascists would send women back to the kitchens and nurseries.
Likewise, the anti-racist Left shares with the race realists of the alt-Right a basic premise: race is a big problem in America, and always has been. The anti-racist Left responds with demands for racial justice, police accountability, and prison abolition. The alt-Right, meanwhile, would prefer to refortify white supremacy with a program of mass deportations, a so-called “peaceful ethnic cleansing.”
This analysis brings back the question of anti-capitalism and why it matters. The economic x-axis of the political compass is often misinterpreted to measure the degree of governmental intervention in the economy. But libertarianism shouldn’t be considered right-wing simply because it features the lowest overall level of sate intervention. Rather, it’s because laissez faire markets produce shocking levels of economic inequality, and that inequality translates into social relationships of domination and submission. Likewise, socialism isn’t on the left simply because it involves more government. Instead, socialism is on the left because it represents the most fundamental way to transform the present system of domination and submission into one of mutual freedom.
We can see now that the most useful way to distinguish the Right from the Left isn’t through rote definitions about what counts as socialist or capitalist, about who has legitimate gripes with capitalism, or even what the state’s role in managing the economy should be. Nor is it a matter of picking and choosing which material circumstances to focus on. Instead, we can sort right from left by considering the extent to which the political program maintains or undermines the hierarchical social relationships of the present.
The Left cares about capitalism because it cares about power. An anti-capitalism leveraged to perpetuate power relationships like hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, and military hegemony will never be on the left because they are precisely the forms of power that the Left’s anti-capitalism is meant to oppose in the first place.