Behind the convulsions and confusion of the Western political landscape there is an unspoken alliance between two seemingly hostile camps. Populists and anti-humanists have entered into an ad hoc coalition in their fight against the liberal establishment. For now, at least, the people lovers and the people loathers have found common cause.
In the framework of overlaid populist and anti-humanist movements, many of the most baffling events of the past few years start to make sense. “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” asked Donald Trump, channeling Noam Chomsky, of the disgraced Fox host Bill O’Reilly in 2016. While the alt-right adopted the style and attitudes of the left-wing counterculture, mainstream Democrats adopted slogans of 1950s Republicans and launched their own Cold War-style campaign against sweeping, sinister Russian subversion of domestic political institutions and the national fiber. Crosscurrents of populism and anti-humanism are running through evangelical support for Trump, progressive puritanism, liberals defending an FBI-led “resistance,” Sean Hannity’s crush on Julian Assange, Steve Bannon calling himself a “conservative Leninist,” as well as the resurgence of marginal strains of Stalinism, Maoism, Third Position fascism, National Bolshevism, and assorted political cults flickering throughout a social-media driven attention economy operating on the rubble of the liberal establishment’s journalism wing.
What the newly emboldened defenders of Western liberal democracy are unwilling to admit is that the populist threat to liberalism is not the invention of malevolent outsiders or a white identity movement—though both are real enough. It responds to the social insecurity and economic inequality resulting, in no small part, from policies set by the centrist establishment, and to the growing venality and self-insulation of that class. “Rather than attributing to the old order the failures that occurred on its watch, nostalgists blame mismanagement, or popular fatigue, or ‘populism’ and demagogues that whipped up mass discontent,” writes University of Birmingham professor Patrick Porter in a recent essay on the realities and illusions of the American postwar liberal international order. “That the order may have been complicit in its own undoing is hardly considered.”
About a year and a half ago I was poking around online in the back channels of the discourse when something caught my eye. The neo-Nazi members of a prominent alt-right podcast were accusing the very popular left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House of stealing their act. This was still early in the rise of Chapo, whose success—popular and financial—in turn gave rise to the much more establishment-friendly Pod Save America, but it came at a moment when the Bernie Sanders-affiliated Democratic Socialists were creating a big media splash. The early headlines fixated mostly on two aspects of the podcast, it’s effusive and quotable spleen towards the Hillary Clinton camp, and its style, which blended antic cleverness and vitriol with a bleaker undercurrent that cut against the host’s nominally left-wing materialist politics. This style was supposedly emblematic of the “dirtbag left,” the name given by one of the show’s hosts to the political tendency it represented. The basis for the alt-right’s allegation that the dirtbag left had stolen its shtick—not to be taken at face value—was their claim to this style.
Most comparisons between the Chapo broadcast and its alt-right analogues have focused on their shared disdain for centrist liberal norms. What I hear in common is a pre-political sensibility. An individualistic thrill at power passing itself off as a form of politics by turning cruelty against liberal hypocrites into a virtue. This is the archnihilist tone that doubles down on pseudo-ideological commitments. “LOL nothing matters” and single-payer is the most important thing in the world. It mirrors the strident moralizing that emerged from the the most depraved quarters of 4Chan.
A more charitable view of the Chapo project compares it not to the alt right but to the followers of Jordan Peterson. People trying to anchor themselves to a stable sense of purpose in a moment of deep economic and social insecurity, and narrative collapse. The problem with this view is the Chapo set’s investment in late capitalist decadence as an aesthetic, which creates a dissonance between the ethic they perform and the one they espouse.
The far left and far right converge around an axial opposition to hegemonic liberalism. This manifests in attacks on liberal democratic norms that attempt to pierce to the heart of liberal values and “anti-imperialist” rhetoric that often amounts to support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and the embrace of Russian imperialism. The specter of an unholy illiberal alliance can be deployed to stigmatize ideas that threaten the centrist establishment, as happened with the Bernie Bro label spread by Clinton operatives to kneecap the competition. But in other cases it is abundantly real—and the histrionic outcry that greets any public acknowledgement of today’s growing left-right convergence only testifies to its existence.
Dormant existential issues and first principles have returned as immanent political matters. While the existence of the Soviet Union and narrative of the Cold War gave powerful substance to a liberal rhetoric of democracy, the failed wars of democratization in the Middle East had the reverse effect, associating the democratic ideal with the imperial sloganeering of a stumbling, ineffectual empire.
Listen to the modern prophets and you’ll hear that liberalism is dying, democracy is in crisis, and capitalism is ready to explode. “We must get it out of our heads that this is a doomed time,” Saul Bellow wrote in Herzog. Fifty-four years later and the doomsday sentimentalism the novel dismissed as “mere junk from fashionable magazines” is back in full bloom. And yet the fool’s bet is, in the long run, the only sure thing.
What is clear in the meantime is that the landscape of American society is evolving in a process of cultural and technological transformation far larger than one election. Trump is the purest manifestation of this in the American case, but a similar process is underway throughout the Western liberal democracies. We face a disorienting mix of populist backlash, polarization, revanchist nostalgia, and fatalistic political eschatology clashing with a dazed and discredited liberal ruling establishment.
Attacks on liberal norms and liberal values correspond roughly to the populist and anti-humanist currents. Though it’s critical to distinguish between these modes, which have different goals and motivations, they are nearly inextricable at the moment. Both populism and anti-humanism erode traditional left-right political categories and the stable model of politics organized around centrist consensus. Each attacks the norms of the liberal establishment. And each participates in a counterestablishment style, its tone ranging from righteous to cynically vicious as the signal bounces around, growing more distorted with each relay between progressive radicals, neo-reactionaries, neo-left materialists, elite universities, talk radio hosts, and the White House.
It is the populist revolt that brought us both the Sanders and Trump campaigns and elected the unpresidential president. A political order associated domestically with the gatekeeping power of the two major parties, and internationally with a state system enforced by American hegemony, is under attack from both left and right. “The uprising among the working classes across the developed West arises from a perception of illegitimacy,” writes Patrick Deneen, author of Why Liberalism Failed, in an essay for First Things. That gap, Deneen claims, exists between the “claims of the ruling class and reality as experienced by those who are ruled.”
Before 2016, liberalism had enjoyed more than a half-century as the shared meta-ideology of the American “political center.” The consensus encompassed a broad power-sharing arrangement between mainstream Democrats and Republicans, and between progressives, neoliberals, and neoconservatives, who competed with each other while excluding groups that violated certain core beliefs, mainly around market capitalism and the rights of individuals. The consensus enforced not only a stable left-right political paradigm but also a foundational liberal humanism that both parties broadly shared. As that center hollowed out it not only threw off the political balance, it threatened the underlying liberal humanist beliefs on which its ethical claims and legitimacy rested.
“How can it be,” Nils Gilman asked recently, “that an era whose ethical self-conception was rooted in a transnational movement to prevent abuses such as torture, disenfranchisement, and political imprisonment has also been an era in which national and global economies were remade in ways that have allowed wealthy capital owners to capture the large majority of economic productivity gains, creating in-country inequalities not seen since the late 19th century?” The question gets to the roots of the populist moment but its answer would say little about the perennial appeal of anti-humanism, which rises in moments of structural crisis but is born of deeper sources.
Broadly opposing the humanist ideals of universalism and rationalist progress is what Isaiah Berlin and other scholars have called the anti-humanist tradition. A branch of counter-Enlightenment philosophy, anti-humanism is hostile to human freedom on the grounds that individuals are incapable of reasoning their way through life, let alone improving it. From its origins in the late 18th century it has inspired recurring critiques of capitalism as debased, and liberal parliamentarianism as a weak political system doomed to be overtaken by a different “ism,” made of stronger stuff.
Though it started as a movement of the right, in the 20th century it was adopted by different factions of the left. Left anti-humanists critiqued bourgeois repressiveness and, in a different guise, attacked the principles of universalism and rationalism as handmaidens of imperial plunder. In his preface to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Sartre called humanism, “an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectations of sensibility were only alibis for our aggression.” The irony, as Kenan Malik points out, was the “willingness of Third World radicals to maintain at least a residual support for a humanist outlook stemmed from their continued engagement in the project of liberation. Postwar radicals in the West, however, increasingly rejected humanism, not simply in its guise as a cover for racism and colonialism, but in its entirety.” The ethos has now mutated beyond left and right varieties into the transhumanist philosophy of Silicon Valley.
Where populism is fluid and promiscuous, anti-humanism is essentialist. The populist freely takes aspects of different political traditions and agendas because loyalty is owed to “the people” rather than any party. The anti-humanist’s loyalty is not to “the people,” who it views as enemies or, charitably, as mere instruments, but to a principle of power.
Where populism attacks a corrupt elite it claims has usurped legitimate authority from the will of “the people,” anti-humanism attacks liberal authority as illegitimate precisely because it is hostage to “the people.” Corruption, for the anti-humanist, is not an error or the fault of external forces but a revelation of the system’s own corrupt nature.
What makes today so different from past surges of populist and anti-humanist politics is two things. One is the way, in their joint attack on the center, they have become wrapped around each other. The other has to do with the hyperliberal, oppositional politics of the New Left that has captured much of the Western ruling class. The result is a modern liberal establishment that is uniquely unprepared to defend itself, at a moment of massive transformation of the basic material conditions on which liberalism is based.
The anti-humanist critique of Enlightenment rationalism as inherently totalitarian fits quite well with the racial epistemology and authoritarianism of the alt-right. As a result, nominally antithetical political claims can sound indistinguishable—resting as they do on common philosophical sources. The alt-right, for instance, is unique in the history of American conservative movements for openly drawing influence from the work of Frankfurt School theorists like Adorno and Horkheimer. Similarly, in an article about the resonances between Ta-Nehisi Coates’ ideas and those of white identitarians, Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote that while Coates’ work, “is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice.”
In a routine example of how the liberal establishment covers for ideas that are inimical to its own supposed principles, the Washington Post ran an op-ed recently under the headline “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” by the director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. You could almost get the idea that hate wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to come by, and, by the looks of it, a good way to make a living in academia. The point here is that the joke is on you if you’re the kind of “respectability” fossil who can’t understand how university department heads advocating hatred towards groups of people based on the accidents of their birth is not, in fact, in keeping with the progressive mission of a newspaper like the Washington Post, which protects our democracy from dying in darkness, thanks to the pension-busting largesse of Jeff Bezos. The idea of judging people as individuals, once a foundational and rather uncontroversial ideal, is now scoffed at by the progressive vanguard as an absurd relic.
This kind of reckless demonization subsidized by an oligarchic power structure engenders both a populist backlash aimed at the media and tenured radicals, and fuels anti-humanist response in the form of white tribalism and male grievance politics—leading to more of the same on both sides, daily.
Liberalism is caught in an irony it can’t escape. Since at least the early 1970s liberal-progressives have been consolidating their position within the American ruling class through domination of the universities, culture industries, and federal government, to the point where it is difficult to find anyone in such places who publicly doesn’t express allegiance to a common set of values and norms. As a result, the whole repertoire of formerly anti-establishment gestures, from flipping off the system to mocking its pieties, is now directed—from both left and right—at the values of a liberal status quo.
At the same time, the high value placed by the liberal-progressive elite on the status of the marginalized, which they position as a quasi-religious form of virtue, and utilize as a tradeable commodity (and a political weapon), has created an establishment power structure in deep denial of its own power, to a degree that has become quite visibly absurd, and hardly requires a degree from Oberlin to decode. And so, welcome to the new carnival of American life, in which a class of degenerate moralists on the alt-right claims the counterculture mantle to launch screeds against sexual immorality while clashing with a class of radical bureaucrats, supposedly representing the powerless, who enforce edicts about sexual behavior using the force of the state, brought to you by a new class of oligarchs who own the monopolistic digital platforms on which all of this excitement is processed and monetized.
A social order has evolved in which form betrays substance. A hard-won American ethos of tolerance and respect for the individual devolved into a progressive-plutocrat alliance that characterizes the worst of the neoliberal dispensation, and is loathed by much of the country. It produces a backlash.
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Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.