Making sense of Brexit and reactionary values
As human beings, we constantly look for patterns. We are, as Heidegger put it, “thrown into the world” – a chaotic and seemingly unpredictable world that we do our best to try to understand in order to interact with it and the other beings therein in a smooth and gainly manner. At no time though does the world appear more chaotic than during political turmoil, and making sense of it – much less understanding the underlying conditions and patterns – is a daunting task indeed.
Therefore, in the light of Brexit and the disastrous fallout that ensued, I set out to do my best to try to understand the leave campaign, the leave voters and what values and beliefs informed their stance and position. Before long I found myself digging deep into the contemporary reactionary movements of the right, browsing through countless forum threads and listening to hours upon hours of reactionary YouTube “celebrities”, all of which were vocal supporters of “leave”. My armchair social science field study took me through everything from the Gamergate movement, through the darker corners of the “manosphere”, the blue-brown waters of the “alt-right” before finally culminating in reading blog posts and manifestos from fringe neoreactionary movements. Desperately, I tried weaving these threads together, trying to find a pattern between them. What were their common elements? What were their lowest common denominators? What, exactly, is it that ties these movements together?
I thought the answers to the latter questions would be simple and straight-forward. Clearly, we all know “the right” hates homosexuals, the working class and the poor, immigrants, public service television and “communists”. We all think we know the right and what they stand for. At least, that was my working hypothesis. I already knew these people, I thought. I just had to confirm my already strongly held beliefs.
Before long though, I found that reality has an awful habit of not being as black-and-white as we sometimes wish it to be. At first, these different movements seemed to have nothing in common, except for them linking to each other from time to time. What looked like one huge, brown blob turned out to be a vast complex of venn diagrams, some with serious disagreements with their (at least when viewed from the outside) ideological “neighbors”. I found myself in a strange, almost surreal sphere where Leninists quoted libertarian thinkers on white supremacy forums, anarcho-capitalists applauded monarchist feudalists, scientifically trained libertarians supported long-debunked conspiracy theories, and professors of ethnic studies ranted against “jewish media”.
In such a strange world of seeming self-contradiction, I found myself utterly lost. My usual conceptions of “left” and “right” seemed to break down at the starting line. None of the labels I was used to apply to social and political movements and ideologies seemed to be adequate to accommodate for the myriad of beliefs and positions I found within these loosely correlated movements. These people disagreed on absolute ideological and philosophical fundamentals, yet seemed to get along most of the time and certainly had large portions of their audience in common. It seemed baffling to me that the same YouTube show could feature guests claiming that critical theory studies was a form of government-mandated mind control, exacerbated by electromagnetic “frequency pollution” (no, I’m not joking. This person really thought that Frankfurt school thinkers are being transmitted directly into student’s brains via government-controlled antennas) while at the same time accusing “the left” for spreading conspiracy theories. It baffled me further that a significant subsection of the show’s viewers were objectivist libertarians, people who typically are college educated and usually, at least in my experience, very apt and erudite debunkers of conspiracy theories. As a previously active member of the skeptic/atheist movement, I often saw these skills in action first-hand. The libertarian trail led to further confusion. Soon I found classical free-market liberals supporting welfare states and closed borders, in direct and vocal contradiction to the ideas of Adam Smith, and self-proclaimed classical liberals signing petitions to shut down select university departments in the name of protecting “free speech”.
I was ready to give up. These movements didn’t seem to hold any significant beliefs in common. They disagreed vocally on everything from welfare to immigration, gender and epistemology. Ironically, the only thing most (though certainly not all) of them seemed to agree upon was something I thought most of the far-right opposed: the right for homosexual couples to marry. Even some of the neo-Nazis on the far-right forums seemed to be supportive of gay rights, albeit from a very different standpoint.
Yet, for all their differences, they directed traffic to each other and seemed to have a significant overlap. How could this be?
It wasn’t long until I, desperate for something to help me understand this phenomenon, dusted off my old textbook in social psychology. This turned out to be a step in the right direction. For while they didn’t share many concrete beliefs about policy in common, they did have a significant overlap in values and attitudes. This discovery, though, led me to a quite uncomfortable conclusion, albeit one that had lurked in the back of my mind for some time.
Before we get into the actual studies and scientific theories, I invite you to imagine a person who holds a set of general conceptions of the world that looks something like this:
- The state of the world is largely determined by politicians and large corporations.
- These constitute a part of a group of “elites” that influence the world according to their will and self-interest.
- The current politicians are largely corrupted by these “elites”, if not outright a part of their group and replacing them together with getting rid of the “elitist” influence would therefore solve most of our current political problems.
- Due to the actions of the politicians and the elites, the world is currently in a critical state verging on collapse.
- The ideas and ideologies of the “ruling elite” are unfairly and undemocratically passed down to the public through social institutions such as universities as well as popular culture to which the public is largely defenseless. There is therefore a top-down indoctrination going on, which must be combated at all times.
- This ideology is specifically constructed to silence and shame my particular identity and cultural affiliation. This makes me feel threatened, and strengthens my bond to others within my cultural sphere in solidarity.
- The social group to which I belong is powerful, beautiful, articulate, and a real threat to the elites. This is why the ruling ideology tries to suppress it, or – worse – to conquer it and use it for their own agenda.
- There is therefore an effort from those that side with the elites to infiltrate my social group, which is why we must build barriers between us and them.
- My group is further targeted by the elites through economic and material means, effectively disempowering us since they came to power.
- The “elites” do everything they can to keep their plans secret, which is why mainstream media cannot be trusted outright. Alternative media might be flawed, but at least they get “the truth” out to the people.
- Because of all of the above points, swift action against the elites is justified and necessary. We might disagree on the forms and methods, but it is ultimately a disagreement about practical matters, not of goals or ideology.
I have tried to do my best not to make a strawman out of these beliefs, but truth be told I haven’t perhaps made my best efforts to strongman them either. Perhaps they sound weaker the way I’ve presented them here than they really are, perhaps it’s the other way around. I also do not wish to imply that someone that agrees with a few of these points must necessarily believe all of them, or that one logically necessitates the other. My point is merely to reflect a commonly held view, one that I hope you recognize – to some extent at least – among op-eds, books, debate articles and other forms of political commentary. Perhaps you even agree with a few of these points, or all of them. I certainly think more than a few carry a grain of truth, even though I – as you might have guessed by this point – do not think of it as the whole picture.
Again, consider our hypothetical person that holds the aforementioned beliefs. Who are you thinking of? You might be thinking of a person on the left who identifies the elitist ideology as “neoliberalism” and who might sympathize with – say – the occupy movement. Perhaps you’re not thinking of anyone in particular, thinking that these beliefs are far too generalistic to apply to any one person or movement. Whatever the case, you wouldn’t be wrong. I have, however, summarized these points from the opinions of one very specific person.
That person is Sargon of Akkad, or Carl Benjamin as he’s known in the real world. A right-wing reactionary YouTube celebrity, long famous for being a vocal critic of feminism and most of everything coming out of the contemporary left. A self-proclaimed “classical liberal”, he was also a vocal supporter for Brexit and – considering the sheer number his fans and audience – perhaps someone who might have had enough of an impact to sway voters to the other side in a very close referendum where tiny margins meant all the difference. Somewhat paradoxically for someone claiming to be of the same school as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham, he advocates harsh border controls, isolationism and protectionist tariffs to “protect the jobs at home” and “protect the British working class” from the influence of the “elites” and “neoliberalism”. He’s also on record supporting Donald Trump, mainly due to his opposition to anything resembling Islam.
I have to emphasize here that I do not wish to engage in any sort of guilt by association. Clearly there a lot of people on the contemporary mainstream left, if not the overwhelming majority, that see him as a political enemy. The point of my investigation, however, was to understand how and why a significant portion of the left came to support a campaign directly orchestrated and organized by the far-right. The fact that someone on the far-right agrees on many of the same points as large portions of the left provides a clue.
While they disagree on who the elites may be and what the content of their ideologies is, most seem to be in agreement on the aforementioned points. On the left (as well as portions of the right), we hear that neoliberalism is the ideology that’s been shoehorned into universities to indoctrinate the public. On the right, it is “social justice” and “postmodernism” that fits this bill. On the left, the group being dispossessed and fought by the elites is the middle and working class. On the right it is the white middle class. The groups being infiltrated and attacked from outside, requiring them to stick together and thereby excluding other groups from their meetings or cultural events might either be minorities if you’re on the left (cultural appropriation theory and safe spaces come to mind), whereas on the alt-right and reactionary forums it is rather the traditional family values and the position of the white middle class that’s under attack from “social justice warriors”. Indeed, the whole of GamerGate, a reactionary movement mainly based on the internet whose goal is to silence and oppress minorities online (especially women who dare to criticize mainstream “gamer” culture), can be read as a special case of cultural appropriation theory. These mainly white adolescent males feel that their culture is being attacked and infiltrated from the outside and that people who do not “belong” in their social sphere suddenly try to “take” their culture away from them. Therefore, they react accordingly. Women, minorities and people of color do not belong in gaming, according to them, and they have no business trying to change the cultural milieu that rightly “belong” to those who came first.
This is not to imply that both parties are equally bad, or that there is no way to claim that one side has more evidence and well-reasoned arguments on their side than the other. I think it is clearly the case that the proposition that white men are discriminated against in society due to their gender and race, as goes the narrative in the right-wing “Redpill” movement, is downright silly and goes against not only mountains of evidence to the contrary, but also common sense and the everyday experience of women and people of color. I also think that there are several good reasons for creating “safe spaces” on college campuses, provided they fill their original function – enabling people who suffer from PTSD to be able to flourish intellectually and exchange ideas without having to constantly struggle with people dismissing their condition or actively shaming them for their trauma. I also do not wish to imply that GamerGate is a mirror image of civil liberties movements trying to raise consciousness about how sacred symbols and clothing is disrespectfully used by people who are ignorant of the very cultures the try to assimilate. These are clearly different movements with clearly different goals. Trying to use the fact that both left and right agree on many common points to dismiss both is not only wrong in an intellectual and moral sense, but also builds a dangerous road towards crude relativism.
It would, however, be equally wrongheaded to ignore these common denominators because one side has more evidence and arguments on their side than the other. If a set of personal experiences, cultural affiliations, facts, and statistics is all that distinguishes a gender-exclusionary feminist from a member of the Redpill movement, it would be an easy task to make them switch sides by means of propaganda and cleverly manipulated statistics. If a switch from thinking that neoliberalism is the main ideological enemy to thinking that “social justice” and “political correctness” is the main culprit is all it takes for a certain subset of supporters of Bernie Sanders to suddenly lean towards Donald Trump, then we find ourselves in a very dangerous political situation, regardless of whether Sanders is the better candidate or not. It makes the left a very fragile movement and very prone to sudden political shifts.
Which, incidentally, is exactly what we see. Indeed, many supporters (as well as a well-known organizer) of the Occupy movement later turned to neoreactionary politics. It wouldn’t be jumping to conclusions to suggest that this explains a lot of the support for Brexit outside of the neoreactionary and paleoconservative camp. Indeed, a vocal part of the leftist Brexit movement made a point of saying that just because they vote in favor of neoreactionary politics does not mean that they support neoreactionaries. Just because they share a common enemy, they claimed, does not mean that they’re political allies in other respects. This may very well be true, but in distancing themselves from the right in this manner, they also tacitly admit that they share a common view on how the world is shaped and the mechanics by which it operates, since who the enemy is is directly determined by who, or what, holds the real power to shape society. Indeed, it also implies that their main disagreement with the reactionary right is about which social groups should be excluded from participating in British society, not whether exclusion or isolationism is the right approach to begin with. In doing so, they reveal a most unsettling tendency within the left to privilege political determinism over a more dialectical understanding of history and politics, as well as putting domestic trade-union protectionism before international solidarity.
Why, then, if both left and right seem to agree on these common elements, do we see an increase in these values currently? Many theories have historically been proposed, most notably Adorno’s theory of “authoritarian personality”. While commonly invoked among leftist debaters, it has been largely debunked and abandoned within the field of social psychology, or at least so we were told in the introductory course on social psychology at university. So instead of going for the usual sources, I tried to see if there was any good, solid behavioral and social science on the matter. I therefore digged into the enormous World Values Survey, a massive effort to empirically measure and theorize the values of different social groups across the globe.
What sets the World Values Survey apart from the common understanding of politics and political camps is that it starts without any concept of “left” and “right”. Instead, the researchers first collected a massive database of responses to questions like “When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this country over immigrants” and “Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person.” and only after they had the empirical data tried to use statistical models to see how best the different responses correlated with each other. It is the most serious attempt at a scientific understanding of values and how they shift over time to date. What they didn’t find, unsurprisingly enough, was a clear cut between “left” and “right”. Instead, they found that sets of values would best be categorized into Survival Values versus Self-expression Values, and Traditional Values versus Secular-Rational Values, all of which can be found within both left and right-wing politics.
Self-expression values are what you’d imagine – someone supporting not only the self-expression of oneself but also of others. They feel safe among others in other out-groups and are generally tolerant to immigration, LGBTQ-rights and so on. They’re also more prone to self-sacrifice and altruism. These values are opposed not to religious or conservative values per se, as the common suspicion goes, but to Survival Values. Survival Values emphasize the belief that a threat is looming over them, and that their in-group needs to be protected from that threat. It therefore strongly correlates with political opinions on economic and social security. It’s easy to see how survival values might see an increase during economically challenged times, as indeed they do according to WVS.
The results and findings of the survey are fascinating, and I wholeheartedly recommend looking through their summary of findings. What is interesting for the purposes of this analysis though is that we see a grounds for a dialectical materialist understanding of values and how they shift.
While WVS is careful to point out that the data in no way supports economic determinism, as – for instance – the support for gay marriage seems to be the result of conscious political campaigning and not the result of an increase in GDP, they also find that there are correlations between economic security and self-expression values, as seen in this graph:
While certainly not deterministic and not quite linear, the difference between economically prosperous nations and developing nations is quite clear.
Thus, when I wrote the list of values at the start of this essay, I made sure to make them correlate with survival values. Notice how all of them play on the threat of security and safety, and how they fit within a framework of political determinism. If you feel that your security is threatened when it previously had been quite satisfactory, it is a lot easier to attribute this sudden change to a political movement, a group of people or a certain strain of politics than it is to derive it from the inner contradictions of a mode of production. It is a lot easier to see neoliberalism as the source of all the ills of society than it is to see capital as the source of neoliberalism. It becomes easier to see the state and judicial apparatus as the base and the economy as the superstructure rather than the other way around. Thus, we turn on the enemy, protect our own in-group and stick it to the elites that brought us into this situation. Whether your enemy is neoliberalism, muslims, white men, bankers, migrant workers, corporate CEO’s or state bureaucrats (or all of the above), the solution is the same: isolate, separate, secure, survive. And the theory usually rings the same: if we could only go back to the way it used to be, things would be better (at least for me). Gone is solidarity, and in its place is put the fetish of the noble politician, the one who will set things right again.
Marx had a different idea. It’s a shame we don’t listen.