This article was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education on August 12, 2017.
The vast majority of people in the United States have no interest whatsoever in street battles between the alt-right (better described today in more poignant terms) and the counter-protesters. Most people have normal problems like paying bills, dealing with kids, getting health care, keeping life together under all the usual strains, and mostly want these weird people to go away. So, of course, people are shocked at scenes of young people in the streets of this picturesque town with a university founded by Thomas Jefferson screaming, “Jews will not replace us.”
It’s hard to see, hard to hear. But they are not going away. For some people with heads full of violent ideology, what’s happened so far is not enough. They imagine that with their marches, flags, uniforms, slogans, chants, screams, and guns, they will cause history to erupt and dramatically turn to favor them over the people they hate. Indeed, what is unfolding right now, with real loss of property and life, has gone beyond politics as usual and presages something truly terrible from the past, something most of us had previously believed was unrepeatable.
What in the world causes such a thing? It’s not about bad people as such. Many of the young men and women involved in this movement were raised in good homes and, under normal conditions, would never hurt anyone. What this is about is bad ideas. They crawl into the brain and cause people to imagine things that do not exist. It can be like a disease that a person doesn’t even know that he or she has. It causes people to seethe with hatred for no apparent reason, to long for the extermination of people who have never done anything wrong, to imagine insane outcomes of social struggles that have zero chance of succeeding.
The implausibility of their ideas is disguised by group psychology. They hang around people who think these same things and egg each other on in shared resentments and dreams of new powers they can acquire if they act boldly, bravely, and with determination. They conjure up scapegoats (blacks, Jews, women, Antifa, gays, and a government that is supposedly giving them all privileges at their expense) and begin to believe that the only way forward is to destroy them all in some grand uprising, after which they will seize power and rule forever.
Yes, I know it sounds insane. But one thing you learn from history is that no idea is too insane to be off limits to a group infected with a longing to rule. Any means to the end will do, with the end deeply embedded in the fevered imagination of the group member who finds mission, meaning, and significance from some struggle.
The Statue Myth
Much of the media coverage about the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia report that this all began with a dispute over the fate of a statue of the Civil War Confederate general Robert E. Lee that sits downtown. The city council voted to take it down; the protesters want it to remain as a symbol of white pride and rule (which is absurd because General Lee would have been thoroughly repulsed by the ideology these people represent). In actual fact, the dispute over this statue is a complete distraction from the real motivation here.
What this really is: an explosive expression of an idea that has been brewing in a malevolent movement that has been gaining steam for very a long time. After the Second World War, most people imagined that Nazi ideology was gone from the earth and that the only real totalitarian view that remained to threaten liberty was Communism. That might have been true for a few decades, but matters began to change in the 1990s, as new violent strains of statism begin to arise.
The Deep History
For the last two years, I’ve written about the deep history of this violent strain, which can be described variously as Nazism, fascism, alt-right, white supremacy, white nationalism, neo-reaction, or, my preferred and more technical moniker (borrowed from Ludwig von Mises), right-Hegelianism.
People have variously wondered why I’ve spent so much time and energy digging through the works of people like Johann Fichte, Friedrich List, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, Charles Davenport, Oswald Spengler, Carl Schmitt, Julius Evola, Giovanni Gentile, and so on (many of my writings on these people are here). All of these ideas existed long before Hitler and the Nazis – and caused enormous damage in the world long before the Holocaust – and they persist after them.
It’s true that probably not even one of the protesters in Charlottesville have read these thinkers, much less the traditional liberal response to these rightist strain of anti-liberalism. How can they possibly be responsible?
Ideas are strangely magical, like time-traveling spiritual DNA, moving from brain to brain like a genetic mutation and just as unpredictably. Keynes was right to observe that most politicians are slaves to some defunct economist; in the same way these violent thugs are slaves to some defunct philosopher who loathed the emergence of universal freedom in the world during the 19th century and were determined to set it back.
Propagandists for Evil
At the same time, there must be some mode of transmission for ideas. The leaders of this movement serve the purpose well, but there is a deeper root. I’ve been very reluctant to mention what might be the most influential tract among the rise of the hard statist right in the last few decades, but given where we are with all of this, it is time. The book is The Turner Diaries, written by “Andrew McDonald” who was really William L. Pierce, a brilliant physicist whose mind was taken over by Nazi ideology, precisely because he was steeped in the literature above.
I do not recommend reading this book. You can’t unread it. It is their roadmap. I can recall the first time I read it. I was shaken to my very core, and it was the beginning of a new realization of the task before us, to combat this horror with every bit of intellectual energy.
It is the story of a small junta of whites who set out to reverse history with a series of killings, starting with Jews, then blacks, then communists, and then, inevitably, apologists for the merchant class and libertarians (they hate us deeply too). What you learn early on here is that this movement is absolutely socialist, just in a different way from the more-famous left-wing socialists. They are not red shirts but brown shirts, so they have a different agenda. It’s not about class struggle. It’s about race struggle, religious struggle, gender identity struggle, national struggle.
So what happens? They rally the masses to their side with a growing amount of bloodshed, gain control of the government, set up a centrally planned socialist state, get hold of the nuclear stockpile and slaughter all non-whites in the world. Sorry for the spoiler.
The Genetic Code
Why would anyone rally behind such a ghastly book? Again, the human mind is capable of imagining terrible things, and that which we imagine to be true influences actions. Ideas, as they say, have consequences. Hence, anyone who has followed the transmission of these ideas over the last decades could see where this is heading.
What happens now? The tragedy is compounded, with a burgeoning leftist movement to counter the emerging threat from the opposite side, and a government ready to exploit the conflict between the two to crack down further on human rights and freedoms. It’s the perfect storm.
The question is: what to do now? The answer lies in the source of the problem. The huge mess began with bad ideas. The only means available – and it is the most powerful – is to fight bad ideas with good ideas. We all need to throw ourselves into the intellectual battle most of all and as never before. What are those good ideas?
The progress of the last 500 years shows us precisely what the good ideas are: social harmony, human rights, the aspiration of universal dignity, the conviction that we can work together in mutual advantage, the market economy as a means of peace and prosperity, and, above all else, the beauty and magnificence of the idea of liberty itself.
Let us all – those who love peace, prosperity, and human flourishing for all – not despair but rather rededicate ourselves to the mission of replacing bad ideas with good ones. Our predecessors in this mission faced far worse odds and they prevailed, and they were far fewer than us. We can too, provided we think, speak, and act with courage and conviction in favor of all that is beautiful and true. This is how the left/right cycle of violence will be replaced by the highest longings of the human heart.