The alt-right hardly needs introduction; by this point, its reputation precedes it. Notorious for its transgressive (and uproariously funny) online humour, its crudely insolent and crass populism, its over-wrought conspiracy theories, its facile opinions on race and nation, and its often puerile notions concerning the relationship between the sexes, it is, for all that, a fully-fledged political force right now. While an absolutely unorganized congeries internally, it has nonetheless come to be represented at the level of American national politics by Donald Trump, who in his public style, if not exactly his policy preferences, appears to be its organic political embodiment- and who, it so happens, is the Presidential candidate for one of the two historic governing parties in that country. It has accordingly, if unintentionally, been explicitly acknowledged by the opposition and its propagandists, with the result that the alt-right now has presence in the national consciousness as a household word in ordinary political discourse alongside established categories like “progressive” or “conservative”.
All of this was completely inconceivable two years ago; where things will be two years from now is likewise unforeseeable in the fast temporality of a civilization plunged headlong into negative civilizational growth. What we can be certain of right now is that the alt-right represents a moment in an historic turn on the Right and to the Right in political consciousness. It is the weather-vane of an ultra-Rightist breeze that is blowing away the stale miasmatic air of the established, decrepit political ideologies and traditions: the long-obsolete Liberalism, the pathetic Conservatism, the utterly odious Socialism, and their various sub-genres and variants.
The same historic motion that produced the alt-right has also manifested in a parallel phenomenon, much quieter and with much less of a conspicuous national presence, conventionally and usefully grouped under the sign of Reaction. Where the alt-right is popular, plebeian, and indeed, downright puerile in character and proud of it, the new Reaction is self-consciously high-end; intentionally or not, in the prosecution of its political agendas it assumes the character of a parallel University appointed by History to take custody of the various Western traditions of humanistic learning while the officially-incorporated University system continues to decay and degenerate into a worthless and contemptible ruin. (In like fashion, the chan/imageboard contingent of the alt-right has clearly assumed custody of the explosively creative and transgressive spirit of modern art, which in the hands of the official academy had been bandaged into a breathless mummy, but this is a digression).
Naturally the catapulting into prominence of the alt-right has sparked lively discussion of the relationship between the low-end and the high-end of the spectrum of the new Rightist consciousness. Seen through the eyes of the high-end, the alt-right appears, variously, as a legitimate response on the part of youth to an onslaught of social and spiritual pathology; a useful social instrumentality in the effort to bring down the present incarnation of Babylon; something that frustratingly fails to transcend unreconstructed 14/88-type opinions; an immature and juvenile phase to be outgrown as soon as possible, ideally with appropriate mentoring and guidance.
All of these points of view, although they sometimes clash with one another, are valid. I think that they can be very profitably read in light of Hegel’s theses on the nature of public opinion expressed in his Philosophy of Right, one of the classic works of political philosophy in the Modern canon. The alt-right is a radically pure phenomenon of public opinion, having spawned spontaneously in the midst of online discussions with no elite political, academic, or media support, and so Hegel’s take on the nature of public opinion, and its relationship to elite and formalized political consciousness, is so directly germane to the subject at hand that I’ll just quote it without commentary. N.B. I don’t endorse all or even most of Hegel’s philosophy; while a die-hard man of the Right himself, he was undeniably the intellectual father of Marx and much of what we’ve come to know as the “progressive” Left. But when this guy is right- man, is he ever right, as we shall see presently.
Formal subjective freedom, whereby individuals as such entertain and express their own judgments, opinions, and counsels on matters of universal concern, makes its collective appearance in what is known as public opinion. In the latter, the universal in and for itself, the substantial and the true, is linked with its opposite, with what is distinct in itself as the particular opinions of the many. This existence is therefore a manifest self-contradiction, an appearance of cognition; in it, the essential is just as immediately present as the inessential.
Public opinion is the unorganized way in which the will and opinions of the people make themselves known. […]
Public opinion…embodies not only the eternal and substantial principles of justice- the true content and product of the entire constitution and legislation and of the universal condition in general- in the form of common sense (the ethical foundation which is present in everyone in the shape of prejudices), but also the true needs and rightful tendencies of actuality.- As soon as this inner content attains consciousness and is represented in general propositions…all the contingencies of opinion, with its ignorance and perverseness, its false information and errors of judgment, come on the scene. Since what is at issue [in public opinion] is the consciousness of the distinctive nature of views and knowledge, the worse the content of an opinion is, the more distinctive it will be; for the bad is that whose content is entirely personal and distinctive, and the distinctive is that on which public opinion prides itself.
It must not therefore be regarded as a subjective difference of views if we are told on the one hand that the voice of the people is the voice of God (vox populi, vox Dei), and on the other (by Ariosto, for example):
“Che’l Volgare ignorante ogn’ un riprenda, e parli piu di quel che meno intenda.” [rough trans: “Every vulgar ignoramus weighs in, and talks the most about what he knows the least” -D.S.]
Public opinion contains these two qualities simultaneously, and if truth and endless error are so closely united within it, it cannot be genuinely serious about both. It may seem difficult to decide which to take seriously, and this will in fact be the case even if we stick to the immediate expression of public opinion. But since the substantial is its inner content, only this can be taken completely seriously. The substantial cannot be known from public opinion itself, however…[While ] it is impossible to deceive a people about its substantial basis, about the essence and specific character of its spirit…the people is deceived by itself about the way in which this character is known to it and in which it consequently passes judgment on events, its own actions, etc.
Public opinion therefore deserves to be respected as well as despised– despised for its concrete consciousness, and respected for its essential basis, which appears in that concrete consciousness only in a more or less obscure manner. Since it contains no criterion of discrimination and lacks the ability to raise its own substantial aspect to determinate knowledge, the first formal condition of achieving anything great or rational, in actuality or in theory, is to be independent of public opinion. Great achievement may in turn be assured that public opinion will subsequently accept it, recognize it, and adopt it as it one of its prejudices.
Every kind of falsehood and truth is present in public opinion, but it is the business of the great man to discover the truth within it. He who expresses the will of his age, tells it what its will is, and accomplishes this will, is the great man of the age. What he does is the essence and inner content of the age, and he gives the latter actuality; and no one can achieve anything great, unless he is able to despise public opinion as he here and there encounters it.