Journalist Donna Minkowitz of The Nation was brave enough to venture into an alt-right conference hosted by prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer a couple of months ago. Some of what she found was to be expected, such as how the individuals there were fueled by racism and hatred. Yet, when the conference’s attendees began to speak about economic issues, they started to sound a lot like leftists. Though some on the left have moved quickly to dismiss this as a cynical attempt to pick up recruits from the left, there is more to the commonality between the economic views of the left and the alt-right. Rather, the alt-right’s economic views jell so smoothly with those of the left because the ideological underpinning is so similar.
A few days after Minkowitz’s article came out, writer Conor Lynch wrote in Salon characterizing the alt-right’s economic leftism as “anti-Semitism wrapped up in an economic veil.” The alt-right, Lynch claims, is simply jumping on the anti-capitalist bandwagon to try to appeal to the left. Yet Lynch ignores the very real illiberal impulses at work behind anti-capitalism of all stripes.
To be clear, I do not mean to compare the left’s social views to those of the alt-right. However, in terms of economics, there is little to separate the underlying philosophy of the left from that of the alt-right. In fact, the alt-right’s economic philosophy looks a lot like leftism repackaged specifically for white males.
Take the thoughts of prominent alt-right thinkers on welfare. Spencer, alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich and others have expressed strong support for a universal basic income and single-payer healthcare system. Mike Enoch, host of the alt-right and virulently anti-Semitic podcast The Daily Shoah once said at a rally that “Jewish brainwashing” was encouraging Americans to be “useful idiots for the systems of international finance, capitalism and war.” In Europe, members of the far-right such as National Front party leader Marine Le Pen have embraced a generous social safety net — albeit paired with restrictions on immigration. Once stripped of racial rhetoric, the underlying economic logic is hard to distinguish from leftist thought.
The alt-right is also strongly opposed to free trade. Steve Bannon, former head of alt-right “news” website Breitbart, has advocated for a trade war with China. This is just one portion of his agenda of “economic nationalism,” or scaling back of trade in order to protect domestic jobs. Uneconomic as these views may be, Bannon’s comments also expose a lack of belief in economic freedom. By wishing to restrict trade, Bannon argues for preventing Americans from buying cheaper or better-valued goods simply because of their origin.
Even Spencer’s critique of the Republican tax reform plan looks like it could have been lifted off of a Bernie Sanders Twitter screed. Spencer calls it “stupid…Reaganite nostalgia” and mocks it for benefiting large corporations (ignoring benefits to small businesses and individuals in the process). Substitute in “Jewish interests” for “the one percent,” and voila: easy-bake economic philosophy.
Fundamentally, the alt-right does not believe in the importance of the individual in economic relationships. Minkowitz writes how Spencer argues that “We need to be willing to take care of people and not simply think of ourselves as individuals who can acquire as much wealth as possible.” The most important form of economic organization to the alt-right is race, just as class is the most important form for the left. To those who defend economic freedom, it is the individual.
Proponents of economic freedom argue that the protection of the rights of the individual should be the foundation of a society. Individuals, unrestricted by excessive taxes or rules preventing them from engaging in mutually beneficial trade relationships, are best able to create economic prosperity. This fundamental principle is antithetical to alt-right beliefs.
Instead, the alt-right would find far more in common with the left’s view that a society should aim to maintain liberal thinker John Rawls’s goal of “distributive justice,” or just allocation of goods throughout society. A great deal of the anger and hatred that fuels the alt-right is the belief that goods are unjustly stolen from whites by an “other” — be it immigrants or Jews. As Joe Carter of the Acton Institute points out, it’s not a coincidence that the term “alt-right” came into use in 2008 — the phrase became more widespread as the alt-right attracted economically disaffected white males in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.
Those on the left would do well to give the overlap between their economic views and those of the alt-right more consideration than Lynch does in Salon. It is not a simple matter of the alt-right cynically targeting lost and sometimes left people, there is genuine commonality between their economic views. This, in itself, does not repudiate leftist economic beliefs, but it illustrates how the alt-right is yet another unfortunate incarnation of socialist economic thinking. May it never reach the heights of Stalinism, Maoism or Chavismo.