Aeon: “Alt-Right or Jihad?”

Scott Altran’s piece in Aeon called “Alt-Right or jihad?” suffers, naturally, from a myopic moral equivalency, but is worth reading for some tangential reasons.

He equates the Barcelona attack by Muslims with “the terrorist in Charlottesville, Virginia” committed by “a white supremacist who maimed and killed people nearly at random with his vehicle in a fashion painfully familiar to the ISIS-inspired killings in London, Nice, Berlin and Stockholm.”


Altran is correct to point out the growing skepticism of globalism and ‘democracy’ on the part of youth.

Whether alt-Right or radical Islam, the values of liberal and open democracy increasingly appear to be losing ground around the world to those of narrow, xenophobic ethno-nationalisms and radical ideologies. Our research team at Artis International and the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Oxford University has found that these forces are clobbering free societies today much like fascists and communists did back in the 1920s and ’30s. In Hungary, we find that youth strongly support the government’s call for restoring ‘national cohesion’, lost with the fall of Miklós Horthy’s fascist and pro-Nazi regime; the call to root out ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘globalist’ values is strong…

[A]s young people unmoored from traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. Individuals radicalise to find firm identity in a flattened world. In this new reality, vertical lines of communication between generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe, albeit in vanishingly narrow channels of ideas and information. Our research has shown that, despite its vitriol against ‘globalists’, today’s alt-Right movement involves the same narrow-minded global weave of tweets, blogs and chatrooms linking physical groups across the world as the jihadi movement.

Atran finds parallels in the two opposing groups’ dictums toward leaderless resistance, something one can’t be too surprised at given the groups’ existences in both soft totalitarian and hard totalitarian states:

White-supremacist and jihadi groups parallel one another not only in strategy and tactics, but also in messaging. Klansman and Aryan Nations member Louis Beam published his 1983 manifesto, ‘Leaderless Resistance’, in The Seditionist in 1992 , as a social resistance strategy for white nationalists. Like the jihadi movement, it rejects commanding anti-government acts from the leaders of a top-down hierarchy in favour of letting independent groups and individuals act on their own. And it rejects direct messaging in favour of inferred messaging – all to prevent authorities from decapitating the movement or assigning legal responsibility for cause and effect.

When Mustafa Setmariam (aka Abu Musab al-Suri) published al-Qaeda’s strategy for jihad as ‘The Call for Global Islamic Resistance’ in 2004, one could just as well have been reading an exegesis on The Seditionist and Louis Beam. Like Beam, Setmariam adopted the theme of leaderless resistance: ‘[S]pontaneous operations performed by individuals and cells here and there over the whole world, without connection between them, have put local and international intelligence apparatuses in a state of confusion.’…

Of the largely online nature of the respective movements:

As political scientist Richard Hasen describes it, social media lowers ‘the collective action problem’ of an individual going it alone because you can see that there are people out there like you to share risks. Neuropsychologist Molly Crockett notes that outrage-inducing messages appear to be more prevalent and potent online, with social media magnifying its triggers and reducing its personal costs.

Moreover, research by sociologist Mark Granovetter shows that once an expected threshold of there being people like you is appreciably surpassed, then the number and pace of people who join the fold can rapidly ratchet up. Thus, the Daily Stormer can boast in a recent online Sunday edition of being ‘the biggest pro-white publication in the history of the world. With 6 million monthly unique visitors, we trounced the circulation of the Third Reich’s most popular tabloid Der Sturmer, which had 250,000.’

Of the historical universality of the ingroup vs. outgroup dynamic that modernity has largely suppressed since 1945:

[T]he reaction to outside threat is a deep human tendency – when an in-group feels threatened by an out-group, violence and hatred are not the anomalies but the rule for nearly all cultures throughout human history.

In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin cast this devotion to the group as moral and fit, required for better-endowed winning groups in history’s competition for survival and dominance. Across cultures, the strongest group identities are bounded by sacred valueslike unwillingness to sell out one’s religion or country for material tradeoffs. ‘Is this not because God and society are one and the same?’ French sociologist Émile Durkheim famously conjectured. Revolutionaries and insurgents willing to sacrifice for cause and group have long tended to prevail with considerably less firepower and manpower than the state armies and police forces they oppose.

Fearful of the chauvinism and xenophobia that fed two world wars, many Western leaders and press simply denounce national identity or cultural preference as ‘bigoted’ or ‘racist’, and show an ostrich-like blindness to pan-human preferences for one’s own. This leaves the field wide-open for the offensive of white-nationalist groups of the alt-Right, or the far-Right’s less overtly racist alt-Light defenders of ‘Western culture’ against the onslaught of Islam, globalism, migration, feminism and homosexuality.

Perhaps the best passage, the one that stuck with me most, is when the author recounts presenting his findings at (naturally) Davos, fretful recounting the nonchalant reaction he received from the Davos Men in attendance:

At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where I presented some of our research findings, I had the impression that most people in attendance thought that the recent surge of jihadism and xenophobic ethno-national populism were just atavistic blips in the ineluctable progress of globalisation that were destined to soon go away. That to me was the most worrisome feature of Davos, whose denizens basically run the world (or try to). Few there seemed willing to change their policies or behaviour. They seemed to view the left-behinds of the dark side of globalisation as simply losers that might be given a handout when artificial intelligence and robots deny them any chance for a decent living.

To end these worries, there was earnest talk among the spectacularly wealthy of a universal guaranteed income for the economically disadvantaged. Yet poor people rarely instigate violent overthrows of established order. Indeed, a guaranteed income for people without purpose or significance in life would more likely radicalise them than create quiet sheep. The doyens of Davos thereby could be subsidising their own extinction.

Providing jobs that deny people dignity or the dream of a worthy life would likely fare no better. Instead, the first part of a more considered solution lies in understanding how human these violent responses are. In our preferred world of liberal democracy and human rights, violence – especially extreme forms of mass bloodshed – are deemed pathological. But across most of human history and culture, violence against outsider groups has been considered an act of moral virtue…

While Rome burns, Nero is in Davos playing with his fiddle.

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