At a casual glance, the Greek-British 32-year old alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos looks like cover model for GQ – very hip, contemporary, clean shaven pop star. His often changing hair and clothes, posh English accent, bloviating pseudo-intellectualism and unlikely name, have combined to form a strange aura about him. He’ll tell you he’s gay, brags about his black boyfriends, and you would think he was a YA Hollywood up and comer. But he’s not. Yiannopoulos, a culture writer for Breitbart News, delights in controversial topics and internet trolling, usually in deliberate anti-politically correct terms where he mocks and casts dispersions at feminists and people of color. He proudly waves the flag of alt-right, a term coined by a more nakedly white supremacist Richard Spencer in 2010. Yiannopoulos says, though, that alt-right is not all-white, but rather now covers a wider cultural gamut including homosexuals and non-whites. Instead, this new form of nationalism is rather “western supremacist,” as in it values western Judeo-Christendom, democracy and liberalism, which makes him something of a hybrid between a half-baked Samuel Huntington and Draco Malfoy, giving new life to the clash of civilizations thesis.(1)
Gone are the accouterments of the old neo-Nazis and skinhead punks. Gone are the black shirts, the khaki fatigues, gone are their wardrobe’s variations on confederate flags or regurgitation of Nazi emblems. Gone are the steel toed jack boots and shaved heads of the aggressive prison-tattooed machismorati. When the white supremacists moved from Idaho to Metropolis, they stopped of at Urban Outfitters. So there is Steve Bannon, who sports three layers of untucked shirts and cargo shorts and a pair of Birkenstocks. Under grey awnings he sports a permanent stubble. And Richard Stevens, that Eddie Bauer model, whose National Policy Institute presents the aura of yet another run of the mill political think tank.
A key part of this cultural move is to re-brand white nationalism with a more laid back, authentic, communicative style, poses as an inclusive ideology. It is, in a sense, an admission by the right that liberals have won the culture war, the crown jewel of which in the last decade was gay marriage. Considering this, they had to adapt.
This kind of appropriation of liberal culture is not new. Conservatives like Bill Kristol bemoan that the left is more culturally exciting. A way in which the right operates is by superficially adapting the language of progressivism and distorting it to its own use. It is part of the success of conservatism to adapt in this way, such that, when the party has seemed patrician and out of touch with the people, politicians will run campaigns of, as Bush 43 called it, “compassionate conservatism.”
Another example of this cultural appropriation is in the evangelical church. Evangelical bookstores began a flurry of financial and self-help books in the 1970s. There then emerged evangelical books on redefining marriage in the last few decades, following closely behind changing mainstream cultural norms. Responding to new literature on lovemaking such as the best-selling The Joy of Sex, there emerged evangelical books such as Beverly and Tim “Left Behind” LeHaye’s The Act of Marriage. More recently, there are Christian sex shops such as book22.com and marrieddance.com, selling Jesus-approved dildos and other holy toys to titillate the holiest of holies.
Megachurches endorsing prosperity gospel take away all Christian iconography altogether, replacing it with images of the globe or doves. Basically self-consciously aware that images of Jesus may endorse negative reactions, they hide them. The message is “come on in,” this place is inclusive. They model themselves on a number self-help cultural phenomena like Tony Robbins, only now in the sanctuary of their tax haven. The megachurch takes on the properties of the mall, christening coffee shops, boutiques and finally, rap music.
America is punctuated by political pendulum swings. It seems that there are progressive movements and then each progressive movement is followed by a slow, subtle, revised revanchist policy. After the hard-won successes of the Civil Rights movement and the progressive civil policies of LBJ, the right had to come up with a new plan, which became the Southern Strategy. Corey Robin writes:
Pioneers of the Southern Strategy in the Nixon administration, to cite a more recent example, understood that after the rights revolutions of the sixties they could no longer make simple appeals to white racism. From now on, they would have to speak in code, preferably one palatable to the new dispensation of color blindness. As White House chief of staff H.R. Haldeman noted in his diary, Nixon “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to.” Looking back on this strategy in 1981, Republican strategist Lee Atwater spelled out its elements more clearly:
You start out in 1954 by saying ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. (2)
So the right takes on the new liberal, progressive language, adopts a maudlin form of “color blindness,” and the platitudes of civil rights. It sanitizes history, minimizes the age of “segregation,” attempts to quickly press it to seem “so long ago,” makes believe racism is over, just as its important to make believe class doesn’t exist. They convert the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. into a black Santa Claus bringing the gifts of social inclusion to African Americans. They turn him into a holiday. I’ve even seen a billboard in rural California around Salinas that simply but inexplicably read, “Martin Luther King was a Republican” (He was an anti-war social democrat). How’s that for post-truth dog whistle racism? In sum, the reactionary right finds a way, like a gravitational pull of all would be outliers, to re-code progressivism according to their idolatry of a retroactive authoritarian, hierarchical social order. (3)
Reactionaries from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, whether envisioning pasts of supposed racial or moral purity, or the honored and misty-eyed pastoralism of the Western frontier, seeking to “Make America Great Again,” the specter of the mid-century post war boom economy and Father Knows Best nuclear family, and so forth, recall the corralling of the free libidinal psyche to ossified authoritarian tropes.
Mark Lilla characterized the reactionary as The Shipwrecked Mind, he thinks the world is basically a sinking ship, a dream dashed, a world in chaos, and he is appalled at seeing the treasures of the culture float away in their boxes. He wishes to have the power to put it all back together again, to restore the dream of dear old dad. They usually cast blame on this shipwreck on a hodgepodge of otherness including liberals, feminists, blacks, multiculturalists, egalitarianists, foreigners, Woodstock types, socialists, and blacks whom they view in unfit moralistic terms, rather than the centralized power of the managerial class. The role of the populist right is to make the moral goodness of this managerial class desirable to the people by endorsing its virtuous, restorative culture.
This kind of reactionary formation is what I’ve been calling the goblinization of liberal society. Here I take a goblin to mean in the Tolkien context where the origins of the goblins (also called orcs), are said to have been forged in the First Age of Middle Earth by a Master who enslaved free elves, torturing and disfiguring them. These orcs formed the main host of Sauron’s army, obedient to his omniscient eye. To be turned goblin is to be in thrall with the authoritarian power principle, a pledge to bring a glorious victory and restored honor, in his name.
So the goblinization, the co-opting of liberalism, is now everywhere. Whenever liberalism, soon revanchism. First globalization, then goblinization.
So after a wave of environmentalism, the movement itself is co-opted by corporations and marketing to make things seem eco-friendly. Some companies adopt green logos, even big polluters like British Petroleum, Land Rover, John Deere. The message is corporate adaptation, which then becomes a decoy in which the system of capital supporting it goes unchallenged. (see my essay on Envirology)
The legendary African American lawyer Thurmond Marshall, who succeeded in the landmark case Brown versus Board of Education was later made Supreme Court Justice by LBJ in 1967. The first African American Justice retired in 1991. George H.W. Bush replaced him with a rather unaccomplished former Monsanto attorney and famed sexual harasser and African American goblin conservative Clarence Thomas. At his press conference, Bush downplayed Thomas’s ornamental blackness with some color- blind platitudes that no one believed. Thomas spends his career with little concern for civil rights, instead defending corporations and advocating Tea Party causes on the side.
So Thomas became a strange representative of a class of conservative blacks, on whose heels he was followed by the likes of Allan Keys, Michael Steele, and Herman Cain. And of course there is the evangelical’s latest trophy Negro, Dr. Ben Carson, the later who due to a remarkable feat of authoritarian and theocratic pretzeling of logic, has managed can manage to be a brain surgeon while denying evolution. As goblin feminist and conservative pundit Ann Coulter smugly put it, “Our blacks are better than their blacks,” as if they were trading cards, or perhaps more perniciously, prized mandigos ready for trade on a Ebay.
So here is goblin feminism, which proves only that women too can be dickheads, when they use the rhetoric of equality and “girl power” to not challenge the functioning of the patriarchal managerial system, but to embed themselves in its bureaucratically sanitized ecocidal logic. Goblin feminist Ivanka Trump hence has used her youthful sex appeal as a promotional tool in the corporate empire to soften the crude edges of her father, who along with goblin Kellyanne Conway, tirelessly minimizes and obfuscates his boorish misogyny and penchant for grabbing pussy. It is an insidious goblinization of deep feminism.
So, to return to the top, is Milo Yiannopoulous a hipster-Nazi? We have acknowledge first that defining hipster is deliberately amorphous. The term itself was coined by Norman Mailer in his essay White Negro, and loosely defined hipster as originating in liberal white male counterculture. It has its origins among beatniks, bohemians of the 1950s, indulged in poetry, jazz, denizens of the inner city art scene. The term re-emerged around 1999, denoting a life-stylist congerie of generally anti-establishment liberalism. It’s penchant for ironic distance from commercialism was a hallmark coping strategy to negotiate consumerist injunctions and resist the rat race of the corporatocracy. Hipsters enjoy thrift shops, vinyl records and craft beer. Hipsters generally delight in semi-underground publications like Adbusters, street art and clever insults of corporate elites.
The hipster pastiche then was twice re-commodified, such that the modern hipster is already on a sense a McHipster, an impotent urban cynical consenter first appropriated by the liberal corporate system by the likes of Apple, American Apparel, Starbucks, Volvo, etc., then again by the alt-right. When the hipster aesthetic became goblinized by the alt-right I am not really certain. It happened somewhere in the confluence of Richard Spencer, who tries assiduously to redeem “good racism,” Vice co-founder Gavin McInness, Breihtbart’s cargo-short captain and now Trump senior adviser Steve Bannon, and pouf dandy Milo Yiannopoulous. Anti-globalization, which has long been a common cause of the revolutionary left, when filling in new skins on the right, comes with the old wine of authoritarianism, phallocentrism, Eurocentrism, Orientalism and misogyny. They delight in being offensive, have an insular form of humor with each other. Their irreverent anti-political correctness is their form of graffiti. But instead of directing it toward banks or corporate elites, it is against liberal multiculturalism and egalitarianism, which they see as ideologically oppressive forces victimizing them. They’ve commanded the power of cyberspace, turning the internet into an echo-chamber for trolls competing for the most offensive shout downs.
What we need now is a comprehensive understanding of goblin hipsters, just as we understand goblin black conservatives, goblin environmentalism, and goblin feminists. These goblin forms may pretend to be new, of cutting edge culture. They portend to be revolutionary or radical, but, skinny jeans and all, they in fact are insidious weapons of the reactionary mind, which when boiled down, is retroactive to the status quo ante and authoritarian while at the same time efforting to make the power structure of elites both populist and republican.(4)
Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute held a rally in D.C. just days after the election. In Spencer’s speech before hundreds, he raised a glass of whiskey to his jubilant crowd, shouting “Hail Trump, Hail Victory.” The crowd returned him cheers and Nazi salutes. Spencer later said in an interview with NPR that this “Hail Trump” sloganeering was a “joke” and that his group had an “irreverent” and “ironic” sense of humor (despite the obvious fact that no one was laughing in jest). He awkwardly tried to brush off the salutes as ironic as a hipster’s wife beater and pornstache, an attempt at the ironic distancing from the gravity of authoritarianism. The salutes refuted the conspiracy of surfaces. The Amercantile Apparel veneer slipped away, exposed by stiffened arms, revealing deep history, revealing the vital white nationalism within, not unlike the errant gloved hand of Dr. Strangelove, the spirit of the fascist hand still animating the reactive mind in the twenty-first century.
1 – See Edward Said’s answer to Samuel Huntington here.
2 – The Reactionary Mind, 49
3 – A controversial Austrian psychiatrist named Wilhelm Reich devoted much of his time thinking about the psyche of radicals and their reactionary counterparts. In his book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism, he noted how the rising fascist party in Germany was comprised of lower and middle classes. The fascists appropriated the language of labor movement of the left, but for their own militaristic, authoritarian purposes. Nativism was a key tool in dividing the public, and the autocrat’s promise to bring law and order, and expel the racially impure political scapegoats would crystalize our understanding the blueprint of fascist totalitarianism. Reich, and later Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their masterpiece of theory Anti-Oedipus, gave us a theory of understanding the psyche as a matter of libidinal flows. Flows can either be released, or be stopped. It has forward momentum, and there are inevitable breaks, where energy is short-circuited and routed (“oedipalized”) around familiar authoritarian tropes and territories. These territories often appear as nostalgic longings for an older society, a lost golden age, as well noted in books like Stephanie Cootz’s The Way we Never Were.
4 – It could be argued, of course, that contemporary hipsterism is already toothless liberal lifestylism and has no true progressive core, that is hipster-lite, that is to say, hipsters have already goblinized themselves, which only contributes to and verifies its ambiguous mystique. But, again, this is an amorphous category of hipsterdom that can vacillate between the ironic hipster lifestylist and paleohipsters, if there can be said to be such a thing. Part of hipsterdom is that no one, especially hipsters, claim to be a hipster, for the term itself is embedded with a conditional dispersion. The joke headline in the Onion, “Two Hipsters Call Each Other Hipster!” See essayist Mark Greif on hipsters here.