Unwrapping the Conspiracy Theory at the Heart of the Alt-Right
You might have heard the term 'Cultural Marxism' thrown around by figureheads of the new radical right. This is what they're on about, and why they're wrong.
(Top photo: People protesting health care reform in the US hold a photo of Andrew Breitbart, who had a few things to say about cultural Marxism. Photo: Charles Dharapak AP/Press Association Images)
On the 22nd of July, 2011 in downtown Oslo, the right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik – who once gifted his mother a vibrator – detonated a bomb outside the prime minister's office, killing eight. He then drove 25 miles to Utøya island, where the ruling Labour Party's Youth Rally was being held, and began an hour-long shooting spree that ended with 69 more dead, most of them teenagers. That morning he had electronically distributed a 1,520-page tract, 2083: A European Declaration of Independence, decrying the "rise of cultural Marxism/multiculturalism in the West". Later, he said the massacre had been a way of publicising his manifesto.
The trope of "cultural Marxism" has been steadily gaining traction among the broad and diverse entity that is the radical right (although, hating diversity, they would baulk at you saying so), where it serves as an umbrella term variously responsible for such un-American and anti-Western ills as atheism, secularism, political correctness, gay rights, sexual liberation, feminism, affirmative action, liberalism, socialism, anarchism and, above all, multiculturalism. The ultimate goal of cultural Marxism, we're led to believe, is to slowly and stealthily dilute and subvert white, Christian Western culture, thereby opening sovereign nations to rule by a one-world corporate government. Whether that's by Jews, lizards or communists isn't always clear.
So the theory goes, "cultural Marxism" was the master plan of a group of émigré Jewish-German academics – widely known today as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory – who fled Nazi Germany in 1936, decamping to New York. What's certainly true is that, in an attempt to understand why the objective conditions of the European proletariat had failed to trigger widespread revolt, they concluded that religion – that great "opium of the people" – and mass culture served to dampen revolutionary fervour and spread "false consciousness". So, adding a splash of Freud to their Marxism, the likes of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and Walter Benjamin trained their eyes on the subtle intertwining of social and psychic/sexual repression, believing that a revolutionary consciousness could be engendered through psychic liberation and more enlightened cultural forms and attitudes.
While these were the staunch views of a handful of left-wing thinkers writing in the middle of the 20th century, it does not follow that they have been the ideological architects of a wholesale takeover of Western culture. Yet those who believe it has already happened end up having to explain how George W Bush and the neocon hawks somehow served a leftist agenda.
The "cultural Marxist" conspiracy has a slippery genealogy through the American Right, beginning with its coinage by Lyndon Larouche in the early 1990s (although Hitler had warned of "cultural Bolshevism" during the 1920s). It passed through various esoteric journals and hard-right think tanks, and was picked up by paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan (author of The Death of the West), William S Lind and Paul Weyrich, and over the last decade has spread feverishly through the murkier, more hyper-masculinist and libidinally challenged corners of the web. It has been rolled out everywhere from the Daily Mail (whose editor accuses the BBC of cultural Marxism) to the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer, from Milo fans to meninists, becoming a staple of permanently livid YouTube ranters. Ubiquitous and almost infinitely flexible, it's the perfect scapegoat, yet betrays not only a mind-numbingly ill-informed reading of the Frankfurt School's output, but also a staggeringly stupid grasp of the historical process (spoiler: it's the requirements of international capital, not the string-pulling of a few sociologists, that has provided history's chief motor these last few decades).
"For Breivik, Breitbart and others, multiculturalism is a strategic goal en route to a globalist superstate"
Arguably the biggest boost for the conspiracy came from its liberal use at Tea Party rallies, where it was fastened on to by Andrew Breitbart, soon to be making cultural waves with his eponymous news aggregation website, focused initially on the ills of Big Government, Big Hollywood and Big Journalism: the dark troika of American society's takeover by cultural Marxism.
In his autobiography Righteous Indignation, Breitbart describes the discovery of cultural Marxism as his "awakening" – redolent of the "red pill" that all conspiracy cranks feel when the vast, anxiety-inducing complexity of the universe becomes pacified in the paranoiac, pattern-seeking mind, reduced to the imaginary order of some joined-up plot (the irony of "red pill", of course, being that it's taken from The Matrix, whose makers, the Wachowski Brothers, are now the Wachowski sisters – trans politics being another plank of cultural Marxism). Grasping its effects, he said shortly before his death in 2012, was like "putting the medicine in the sherbet […] My one great epiphany, my one a-ha moment where I said, 'I got it – I see what exactly happened in this country.'"
The self-righteous zeal animating Breitbart's subsequent kulturkampf drips through almost every interview, illustrating the propensity for the internet to enable a single person's prejudices, ignorance and resentments to seize the cultural narrative – to resonate in echo chambers, free of intellectual checks and balances.
For Breivik, Breitbart and others, multiculturalism is a strategic goal en route to the aforementioned globalist superstate: erode the foundations of the nation and the culture of its people, and hocus pocus, you have monolithic, monocultural (yet somehow also still multicultural) corporate rule. Apparently it hasn't occurred to them that the system of nation-states, with their tax havens and labour cost differentials, is intrinsic to the technocratic global order.
One of the principal delivery systems of cultural Marxism and the subversion of these wholesome Western norms – such that women can be more than housewives and non-whites are allowed to vote – is popular culture. Here's "editor-at-large" of conspiracy website InfoWars, Paul Joseph Watson – after Milo the most eloquently ignorant of the right-wing provocateur webslebs – helpfully explaining this mass indoctrination and degeneracy: "Why is popular culture so contrived, plastic, empty, meaningless, grotesque and incredibly retarded? Because from the 20th century onwards, post-modernist, moral relativist, critical theory-espousing cultural Marxist nihilists began to seize control of society … The goal? To completely undermine the foundation of Western civilisation and leave us open to subversion and capitulation."
And yet, in another of Watson's blustering sermons, we hear, over a montage of mainstream media logos, the following endorsement of capitalism: "A competitive market creates quality, because businesses fail if they don't please the consumer." Among the many ironies that Watson fails to grasp – aside from being a ceaselessly haranguing critic of mainstream media bias making his pro-capitalist point over a montage of MSM logos – is that the culture industry is precisely the result of … [extreme Paul Joseph Watson voice] … CAPITALISM. This point was perhaps most forcefully made by … [extreme Paul Joseph Watson voice] … THE FRANKFURT SCHOOL.
And what about the sexuality of Miley Cyrus that so terrifies him? Is that also some scheme of those notorious Marxists, Disney and Sony? No, that's market forces – capitalism grinding its crotch in your face. (Mind you, it's not clear how, exactly, bemoaning the "hypersexualisation" of pop culture, which forces men-victims to re-trench into "neomasculinity", squares with interviewing porn stars roped in to repudiate rape culture, whose online omnipresence presumably has very little to do with the "hypersexualisation" he laments.) People want it, however dreadful it might be. And that's exactly the point about capitalism: it has precisely zero intrinsic beliefs. None. It doesn't operate by meanings. It's mathematical. Make bank! And it can monetise anything, from the faithful's desire to access the Kingdom of Heaven through to alt-right YouTube cranks. If ultra-conservatives can make profit off Miley's crotch, they will.
If universities are churning out so many Marxists, why no collective ownership of the means of production?
Despite Breitbart's assertion that "we experience [cultural Marxism] on a day-to-day basis, and by that I mean minute by minute, second by second: it's political correctness and it's multiculturalism", the ultimate failure of this long Marxist insurgency can surely be gauged by, y'know, the total absence of any Marxist government in the West since Adorno and crew tipped up in the USA, or the fact that the world's 67 richest individuals have the same wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion, something that Lenin would most likely have frowned upon. Or to look at it still another way: if universities are churning out so many Marxists (excluding the now defunct Trump University, of course), why no collective ownership of the means of production?
It's all nonsense, of course, the overheated product of the free-floating pathologies informing each new lunatic claim that shapes the alt-right's toxic ideologies.
The idiocy of the cultural Marxism conspiracy is demonstrated by the way the neo-nationalist anti-globalist New Right ascribes the dynamics of the idea to the left, identifying and conflating cultural Marxism with late-capitalist globalisation. This is a fairly major misunderstanding of the Marxist worldview. Likewise, positing as the principal organ through which cultural Marxism propagates itself the pop culture that the Frankfurt School so explicitly denounced would strike them as the saltiest of ironies. And colossally stupid.
But then, as Frankfurt School expert Martin Jay notes, "We have clearly broken through the looking glass and entered a parallel universe in which normal rules of evidence and plausibility have been suspended." And that's the perverse beauty of a conspiracy theory: the more that people denounce it as crazy, the more it stiffens the conviction of its adherents that they're correct ("We must be, because no one else believes it, and you sheeple are all brainwashed, ergo…") to the point where they end up pitying you: "If only you could see the signs: they're everywhere!"
And so cultural Marxism – this protean right-wing bogeyman responsible for Queer Studies, globalisation, bad modern art, women wanting a life on top of babymaking, African-American Studies, the 1960s, post-structuralism: essentially, everything that isn't nationalist, "white" and Christian – ends up becoming akin to a cheap condom: stretched to the point of uselessness.
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