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A New Counterculture?

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A New Counterculture?

If the Right captures some of the Left’s youthful energy and rebellious cachet, it would represent a tectonic cultural and political shift. September 21, 2022
Politics and law
The Social Order

In July, the New York Times posted a job announcement seeking a reporter-cum-anthropologist to cover an important new beat: infiltrating the “online communities and influential personalities making up the right-wing media ecosystem” and “shedding light on their motivations” for the benefit of Times readers. Establishing this “critical listening post” would not be a role for the faint of heart. The daring candidate would have to be specifically “prepared to inhabit corners of the internet” where “far-right” ideas were discussed, all for the higher goal of determining “where and why these ideas take shape.”

You could be forgiven for questioning why the paper needed yet another reporter to shape the narrative about the political Right, given its constant focus on Donald Trump and the populist MAGA movement since 2016. But the timing of the announcement seemed to suggest that the Times had something else in mind. It arrived amid an explosion of media interest in understanding a strange new tribe, discovered suddenly not in the wilds of Kansas but right under their noses.

Back in April, an article by James Pogue in Vanity Fair revealed the emergence of a collection of “podcasters, bro-ish anonymous Twitter posters, online philosophers, artists, and amorphous scenesters”—sometimes called “‘dissidents,’ ‘neo-reactionaries,’ ‘post-leftists,’ or the ‘heterodox’ fringe . . . all often grouped for convenience under the heading of America’s New Right”—who represented the “seam of a much larger and stranger political ferment, burbling up mainly within America’s young and well-educated elite.” That last bit about the demographics of this so-called New Right may have been what got the Times’s attention. But Pogue had even more striking news: these dissidents, he wrote, had established “a position that has become quietly edgy and cool in new tech outposts like Miami and Austin, and in downtown Manhattan, where New Right–ish politics are in, and signifiers like a demure cross necklace have become markers of a transgressive chic.” This may have been the most alarming news of all for the paper of record: somehow, traditionalist right-wing conservatism had perhaps become cool.

Is it true—and if so, how is it possible? For at least a century, the Left has held a firm monopoly on “transgressive chic,” profitably waging a countercultural guerilla war against society’s hegemonic status quo. For the Right to capture some of the Left’s youthful energy and rebellious cachet would represent a tectonic cultural and political shift. We shouldn’t be shocked if it happens.

Few things are more natural for young people than to push back against the strictures and norms of their day, even if only to stand out a little from the crowd and assert their independence. A counterculture forms as a reaction against an official or dominant culture—and today, it is the woke neoliberal Left that occupies this position in America’s cultural, educational, technological, corporate, and bureaucratic power centers. In this culture, celebration of ritualized, old forms of transgression is not only permitted, but practically mandatory. Dissent against state-sponsored transgression, however, is now transgressive. All of what was once revolutionary is now a new orthodoxy, with conformity enforced by censorship, scientistic obscurantism, and eager witch-hunters (early-middle-aged, zealously dour, tight-lipped frown, NPR tote bag, rainbow “Coexist” bumper sticker, pronouns in email signature—we all know the uniform).

Moreover, young people living under the permanent revolution of today’s cultural mainstream often tend to be miserable. Their disillusionment opens the door to subversive second thoughts on such verities as the bulldozing of sexual and gender norms, the replacement of romance by a Tinder hellscape, general atomized rootlessness, working life that resembles neo-feudal serfdom, and the enervating meaninglessness of consumerism and mass media. In this environment, the most countercultural act is to embrace traditional values and ways of life—like the vogue among some young people for the Latin Mass. We shouldn’t be too surprised if at least a subset of those youth seeking to rebel against the Man might, say, choose to tune in to Jordan Peterson, turn on to a latent thirst for objective truth and beauty, and drop out of the postmodern Left.

Meantime, much of American society’s genuine intellectual, artistic, and comedic energy—the kind of creative fire that draws bright young minds—has migrated to the Right. As the populist academic Michael Lind recently argued, “If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star,” since at this point “intellectual life on the American center-left is dead.” The spirit of adventure and debate that once drove the Left has, as he wrote, “been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned,” while the mainstream marketplace of ideas is now filled with “the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds.”

Humor is similarly something that today’s hectoring class can’t quite produce. Real humor tends to play off the ironic gap between expectation and reality, or between the social pretense of propriety and the obvious. Satire, in particular, is a form of transgression that points out the falsities of illegitimate authority. Saul Alinsky may have correctly advised young left-radicals that “ridicule is man’s most potent weapon” against the establishment, but now the Left has itself become the establishment. Would-be comics who attempt, like the dull Soviet state satirical magazine Krokodil, to “correct with laughter” by mixing ideological regime propaganda with jokes simply end up being what the kids nowadays call “cringe.” The shackles of ideological dogma essentially block off the creative inspiration necessary for producing compelling art.

In contrast with this oppressive decadence of the mainstream Left, the dialectic of the countercultural Right crackles with irreverence and intellectual possibility. Across a growing ecosystem of YouTube videos, Twitter threads, Substack essays, online book clubs, and three-hour podcasts, exiles from the mainstream are looking to broaden their horizons, not only seeking alternative media but also excitedly discovering Christopher Lasch, debating John Locke, and discoursing on Livy. A hunger for forbidden knowledge and a yearning for genuine answers on political and cultural phenomena cloaked in official gaslighting has produced a legion of autodidacts, unrestrained by elite gatekeepers. And, finding themselves already outside the window of acceptability, and therefore no longer fettered by encrusted ideological orthodoxies or the need for self-censorship, many of these dissidents have no remaining reason to hesitate in pointing out when an establishment emperor has no clothes.

Who counts as a member of the countercultural Right? The universe extends beyond the traditionalist Catholics, Peter Thiel-aligned political operators, and dissident Internet personalities whom Pogue describes. It surely includes a broader array of political subgroups, including more established nationalist conservatives, European-influenced “post-liberal” intellectuals, and newly reactionary “gender critical” feminists now banished from the Left. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for merely a big political tent: its defining feature is not politics but shared alienation and dissent from the hegemony of the left-wing cultural mainstream. The millions of young people introduced to the validity of right-leaning ideas by such heterodox cultural commentators as Joe Rogan, or even awakened to the value of religious tradition by the likes of Jordan Peterson or Jonathan Pageau, form a cultural base that funnels people into a community of vocal dissidents.

The degree of factionalism and infighting that in some cases is already visible between various cliques of this countercultural Right—including theoretical disputes and petty differences, Twitter spats and personal grudges—is therefore also largely irrelevant. These subgroups may not always get along, but much like the old Left, their fissiparous squabbles represent the vigor of a newborn counterculture, even if they may prove some obstacle to cultural and political influence.

Critically, the countercultural Right is distinct from the riptide of Trumpian political populism, though voters and influencers may overlap. MAGA populism as an overt political movement has largely been limited to mobilizing those already beyond the fortress walls of the reigning elite class—and it has only consolidated and strengthened the elites’ defensive class consciousness. By contrast, a dissident counterculture is capable of resonating across classes, including within the elite class itself.

It’s for this reason that today’s conservatives shouldn’t underestimate the potential political advantage that an emergent counterculture could present in the long run. Conservatives can sometimes gain political power, but a monolithically united cultural opposition then tends to sabotage them. As the writer Tanner Greer has argued, culture wars are long, generational wars—and as polling tends to indicate, the younger generation currently appears to be overwhelmingly on board with left-wing cultural politics. But a shift in the values of some young Americans is far from impossible.

A transgressive countercultural appeal could prove the Right’s greatest asset. No official decrees from seats of government are likely to change the minds of a generation primed to rebel against authority. But a countercultural opposition could. The Left knows this well, of course, having leveraged the energy of the 1960s counterculture into a long march through the institutions and ultimately societal and managerial hegemony.

Commentary on the emergence of these new cultural dissidents often misses this point. A much-discussed recent opinion piece in the Times by Julia Yost, for example, accurately describes the growing young Catholic convert scene concentrated in Manhattan’s Lower East Side Dimes Square neighborhood as having adopted “an in-your-face style of traditionalism” more “in defiance of liberal pieties,” and because it is the “ultimate expression” of a “contrarian aesthetic,” than because its adherents have any particular devotion to the faith. Yost wonders, as other critics do, if these kids are simply role-playing. But it is their willingness to adopt traditional mores to gain approval among their peers that is significant, not the authenticity of their belief—which, as Yost concedes, may come later anyway.

Imitation is the process by which the terms of what is cool, attractive, and socially beneficial have always been established. These new Catholics—regardless of their sincerity—and other cultural dissidents may change those terms. To use a monetary metaphor: the elite depends on hoarding cultural capital, which is measured and accumulated through a common cultural currency; but if too many people switch to transacting with an alternative currency, the old one risks collapse, potentially prompting a sudden mass conversion to the new reserve currency. And though these cultural dissidents may have begun as a minority, and surely will remain so for some time, the exclusivity of minority status can itself act as an attractant. Scarcity can generate its own value.

If the elite Left is going to be stopped in its push to construct a woke total state, however, a budding counterculture won’t be enough. The Right and its anti-woke allies will have to identify, take, hold, and effectively operate real centers of power and influence. A young countercultural Right would be of help in this regard.

Many of the more politically oriented subgroups within the dissident Right, it’s worth noting, are busy familiarizing themselves with the works of realist philosophers of power, from Machiavelli and James Burnham to France’s Bertrand de Jouvenel. But this should not be especially surprising for a group already looking to the past for knowledge and inspiration. As Burnham wrote in his classic book The Machiavellians, an era of “revolutionary crisis makes men, or at least a certain number of men, discontent with what in normal times passes for political thought and science—namely, disguised apologies for the status quo or utopian dreams of the future.”

But it’s not their choice of reading material in itself that could make the new counterculture important politically. As the Trump administration belatedly discovered, taking nominal control of government through elections today has little impact on the direction of Leviathan. Even if the party officially running things changes, the vast unelected administrative state remains staffed by people educated in the same elite institutions, living in the same elite conclaves, and shaped by the same material incentives to signal acculturation to the same mannerisms, values, networks, career paths, and ideological priorities—what the realist Italian political theorist Gaetano Mosca would have called the same “political formula.”

Personnel is policy. If this entrenched, decidedly-not-neutral governing class doesn’t accept a new policy order, it won’t happen. Declaring a new direction for government without installing new personnel willing and able to carry it out generates only elite revolt and sabotage. High-level political appointees inserted into departments and agencies in an attempt to direct change are quickly isolated and rejected by the immune system of the bureaucratic host-body, pushed out like the foreign objects they are.

Veterans of the Trump administration appear belatedly to have grasped this reality, if reporting on a plan known as “Schedule F”—an attempt to replace a sizeable chunk of the “civil service” through executive order at the start of a new presidential administration—is accurate. But as Trump officials themselves have already seen, replacing all these personnel would be exceptionally difficult. In addition to the legal obstacles, nearly everyone with the skills and experience to do these jobs effectively is already an assimilated member of the same professional-managerial class. In fact, this status quo applies not just to government but to nearly every influential large organization, including corporations, major media outfits, universities, and nonprofits. All rely on recruitment from the professional-managerial elite to operate, and so are effectively beholden to the cultural preferences of that milieu.

The only practical way forward for the populist Right, then, is to develop a counter-elite—operating in parallel under a different political formula and leveraging a different cultural currency—from which new leadership could staff positions of institutional power. These new elites could eventually come from anywhere, and from any social or economic class. But conversion from within the existing managerial class—in other words, the cultivation of “class traitors”—would produce the quickest results. The development of a counterculture attractive among the young and educated, up-and-coming elite is the best possible means to accomplish this. It is, after all, the path by which the hippies of the 1960s eventually acquired power. This is the true potential value of a right-wing counterculture.

Privileged young pretend-Catholics in downtown Manhattan might be unlikely themselves to become this counter-elite, but we can think of them as pioneers, reacting to and amplifying the same forces in the zeitgeist that may induce others to join the new counterculture. And, in doing so, they may open a gateway to subvert and perhaps, in time, seize a beachhead of cultural power from within society’s elite class.

This is what might have caused the New York Times and other prestige media to feel the hairs on the back of their neck twitch reflexively. A cultural break within what Pogue described as “America’s young and well-educated elite” would present a direct threat to the Left’s monolithic institutional power, one far greater than even the mass populist revolts that have thus far caused them such anxiety. Yet in the end, the Times, seemingly unable to resist the magnetic draw of Trump, chose to hire the populism-focused lead reporter of Buzzfeed’s infamous Russia-gate “exposé” on the Steele dossier to fill its new position. Perhaps they haven’t yet grasped the extent of the real threat after all.

Photo by Graphic House/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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