In my twenties, I inhabited a fringe of the London political activism scene that included full-on black bloc anarchists. I had begun working life as a middle-class graduate in London, soaked in critical theory and hostile to the economic system I was expected to join.
Instead of knuckling down in a Big Four consulting firm like much of my graduating year, I spent most of my twenties flip-flopping between temp work and jobs I hated in industries that filled me with cynical despair, living in sketchy house-shares while pursuing trendy but unremunerative activities such as avant-garde writing, conceptual art and political activism.
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In the course of this I met many anti-capitalists, the forerunners of today’s Antifa militants, the far-left radicals behind much of the violence in the United States.
But then of course, because of America’s extreme polarisation, many believe it’s not Antifa fanning the flames of riot in the US, but neofascist accelerationists. Rumours are swirling about provocateur involvement in the rioting by hard-left groups, as well as white supremacists.
Depending on your filter bubble, it could be white nationalists seeking, as Gavin Haynes put it in these pages last week, to give the system “just one final heave-ho before it crumbles” in favour of a new racist utopia. Or if you follow different blue-ticks on Twitter, it’s Antifa creating mayhem in order to bring down Donald Trump.
To muddle things further, far-right activists may be posing as Antifa in order to heighten both these narratives. Trump himself has come down firmly on one side of the partisan divide by designating Antifa a terrorist group.
Between hyper-partisan reporting and confused messages from the front lines, perhaps there is no making sense of US events — certainly not from this side of the pond. But if we step back from trying to pinpoint one ‘side’ as ‘goodies’ and the other as ‘baddies’, and see both Antifa and the alt-right as two sides of the same phenomenon — alt-right and alt-left in fact — there are plenty of warnings here for British politics.
Both alt-left and alt-right have a presence in Britain, though their antagonism doesn’t (yet) approach the running battles that now regularly occur in the United States. Plenty has been written about the constellation of beliefs on both alt-right and alt-left. But — demographically speaking — who are they?
The fact that the radical fringes are often less than keen to have their real identities known makes it difficult to find reliable data on the demographics of these groups today. But a look at past studies offers some clues. First, Ukip: though many ‘Kippers would be offended to be described as ‘alt-right’, the 2018 three notorious alt-right social media figures joining the party in 2018 does little to dispel the sense of at least some relationship. And 2017 YouGov data shows Ukip members be typically less educated and heavily concentrated in the lowest income brackets.
Over the pond, 2018 research from the US-based Institute of Family Studies supports the contention that adherents of the kind of white identitarian politics common on the ‘alt-right’ is associated with lower education levels, lower earnings and higher unemployment.
This is complicated somewhat by recent reports suggesting that far-right groups such as Generation Identity are focusing their recruitment efforts on young graduates. But the longer-term picture suggests the stereotypical alt-righter is male, working- or lower-middle-class, without a degree, frustrated by stagnation in economic opportunities and liable to blame his problems on immigrants and the ‘globalist elite’.
In contrast, the alt-left are seen as being far higher up the social scale, and in the war of words between Left and Right, figures such as Carl Benjamin and Brendan O’Neill accuse Antifa of being pampered middle-class leftists playing at activism. But from my own recollections, I don’t think it’s that simple. Rather, I think the new alt-left is deadly serious — just pointing the wrong way.
My overwhelming recollection of the movement was a mixture of middle-class culture with economic precarity: people with serious smarts and groaning bookshelves working jobs in bars to fund activism, while complaining about The System that excluded them. (I include myself in this description, in case you think I’m sneering.)
I argued recently that the massive expansion of higher education is creating a new ‘Everywhere precariat’. This group comprises graduates who’ve absorbed a worldview that trains them for ‘metropolitan elite’ job types that turn out to be far scarcer than the graduates competing for them.
The result is a frustrated would-be middle class, treading water in what the writer Venkatesh Rao has called ‘premium mediocre’ lifestyles, a rented simulacrum of a genuinely prosperous existence designed to signal preparedness for the day when, by luck or application, they make it into the dwindling numbers of the real bourgeoisie.
These graduate left-behinds are then stuck in a holding pattern, in precarious housing and employment, as opportunities to take the big steps into adult life — traditionally home ownership, coupledom and kids – recede ever further into the distance. A recent Pew report showed 30% of millennials living with a spouse and child, a fall of 10% on Generation X and a whopping 40% drop on the 1968 generation. That’s America, but ONS datashows the age of first child climbing relentlessly in Britain too — while the birth rate is falling in all cohorts save the over-40s.
Ed West argued back in 2016 that the disappointed also-rans in the graduate-job Ponzi scheme were increasingly turning to far-left political figures. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, who proved popular especially with 18-30 voters (if not to anyone else) have made heavy use of words such as ‘rigged’. A 2017 NBC interview with an American Antifa student at an elite Bay Area university expresses this sense of a receding dream:
“These false promises we’ve been told throughout our lives that we just have to follow the American dream of working hard and things will be all right. We’ll get a middle class existence with house, lawn and the picket fence,” Daniel said. “This promise, this future has never materialised, and we kind of realized that the system’s rigged against us and we need to do something about it.”
Seen from this angle, the principal distinction between supporters of the alt-right and alt-left is not, contra Carl Benjamin and his ilk, social class. Rather, it’s between different types of ‘left-behind’. Many on the alt-left aren’t really privileged young people playing at radicalism before settling into steady jobs.
Perhaps that’s how they planned it; but the steady jobs they were banking on settling into after a stretch moonlighting as an activist have evaporated, leaving a bleak economic future distinguished from the alt-right version chiefly by different taste in music, coffee and radical aesthetics.
This is supported by a 2017 European Union Politics paper that studied support for radical-right and radical-left parties. While ‘alt’ and ‘radical’ versions of Left and Right may not be quite the same, the paper’s conclusions are suggestive. It showed that in bare economic terms, radical-left and radical-right supporters don’t differ a great deal but where they do — significantly — is on education. That is, both are heavily drawn from economically precarious groups, but for radical leftists these economic grievances are overlaid with cosmopolitan values inculcated via higher education.
Both radical Left and Right are, the authors suggest, “different segments of the same pool of losers of globalization”. The left-behind bottom rungs of the new graduate precariat mix cosmopolitan style identity politics with a simmering anger at a system that feels rigged against them, and a demand for economic redistribution — in other words, the Corbyn/Sanders formula.
Meanwhile, adherents of the alt-right face similarly left-behind economic prospects, just without the graduate worldview. So the main mode is the same anger at a rigged system, just overlaid with the mirror-image of the cosmopolitan worldview: nativist identity politics. We might call this the Tommy Robinson formula.
The urbanist Joel Kotkin has argued recently that developed economies are heading for a form of neo-feudalism. A tiny class of oligarchs, he warns, is emerging in conjunction with a ‘clerisy’ comprising universities, media and culture that propagates its values. These two classes are in the process of stripping wealth, property and influence from pretty much every other sector of society.
In Kotkin’s terms, we could see both alt-right and alt-left as different subsets of the ‘Third Estate’ losers of this hollowing-out. They may be a militant subset right now, but as we exit lockdown into the teeth of a brutal recession, the precariat is going to get bigger. It’s also likely to get angrier: coronavirus is strengthening the hand of finance, big tech and the biggest corporations, even as it’s eviscerating the middle class. In other words, the pandemic has accelerated many of the trends contributing to the twin radicalisms of alt-right and alt-left.
From the point of view of effecting political change, then, the tragedy of the alts is that they should waste their energy quarrelling among themselves. Alt-left and alt-right represent different subsets of an ever-swelling precariat, watching in real time as the last of the twentieth century social contract goes up in smoke. Right now they largely see the enemy as one another. Should that change, though, we could see our faltering political settlement shaken to its core.
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