That the alt-right and illiberal left each view the liberal establishment as enemy number one is among the least discussed, facts of contemporary western politics. A number of recent episodes–leftist writer Caitlin Johnstone’s call to join forces with white nationalist and misogynist Mike Cernovich, Chelsea Manning’s palling around with alt-right figures and appearance at a pro-Trump party, and Max Blumenthal’s repeat visits to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program, to name a few–have provoked ample discussion and analysis from the commentariat. Few assessments, however, have identified what I think is going on here. The modern illiberal left is Red-Brown curious.
Red-Brown alliances, that is, alliances of the illiberal left and the ultranationalist right against the liberal left and right, are nothing new. Such strange bedfellows famously emerged in post-Soviet Russia, when neo-Stalinists and fascists declared common cause in the face of liberalization. Nearly a century earlier, the Cercle Proudhon united French integral nationalists and syndicalists in pursuit of what scholar of fascism Zeev Sternhell called “complete replacement of the liberal order… a new world–virile, heroic, pessimistic, and puritanical.” In the mid-1800s, Marx himself warned of “feudal Socialism,” which pitted the revolutionary working class and the reactionary aristocracy against the (liberal) bourgeoisie.
Participants in Red-Brown alliances do not agree on everything; if they did, alliance would be redundant. Their defining ideological characteristic is a judgment that liberalism is a greater threat than any other. 19th-century feudal socialists, divided starkly by class and worldview, discovered a greater enemy in the bourgeoisie. The left-wing syndicalists of the Cercle Proudhon found proto-fascists less threatening than liberal capitalists and democratic socialists. Russia’s 1990s-era communists and fascists bridged yawning political gaps to stand together against liberalization. Now that illiberal leftism and ultranationalism have re-emerged in western politics, it is no wonder that their adherents are as open to alliance as their ideological ancestors.
Contemporary Red-Brown curiosity is most evident in opposition to liberalism’s crowning achievement, the post-World War II international order. Johnstone has admitted as much, writing, “we lefties need to attack the establishment at every turn and circulate awareness of what’s really happening in the world, and when this means collaborating with the right wing, we should do it… you can be damn sure the establishment Republicans and Democrats are working together to advance the agendas of the deep state.” Journalist Michael Tracey, of The Young Turks, refused to endorse Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump on the grounds that “there’s a decent chance that his foreign policy tendencies could result in better outcomes than Hillary’s.” Tracey, who has also downplayed concerns about anti-Semitism, went on to claim that while the media “spent months hyperventilating about ‘white nationalists,’ [scare quotes his] the greater and more realistic threat was always from neocons.” Glenn Greenwald, the heirophant of left-ish opposition to the liberal order, assessed alt-right populists and “Bush-era neocons” and found the latter to be the greater evil.
In the same piece, Greenwald asked the following rhetorical question: “And who has brought more death, and suffering, and tyranny to the world over the last six decades than the U.S. national security state?” His answer is clearly “no one;” yet, as Jonathan Chait notes, this was a historical period that encompassed Mao’s China and the Khmer Rouge. It also included multiple genocides and brutal regimes such as that of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Given Greenwald’s framing, which seems to be shared by others such as Johnstone, Manning, Tracey, and Blumenthal, it is not surprising that they would view the alt-right, or even murderous dictators such as Assad, as the lesser evil relative to the US-led international order. Red-Brown curiosity has always been founded on such a calculation.
The leftists mentioned in this piece do not share the alt-right’s bigoted worldview, nor do they endorse the state-sanctioned murder practiced by Putin, Assad, and others. It is clear, however, that neither the former’s prejudice nor the latter’s reactionary authoritarianism rule them out as potential allies of convenience against the liberal order and its US backers. Put another way, these leftists are willing, at times, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Browns against liberalism. That growing factions in US politics think of liberalism as disposable should be of some concern to anyone, left or right, who values pluralism and democracy.