It's true what they say about the alt-right: it's a tiny – I mean, really tiny – group of people and its members reside largely in the gloomier recesses of the internet. So why is such a small cabal having a profoud effect on our modern political discourse? Because, as I found out myself, when something goes wrong in life, it's so incredibly easy to slip down those dark rabbit holes.
The alt-right fantasy of a white ethnostate, which its leading proponents espouse, harks back to a set of ideas last popular in early modern history. We might have considered these now confined to the ideological dustbin but, for some, they are providing a new refuge from a world which makes them feel vulnerable and unheard – just like the alt-right orators they idolise.
Not that long ago, after a bout of debilitating depression which left me housebound, I found myself inadvertently spiralling down the alt-right rabbit hole. I went from watching videos by Paul Joseph Watson, a rather facile right-wing polemicist, to Stefan Molyneux, an alt-lite philosopher with a perverse fixation on race and IQ. Before long, I was fully immersed in the squalid depths of this sordid online subculture composed mainly of young men led by an elitist intellectual vanguard.
Richard Spencer, the internet alt-right’s de-facto leader, comes from an academic background and cites Friedrich Nietzsche and fascist philosopher Oswald Spengler as his influences. His rival, Greg Johnson, is a San Francisco-based writer and founder of the publisher Counter Currents who also lends a veneer of intellectual respectability to ideas that, I now realise, are reprehensible – and quite rightly shunned by the mainstream.
Yet it wasn’t these two rather Americans that grabbed my attention. It was an obscure figure named Jonathan Bowden.
British-born Bowden is regarded by many in alt-right circles to have been among our nation’s greatest ever orators. An autodidact who spoke with extraordinary loquacity about historical figures with extreme rightist sensibilities, from the poet Ezra Pound to the fascist esotericist Julius Evola, Bowden was – and still is – a cult internet figure. His unwavering conviction that inequality is a social good, that “liberalism is moral syphilis”, and that white people ought to be able to asset themselves as culturally, ethnically and psycho-spiritually superior are influential to this day.
A member of the British National Party, Bowden was appointed "cultural officer" and given free reign to speak on a range of subjects to audiences that appeared to hang on to his every word. His penchant for appealing to base human emotions made him irresistible to those who like to consider themselves transgressive. His intellect garnered him respect, but also made him an enemy to some within extremist circles; his famous falling out with the former BNP leader Nick Griffin led to Bowden’s political and psychological demise.
Bowden was, importantly, a rather broken man to begin with. His mother suffered from severe mental illness in his youth and, perhaps because of this, he developed an extreme cynicism towards the liberal ideas of equality and fairness, which he regarded an excuse to ignore the unfairness and suffering of humans and the natural world.
A pagan who eschewed Christian virtues, blaming them for the radical decay of Western society due to their lack of masculine virility, Bowden exalted strength above all else. But for all his posturing, he too ended up suffering a breakdown after which he was admitted to a psychiatric ward. Shortly after being discharged from hospital, Bowden died of heart failure; predictably for far-right circles, conspiracy theories surrounding his death abound. Some still believe the power of his rhetoric had to be muzzled by the state.
My view – informed, I suppose, by my own experiences of being attracted to this rhetoric – is that Bowden suffered personally and that his far-right politics were a compensation for his inability to reconcile himself to his own fragility. As Nietzsche wrote: "Fanaticism is the only form of willpower to which the weak and irresolute can rise." In Bowden’s case, his fanaticism did not go beyond the small obscure pub venues in which he delivered entrancing but ultimately hollow speeches. On camera, he cut a rather pathetic figure who, with his diminutive physique and ill-fitting suits, looked totally out of place in rooms filled by the BNP crowd of burly white men.
With the allure of far-right politics growing, it’s important that we address the root causes of white radicalisation. White radicals generally tend to be loners in their bedrooms with little connection to the outside world. We need to deal with the underlying psychological pain that is leading susceptible individuals in the arms of extremists such as Richard Spencer, who make false promises of restoring power and glory back to the white race. Like Bowden, Spencer comes from an arts background and is an avowed thespian. And like Bowden, he is a charlatan selling dreams of a new Roman Empire to vulnerable young men who, more than anything, need hopes and dreams in a world filled with the politics of fear and division.
Any attempts at counter-nationalisation lack the empowering appeal of the alt-right’s message which, if we are to combat it, there must be a far more sincere effort to understand. A failure to do that may cost us many more minds, and ultimately lives, to acts of extremism.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies