The Grim Darkness of Anti-Politics
Updated: Dec 26, 2020
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of rereleased essays. This piece examines the strange aesthetic mismatch involved in the alt-rights love of the Warhammer 40,000 game. First published Apr 12 2019.
It is 1962, Trotskyist theorist Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnell, better known as J. Posadas, had just founded the Fourth International Posadist. This new tendency within Trotskyism is an attempt—strange as it might sound—to synthesise Ufology with broader Marxist theory. The group was strongly pro-Nuclear, but their more lasting contribution to left-wing thought was in their claims about extraterrestrials: specifically, that any alien life travelling to earth must be from a civilization so scientifically advanced that they have also developed into post-capitalist society. Or, more basically, alien communists are the key to the earth’s inevitable socialist revolution.
Suffice to say, insofar as Posadism is still invoked at all, it is as a joke derived from a desperate point in the history of the left. Posadism is not an extant politics, but its peculiar blend of socialism and science fiction will find many echoes in later political fantasies; including, in the odd blend of a grim dark space opera with the unhinged belief of a countercultural coterie of racist trolls. As the character Cypher says in The Wachowskis' 1999 film The Matrix (a popular point of reference for the far right today), ‘Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, ’cause Kansas is going bye-bye!’
‘In the grim darkness of the future,’ goes the subtitle for Rick Priestley’s miniature wargame, ‘there is only war.’ Warhammer 40,000 (or 40K), produced by Games Workshop, is infamously bleak; set in a future where humanity has taken to the stars, it inverts the optimism of a genre known for Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (not to mention Posadism) into a hellish, tortured fantasy of bloodshed and misery. Instead of a humanity boldly exploring the universe, outward looking, youthful, welcoming everyone into a multicultural post-capitalist alliance, the Imperium of Man in Priestley’s nightmare is an ancient and moribund entity: corrupt, xenophobic, and so technologically backwards that the marvels it has inherited are regarded with stern superstition. Far from transcending capitalism, humanity has regressed to an intergalatic neo-feudalism of planetary governors controlled by an ecclesiarchy. Faced by hostility on all fronts, this decaying system of planets is maintained by a supremacist and dogmatic ideology, which not only enjoins closed mindedness, but brutally punishes tolerance.
The satire runs deep. This Empire’s religion, for example, is an obvious farce; the deification of its founder, the Emperor of Mankind, is a creed of the Imperial Cult based of the Lectitio Divinitatus book. But this sacred text is a fraud, and was written by one Lorgar Aurelian, who counts amongst the Emperor’s superhuman children but spurned his father’s atheistic rationalism to join a war-in-heaven conflict against the Imperium. Although unsuccessful, this rebellion reduced humanity to its sad state. Moreover, the Emperor’s attempt at constructing a civilization of sceptical enlightenment is far from being as hopeful as the project might initially seem, motivated as it is by an acknowledgement of a sinister metaphysics. The failed utopianism, here, alleges a deeper problem—that the human propensity for reverence and awe might be preconditions for its downfall.
In 40K, known reality sits atop the Immaterium, an alternate, psychic dimension over which sentient life exerts a malign influence. Psychic power emanates from this dimension, and going through it allows for something analogous to faster than light travel, vital for the existence of the imperium. However, this dimension is also and primarily the domain of four Gods: extreme archetypal expressions of the unconscious minds of the universe’s sentient species, including humanity. And these are loosely modelled on the four horseman of the apocalypse: Pestilence, Famine and Death are collapsed into Nurgle; War is Khorne; Change is Tzeentch and Pleasure, Slaanesh. These primal entities caused the civil war between farther and sons, corrupting some of the Emperor’s children; the twisted God’s followers, dubbed Chaos, serve as the primary antagonists of the Imperium. Any form of veneration, it is implied, feeds the Immaterium’s ruinous powers. Therefore, the Imperial Cult is not only deeply backwards, contradicting the very wishes of the subject of its worship, but arguably helps to doom humanity too.
Postfascism, for the theorist Enzo Traverso, usefully describes the emerging forces of the far right, which is ‘a movement that is still in transformation and has not crystallised.’ It is chronologically distinct from classical fascism, which it does not try to revive as with neo-fascism, but nonetheless occupies ‘a historical sequence implying both continuity and transformation’. The alt-right overlaps with postfascism (substantiated by right wing demagogues like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Jair Bolsonaro) and neo-fascism, which ranges from terrorists like Brenton Tarrant to organisations like the British BNP. The alt-right grew out of a heady Internet culture of largely white, largely male, largely middle-class discontent, and it has its roots in the fringes of fan communities — for anime, computer games, comics, fantasy literature, various music subcultures and, to some extent, 40K too.
The alt-right, I will argue, does not necessarily seek to succeed on its explicit terms, either as a revolutionary fascism or as an extreme, electorally viable conservativism.
The alt-right is characterised by its meme culture of semi-ironic, semi-serious posturing, its strategy of online harassment and its use of coded signals (the okay hand gesture, pepe the frog, ‘Subscribe to PewDiePie’, and so on) that serve to legitimise and disguise its aims. Ultimately, the alt-right has its roots in fascist and prefascist ideas, with some combination of race realism, misogyny, anti-socialism, homophobia, ableism, Islamophobia, anti-liberalism, authoritarianism, paternalism, isolationism, anti-cosmopolitanism, etc. forming the bedrock of its ideology. It unites a spectrum of incompatible views that range from a pro-borders libertarianism to overt Straussian neo-Nazism. Its relationship to Trump et al. is complex, seeing in his 2016 electoral victory a symbolic win for them, but also critical of what they regard as Trump’s concessions to liberalism or neoconservativism as proxies for globalism. The alt-right, I argue, does not necessarily seek to succeed on its explicit terms, either as a revolutionary fascism or as an extreme, electorally viable conservativism.
After the US election of Trump, many of the memes coming from the alt-right took to depicting the 45th President of the United States in the attire of the Emperor of Mankind. This is more unintentionally funny than the meme makers might realise — the God Emperor is, after all, a catastrophic failure as well as a wounded, living corpse; furthermore, the worship of this tyrant is a self-defeating exercise dependent on state-mandated historical amnesia. To look to the Imperium of Mankind as a blueprint for the emerging ideology of the alt-right, superficially, does makes sense. Alien or xenos life stand in for foreigners, and the corruption of the Immaterium for the left and liberalism. The mythos stresses an enemy within narrative conducive to fascist rhetoric. And the Imperium is militaristic, hierarchical and relies on policies of eugenics, hero-worship and the wilful disregard for truth.
Nonetheless, the alt-right ignores the pessimism of Priestley’s broader fictive universe. The other factions of the wargame are all, tellingly and differently, mockeries of the Imperium’s hubris: the various groups of Elder (space elves) are a fallen empire even closer to extinction than mankind; the Tau mirror the Emperor’s early utopianism, but are just as fated to fail; the Orks mirror the Imperium’s military Keynesianism, wherein war is pursued for its own pointless sake; the Necrons are a species malformed into machines by their pride and Chaos depict the hideous truth of reality. The Tyranids, the only species to come from outside the galaxy, are perhaps more symbolic of the essential ‘moral’ of the game than Chaos — a hivemind that consumes worlds, an apex-predator without purpose, nature manifested as a swarm of monsters.
When a sentient life dies in this mythos, its mind is taken into the Immaterium and becomes a plaything for the Chaos gods. Even in death, there is no hope. The politics of 40k are not truly fascist, since nothing is endorsed as a more viable response to the horror of existence. Ultimately, if 40K has a politics, it is a nihilistic anti-politics. There is no path to salvation. Even the work of H. P. Lovecraft gives its readers more hope. And whether its the socialism of the Tau, the Enlightenment autocracy of the Emperor or the Imperium’s pastiche of the Holy Roman Empire, there is no positive politics to be derived. Just the desperate, ultimately self-defeating lies of fools.
All of this prompts a question: why has the alt-right embraced such satire? Clearly, these ironic-fascists are not skilled at exegesis, and hiding behind a witless sarcasm can do much to facilitate their smug if banal irreverence—a carnivalesque parade of grotesque nonsense used to bully, belittle and harass perceived enemies. But ultimately, to merely surmise that the alt-right’s use of the setting is a misreading, a misreading perceived by the franchise’s non-fascist fans, is itself superficial. Any casual encounter with the memes of the alt-right demonstrates the poverty of imagination inherent to the online movement. More interesting might be to propose that it is the very despair of 40K that makes the alt-right seek to transform it into the basis of a always already doomed political project. Despair, rather than radicalism, is the truth of the alt-right, and this is seen clearly in their appropriation of grim dark, but also in every failed attempt they make to articulate a clear project.
Despair, rather than radicalism, is the truth of the alt-right, and this is seen clearly in their appropriation of grim dark, but also in every failed attempt they make to articulate a clear project.
Traverso explains how the origins of postfascism are found in anti-politics, which is a response not to a timeless metaphysics (as seen in 40k), but historical circumstances and the crisis of a particular liberal (or neoliberal) establishment. Anti-politics is characterised by Traverso as a ‘reaction against contemporary politics, which has been divested of its sovereign powers — mostly subsisting as empty institutions — and reduced to its “material constitution” — the “impolitical” — that is a mixture of economic powers, bureaucratic machines, and an army of political intermediaries.’ Anti-politics is a kind of popularist despair, a turning from institutions that have failed in the form of austerity and dying communities. Steve Bannon, former White House Chief Strategist for Donald Trump and one of the key figures behind the alt-right, encapsulates the logic by depicting the future as a war by other means between right and left popularism, vying for control over anti-political despair.
Whereas Posadism is a ridiculous and kooky story of left optimism, any look at the extreme right shows a philosophy that answers the despair of anti-politics with more (hyperbolic) despair; that is, a hopeless, dystopian future that must be accepted, as a form of depressive realism, or denied, which is characterised as delusional. Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin argued that the aestheticisation of politics is the kernel of fascism, while Traverso proposes that the politicisation of aesthetics is the necessary complement to Benjamin’s thesis, taking into account the definite counterenlightenment ideas that inspired fascists. Either way, the alt-right’s abysmal aesthetics can be seen as a window on their abysmal politics. 40k qua fascist utopia is the right’s obvious counterpoint to Posadism; they are inversions of one another.
Over and over, the far right repeat a set of malancholic tropes. For instance, in the work of neo-reactionary and pro-slavery ‘philosopher’ Curtis Yarvin (better known as Mencius Moldbug), an elaborate, unified enemy is identified and named as The Cathedral. This structural force rests atop a bizarre ideology that acquires power by creating dependancy: ‘neo-Quakerism which supplies the ethical core of progressivism, and is evangelized with increasingly relentless zeal by the Cathedral’s robeless monks, is completely compatible with the acquisition and maintenance of political power.’ For Yarvin, as for many on the far right, all enemies are secretly one enemy, all conflicts between enemies a disguise for this unified and systematic conspiracy. The Cathedral is the network of liberal, progressive and left forces that stand in the way of a hierarchical society that would (somehow) usher in order and peace. The details are not important, and defeating The Cathedral is as near to impossible as defeating Chaos is for the Imperium of Man.
At worst, Cultural Marxism is an anti-Semitic dog whistle in reference to the many Jewish Marxists who composed the Frankfurt School.
Variants of this type of thinking can be found across the extreme right. Cultural Marxism was a term used by orthodox Marxists like Trent Schroyer to critique the allegedly narrow focus on culture displayed by Marxist critical theory and, especially, the Frankfurt School. But later, this term’s meaning metamorphed into something more like The Cathedral. Rather than a critique internal to the left, it became a weapon for right-wing pundits, politicians and intellectuals as varied as Pat Buchanan, Jordan Peterson and Ron Paul, as well as a reference point for far right terrorists such as Anders Breivik and the aforementioned Brenton Tarrant. At best, cultural Marxism is a canard about Marxists abandoning revolution in favour of a strategy to corrupt ‘The West’ by promoting the IDPOL of the oppressed. At worst, cultural Marxism is an anti-Semitic dog whistle in reference to the many Jewish Marxists who helped compose the Frankfurt School. Coded racism.
In the giddying depths of the online right, stranger nightmare’s than The Cathedral also reside. Such as Roko’s basilisk, which posits the birth of an omnipotent AI that will retroactively and eternally torture anyone who, knowing its existence, does not aid its creation—sorry for telling you about it, but you are now a part of Roko’s basilisk! This was popularised in a short story, ‘Phyl-Undhu’, by neoreactionary and right-wing accelerationist Nick Land. Then there is the idea of the Great Replacement, formalised and popularised by Renaud Camus and his notion that mass immigration (usually of Muslims to Northern Europe or the Anglosphere) is a means of committing ‘white genocide’, a racist conspiracy that helped motivate Tarrant’s attack on two mosques (resulting in fifty murders) and that finds echoes throughout the alt-right.
In the so-called manosphere or men’s rights activist network, pessimism reaches greater heights yet. The Incels (involuntary celibates) often justify a misogynistic entitlement to female attention through a pseudoscientific version of evolutionary psychology or biological determinism. In this disturbed worldview, women’s emancipation is seen as an injustice perpetrated against a minority of men, dooming the less desirable to eternal loneliness. Incels and many of the alt-right refer to any conversion to their ideology as taking the red pill, and the most pessimistic of Incels, who embrace absolute hopelessness, refer to their brand of ‘truth’ as the black pill. These communities are associated with mass murders, and also suffer from high rates of suicide. There is no project, here: just the grim dark.
In this sense, the postfascist response to anti-politics does not eclipse the despair of anti-politics, but merely transforms that despair into a philosophy (and aesthetics) of violence and bigotry.
Pessimism of this right wing pedigree is by no means limited to the alt-right; there are examples of it from more moderate conservatives, such as Roger Scruton’s claim that a sombre understanding of human nature inevitably makes optimistic, utopian dreams of the left unrealisable. This simplistic hokum is below the surface of a lot of neoreactionary movements, but for the alt-right, pessimism is maintained at a different level of severity, which largely explains why its adherents would be drawn to the forty-first millennium. Yes, positively conceiving Trump as the God Emperor is silly per se, and all the sillier once you understand that the Imperium of Man is a horror-show, a satire as surely as Nineteen Eighty-four or Swastika Night. But then, does the alt-right expect their utopia to succeed? In this sense, the postfascist response to anti-politics does not eclipse the despair of anti-politics, but merely (sometimes, perhaps intentionally) transforms that despair into a philosophy (and aesthetics) of hopeless violence and bigotry.
Have we managed to advance our situation since 1962? Is humanity better poised to refashion the world into one conducive to human flourishing and benevolent communities? All too often, when people encounter an impasse, they look not to the challenging problems before them that test their ability to adapt to the requirements of the moment, but to God Emperors and communist aliens. But these stories can be illuminating; the Trotskyism of the early ’60s was still hopeful, but in at least some of its articulations it lacked a material basis for that hope. The neo-fascism and postfascism of our time has neither a material basis to realise a hopeful future, nor even a hopeful future to realise. It offers a loud bigotry that, after analysis, seems only the meaningless wailing of a bitter resentment. It is Shakespeare’s ‘tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/ Signifying nothing.’
All too often, when people encounter an impasse, they look not to the challenging problems before them that test their ability to adapt to the requirements of the moment, but to God Emperors and communist aliens.
If you can’t tell, I think 40K is a splendid work of myth-making and a wonderful spoof on human vanity; it is sad to see it abused by reactionaries. The alt-right’s Manichean conspiracies—The Cathedral, the black pill, Cultural Marxism, the Great Replacement, Roko’s basilisk—are eerily similar, if less impressive, to the exaggerated spoof-logic found in the Imperial Cult, ‘purge the Heretic, beware the psyker and mutant, and abhor the alien.’ If the alt-right adopts reference points that are satirical of its ideas, perhaps that’s because this is a philosophy grounded in self-satire and self-hate, grounded not in a positive project to create a functional ethnostate (a horrific, but also unrealisable agenda), but a cultural expression of a more profound cul-de-sac. ‘In the grim darkness of the present,’ sadly concede these reactionaries, ‘there is only pepe the frog.’
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.