Before last week, Richard Spencer was a man largely distinguished, largely by himself, for coining the term “alt-right”. After this week, history will know him as the white separatist dick who got punched in his ridiculous kisser. He may also be remembered in time as the catalyst for the stupid question: is it OK to punch a Nazi? As productive thought experiments go, this one ranks right down there with, “should I have eaten that double-bacon burger at 3am?”. To which the answer is, no, but we do understand that it was delicious and available.

For some of us, the moment of microaggression was momentarily juicy. Not even a tedious person like me is going to claim that I did not take pleasure in the vision. But there are plenty of tedious liberals who are currently claiming more for this televised act than its ability to deliver us base pleasure.

Salon proposes that a better question to ask than “is it OK to punch a Nazi?” is “If you don’t want to be punched in the face, maybe you shouldn’t preach Nazi values to the public?” The casual student of English will recognise this not as a question, but as the instruction given to a toddler. Or to a drunk toddler at 3am: “Don’t you think you should make a healthier food choice than double-bacon?”

In short, Salon does what it and other liberal outlets did to such a satisfied audience for much of the US election: object to the other side without true recourse to its strategic defeat. They don’t ask the question that might meaningfully assist their activist readers, which is “can punching political figureheads produce a political result?” Probably because the answer is no. Just because it feels good, doesn’t mean it does good, and you don’t defeat a terrible fact of contemporary political life by gorging yourself on empty calories.

We shouldn’t be surprised that this act is being widely heralded as a victory for liberals, or as an example of meaningful resistance. Liberals believe in the power of the individual to transform political landscapes and it makes liberal sense for them to confuse a single exchange for a meaningful mass shift. Punching a Nazi in the face is what Oprah would do if she’d spent less time listening to Dalai Lama audiobooks. It is only when you get a punch and you get a punch and everybody, even outside the television studio, gets a co-ordinated free punch that we take down the Winter Palace. An initial act of revolt, by the way, that involved remarkably few punches, and, thanks to the strategist Trotsky, minimal bloodshed.

What could be an opportunity for more than a meme or a moment of individual comfort has quickly boiled down to a pretty dumb question: “shouldn’t you not be a Nazi?” This is an obscene question. It’s like asking, “shouldn’t you not be a rapist?” The very fact that it can be posed concedes its initial legitimacy. Of course you shouldn’t be a Nazi, and of course, if you are, you can expect to be socked. Even Spencer, a prize idiot whose public speaking makes Milo Yiannopoulos’ come across like Churchill by contrast, knew that he was courting this. In a Periscope post, he concedes he was in the wrong place. “There was an actual anti-fascist rally going on, and I walked into it,” he said.

In this video, Spencer mentions that he is now talking from a “safe space”. His use of a term commonly attributed to his identity politics opponents is fairly interesting. Some time ago when I first heard the alt-right, and Spencer in particular, use the language of the politically correct they claim to despise, I had supposed they were engaged in conscious mockery. But the more one reads from the alt-right, the more one must concede that their identity project is the mirror of their opponents’. Activists, I propose, can learn much more from this comparison than they can from the question “is it OK to punch a Nazi?”.

Spencer, as has now been widely reported, describes himself as an “identitarian”. That this word is borrowed from the French is, in my view, telling. France is the place that gave us not only little idiots devoted to the idea of ethnic purity, but also the instruments to elaborate on identity diversity as itself the basis for just resistance.

This is not, to be clear, to equate the project of white supremacists with those who very sincerely fight for cultural equality. To draw this comparison would be as thick as asking, “don’t you think being a Nazi is bad?” People who fight for the cultural dignity of all identity groups have a very different aim from people like Spencer who want that cultural dignity for whites only. But that these two groups derive their ideas from a shared intellectual genealogy, largely French, merits some examination.

If you want, you can, in part, blame Michel Foucault, the father of social constructivism, for this focus on identity now shared by liberals and white identitarians. The great, sometimes deluded, sociologist-philosopher has much more influence than he ever had readers. There is an argument to be made that Foucault, in the habit of important thinkers, did not so much prescribe contemporary trends in thought so much as he predicted and described them. Still. Whether this guy’s ideas trickled up or trickled down, they are, today, the dominant political ideas, and we can find their expression in both the “safe spaces” of Spencer and those of the liberal present.

Spencer believes that individual identity must be asserted, that the self is key to change and that the true battleground is the culture. So do liberals. And, yes, again, they seek very different results, but that they proceed from an identical intellectual foundation is something that merits our investigation — if we really want to punch Nazis in the kisser, that is.

As I may have made previously plain, it is my view that (a) Foucault is a bit of a dick and (b) any political conversation uttered only in the terms of cultural identity is bound to produce toxic results. When we dismiss talk of the economic half of political economies, we are talking some dangerous bullshit.

Just as many liberals have said that the result of the US election was down to the anxieties of the endangered white male identity, many fascists have answered the same. The former simply advise “getting over yourself” as an antidote, while the latter suggest not getting over it at all.

Talk of the political effect of supply-side policies of the Obama administration is not permitted by many liberals. If one mentions, for example, the recent fact of a historic 16-point swing by extremely low-income voters in the US from Dem to GOP, one is understood less as an amateur psephologist and more as an oblivious racist. As though recognising the conditions that have been historically ideal in the West for racism and racism are the same thing.

Racism is very real, and, as Black Lives Matter sensibly reminds us, expressed in a real economic way. What is also real is the refusal by liberals to permit economic discussion beyond, “Do you think Trump is going to fix that stuff? Hahaha you useful idiot.”

[Rundle: President Trump really happened, now for right-wing infighting]

Trump is clearly not going to repair the gross economic inequality of America. But Trump clearly said, unlike Hillary Clinton, that he would. He was the only nominee making that promise. This does not make him the better nominee. It did make him the only one willing to concede that wages had diminished.

While I have busied myself being frustrated by the inability of my left and liberal peers to concede that a 40-year decline in real wages has created the conditions for a sack of shit to be elected president, I did not notice that the alt-right had become similarly opposed to economic talk.

The single guy at Breitbart who openly advanced for a continuation of supply-side was Ben Shapiro. Ben Shapiro is now gone. This was due, in very large part, to the fact of him having a Jewish name; the alt-right only tolerates Jews when they go and live far away in Israel, a national model for identity politics. It was also due to the fact that he didn’t fancy Trump much. But it is also interesting that the one guy who openly fought to uphold the delusions of Milton Friedman — which will be upheld in any case by this administration — has not been replaced in the alt-right.

On the alt-right as on the liberal left, there remains only politically correct conversation. That is, conversation that allows no connection between the political and the economic. It’s all cultural. It’s all down to people wishing to assert their specific identities, and if you mention the actual way that many people actually live — in precarious employment and housing, in debt, etc. — then you are, for liberals, a racist not worth listening to or, for the alt-right, failing to see the true problem, which is that sometimes in your humanities degree, you are forced to read the novels of Toni Morrison.

Now that we are largely agreed that Godwin’s Law is suspended, we are permitted to invoke Nazism in a truly meaningful way. While Adolf was busy promulgating his toxic identity politics on one side of the Atlantic, on the other side, FDR advanced a New Deal. While it is true that he did so to neutralise communists as much as he did fascists, it is also true that the only honourable liberal response to a time of great economic disparity is to address economic disparity. If FDR had advised starving workers to just “get over yourself” and attributed the origin of all dissent to cultural identity, perhaps we’d all be speaking German.

Instead, we are, both liberal and alt-right, speaking the ridiculous language of Foucault. Even if we do not know it.

“Is it OK to punch a Nazi?” Of course it is. FDR knew that, and delivered a sucker blow whose force we must urge political parties to replicate.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey