Though often framed as an essentially North American phenomenon, from its inception the alt-right drew heavily from various schools of European far-right thought such as the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) movement that began in France in the late 60s and the ‘identitarian’ movement that descended from it. Yet, just as the latter recognised the need to get supporters onto the streets and so created the activist organisation ‘Generation Identity’, in 2012, so too are the alt-right realising the limitations of their still largely online presence.
From alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer – who describes himself as an identitarian – announcing the start of an explicitly identitarian activist organisation, to alt-right alternative media increasingly adopting identitarian rhetoric and style, and key US alt-right street movement Identity Evropa embracing Generation Identity’s tactics more than ever before, it is clear that the alt-right are looking across the Atlantic to work out their next steps.
What is Identitarianism?
One of the clearest self-descriptions of identitarianism comes from an American proponent, Joshua Bates (AKA ‘Jossur Surtrson’), a contributor to the site of the leading international alt-right organisation, AltRight Corporation, and the founder of the defunct American identitarian groups ‘Identity Vanguard’ and ‘Southern Nationalists of Identity Dixie’. Bates described the ideology in 2017 as a:
“[…] framework within which Identitarians work to influence political and socio-economic activity in an effort to protect and preserve racial, ethnic, and cultural identity”
Central to identitarianism is the rejection of liberal multiculturalism and the promotion instead of ‘ethnopluralism’: the idea that different ethnic groups are equal but ought to live in separation from one another. This is coupled with an assumption of ‘cultural differentialism’: the notion that cultures are clearly demarcated entities linked to specific geographic locations. European identitarians’ desire for ethnopluralism and attachment to such a strict notion of ethnic and cultural identity, draws especially from a conspiratorial fear that the continent will succumb to “Islamification” from mass migration, which would eventually lead to a “Great Replacement” of “indigenous” Europeans. In the US this has caught the attention of members of the far right who believe that similar demographic ‘threats’ are posed by migrants, with Muslim migrants again being a particular focus.
From its origins as a controversial French philosophical movement, organised identitarian activism found its earliest incarnation in 2003 with the creation of the Bloc Identitaire (Identity Bloc) party. This party (now an association, ‘Les Identitaires’), in turn, gave rise to a now independent youth-wing, Generation Identitaire (Generation Identity, or ‘GI’), launched in 2012 and who are now present officially across 11 countries in Europe, all of whom share an established transnational brand, set of beliefs and political tactics.
Though not an exact copy, the importation of European New Right (ENR) thought was integral to the development of the American alt-right. In a December 2017 Buzzfeed profile of leading ENR philosopher, Alain de Benoist, the thinker recognised that some within the alt-right consider him “their spiritual father” though he did not consider them his “spiritual sons”. Nonetheless, de Benoist spoke at the 2013 conference of Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, which is now part of the AltRight Corporation, and it was his Manifesto for a European Renaissance, translated into English in 1999, which introduced notions such as ethnopluralism to the Anglosphere more widely. This exporting of far-right ideology has continued, with key contemporary European identitarian thinkers like Martin Semlitsch (AKA Martin Lichtmesz) speaking at a 2017 conference of alt-right US organisation, American Renaissance. Moreover, the ideological exchange is very much in both directions, with Semlitsch, who is also a close associate of GI, for example translating The Way of Men by US alt-right figure, Jack Donovan, in 2016.
Yet, given that the American alt-right has, until relatively recently, mainly just adopted ideas from the ENR, the identitarian element of the alt-right went largely underreported when it first entered the public’s imagination. What is now emerging, however, are indications that many in the American alt-right are increasingly looking to not just mirror these European beliefs, but rather embrace the terminology, identity and (more so than ever) tactics of European identitarianism.
What began to catalyse the American alt-right’s interest in the identitarian movement was the summer 2017 GI ‘Defend Europe’ campaign. This involved GI activists from across Europe disrupting the work of NGOs working to save the lives of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean, initially by blocking an NGO ship in May 2017 in Sicily, and later in summer of that year by chartering a ship and sailing into the Sea to further disrupt their work.
The action, which was largely a failure, nonetheless galvanised the international far right and demonstrated their current capability to work cooperatively on a global scale. Defend Europe received initial wider attention via North American vloggers Brittany Pettibone and Lauren Southern, had crowdfunding coming in from across the world on US alt-light troll Charles C. Johnson’s WeSearchr site, and had media support from figures including Frauke Petry (previously of Alternative for Germany), Nigel Farage, Katie Hopkins, Breitbart News, David Duke (former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan), alt-right figures Richard Spencer and Jared Taylor and leading Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
The campaign also served as a basis for growing the identitarian movement in Europe, including with the (albeit scuppered, in part thanks to HOPE not hate) launch of the UK and Ireland branch of GI in October 2017. It also sowed the seeds for greater influence on the North American far right, and in particular, the alt-right.
In addition to visiting burgeoning branches of GI following Defend Europe, co-leader of the Austrian branch of GI and de facto spokesperson for the movement, Martin Sellner, visited the US to meet with members of the alt-right during Milo Yiannopolous’ failed ‘Free Speech Week’ in Berkeley, California in September 2017. In a video from his time there Sellner spoke with Southern and Pettibone, and the three agreed that the issues are the same for America and Europe (and Australia and New Zealand), with Sellner adding that the exchange between Europe and America was at this point “really about tactics”. Reaffirming that it is indeed an exchange, Pettibone noted that, “We’ve mastered the online activism and you’ve mastered the in-real-life activism”.
The adoption of GI’s tactics by North American far-right groups is most explicitly the case for Identity Evropa (IE), a US identitarian and alt-right youth movement founded in 2016. In an interview with Greg Johnson of US alt-right publishers Counter-Currents in the same year, IE’s founder Nathan Damigo told Johnson that European groups including Generation Identity:
“[…] got me really excited and motivated because I could see [their] models and say “hey we can do this here in America […] that seems to be working over there so why not build a model over here?””
In addition to imitating common actions carried out by GI, such as banner drops and leafleting on university campuses, at a deeper level IE’s activism consciously follows GI’s ‘metapolitical’ strategy (itself drawn from the ENR’s adoption of the ideas of the influential Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci). As leading Nouvelle Droite thinker Guilliame Faye describes the approach in his 2001 book Why We Fight (a core recommended text by both GI and IE for their supporters, which was translated to English by the AltRight Corporation member, Arktos Books, in 2011):
“Metapolitics is an effort of propaganda – not necessarily that of a specific party – that diffuses an ideological body of ideas representing a global political project […] Metapolitics is the occupation of culture, politics is the occupation of a territory” (Emphases added)
Identitarian metapolitics focuses on shifting the accepted topics, terms, and positions of public discussion so as to create a social and political environment more open and potentially accepting of their ideology. It comes from a belief that this is required before electoral and policy support for their views is possible, and was echoed in an oft-repeated quote within the alt-right attributed to Andrew Breitbart, the founder of the popular US far-right media outlet, Breitbart News, when he claimed that “politics is downstream from culture”.
The common cultural cause of the identitarian, international far right – namely, the ‘protection’ of a shared, mythologised White European heritage from the inherent ‘threats’ of migration from those that fall out of this category – is precisely the kind of “global political project” Faye refers to and Defend Europe exemplified. This is true even though American and European identitarians simultaneously have their sights set on the (comparatively) local political project of affecting their national political landscape. At either level, identitarians on both sides of the pond view their enemy as the “globalist” threat of left-liberal democratic politics and multicultural policy.
This metapolitical outlook results in an explicitly countercultural approach to activism, which GI developed from copying traditionally left-wing strategies. Core recommended texts for GI members include Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution, a guide to nonviolent action which draws from the authors involvement with progressive movements, and similarly the US alt-right community has explicitly adopted the strategies of central left-wing community organising text Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky. This fed too into IE, as Damigo has previously explained in an interview with Richard Spencer that he had followed leftist internet threads and saved comments that people made, in order to rework them to promote white identitarianism. So too can a clear attention to marketing identitarian ideas to a wider audience be seen in the intentions behind the visual brands of GI and IE. Both frequently employ romanticised imagery of classical European art and architecture in their propaganda, and rely on logos (the black and yellow symbol of GI showing the Greek ‘lambda’ letter, and the blue and white triangle of IE) which eschew association with traditional far-right movements.
Whilst the American alt-right as a whole might wish to rebrand itself following the events of 2017 – not least due to the murder of anti-fascist protestor, Heather Heyer, at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August – it is clear some within the movement are seeking to go in an explicitly identitarian direction. Pettibone spoke with Patrick Casey, the present leader of IE, in January 2018 who stated that they “want to have a very identitarian aesthetic [and] approach and we want our rhetoric to be identitarian”.
More widely, as both GI and the alt-right are increasingly pushed away from mainstream platforms online, both are laying the foundations for means of organising that will likely encourage cooperation. For GI in Europe, this comes in the form of ‘Patriot Peer’: a location-based social networking app which encourages users to visit cultural landmarks, meet other activists by attending events and meetings, and engage in activism. Interestingly, demo footage of the app, which is due to be rolled out worldwide, advertises the US conservative CPAC conference.
For the alt-right, the biggest indication of identitarian organising comes from Richard Spencer’s December 2017 announcement of ‘Operation Homeland’ (OH), “a new organization dedicated to building a professional identitarian activist movement”. The organisation will mimic the structure of GI by relying on a “core of part- and full-time activists who provide leadership to the movement as a whole”. Overseas cooperation is suggested to, as OH even aim to “foster collaboration among identitarians in America and around the world”.
Yet, a recent discussion of the prospects for American identitarianism between Sellner, Pettibone and US alt-right vlogger James Allsup, published to YouTube in January 2018, highlighted some of the issues for any American identitarian movement. The core stumbling block they located was that identitarianism’s focal point – demographic change leading to the (supposed) erosion of identity – would not as easily be brought centre stage given that American identity is intimately tied now to civic nationalism, highlighting its prioritisation within American culture given the notion of America as an ethnic and cultural ‘melting pot’.
However, Sellner expressed his hopes when he argued that “American identitarianism exists already. […] in the voting group who voted for Trump”, who are “becoming aware that they are a minority”. The three agreed that mainstreaming this discussion of demographics through an identitarian frame, would allow normal people to feel confident about being open about it. For Allsup, the people who voted for Trump are “right up to the edge with most of what we’re saying, they just need to be pushed, then the floodgates will open”. Echoing the alt-right’s rejection of the establishment right wing, Sellner added that the labels in US political debate muddy things and that a fresh new start is needed for the American right that avoids “fighting the lost battles of their grandfathers” when demographics should be focus.
Lastly, it is important to also note the development of Canadian identitarianism. In addition to smaller groups increasingly relying on identitarian themes – such as the Toronto-based Students for Western Civilisation – Canada is home to what appears to be the first North American branch of GI. Generation Identity Canada (GIC) styles itself as ‘Identity Canada’, though does appear to be an affiliated branch of GI. It claims to have been created in December 2014 though its Facebook page was founded in September 2012. The group, which has official chapters in four areas of Canada and affiliate chapters in five, remains active with Toronto members carrying out a banner drop declaring “Defend Your Freedoms, Defend Your Identity”, on 9 January 2018.
Whilst the alt-right may have successfully adopted the ideas of the ENR and diffused them further online and at its gatherings, they are well behind GI in terms of bringing supporters away from the web and out onto the streets. Moreover, with IE having cycled through a number of leaders within the last year and Spencer having only begun to make forays into the world of street activism in the same period, the most American identitarians can muster at present is a limited imitation of GI. At the same time, since European and American identitarians consider themselves to share a common cause, there is nothing to stop their increasing cooperation and it is likely here that the possibility of a growth of American identitarianism lies.
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