An immense change in American life occurred between roughly 1980 and present: a shift from life within a thriving civilization to life under a managed decline. This shift is the end result of laissez-faire economic and immigration policy, as well as catastrophic foreign policy entanglements instituted by elected politicians who represented themselves in one way, but were actually only loyal to moneyed, private interests. Or perhaps we should be more nuanced– admit that rapid technological innovation and other nebulous social and cultural forces played their role, and demonize the politicians not for causing the decline, but for not doing enough to ameliorate it. Regardless of where and how one places the blame: the decline is here, and it is ugly. Its effect is obvious to anyone who has traveled through flyover country: the spiritual and economic gutting of the American middle and working classes, the preclusion of any hopeful vision of the future for anyone but the internationalist elite and those in their favor.
The thrust of the above argument can likely be appreciated by any serious-minded Trump voter, and I suspect it summarizes the solitary thread of agreement uniting the deeply divided, big-tent, “Dissident Right” movement. Right-wing pundits like Steve Bannon and Tucker Carlson have discussed this shift at length in as far as it presents a political problem with potential solutions in the realm of electoral politics, and the denizens of the online right have approached in metapolitically, drawing a range of metapolitical conclusions.
The issue is also one of aesthetics, and a study of the decline in American life can be made through a study of aesthetics alone, especially through an analysis of quotidian and nostalgia-inducing curiosities and cultural artifacts. Based on these, we might understand the recent-past, and speculate upon possible or “lost” futures. This corner of the metapoltical discourse—what we might call “The Politics of Aesthetics”– has always been a primary interest of mine. In the dissident sphere, I have always associated it with Brandon Adamson’s altleft.com, and more recently it has been taken up by at least two, new outlets: The Perfume Nationalist podcast, and the output of “7-11 Nationalist” Rich Houck.
While this blog has largely been retired, it seems that questions concerning “the politics of aesthetics” are finding a new space and audience within the dissident sphere. These topics and questions were the animating force behind “AltOfCenter”, and so it feels right to update my thoughts on the matter for the tumultuous but potentially fruitful year of 2020.
“What They Took From Us”
LA’s Westside Pavilion, Past, Present, and Future: from Mall, to ruin, to Google HQ
Anyone who spends much time around the traditionalist right online will sooner or later encounter the “Remember what they took from us” meme. Typically, this meme is stylized with a vaporwave aesthetic, and juxtaposes different images deemed iconic of Western History and culture. Frequently, the meme assumes an ostensibly, semi-ironic format in which it focuses not on the preconceived images of Traditionalism–Cathedrals, pristine wheat fields, etc.– but more recent, retro-futuristic aesthetics: 80’s malls, 7-11, even video-games.
The irony of setting Traditionalist aesthetics next to retro-futuristic aesthetics is only apparent, as many of us know. At a deeper level, the aestheticized image of a mall is meant to carry the same significance as the aestheticized image of a Gothic Cathedral. No one would argue that the mall and the Cathedral are aesthetically equivalent, but many would, and have argued, that they share some common thread of function and spirit conspicuously absent from the culture of the present day.
What is this common thread? What did they take from us?
Rendered impossible under the hegemony of internationalization and privatization called globalization or neoliberalism, is any common, cultural, identity or vision of the future.
Reagan-era cultural Capitalism may be a far cry from Medieval Catholicism—consumerism may be a degenerate creed in comparison with Christianity—but both the aestheticized consumerism of the 80’s, and Medieval Catholicism represent versions of what we no longer have in modern American life: a common, cultural vision and identity manifested in an ideal of ‘greatness’ or Divinity to be aspired toward.
The Cathedral and the mall were the crown jewels of societies that were more openly hierarchical and less egalitarian than our own, but also relatively more cohesive and harmonious. They were public spaces where people could go and participate and enjoy a common culture. In short: they were common places where common people could go to operate under common assumptions. Their function went beyond the role of mere “safe-space” however: they were also symbols of power—the aesthetic reflexes of a ruling elite, imbued with the aesthetic visions, values, and creeds of that elite. By engaging with that passed down vision/set of values in both the case of the mall and the Cathedral, common people could be in some sense “edified”, or at a bare minimum included culturally. Visions of aesthetic greatness, and the myths and hopes associated with them add meaning to people’s lives and offer them ideals to aspire to. This is true in Catholicism and consumerism both, however lopsided the comparison might be. Marx, of course, would have considered both to be different manifestations of the “opium of the people”, but my point is this: in both cases, at lease something in the way of cultural participation and inclusion was offered at all. Both the mall and the Cathedral are relics of a time when society’s highest class felt a natural obligation and desire to engage with those beneath them, and offer them a substantial degree of participation in the culture of which they were the gatekeepers and tastemakers.
The elite of today—the neo-liberal, or globalized elite—are a quite different breed. In his final book “Revolt of the Elites: And The Betrayal of Democracy” (1994), Cristopher Lasch pinpoints their origins, highlighting a concerning tendency he observed among the then-emerging elites toward an increasing insulation from the majority of their countrymen. Lasch observed how the rising elites lived increasingly in “a different world” from the majority, like tourists within their own country, and how it seemed that this new elite was poised to retain the worst aspects of aristocracy, while dispensing with the virtuous aspects: exploiting those beneath them without duly having any sense of obligation toward them, unconcerned with participation in common life, or the prospect of national decline—their ties and concerns being alternately individualistic or internationalist in nature. Lasch implicates the “culture war” in particular as a cover for a class warfare: “in which an enlightened elite (as it thinks of itself) seeks not so much to impose its values on the majority (a majority perceived as incorrigibly racist, sexist, provincial, and xenophobic), much less to persuade the majority by means of rational public debate, as to create parallel or ‘alternative’ institutions in which it will no longer be necessary to confront the unenlightened at all”. Surely anyone who ever identified with the word “deplorable” will appreciate what Lasch is arguing here.
What they “took from us”, to restate it, is any common, collective, vision of the future that in a healthier society would be the product of a hierarchical harmony between elites and common people. An elite class feels this sense of nobles oblige when it is organically the product of the society at which it sits atop—when it remains rooted to its society by shared history, values, culture, and/or blood. The altruistic, aesthetic impulses rising from an organic elite oriented toward the betterment of society could be described as a sort of natural aesthetic socialism or distributism, and Robert Stark has argued exactly thus.
I use the three above images of Los Angeles’s Westside Pavilion not because the contrast between them is especially jarring, but because they closely mirror the story about the shift in American life that I have been trying to tell.
The Westside Pavilion is just a recent example of an epidemic of mall closures across America. I had the chance to explore it back in 2018 with LA natives Robert Stark and David Cole. The once-thriving mall was one of LA’s first, and a true jewel of the Westside, providing the setting for a number of iconic shots in the music video for Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’. In the fall of 2018, however, it was almost completely deserted and just months away from shutting its doors to the public. As of summer, 2020, it is in the process of demolition. The digital image displays what the complex is projected to look like in the future: a neither unpleasant nor exciting tech campus, yet another Google headquarters.
Based upon the projected office-space for this multinational megacorporation, and other examples similar to it, I will attempt to dip my toe into describing what we might call “neo-liberal aesthetics”, or “2010’s aesthetics”. Perhaps the most definitive thing we can say about these aesthetics is that they champion functionality over all else. The recurring themes seem to be reflective panes of glass, and a kind of olive-drab minimalism—like post-modernism devoid of any avant-garde edge. It is difficult to imagine anyone finding these aesthetics ugly, but just as hard to imagine anyone finding them especially compelling. Contemporary German Philosopher Thorsten Botz-Bornstein—who’s text-book priced 2019 book I have admittedly only read in excerpt—has dubbed the aesthetics of neo-liberalism as “The New Aesthetics of Deculturation”, and while I can’t account for all that Botz-Bornstein has in his critical crosshairs with this concept, this simple description summarizes the above-described architecture well. The aesthetics of neo-liberalism are an aesthetics of blankness and global standardization: of culture drained of any particularity or context.
In all ways these aesthetics are characteristic of the insulated, new elite as described by Lasch: tourists in their own countries and cities, with no sense of noblesse oblige toward those they do not privately employ. This aesthetic impulse—or lack of an impulse, more accurately—may be analogous to that of the bohemian bourgeoisie described by David Brooks in a book that could perhaps serve as the sequel to Lasch’s “Revolt of the Elites”— that is, “Bobo’s In Paradise: The New Uperclass and How They Got There” (2000). In this book, Brooks describes how the new generation of Gen-X and Millennial elites—the progenitors of the modern urban hipster—eschewed all forms of conspicuous consumption that were characteristic of the 80’s in favor of focusing on, and in many cases spending extravagantly on, the bare “necessities” of life such as fancy bathrooms and kitchens.
What are the cultural values or aspirations conveyed by such aesthetics? What are the politics of such aesthetics? These are the aesthetics of Nietzsche’s complacent, comfort-seeking “last man” —characteristic of a Western civilization for whom the horizon has been erased, a Western Civilization that, to put it in Nietzsche’s words, “has lost those instincts from which institutions grow, from which future grows” (Twilight of the Idols). We might similarly read in them a drive to non-distinction, an allegiance to the “amorphous blob” described in “Bronze Age Mindset” as characteristic of “yeast life”. In as far as any ideal is offered by these aesthetics, it is that of what BAP describes as the “nerd”— the “brainy”, unaesthetic, underdog—the person who is able to rise high in our supposedly meritocratic, technologized society due to their “facility with pointless concepts and abstractions”. Having undermined the validity of religion, we might surmise, the hyper-rationalistic, “I-fucking-love-science” credo of these types, now seeks to sap the spiritual impulse wherever else it might be found, in all aesthetics, and in any skyward-oriented visions of greatness.
If the grandiose aesthetics of the Cathedral inherited by the mall represent a flouting of wealth and power which elucidates power-relations and ultimately has pro-social, symbiotic consequences, than neo-liberal aesthetics as I have described them do just the opposite: they obfuscate wealth and power, obscuring power relations to an ultimately socially negative or parasitic end. If this seems like a heavy-handed description consider the dark irony that at the very same time that conspicuous consumption and the flouting of wealth has come to be considered hopelessly gauche, and a promotion of “equality” has become the moralistic talking point du jour, actual material wealth-inequality has substantially worsened in the USA. Indeed we must ask whether we should consider the contemporary economic elite’s enthusiastic embrace of “equality” as a radical, social project—exemplified in their uniform response to the BLM protests of 2020—to be a parasitic replacement for the organic nobles oblige described above. Indeed it is worth speculating: is the equality promoted by our current elite not a campaign to “uplift everyone” which in reality has the effect of sucking everyone down toward a spiritual void? Neutering in particular anyone or any grouping whose ascendant ideals and visions of the future might stand to challenge the current status quo?
Given such a state of the culture, the existence of online counterculture has never been more important, and while tech-censorship and the pressures of political correctness feel worse than ever in 2020, there are enough new and interesting figures arising that there is room for optimism. One of the most interesting figures to have gained Twitter-fame in 2020 is Jack, The Perfume Nationalist. If there really has been a shift in American Life of the sort I described in the opening to this essay, then Jack is well aware of it, and knows how to read it in cultural products: from the perfume ads of the 80’s, to the dregs and gems of modern cinema.
Dubbed by Kantbot to be “the last great homosexual”, in the vein of the Oscar Wilde, The former aspiring academic has frequently described what he does as a sort of new “queer art” or “queer theory” focused on reading images and cultural products in a manner similar to Camille Paglia. Whether or not his podcast can re-create an anti-establishment “gay underworld” of the sort reminisced briefly over in Bronze Age Mindset remains to be seen, but his creative readings and framings of curios from the cultural present and not-so-distant past represent what is perhaps the most effective response to an increasingly spiritually-sapped, post-neo-liberal culture.
What is the political significance of the perfumes and films that Jack devotes his podcast to? I would posit that it is something similar to why so many of us are autistic about neon, retro-futurism, and Las Vegas. These things are relics of a more cohesive culture, oriented much more so than our own towards greatness, masculinity, hierarchy, and Divinity. It is not so much that we advocate full-scale “revolt against the modern world” as that we are haunted by what is most conspicuously absent from modern culture. By reading and reframing aesthetic particulars, we can create a sort of weaponized kitsch, or weaponized nostalgia.
The notions of cultural readings and framings as a creative act might seem degenerate, or laden with abstraction and irony, but such things may be a last bastion against encroaching neoliberalism. Kitsch can serve as an ever-present of reminder of what “what they took from us” as previously described. It can serve as an assault of hierarchicalist, vertical ideals against horizontalist, egalitarian, propaganda. By weaponizing kitsch and nostalgia in this way, we create a kind of rightward-oriented, situationist, pop-surrealism. Certainly British electronic-musician Xurious, who theorized in a recent Counter-Currents interview that the 80’s nostalgia with which he inflects his music and imagery is in fact rooted to man’s yearning to be reunited with the Divine, is another master of this. This position I once described as “aesthetic warfare”,—the use of beautiful and spectacular imagery or performance to convey a subversive political message in a way vastly more effective than mere words.
Donald Trump, for all of his flaws—and in fact precisely because of his gaudiness—represents a kitsch version of some of the “what they took from us” ideals. Maybe this is one of the reasons why Jack frequently seems like one of the last remaining member of dissident-right Twitter to support him without reservation. Perhaps this is the last good reasons to support Trump—purely as a symbol: a sort of weaponized, real-life work of performance art. National Populism itself, after all, in 21st Century America, is best understood as a form of political kitsch. It’s garish and sentimental, but a last bastion against the forces of deculturation and depoliticization which work to undermine any imagined alternative to the status quo.