There are some moments of irony almost too rich to be true. For instance, a white supremacist mob is marching through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. The scene is familiar: a parade of light-skinned bodies stalking through the South at night, wailing for a race war. There are no white hoods this time, but their demands are no less sinister: blood and soil; one people, one nation; you will not replace us. The crowd spills into view around the statue of Thomas Jefferson, and there the noble knights of white supremacy converge, their polo shirts and khaki pants aglow in the menacing glare of—tiki torches.
The revolution may not be televised, but the worst luau ever will.
First, the obvious. It’s sort of weird to be a white man moaning on about “blood and soil” when you’re brandishing an item of the indigenous Polynesians. So when the Charlottesville white nationalists appeared last Friday looking like a frat theme party gone south, it was rather rich indeed. But there’s a deeper layer of irony, which you might have missed, and it’s something even stranger. It’s not simply the case that tiki torches made them look ridiculous. What’s actually bizarre is how perfectly that image—a mob of outgrown schoolboys waving backyard decorations—epitomizes latter-day white nationalism.
The tiki torch is an interesting thing: less an artifact of Polynesian culture than a commodified American rendition. The phrase itself is a generic form of a commercial brand name; the word “Tiki” refers to the first man of Māori mythology, or to a type of stone or wooden carving, but the term we know is from the Tiki Torch Corporation of Torrance, California. In the mid-20th century, as the U.S. military turned the South Pacific into an archipelago of garrisons, the tiki style spread as a popular theme of bars and bistros till it became the height of tropical kitsch.
So you can see the tiki style as a symbol of imperialism, or cultural appropriation, but above all it is kitsch. It’s a warped and plastic imitation, from the Franken-island of Tiki, a pastiche of Polynesia rendered in the only language that we know—commerce. It’s even kitschier today, now that tiki is outdated: a novelty motif, based on nostalgia and camp, consumer culture turning back onto itself to imitate its imitations. The tiki torch is actually the spitting image of late capitalism, where everything’s a vulgar simulacrum.
And what are modern white supremacists—with their Hitler Youth-esque haircuts, their racial science and mythology, their torchlit night parades—if not kitschy, after all?
We’ve all heard about the new right’s image makeover. They’re alternative now, we’re told: this ain’t your dad’s conservatism. That may be, but it is the conservatism of David Duke, a man known for dressing up in Nazi uniform and being an “Imperial Wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan—a group known also, incidentally, for playing dress-up and roleplaying a lost cause. Costumes and lost causes are recurrent themes on the alt-right. In Charlottesville we saw a bunch: the swastika, the southern cross, the familiar flags of failure. The night paraders knew they had to carry torches of some kind—to emulate the Klan, to inhabit the symbolic terrain of the vigilante lynch mob—but the best that they could muster up was a kitschy prop for cocktail bars.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Marx saw a similar thing in the rise of Louis-Napoléon. The processes that helped the first Napoléon usurp the First Republic were coming back to help his nephew seize the Second. Marx noticed a pattern. In times of historical crisis, in revolution and rupture, we “conjure up the spirits of the past to [our] service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.” But it’s always a sham, a grotesque parody, a farce.
What we saw in Charlottesville was, of course, a shabby imitation; it was hardly even coherent. A crude pastiche of neo-Nazis and Confederate LARPers had teamed up to show us what it means to be American. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on them about this incongruence; the rally’s stated goal was to “Unite the Right.” Still, the question remains—unite for what? The only thing they share in common is a mawkish longing for the exploded myths and ideologies of the past. Kitsch is the glue that keeps them all together.
Despite their affectations, the alt-right and their assorted friends are very much a product of our time. They’ve witnessed the long march of neoliberal decay; they’ve seen their age-old privileges confronted in the public sphere; they’re watching as their demographic dominance is whittled, piece by piece, away. It’s a time of rupture, to be sure, but it’s also a time that produced the tiki torch and Wes Anderson. Late capitalism has nothing new to offer them except its pre-packaged nostalgia. So they turn back to the symbols, the mythologies, the pre-fabricated identities of the past. And like all antiquated costumes, it has the aspect of the absurd.
It used to be that fascist thugs were shell-shocked veterans of World War I, recruited at the height of postwar anxiety and collapse. This time things are different. We know war, but it’s a permanent state of micro-war, exported to foreign shores; we know collapse, but in the constant droop of neoliberal rot. The alt-right aren’t veterans of war, but of Call of Duty; not beer hall brawlers, but 4chan trolls. In the words of Marx—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous, or they’re irrelevant. At least one of those creeps in Charlottesville proved himself capable of homicide; he’s not the first, nor will he be the last. It’s easy to see in all this an incipient rise of fascism, some unique and principal enemy, but it’s better to look at it more broadly. Capitalist society has reached a point of exhaustion, and all it can do is vomit up old bile. Reactionary politics are a last-ditch effort to beat back the destabilizing effects of capital, but they offer nothing else but sentimental fantasies. It’s better not to see these fascist thugs as some sui generis threat, some long-banished evil now returned, but rather as the putrefying waste of capitalist modernity. Fascism is what happens when capitalism has no more alternatives.
The left has its kitsch, too: the hammers and sickles, the flags of red and black, “The Internationale.” But our nostalgia is different: it’s a nostalgia for the future. Slavoj Žižek once described Nazism as a “great spectacle of Revolution,” an attempt to change everything “so that nothing would really change,” and I think that’s exactly right. Reactionaries lunge after windmills and scapegoats, they long for an imaginary past, but the underlying structure of power they leave unmolested; they are, in fact, its useful idiots. All they’re doing is grinding up against the wheels of capital they set in motion. We’re the ones who offer a genuine alternative, and it’s our task not just to stop them but moreso the forces that disgorged them, here in the lousy luau at the end of history.
Los Angeles, 2017.