Javier Villamor, Nicolás Márquez & Agustín Laje at a conference organized by the far-right, ultra-catholic Spanish group "HazteOir". Picture by https://www.flickr.com/photos/hazteoir/
The Alt-Right in Latin America
In PerspectiveFollowing the collapse of left-wing populist movements in Latin America, neoliberal and authoritarian governments have spread all over the region. Clear examples of this resurgence are Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, and Mauricio Macri in Argentina, not to mention the authoritarian drift of Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela. This authoritarian turn at the institutional-political level has been accompanied by ideological changes in public and ‘non-public’ opinion: hate speech, anti-egalitarian discourses, authoritarian values, and an individualistic common sense. Of course, these discourses existed in the past too, but their virulence and the new constellations in which they are inscribed represent an ideological novelty in the Latin American political landscape.
In this text, I would like to examine these ideological transformations by focusing on the local version of what today is known as the “alt-right”, a (so far) small but hyperactive political and cultural phenomenon, which is gaining more and more traction in the media and across social networks. The alt-right (Alternative Right) is a heterogeneous group of extreme-right currents located outside traditional conservatism. This phenomenon originated in the USA during the early 2010s in association with white supremacist nationalism. Today the term goes beyond a particular group or a specific theory and encompasses a broader global right-wing activism with a strong online presence and a youthful and transgressive style that differentiates it from traditional and elitist conservatism.
The alt-right revolt
The prominent figures of the Latin American alt-right are not prominent theorists or political leaders; they are activists, writers, internet forum participants, eccentrics, and media personalities who have more followers than readers. Following Donald Trump victory in 2016, this phenomenon became very visible in the USA by bringing to the fore a variety of marginal, obscure figures from internet forums, magazines and ephemeral websites, who lacked credentials and academic trajectories (Nagle, 2017). Key figures include Richard Spencer, Milos Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro or, the most famous among them, Steve Bannon, who moved up from being the editor of a website dedicated to scandals and fake news to becoming a presidential advisor and, after breaking up with Trump, an ideologue and organizer of the ultra-right in Europe. Over the course of a few years, this often marginal but always hyperactive phenomenon began to sprout up all over the world, and Latin America was no exception.
The different figures of the Latin American alt-right are not exempt from internal disputes; sometimes they are linked to ideological differences, other times to personal differences or the desire to be in the spotlight. Beyond these tensions, we can affirm that they are a closely connected and well-articulated community, often financed by private universities or international foundations, such as the Atlas Network. Among them, we find the Guatemalan Gloria Alvarez, who travels across Latin America ranting against populism and progressives, the Argentine duo of Agustín Laje and Nicolás Márquez, authors of the bestseller The Black Book of the New Left (Laje & Márquez, 2016), and the ultraliberal economist Javier Milei. The Peruvian Miklós Lukács and La Posta in Ecuador, a YouTube channel that, thanks to Lasso’s conservative government, now has a slot on Ecuadorian public television are also part of that ‘community’, along with Colombian Vanesa Vallejo, Chilean philosopher Axel Kaiser and former Brazilian feminist activist now turned ultra-Catholic Sara Winter, among many others. Naturally, there are many differences between them: between liberals, conservatives, and nationalists, between Catholics and atheists, between anarcho-capitalists and Minarchists, on the understanding of what liberalism is, or their views on current issues such as abortion rights or same-sex marriage.
The conservative libertarians
Among the different currents that coexist within this new right, Libertarians stand out. They defend a radicalized synthesis of anarchism, capitalism and conservatism and their political reference is the US-American Libertarian Party founded in 1971 by Murray Rothbart, a former student of Ludwig von Mises, for a long while related to Ayn Rand’s circle in the USA. The libertarians did not hold much relevance for many years, but after the 2008 economic crisis, they gradually began to capture the growing social discontent directed against political elites in the USA. As ardent defenders of the free-market economy and private enterprise against the state, of individualism against collectivism, and of economic freedom against all forms of social egalitarianism, the libertarians have become increasingly inclined towards ultra-conservative, religious positions (Rothbard, 1990). Rothbart’s work around the 1990s notably expressed this synthesis of capitalist anarchism and reactionary conservatism known as “paleolibertarianism”, a direct inspiration for the current Latin American alt-right. Paleolibertarians advocate for the strengthening of traditional institutions such as family, church, and private enterprise, for the abolition of the State, and the complete economic privatization and commodification of social life, all the while employing a populist strategy with the aim of appealing to the middle and working classes (Rothbard, 1992).
Despite the fact that the libertarians deny the existence of neoliberalism, this synthesis of reactionary conservatism and ultra-neoliberalism is made tangible by these groups’ activities, such as in the flowing relationships between young Catholics and libertarians. This link between religion and the alt-right is partly a reaction to the feminist movement which, in countries such as Argentina, Brazil or Chile, has been uniting many teenagers and young people in their demands against different forms of gender-based violence and for the legalization of abortion, which was legalized in Argentina last year after years of huge mobilizations across the country. Catholics, libertarians and, of course, Evangelicals stood together donning their light blue scarves (green scarves are a symbol of the pro-choice and feminist movement, while light blue scarves are the symbol of the anti-abortion campaign) during mobilizations against abortion as defenders of “freedom, life and family” (Torres, 2021). The alt-right gave young parishioners the theoretical tools to rationally defend these values and beliefs, which they used to defend only by appealing to faith; the churches offered libertarians a network of foundations, publications, and the means for broader dissemination of their ideas (Goldentul & Saferstein, 2021).
This also explains why the war against the so-called “gender ideology” is central to their movement: a conspiracy theory fighting an attempt to disrupt human nature and destroy traditional Western values by differentiating biological nature, sexuality, and gender, as well as by promoting the right to abortion, sexual education and homosexualism. The US-American philosopher Judith Butler is the main target of these attacks, but the battle is directed at the whole LGBTQ+ and feminist movement. Another relevant enemy for these new right-wingers is what they call “cultural Marxism”. According to the alt-right, Marxism has lost the economic and political battle, but has enacted its revenge on the cultural level by imposing its hegemonic values based on the countercultures of 1968 and the influence of the Frankfurt School and Postmodernism at universities. However, this concept of “cultural Marxism” is so vague and broad that it covers ideas such as feminism, socialism, multiculturalism, social justice, progressivism, identity politics and sexual dissidence, public universities, political correctness, environmentalism, permissive immigration policies, and in some cases even encompassing rock music and various forms of urban culture. The label “cultural Marxists” can refer both to authentic Marxist intellectuals and to neoliberal politicians alike, and it is this imprecision that gives the alt-right the feeling of being an oppressed minority under a totalitarian dictatorship of “political correctness” and the “Thought Police” – an expression taken from the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
In the case of the Latin American alt-right, there exists neither a search for theoretical originality, nor a crude anti-intellectualism, as is the case of many far-right populists. Quite the opposite: they display themselves as erudite and avid readers, and they bring out their simplified readings of Marx, Foucault, Butler or de Beauvoir at every opportunity, and enjoy quoting Friedman, Hayek or von Mises in their speeches. Verbal disputes and debates won through the use of disconnected facts and rhetorical techniques, as if they were street fights or rap battles, are of great importance to them. This is especially attractive to young people – mostly men and students at private universities – who are the ones attending their conferences, following their representatives on YouTube and Twitter, and leaving comments on Internet forums. It is in cyberspace where it seems to be that the alt-right have exercised their capacity for indignation, transgression, and political incorrectness, and thus succeeded against the left; it is there that they play their own cultural battle through satirical memes and use cyber-bullying as a political tool.
Beyond the “morbid phenomena”
Although the libertarian alt-right is an international phenomenon, it is still a niche and a fairly inorganic one, even in countries like Brazil and Argentina, where they are a highly active community. This did not stop many career politicians from trying to integrate them into their political spaces, as was the case for José Antonio Kast in Chile, Bolsonaro in Brazil or Patricia Bullrich in Argentina. Various libertarians even campaigned to run for president in Argentina’s 2018 elections, with José Luis Espert ending up their candidate – a media economist who hops between TV channels demanding to restrict public spending and lower taxes – but they did not take more than 1% of the votes in what was a polarized election. However, the fact that these alt-right figures are not important in electoral terms is not reason enough to ignore them, since they are symptoms of a deep ideological transformation that has taken place in Latin America over the last few decades. They are the expression of a change in public opinion and social discourses after the crisis of progressive populism and its distributive capitalism model, based on extractivism and private consumerism, which ruled the region in the first decade of this century; they are also the expression of the failure of traditional liberal and conservative elites to guarantee a neoliberal hegemony.
In times when a feasible and alternative vision for the future is lacking, Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote comes back to relevant: “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old dies and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum the most varied morbid phenomena occur” (Gramsci, 1971, p. 276). In Latin America, these “morbid phenomena” refer to many ideological transformations around issues such as inequality and social justice, the scope of social rights, and the role of the State. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we can see this was boosted by the rise of anti-vax movements and all kinds of conspiracy theories. From a leftist perspective, these phenomena should not be underestimated, but neither should they be overestimated – they should rather be seen as epiphenomena of a set of long-term ideological transformations. First of all, these phenomena are clear signs of the end of the cyberutopian illusion that enjoyed a certain popularity at the beginning of the current century, when the belief that virtual circuits could be a space for democratization and could decentralize resistance to power was prevalent. Today, the alt-right shows us that the virtual world can simultaneously contain democratizing utopias as well as the most authoritarian dystopias.
Of course, we can always argue that the audacity of the alt-right is based on its demagogy, its marginality, and its lack of ethical scruples, but this discourse can dangerously quickly transform itself into moral superiority and become an alibi that relieves us from needing to examine what the new right think and how they act, and, above all, that can relieve us from self-critique. This is particularly problematic in the current crisis, where many progressive forces have abandoned parts of their radical identity in their criticism of capitalism or their concern for combatting economic and political forms of labour exploitation, among others. Argentinian sociologist Pablo Stefanoni points out this problem in his book with the suggestive title Has Rebellion Become Right-Wing?: “if the future appears as a threat, the safest and most sensible thing [for many parts of the progressive left] seems to be to defend what we have: the institutions we have, the welfare state we were able to achieve, democracy (even if it is denatured by the power of money and inequality) and multilateralism.” (Stefanoni, 2021, 13).
For the left, this would mean giving up the fight for a transformed future and surrendering to a resignation that has its origin in the last few decades of never-ending defeats, not only electoral. Political realism, the necessity of local resistance against neoliberalism, political defeats and fear of the future has led the left to a “realistic” resignation. Of course, there are many creative leftists, active grassroot movements, and political forces capable of winning polls in Latin America, but the question is what kind of future we can imagine beyond the alliance of neoliberalism and progressivism and the authoritarian populist new right. It seems that in the current hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism, the better way to revive a true left-wing transgression and political incorrectness is by reviving an anti-capitalism platform that goes beyond the powerless politics of the “lesser evil”.
Goldentul, A., & Saferstein, E. (2021). Los jóvenes lectores de la derecha argentina. Un acercamiento etnográfico a los seguidores de Agustín Laje y Nicolás Márquez. Cuadernos del Centro de Estudios en Diseño y Comunicación, 112, 113–131.
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.
Laje, A., & Márquez, N. (2016). El libro negro de la Nueva Izquierda. Unión Editorial.
Nagle, A. (2017). Kill All Normies: Online culture wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. Zero Books.
Rothbard, M. (1990). Why Paleo? Rothbard-Rockwell Report. http://www.rothbard.it/articles/why-paleo.pdf
Rothbard, M. (1992). Right-Wing Populism: A strategy for the Paleo Movement. Rothbard-Rockwell Report. https://www.rothbard.it/articles/right-wing-populism.pdf
Stefanoni, P. (2021). ¿La rebeldía se volvió de derecha? Siglo XXI.
Torres, A. (2021). Latin American Neoconservatisms and Antifeminism: Freedom, Family, and Life. International Research Group on Authoritarianism and Counter-Strategies (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung). http://irgac.de.dedi6029.your-server.de/2021/02/04/latin-american-neoconservatisms-and-antifeminism-freedom-family-and-life/