The fast and furious rise of the alt-right in Europe, the UK, and the US has caught many people intellectually off-guard. I can speak for myself in this respect. My education and reading prepared me well to understand the statism of the left. My instincts became finely tuned. The threat to liberty from the right was always an abstraction: something that happened in history but had no present relevance.

Herein lies the danger of ever having considered yourself a completed intellectual. There is always more to know.

At some point in the last few years, something changed. It became impossible to ignore the rise of the collectivist right wing, one that rejects liberty and individualism in favour of statism and tribalism, that also claims to be the only viable alternative to the left. The war is on, and you see it everywhere: on campus, on social media, and even on the streets.

In retrospect, it’s clear that the roots of this new movement are much deeper than, for example, the Trump campaign. There are sightings of the movement as far back as the early 1990s, and it is going to take some serious historical examination to trace all the forces and influences that led to it.

That’s for later. For now, the most important step is to gain an understanding of this strange ideology and what it means for the free society. We need more than images of screaming marchers waving Nazi flags. We need to understand the ideas behind it all (and this is true also for those who find themselves tempted by alt-right ideology). These ideas need to become real in our minds and thereby recognizable even when its adherents aren’t giving Nazi salutes. We need a crash course in what I think is most accurately called right-Hegelianism. We need a conception of its roots, history, and meaning.

Ludwig von Mises

The most important single work on right-collectivism is Omnipotent Government (1944) by Ludwig von Mises. The author himself, a lifetime opponent of socialism, was forced to flee his home in Vienna when the Nazi threat arrived. He left for Geneva in 1934 and came to the United States in 1940, where he went to work almost immediately, reconstructing the intellectual history and meaning of what was called fascism and Nazism.

The book appeared just as the war was ending. Here Mises reveals the economics, politics, and cultural appeal, as well as the conditions, that led to the Nazi rise. He deals very frankly with issues like trade, race, market integration, Jewry, discrimination, class resentment, imperialism, demographic control, trade, and the core illiberalism of rightist collectivism.

What you get out of this book: Mises will train your intellectual instincts to make sense out of what might seem like chaos around you. You will see patterns. You will see connections. You will see trajectories of thought and where they end up. In a strange way, then, the result of the book is to create a calming effect. It makes sense of the whole complicated mess. The book is also infused with an amazing and powerful passion that could only come from someone with his brilliance and direct and personal experience with the problem at hand.

F.A. Hayek

My next choice is the most famous book that nobody today has read. It came out the same year as Mises’s book. It is The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek.

The usual interpretation of this book’s core message – that the welfare state brings about socialism – is completely wrong. What Hayek actually argues is that socialism takes many forms, styles, and shades (red and brown, or left and right) and every variation results in the loss of freedom. You can believe you are fighting fascism with socialism and end up with a fascistic state, or you can fight socialism with fascism and end up with an authoritarian socialist state. He demonstrates that these really are false alternatives, and the only real and sustainable alternative to dictatorship is the free society.

Here again, Hayek had a profound personal interest in the outcome of the great ideological struggles of his time and understood them very well. He too was driven out of his home by the Nazi threat and landed in London where the academic scene was dominated by Fabian-style socialists who imagined themselves to be great fighters of fascism. Hayek shocked them all by calling them out: the system you want to manage society will actually bring about the very thing you claim to oppose. In other words, the book is not as much about the reds as it is about the browns and the threat that this way of thinking poses even to England and America.

In the course of his argument, he offers a basic tutorial in the functioning of freedom itself, which can never mean “rule by intellectuals” or “rule by intelligent social managers” but rather defers to the knowledge discovery process that characterizes the choices of individuals in society.

 

Continue to Part 2…

This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE).

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