How Did the Far Right Get So Weird?

Donald Trump, step aside.

by Richard Hames

29 November 2023

Argentina’s far right president-elect, Javier Milei. Agustin Marcarian/Reuters

The new far-right president-elect of Argentina is a former tantric sex coach. He’s a proponent of Bitcoin. He owns five mastiffs and they’re all clones. He claims to have spoken (after their deaths) to rightwing thinkers Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, as well as to his dead dog Conan, the progenitor of the clones. He says he’s seen the resurrection of Christ three times but he can’t talk about it in case he seems weird. In the past, he’s been a semi-professional footballer, a rock musician, a comic-con cosplayer, and, perhaps disappointingly, a professor of economics.

But these baffling facts are just a fraction of the output of the global thrumming rightwing Oddball Factory over the last decade. Some, such as Dominic Cummings, have actively sought out its products. How does this factory work? How did the far right get so weird? Or, looked at another way, so based?

Theorists have speculated on how personality relates to far right politics for over a century. Many of these ideas remain elucidating, from Theodor W. Adorno’s project in The Authoritarian Personality, to W. E. B. Du Bois’ concept of the “psychological wage” of whiteness and Klaus Theweliet’s extraordinary Male Fantasies. But they aren’t sufficient to explain the sheer oddness of some of the far right’s characters today.

For that, we need a more recent historical story. It must answer two questions: what kinds of people does capitalism make now? And how does the far right attract a particular – and particularly odd – group of them?

We might say that capitalism today makes bricolage people. Instead of rounded political subjects, people form themselves into chains of diverse contrasting aspects from their scattered engagements with the world. And the far right attracts people who are particularly fragmented by seeming to offer ways to master this incoherence.

Jean-Paul Sartre used the term “manipulated seriality” to describe the techniques fascists used to conjure a fake unity out of the groups they mobilised. Given the depths of social isolation and subjective fragmentation the contemporary far right emerges from, it might be more useful to start not from the crowd but from the struggle for each person to make themselves meaningful: a kind of seriality-in-one-person.  

While a certain level of individual incoherence is the rule under capitalism, it has been accelerated in the decade and a half since the great financial crisis by the growth of enormous cultural platforms that have at once aggregated and scattered all culture into vast online instant museums. This is the period of what we might call the ‘ZIRP-LARP’.

ZIRP stands for ‘zero interest rate policy’: a distinctive kind of monetary policy where the central bank of a country keeps interest rates very low (almost at zero) in order to encourage companies to borrow and the economy to grow. If this seems obscure, the effects on culture are palpable.

The big platforms of ‘platform capitalism’ were all founded or expanded hugely in this ZIRP-era: Uber, Airbnb, Spotify, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, Netflix, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Etsy, and Zoom. Many of them were allowed to grow without producing a profit for long periods of time. Instead, they promised to capture and format the future for future value capture.

As Timothy Mitchell argues, this period of easy money made it possible for massive platforms to, in effect, bring the future under their control. ZIRP made it possible to almost reach through time. All this came at the expense of all other possible futures: we were locked into this bland museum, forever.

It may seem strange to point to ZIRP as a cause of the current rightwing government in Argentina when its own central bank rate stands at a truly bonkers 133%, but the effects of ZIRP culture are global. 

These platforms did two other things: they produced a tide of low-paid work that crushed people, and they pushed people to do the complex work of becoming a coherent person on those same platforms themselves. For many people, both work and play were sucked into these platforms. Combined, this crushing of working conditions, this production of subjective incoherence, and this trapping of culture inside a series of trivialising formats produced deep resentments.

The repository of resentments this caused (many of which were deeply gendered) were plugged into the powerful amplifiers of the ZIRP platforms themselves. The refusal of platforms to actually cede any real power in response produced a political culture of online shadowboxing, ‘debate’ and LARPing – or ‘live action role-playing’.

The failed promise of connection produced a culture of compulsive play and simulated political activity surrounding an economy of empty forced work. As William Callison points out, in Argentina, where Milei has come to power, overemployment is the norm: experiences of diverse work merely chained together into an incoherent ‘career’.

It is this scene of listless, scattered compulsion dominated by people made from scraps of culture that lets us see both how some of these oddballs are made and their appeal. Finding themselves shallow, nihilistic, and unanchored from the world, and feeling the simulation of politics offered up by the platforms ineffective, young men were drawn to whatever seemed to offer them some escape – and along the path of greater radicalism.

A few different strategies were tried. Finding themselves tediously anticipated by the platforms through which they lived their lives, many adopted a politics of ironic detachment: a preemptive rejection of the way your responses have been anticipated.

Sometimes, the forms of attempted escape from the platform malaise seemed almost comic. Web3 was (although the past tense here is far from certain) a form of speculative capital that promised to break free from this stultifying hegemony and in doing so flaunted its own ostentatiously repulsive aesthetic sensibilities. (Although it seems to many in the West like a strange toy, Bitcoin perhaps makes more sense in countries like Argentina where inflation stands at 142%.)

But the solution that has come to dominate is the libertarian one: to make choice sovereign.

Yes, the world makes little sense and is deeply unfair, but some of us can ride out the nihilism, embrace it, and in doing so produce a heroic, self-justifying master consumer. The signal person here was Donald Trump, the enjoyer-in-chief. But it also applies to Javier Milei, whose evident restlessness looks like its own kind of potency.

The far right turned to those individuals who seemed to master this mere assortment of drives, who expressed the sovereign freedom to assert one’s own incoherence and thrive because of it. This is what it means to be ‘based’: to act decisively and break out of trivial worrying about justification.

There are disturbing echoes of a fascist politics that denies all claims but its own arbitrary, anti-justice ones. But there might be another way to relate to these confused serial people we have become. Perhaps the more important question is not ‘why the far right has become so good at producing oddballs?’, but ‘why is the left so seemingly incapable of doing so?’ – even though there are so many to go around? Whither the based left?

Richard Hames is an audio producer at Novara Media.

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