Here, we will reflect on a racist, far-right conspiracy theory I encountered called the “Great Replacement,” and explore the psychoananalysis of ideology. What I find most fascinating about this right-wing conspiracy theory is the mileage it has achieved despite how easily it is debunked. So, how can this theory still be making the rounds on right-wing talk shows? Well, the answer reveals something about whiteness.
Right-wing pundits like Lauren Southern and Richard Spencer repeat Replacement theory so often it is almost a basic assumption for their foreign and domestic policy. Even among the more “centrist-liberal” describing opportunists like Steven Crowder conceal their own alliance with white supremacists like Stefan Molyneux and Jared Taylor. These two have recently had their accounts removed by YouTube. Banning accounts from “open” white nationalists is one effective tool for mitigating their ideology’s spread. What can be said for the alt-right sympathizers? David Duke exercises a constant presence in their movement and at their rallies. Yet each pretends to hold a conscious split in one’s mind between the “open” racism of a David Duke Klansman, and a “covert” racism of white northern Americans.
As a high school student, I became a committed fan of Stefan Molyneux on YouTube where he peddles racist and misogynistic theories disguised as philosophy. Only later in life did I realize the true extent to which I was duped by what has become known as the Alt-Right Pipeline where young men like myself are funneled into more extremist content on YouTube. Essential to the concept of the pipeline is that it does not rely on anyone’s conscious design. It is an outcome of YouTube’s video suggestion algorithm combined with reactionary and manipulative content creators on a racist political field. Despite this bottom-up structure, the pipeline extends all the way to the largest channels on YouTube like PewDiePie. As many like myself know, even these mainstream channels are presented on the site next to a generated queue of related videos suggesting far-right political channels like Ben Shapiro and so-called “anti-SJW” atheists like Sargon of Akkad AKA Carl Benjamin. The strategy for this loud minority is to repeat as much fake news as fast as possible to remain in the relevance loop of a sorting algorithm.
How Racism Dupes You and We All Adopt Alt-Right Jargon
The Great Replacement is a book written by French white nationalist Renaud Camus. THe theorizes that Christian white Europeans are being replaced by non-European immigration in accordance with some central plot from on high to eradicate white people.
How it works: the line goes, ‘the percentage of whites is steadily decreasing relative to the percentage of non-whites!’ Whether conveyed through numbers in demographic change or birth rates, the critical response ought to be the same. Yes, that’s how percentages work. If non-white populations increase, the percentage of whites decreases without any actual loss in white people. There is no replacement occurring. The alt-right has largely doubled down on this flagrant confusion by re-branding the theory as “white genocide.” Again, this is wrong because this would contradict the definition of genocide. There is no replacement.
This is not the only time the far-right has stretched the use of a word like “replacement” or “genocide” beyond the actual definition of the word. When Camus’s replacement argument talks about “second or third generation immigrants,” one French demographer pointed out the direct contradiction: “They do not migrate anymore, they are French.” Camus’s definition for what even counts as immigration involves something that he keeps hidden. For him, it is crucial that the immigrant is already coded as non-white. Where Camus is pretending to apply categories of nationality, he is actually deploying a set of racial categories on who’s white and who’s not. So, even when we debunk replacement theory in name, we implicitly commit ourselves to some of its hidden premises on whiteness.
It is vital that these premises, containing assumptions about whiteness, remain active yet unstated in replacement theory, and the alt-right more broadly, so that they may be uncritically reproduced.
We can see these hidden premises active in the rule of hypodescent. Hypodescent is the social practice where mixed-race people are assigned to the race with less social power. President Barrack Obama is an example of this rule because his parents are black and white. His black father effectively rules out his whiteness. (Borrowed observation from Innuendo Studios.) What this reveals is that whiteness is not a race; it is the absence of race. Through hypodescent and aligning social, legal practices, whiteness is made to be something that effectively becomes ‘tainted’ in virtue of its mixture with any racialized otherness. Whiteness is made to be synonymous with purity and originality. This is exactly what we risk uncritically affirming when we assume Spencer or Molyneux are here for good-faith debate on the facts. No, they are invested in upholding this social and legal system of whiteness. And the game was rigged from the start.
This is why I argue that bad actors like Richard Spencer and Stefan Molyneux really ought to be banned from their digital platforms because they fuel white anxiety over being replaced. It is the maintenance of whiteness which explain the drive to repeat a debunked theory. The truth or falsehood is immaterial to the enjoyment offered by repeating the slogans and alt-right dog whistles. The target for these conspiracies is always immigrants, Jews, and Indigenous peoples, all coded as non-white people. Content creator relies on this white anxiety to manipulate impressionable, young people like my high school self.
Many will oppose my position on banning these folks, but I invoke my own past as a participant on the alt-right pipeline. The sunlight-as-disinfectant metaphor can only be uttered by folks who have not recognized exactly how liable we are to uncritically accept and reproduce the premises of white supremacist arguments even when we are nominally debunking them.
In the world of fake news and coordinated disinformation campaigns, it is particularly important to understand more precisely how the social practice of racism is maintained through conspiracy theories in online communities.
Case Study in New Zealand: Believing Through Fantasy
Camus’s replacement theory has continued to proliferate across far-right movements to become renamed “white genocide,” most often to justify far-right doctrines and fascistic anti-immigration policies. You may be familiar with the Great Replacement theory from the manifesto that shares its name, “The Great Replacement” is written by the Australian-born terrorist responsible for the New Zealand mosque shootings in Christchurch. The shooter ended 51 lives and injured 49 others, and wrote extensively on “white genocide” in his manifesto, using fascist rhetoric to call for the removal of a conquesting force of non-white migrants. In his manifesto, he authors a mass-immigration of Africans and Muslims as part of an (imagined) anti-European invasion in a wider race war. Despite the prevalence of neo-Nazi symbols in his document, the shooter denies being a Nazi, instead preferring to self-describe as an “ethno-nationalist” and “eco-fascist.” What are we to make of this opposition? One employs neo-Nazism while simultaneously disavowing it in name only?
Slavoj Žižek writes that modern ideology is always mediated. Belief is not so simple, since no one ever believes themselves to be so duped. One believes through the other. There is an irreducibly social dimension to belief by some one else, another who is supposed to believe. No one ever considers themselves duped so as to position oneself squarely a believer in an ideology. Žižek cannot resist retelling a joke about the parents who believe
For the psychoanalytic philosopher, there is a symmetry between the old Soviet joke that “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” that Žižek swears ought to capture the nature of labor unrest in contemporary workers states as well as the simple disavowal required by any ideology.
It is this critical distance between oneself and the beliefs attributed to the other that allows the subject to enjoy their most unavowable beliefs. The same can be said for those that make themselves pawns of the alt-right by maintaining such a critical distance from fantasies of racial supremacy.
Enjoying Your Ideology: Whiteness as Sublime Object
In his masterpiece, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Žižek innovates key theses on the dynamics of ideology in modern life.
In the case of the Christchurch shooter, he disavows what he effectively embodies. Žižek calls this gesture the “ideological disidentification” of the subject in relation to their own beliefs. To explain this term, Žižek likens it to the fetishist’s attitude toward their fetish. “I know well that (for example) the shoe is only a shoe, but nevertheless, I still need my partner to wear the shoe in order to enjoy.” The formula for ideology, then, becomes “they know it, but they are doing it anyway.” In other words, the subject may be one of the worst white supremacist terrorists of the 21st century, but the opportunity to distance himself from neo-Nazism remains available to him. It is the disavowal which is constitutive of the ideology itself. In the case of replacement theory, as cited by the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, the truth or falsity of the argument becomes immaterial in the matrix of ideological identification. The subject could well know that there is no replacement or “white genocide” occurring, but they repeat it anyway. It is the repetition as such which fulfills the real function of the argument. The real enjoyment occurs in affirming the premise of whiteness as the sublime object.
This connects with Žižek’s insistence that ideology does not exist to make correct conclusions about reality, but to orient the subject’s lived relations within reality. The task for white nationalism is to organize lived relations around racial categories stacked in favor of white people. The signifier of racial purity or whiteness, however, is always empty and nebulous, containing no meaning outside the function it has in orienting subjects to an alienating existence under capitalism. Bare repetition plays out in order to reaffirm the hidden premises of white nationalism contained therein. Key premises include ideas of whiteness as something sublime that demands preservation, or whiteness as synonymous with original to the exclusion of racialized bodies outside the norm.
Through the operation of ideology as the enjoyment of disavowal, we can see how the alt-right subject arranges their lived experience in a fundamental fantasy of whiteness.
Whiteness becomes what Žižek calls the “master signifier” of the alt-right. A master signifier is something that carries great symbolic significance like the Nation, God or the People, but ultimately lacks any clear definition. No one has ever seen the sacred object with their own eyes, yet it is given a central role in their belief system because there is nonetheless someone who knows. Representatives of the alt-right like Camus and Molyneux rely heavily on the master signifier of white European identity.
It offers an ideal of some originary past to which a return is fated through fascist policy. However, this past is ultimately an illusion. And the ideal of some originally white, European identity is impossible. European peoples comprise a diverse set of nationalities and ethnicities that never considered themselves members of some cohesive whole. The idea of a unitary whiteness is a fantasy that can only be produced by the experience of modern capitalism. The subject copes with their alienation under modernity by positing the racialized other as the cause for dissatisfaction. The barrier to satisfaction is the racialized other, the immigrant, or the Jew. These are the persecuting others imagined by white supremacists to explain their own alienation under the relations of global capitalism.
The proof in white European identity as the sublime object lies in how amenable it is to ad hoc revisions. Sometimes Jews are included in the category of white. Other times, the Italians and the Irish excluded. Racial parameters are adjusted according to the political needs of a fascist movement. Early on, the alt-right appears inclusive to gay and minority groups. But it remains the eternal tendency of fascism to shrink this in-group in proportion to the political power it achieves. It is last hired, first fired. We are all already minorities because when the fascist militants come to town, they are measuring nose length and skull circumference. The empty signifier of whiteness serves as the infinite political justification for annihilation. It lacks any historical reality by design. It is the sublime object which does not exist outside of its contemporary deployment.
Cult of the Sublime: Whiteness in the Right at Large
Following the New Zealand mosque shootings, the Australian senator Fraser Anning said “The real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” Senator Anning also seems to buy into replacement theory when he suggested in April 2019 that Muslims would “outbreed us very quickly.” Again, in May 2019, Anning says white Australians will “fast become a minority” (read: replaced) if they fail to defend “ethno-cultural identity.” Of critical importance to our study is how Senator Anning has reproduced the fundamentals of replacement theory all but in name only.
Whether he intends to or not, Senator Anning reproduces the same white supremacist arguments that we can see in Charlottesville, Virginia’s infamous “Unite the Right” rally. Beyond the streets, white supremacist theories have been taken up by Republican congressmen like Senator Steve King. He writes in March 2017 that “culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” He praises the white supremacist David Duke and the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. All of these features orient far-right politics around the cult of the sublime, the redeployment of whiteness in the fated return to tradition. This sad state of affairs will only continue as far as we allow it. So it’s time to stop buying in to their disingenuous disavowal, and start seeing fascism for what it really is.