Issue #2 · 2021-07-07

Review of Josh Neal’s American Extremist

by Adam Katz

I'm going to read Josh Neal's American Extremist as fleshing out the Jouvenalian model of power Chris Bond explores in his Nemesis—Neal himself refers to Bond's book several times and seems to have taken it as a way of structuring his psychological analysis of various contemporary political "types." Getting started on Neal's book by taking it as a supplement to Bond's is helpful because Bond's extremely neutral, impassive dissection of the High-Low vs. the Middle power dynamic that has driven the emergence of the modern liberal order led me, at least, to the following question: yes, I can see the logic of this process, but, still, who are these people? Who are these "highs," who so blithely demolish set social orders heedless of the consequences; who are the 'lows" who get recruited as social vandals; and, even, who are the "middles," who must find some way to see themselves as bastions of order and propriety by ignoring the fact that they are being perpetually and constantly remade by these whirlpools swirling around them? Reading Neal's book as answering these questions helps to identify the decisive and likely enduring contributions it makes to dissident political thinking.

They are, as Neal argues, "pathocratic spellbinders," whose specialty is in tearing their victims away from what the psychiatrist Andrzej Lobaczewski (upon whom Neal relies heavily in his diagnosis) calls their "congenital instinctive infrastructure," which we can also call "common sense." Something about liberal society, or the modern world, must be uprooting many if not most of us from our congenital instinctive infrastructure, and it seems to me that for Neal it's an open question whether traditional normative boundaries have broken down due to causes that transcend anyone's intentions or whether the pathocrats have been demolishing those boundaries purposefully and malevolently (something which, in that case, we would have to trace back centuries). (The pathocrats seems to be the most uprooted of all.) Neal also often uses the term "eusocial" as the counter to the pathocracy, without really defining this or saying how we can distinguish the "eu" from the "dys," but maybe that's the point—if we take for granted that there are eusocial desires, institutions, relations, orders, and so on, we have already begun to resist liberal utilitarian relativism and if we proceed in good faith we will come to broad agreements on what counts as "eusocial." Even more, persistently using terms like "eusocial" might have cumulative diagnostic value—who, after all, would want to argue that it is impossible to identify and agree upon the eusocial? Wouldn't repudiating the eusocial be an excellent symptomatic marker of pathocracy—it is a sign that one senses in the very possibility of an agreement surrounding eusociality an obstacle to one's own ambitions and a rebuke to one's own desires—it represents a kernel of resistance to one's ideological operations on others. And, indeed, it might very well be the case that what characterizes the "ideophiles"—those who respond to every utterance with a pre-packaged, polarizing, stereotyped response—is hostility toward the "normal," to the self embedded in traditional, commonsense narratives and communities. The "eusocial" is, in that case, a kind of "transitional object" which might bring those captured by ideological struggles from automated rage over to a critical distancing from all ideologies.

Neal wants us to set aside familiar associations with the word "extremist," which is usually defined against some normalized, consensual "center," so as to see the "center" itself, as currently configured, as "extremist." It is "normal" political discourse, which wages imaginary battles against "capitalism," "communism," "fascism," Nazism," "racism," etc., and thereby forces everyone into hyper-partisan opposition with others with no tactic—lies, smears, blackmail, vague but urgent and menacing accusations, mindless shaming, and so on—off limits that is "extremist." In fact, nothing is more extremist in contemporary America than the obsessive hunt for extremists, such as those conducted by organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League which have created a lucrative business model based on hoaxes and infinitely reversible terms (like "defamation," in fact). Neal wants us to oppose to "extremist" the 'radical": "individuals and groups who are outside of the existing order but who seek strategic and eusocial resolutions to the problems of the day" (138). How are such individuals and groups possible, how can they resist the ideological assaults that, as Neal points out, function by expropriating people of the kinds of inherited narratives and norms that provide for social and cultural continuity and social interactions based on trust? How can we know them when we see them—for that matter, how can we know whether we are among them?

For Neal, psychology would have to be up to the task. So, for example, when Neal says that it is important to remember that the extremist often lacks a real ideology or worldview. What he has is sentiment—a sentiment of total rejection and hatred. Extremists are governed by contempt as well: not just for his supposed political enemies, but for those who would work to slow his antisocial and accelerationist aspirations. (142)

I would presumably have to learn to identify such traits in this or that individual or group. How does a "sentiment of total rejection and hatred" present? In the "higher functioning" extremists, I would have to be able to notice their inability to "restrain their more tyrannical impulses," and distinguish those, say, from an impatience with lower functioning individuals who interfere with the task at hand (or are they slowing "accelerationist aspirations"?).

I am drawing attention to Neal's thorough reliance on what seems to me an innovative and "radical" reworking of psychological discourses not so as to dismiss or invalidate it, but to advance the claim that what one might see (and Neal himself might see) as a sophisticated, penetrating and accurate description of our contemporary social reality (not that I mean to suggest it isn't) is, rather, the construction of a language that we would have to learn by translating our discourses into it. I see the construction of such a complex language as an implicit admission that the kinds of inherited, familiar ways of creating and preserving identities within trust-based communities whose obliteration by "spellbinders" and ideologues Neal charts will not be recovered. Which means that the burden of the discourses "radicals" will necessarily invent is to be markedly and discernably different than the "extremist" ideologies that, one might say, take away the language people use to make sense of themselves, ideologically launder it, and then return it to people as an inimical internal regulatory mechanism. Therapeutic discourse, as Neal knows, has often been complicit in the kind of psychopathic ruling attitudes he diagnoses here; even more, a compelling case has been made, by Philip Rieff, Christopher Lasch and others to the effect that therapeutic discourse has had a demoralizing, anti-traditional, transgressive function in post-war American culture. So, there would have to be something different about this new way of thinking therapeutically.

In a very interesting introductory discussion, Neal makes it clear that he has arrived at the thinking represented in this book from the inside of the right-wing dissident movement. I would like to add a little bit of a more outsider perspective. What I have found fascinating and compelling in "alt-right" and "NRx" discourses is their linguistic, aesthetic and symbolic richness: barbed, futuristic and idealist, cynical and satiric—in short, "parrhesia." Of course there are always policy preferences and more familiar friend/enemy distinctions, but these are always framed within a world of caricatures who are not only to be disagreed with or challenged but "framed," "memed," laughed out of court, judged in terms of imputed sexual potency or lack thereof, etc. So, I place what I am calling Neal's construction of a disciplinary psychological language in this context. One could see Neal's very broad generalizations regarding leftists and conservatives as caricatures, but what is different within a therapeutic discourse is that there must be some way of mediating between the caricature in the individual who can only partially embody it. "NAXALT" is the mocking retort to claims that stereotypes might not cover all of reality, and at times might occlude critical elements of it, but this can't be the retort of the therapist.

Near the end of the book, Neal proposes a dialectic between power and "anti-power":

Political power always produces its own anti-power… As such, any given hegemonic force can no less permanently abolish the extremist or radical tendencies which it generates than it can eliminate itself. Anti-power is at once the political and cultural energy which lies outside of power (and therefore seeks to challenge and usurp it) but is at the same time a latent resource that can be harnessed by power in service of itself (thus becoming an auxiliary to power). We may think of radical politics as largely belonging to the former, whereas extremism reside almost entirely within the latter category . (405)

And, then, a couple of pages later:

Radical American anti-power is the political force most opposed to neoliberal hegemony, and were it provided the material resources necessary to achieve its goals, would therefore become the strongest and most effective site of resistance against the international pathocracy. But without social proof, material support and, frankly, the right collection of people, it can never progress from anti-power to power. (407)

It's paradoxical to think of progressing from anti-power to power. What constitutes "anti-power" would presumably be a refusal to play the power game—a refrain from the reflexive lining up with one's team against the other team, requiring one draw upon the ready made cliches and insults constantly under production and ready for deployment, along with the somatic "recruitment" of one's entire body for simulated combat. I'm not sure what Neal takes to be the goals of anti-power, but it seems to me they could only emerge clearly as a result of the kind of restraint and abstention anti-power requires. Who are the "right collection of people"? Well, those who are not constantly whistled into action in the latest meme war, protest, or hoax for funding. If anti-power is trying to challenge and usurp power, though, it can't exercise such restraint. I don't recall whether Neal makes use of the concept of "working through" (it's not listed in the index), but wouldn't that be what a properly therapeutic approach would have to entail—allowing those addicted idiophiles to expose and exhaust themselves through the process of "transference" (also not in the index)?

The kind of stance modeled in the book, which I would describe as kind of oscillation between taunting and compassion, seems to be designed for such a prolonged mode of interaction, requiring a great deal of patience. So, a passage like the following seems written to provoke a reaction from the "typical" AER (American Extremist Rightest):

The mark of the AER is an inability to holster his moral pistols. So consumed by his obsession with degeneracy, the AER becomes a caricature of the 19th century gunslinger, always ready to duel—always ready to (socially) die for his cause. He will thrust himself to the absolute margin of society to demonstrate his commitment to anti-degeneracy. His fixation on degeneracy is telling (as Queen Gertrude said, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks."), for it does not so much expose his objection to degeneracy, but rather its nearness to his heart. Whether he cannot forgive himself for participating in the orgiastic degradation of the American soul, or is in fact determined to clandestinely indulge his perverse revelries, his persistence belies the lustful desire inherent to his foaming-at-the-mouth hatred. (300)

Well, you shrink, what are you doing about degeneracy, how is your psychoanalysis of my moral uprightness and defense of the founding ideals of the American republic any different than those advanced by the left, etc., etc. There's some triggering going on here, in other words. When you claim you know someone better than he knows himself and to possess the vocabulary within which he would have to contest your diagnosis, your next move is a crucial one. You are eliciting a response that will enable you to say "this is exactly what I'm talking about," but also, "and you can see that now yourself, can't you?" Then you have the beginning of a productive dialogue, in which you might end up slipping into the role of the analysand yourself (this must be the case if "eusocial" discourses no longer come naturally but are hard won acquisitions). After all, the analysis is interminable. This is the only anti-power path to power (looking for resources is sure to make you an auxiliary to power): power delivered to those with no desire for it, but willing to exercise it out of love for those who have had their sense of being native to the world torn from them.