In 1940, George Orwell published a review of Mein Kampf in which he considered an obvious question: given that Adolf Hitler was open about his desire to create a miserable oppressive dystopia, why on Earth would anyone be drawn to his doctrine? As he puts it:
“What [Hitler] envisages, a hundred years hence, is a continuous state of 250 million Germans with plenty of ‘living room’ (i.e., stretching to Afghanistan or thereabouts), a horrible brainless empire in which, essentially, nothing ever happens except the training of young men for war and the endless breeding of fresh cannon-fodder. How was it that he was able to put this monstrous vision across?”
Orwell argued that the appeal of Nazism went beyond its tapping into deep-seated anti-Jewish bigotry. Hitler, he said, also offered his followers a chance to feel like they were part of something great, a titanic historic struggle against everything wrong with the world (decadence, depravity, weakness, etc.) What Hitler understood, Orwell argued, is that “human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control, and in general, common sense.” Instead, sometimes they also long for “struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flags, and loyalty-parades.” Orwell observed that “whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, [has] said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.” It’s a similar point to the one made in William James’ “The Moral Equivalent of War,” which argues that while pacifists may be right to try to end war, they are going to find it difficult to offer anything equally inspiring because war has a powerful appeal. It offers the promise of a vigorous, purposeful, exciting existence—even if the reality of war is quite different. What war actually offers is the sight of children getting their limbs lopped off in explosions, human bodies that are “so blown apart they have to use two or three body bags to contain them,” and lifetimes of trauma for those who have to pick up the pieces. But the life of the warrior can seem pretty romantic from a distance.
It was hard not to think of Orwell and James as I perused a fascistic manifesto from our own time, Bronze Age Mindset by Costin Alamariu, a Romanian-American right-wing internet personality and Yale PhD who styles himself the “Bronze Age Pervert.” With a ludicrous extremism that seems like it has to be ironic (but probably isn’t, for the most part), Alamariu exhorts his readers (who are assumed to be men) to become godlike warriors, rising above the world’s untermenschen (whom he calls the “bug men”) to achieve Napoleonic greatness. It’s not quite clear what Alamariu’s vision of an ideal world is (he says it involves releasing all the most ferocious creatures from city zoos so they can tear the weak to shreds). It appears to involve small groups of men with ludicrously oversized egos taking to the mountains to work out and become pirates, then descending into the stinking hell of human civilization to conquer the rest of us and impose martial law. To the extent that I understand it, I hate it.
Alamariu has attracted a cult following among young men on the right. The latest issue of The Atlantic has a long article about him, arguing that while he is obviously racist, anti-Semitic, fascist, homophobic, and misogynistic, he offers “a vicious kick to the liberal immune system” and “that is not entirely bad.” The Atlantic quotes former Trump official Michael Anton, who claims that “in the spiritual war for the hearts and minds of the disaffected youth on the right, conservatism is losing. BAPism [Bronze Age Pervert-ism] is winning.” Nate Hochman, the DeSantis staffer who was fired after promoting fascism through the candidate’s social media feeds, told the New York Times that “every junior staffer in the Trump administration read Bronze Age Mindset.”
At this point, my attitude toward right-wing “thinkers” is one of weariness and boredom. I put “thinkers” in quotes because, as Current Affairs contributor Matthew McManus has pointed out, many on the right are quite open about being anti-thought, prioritizing feelings (such as nationalism, masculine rage, the bitter blaming of society’s weakest groups for the problems of its strongest groups) over facts. Alamariu, like Hitler, does not attempt to make logical arguments.
“Oh God, not another one of these m’fers,” I thought when someone recommended I discuss the “Bronze Age Pervert.” For seven years now, I’ve been meticulously debunking right-wing figures. They inevitably reveal themselves to be intellectually unserious, never refuting or even engaging with the serious counter-arguments I offer. Jordan Peterson scurried away from a debate he promised to have with me. On the rare occasion when I get to confront one of these people face-to-face, as I did recently with anti-Critical Race Theory crusader Christopher Rufo, they offer ignorant inanities that any person remotely educated on the issues can see through. (Rufo said the problem of climate change was nothing more than complaining about the weather.)
I’m reluctant, then, to engage with another of these daffy texts, especially a particularly fringe and deranged one. But preventing the ascent of hideous political philosophies requires understanding what might cause them to win support, and I do think a brief look at Bronze Age Mindset can give us a better understanding of how contemporary fascism works.
To articulate Alamariu’s philosophy is not easy, because he does the classic alt-right thing of “maybe I’m a fascist or maybe it’s just a joke, and if you earnestly treat it as fascist I’ll laugh at you for not getting the humor.” The idea of letting wild animals loose in the street makes me think of something John Ganz says, which is that at various points it’s hard not to think of the book as “some kind of elaborate Dadaist ruse.” Bronze Age Mindset is listed under “Humor” on Amazon (also under the category Ancient Greek History, where as of this writing it ranks #4). Much of the writing is a deeply irritating, deliberately ungrammatical internet troll-speak (“wat” for “what,” etc.). But a lot of it is clearly Alamariu’s genuine view of the world.
Alamariu, like all the best manifesto writers, promises to let his readers in on deep secrets about the world that have been hidden from them until now:
“I was roused from my slumber by my frog friends and I declare to you, with great boldness, that I am here to save you from a great ugliness. … I wanted to expose the grim shadow of a movement that is hidden behind events of our time and from before. This is a great power that acts like a ghost. It hides in its own darkness and it has been absorbed by the lands and the peoples so that you can’t really see it anymore. … Spiritually your insides are all wet, and there’s a huge hole through where monstrous powers are fucking your brain, letting loose all your life and power of focus. You don’t see yourself as you really are, but maybe some nightmare can show it to you. I am here to show you the way out.”
The way out of this “great ugliness” is, insofar as it can be understood, to join with other men, get really buff, and form a warrior-caste that alternates between reading Heraclitus and waging war on the “bug men” (the rest of us). Alamariu tells us that “life is at most basic, struggle for ownership of space” and tells us that the higher organisms “master matter in surrounding space. Successful mastery of this matter leads to development of inborn powers and flourishing of organism, which allows it to master more matter, to marshal the lower to feed the higher.” (Apply a mental [sic] to every grammatical mistake in quoted passages, since they are all a deliberate affect.)
It’s hard not to hear this talk of “mastering space” and think of the concept of Lebensraum, and Alamariu does not even attempt to reassure readers that his idea is different to the extremely similar Nazi concept. (The only mention of Nazism in the book is Alamariu’s assertion that he likes to “troll gay bars with Hitler mustache, and outraged the patrons there with stories of how the National Socialists started out as a gay-rights movement in a basement in Munich, and how this is admirable.”)
Alamariu celebrates the male physique, and on his social media accounts he posts beefcake pictures from both ancient and modern times. He says that when he posts “powerful, beautiful images of male models of unbelievable vitality and youth, our enemies gnash their teeth in envy and hatred, while we are exalted and inspired.” He says that “nationalists must present a healthy alternative to the eternal rule of ugliness in our time: promote nature, beauty, physical fitness, the preservation of high traditions of literature and art.” “Most of mankind is the walking dead,” Alamariu says. We live in a “decrepit, cancerous, and fetid world,” filled with human insects. We are a bunch of insipid slaves (yes, a lot of this is rehashed Nietzsche for the Twitter age), a blob of gross fleshy feminine yeast, while the gods have giant pecs and breathe mountain air:
“[A]esthetic physique has the most cosmic significance, and it is because of what I have said so far that aesthetic bodies are a ‘window to the other side,’ because they are the pinnacle of nature. The gods that surely exist but remain hidden have the most beautiful bodies we can imagine—they appeared to the ancient Greeks in dreams. Contrary to this exists the surfeit of flesh we see on the obese and in general the lassitude, the spiritual obesity, not only of modern life but of many historical forms of life as well, the domestic life of the village, of the village sewer, of the fetid valleys, of matriarchy and domestics, of slaves, the pollution of cities built on filth, the life of the swamp, the life of the human animal collapsed to mere life, life for the sake of life, as it devolves to the yeast form aesthetically, morally, intellectually, physically. … On the other side is the life of the immortal gods who live in pure mountain air, and the sign of this life, where energy is marshaled to the production of higher order, is the aesthetic physique, the body in its glorious and divine beauty.”
Yes, there are echoes of Hitler here, who aspired to produce “a body of young
men who had been perfectly trained in athletic sports, who were imbued with an ardent love for their country and a readiness to take the initiative in a fight,” and who promised that “bodily efficiency would develop in the individual a conviction of his superiority and would give him that confidence which is always based only on the consciousness of one’s own Powers.” (As I compiled my notes for this piece, I had to keep double-checking that the Alamariu quotes were not getting mixed up with the Hitler quotes, as it was so hard to tell the difference.)
There are no real arguments, and very few facts, in Bronze Age Mindset. “I hardly have anything to say to most who aren’t like me, still less do I care about convincing,” Alamariu admits at the outset. Instead, there is just a rambling exhortation about how everyone is weak and disgusting, but you can be among the strong and powerful and take part in a grand struggle. You’ll get to be a pirate rather than an insect, to exert the dominance that is the natural aspiration of any organism, to have living space, to rule over your inferiors. Alamariu’s obscurity and jokes are all part of the pitch. Obscurity is a common technique of charlatans, because the reader who can’t understand what the author means feels they must be intellectually inferior, and as they put in the hard work of trying to grasp the real meaning, they feel they must be uncovering an incredible secret, which the writer assures them is exactly what they are doing. (It’s like convincing someone there must be something really valuable behind a door by putting dozens of locks on it.)
A lot of the power of a work like Bronze Age Mindset comes through deploying words that have appealing connotations, rather than by presenting a clear case for what you think ought to happen in the world. “Vitality.” “Primal.” “Struggle.” “Beauty.” Versus: “Ugly.” “Garbage.” “Slavishness.” “Weakness.” “Bug men.” The things that sound good versus the things that sound bad.
As Ganz writes, all of this ultimately does restate Mein Kampf, albeit with fewer (not zero) references to Jews and the absence of a particular narrative about avenging Germany’s national humiliation at Versailles:
“Suffice it to say, ‘BAPism’ is simply fascism, repackaged and re-marketed. And perhaps not even fascism, but Nazism. Its combination of biological racism, antisemitism, misogyny, celebration of male vitality, embrace of the aesthetics of the brotherhood of combat, conquest and war, demand for ‘living space,’ as well its fusion of bombastic elitism and vulgar populism are unmistakable. It is not even particularly coy or evasive on this account.”
No, it isn’t, but Alamariu doesn’t care to reckon with the fact that the last time there was a movement that pitted the physically fit superior men against the “insect” people, it resulted in the “superior” beings shoveling millions of those they thought of as “bugs” into gas chambers.
Because an ironic-but-not-ironic work like Bronze Age Mindset is so evasive about what it’s actually advocating (Does he actually want people to take to the seas and become pirates? Is he just encouraging them to work out more?), I think a critical part of any effective response is to demand that those who like it spell out precisely what they believe in and want. Forget all the weird little aphorisms and the “wat.” Speak plainly and cut the shit. Do you believe in sterilizing the weak? Do you believe in taking away the right to vote from some people? Do you believe in putting people in camps? Exterminating them? How will extra “space” be acquired and from whom? Alamariu praises the Japanese Empire as an example of the kind of culture he admires. So, then, how does he feel about all the atrocities of that empire? The fascist vision is capable of appealing to people in part because the uglier aspects of what it would mean if taken seriously are simply not discussed.
I should also re-emphasize a point I make here a lot, which is that these kinds of horrible visions can take hold in part because we on the left are not offering a compelling alternative. Tara Isabella Burton is correct to note that “What Peterson and even Bronze Age Pervert understand is that people fundamentally need stories of meaning, and that in an increasingly secular age, those stories are not necessarily culturally present. It’s just a shame we don’t have better storytellers.” I am an unabashed utopian who considers it an important part of the left’s work to inspire people to believe in a world of solidarity and sisterhood/brotherhood where we do not look down on others as inferiors but join with them in the joyful pursuit of “liberty and justice for all.” (An excellent recent example of this can be found in Hamilton Nolan’s response to a right-wing anti-welfare country song in which Nolan warmly explains to the singer who his real enemies are. My own latest attempt to showcase what a good future looks like—a world that is based on left values but isn’t boring—can be found in my book Echoland: A Comprehensive Guide to a Nonexistent Place, purchasable in the Current Affairs online shop.)
I know that people captivated by these “will to power” type stories are difficult to dissuade with rational argument. It’s a lot less sexy than a story about how you are awesome and born to rule and everyone else is a disgusting little worm who can go eat shit. One side offers you, as Orwell said, common sense and short working hours. The other side lets you be a pirate, plus you never have to think about anyone else’s feelings. How can we poor pitiful socialists compete with that?
I don’t like to give “selfish” justifications for being a socialist—that is, for believing in a society that guarantees basic goods, services, and care for everyone. We need to build this kind of society because it is right, regardless of whether it is in the particular self-interest of each individual. But the idea of the “super-man” inevitably runs into the reality of what it means to be mortal, which is that all of us are closer to insects than gods, no matter how much we’d like to pretend otherwise. Your “bronze age mindset” can’t make you a demigod; it can only make you an asshole. So to any young fellow who is tempted to adopt the “Bronze Age Mindset” (or, theoretically, young lady, though Alamariu thinks it was mistake to give women the vote), I have one simple point I’d like you to try to remember, namely:
You, Too, Will Awake One Day As a Giant Insect
We all get old. We all wear out. Parts of you will start aching and creaking. And that’s if you’re fortunate enough to make it to old age. (Those who push themselves too hard can also die trying to achieve Alamariu’s physical ideal, and life expectancy in the U.S. has been declining, a sign that there is something very inadequate about our commitment to caring for each other.) At some point, you are probably going to need other people to care for you. This is a lesson Jack London learned. In an important essay called “How I Became A Socialist,” London says that early in his life, he was a thoroughgoing Nietzschean individualist, proud of his strength and contemptuous of his lessers:
“This was because I was strong myself. … I had good health and hard muscles. … I looked on the world and called it good, every bit of it. Let me repeat, this optimism was because I was healthy and strong, bothered with neither aches nor weaknesses, never turned down by the boss because I did not look fit. … [E]xulting in my young life, able to hold my own at work or fight, I was a rampant individualist. It was very natural. I was a winner. … To adventure like a man, and fight like a man, and do a man’s work (even for a boy’s pay)—these were things that reached right in and gripped hold of me as no other thing could. And I looked ahead into long vistas of a hazy and interminable future, into which, playing what I conceived to be MAN’S game, I should continue to travel with unfailing health, without accidents, and with muscles ever vigorous. As I say, this future was interminable. I could see myself only raging through life without end like one of Nietzsche’s blond-beasts, lustfully roving and conquering by sheer superiority and strength. As for the unfortunates, the sick, and ailing, and old, and maimed, I must confess I hardly thought of them at all, save that I vaguely felt that they, barring accidents, could be as good as I if they wanted to … and could work just as well. … [I] was proud to be one of Nature’s strong-armed noblemen.”
London was cured of his individualism by seeing how other people’s lives worked. He says that he went “tramping” and found himself in places where jobs were scarce and poverty was rampant. The scenes he saw disturbed him:
“I found there all sorts of men, many of whom had once been as good as myself and just as blond-beast; sailor-men, soldier-men, labor-men, all wrenched and distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident, and cast adrift by their masters like so many old horses. I battered on the drag and slammed back gates with them, or shivered with them in box cars and city parks, listening the while to life-histories which began under auspices as fair as mine, with digestions and bodies equal to and better than mine, and which ended there before my eyes in the shambles at the bottom of the Social Pit.”
What London realized was that he was damned lucky to be able-bodied and have satisfying work, and that there was no reason he couldn’t be the next one to have an accident and end up “distorted and twisted out of shape by toil and hardship and accident.” He could get sick and need to be cared for. Or economic trends beyond his control could force him out of work. He could only be a godlike “blond-beast” under particular favorable conditions, and there was no reason for it to last forever.
As for me, I’ll take solidarity over individualism any day. I want to care for others and know they’ll care for me when I need it. Alamariu’s vision, that “the superior specimens are going to find each other and leave this civilization,” repulses me. I’m inspired by those who instead say “I’ve got your back” and are willing to fight for someone they don’t know. And I suspect the fascists will find that any world they build is intolerable, far uglier than anything that exists today. I worry that these kinds of ideologies could grow, because they have grown before and resulted in the extermination of millions of people. Preventing that from happening requires understanding why these absurd stories about untermenschen compel people and both exposing those stories’ inanities and offering a compelling alternative based on principles of humanism and compassion.