Race Nominalism, Part II: Buddhism, Nationalism, and the Philosophical Assumptions of the Alt-Right

In the previous post, I started by laying out a tripartite definition of race realism. To review, race realism is a form of (a) realism about universals, in which (b) race is a human biological universal, that (c) may or may not have a trans-empirical existence. (Originally I expressed point (c) in terms of ethics and politics, but this is inaccurate; for Vox Day and others, race realism entails a certain degree of racial separatism, which is an ethical/political stance. What I was trying to capture is the fact that White Nationalists of the “Alt-White” tend to get starry-eyed when talking about the “mystical” qualities of the white race.) Here, I’d like to develop the idea further by zeroing in on the idea of realism about universals. Despite the near-total lack of attention paid to point (a) in the emotionally- and politically-charged discussions of race, I believe it is of central importance, which is why I’ve incorporated it into the title of this series of posts.

One of the oldest and most fundamental distinctions in philosophy is between realism and nominalism, or the view that universals do not exist. A “universal,” in the most basic sense, is just what two or more particular things have in common. So, for example, a realist would argue that all chairs share or participate in a universal “chair-ness,” while a nominalist would argue that the only thing that chairs share in common is the name “chair” (the word “nominalist” derives from the Latin word for name, nomen, for this reason). I don’t know if the first people to designate the position called “race realism” were consciously thinking about universals, but either way it fits perfectly. That is to say, race realism is quite literally realism, in the technical sense, about race as a universal. Thus, from a race realist perspective, all members of the white race share in the universal “whiteness,” all members of the black race share in the universal “blackness,” and so on.

The reason I bring up the distinction between realism and nominalism, in relation to questions of race and the Alt-Right, is because I am interested in the ways in which philosophy impacts religion, culture, and politics. Rod Dreher, for example, has argued that nominalism was the “worst cultural decision ever made” by the West, and while I think this point needs qualification, it is true that the Christian tradition has historically tended toward a certain degree of realism about universals, most especially the Good. Thus realism about universals goes hand-in-hand, historically, with the achievements of Christian civilization in Europe and America. And nominalism, especially about the Good, has (arguably) played a central role in the collapse of that civilization.

However, the situation is quite different if we examine the question from outside of a Christian, Euro-American context. On this note, there’s something very interesting that happens in Vox Day’s list of 16 points defining the Alt-Right. On the one hand, Vox maintains (point 4) that “Western civilization is the pinnacle of human achievement.” On the other hand (point 5), Vox insists that all nationalisms are supported by the Alt-Right. Now, whether Western civilization is the pinnacle of human achievement or not, I think two things need to be said here. First, Buddhist civilization, and the civilization of the Indian subcontinent in general, is remarkable in its own right. And second, as noted above, there is an intimate, perhaps inseparable, relationship between the achievements of a civilization and the philosophical and religious ideas which animate it. Therefore, while those who are concerned with preserving or renewing Western culture are doubtless well-served by thinking within a realist philosophical framework, it strikes me that that Buddhist nationalism or a “Buddhist Alt-Right” might look toward a different set of foundational philosophical assumptions for guidance.

For example, Buddhist nationalists might look to Dharmakīrti (ca. 600 AD), one of the most famous and influential Buddhist philosophers, and the source of my pen name here. But one of the most interesting things about Dharmakīrti’s philosophy, and Buddhist philosophy in general, is how hard-core anti-realist it is. So, as a Buddhist sympathizer with the Alt-Right, I find myself taking a critical look at the idea of “race realism” through a Buddhist lens. And the first thing to note is that, from a Buddhist standpoint, any kind of realism, about any kind of universal, is simply wrong. The underlying reason is that Buddhist philosophy insists that universals are conceptual, and as Dharmakīrti writes, concepts are just ignorance (vikalpa eva hy avidyā).

Given that Neoreactionary and Alt-Right thought require “race realism” as an axiomatic starting point, this might seem to lead to the conclusion that Buddhism is incompatible with Neoreaction and the Alt-Right. In fact, I would argue to the contrary. From a Buddhist perspective, it is not necessary to reject the underlying thrust of the ethical and political arguments of these positions, only the commitment to “race” as an ontologically real universal. What is needed, in other words, is not a race realism but a race nominalism. In my next post, I will sketch the contours of this “race nominalism.”

Race Nominalism, Part I: Taxonomizing Racial Discourse

When I started this blog, there were many unknowns. For starters, I didn’t necessarily have a clear sense of the “voice” I wanted to have. References to monarchy in the first post were a function of my interest in neoreactionary thought; but I had really only read that Nick Land piece and a tiny bit of Moldbug, and in the interim between then and now, an interaction with Vox Day has prompted me to rethink the relationship between Neoreaction and the “Alt-Right,” as well as my own position. Also, when I wrote that first post, I wasn’t yet taking Trump seriously. But an essay by John Michael Greer a.k.a. the Archdruid, “Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment,” provided the single best analysis of Trump and Trumpism that I have yet seen.

Recently the question of the association between Trump and the so-called “Alt-Right” has made headlines, in large part due to a stunningly ill-advised speech by Hillary, and so I thought the topic would make good fodder for the kind of analysis I hope to be doing more of in this space. Specifically, I would like to begin by touching the third rail of American politics, the most difficult and contentious part of Alt-Right ideology: race. The Alt-Right, like Neoreaction, often describes itself as “race realist.” But what this term means isn’t necessarily all that transparent; after poking around a bit on Radix, American Renaissance, The Right Stuff, and Vox Popoli, I still have yet to find a clear, concise definition. So, at the risk of getting something slightly wrong, I will provide one:

Race realism is the belief that (a) universals are ontologically real; (b) “race,” defined as phylogenetic human sub-species, is a biological universal; (c) qua universal, race is correlated with particular psychophysical characteristics, but cannot be reduced to them: Whiteness (or Blackness, or whatever) transcends even the claimed biological basis for race.

Point (a) is the classical definition of “realism,” and I will return to it in the next post. Point (b) is the main issue at stake in most discussions about race realism. I think White Nationalist types would take point (c) to follow naturally and inexorably from point (b), but it is at least logically possible to separate them. So let us provisionally designate “weak race realism” as an embrace of points (a) and (b), but not (c). “Weak” race realism is thus the belief that race is real, but only as a biological universal, and does not necessarily come with any further ethical or political ramifications. “Strong” race realism, by contrast, insists on a political project of racial separatism, at least in part because “strong” race realists insist on a biological basis for individual and cultural ethical (or ethically-weighted) characteristics, such as sneakiness and greediness in Jews, violence and stupidity in Blacks, etc. This is, obviously, horrifically racist; but in my experience, “strong” race realists delight in the charge of racism.

As I understand the current state of discourse, substantive disagreement on point (b) exists along relatively predictable nature vs. nurture lines. Few reputable scientists or intellectuals are willing to outright deny the fact that there is, for example, a racial gap in measured IQ or criminality. Some might still claim that tests measuring abstract or spatial reasoning skills are “culturally biased,” but this is a self-evidently unserious position. Instead, those maintaining the position that race realists tend to designate “race denialist” generally tend toward a cultural explanation for these facts, pointing toward poverty, malnutrition, systemic racism, etc. (Personally, I lean toward agnosticism on the etiology of racial differences. Like every nature vs. nurture dispute, this situation strikes me as more of a feedback loop than an A-to-B causal progression. But my views here are somewhat beside the point.)

Let us designate the following positions as equivalent: “race denialist,” “mainstream,” “anti-racist,” “anti-fascist,” and so on. While their reasons for doing so may vary, what unites these views is a repudiation of point (b). That is, the “race denialist” position is generally either that there are no biological universals, or that “race” is not a biological universal. Phenotypical differences between human population groups are obvious, but these are taken to be insufficient evidence for the existence of real biological races. As this position has dominated mainstream political and academic institutions since the end of the Second World War, there is an impressive array of arguments and data backing it up. Again, I am more or less agnostic on point (b), but race realists (whether “weak” or “strong”) clearly face an uphill battle in terms of identifying the specific alleles or other genetic attributes associated with “race.” For now, it should suffice to say that the data are inconclusive.

* * *

So much for Part I, in which I have attempted to survey the lay of the land with respect to the “Alt-Right” and race. In Part II I will attempt to bring new conceptual resources to bear on the question, and see if we can’t examine these issues from another angle.