Everyone seems to think Nietzsche fits with their political agenda. Contemporary right-wing figures like Jordan Peterson and Dinesh D’Souza see in Nietzsche the great diagnostician of the decadence that would follow the death of God, and use his insights to dismiss the “woke” left as being driven by resentiment towards the powerful. On the left, 20th century thinkers like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze found in Nietzsche powerful tools to use against societal power structures and embraced his emancipatory message. Both get him wrong, argues Matt McManus.
Along with Marx, Nietzsche was the great 19th century critic of modernity. His influence on our culture is as expansive as his thought, which ranged across philosophy, psychology, history and theology with irreverent genius. Given the scope of Nietzsche’s interests, it is therefore surprising to think that for a long time many thought he had little to say about politics. In the anglosphere, this was largely due to efforts of Walter Kaufmann-for a long time the primary translator of his work in English. Kaufmann was determined to save Nietzsche from his association with Nazism, and consequently foregrounded a popular conception of him as a bohemian existential psychologist. Moody, dark and brilliant yes, but mostly either apolitical or even too rarefied for politics.
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Today, Nietzsche’s legacy as a political thinker is more explicitly embraced by the right. Nietzsche is seen as the prognostician of societal decadence, hedonistic culture, and general nihilism that would follow the death of God.
And even if the contemporary left doesn’t explicitly talk much about Nietzsche as a source of inspiration, 21st century radical thinkers embraced Nietzsche’s philosophy for its emancipatory fervor and diagnosis of the end antiquated authorities like religion.
But both the left and the right get Nietzsche’s politics wrong. In fact, his political vision is one that neither would like.
Nietzsche the Radical
To the extent 21st century analysts figured Nietzsche did have a politics it was one that was radical and even progressive. After all, wasn’t Nietzsche the intellectual godfather of radicals and artists cons like James Joyce, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Wendy Brown? Many have found in Nietzsche ample intellectual weapons to critique everything from bourgeois conformity to social conservatism moralism. And indeed Nietzsche’s repeated calls for the development of “free spirits” who are unafraid to be creative and daring marries well with progressives calls for counter-cultural resistance and transformation. As does his philosophical emphasis on difference, individualism and self-creation.
Nietzsche was not a systematic thinker by any means, but his individualism inoculated him against the petty appeal of the blood and soil kitsch of the far right
Unfortunately it is very hard to square this bohemian vision of Nietzsche with his claim in The Will to Power that the “great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples.” Let alone with his recommendation in Twilight of the Idols that the 19th century German aristocracy was too liberal in its attitudes towards the working man, who he lamented had been “declared fit for military service; he has been granted the right of association, and of voting.” Instead of educating the working classes for participation in governing society, Nietzsche recommends the aristocracy educate them for their more proper role as slaves. These, and countless other rabidly anti-egalitarian claims, indicate how Nietzsche was a stalwart enemy of liberalism (fit only for cows), feminism (women must be ruled by the whip), socialism (Christian resentiment flourished with the residue of Rousseau), and democracy (rule by the herd).
Nietzsche the Reactionary
In recent years, political theorists like Ronald Beiner and Richard Wolin have drawn attention to Nietzsche’s influence on the modern right and far right. This has a long history as fascists like Mussolini and Nazi philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Julius Evola all claimed Nietzsche all claimed Nietzsche as predecessors. Today, conservative intellectuals like Jordan Peterson and Dinesh D’Souza invoke Nietzsche to chastise the demands for social justice as sparked by resentiment of the meritorious and competent. Alt-right influencers like Richard Spencer and French “New Right” identitarians like Guillaume Faye refer to Nietzschean anti-egalitarianism with approval.
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However, much as the Nazis misinterpreted Nietzsche as a crude German nationalist, most of these conservative and far right appropriations are half baked and partial. Peterson and D’Souza are willing to take Nietzsche’s contempt for the left on board, but aren’t about to accept his claim that the ultimate root of progressive movements lies in the Christian ethic. They want nothing to do with his observation that “the gospel that the low and the poor have equal access to happiness, that one has nothing to do but free oneself from...the higher estates, in this respect Christianity is nothing but the typical teaching of the socialist.” Taking this Nietzschean point seriously would mean the woke social justice warriors that conservatives love to despise are better Christians than they are. Likewise the far right intellectuals who invoke Nietzsche to defend white power and cultural chauvinism completely ignore his cosmopolitan insistence on being a “good European” and his mocking asides on German nationalism and anti-Semitism. Nietzsche was not a systematic thinker by any means, but his individualism inoculated him against the petty appeal of the blood and soil kitsch of the far right.
Nietzsche the Aristocratic Radical
One of the first thinkers to lecture on Nietzsche was Georg Brandes, who in a letter exchange described Nietzsche as committed to “aristocratic radicalism.” Nietzsche later described this as a “very good” expression and the “cleverest thing” he had yet read about himself. It is the best short hand for the kind of politics he is committed to. For Nietzsche, the egalitarianism of the modern world is a residue of the Christian ethic that all are equal before the throne of God. This egalitarian ethic has persisted and evolved despite our growing atheism, and is responsible for the decadent and nihilistic culture we imbibe on, where the crude values of the “herd” have become dominant.
All who’ve felt the force of Nietzsche’s thinking have been attracted to it ... but few understand the full extent of his vision
By contrast Nietzsche dreamed of a new aristocracy which would blend antiquarian pride and violence with Christian inner depth (a Caesar with the soul of Christ). This new aristocracy would not feel constrained by sentimental egalitarianism and humanism. Instead it would live beyond good and evil and will new kinds of “great politics” into being as part of a creative process of bringing new value systems into play. Nietzsche had no doubt this would be a destructive process and half exultantly, half forebodingly, predicted that the 20th century would see wars on a scale the world had never seen. It’s a politics that is apocalyptic in its grandeur and demonic in its aspirations. All who’ve felt the force of Nietzsche’s thinking have been attracted to it. But few understand the full extent of his vision.
“I am the harbinger of joy, the like of which has never existed before; I have discovered tasks of such lofty greatness that, until my time, no one had any idea of such things. Mankind can begin to have fresh hopes, only now that I have lived. Thus, I am necessarily a man of Fate. For when Truth enters the lists against the falsehood of ages, shocks are bound to ensue, and a spell of earthquakes, followed by the transposition of hills and valleys, such as the world has never yet imagined even in its dreams. The concept "politics" then becomes elevated entirely to the sphere of spiritual warfare. All the mighty realms of the ancient order of society are blown into space—for they are all based on falsehood: there will be wars, the like of which have never been seen on earth before. Only from my time and after me will politics on a large scale exist on earth.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
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