“Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche.” So said Clarence Darrow at the trial of Leopold and Loeb, the two University of Chicago law students who had murdered young Bobby Franks for no other reason than to prove that they were Nietzschean Supermen who could.
When I’m feeling mischievous, I think of using that line as an epigraph for an essay on Nietzsche and libertarianism. How many teenage boys, after all, have found their way into the free market via Nietzsche? None, one insider tells me; a lot, says another. My impression is that the latter is right, but good data is hard to come by.
Every ten years, Liberty Magazine polls its readers about their intellectual influences. The magazine draws up a list of candidates to vote on. Nietzsche is never on it. Even so, he gets written in each time by the readers. So much so that the editors have been forced to acknowledge on more than one occasion that should they put his name on the pre-approved list of possible influences he might draw more votes than some if not many of the others.
Ask any scholar about this connection between Nietzsche and libertarianism and she’ll tell you those teenage boys don’t know what they’re talking about. Nietzsche loathed capitalism almost as much as he loathed capitalists, whom he loathed almost as much as he loathed economists. Still I’ve wondered: Might there not be more than the misguided enthusiasm of adolescents connecting Nietzsche to the modern movement for free markets?
Today The Nation is publishing an essay by me—”Nietzsche’s Marginal Children“—that attempts to provide an answer. It’s long; I’ve been working on it for more than a year. But it’s my best guess as to what the connection might be.
As I make clear in the piece, it’s not a connection of influence: Though there’s been some claim that Friedrich von Wieser, who taught Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, was taken by Nietzsche—and though Schumpeter, who plays an interesting supporting role in this story, was influenced by Nietzsche and Nietzschean theorists of elite politics—the evidence for claims of direct influence are thin.
No, the connection between Nietzsche and the free-market movement is one of elective affinity, at the level of deep grammar rather than public policy. It will not be found at the surface of their arguments but in the lower registers: in the startling symmetry between Nietzschean and marginal theories of value; in the hostility to labor as the source or measure of value; in the insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint; in the vision of an idle class of taste-makers creating new values and beliefs.
Along the way, “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” makes a number of other claims.
First, ever since Walter Kaufmann, writers and readers have been convinced that Nietzsche is an apolitical or anti-political thinker. Four decades of postmodern and post-structural Nietzsches have done little to dislodge this belief; indeed, in a curious way, they have only amplified it. As this piece makes clear, I don’t think that position tells the whole story. The Nietzsche that emerges in this essay cares much about the fate of high culture, absolutely, but he’s also attuned to need for creating a polity or politics that might protect high culture from the masses, who’d been growing increasingly agitated over the labor or the social question, as it was variously called. (The fear and loathing of various working-class movements is a critical point of contact between Nietzsche and the economists who helped inspire libertarianism.) As Don Dombowsky has argued, if there is one consistent political position in Nietzsche’s thought, it is his hostility to socialism. Far from being a simple knee-jerk reaction or peripheral concern, Nietzsche’s antipathy to socialism was symptomatic of—and grew out of—a range of ideas about value, work, appearance, and caste that were central to his cultural and political vision.
Second, it’s long been noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna was a crucible of modernism in the arts and humanities as well as in politics, on the left and the right. The dying Habsburg Empire gave us Wittgenstein, Hitler, and Freud. But while there is now an academic cottage industry devoted to this notion, few have noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna also gave us the Austrian School of economics—Wieser, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter (ish), and more—and that the Austrian economists have as much a claim to the modernist inheritance as Schoenberg or Klimt. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” seeks to put the Austrians back in Vienna, where Nietzsche was a presiding influence, and to read them as contemporaries of fascism and Freud. If nothing else, I hope my reading of the Austrians restores them to their rightful place in the modernist pantheon, and reveals the philosophical range and cultural significance of the questions they were raising. For the economic questions the Austrians were raising were are also very much cultural and philosophical questions of the sort that Nietzsche and his successors wrestled with.
Third, speaking of the F word, we know that many fascist intellectuals read or were influenced by Nietzsche. And while my piece takes that connection as a given—which is not the same, it should be noted, as saying that the fascist interpretation of Nietzsche is the only or correct one or that all of Nietzsche’s roads lead to fascism; empirically, we know, that’s not the case—it seeks to parse a different connection. Where one road from Nietzsche (I’m speaking figuratively) led to the fascist notion that heroic or high politics could be recreated in the modern world, another led down a different path: to the notion that heroic or high politics could not (and perhaps should not) be recreated but that it could be sublimated in the free market. Fascism and the free market, in other words, offered two distinctive answers to the labor question Nietzsche so acutely diagnosed. And while one answer would have a remarkably short shelf life, the other, well, we’re still living it.
Which brings me to the final point. While the disparity between the free-wheeling philosophy of the market and the reality of coercive capitalism has long been known, the last four decades have sharpened it. Partly because of the rise of an aggressive defense of untrammeled markets in the name of liberty, partly because of the assault on the welfare state and social democracy. For some on the left, today’s disparity between libertarian theories of the market and the reality of capitalism proves that the idea of the free market is a simple ideological mystification. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” takes a different tack: it tries to show that the practice is built into the theory, that it is not elided there but embraced.
In writing this piece, I hope to begin—and this is really just the beginning of a long-term project on the political theory and cultural history of the free market—to make good on a promissory note in The Reactionary Mind, which is now available in paperback. There I briefly noted that the libertarian defense of the market—while often treated as a source of tension on the right because it conflicts with the conservative commitment to stability and tradition, virtue and glory—is in fact consistent with the right’s reactionary project of defending private hierarchies against democratic movements from below. But with the exception of a chapter on Ayn Rand, I didn’t really develop that argument. So I was often asked how Hayek and Mises and other libertarian thinkers fit in. Particularly since these thinkers seemed to voice a commitment to liberty that was out of synch with my portrait of the right’s commitment to domination and hierarchy, coercion and rule. So I’ve tried to show in “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” what liberty means for the libertarian right, particularly for Hayek, and how consistent that vision is with a notion of aristocratic politics and rule.
I’m writing this post in Luxembourg, where I’m presenting at a conference in honor of European historian Arno Mayer. I’ve known Arno and his work since I was an undergraduate history major at Princeton. As I said in The Reactionary Mind, Arno (along with UCLA political scientist Karen Orren) was one of the two most important influences on my thinking about the right. And it was from Arno’s Persistence of the Old Regime that I first stumbled upon a way of thinking about Nietzscheanism as something more than the philosophy of and for apolitical aesthetes. So it’s fitting that I write this post here. For in Arno’s vision of an aristocracy that manages to persist long past its shelf date, in part through it capacity for reinvention, we see a glimpse of Nietzsche von Hayek and Mises von Nietzsche, the Leopold and Loeb of modern libertarianism.