Can Nietzsche support a decent political philosophy?

Nietzsche’s anti-moralism is a key theme in his philosophy and civilizational criticism. He regarded traditional European morality as “herd morality”, the deplorable consequence of Christian values of subordination and ressentiment. It is hard enough to find in Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals a basis for criticizing even the most grotesque examples of interpersonal brutality and violence, and Nietzsche is contemptuous of the values of kindness and compassion. And it is virtually impossible to find an explicit consideration of the question, are there moral limitations on the behavior of states? To put the point simply: does Nietzsche have the philosophical stuff to condemn the Holocaust or the Holodomor?

How would Nietzsche respond if he were time-transported to the MSNBC studio and interviewed by Rachel Maddow? The session might begin along these lines: “Mr. Nietzsche, welcome to the program. I’d like to ask you the most pressing question today: The armed forces of the Russian Federation are torturing, raping, and murdering civilians in Ukraine today in an effort to defeat Ukraine in its war of aggression. Can you condemn these acts as war crimes and atrocities against the innocent, given your statements about “morality” and the “will to power” in your celebrated work, Beyond Good and Evil?”

It would of course be very interesting to have this conversation with Nietzsche. But today all we have are his texts and letters, and they are unpromising in this context. Given his pervasive anti-moralism, any contemporary reader of Nietzsche is forced to ask: can Nietzsche have a political philosophy?

Two discussions of this question have been noteworthy in the past decade or so. Tamsin Shaw’s 2007 monograph Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism provides an extended argument about why it is philosophically difficult for Nietzsche to offer a political philosophy. And the essays in Barry Stocker and Manuel Knoll’s edited volume Nietzsche as Political Philosopher are insightful as well.

The painful pill presented by Nietzsche’s writings to anyone who loves liberal democracy is that Nietzsche’s attack on humanistic morality suggests ugly possibilities: the acceptance of totalitarianism and dictatorship, the unfettered use of state power to oppress the citizens of the state, and moral indifference to aggressive war by a powerful state against a weak state. If citizens do not have morally defensible rights against each other and the state; if there are not morally compelling reasons for believing in and entrenching the equality of all citizens; and if there are no morally compelling principles regulating the use of the instruments of war by a state against another state or people — then there is no basis for criticizing the Gulag, genocide, and brutal aggressive war. So we seem to step directly from Nietzsche to Putinism.

Rolf Zimmermann’s essay “The ‘Will to Power'”, included in the Stocker and Knoll volume, addresses this issue directly, with a conclusion that may surprise the reader. Zimmermann argues that Nietzsche’s framework is compatible with both a liberal state and an authoritarian state. It all depends on what we want (that is, what set of primary values about ourselves and our interactions with others we have adopted, as a nation).

Political implications, on the collective level, can be discussed with regard to two conceptions that may be explicated in the sense of a liberal and an authoritarian ideal type. At the same time, we must face the problem as to whether Nietzsche’s anti-egalitarianism could be consistently integrated into a constitutional democracy of whatever kind. (Zimmerman in Stocker and Knoll 39)

Zimmermann offers a very interesting Nietzschean interpretation of the atrocious regimes of the twentieth century. His basic view is that Nietzsche insists on historicizing “civilizational” systems of values (and takes satisfaction in finding disagreeable features of their genealogies). So Zimmermann’s view is not that the totalitarian ideologies of Hitler or Stalin were inspired by Nietzsche’s philosophy or his moral nihilism, but rather they are comprehensible as the emergence of new moral-value frameworks following the demise of traditional Christian morality.

My own perspective, however, is quite different. I propose, first of all, to read the radical movements of the 20th century, especially Bolshevism and National Socialism (NS), in terms of their own new moralities that gained force in actual history in order to build socio-political formations. In doing so, these movements verified in a systematically relevant way Nietzsche’s paradigm of moral philosophy that is defined by insight into the appearance of divergent moralities in history conflicting with each other – divergent “wills to power”. This very insight of Nietzsche can be vindicated quite independently of critical objections to his moral-political philosophy in detail. In systematic terms, therefore, it is much more relevant to interpret developments of actual history within a conceptual frame set forth by Nietzsche in an arguable general sense, instead of searching for “influences” of Nietzsche on actual history dozens of years after his lifetime. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 48-49)

Zimmermann makes a very interesting point here: that the horrific regimes of the twentieth century can be interpreted within a Nietzschean “civilizational” framework, but not as an expression of Nietzschean values or anti-values.

Now, given the comparative descriptions of egalitarian universalism, Nazi-morality and Bolshevist-morality, we come to see the moral history of the 20th century clearly in Nietzschean terms, namely as a history of divergent moralities in conflict with each other, a history of divergent “wills to power” realizing themselves in socio-political forms without precedence, and thereby showing the value-forming capacity of man in disastrous results. (Zimmermann in Stocker and Knoll 55)

Most critically, Zimmermann believes it is consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas to defend a liberal-egalitarian-constitutional theory of the state, along the lines described by JS Mill in On Liberty. But, crucially, “we would have to speak of egalitarian universalism equally as a historical phenomenon, in short as ‘historical universalism’, specifically related to the history of human rights since the 18th century” (55). Or in other words: real human beings and groups would have to struggle to secure and establish these values as the foundation of their polities.

This conclusion brings us to the central argument offered by Tamsin Shaw. Shaw believes that Nietzsche is profoundly doubtful of the ability of a nation to coalesce around a liberal-democratic consensus. Shaw too has a contribution in the Stocker and Knoll volume, comparing Nietzsche and Weber. But her central ideas on a possible political morality in Nietzsche’s thought are conveyed in Nietzsche’s Political Skepticism.

Shaw puts the weight of her argument on two points that she believes Nietzsche would accept: that a modern state requires a fairly high degree of “moral” consensus among its citizens about the actions and requirements of the state, and that modern society is largely incapable of arriving at such a consensus. Instead, the coercive power of the state is used to create a moral and normative consensus, through indoctrination, propaganda, education, and public festivals. This amounts to two core premises:

One concerns the nature of modern states and in particular the fact that their ability to rule a society requires convergence, in that society, on some shared normative beliefs. The other concerns the inability of secular societies to generate the required convergence through noncoercive means. (kl 131)

When religious institutions and beliefs had a powerful grip on the people of a nation, the values inculcated by those institutions provided an independent source of consensus which put some constraints on the nature and actions of the state. But with the collapse of religious identities (the death of God), there was no longer a point of convergence that could provide a basis for consensus. This leaves an open field for the coercive state to establish its own ideological institutions — whether those of Hitler, Stalin, or Orbán. And, according to Shaw, this makes the normative foundations of a liberal democracy all but impossible:

So legitimacy in this sense requires that political institutions conform to the accepted norms of those over whom they rule, and that acceptance of these norms be uncoerced, at least by the political institutions that they purport to legitimate. But although this weak notion seems helpfully unambitious in demanding conformity to the professed normative beliefs of a population, rather than to the right norms, it presupposes precisely the kind of uncoerced convergence that Nietzsche thinks secularism is making increasingly unlikely. (kl 209)

She refers to this as “political skepticism”, and she believes it is ineliminable from Nietzsche’s thought.

Nietzsche’s political skepticism, then, consists in the view that we simply cannot reconcile our need for normative authority with our need for political authority. Given [Nietzsche’s] own historical situation, as we shall see, he was vividly aware of the fragility of any apparent compromise between these demands. He does, in the later writings, occasionally seem inclined to give up on one or the other. But the real challenge that his skepticism presents to modern politics is somehow to find a way of not giving up on either. (kl 284)

This point is philosophically interesting. But more importantly, it is highly relevant to the politics of liberal democracies today. Anti-liberal, hate-based populists are gaining the narrative upper-hand, and there appears to be a steep decline in support for the traditional civic values of liberal democracy: rule of law, constitutional protections of rights, equality of all citizens. Further, this decline seems to coincide with rising support for authoritarian parties and candidates. There are numerous mechanisms that help to explain the rise of authoritarian and racist political values — the solid hold that right-wing cable networks have on the “base”, the targeted messaging of messages of hatred and distrust by social media platforms, and the increasing boldness of fascist-sounding elected officials. But maintaining strong and nearly universal support for the values of a liberal democracy is increasingly challenging.

Perhaps we need a modern-day Nietzsche to de-mystify the rantings of the far-right, and to help western democracies regain their sane and decent commitment to peace, equality, and freedom.

Here are several prior posts that address the threats to maintaining a democratic consensus (linklinklinklink).

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