Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek | The Nation


Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek

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In the last half-century of American politics, conservatism has hardened around the defense of economic privilege and rule. Whether it’s the libertarianism of the GOP or the neoliberalism of the Democrats, that defense has enabled an upward redistribution of rights and a downward redistribution of duties. The 1 percent possesses more than wealth and political influence; it wields direct and personal power over men and women. Capital governs labor, telling workers what to say, how to vote and when to pee. It has all the substance of noblesse and none of the style of oblige. That many of its most vocal defenders believe Barack Obama to be their mortal enemy—a socialist, no less—is a testament less to the reality about which they speak than to the resonance of the vocabulary they deploy.

About the Author

Corey Robin
Corey Robin, who teaches at Brooklyn College, is the author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, and The...

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Many have delighted in judging Hannah Arendt, maybe because they have feared her judgment.

Ayn Rand was a melodramatist of the moral life: the battle is between the producer and the moochers, and it must end in life or death.

The Nobel Prize–winning economist Friedrich Hayek is the leading theoretician of this movement, formulating the most genuinely political theory of capitalism on the right we’ve ever seen. The theory does not imagine a shift from government to the individual, as is often claimed by conservatives; nor does it imagine a simple shift from the state to the market or from society to the atomized self, as is sometimes claimed by the left. Rather, it recasts our understanding of politics and where it might be found. This may explain why the University of Chicago chose to reissue Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty two years ago after the fiftieth anniversary of its publication. Like The Road to Serfdom (1944), which a swooning Glenn Beck catapulted to the bestseller list in 2010, The Constitution of Liberty is a text, as its publisher says, of “our present moment.”

But to understand that text and its influence, it’s necessary to turn away from contemporary America to fin de siècle Vienna. The seedbed of Hayek’s arguments is the half-century between the “marginal revolution,” which changed the field of economics in the late nineteenth century, and the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918. It is by now a commonplace of European cultural history that a dying Austro-Hungarian Empire gave birth to modernism, psychoanalysis and fascism. Yet from the vortex of Vienna came not only Wittgenstein, Freud and Hitler but also Hayek, who was born and educated in the city, and the Austrian school of economics. 

Friedrich Nietzsche figures critically in this story, less as an influence than a diagnostician. This will strike some as an improbable claim: Wasn’t Nietzsche contemptuous of capitalists, capitalism and economics? Yes, he was, and for all his reading in political economy, he never wrote a treatise on politics or economics. And despite the long shadow he cast over the Viennese avant-garde, he is hardly ever cited by the economists of the Austrian school.

Yet no one understood better than Nietzsche the social and cultural forces that would shape the Austrians: the demise of an ancient ruling class; the raising of the labor question by trade unions and socialist parties; the inability of an ascendant bourgeoisie to crush or contain democracy in the streets; the need for a new ruling class in an age of mass politics. The relationship between Nietzsche and the free-market right—which has been seeking to put labor back in its box since the nineteenth century, and now, with the help of the neoliberal left, has succeeded—is thus one of elective affinity rather than direct influence, at the level of idiom rather than policy.

“One day,” Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo, “my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous, a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience.” It is one of the ironies of intellectual history that the terms of the collision can best be seen in the rise of a discourse that Nietzsche, in all likelihood, would have despised.

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In 1869, Nietzsche was appointed professor of classical philology at Basel University. Like most junior faculty, he was bedeviled by meager wages and bore major responsibilities, such as teaching fourteen hours a week, Monday through Friday, beginning at 7 am. He also sat on multiple committees and covered for senior colleagues who couldn’t make their classes. He lectured to the public on behalf of the university. He dragged himself to dinner parties. Yet within three years he managed to complete The Birth of Tragedy, a minor masterwork of modern literature, which he dedicated to his close friend and “sublime predecessor” Richard Wagner. 

One chapter, however, he withheld from publication. In 1872, Nietzsche was invited to spend the Christmas holidays with Wagner and his wife Cosima, but sensing a potential rift with the composer, he begged off and sent a gift instead. He bundled “The Greek State” with four other essays, slapped a title onto a cover page (Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books), and mailed the leather-bound text to Cosima as a birthday present. Richard was offended; Cosima, unimpressed. “Prof. Nietzsche’s manuscript does not restore our spirits,” she sniffed in her diary. 

Though presented as a sop to a fraying friendship, “The Greek State” reflects the larger European crisis of war and revolution that had begun in 1789 and would come to an end only in 1945. More immediately, it bears the stamp of the Franco-Prussian War, which had broken out in 1870, and the Paris Commune, which was declared the following year. 

Initially ambivalent about the war, Nietzsche quickly became a partisan of the German cause. “It’s about our culture!” he wrote to his mother. “And for that no sacrifice is too great! This damned French tiger.” He signed up to serve as a medical orderly; Cosima tried to persuade him to stay put in Basel, recommending that he send cigarettes to the front instead. But Nietzsche was adamant. In August 1870, he left for Bavaria with his sister Elisabeth, riding the rails and singing songs. He got his training, headed to the battlefield, and in no time contracted dysentery and diphtheria. He lasted a month. 

The war lasted for six. A half-million soldiers were killed or wounded, as were countless civilians. The preliminary peace treaty, signed in February 1871, favored the Germans and punished the French, particularly the citizens of Paris, who were forced to shoulder the burden of heavy indemnities to the Prussians. Enraged by its impositions—and a quarter-century of simmering discontent and broken promises—workers and radicals in Paris rose up and took over the city in March. Nietzsche was scandalized, his horror at the revolt inversely proportional to his exaltation over the war. Fearing that the Communards had destroyed the Louvre (they hadn’t), he wrote:

The reports of the past few days have been so awful that my state of mind is altogether intolerable. What does it mean to be a scholar in the face of such earthquakes of culture!… It is the worst day of my life. 

In the quicksilver transmutation of a conventional war between states into a civil war between classes, Nietzsche saw a terrible alchemy of the future: “Over and above the struggle between nations the object of our terror was that international hydra-head, suddenly and so terrifyingly appearing as a sign of quite different struggles to come.” 

By May, the Commune had been ruthlessly put down at the cost of tens of thousands of lives—much to the delight of the Parisian aesthete-aristocrat Edmond Goncourt: 

All is well. There has been neither compromise nor conciliation. The solution has been brutal, imposed by sheer force of arms. The solution has saved everyone from the dangers of cowardly compromise. The solution has restored its self-confidence to the Army, which has learnt in the blood of the Communards that it was still capable of fighting…a bleeding like that, by killing the rebellious part of a population, postpones the next revolution by a whole conscription. 

Of the man who wrote these words and the literary milieu of which he was a part, Nietzsche would later say: “I know these gentlemen inside out, so well that I have really had enough of them already. One has to be more radical: fundamentally they all lack the main thing—‘la force.’ ”

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