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

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Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek

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The clash of these competing worlds of war and work echoes throughout “The Greek State.” Nietzsche begins by announcing that the modern era is dedicated to the “dignity of work.” Committed to “equal rights for all,” democracy elevates the worker and the slave. Their demands for justice threaten to “swamp all other ideas,” to tear “down the walls of culture.” Modernity has made a monster in the working class: a created creator (shades of Marx and Mary Shelley), it has the temerity to see itself and its labor as a work of art. Even worse, it seeks to be recognized and publicly acknowledged as such. 

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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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The Greeks, by contrast, saw work as a “disgrace,” because the existence it serves—the finite life that each of us lives—“has no inherent value.” Existence can be redeemed only by art, but art too is premised on work. It is made, and its maker depends on the labor of others; they take care of him and his household, freeing him from the burdens of everyday life. Inevitably, his art bears the taint of their necessity. No matter how beautiful, art cannot escape the pall of its creation. It arouses shame, for in shame “there lurks the unconscious recognition that these conditions” of work “are required for the actual goal” of art to be achieved. For that reason, the Greeks properly kept labor and the laborer hidden from view. 

Throughout his writing life, Nietzsche was plagued by the vision of workers massing on the public stage—whether in trade unions, socialist parties or communist leagues. Almost immediately upon his arrival in Basel, the First International descended on the city to hold its fourth congress. Nietzsche was petrified. “There is nothing more terrible,” he wrote in The Birth of Tragedy, “than a class of barbaric slaves who have learned to regard their existence as an injustice, and now prepare to avenge, not only themselves, but all generations.” Several years after the International had left Basel, Nietzsche convinced himself that it was slouching toward Bayreuth in order to ruin Wagner’s festival there. And just weeks before he went mad in 1888 and disappeared forever into his own head, he wrote, “The cause of every stupidity today…lies in the existence of a labour question at all. About certain things one does not ask questions.”

One can hear in the opening passages of “The Greek State” the pounding march not only of European workers on the move but also of black slaves in revolt. Hegel was brooding on Haiti while he worked out the master-slave dialectic in The Phenomenology of Spirit. Though generations of scholars have told us otherwise, perhaps Nietzsche had a similar engagement in mind when he wrote, “Even if it were true that the Greeks were ruined because they kept slaves, the opposite is even more certain, that we will be destroyed because we fail to keep slaves.” What theorist, after all, has ever pressed so urgently—not just in this essay but in later works as well—the claim that “slavery belongs to the essence of a culture”? What theorist ever had to? Before the eighteenth century, bonded labor was an accepted fact. Now it was the subject of a roiling debate, provoking revolutions and emancipations throughout the world. Serfdom had been eliminated in Russia only a decade before—and in some German states, only a generation before Nietzsche’s birth in 1844—while Brazil would soon become the last state in the Americas to abolish slavery. An edifice of the ages had been brought down by a mere century’s vibrations; is it so implausible that Nietzsche, attuned to the vectors and velocity of decay as he was, would pause to record the earthquake and insist on taking the full measure of its effects? 

If slavery was one condition of great art, Nietzsche continued in “The Greek State,” war and high politics were another. “Political men par excellence,” the Greeks channeled their agonistic urges into bloody conflicts between cities and less bloody conflicts within them: healthy states were built on the repression and release of these impulses. The arena for conflict created by that regimen gave “society time to germinate and turn green everywhere” and allowed “blossoms of genius” periodically to “sprout forth.” Those blossoms were not only artistic but also political. Warfare sorted society into lower and higher ranks, and from that hierarchy rose “the military genius,” whose artistry was the state itself. The real dignity of man, Nietzsche insisted, lay not in his lowly self but in the artistic and political genius his life was meant to serve and on whose behalf it was to be expended. 

Instead of the Greek state, however, Europe had the bourgeois state; instead of aspiring to a work of art, states let markets do their work. Politics, Nietzsche complained, had become “an instrument of the stock exchange” rather than the terrain of heroism and glory. With the “specifically political impulses” of Europe so weakened—even his beloved Franco-Prussian War had not revived the spirit in the way that he had hoped—Nietzsche could only “detect dangerous signs of atrophy in the political sphere, equally worrying for art and society.” The age of aristocratic culture and high politics was at an end. All that remained was the detritus of the lower orders: the disgrace of the laborer, the paper chase of the bourgeoisie, the barreling threat of socialism. “The Paris commune,” Nietzsche would later write in his notebooks, “was perhaps no more than minor indigestion compared to what is coming.”

Nietzsche had little, concretely, to offer as a counter-volley to democracy, whether bourgeois or socialist. Despite his appreciation of the political impulse and his studious attention to political events in Germany—from the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of the early 1860s to the imperial push of the late 1880s—he remained leery of programs, movements and platforms. The best he could muster was a vague principle: that society is “the continuing, painful birth of those exalted men of culture in whose service everything else has to consume itself,” and the state a “means of setting [that] process of society in motion and guaranteeing its unobstructed continuation.” It was left to later generations to figure out what that could mean in practice—and where it might lead. Down one path might lay fascism; down another, the free market.

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