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


Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek

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As this reference to “future wants and desires” suggests, Hayek has much more in mind than producers responding to a pre-existing market of demand; he’s talking about men who create new markets—and not just of wants or desires, but of basic tastes and beliefs. The freedom Hayek cares most about is the freedom of those legislators of value who shape and determine our ends.

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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 overwhelming majority of men and women, Hayek says, are simply not capable of breaking with settled patterns of thought and practice; given a choice, they would never opt for anything new, never do anything better than what they do now. 

Action by collective agreement is limited to instances where previous efforts have already created a common view, where opinion about what is desirable has become settled, and where the problem is that of choosing between possibilities already generally recognized, not that of discovering new possibilities. 

While some might claim that Hayek’s argument here is driven less by a dim view of ordinary men and women than his dyspepsia about politics, he explicitly excludes “the decision of some governing elite” from the acid baths of his skepticism. Nor does he hide his misgivings about the individual abilities of wage laborers who comprise the great majority. The working stiff is a being of limited horizons. Unlike the employer or the “independent,” both of whom are dedicated to “shaping and reshaping a plan of life,” the worker’s orientation is “largely a matter of fitting himself into a given framework.” He lacks responsibility, initiative, curiosity and ambition. Though some of this is by necessity—the workplace does not countenance “actions which cannot be prescribed or which are not conventional”—Hayek insists that this is “not only the actual but the preferred position of the majority of the population.” The great majority enjoy submitting to the workplace regime because it “gives them what they mainly want: an assured fixed income available for current expenditure, more or less automatic raises, and provision for old age. They are thus relieved of some of the responsibilities of economic life.” Simply put, these are people for whom taking orders from a superior is not only a welcome relief but a prerequisite of their fulfillment: “To do the bidding of others is for the employed the condition of achieving his purpose.” 

It thus should come as no surprise that Hayek believes in an avant-garde of tastemakers, whose power and position give them a vantage from which they can not only see beyond the existing horizon but also catch a glimpse of new ones: 

Only from an advanced position does the next range of desires and possibilities become visible, so that the selection of new goals and the effort toward their achievement will begin long before the majority can strive for them.

These horizons include everything from “what we regard as good or beautiful,” to the ambitions, goals and ends we pursue in our everyday lives, to “the propagation of new ideas in politics, morals, and religion.” On all of these fronts, it is the avant-garde that leads the way and sets our parameters.

More interesting is how explicit and insistent Hayek is about linking the legislation of new values to the possession of vast amounts of wealth and capital, even—or especially—wealth that has been inherited. Often, says Hayek, it is only the very rich who can afford new products or tastes. Lavishing money on these boutique items, they give producers the opportunity to experiment with better designs and more efficient methods of production. Thanks to their patronage, producers will find cheaper ways of making and delivering these products—cheap enough, that is, for the majority to enjoy them. What was before a luxury of the idle rich—stockings, automobiles, piano lessons, the university—is now an item of mass consumption.

The most important contribution of great wealth, however, is that it frees its possessor from the pursuit of money so that he can pursue nonmaterial goals. Liberated from the workplace and the rat race, the “idle rich”—a phrase Hayek seeks to reclaim as a positive good—can devote themselves to patronizing the arts, subsidizing worthy causes like abolition or penal reform, founding new philanthropies and cultural institutions. Those born to wealth are especially important: not only are they the beneficiaries of the higher culture and nobler values that have been transmitted across the generations—Hayek insists that we will get a better elite if we allow parents to pass their fortunes on to their children; requiring a ruling class to start fresh with every generation is a recipe for stagnation, for having to reinvent the wheel—but they are immune to the petty lure of money. “The grosser pleasures in which the newly rich often indulge have usually no attraction for those who have inherited wealth.” (How Hayek reconciles this position with the agnosticism about value he expresses in The Road to Serfdom remains unclear.)

The men of capital, in other words, are best understood not as economic magnates but as cultural legislators: “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.” While this seems to be a universal truth for Hayek, it is especially true in societies where wage labor is the rule. The dominance of paid employment has terrible consequences for the imagination, which are most acutely felt by the producers of that imagination: “There is something seriously lacking in a society in which all the intellectual, moral, and artistic leaders belong to the employed classes…. Yet we are moving everywhere toward such a position.”

When labor becomes the norm, in both senses of the term, culture doesn’t stand a chance.

* * *

In a virtuoso analysis of what he calls “The Intransigent Right,” the British historian Perry Anderson identifies four figures of the twentieth-century conservative canon: Schmitt, Hayek, Michael Oakeshott and Leo Strauss. Strauss and Schmitt come off best (the sharpest, most profound and far-seeing), Oakeshott the worst, and Hayek somewhere in between. This hierarchy of judgment is not completely surprising. Anderson has never taken seriously the political theory produced by a nation of shopkeepers, so the receptivity of the English to Oakeshott and Hayek, who became a British subject in 1938, renders them almost irresistible targets for his critique. Anderson’s cosmopolitan indifference to the indiscreet charms of the Anglo bourgeoisie usually makes him the most sure-footed of guides, but in Hayek’s case it has led him astray. Like many on the left, Anderson is so taken with the bravura and brutality of Strauss’s and Schmitt’s self-styled realism that he can’t grasp the far greater daring and profundity of Hayek’s political theory of shopkeeping—his effort to locate great politics in the economic relations of capitalism.

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What distinguishes the theoretical men of the right from their counterparts on the left, Anderson writes, is that their voices were “heard in the chancelleries.” Yet whose voice has been more listened to, across decades and continents, than Hayek’s? Schmitt and Strauss have attracted readers from all points of the political spectrum as writers of dazzling if disturbing genius, but the two projects with which they are most associated—European fascism and American neoconservatism—have never generated the global traction or gathering energy that neoliberalism has now sustained for more than four decades. 

It would be a mistake to draw too sharp a line between the marginal children of Nietzsche—with political man on one branch of the family tree, economic man on the other. Hayek, at times, could sound the most Schmittian notes. At the height of Augusto Pinochet’s power in Chile, Hayek told a Chilean interviewer that when any “government is in a situation of rupture, and there are no recognized rules, rules have to be created.” The sort of situation he had in mind was not anarchy or civil war but Allende-style social democracy, where the government pursues “the mirage of social justice” through administrative and increasingly discretionary means. Even in The Constitution of Liberty, an extended paean to the notion of a “spontaneous order” that slowly evolves over time, we get a brief glimpse of “the lawgiver” whose “task” it is “to create conditions in which an orderly arrangement can establish and ever renew itself.” (“Of the modern German writings” on the rule of law, Hayek also says, Schmitt’s “are still among the most learned and perceptive.”) Current events seemed to supply Hayek with an endless parade of candidates. Two years after its publication in 1960, he sent The Constitution of Liberty to Portuguese strongman António Salazar, with a cover note professing his hope that it might assist the dictator “in his endeavour to design a constitution which is proof against the abuses of democracy.” Pinochet’s Constitution of 1980 is named after the 1960 text. 

Still, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that though Nietzschean politics may have fought the battles, Nietzschean economics won the war. Is there any better reminder of that victory than the Detlev-Rohwedder-Haus in Berlin? Built to house the Luftwaffe during World War II, it is now the headquarters of the German Ministry of Finance.

Editor's Note: At Crooked Timber, Corey Robin is participating in a discussion of “Nietzsche's Marginal Children.”  On his blog, Robin has written two replies to his critics.


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