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.
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.