Following the fall of the Berlin Wall and demise of the Soviet Union, prominent Western thinkers began to suggest that liberal democracy had triumphed decisively on the world stage. Having banished fascism in World War II, liberalism had now buried communism, and the result would be an end of major ideological conflicts, as liberal norms and institutions spread to every corner of the globe. With the Brexit vote in Great Britain, the resurgence of right-wing populist parties across the European continent, and the surprising ascent of Donald Trump to the American presidency, such hopes have begun to seem hopelessly naïve. The far right is back, and serious rethinking is in order.
In Dangerous Minds, Ronald Beiner traces the deepest philosophical roots of such right-wing ideologues as Richard Spencer, Aleksandr Dugin, and Steve Bannon to the writings of Nietzsche and Heidegger—and specifically to the aspects of their thought that express revulsion for the liberal-democratic view of life. Beiner contends that Nietzsche's hatred and critique of bourgeois, egalitarian societies has engendered new disciples on the populist right who threaten to overturn the modern liberal consensus. Heidegger, no less than Nietzsche, thoroughly rejected the moral and political values that arose during the Enlightenment and came to power in the wake of the French Revolution. Understanding Heideggerian dissatisfaction with modernity, and how it functions as a philosophical magnet for those most profoundly alienated from the reigning liberal-democratic order, Beiner argues, will give us insight into the recent and unexpected return of the far right.
Beiner does not deny that Nietzsche and Heidegger are important thinkers; nor does he seek to expel them from the history of philosophy. But he does advocate that we rigorously engage with their influential thought in light of current events—and he suggests that we place their severe critique of modern liberal ideals at the center of this engagement.
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Nietzschean Ideologies in the Twenty-First Century
Eleven pass, and thenIn the fateful fall of 2016, a far-right ideologue named Richard B. Spencer stirred up some fame for himself by exclaiming to a conference room packed with his followers not far from the White House: "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!" On the face of it, this mad proclamation would appear to have nothing in common with the glorious tradition of Western philosophy. Yet consider a few other provocative remarks ventilated by Spencer: "American society today is so just fundamentally bourgeois. It's just so, pardon my French . . . it's so fucking middle class in its values. There is no value higher than having a pension and dying in bed. I find that profoundly pathetic. So, yeah, I think we might need a little more chaos in our politics, we might need a bit of that fascist spirit in our politics." Or consider this quote from Spencer in a profile by Sarah Posner in the October 18, 2016, issue of Rolling Stone: "I love empire, I love power, I love achievement." Posner reports that "Spencer loves imperialism so much, he says, that he'll sometimes 'get a boner' reading about Napoleon." There is no question about the Nietzschean lineage of these sentiments. Spencer knows that they're Nietzschean, and any honest reader of Nietzsche knows that they're Nietzschean.
Athene takes Achilles by the hair,
Hector is in the dust, Nietzsche is born,
Because the hero's crescent is the twelfth.
—Y. B. Yeats, "The Phases of the Moon"
Or consider Spencer's ideological kinsman, Russia's far-right political thinker Aleksandr Dugin. In April 2014, Dugin participated in an hour-long interview with Russian television host Vladimir Posner. Near the end of the show, Posner asked Dugin, "Is there a philosophical quote that is especially dear to you?" Dugin responded, "Yes: man is something that should be overcome." Dugin didn't specify the source of this "especially dear" quote—probably because it would have revealed something of a tension with Dugin's strongly avowed adherence to Orthodox Christianity of the Old Believer variety. But he didn't need to specify the source—anyone with any acquaintance with Thus Spoke Zarathustra knows that it's Nietzsche. Anton Shekhovtsov, a commentator on Dugin, quotes an essay in which Dugin presents himself as a prophet of a "new aeon" that "will be cruel and paradoxical," involving slavery, "the renewal of archaic sacredness," and "a cosmic rampage of the Superhuman." Similarly, Shekhovtsov quotes another Dugin text affirming a vision of fascism that promises "to give birth to a society of the hero and Superhuman." Dugin is part Old Believer, part Nietzschean, part occultist, part bohemian, part warlord, part guru, part geopolitical strategist, and part plain maniac. (He's the postmodern subject par excellence!)
Inhabiting the same murky swamp is Julius Evola, the monocled baron, Italian exponent of über-fascism, and an explicit disciple of Nietzsche. Charles Clover, in an illuminating recent book on Dugin and his ideological forebears, gives a helpful glimpse into Evola's vision of caste-based Nietzschean neoaristocracy: "He believed that war was a form of therapy, leading mankind into a higher form of spiritual existence." Another striking dictum of Dugin's worth pondering is the following, as recorded in the interview cited in the previous paragraph: "The essence of the human being is to be a soldier." Such views capture quite well why the thinkers expressing these views are committed, in a faithfully Nietzschean spirit, to the root-and-branch rejection of the way of life embodied in liberal, bourgeois, egalitarian societies.
Doug Saunders, a thoughtful Canadian journalist, wrote the following in the February 11, 2017, issue of The Globe and Mail: "Europe's far-right parties have been ushered into prominence . . . by a flood of bestsellers with titles such as Germany Abolishes Itself; The Last Days of Europe; After the Fall: The End of the European Dream and the Decline of a Continent; Reflections on the Revolution in Europe; Decline and Fall: Europe's Slow-Motion Suicide; and Submission. All argue that a weakened, feminized, coddled, birth-controlled Western culture has become too soft and impassive to resist invasion and dominance by supposedly more muscular, more fertile, and more aggressive Asian and Islamic cultures." It would not be a difficult task to show that the original source of this rhetoric is traceable back to Nietzsche.
One of the truly great mysteries of twentieth- (and now twenty-first-) century intellectual life is how a thinker as forthrightly and bluntly antiegalitarian and antiliberal as Friedrich Nietzsche could have become pretty much the most influential philosopher of the twentieth century (a phenomenon then replicated by a philosophical successor no less antiegalitarian and antiliberal—namely, Martin Heidegger). The intellectual influence of Nietzsche is of staggering breadth—not least within the precincts of the intellectual and cultural left. The solution of this puzzle will probably be left to sociologists of knowledge fifty or a hundred years from now. In the meantime, however, we must do our best to weigh the intellectual power of Nietzsche while at the same time fully appreciating the dangerousness or possible perils of that intellectual power. The same goes for Heidegger.
Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote the following: "The great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit peoples." Martin Heidegger once wrote the following:
An enemy is each and every person who poses an essential threat to the Dasein [existence] of the people and its individual members. The enemy does not have to be external, and the external enemy is not even always the more dangerous one. And it can seem as if there were no enemy. Then it is a fundamental requirement to find the enemy, to expose the enemy to the light, or even first to make the enemy, so that this standing against the enemy may happen and so that Dasein may not lose its edge. . . . [The challenge is] to bring the enemy into the open, to harbor no illusions about the enemy, to keep oneself ready for attack, to cultivate and intensify a constant readiness and to prepare the attack looking far ahead with the goal of total annihilation.These are both incitements to genocide. The point of quoting these statements is not to impugn Nietzsche and Heidegger as important thinkers. Nietzsche was a great philosopher. Heidegger was a great philosopher. Nothing in this book is meant to challenge their intellectual stature. There's no intention here to expel them from the history of philosophy (as there is in Emmanuel Faye's severely critical work on Heidegger). But they are not innocent. Great thinkers can be dangerous thinkers. And to the extent that their ideas contribute to bad ideological currents in the present, we have to be alert to their noninnocence and do our utmost not to become their apologists. We need to commence a serious engagement with Nietzsche and Heidegger because, in the end, these thinkers are not the resources for the left that we have so often been told that they are. In a longer-term view, they are more likely to be resources for the right and far right.
Richard Spencer and Aleksandr Dugin, scary as they are, are not unique cases. They are part of a new Fascist International that is becoming more and more assertive. As incredible as it may seem, the alt-right even managed to establish a beachhead in the Trump White House. In the chapter of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind entitled "The Nietzscheanization of the Left or Vice Versa," Bloom wrote the following: "Nietzsche's colossal political failure is attested to by the facts that the right, which was his only hope that his teaching would have its proper effect, has utterly disappeared, and he himself was tainted in its ugly last gasp, while today virtually every Nietzschean, as well as Heideggerian, is a leftist." I'm not sure whether that sentence was ever fully true, but it's certainly not true today.
Bloom's most ambitious successor in the claim that the left has been hoodwinked by Nietzsche is himself a man of the left—namely, Geoff Waite. But Waite goes beyond Bloom in further claiming that this was a deliberate project of Nietzsche's: "Nietzsche programmed his reception in unconscious, subliminal ways." This is, as Waite knows, a difficult thesis to prove, but I think it would be naïve to dismiss it too quickly, and I think it's a shame that intellectuals of the left (or just intellectuals in general) haven't been more appreciative of Waite's sharp insights into what he calls "Nietzsche's intent to have an influenza-like impact on the future." As Waite writes, "Left-Nietzscheans and Right-Nietzscheans find themselves in the same bed together, as day breaks and the Dionysian revel of the night is transformed into hangover, and no owl of Athena has taken flight." If, as Waite also suggests, Nietzsche has become (or has manipulated his way into becoming) the master thinker of "the real Right and fake Left alike," then a very profound engagement with Nietzsche is required. And as Waite again fully understands, the same level of engagement needs to be applied to Heidegger as well.
For decades, young intellectuals have been encouraged by their teachers to regard Nietzsche and Heidegger (the two Pied Pipers of contemporary culture and philosophy?) as friends and allies of the contemporary left—though there have been isolated voices within the intellectual community warning that perhaps there is a little more poison in these thinkers than their enthusiasts in the academy have bargained for. And it may well be that we are currently seeing the coming-to-fruition of some of this poison. One notable case in point is the Nietzschean doctrine claiming that appeals to truth are largely ideological, designed to obfuscate the deeper realities of power and resentment. This doctrine was enthusiastically taken up by Michel Foucault with his attempt to see truth as a normative aspiration exposed as a mask for what are in reality cynical "regimes of truth." And what do we have today? "Post-truth"! (As Timothy Snyder rightly and importantly points out, "Post-truth is pre-fascism.") Nietzschean notions, mediated by supposedly emancipatory appropriations of Nietzsche, seem to have left us vulnerable to harsh new ideologies that appear to regard respect for truth as a snare for the strong set by the weak (as Nietzsche largely presents it).
Let's sketch the essential historical/philosophical background. The French Revolution represented the key moment of fundamental sea change in European consciousness and politics. To put it very crudely and simply, prior to 1789, one had a political world oriented fundamentally toward hierarchy; after 1789, one had a political world fundamentally oriented toward equality and the free judgments of individuals who determine for themselves what their lives are about rather than having it dictated from above. That's an enormous change in the ordering of human society and the shape of moral consciousness! It's not an accident that the most virulent enemies of modern liberalism and modern democracy—such as Joseph de Maistre in the early nineteenth century and Nietzsche in the late nineteenth century—directed their most intense polemical energies against the French Revolution. If one subscribes to hard-line reactionary politics, as both Maistre and Nietzsche do in their very different ways, then the French Revolution will present itself as the moment when European civilization begins to slide into the abyss. That's the decisive turning point. A view of society where all individuals are fundamentally equal or a view of society where people can live meaningful lives only under the banner of fundamental hierarchy: this is an either/or, not a moral-political choice that can be submitted to compromise or splitting the difference.
Nietzsche rightly zeroed in on the French Revolution as the linchpin because it poses the essential issue: one either sees egalitarianism as essential to the proper acknowledgment of universal human dignity, or one sees it as the destruction of what's most human because it's incompatible with human nobility rightly understood. Let me cite another key nineteenth-century theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville, whose central message in Democracy in America could be paraphrased as follows: even aristocrats like me must resign ourselves to the fact that we live in a new post-French Revolution world, a world primordially defined by democratic ideals. Much will be lost, Tocqueville makes clear, in the transition from a world of social hierarchy to a world of social equality, but whatever those human losses may add up to, the democratic world must be embraced on account of its superior justice. The political reactionaries I've mentioned were never willing to concede that point, and as a question of political philosophy, the debate between liberals like Tocqueville and antiliberals like Nietzsche is still in progress (and probably always will be).
Having referred to Maistre and Nietzsche as the "rejectionist front" vis-à-vis the Enlightenment, let me also mention that a more complete version of the story here would have to commence with the Protestant Reformation. The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote that "the philosophical revolution [unfolded in European modernity] . . . emerged from the religious one, and [this revolution in philosophy,] indeed, is nothing other than the logical conclusion of Protestantism." Heine's suggestion, in my view, captures something essential in how one should understand the intellectual history of modernity. Arguably, the key development was the Reformation's insistence that lay readers judge scripture for themselves, via vernacular editions of the Bible, unmediated by reliance on clerical elites with privileged access to sacred languages. One had to cultivate in ordinary people the confidence that judgment regarding the ultimate questions of human existence could repose on their own responsibility rather than being appropriated by supposed spiritual elites. This was in itself an intellectual revolution of inestimable proportions, and (as Heine's thesis implies) any subsequent liberation of ordinary lay judgment was founded on the enormous democratizing promise contained in the Reformation. It is no surprise, then, that both Maistre and Nietzsche reject the Reformation as bitterly as they do, for it is what ultimately clears the way for what became the Enlightenment and then liberalism.
Highly relevant to the contemporary neofascist revival is the fact that since the Enlightenment, a line of important thinkers has considered life in liberal modernity to be profoundly dehumanizing. Thinkers in this category include, but are not limited to, Maistre, Nietzsche, Carl Schmitt, and Heidegger. For such thinkers, liberal modernity is so humanly degrading that one ought to (if one could) undo the French Revolution and its egalitarian ideal and perhaps cancel out the whole moral legacy of Christianity. For all of them, hierarchy and rootedness are more morally compelling than equality and individual liberty; democracy diminishes our humanity rather than elevates it. We are unlikely to understand why fascism is still kicking around in the twenty-first century unless we are able to grasp why certain intellectuals of the early twentieth century gravitated toward fascism—namely, on account of a grim preoccupation with the perceived soullessness of modernity and a resolve to embrace any politics, however extreme, that seemed to them to promise "spiritual renewal," to quote Heidegger.
For these thinkers (and their contemporary adherents), liberalism, egalitarianism, and democracy are a recipe for absolute deracination and hence for a profound contraction of the human spirit, which presumably is what Heidegger had in mind when he spoke of spiritual renewal. In one decisive text, Heidegger asserted that he learned from Nietzsche that democracy is ultimately nihilism. We can unpack that seemingly odd statement by saying that for the political-philosophical tradition within which Heidegger stands, the French Revolution inaugurates a moral universe where authority resides with the herd, not with the shepherd; with the mass, not with the elite; and as a consequence, ultimately the whole experience of life spirals down into unbearable shallowness and meaninglessness. That's a short unpacking; the full story will be the work of this book as a whole. What's true of philosophy in general applies especially to these thinkers: in order to see what is at stake in their thought, one has to look at the forest, not just the trees. (I'm inclined to view the interpretation of great thinkers as something akin to the vocation of murder detectives solving particularly difficult cases. It is, I would say, forensic riddle-solving without the blood.)
Let us come back once more to Richard Spencer. Prior to the election of Trump, it would have been unthinkable to imagine that a lunatic ideologue like him could have any connections, however remote, to the corridors of power in the most powerful republic in the Western world. It is a sobering reflection on our current situation to note that that is no longer true. Soon after the election, Spencer, obviously energized by an outcome that he (and many others) saw as a triumph for the alt-right, released a podcast in which he said the following: "I think [ex-White House Chief Strategist Stephen K.] Bannon is a wild card, and a wild card is good. . . . Bannon has made gestures towards us; he's said Breitbart is a platform for the alt-right. He's apparently read Julius Evola and Alexander Dugin. Make of that what you will. . . . We want a wild card; we want change. So, I think Bannon is a good thing." Bannon himself played to this kind of radicalism when he boasted that the Trump regime, under his guidance, would entail "the birth of a new political order."
Where do we look in trying to trace the source of the virulently antiliberal, antidemocratic radicalism of a Richard Spencer? According to an August 31, 2015, story in the Chicago Tribune, Spencer "credits his time at the University of Chicago . . . for his intellectual flowering, which includes a kinship with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche." During a master's program, completed in 2003, he apparently took a graduate seminar on Nietzsche and was hooked. Obviously, not many people taking seminars on the thought of Nietzsche in grad school will turn into neofascists. It doesn't follow from that fact that there aren't things in Nietzsche's work (or in Heidegger's) capable of turning people into neofascists. And clearly this wouldn't be the urgent cause for worry that it currently is if it weren't true that our contemporary world is populated by far more neofascists than we may have imagined until quite recently.
One of the typically odious far-right websites features a book review of a recent book by Jason Jorjani in which the reviewer suggests that "Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, [Alain] de Benoist, [Guillaume] Faye, Dugin, etc." constitute "the alt-Right canon." The omission of Evola is surprising, but the listing of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Schmitt as 1, 2, 3 is surely quite telling. Richard Spencer, at a press conference during the same alt-right gathering at which he delivered his "Hail Trump" speech, said that the difference between the alt-right and others on the right is that "we read books." And these are the books that they read. Obviously, we don't want this to turn into an exercise in conspiracy theorizing. Let's leave that to the ideologues. But if something is dangerous, we need to be aware that it's dangerous. And that awareness has been woefully lacking in regard to several of the most influential philosophers of the last 150 years. The contemporary resurgence of far-right politics forces us to command heightened vigilance with respect to the directly practical implications of what Mark Lilla in 2001 called "the reckless mind," or what Georg Lukács in 1952 called "the destruction of reason."
"Where are the barbarians of the twentieth century?" Nietzsche poses that question in The Will to Power (§ 868). Those sympathetic to Nietzsche (apart from fascists) have needed to find some way to brush past it and many similar statements, treating them as a kind of joke or just a provocation. Of course merely a few decades after Nietzsche wrote these words, the world knew exactly where these barbarians could be found—in the very heart of Europe. We could perhaps revert to the benign view of why Nietzsche asked that question if someone could give us absolute assurances that there would be no similar barbarians in the twenty-first century. But today we know for a fact that no such assurances are forthcoming.
Clover, in Black Wind, White Snow, writes the following about the ideological landscape in Russia during the Yeltsin years: "For many provincial Russian youths, languishing in stultifying mining towns and crushing poverty, the NBP [the neofascist political party co-led by Dugin and Eduard Limonov in the 1990s] offered a rush of adrenalin." It seems strange to think that there could be anything in common between Yeltsin-era Russia and contemporary America; yet ideologically, surveying the scene in 2017, it does seem as if there is some kind of thread joining them. Let me try out my own version of Clover's sentence (which may be a highly imperfect parallel in all kinds of ways and yet may still capture something important): "For many young people in the suburbs and small towns of the American heartland, facing the despair of unemployment or the even worse despair of stultifying and meaningless work in anonymous offices, the alt-right offers a rush of adrenaline."
Hopefully no reader of my book will draw from it the unfortunate conclusion that we should just walk away from Nietzsche and Heidegger—that is, stop reading them. On the contrary, I think we need to read them in ways that make us more conscious of, more reflective about, and more self-critical of the limits of the liberal view of life and hence what defines that view of life. That's something that we should certainly do, and if we fail to do it, it will be at our own peril. But if one is handling intellectually radioactive materials, one has to be much less naïve about what one is dealing with. We must read these thinkers with our eyes fully open to the aspects of their thought that express revulsion for and a despising of the liberal (and liberal-democratic) view of life, for those aspects of their thought are unquestionably a part—indeed, a central part—of their thought. We need to open our eyes, at once intellectually, morally, and politically, to just how dangerous they are.
Table of Contents
Introduction. Nietzschean Ideologies in the Twenty-First Century
Chapter 1. Reading Nietzsche in an Age of Resurgent Fascism
Chapter 2. Reading Heidegger in an Age of Resurgent Fascism
Conclusion. How to Do Theory in Politically Treacherous Times