Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882)
Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being.
Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (1871)
Corey Robin has a fascinating, very long post up at The Nation on the possible (or even likely) connections between Nietzsche and the Austrian school economists (Hayek, von Mises and their American disciples). He’s added a bit at Crooked Timber, where a lively discussion is underway.
Here’s his opening:
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.”
The benefit of Robin’s article is that it doesn’t dismiss libertarian thought out of hand, as most leftist critiques might be tempted to do, but takes it very seriously and digs deep into its roots, showing precisely where the ancestral ideas that gave rise to our right-wing, market-obsessed American brethren diverged from the extremist right-wing ideology of the fascists in Germany. Libertarians may find the article unsettling, if they take Robin’s arguments as seriously as he takes theirs. Most Americans, left or right, may find it a disturbing read. I certainly did.
What disturbed me about it? To begin with, Robin overturns the truism that Nietzsche was apolitical and shows that, in fact, he was anti-democratic, anti-labor, and anti-socialist–in short, that the Nietzschean roots of Nazism were not just a figment of Hitler’s imagination. Anti-socialist? Then how can Nietzsche be a grandfather of National Socialism, you might ask. Well, as uncomfortable as ambiguity and paradox are to the American mind, Robin uncovers the strains in Nietzsche’s thought that certainly appealed to the quixotic-heroic, anti-communist, and violence-worshiping among the Nazi ideologists, even if Nietzsche himself might not have found much to admire in return if he’d lived long enough.
So what if Nietzsche influenced the Nazis? Didn’t he also influence left libertarians and anarchists, not to mention lots of other non-political thinkers and movements? Why should anyone care what Nietzsche thought, anyway, or what anyone else thought of Nietzsche for that matter?
I think what troubles me is that, more than any other modern philosopher, Nietzsche diagnosed the sickness of the modern age when many others weren’t even aware the patient was in bed. Here’s how Robin puts it:
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.
While many of us on the left have believed that our “present moment” resulted from a direct line of consequences of the French Revolution–or are the efforts to get those consequences more in line with the “noble” aspects of the revolution, the liberté, egalité, fraternité parts rather than the terror part–we have missed the likelihood that, in fact, we owe the opponents of the revolution much more credit for the state of post-Enlightenment “Christendom,” if you will, than many of us will be comfortable admitting. Put simply, it’s the enemies of the revolution who are holding the reins now, if they haven’t been holding them all along. Barack Obama may have won the election on behalf of the majorities emerging from the formerly disenfranchised, but he is governing at the pleasure (or mercy) of the Nietzschean übermenschen at the top of the global hierarchy.
What disturbed me most about this article is the seductiveness of the vision of those übermenschen, or, at least, of their ideologues in the Austrian school and their acolytes. Ron Paul and his son Rand claim to be among those who have seen the light Hayek shone for them, but for people so fixated on freedom, they never seem to talk about Hayek’s teacher and founder of the Austrian school, Carl Menger. Robin provides a great service by bringing Menger’s thought front and center and showing how it provides the missing link between Nietzsche and today’s free-marketeers.
I’d never heard of the man myself until a few months ago when Max Keiser interviewed Sandeep Jaitly about his contention (in a Tweet, of all places) that “If it ain’t Menger or his direct student Eugene [sic] Von BB, it ain’t Austrian. Sorry #Mises : respectfully, too many mistakes were made.” I won’t go into Jaitly’s arguments (or explain who Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk is) because as Thomas Woods, a senior fellow at the Mises Institute said of Kaiser during this interview, assessment of their libertarian validity is beyond my comfort zone. But Woods’ critique of Jaitly demonstrates how modern libertarians have displaced Menger from the center of the school he founded in favor of sexier figures like Mises and Hayek.
Why does Menger seem to be the key for Robin? Take a look at the quotes that form the epigraph for this post and you’ll get a hint. More than just agreeing that value is subjective (i.e, determined in human minds rather than being based on some external absolute–gold is just a shiny yellow metal until humans desire it), Menger and Nietzsche furthermore seem to agree on the nature of freedom, or at least on the idea of a hierarchy of freedom, an idea the Nazis shared with both thinkers. As Robin puts it, at the very center of his argument:
While there are precedents for this argument in Menger’s theory of value (the fewer opportunities there are for the satisfaction of our needs, Menger says, the more our choices will reveal which needs we value most), its true and full dimensions can best be understood in relation to Nietzsche. As much as Nietzsche railed against the repressive effect of laws and morals on the highest types, he also appreciated how much “on earth of freedom, subtlety, boldness, dance, and masterly sureness” was owed to these constraints. Confronted with a set of social strictures, the diverse and driving energies of the self were forced to draw upon unknown and untapped reserves of ingenuity—either to overcome these obstacles or to adapt to them with the minimum of sacrifice. The results were novel, value-creating.
Nietzsche’s point was primarily aesthetic. Contrary to the romantic notion of art being produced by a process of “letting go,” Nietzsche insisted that the artist “strictly and subtly…obeys thousandfold laws.” The language of invention—whether poetry, music or speech itself—is bound by “the metrical compulsion of rhyme and rhythm.” Such laws are capricious in their origin and tyrannical in their effect. That is the point: from that unforgiving soil of power and whimsy rises the most miraculous increase. Not just in the arts—Goethe, say, or Beethoven—but in politics and ethics as well: Napoleon, Caesar, Nietzsche himself (“Genuine philosophers…are commanders and legislators: they say, ‘thus it shall be!’”).
One school would find expression for these ideas in fascism. Writers like Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt imagined political artists of great novelty and originality forcing their way through or past the filtering constraints of everyday life. The leading legal theorist of the Third Reich, Schmitt looked to those extraordinary instances in politics—war, the “decision,” the “exception”—when “the power of real life,” as he put it in Political Theology, “breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” In that confrontation between mechanism and real life, the man of exception would find or make his moment: by taking an unauthorized decision, ordaining a new regime of law, or founding a political order. In each case, something was “created out of nothingness.”
It was the peculiar—and, in the long run, more significant—genius of the Austrian school to look for these moments and experiences not in the political realm but in the marketplace. Money in a capitalist economy, Hayek came to realize, could best be understood and defended in Nietzschean terms: as “the medium through which a force”—the self’s “desire for power to achieve unspecified ends”—“makes itself felt.”
Interesting to me is Hayek’s use of the word “force” there because of the undertones of violence the word carries. Reading Woods’ critique of Jaitly, I saw this very interesting and useful unraveling of Kaiser’s confusion over libertarians vs. Objectivists, a confusion I struggle with myself (my emphasis):
(1) [Objectivism founder Ayn] Rand herself emphatically rejected the libertarian label.
(2) Most libertarians are not Objectivists. (So if Objectivism were flawed, libertarianism would be left untouched.)
(3) Libertarianism is committed at root to only one principle: nonaggression. Theories of value, important as they are, are extraneous to libertarianism. So again, no problem.
(4) Rand was not speaking about technical economics, or about economics at all, when she called her philosophy Objectivism.
And here is where I think Robin’s article has the potential to disturb not only leftists like myself, in disabusing us of our premature and misplaced hope that, regardless of the present moment, history has been progressing and will again progress for the benefit of all equally. I think it also has the potential of disturbing our friends on the libertarian right in the US who may have naively believed the Austrian school was about (or could be adapted to be about) liberty and justice for all. As Robin points out, their beloved Hayek was certainly no libertarian–that is, unless the liberty at stake was that of the “creative” or “order” maker. “At the height of Augusto Pinochet’s power in Chile, ” Robin writes,
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.”
In fine, Hayek and the Austrian school were not concerned anymore than Nietzsche with the hopes and dreams of the masses of people. Nietzsche despised the masses. He saw them as obstacles to “the good” only the heroic superman could design and implement in the world. He was nauseated by the morality, which he saw rooted in the slave-morality of Christianity, that called it good to care about the masses. He hated the communards of the 1872 Paris uprising and rooted for their destruction by force. Hayek and company may not have felt the same disgust toward working people as their forebear, but when push came to shove, it’s clear whose push and shove they stood behind. It wasn’t the working class’s.
- The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism (coreyrobin.com)
- Nietzsche & The Death of God (volitionsphilosophy.wordpress.com)
- Nietzsche von Hayek on Merit (coreyrobin.com)
- The Idle Rich and the Working Stiff: Nietzche von Hayek on Capital v. Labor (coreyrobin.com)