Another Liberty Canon: Nietzsche

The political interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a constantly fraught issue. Amongst other things he has been taken as an anti- or non-political thinker and as responsible for the worst aspects of German politics in the twentieth century. However, that latter view is not supported by any Nietzsche scholars.

The reasons for that include his opposition to the anti-Semites of his time (after a youthful leaning in that direction with regard to culture rather than race) and his opposition to the militarist-statist-nationalist aspects of Prussian and German politics in his time, again after early leanings towards culturally oriented nationalism. The tendency to put culture above the state and take it as something of a replacement for politics was constant.

The anti-politics is itself not incompatible with some kinds of libertarian and classical liberal thinking, though in Nietzsche’s case it goes along with a constant inclination to talk about power, the state, and other politically charged issues. He was stateless for most of adult life, as he had to renounce Prussian citizenship to take up a Professorship in Basel, Switzerland in 1869, not long before the King of Prussia became the Emperor of a newly unified Germany, dominated by Prussia. Nietzsche himself was in any case from a part of Saxony, annexed by Prussia early in the nineteenth century.

In any case, Nietzsche did not present himself as a Saxon or a Prussian after leaving Germany and only lived in Germany after 1889, when he was incapacitated by paralysis, now generally believed to the the result of a brain tumour, and was looked after by his mother and sister.  Nietzsche did not have any citizenship after moving to Basel and though it was easier to travel round Europe in those days  without a state issued passport, it is still a remarkable position.

Nietzsche was not completely free of racist assumptions, but hardly to a degree at all unusual for his time, and he did not see race as a suitable basis for analysing the Europe of his time, since he thought races had become completely mingled in antiquity. He was inclined towards various forms of elitism, sometimes in a quite extreme way as when he claimed admiration for the Indian caste system, though in a very brief provocative way.

On the whole his elitism was devoted towards the self-creation of an individuality of great strength, great plural possibilities and the capacity to unify those possibilities in creation and in a creatively lived life. He had anxieties about mass culture and the rise of democracy, but there is not much to separate his substantive concerns from the general concerns of liberals of the nineteenth century, as in Alexis de Tocqueville’s analysis of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and democratic mediocrity in culture in Democracy in America.

Nietzsche is sometimes referred to as the definitive anti-liberal, but a lot of this rests on associating liberalism with egalitarian (i.e. left, progressivist) liberalism. If we look at the classical liberals from Locke to Mill (who is a bit transitional between the two broad liberal approaches), we of course see that egalitarianism at least with regard to distribution of income and property, is not a central goal. There is growing interest in expanding legal and political equality beyond an aristocratic elite to the population as a whole, and criticism of aristocratic, monarchical, guild, and merchant-financial wealth where linked to political-monopolistic-protectionist privileges.

Nietzsche regards threats to personal, intellectual and cultural excellence as a possible outcome of democracy, but is also critical of the traditional state, referring to it sometimes as monstrous, and allows for the possibility of it becoming much reduced through transferring functions to the private economy. He was concerned that liberalism might betray liberty by building institutions which constrain the original liberal ideas. So he was not a complete critic of liberalism, but rather sets out ideals of self-development and individual flouring which are likely to be constrained by the state.

Though he mentions the possibility of replacing state functions with private economic activity, he was critical of commercial spirit. He feared that commercial orientation tends to reduce individual capacities, because of the ways in which it leads to individuals concerning themselves with the wants of other individuals. For most pro-liberty people, this is Nietzsche accurately identifying something good about capitalism and then rejecting it, which does at least leave Nietzsche as a good analyst.

Beyond this though, Nietzsche who never advocates a socialist economy or a return to pre-capitalist economics, is doing something similar to his criticism of liberal political institutions. He is showing that liberal commercial society both sets up an ideal of strong individuality, which it needs and then undermines it through the constraints of economic life. So the reason for a critical attitude towards capitalism is recognition of the tension between the kind of individuality produced by earlier societies which revolves around struggling with nature for survival and often wars with other states, and the kind of individuality produced by working to provide more than the mere means of survival for others in societies based round rising economic prosperity.

This tension was recognised by classical liberal thinkers like Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt.  Nietzsche takes further the concern that individualism requires an individual self-directed struggle for increased physical and psychological capacities, and that the culture of commercial society produces an economic elite that seems hardly distinguished from the mass in its personal style and culture, so fails to provide any example of greatness and excellence in these respects.

A classical style liberal of the twentieth century, Joseph Schumpeter (most famous as author of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942), argued that individualistic capitalism tends to undermine itself through the creation of corporate bureaucracies, where commercial constraints may become separate from much decision making, and where individual creativity is stifled. Many liberty oriented thinkers have noted the tendency of capitalists to undermine capitalism by seeking a privileged relation with the state, so accepting the mediocrity of state imposed uniformity.

Nietzsche was hyperbolic and expressive and little informed about economics, but the hyperbole has a precise aim in drawing our attention to problems, and Nietzsche’s cultural capacities (including a strong interest in natural sciences) made him sensitive to some features of capitalist and democratic societies, which need to be counteracted if excellence is to flourish.

If one thinks that liberty merely, only, and purely means lack of state constraint, Nietzsche’s thoughts may not seem so meaningful. However, if we see liberty as including not only restraints on state power, but the value of individual pursuit of excellence for its own sake and to produce individuals who are not conformist and state-centered, then Nietzsche must be one of the great thinkers about liberty.

As with Kierkegaard, it is difficult to recommend a single major Nietzsche text on political thought. On the Genealogy of Morality tends to be the starting point for discussion of his political ideas, but covers many other topics, and Human, All Too Human contains his thoughts on the possibility of a reduced state in a commercial society. Untimely MeditationsDawnThus Spoke Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, Twilight of the IdolsThe Anti-Christ, Birth of Tragedy, Ecce Homo, and The Gay Science are the other books of Nietzsche, and all contain passages discussed by commentators on Nietzsche and politics.

5 thoughts on “Another Liberty Canon: Nietzsche

  1. Thanks for posting this. Nietzsche is one of my favorite personal philosophers, and I think he is mostly misunderstood. I would recommend The Gay Science for the contrast it offers between his early views and his later ones.

  2. I would have appreciated references in support of the author’s interpretation. At one time or or another I have read probably every word Nietzsche wrote, and it would not have occured to me that he had any affinity for liberal society. He did, as I recall, herald the powerful individual as a type, but did not believe that most of humanity fell into that type. Thus his disdain for democracy as anathema to what he admired and desired.

    • I don’t think blogging as a form really lends itself to footnoting and scholarly apparatus, and I never provide this when blogging on various platforms. It is already a very long post. If anyone really wants to follow up what I’m saying, there is the book I have co-edited *Nietzsche as Political Philosopher* on which is linked to in the right hand column of this blog. Many points of view are represented, anyway it does shows a significant long standing body of thought exists which regards Nietzsche as relevant to liberal and democratic thought. There is a book on Nietzsche from a libertarian point of view by Lester Hunt, *Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtue*, I did invite him to contribute to the volume, but be couldn’t fit it into his schedule unfortunately. Anyway his book is out there. The book I co-edited is rather expensive, so for those who can’t get hold of it or don’t have access to a library which orders it, I can only offer the draft of my own contribution on Nietzsche and Humboldt which can be found at academia.edu at this link https://www.academia.edu/2241980/Nietzsche_and_Classical_Liberalism_Wilhelm_von_Humboldt. It’s also possible to find my specific comments on particular passages of Nietzsche by searching my own blog for Nietzsche discussions. Go to http://stockerb.wordpress.com (Stockerblog) and enter Nietzsche in the search box at the right hand top. I will continue to write on this in my blogging and academic texts, drafts of which are posted regularly at my academia.edu page. Apart from that I can just summarise what I said in the post, by saying that 1. There is an aristocratic element to liberalism suspicious and skeptical of modern democracy in varying degrees, I give Tocqueville as the main example. 2. That very elitist individualism has spill over effects in promoting an ideal of individual striving which disperses over time amongst increasingly broad parts of the population. I can then only ask readers to read/re-read Nietzsche with the sort of points I have made, or Lester Hunt makes, in mind and test them against what is in Nietzsche. One thing I didn’t mention in the post of relevance is that Ayn Rand had clearly read Nietzsche and been influenced by him, but did not care to say so. I’m not a big Ayn Rand fan, and I didn’t want to bring that whole issue into the already very long post, but those who are interested in Ayn Rand’s contributions to liberty may wish to think about that.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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