Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Liberalism

Recently, my friend Kristen sent me an e-mail from a friend of hers named Shawn she had gone to undergraduate school with. Knowing she was a scholar of German philosophy, he had a few questions for her. However, Kristen has since decided she is called to become a nun, and so has left such concerns behind her. For that reason, she sent the questions to me, asking me if I could answer them for her friend. I told her I was happy to.

Shawn asked quite a few good questions. So good, that each one is going to take quite a bit to answer them. I asked him if I could post his questions and my answers here, and he said I could, so here is the first. The rest will follow as I get time to answer them. Perhaps we can get a good discussion going on here.

Shawn asks: “Why is it that so many liberal thinkers are fascinated with Nietzsche and Heidegger when their metaphysical and political philosophies are so conservative and illiberal? As you probably remember in college, I, like a lot of undergrads, was fascinated with Nietzsche (Heidegger's philosophy was a but more challenging to me). However, with my background in political theory, I have come to the conclusion that Nietzsche's philosophy (and not simply his political philosophy) is highly aristocratic. He believes in equality among equals, not democratic equality. Since historically aristocracies have supported monarchies against the interests of the people and the bourgeoisie, I find my interest in Nietzsche highly problematic. In the past, I thought that people who identified Nietzsche with fascism were way off base, but now I am not so sure. Politically, fascism isn't simply authoritarianism; it is the aristocratic and monarchical destruction of the achievements of bourgeois democracy, which, though it is in itself class-based, its destruction or dismantlement is not progress, but regress. True socialism surpasses bourgeois democracy; it is a dictatorship (i.e. the restoration and corruption of monarchical rule) that destroys it. So I find it interesting that so many people "use" Nietzsche as a critic of traditional metaphysics (Platonic/Christian "Oneness"), when traditional metaphysicians are more complex than this critique. For example, as an aristocrat himself, Plato wasn't necessarily a champion of democracy (but what traditional theorist was?), but at least his metaphysics attempted to united the one and the many, to create a dialogue politically. What so many philosophers have forgotten is the dominance of the few (aristocracy, oligarchy)--the true threat to "the people"--besides monarchy and dictatorship.”

The first thing we have to address is how we are to properly use political labels. The term “liberal” is particularly problematic here in the U.S., and we have to compare that liberalism to European liberalism – the liberalism being addressed by Nietzsche and Heidegger.

The terms “liberal,” “conservative,” “Left,” and “right” all come about post-Renaissance. With the Age of Enlightenment, we see the development of liberalism as a response to the monarchical/aristocratic governments of the Medieval and Renaissance eras. A liberal in this sense was one who wanted political, economic, social, and religious liberty. The aristocracy and Church controlled the government, the economy, the society, and imposed Catholicism on everyone. Ideas of elected government and other anti-aristocratic ideas, of free markets, of free, open societies, and of people to freely believe as they wished were what exemplified liberalism. Those who were pro-aristocracy were thus the conservatives in Europe. In America, the American Revolution was founded on these very liberal ideas. That being the case, in the U.S., someone who supported the ideals of the American Revolution would make them a “conservative,” which is where the real confusion begins in the U.S. (aside from the fact that most U.S. “conservatives” aren’t conservative in this fashion any more).

Before we get to the problems of labels in the U.S., let’s return to Europe, where the labels began. The next set of labels came about with the French Revolution, whose ideology was based in no small part on the anti-Enlightenment philosophy of Rousseau. Though an anti-Enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau was no “conservative” in the European sense, but was rather a political radical. The French Revolutionaries became the Left because they sat on the left side of the Parliament. The royalists say on the right, and became the Right. The French Revolutionary Left were not liberals, but were rather revolutionaries and radical egalitarianists. They believed they could design a perfect society by placing themselves in power, controlling the economy, and abolishing religion, replacing the Church with the State. The consequence was that the Right supported the idea of an Emperor. The only real difference was that the former was inherited, while the latter was supposed to be held by the one with superior reasoning abilities. Both positions were illiberal in the original sense of the term “liberal,” but came from different sources.

Nietzsche saw European liberalism as inevitably leading to Rousseauean Leftism and, thus, to nihilism. Nietzsche was indeed anti-egalitarianism and pro-aristocratic in the sense that “aristos” means “best.” Egalitarianism, which sees people as equal in actuality, is anti-aristos, not believing in “the best” or that “the best” should have any sort of position over anyone, whether earned or not. Nietzsche recognized that this would lead to a society of the lowest common denominator, that being the only way to actually achieve egalitarianism. We see this egalitarianism in Rousseau’s celebration of the destruction of the Great Library because it resulted in the destruction of so many great works. There is a certain degree to which Leftism is rooted in and encourages envy, covetousness, and resentment – the latter of which received particularly strong criticism from Nietzsche as the source of much that was wrong in society at large, and in the politics of his day in particular.

In the U.S. we have a lot of confusion over these terms. The U.S. was founded as an anti-aristocratic country, and as such has never had a Right. America’s liberalism was first opposed by a pseudo-aristocratic South, and later by progressivism. American progressivism was a sort of grass-roots Leftism that catered to peoples’ prejudices and racism, though it eventually, by fusing with fascist and Marxist ideas from Europe, became an American Leftist movement. Since liberalism was the founding ideology of the U.S., it became American conservatism; since “liberalism” opposed “conservatism,” the opponents of the conservatives became the liberals, even though American liberalism was almost the complete opposite of European liberalism, was indeed an anti-liberal political philosophy. Now, because of such things as the “Reagan coalition,” there whose who support a fundamentalist Christian social policy, those who support a strong military, and those who (more or less) support a free market are brought together, this has become American conservatism. The creation of the Libertarian Party in the 70’s, where European liberalism has made its home, has further solidified this identity among conservatives. Modern American liberalism, which is really a combination of progressivism and Leftism, no longer finds its home in European liberalism, but is actually Rousseauean in character, heavily flavored with other anti-liberal thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the postmodernists. To some degree American liberalism does appear take on social liberal ideas (in this way European liberalism is split between American conservatives, who take some liberal economic ideas, and American liberals, who take on some liberal social ideas), but even that is tempered by political correctness, an ideology rooted in Heideggerian philosophy. Indeed, we can trace the philosophy of postmodernism, which strongly informs the modern American Left, to both Heideggerian Nazism and Marxism. The apparent social liberalism of American liberalism is actually rooted far more in ‘60’s Dionysianism than it is in traditional liberal ideology. Thus, what we call “liberalism” in the U.S. is in fact rooted in a social Dionysianism (from Nietzsche), tempered by political correctness (from Heidegger), an economy based on control and regulation (from Marx and fascism), and populist politics (whose roots are the same as those of fascism) that give the people the freedom to democratically vote away their freedoms. It was this last tendency of democracy which put Nietzsche in opposition to it, because he saw this as a nihilistic tendency inherent in democracy.

This, of course, brings us to the issue of kinds of government and the way we use (and misuse) those terms. When we talk about democracy, only rarely do we actually talk about democracy. In a democracy people vote on the laws, with no intermediary. Majority rules, which means minorities suffer. Thus, true democracy is really tyranny of the majority. When we talk about “democracy,” we usually mean “republic,” where the people vote to elect representatives to propose, debate ,and vote on laws. Republics come in different flavors: nationalist, federalist, and confederate; constitutional and non-constitutional; parliamentary and divided. The U.S. government, for example, is a divided, constitutional, federalist republic. The E.U. is a parliamentary, constitutional, confederate republic. Revolutionary France was a parliamentary, non-constitutional, nationalist republic (until it became a dictatorship). When we talk about democracy, we typically mean some sort of parliamentary republic.

Other forms of government include monarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy, and oligarcy. The only difference between the first two is in the way one gets power. Too often we mistake oligarchy with aristocracy. Indeed, if aristocracy is rule of the best, there may in fact have never been such a government, but only various forms of oligarcy (rule by the few) supporting monarchy/dictatorship. In this sense, the government of the Soviet Union was in fact no different from the Czarist government it replaced, though one was pre-liberal, and the other post-liberal.

One thing to remember with Nietzsche is that he’s a lot more careful than the vast majority of us are with words. When he argues for aristocracy, he’s no conservative, because he knows that there has never been an aristocracy. Further, we have to look at Nietzsche’s positions on the governments at the time. He opposed the unification of Germany into a single political entity – a nation-state. He favored Germany as a sort of cultural confederacy, with political power distributed and decentralized. He repeatedly warned against the nihilistic tendencies inherent in democracy, but Nietzsche was known to attack certain people, ideas, and institutions to strengthen them. Nietzsche saw agon, struggle, as a way of making something strong. Thus, Nietzsche’s anti-liberalism was a way to try to eliminate the weaknesses inherent in liberalism, which seemed (and in the end proved) to be leading to nihilism. Further, he saw a need for “the best” to be protected from the resentful majority of people, who would seek, through democratic institutions, to destroy the best – and do so at their own expense. Nietzsche in fact wanted a non-political aristocracy to “rule” – a best that would rise up naturally and rule by example and deed, not by exercise of political power and arms. It would be an aristocracy of artists, poets, philosophers, scholars, and scientists, not one of self-serving, more-often-than-not ignorant politicians and political power-seekers. These, and the people themselves, were the true threat to the people, not the kind of aristocracy Nietzsche had in mind.

Heidegger is an entirely different case, as he was a lifelong, unapologetic member of the Nazi party, and considered himself a fascist through and through. Heidegger’s anti-liberalism extended both to European liberalism and to its offspring, Rousseauean/Marxist Leftism (this is his source for saying the U.S. and USSR were metaphyiscally the same and equally “unrooted”). Heidegger fancied himself the eventual “philosopher-king” over the Nazi “guardians” with the German people toiling in blissful ignorance in the German soil. Too many on the American Left see themselves in the same way, convinced that “if only the right people were in charge” (i.e., them), then socialism would finally work, because they, after all, are the super-rational “philosopher-king” who knows what’s best for all. But it’s Heidegger’s language philosophy that is most attractive to the American Left, because he is the source of the idea that language controls thought, meaning if we change the language, we can change thinking. This is the source of political correctness. (Steven Pinker shows Heidegger and the postmodernists have this backward.) The American Left have tried to change the way we speak of things and people.

In short, American liberals look to Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the postmodernists because American liberals are themselves anti-liberal in the European, originary sense of the term. So too are American conservatives, but their anti-liberalism is rooted in fundamentalist Christianity rather than in ideas that arose post-Enlightenment. The conservatives oppose liberalism because it undermines and opposes the fundamentalist Christian worldview. The “liberals” oppose liberalism because they have moved “beyond” it, into Rousseaueanism, Marxism, and postmodernism. Nietzsche opposed all three, in a critique we are still learning to understand. But do not mistake Nietzsche’s political ideas for fascism, as they were anti-nationalist, anti-socialist, and anti-discriminatory – in other words, deeply anti-fascist. It’s unfortunate that he was used by so many whose ideas he so deeply opposed just because of his critique of liberalism.

Finally, let me address the issue of fascism and “true socialism,” particularly the implication that fascism is somehow pre-liberal. Certainly fascism had some pre-liberal elements to it, not the least of which were its racism, including an idea of a racial aristocracy that could and should wipe out all those “below” them (thus creating an egalitarian world). However, we have to consider the fact that fascism supported free health care,
guaranteed jobs,
confiscated inherited wealth,
spent vast sums on public education,
prohibited smoking,
supported abortion,
supported euthanasia, supported gun control,
provided generous pensions for the elderly,
maintained a strict racial quota system in the universities,
promoted campus speech codes,
encouraged organic farming,
promoted alternative medicine, supported
animal rights, and, loathing the free market, had a
socialist economy. By any stretch of the imagination, this is the outline for a modern Leftist state. All of these are decidedly illiberal in the European sense of the term, but they are the very things we hear American liberals promoting. The outcome of fascism may have been regress, but the intention was a Leftist-style progress into a post-liberal, post-bourgeois State. This is perhaps why fascism was able to find a comfortable home with Marxism in postmodern philosophy. And this is why American liberals are so comfortable with Nietzsche’s critique of liberalism and with Heidegger’s outright opposition to it.

Finally, let me draw your attention to a few things I have posted in the past. I reviewed Richard Wolin, who has written about the origins of postmodern thought in fascist thinking. Further, consider the above observations in light of my observations about an emergentist theory of psychosociology and its application to history.
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