Our New Nietzschean Overlords

No, despite the Simpsons reference, I do not welcome them.  Nor does Lee Smith, who understands the Nietzschean roots of the Left in its current incarnation, including our President.  (HT: Richard Fernandez.) Fascism was always a movement of the Left.  What is new is that fascism now dominates the Left, in Western nations, at least.

I urge you to read the entire article.  Here’s a taste:

Many of the veterans of the Western left are at pains to point out to their younger colleagues that their admiration for the Islamic Resistance is misplaced, that Hezbollah does not share their progressive values, their interest in, say, women’s rights or gay marriage. But it is the old-time leftists who are mistaken, for the rising generation that admires Hezbollah knows all that – and as I said, it is not about values. Indeed, to couch it in the terms appropriate to the matter at hand, there has been a trans-valuation of values.

To understand why the Western left admires the Islamic Resistance, it is most useful – and timely – to consider Iran’s Islamic Revolution, and its most famous Western advocate, Michel Foucault. The French historian was the most talented heir to a long line of mid-twentieth-century French intellectuals whose formative experience was World War II. Writers like Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris were among those who, in the wake of two Europe-wide wars that left many tens of millions dead, spoke of the purgative nature of violence. What the conflagration had exposed, in their view, was that more violence yet was required to cleanse the West of its hypocrisy, the sickness that started with the Enlightenment and culminated in those two wars.

The intellectuals turned against liberalism, and all it entailed. “Industrial capitalism,” Foucault said, had emerged as “the harshest, most savage, most selfish, most dishonest, oppressive society one could possibly imagine.” Foucault sought out other politics and practices, and in 1978 the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra sent him to Tehran to cover the revolution then taking shape. He wrote, “It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and most insane.” Don’t be confused by what has become mainstream anti-globalization rhetoric; the main theme is in the insanity.

It’s bizarre that these intellectuals turned against democratic liberalism in the aftermath of World War II, as if Churchill and Roosevelt, rather than Mussolini and Hitler, had been the ones responsible for the disaster.  What sort of reading of history does such a response require?  And is it any surprise that these intellectuals turned their sights not only on democracy and liberal values but also on truth, evidence, and objectivity, since no objective or even vaguely reasonable account of history could support their interpretation of events?

Foucault’s hero was Nietzsche, apostle of the will to power. In the view of the European post-Nietzscheans, the real problem with liberal humanism wasn’t its repressive nature, but that it repressed the wrong people. It leveled the playing field with the result that everyone was mediocre. What Nietzsche called slave morality meant in effect that slaves were to be granted the same rights as their masters, the bourgeois were entitled to the same privileges as the aristocrats of spirit. Democracy and liberalism had stripped the world of its primordial magic. Rather, the authentic life was to be found in the charisma of the great leader and his stark displays of power, the superman who transcended bourgeois values.  It is said that Foucault was later disappointed by the Iranian Revolution, but make no mistake: He knew exactly what he was looking at in the orgiastic violence and the bright blood spilled in the streets of Tehran.

Thirty years after the Islamic Revolution and a quarter century after the death of Foucault, an entire generation of Western Europeans and Americans, the cream of our cultural elite, has been shaped by an intellectual current that despises liberalism and dismisses as mediocre the universal humanism that prizes the same values across cultures, from the US and Europe to the Middle East. Instead, it welcomes the return of the magic, the blood and power, the violence of the strongman.

Smith’s analysis insightfully points to the Romantic foundations of the Leftist worldview.  Marx and Engels, Mussolini and Hitler, Foucault and Fanon, Marcuse and Obama—all are essentially heirs of the Romantic movement, its hostility to Reason and objectivity, its admiration for subjectivity, authenticity, and passion, and its longing for a mythical, mystical, meaningful past.  The Left, not even remotely progressive, yearns to return to a golden age that never was, and is willing to to pay any price—even, or perhaps especially, in blood—to get there.

7 thoughts on “Our New Nietzschean Overlords

  1. Just from reading this, I am not convinced. Our society become oppressive and started to strip us of our rights not too long after World War 2. The fact that our government yearns power and that requires us to lose our rights is a completely predictable form of behavior and Nietzsche would probably not be a favorite philosopher to use to justify the behavior. More likely Hobbes would be to blame with his common sense view that freedom is a danger to our safety. We can’t trust people, so we need to control them. This is the fundamental problem. If it is wrong, then Rousseau might be someone to consider.

    Nietzsche is a complex person and has been used by just about every ideological group including feminists. The good guys could discuss Nietzsche just as much as the bad guys.

  2. You’re right about Rousseau; the Left as we know it springs from his work. But the seizure of greater power by government didn’t start in 1946 or even 1941; it started in earnest in 1912 with the influence of the progressive movement, accelerated rapidly during the 1930s with Roosevelt’s imitations of Mussolini–Italian fascism was popular in the U.S. before 1939–and then took firm hold during the war. I see Mussolini’s philosophy as essentially Marx + Nietzsche, and the New Deal as a watered-down form of the same. But Nietzsche’s influence wasn’t fully felt until French thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida used it to shape the Left into what it has become today–a view dismissive of democracy and human rights, in thrall to dictators everywhere as long as they too pay homage to the Left. The transformation of the Democratic party from the party of JFK and LBJ, which stood up for democracy and human rights and faced down dictators, to the party of Obama which does just the opposite, is one of the crucial political stories of our times.

  3. I wouldn’t be surprised if some educated people on the left are interested in the philosophers you mentioned, but those philosophers would be just as disappointed to find out how they are misused as Jesus would be for being used to justify wars. And I have a hard time believing that they are being considered so strongly by our current politicians (or their Corporate rulers). Right now we simply don’t have a “left” political party in America. Both parties are are pro-Corporations and big business. I would love to hear Clinton or Obama talk about how Foucault and Derrida would want them to support big business, and helps justify their policies. This sounds absurd. (Or that they would want us to be stripped of our rights.)

    Derrida was mainly interested in skepticism. Foucault was interested in stopping oppression. That doesn’t sound relevant. It is true that some people take postmodernists to be moral relativists, but this is pretty clearly a false reading of postmodernists. Relativist philosophers also tend to be much more sophisticated than the crude popularized relativism of the left. It is true that “the left” has a lot of relativists, but I wouldn’t blame that on postmodernists.

    Even democracy can oppress people. Rule by the majority against the minority. It makes sense to protect the minority from the majority. However, I don’t know where or if Derrida or Foucault ever discuss this fact, and legitimate criticism against democracy should not be taken as a complete rejection of democracy.

  4. I’m not saying that Obama or other Democratic leaders have read Nietzsche, Foucault, et al. But those thinkers have set the intellectual framework that shapes the way those politicians think about what they do. Obama, in particular, has imbibed a set of assumptions common in the academy and increasingly common on the left that are deeply hostile to democracy. Among them, yes, are skepticism and a focus on “oppression.” Far from being irrelevant, however, they strike me as critically important. Why does Obama appear to be on the side of the mullahs in Iran? Because they’re hostile to the Western oppressors, among other reasons, and his world view doesn’t allow that they could at the same time be oppressors themselves.

    Postmodernists tend to mix three stances toward ethics into particular mixes: relativism, an ethic of authenticity (which is mostly what I was concerned with), and a subjugation of the ethical to the political. Here, too, relativism acts as a brake on judgment, and the mullahs’ authenticity and willingness to let the political dominate the ethical allies them with the Left.

    One final point: The Democratic Party, as I see it, is under Obama’s leadership essentially a fascist party, interested in controlling big business and forcing it to serve the ends he chooses, enriching the politically favored in the process, but only occasionally nationalizing it. That makes him “pro-business” in a very different sense from that in which Republicans might be called pro-business.

  5. How do we know that this is how the intellectual framework has been shaped? I haven’t heard anything about authenticity by our political leaders, and it is a pretty complected and confusing part of postmodern philosophy. I have learned about these things in the past, but it had almost no impact on me due to how strange it seemed (among other things).

    Just like relativism has been ruined by popularization, the whole “be yourself” value might be a ruined version of a kind of philosophical authenticity. This is just due to the fact that people lack any real philosophical understanding. No matter how true and beautiful a philosophical theory is, it will be misused and corrupted by anyone that knows nothing about philosophy. This has a lot less to do with philosophers and a lot more to do with people that have an agenda and will justify it at any cost.

    The democratic party is very pro-business. They don’t want to do much about the environment and global warming because it’s too expensive for businesses. They want to give hand outs to big banks because they don’t want a big business to go out of business. They encourage corn subsidies. They refuse to provide universal health coverage because corporations can’t compete with that. And so on.

    How do you define fascism? The democratic and republican parties are both totalitarian parties. That doesn’t mean that “the left” are full of totalitarians. It means that “the left” has no political party in the US.

    Relativism is a problem, but relativists tend not to be totalitarians. Relativists just tend to lack any rational basis to fight against totalitarianism. (A relativist can lack any rational basis for anything if misused the right way.)

  6. I think the crucial element is actually the hermeneutics of suspicion that Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and followers advance in various forms. The idea is basically that nothing should be taken at face value; everything has to be interpreted according the system, which postulates underlying class-based, power-based, or sex-based motives and messages. That means rational discourse–argument, evidence, reasoning, etc.–is really beside the point. People educated in these ways of “thinking” learn to ignore evidence and argument and substitute emotion and systemic cant.

    We obviously have different views of the Democratic Party, which is rushing as I write to try to pass a carbon cap-and-trade bill that will devastate the economy and which has just rolled out a health care initiative designed to lead to a government takeover of health care.

  7. Actually, what you are talking about involving interpretation is something akin to theory-based observation and is perfectly compatible with what some philosophers call the coherence theory of justification. This is a strong epistemological position that seems to explain science (and ethics) quite well. I don’t know of any philosophers that take this perspective and think “so rationality is a waste of time.” That just sounds like poorly reasoned thinking that the uneducated might make use of.

    The coherence theory of epistemology does not require that we be anti-realists. The outside world seems to make causal contact with us, so a causal theories of epistemology might be compatible with a coherence theory.

    I suppose there might have been a trickle down effect from philosophers to the laymen, but this also happens when scientific facts are discussed by the laymen and get corrupted/misunderstood.

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