The phrases “will to power” and “Übermensch” carry around with them the stench of Nazism and other forms of fascism; that is, most people associate the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1944-1900) with the Right rather than the Left. In the public imagination, the mustachioed madman is an anti-Semite and racial supremacist. On one hand this reputation is deserved because some of his ideas and prejudices do conform to fascist ideology; on the other hand, it is undeserved, because his thought was thoroughly misread and cherry-picked by fascists for their own end. (For this we have Nietzsche’s sister – who promoted her brother’s writings to the Nazis after he went insane – to thank.) But again, Nietzsche’s troubling affair with the Right is not his only association. Often overlooked is his influence on thinkers such as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and the Frankfurt school of Marxism, most noticeably Theodor Adorno (1903-1969). These thinkers together performed a massive critique of capitalism and social institutions in general, allowing subsequent generations to go on deconstructing Western civilization through the 1980s and up until the present day. To understand the Academy and students on college campuses worldwide, one must also understand how strong a hold Nietzsche’s philosophy – diluted and perverted – holds on liberal thought.
Philosophy has never been free from these uses and abuses. The same kind of political appropriation took place with Hegel; after his death, authoritarian elements of the Prussian government touted his praise of the Prussian state as the end of history while the Left, most prominently Marx, used his ideas as a foundation for communism. Whether or not the political retooling of different philosophies has been a historically helpful or detrimental endeavor is another question entirely, but one can certainly trace a genealogy of liberal and conservative thought from Nietzsche’s ideas. On the Right, thinkers as esoteric as Julius Evola (1898-1974) found inspiration in the way Nietzsche looked at historical development, particularly the historical development of concepts or ideals. His influence on the Left, however, is more profound.
Nietzsche is notoriously suspicious of everyone – Jews, German nationalists, Christianity, science, any group or institution offering what he called “the will to truth,” or the idea that the greatest good is the truth. Nietzsche is a perspectivist, meaning he believes there is no objective view of the truth, only perspectives. And because everyone is attempting to assert their will to power over others, they interpret the world around them to fit this purpose, consciously or unconsciously. Christianity, for example, is the means by which the Jews obtained their revenge over the conquering Romans – by making them abandon the celebration of martial strength for Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek.
This same suspicion finds its way into liberal thought. Consider postmodernism’s most popular schools, especially that of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), deconstructionism. These thinkers read Nietzsche and came away with a thorough reading of perspectivism. If there are only perspectives, then who can tell use which interpretation is the better interpretation? No one! – no perspective is better than any other. Likewise, with Derrida, no way of interpreting a text is better than any other, just as no way of living is superior to another. In other words, the jump from perspectivism to the sort of moral and political relativism of today’s academics and leftists is a short one. Feminists who defend Islam’s treatment of women under the banner of “multiculturalism” are not ironic just on the face of things, for they are actually relying on the views of a deeply and infamously misogynistic philosopher.
By way of another example: we owe the Left’s obsession with black and brown “bodies” to Foucault, a Marxist whose anthropological research and method is deeply indebted to Nietzsche. Society “disciplines” people through their bodies and institutions that produce knowledge. To exercise knowledge is to exercise power; the two are inseparable. And not only institutions are to be regarded with suspicion, for even the very arrangement of a space disciplines the body; the placement of chairs in a lecture room, for instance, reinforce the idea that the teacher, rather than the students, is the focus of attention and producer of knowledge. For Foucault, everything must be regarded with suspicion – nothing, not even spatial arrangements, are above it. This might make for interesting anthropology, but the unfortunate result of such weariness is that liberals move from metonymy – where the part is used to refer to the whole – to metaphor, where black and brown “bodies” become the only things that matter. African Americans and Hispanics are not people but bodies, not individuals but masses. And these bodies are disciplined and controlled by institutions regardless of the goodwill or conscious motives of the people running them. The unconscious, the unseen, that is the proper study or focus for a Foucauldian as much as the Freudian. African Americans are disproportionately stopped and in confrontations with police officers because the state is attempting to discipline their bodies, not because, say, they are historically suspicious of police brutality. It does not matter that individual persons of color choose to resist police based on this suspicion; black bodies are being disciplined, so the institution of racism must be alive and well.
Foucault and his followers have thus perverted the radical individualism they saw in Nietzsche and have instead applied an impersonal gaze to the oppressed and the oppressors. Nietzsche wanted an Übermensch, a being unconstrained by the herd mentality of the masses, to overcome the mediocrity of moralizing society and its Christianity and science so that he might achieve greatness. He does not write to liberate the masses from all social institutions, but only a select few whose nature is already great, even if restrained by traditional religion and morality. Nietzsche might have considered the majority of humanity self-deluded and weak, but his prescription is ultimately aspirational and creative, not cynical and destructive. If we are to redeem Nietzsche from the Left and the likes of Foucault and Adorno, we must first emphasize this aspect of his thought. Social Justice Warriors and the jelly-spined university administrations who bow down to their demands are mediocre – safe spaces, no-platforming, the whole gamut of polices in line with political correctness are policies proposed by and meant for people who are afraid not only of the world but of words. They are undertaking the closing rather than the expansion of the American mind. Nietzsche, if called on to disavow the Left, would do so on the basis of the mediocrity of these people and their thought. A dose of Nietzschean suspicion is helpful for a wide variety of conservatives (who generally fear the abuses of government), but so too is the overcoming of obvious prudery. The Left is now peopled with new Victorians, and their extremism will not be checked unless they are cured by the same thought they have stretched to absurdity:– Nietzsche’s philosophy.