Neo-Nietzschean Democratic Theory

The rather verbose phrase in the title of this blog is something I came up with while planning next semester’s MA course on ‘Contemporary Political Theory’. As the course is an elective following on from a required course in political philosophy from Plato to Nietzsche, I’ve stretch Contemporary to refer as far back as the early part of the Twentieth Century.

Neo-Nietzschean Democratic Theory is something I came up when thinking how to label the part of the course dealing with Foucault and Derrida. The section of Carl Schmitt is labelled Conservative Authoritarian, the section on Rawls is Egalitarian Liberalism, the section on Nozick is Libertarianism, the section on Sandel is Communitarianism, the section on Pettit is Republicanism, and the section on Habermas is Neo-Marxism I was struggling for a while for a label to apply to Foucault and Derrida. I was very eager to avoid the term ‘Post-Modern’. Foucault strongly rejected the term, and Derrida distanced himself from it. It carries to many associations with a lazy kind of relativism and social constructivism.

Why Post-Nietzschean Democratic Theory? Both Foucault and Derrida were deeply impressed by Nietzsche and gave him an important place in challenging idealist abstraction, teleology, and any belief in neutral facts unconditioned by perspective. They both shared Nietzsche’s resistance to social homogenisation and Nietzsche’s concern with paradox. Both drew on the idea of a ‘genealogy’, a history of concepts in which concepts do not have an abstract existence separate from social and historical forces.

Nietzsche does not look like a Democratic theorist, nevertheless his critical remarks on democracy can be taken as showing a concern for the subordination of individuality to majoritarianism in democracy. Such concerns come to the force in Derrida in Politics of Friendship, where amongst other things he is concerned with Nietzsche’s account of friendship and its relation with accounts of democracy and friendship. The constant interest of Foucault in the resistance of singularity to universality has a Nietzschean element. Both Foucault and Derrida are concerned with Democracy. It’s Derrida who took this view consistently, while Foucault in much of his work is suspicious of all power. After about 1976, he had more to say about different forms of state regime, and the desirability of a strong civil society to restrain the state. Both avoid the kind of consensualist rationalism about democracy that can be found in Rawls or Habermas. Derrida is more the average social democrat/egalitarian than Foucault, while Foucault focused more on the individual and the singular resisting the universal. Both are also concerned with the trauma of the individual constrained by social structures, and the paradox of sovereignty must bases itself on laws and rights which it is supposed to ground. Both though that violence must enter into that paradoxical moment, as Nietzsche himself thought.

Whatever anyone might think about the credentials of Nietzsche as a democrat, he certainly greatly influenced the two democratic thinkers Foucault and Derrida. He brings out the difficult side of modern liberal democracy, as it movers away from Classical participation to liberal representation, and as it rests on the coercive power of the state.


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