Nietzsche and the Politics of his Time IV/Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought I

 On the side of intellectual influences, Nietzsche took a great interest in Ralph Waldo Emerson an inspiration to the Abolitionist movement in America, and strongly associated with a democratic form of veneration of the individual and the individual search for perfection (Melville’s Moby-Dick takes a great deal of inspiration from Emerson, in this area and others, though he was not an enthusiast for democracy himself. Emersonian transcendentalism was an inspiration to enthusiasts for democratic progress in 19th centıry America. This way of taking Emerson in a democratic direction parallels what happens when Nietzsche is taken up politically, in a way that goes beyond a focus, however scholarly, on his gestures towards a version of Platonic elitism. 

 Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought 

The influence of Nietzsche on political theory has not been towards Platonic elitism on the whole, largely the influence has been the opposite direction. Nietzsche’s name was used by Fascist and Nazi totalitarians, but there is no reason to believe that Nietzsche would have approved of mass political movements based on extreme nationalism, belief in racially pure populations and militarism, all things condemned by Nietzsche. In addition Fascism and Naziism were mass movements appealing to a extreme manipulation of mass democratic politics. The best known Nazi leaning commentator on Nietzsche, Adolf Baeumler has  not become a central reference in Nietzsche studies since his work of the 20s and 30s. Thomas Mann was very attached to Nietzsche during his ultra-conservative years, but the influence is still clear in his later more liberal years. Some similar comments apply to W.B. Yeats who had rather ‘traditionalist’ esoteric-authoritarian-elitist interests in combination with hi appreciation for Nietzsche. Links can be made between Nietzsche and ‘Traditionalist’ ultra-conservative thought, but this has not not resulted in any great academic study of Nietzsche’s work, and the esotericist aspects of Traditionalism are at odds with the materialism and empiricism of Nietzsche’s thought. Since Traditionalism is the closest thing in the modern world to a movement for the Platonist dominance of an intellectual-aristocratic elite, it’s lack of fit with Nietzsche studies must have a qualifying effect on how we regard the Platonist form of elitism in Nietzsche. Another qualification is that the Platonist politics is at odds with Caesarism and Bonapartism, as the later phenomena refer to rule by someone of political and military strength, not rulers blessed with access to higher truths. In general Nietzsche is not arguing for a modified Platonism, but for a dissolve of Platonism, and the metaphysical assumptions which underly any belief in a guiding intellectual aristocracy with access to pure truths. This complete distance from Platonism is expressed most succinctly by Nietzsche in ‘How the Real World Became a Myth’ in Twilight of the Idols (GD Wie die “wahre Welt” endlich zur Fabel wurde), and passages of those kind should lead us to heavily qualify any assertion of a Platonist politics in Nietzsche. It is not so much that we should deny any leanings in that direction from Nietzsche, but that we must be very conscious of how it does not fit well with much of his thought, that he did not publish the text most often referred to in ‘Platonist’ readings of Nietzsche’s politics, ‘The Greek State’ (GSt), and that he did not even try to develop it into a more lengthy and full argument. 

One way of thinking about Nietzsche’s politics is how it influences the political thought of the most important of those thinkers who have been deeply concerned with Nietzsche. The class of those who have much to say about Nietzsche, and about political thought in ways that have much influence most notably include Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze. While it is not a straight forward matter to classify the political thought of these three, they are all in someway democratic and egalitarian in questions of political rights, and are far from Platonic aristocratic-elitism. They all take from Nietzsche a concern with difference, pluralism, conflict and change in the sphere of politics, so that in their thinking Nietzsche becomes the source of critique of fixed forms, rigid hierarchies, and submission to political sovereignty of any kind. Nietzsche is the source of the most persistent critique of authoritarianism in despotism in a mode of a joyful celebration of multiplying differences and dissolving identities. Foucault’s more politically significant texts include Discipline and Punish, which has many overtones of On the Genealogy of Morality, which as explained above is full of ‘liberal’ sounding horror at legalised cruelty, particularly in the second essay. 

[….] the notions of institutions of repression, rejection, exclusion, marginalization, are not adequate to describe, at the very centre of the carceral city, the formation of the insidious leniencies, unavowable petty cruelties, small acts of cunning, calculated methods, techniques, ‘sciences’ that permit the fabrication of the disciplinary individual. In this central and centralized humanity, the effect and instruments of complex power relations, bodies and forces subjected by multiple mechanisms of ‘incarceration’, objects for discourses that are themselves elements for this strategy, we must hear the distant roar of battle.

(Foucault, 308)

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