Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought III

[An unintended long gap since the last post. The transition from a full and busy summer ‘vacation’ to a new semester with a full teaching schedule and revisions to course syllabi to match current research interests has been particularly tough. Hopefully I’m now getting into a new rhythm]

Derrida, unlike Foucault and Deleuze, did write directly on the political aspects of Nietzsche’s thought, most significantly in Politics of Friendship (1997)


Shall we say that this responsibility which inspires (in Nietzsche) a discourse of hostility towards ‘democratic taste’ and ‘modern ideas’ is exercised against democracy in general, modernity in general; or that, on the contrary, it responds in the name of a hyperbole of democracy or modernity to come, before it, prior to its coming — a hyperbole for which the ‘taste’ and ‘ideas’ would be, in this Europe and this America then named by Nietzsche, but the mediocre caricatures, the talkative conscience, the perversion and the prejudice — the ‘misuse of the term’ democracy? Do not these lookalike caricatures — and precisely because they resemble it — constitute the worst enemy of what they resemble, whose name they have usurped? The worst repression, the very repression which one must, as close as possible to the analogy, open and literally unlock? (Derrida 1997, p. 38)


So Derrida presents two ways of taking Nietzsche’s criticisms of democracy and modernity: we can take them straight and literally; we can take them as a strategy for attacking the bad imitations of democracy and modernity. When Derrida states two apparently opposing options, a common gesture of his (Stocker 2006, ch. 8), he prefers the second option, but always argues that the two options can never be completely separated from each other, and there can never be a complete triumph of the one over the other. So Derrida offers us a model for interpreting Nietzsche on democracy, which is that he is both the harshest critic of bad democracy and the greatest admirer of the real thing. Other passages from Politics of Friendship look at how for Nietzsche this is an alternative between the relation that neighbours and the relationship that friends have, to be found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The relation between neighbours is a relationship of mutual dependency between the mediocre, which is non-conflictual to the point of banality. The relation between friends is one of tension between two isolated individuals seeking their own elevation in character through struggle. This is such an ideal and difficult relationship to find that Derrida puts it in the context of the idea, going back to antiquity, that there is no such thing as a friend (1997). He traces it back through the republican thinkers Montaigne and Cicero to Aristotle, so that the ideal of the friend is embedded in the ideal of the republic, which is appropriate to antique republicanism, the precedent for modern ideas of republicanism, democracy and liberty.

The implication of what Derrida says is that we take Nietzsche as someone contrasting the heroic republicanism of antiquity with the modern imitations, which even fail to be modern in their weak forms of repetition as poor imitation. There is a lot Derrida leaves unsaid here, even throughout the book as a whole, as he concentrates on the typically deep engagement with, and interlacing of, particular texts by Nietzsche, Aristotle, Montaigne, Blanchot and so on. What is left unsaid includes the whole field of the relation between what Benjamin Constant referred to as the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns . Constant thought of ancient liberty as more concerned with citizenship of a republic with shared institutions and customs, independent of external powers; and considered modern liberty to be defined by individualism, freedom from the state and commercial life. The essay in this volume on Humboldt and Nietzsche (Stocker 2014) explores some of the issues around the way that modern liberalism emerges from this sense of a less heroic more self-centred version of the heroic forms of liberty in the past based on constant existential struggles with tyrants, enemy states, nature itself and divine forces. Alternatives to “egalitarian liberalism” within current political theory such as “communitarianism” and “republicanism”, itself are still formed within that contrast, and the same applies even for “Marxism” in modern theory, which has often become an attempt to reconcile egalitarianism and collectivism with capitalist political economy and individualism, particularly under the label of “Analytic Marxism”, but also “post-Marxism”.

To be continued

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