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)

Distributive Justice and Adam Smith (Istanbul Talk) I

Based on a presentation for a panel I convened on Adam Smith at the conference Pluralism and Conflict: Distributive Justice Beyond Rawls and Conflict, Fatih University, Istanbul, 6-8th June 2013.

There are two aspects to distributive justice in Smith, referring more to the underlying themes of his work rather than his explicit claims. One aspect is the manner in which states maintain themselves by bringing advantages to enough people for it not to encounter too much resistance to enjoy and orderly existence. The second aspect is more morally guided with regard to protecting the poorest from complete destitution and preserving the sense that justice is being applied to all. The first aspect might not seem like justice at all, because it is what people in power do in order to keep their status, and associated economic goods, rather than what anyone does for the sake of justice itself.

Smith himself was not, however, an advocate of a form of moral theory detached from other interests. Theory of Moral Sentiments gives psychological and social bases for moral rules and judgements, and though Smith strongly resisted the idea of an egotistical reduction of ethics, the criterion of satisfying the invisible spectator does not establish a sharp distinction between self-regarding acts and altruistic acts. Ethics on  a collective level grows and and improves over time. The idea of social and political justice emerging from state craft is in this case not a big jump from Smith’s explicit thoughts about justice. The second aspect flows from Smith‘s explicit thoughts about ethics and justice, though it does not give us a fully explicit theory.


The second aspect is developed in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, mostly with regard to distributive injustice. This itself has two aspects: injustice towards the poor and injustice between sectors of society. The first brings us closer to the more pure form of distributive justice questions, and the second closer to the state craft issues. In these threads in Wealth of Nations, the cause is largely the activity of the state rather than the results of markets being left free of state legislation and government schemes. Smith sees injustice as resulting from collaboration between merchants in the same sector, but sees this as more the consequence of state intervention than of free commerce. The state enabling, encouraging and even requiring enterprises to form corporate bodies (such as local chambers of commerce in Britain) in the same sector is the biggest reason for merchants conspiring against the public. That is the source of the famous quotation about merchants conspiring against the public, though that quotation is often used to support demands for increased state regulation. The great injustices that Smith mentions to the poor come in part from the way the Poor Law tends to tie the poor to their locality of birth, under suspicion that they might apply for public funds in a parish (minimal unit of local government in Britain) where they lack previous connections. There is a concern here with the suffering of the poor, but also with the negative consequences for the economy of restricting labour mobility (concern which can and should be applied now to migration between countries).

A related concern is that lingering requirements from the Middle Ages for seven years of apprenticeship, before practising a craft, limits the chances to the poor to improve their economic situation. The poor are less able to offer skills to make a good living if faced with an artificial seven year delay before putting their skills out on the market.  Again there is an interlacing of concern for the condition and rights of the poor, with the negative consequence for consumers in general and what we might now call the public good.

Another source of injustice to the poor is the application of taxes on the necessities of life, in which case the concern is more purely one for the condition of the poor. Smith’s favours taxing luxuries rather than necessities, but he nowhere calls for graduated (progressive) taxes, and only a tortuous interpretation of his work can support such an idea. Public debt results in a distributive injustice for Smith, the understanding of which includes the assumption that ‘natural liberty’ is a better basis for political economy than state interventions. Public debt leads to a forced transfer of income from the productive sectors of the economy to creditors, that is the financial sector of the economy. That includes a transfer (also noted by Hume) from tax payers of low income to rich holders of government bonds (a very relevant issue at present, though it tends to be egalitarians now who are less concerned with debt than conservatives and libertarians).The solution that Smith advocates is reducing debt, which includes reducing public expenditure, particularly on war, so again an approach different from most egalitarians at present, though on the specific issue of military spending there could be some agreement.

Joss Whedon and Libertarianism

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has a complex relation with Libertarianism. His political views appear to be standard left-liberal Hollywood. Together with most of the cast of Angel (a spin off from Buffy), he endorsed the John Kerry/John Edwards Democrat ticket in 2004. Whedon’s normal views appear to be pro-civil liberties for all. In creating a positive lesbian character, Buffy’s best friend Willow, he signalled a committment to equality for gays.

Buffy was designed as a feminist hero, tough and independent though also distinctly feminine. She has been referred to as ‘Buffy the patriarchy Slayer’ and though the character does not tend to be overtly politicla or ideological in any way, there are signals of her attitude. This culminates at the end of season 7 when she pulls an Excalibur type weapon out of its place, only the Slayer is destined to do this. This also allows an emphasis on Buffy the Post-Feminist. The woman who was watching her Excalibur weapon appears, and it turns out that she belongs to a female order that has been watching the male dominated watchers (trainers and supervisers of slayers). Buffy is rather different from the stereotypical earth mother type feminist. Buffy’s fashionable style and immersion in popular culture contrasts with the grand prophetic tone of her new protector. The new protector cannot believe that Buffy is called Buffy, signalling the distance between them. Significantly the woman is killed a few minutes after she appears on screen, she is part of what is passing away. Whedon’s shows refer to pornography and male fantasies abut women in a jokey way which distances them from the kind of feminism which looked with extreme aversion on such phenomena, and which resorts to a mixture of moralising condemnation and a reductive account of power through representation. Though many commentators on Whedon maintain a condemn male fantasy stance, it’s clear that Whedon regards that attitude as a distraction from central issues of power, violence and equality.

Political Correctness and Libertarianism
Libertarianism may take political correctness as a target. That particularly applies to Libertarianism of a kind which mixes social conservatism and capitalist free markets, essentially the constituency that Ron Paul is appealing to in his current run to be Republican candidate to be elected President of the United States. Such people may look askance on feminism and gay rights as ‘politically correct’ impositions of a left-liberal elite which dominates the state and education, in their view. Sometimes they seem to think big corporations are dominated by such people conspiring with the state elite, though sometimes they seem to think private corporations are necessarily beyond criticism. Conservative libertarians say they do not favour discrimination, but do not believe that the central state has the right to impose non-discrimination on local communities. Strangely enough I’m rather suspicious of the line, ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe but I do not think anyone should be forced to respect blacks and gays and it would be wrong to force communities to give them equal rights, therefore I will vote in congress against any such rights’ which as far as I can see is an accurate representation of Paul’s views. One of the Whedonverse actors is a Paulite, Emma Caulfield who plays Anya in Buffy. Appropriately her character is a parodic capitalist who puts money before people, and enjoys the dance of capitalist superiority when closing the Magic Shop at nights. It would be wrong to represent capitalist libertarians in that way, evidently they believe free markets are the instrument of liberty, but it’s still funny.

There is a comparatively liberal progressive kind of Libertarianism at the Cato Institute, or even the Ayn Rand/Objectivist groups, though I struggle to take seriously anyone who follows Ayn Rand (fifth rate philosopher, fourth rate novellist, third rate screen writer and first rate grotesque destructive egomaniac). While these people are generally closer to the Republicans than the Democrats, unlike Paulites they tend to respect Lincoln and think the right side won the Civil War, so conceding that there are times when use of central state power for a liberatory object maybe a lesser evil than just letting communities deny basic liberties to certain community members. These people tend to more careful about distancing themselves from social or national conservatism. It must also be said that Paul has left-libertarian fans who support a return to weaker federal government.

X-Files Libertarianism
That leads us to what I will very unkindly and unfairly label X-Files left-libertarians. X-Files
is of course a reference to the TV series (some of whose writers have worked with Joss Whedon) in which two FBI agents unravel many layers of a conspiracy of the central state to allow aliens to take over the world. For those who have not seen the show, it must also be said that the show is very funny and self-parodic, and that one of the FBI agents in particular can be read as a delusional obsessive. The show deals very acutely with fears of central government and fears of hidden forces, and often refers to quite real ways in which power may become secretive and unaccountable. The show lacks a direct political message but on the whole I would say it is most consistent with a left-libertarianism that is critical of corporations, the state and social conformism.

Joss Whedon: Statist or Libertarian?
As was indicated above, Whedon is comfortable with Democrats of a kind who wish to preserve the and expand New Deal big state, which has been the major function of the Democratic Party since F.D. Roosevelt. That New Deal big state is tied up with an Imperial Presidency which commands vast military resources and has an interventionist foreign policy trying to shape every region of the world. Whedon is rather neutral about foreign interventionism. Buffy’s one serious non-vampire boyfriend, Riley Finn, leaves her to join a covert military squad destroying demons in Central America. The associations with regional American intervention of a very aggressive kind, leaning towards authoritarian right right wing governments and paramilitary groups are left unremarked. The political tone of Buffy and Angel is standard left-liberalism. The death penalty is implicitly rejected, very pro-capitalist views are seen as amusing, large companies tend to be represented as operating in a sinister way. It must also be said that left wing political correctness is parodied, most obviously in the episode Pangs in season 2. What we also get is an interest in insurrectionism. This becomes most obvious in the penultimate episode of season 4, which ends on an X-Files tone. A hidden man of power refers to Buffy and her allies as ‘civilian insurrectionists’, and notes that in the end they were correct to resist a secret government demon fighting initiative and fight demons in their own way. This hint at the justification of insurrection has rich American associations. The right to rise up and resist the central state was recognised by the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson. It is Jefferson who favoured self-governing rural communities under a very loose central government and who is often invoked by libertarians. That role for Buffy and her allies is paralleled in Angel by Angel’s unlicensed detective agency. In both cases, the aim is to uphold law in ways the state cannot, but certainly there is an emphasis that law rests on basic action by individuals.

The libertarian tendencies in Joss Whedon come to the fore in the science fiction series Firefly. The series takes place in the aftermath of a failed rebellion by Independents against the central authority of the Alliance. The central character Mal leads a gang which makes a living from smuggling, illegal salvage and robbery, along with legal work. There is some connection with stores of the James gangs, Confederate guerillas turned bandits. However, the series also clearly distances the Independents from the slave holding aristocratic Confederacy. They are seen as west coast libertarians, poor but self-reliant people struggling to hold on to their free wheeling individualistic society. Mal is the spokesman for the view that governments exist to get in the way, that they interfere without helping. Whedon says that he does not share all of Mal’s views, but he created a series which makes Mal the hero and the spokesman for world view which is clearly Whedon’s own: anti-religious, anti-transcendent, an individualism of tough self-reliant characters. The series is quite explicitly an anti-Star Trek. Star Trek features an earnest liberal technological interventionism even though at the explicit level the Federation the space ship serves is anti-interventionist. The Federation is socialistic, and capitalistic characters, particularly the Ferengi in Next Generation, are presented as morally questionable.

The series and the spin off film Serenity certainly impressed libertarians. The film received a Special Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society. LFS is devoted to libertarian science finction, which is a major part of the libertarian canon. The write Robert A. Heinlein is the most famous in a large group of capitalist libertarian and anarcho-capitalist writers. Joss Whedon belongs with Ayn Rand and Heinlein in the receipt of an award from Heinlein, and has produced a TV and cinema classic of futuristic capitalist libertarianism, though the emphasis is still on the poor small entrepreneur.

Zizek in Istanbul. My Humiliation

The Occasion
Slavoj Zizek was in Istanbul last week. Zizek uses a mixture of cultural commentary, philosophy, psychoanalysis and Marxism with great success. he is an international star as was reflected in his Istanbul reception. Bilgi University hosted his visited and he gave two seminars on saparate campuses. On both occasions entry was restricted to a limited who had registered in advance. An audio-video was set up to compensate the disappointed.

General Impression
I was present on both occasions and the Bilgi organisers very kindly invited me to a dinner after the first seminar. Both the talks and the dinner conversations were triumphs of wide ranging intellectual, political and cultural references delivered with compelling humour and force. I can’t say I agreed with much of it, but there’s no doubt that what he does he does with enormous talent, and as far as I can make out he is a nice person in an hyperactive kind of way. I certainly admire his complete contempt for Political Correctness

Political Correctness
Political Correctness brings up an oddity of the occasion. Many of the audience would in most contexts be considered painfully politically correct. That might mean an extreme embarressment with regard to the possibility of saying the wrong thing. At the less pleasant end, that can mean attacking and insulting people who supposedly said the wrong thing. This can be through put down or through more direct aggression. Zizek is completely free of all this and got the audience roaring with laughter at jokes they would never tell themselves and in many cases would try to make anyone who said anything similar pretty bad.

That leads to a great theme of Zizek’s talk. Prohibition in two senses: direct prohibition and prohibition of mentioning the prohibition. The second prohibition enforces conformity through a language of freedom which conceals the reality of the first prohibition. This structure can be found in totalitarian and democratic societies.

Zizek’s Prohibition
What was prohibited in Zizek’s talk in the second sense, was the convergence between Zizek’s ‘Marxism and ‘left’ or ‘communitarian’ liberalism. This is extremely obvious but is not something Zizek can talk about himself. Conversations around the seminars confirmed that his fans take him as a symbol of non-liberal leftism to the degree that raising the relation with liberalism met with silence. Zizek criticises totalitarianism and prohibition in terms of the limitation of the state, avoiding self-censorship, individual rights. His criticism of capitalism refers to the very abstract account of commodity fetishism in Capital volume One. Zizek was concerned with referring to as concrete, but the reality is that ‘commodity fetishism’ rests on a belief in a natural, even metaphysical, real value inherent in produced objects. This is just a poor basis for criticising capitalism, many many Marxist economists have found it necessary to put concepts like ‘commodity fetishism’ and ‘surplus value’ and ‘labour power theory of value’ on a pedestal where they can be ignored. Marx’s discussion certainly has ethical and cultural interest, but no non-Marxist economist would find them threatening. Zizek bases his critique of Capitalism and Totalitarianism on Enlightnment. The usual claim is made that Enlightnment values can only be satisfied by Marxism. Again this has never strict non-Marxists as a threatening argument. Enlightenment writers covers a wide and complex range, but a reasonable ideal type would emphasise: law, representative government, individual rights, private property, limitation of the state, division of state powers, commerce/market economics. Exceptions can be found but no one can deny that this is a reasonable over all summary. This just does not lead to Marxism except through some truly brutal readings of Kant. Fichte’s transformation of Kant starts to lead in a statist anti-liberal direction but who believes that is a guide to what Kant says. Anyway, Fichte is an embarrassing example because of his nationalism and authoritarians, at the time he took an anti-liberal direction. Zixek himself comments on the lack of an alternative to capitalism. At the same time he gestures towards Lenin, with no thought about how Leninism is the first version of Stalinism. Beyond the gestures what is there: an interests in individual rights and pluralism in the context of community values and the social goals of the state. This is leading towards Sandell and McIntyre, not Lenin. Occasionally Zizek can sound like a Paleocon or a Swiftian Tory (absolute defence of local communities as bearers of tradition and value).

My Humiliation.
The second seminar was late to start. I was chatting in my admittedly loud voice with an ex-thesis student. Someone, I don’t know who turned round and told me my conversation was disturbing, ‘Please this is philosophy’! I was talking in a rather ironic way about the fever round Zizek and about problems with a very disturbed person who chairs a philosophy department in Turkey. I guess this person thinks that when a star comes, church/mosque like reverence is becoming and necessary, and anyone who doesn’t behave accordingly is not a philosopher. I’ve been teaching philosophy, writing about it and studying it for over 20 years ago. I recently published a book on Derrida. I was at dinner with Zizek the evening before! His conversation at dinner and his talks show his attitude is the opposite of my tormenter. My conversations can be loud and unsubtle, but Zizek is much more radical in that direction, though he is also a very sympathetic and sensitive person. Sadly that’s what happens with academic stars, they attract bizarre people with bizarre projections onto their hero. I seemed to be in the corner for those kind of people, judging by questions or self-obsessed ramblings posing as questions which emerged from that vicinity.