"Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory!"
This was the famous exclamation of Richard Spencer at a gathering of the Alt-Right in Washington, DC, shortly after Donald Trump's electoral victory in 2016. Paul Gottfried coined the term "Alternative Right" in 2008. But Spencer claims to have originated the abbreviation "Alt-Right" in that year, and he has been one of the best known leaders of the Alt-Right movement as devoted to establishing what Spencer calls the "white ethnostate" for North America and Europe. Spencer also claims to have originated the term "ethnostate," although this seems to be a variation on what Frank Salter has called the "ethnic state." (At the bottom of this post, I've provided links to other posts on this and related topics.)
According to Spencer, this all started with Friedrich Nietzsche. Spencer has said: "I was red-pilled by Nietzsche." "Red-pilled" refers to a famous scene in the movie The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves's character swallows a red pill that allows him to see that he and all of his fellow humans have been plugged into a delusional dream, and that he must free them from their dream. So, to "red-pill" is the slang in the Alt-Right movement that refers to the moment when people see that all the ideals of liberal democracy--equality, liberty, pluralism, and peace--are delusional, and that the true reality of life is the racial and ethnic struggle for cultural dominance. Spencer swallowed his red pill when he began reading Nietzsche as a college student at the University of Virginia, and then later as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he began to study Leo Strauss, who he saw as sympathetic with fascist thinking.
What he learned was that liberal egalitarian modernity was an expression of Christian slave morality as opposed to the master morality of Greek-Roman civilization, and that this slave morality was responsible for the decadence of Western culture as promoting the dehumanizing degradation of what Nietzsche called "the last man"--the man who lives an ignoble life of safe and comfortable pleasures with no aspiration for heroic achievement. To overcome this decadence of liberalism, we need a new nobility of elite Supermen who can create an illiberal culture of pagan master morality in which the strong rule over the weak.
Now we have Ronald Beiner's new book--Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)--in which he traces the intellectual history that runs from Nietzsche to Martin Heidegger to fascism and Nazism and, finally, to the recent resurgence of fascism in the Alt-Right and other illiberal authoritarian movements across Europe and Russia.
Beiner's argument for the intellectual links between Nietzsche, Heidegger, Nazism, and the newly resurgent fascist authoritarianism is persuasive. A even more carefully detailed history of Nietzsche's place in the Third Reich is given by Steven Aschheim in Chapter 8 of his book The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany1890-1990 (University of California Press, 1992). As Aschheim argues, it's an empirical fact of cultural history that Nietzsche was ideologically appropriated by Hitler and the Nazis as part of the official culture of the Third Reich. But accepting this appropriation of Nietzsche by the Nazis as a fact of cultural history does not settle the question of whether their interpretation of Nietzsche was accurate or not.
Beiner rightly argues that even if the Nazi interpretation was mistaken, it was a misinterpretation that was promoted by Nietzsche himself in his most reckless writing. Nietzsche said that the highest human being is the Dionysian artist-philosopher or Superman who exercises his will to power by tyrannically legislating new values for all of humanity. He said that "slavery is . . . both in the cruder and in the more subtle sense, the indispensable means of spiritual discipline and breeding" (BGE, 188). He said that the new nobility would require "merciless annihilation of everything that was degenerating and parasitical" (Ecce Homo, "Birth of Tragedy," 4). He declared that European democracy must ultimately transform itself into "a new and sublime development of slavery," in which the "herd animal" is enslaved to the "leader animal" (Will to Power, 954, 956). Thus, the democratization of Europe is "an involuntary arrangement for the breeding of tyrants--taking that word in every sense, including the most spiritual" (BGE, 242). This tyrannical rule of the artist-philosophers will require "conscious breeding experiments," "terrible means of compulsion," and even "the annihilation of millions of failures." This is necessary for the "domination of the earth" by a "new, tremendous aristocracy," in which "the will of philosophical men of power and artist-tyrants will be made to endure for millennia," and the "breeding of a new caste to rule over Europe" will unify it into "one will" (BGE, 208, 251; Will to Power, 764, 954, 960, 964). "What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. . . . The weak and the failures shall perish: first principle of our love of man. And they shall be given every possible assistance. What is more harmful than any vice? Active pity for all the failures and all the weak: Christianity" (The Antichrist, 2). There is plenty here to inspire Hitler, the Nazis, and the Alt-Right.
Moreover, as Beiner indicates, Nietzsche foresaw that this would happen. In a letter (to Malwida von Meysenbug, June 1884), he wrote: "The sort of unqualified and utterly unsuitable people who may one day come to invoke my authority is a thought that fills me with dread. Yet that is the torment of every great teacher of mankind: he knows that, given the circumstances and the accidents, he can become a disaster as well as a blessing to mankind." Beiner asks: "Well, if Nietzsche was so terrified about this, why didn't he simply exercise more responsibility or more prudence about how he wrote? There's no good answer to this question" (63).
But here I see the first of two weak points in Beiner's argument. He speaks of the "insane recklessness" and "extreme lunacy" of Nietzsche's writing that attracts people like Hitler and Spencer (63). But while Beiner sees this in the early and late writings of Nietzsche (28-34), he passes over the middle writings--particularly, Human, All Too Human and Dawn--in silence, and so he does not notice that the writings of Nietzsche's middle period do not show the "insane recklessness" and "extreme lunacy" of his other writings.
In fact, some of the Nazi writers who read Nietzsche carefully noticed that his middle writings contradicted Nazi ideology. For example, Heinrich Hartle's Nietzsche and National Socialism (Nietzsche und der Nationalsozialismus) was an official Nazi book published by the central Nazi publishing house in 1937 and 1944. Hartle argued that the National Socialists would have to separate those ideas in Nietzsche's books that supported Nazi ideology from those that did not; and in particular, the Nazis would have to reject the teachings in Nietzsche's middle writings that supported liberal democratic individualism rather than statist collectivist authoritarianism.
In many posts over the years, I have argued that Nietzsche's middle writings show a Darwinian aristocratic liberalism that contradicts the Dionysian aristocratic radicalism of his early and late writings, and it's only the latter that inspires the Nazis and the fascists.
In his middle writings, Nietzsche respects the freedom provided by liberal democracy, which includes freedom for "free spirits"--philosophers and scientists--to live their lives of intellectual inquiry without persecution, while also allowing the great multitude of people to live their lives free from tyrannical exploitation. In contrast to his early and late writings, Nietzsche here sees liberal modernity as ennobling rather than degrading or dehumanizing.
Beiner ignores this, which leads him into what I see as the second weak point in his argument--he accepts the claim of Nietzsche in his later writings that liberalism necessarily leads to the decadence of the "last man," and he refuses to even consider the empirical evidence against this claim.
Beiner insists that life in liberal modernity is "profoundly dehumanizing" and "a profound contraction of the human spirit" (10). In any liberal society, "the whole experience of life spirals down into unbearable shallowness and meaninglessness" (11). He says that as a college student in Canada, he first read Nietzsche an "antidote to growing up amid the banality and conformism of suburban life in North America" (16). The reason for all this degradation of life in Canada and all other liberal societies is that liberalism's "excessive openness and the exploding of fixed horizons" creates "horizonlessness" (25, 28). Consequently, there is "a form of life where privileged horizons, horizons that sustain a definite understanding of the point of existence, have ceased to exist" (35). This brings "spiritlessness" and "a total extermination and uprooting of culture," so that culture as such becomes impossible (30, 34, 144). No one in a liberal society can escape this "spiritual void," because "everyone suffers from this horizonlessness" (38, 132). So life becomes meaningless for everyone who lives in a liberal society. It is therefore easy to understand the popular appeal of Nietzschean fascists and Nazis who offer what Heidegger called "spiritual renewal."
So while Beiner thinks that Nietzsche's "solutions" for the problem of liberal decadence are "all nonsense or lunacy," he also thinks that Nietzsche's "cultural diagnosis" of the problem is "not nonsense" (24). This leads to Beiner's final conclusion at the end of his book: "I don't rule out the possibility that Nietzsche and Heidegger successfully articulate aspects of spiritual or cultural vacuity in the liberal egalitarian dispensation that defines modernity. But what they offer by way of new dispensations to supplant spiritless modernity is far worse" (134).
Well, if the illiberal alternatives to liberalism are far worse, then doesn't that mean that liberalism is better? But how can liberalism be better if it only promotes "spiritual or cultural vacuity"?
And what should we say about poor Professor Beiner at the University of Toronto whose whole life has been meaningless because of the "spiritlessness" of Canadian liberal society? Not only has he been forced to live the life of the "last man," he has learned from reading Nietzsche that he is a "last man" living a despicably degraded life, and so he must suffer from self-loathing. Or does his capacity for self-loathing show that he is not a "last man"?
I don't believe that Beiner and all of his fellow Canadians have lived meaningless or spiritless lives, because I don't believe that a liberal society like Canada forces everyone to become Nietzsche's "last man." I see no way to settle this disagreement between me and Beiner except by looking at the factual evidence of how people live in liberal societies to see if they live well or badly. Amazingly, however, Beiner never offers any factual evidence to support his claim that everyone in a liberal society suffers from a meaningless or spiritless life. In this way, his rhetorical strategy is exactly the same as other recent critics of liberalism--like Steven Smith and Patrick Dineen--who cite the claims of anti-liberal cultural critics that liberal bourgeois modernity is dehumanizing, and then assume the truth of those claims without considering any of the relevant empirical evidence.
In some of my previous posts, I have surveyed the empirical evidence that the Liberal Enlightenment has promoted human progress by fostering the good character--the moral and intellectual virtues or what Deirdre McCloskey calls the "bourgeois virtues"--that promote human happiness or flourishing. For example, one can see the correlation between the Human Freedom Index and the World Happiness Report, which shows that liberal regimes tend to be high in both freedom and happiness, and the illiberal regimes tend to be low in both freedom and happiness.
In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues for the stunning success of the Liberal Enlightenment as shown by massive factual evidence (conveyed in 73 charts of statistical data) of human progress over the past 200 years: because of liberalism today more human beings are living longer, healthier, wealthier, freer, safer, more stimulating, and generally happier lives than human beings have ever lived in any time in history.
Beiner is silent about all of this evidence for the flourishing of human life in liberal societies.
He is also silent about the evidence of social history that denies his claim that in liberal societies, it is impossible for people to live in moral communities with "horizons that sustain a definite understanding of the point of human existence" (35). Consider, for example, the social history of voluntary religious communities like the Amish, the Hasidic Jews, or the Mormons, who have become some of the fastest growing religious groups in the United States. Beiner suggests that the only way to have "viable horizons" is through "legislating authoritative horizons whose only authority is the act of legislation itself" (57). But groups like the Amish illustrate how in liberal societies moral and religious horizons arise in families and voluntary associations (churches, schools, clubs, friendships, and so on) without being coercively legislated. In liberal societies, people can always exercise "The Benedict Option" (as Rod Dreher calls it)--they can form self-governing communities of people dedicated to some shared vision of moral or religious excellence. The importance of such character formation for liberal political theorists is evident, for example, in texts such as John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The evidence of social history also shows that liberal societies provide the intellectual freedom of thought that cultivates the life of the mind in philosophy and science. Beiner seems deny this by agreeing with Heidegger that part of the shallowness of life in a modern liberal society is that people are distracted from plumbing the depths of the mysterious question of Being--why is there something rather than nothing? Thus, people do not engage in the "heroic thinking" that constitutes true philosophy (70-91). But, in fact, Heidegger's question of Being--of why or how something comes from nothing--has become a fundamental question for modern philosophy and science--particularly in response to the scientific theory of the Big Bang as the origin of everything from nothing.
Beiner is also silent about the evidence of political history that shows the spirited heroism of liberal societies. He speaks about the emotional appeal of Hitler's heroism (130-31), but he says nothing about the liberal heroism of Winston Churchill in leading Great Britain to resist and finally defeat Hitler.
The history of liberalism is to a large extent the history of spirited resistance to tyranny and courage in war. The Declaration of Independence was a declaration of Lockean liberalism that was also a declaration of war. The American Civil War under the heroic leadership of Abraham Lincoln became a test of whether people in a liberal society were courageous enough to fight and die for the emancipation of slaves and a "new birth of freedom."
In Great Britain, John Stuart Mill saw Lincoln's leadership in the war as a vindication of the moral heroism of people in a free society. In "The Contest in America" (1862), Mill wrote:
"I cannot join with those who cry Peace, peace. I cannot wish that this war should not have been engaged in by the North . . . . War, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice; a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice--is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature, who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."This doesn't sound like the degraded and meaningless life of the "last man."
Here are links to some of my posts that elaborate some of my points here:
Nietzsche's middle period: here, here, here, here, here, and here
Nazi philosophers: here and here
The Alt-Right ethnic state: here, and here,
Leo Strauss and Nazism: here and here
Patrick Dineen and the Amish: here and here
Rod Dreher and the Benedict Option: here
Steven Smith: here and here
Deirdre McCloskey and the bourgeois virtues: here, here, and here
Steven Pinker and liberal progress: here and here
The Human Freedom Index: here
Empirical Human Progress through the Liberal Enlightenment: here
Heidegger's question of something from nothing: here and here