Author: David Liakos

Don’t forget Nietzsche’s right-wing readers

nietzscheans

Left to right: Friedrich Nietzsche, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, Richard Posner.

One useful ideological function the Internet has performed has been to explode the idea that the American right is intellectually monolithic. Libertarians, paleoconservatives, traditionalist Catholics, foreign-policy realists, neoreactionaries, secessionists, and more have carved out online niches, either reinvigorating existing intellectual traditions or synthesizing new ones. As an editor and blogger, The Mitrailleuse’s own J. Arthur Bloom has done a great service in publicizing these often obscure corners of online political discourse; see his alt-right reading list here. I don’t consider myself a conservative, but my understanding of conservatism has been greatly enriched by many of these writers.

But an important American intellectual strand of the right seems to me to have been left out of this online profusion of non-mainstream views. Since I know of no better name for it, and because of the admiration for the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche common to its members, I’ll refer to this tradition as right-wing Nietzscheanism. It includes figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, and Richard Posner. (H.L. Mencken might also be a member, but he’s a somewhat more complicated case.) I’ll sum up the main right-wing Nietzschean theses to show what unifies these figures as an American tradition, then say why I think they are still worth considering.

Right-wing Nietzschean theses:

1. There are no eternal standards of justice, rationality, or truth. In an early and unpublished fragment, Nietzsche famously called truth an “army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” rather than anything fixed or absolute; he would later claim, in the Will to Power notebooks, that there are no facts, only interpretations. And in the Genealogy of Morals, he articulated the radical idea that moral values are historically situated and fluid. Holmes, referred to by Posner as the “American Nietzsche,” thought of truth as just whatever “I cannot help believing.” Like Hand, Posner is a skeptic who has bluntly argued “there is no truth ‘out there.’” Right-wing Nietzscheans believe value and truth are projected by us highly-evolved animals onto a bleak, valueless, materialistic universe. There is no God or even any eternal standards to guide us. We are alone in the universe, accountable only to ourselves. As Holmes wrote, it cannot be the case that “the ultimates of a little creature on this little earth are the last word of the unimaginable whole.”

2. Democracy is the only measure against which we can judge our values. Holmes admitted he came “devilish near to believing that might makes right,” but what keeps right-wing Nietzscheans from going all the way down that path is their shared belief in democracy. Since we live in a democratic society, brute force alone cannot determine truth. Instead, we should judge truth in what Holmes called the marketplace of ideas: “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” This faith that the best idea will win out in a fair competition separates these thinkers from the anti-market left. Leftist Nietzscheans like Michel Foucault are skeptical of the possibility that the best ideas ever fairly win out; such competitions are inexorably distorted by power and can thus never be neutral or fair, Foucault argued. Like Nietzsche himself, Foucault is dubious about democracy. But right-wing Nietzscheanism is an American ideology and consequently, like its cousin American pragmatism, deeply appreciative of what Posner has referred to as the “hurly-burly” of “robust and freewheeling inquiry with no intellectual quarter asked or given.” Right-wing Nietzscheans reject Nietzsche’s Übermensch elitism in favor of the democratic process.

3. Institutions and policies instantiate human desires and needs, and should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences. What should guide the democratic institutions we place our faith in if there are no absolute standards we can use? For right-wing Nietzscheans, all we have to judge our democracy is the real-world consequences of our institutions and policies. As Posner puts it, we should be:

…looking at problems concretely, experimentally, without illusions, with full awareness of the limitations of human reason, with a sense of the “localness” of human knowledge, the difficulty of translations between cultures, the unattainability of “truth,” the consequent importance of keeping diverse paths of inquiry open, the dependence of inquiry on culture and social institutions, and above all the insistence that social thought and action be evaluated as instruments to valued human goals rather than as ends in themselves.

Without the help of any external standards, our institutions can serve only our ends, and should be judged on the modest scale of their ability to tackle concrete problems producing optimum results for human purposes, needs, and desires. Unlike elements of both left and right, right-wing Nietzscheans don’t want institutions to serve abstract ideals like Principles of Justice, the Will of God, or Inalienable Human Rights. Human institutions are just there to get things done that humans want. All we can use to evaluate whether our institutions are working is to ask, as Holmes said, whether “such and such a condition or result is desirable and that such and such means are appropriate to bring it about”; the best we can say about the policies and institutions constituting our democracy is, in Posner’s words, that they are “the product of shifting human desires rather than the reflection of a reality external to those desires.”

4. Humans are just monkeys with large brains – nothing more, nothing less. Many conservatives see human beings as made in the image of God and therefore possessing inherent dignity, while others see humans as bearers of innate human rights. Right-wing Nietzscheans regard such ideas as illusions. “All my life I have sneered at the natural rights of man,” Holmes scoffed in 1916. “People are monkeys with large brains,” Posner quipped in 2009. While perhaps initially frightening, for right-wing Nietzscheans this fact about ourselves is liberating. “It is enough for us that the universe has produced us and has within it…all that we believe and love,” as Holmes wrote in one of his most existentialist passages. Their insouciance about innate rights or dignity separates these thinkers from many left-wing materialists. Rights are conferred by institutions, not by human nature, and so we should create the best institutions we can to make sure rights are spread as widely as possible, a process that can be messy and even violent. “No doubt,” Holmes argued, “behind these legal rights is the fighting will of the subject to maintain them…A dog will fight for his bone.” And in this complicated process of improving our democracy, we must be allowed to make the mistakes we will inevitably make: “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death,” as Holmes famously put it in his dissent in Abrams v. United States. For example, neither Holmes nor Posner puts much faith in the regulation of the market, as the left does; they regard regulation as inefficient and ineffective. But if it is the will of the people to do so, in the interest of improving our finite human lives, a society should be allowed to engage in such no doubt fruitless efforts.

*****

Some might wonder what separates what I call right-wing Nietzscheanism from American pragmatism. Posner calls himself a pragmatist; Holmes was a member of the Metaphysical Club along with classical pragmatists Charles Sanders Peirce and William James, as discussed by the scholar Louis Menand; and Hand was James’s student at Harvard. But I distinguish pragmatists from right-wing Nietzscheans because the pragmatists were typically much more optimistic about the possibility of achieving genuine progress via social and political institutions. Right-wing Nietzscheans, following the German sage, take a darker view of progress and human nature, and so tend to be suspicious of left-wing social engineering. But if you like, right-wing Nietzscheanism can be seen as a subgenre of pragmatism.

These considerations might begin to answer my puzzlement about why this tradition has not been rediscovered with as much gusto and vigor as other conservative schools of thought in recent years. The profound, intellectualized cynicism of right-wing Nietzscheanism can be quite alienating; it is obvious why it has not formed the basis of a lasting political movement. This pessimism led to Holmes’s endorsement of eugenics, as evidenced in the infamous and repugnant 1927 Supreme Court opinion he wrote in Buck v. Bell, and to the perhaps misguided interpretation that Nietzsche himself held views similar to a vulgar Social Darwinism. These facts understandably make contemporaries wary.

Hand called himself “a conservative among liberals, and a liberal among conservatives”; such fence-sitting never makes one popular. Many conservatives distrust right-wing Nietzscheans because of the latitude they have afforded to political liberalism in the humanistic spirit of experimentation and democracy. The echoes of Holmes and Hand can be heard in Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinions that have held up Obamacare: as he wrote in 2012, “It is not our job to protect the people from the consequences of their political choices.” The infamous neoreactionary writer Mencius Moldbug quipped that “Cthulhu may swim slowly. But he only swims left. Isn’t that interesting?” Right-wing Nietzscheanism offers one way to understand why “progress” marches on, without having to agree fundamentally with every aspect of that progress. Holmes, Hand, and Posner show why we should allow our fellow citizens to experiment with our shared democracy, even when we ourselves think such experiments useless.

These ideas still have currency. In an age of skepticism about value and about what government is good for, right-wing Nietzscheanism is worth taking seriously for its radical commitment to democracy without metaphysical or moral foundations.

What’s so hard to understand about social construction? A lot, actually

My take on the Rachel Dolezal scandal might differ from that of many of my fellow contributors to The Mitrailleuse, but I’d like (for some foolish reason) to wade in anyway.

The shocking revelation — salaciously captured in a video interview — that a self-identified African-American NAACP leader and Africana Studies professor from Spokane, Washington, has been “passing” as black when she was in fact born white has caused widespread confusion about the politics of social construction and identity.

This confusion is understandable, and should be engaged with rather than mocked.

After the former Bruce Jenner recently made her prominent debut as Caitlyn Jenner, many embraced her decision on the grounds that, yes, gender is socially constructed and something fluid and not essential. So if, as Jenner had repeatedly claimed, she felt she was in fact living a lie as a man and was instead really a woman, then we should accept her self-identification as a woman. “Call me Caitlyn,” she told us, and we have done so.

Now we have a case of a woman born white and claiming to be black, but who, rather than praised, is reviled as a phony and a fraud.

Social conservatives see a contradiction here. Two people self-identify with groups into which they were not born — one born a man, self-identifying as a woman; the other born white, self-identifying as black — but we are expected to praise one and condemn the other.

As Sean Davis at The Federalist asks, “If Rachel Dolezal isn’t black, how is Caitlyn Jenner a woman?

Some on the left have treated this question as cut and dried. “Race isn’t gender,” scoffed @BlackGirlDanger. “Just like apples aren’t tomatoes. Just like the moon isn’t lollipops. Just like you aren’t informed.”

Most social conservatives reject the social construction thesis, and thus are gleefully observing the knots progressives seem to be tying themselves into rather than genuinely asking questions about this issue.  So I agree The Federalist and many social conservatives are concern trolling when they ask about the difference between the social construction of race versus that of gender. But that doesn’t make it a bad question. It is in fact an exceedingly good question.

If I don’t immediately understand why I’m expected to praise Caitlyn Jenner and condemn Rachel Dolezal, that does not make me merely misinformed. It makes me someone engaged with a deep philosophical problem that has occupied major recent theoretical heavyweights, including Sally Haslanger, John Searle, Ian Hacking, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler, to name just a few.

In other words, social construction is an irreducibly complex topic. It is hard to digest and requires a lot of background to understand. I’m not suggesting you need to have read any particular thinker, including the ones I listed above, or possess any level of formal education to engage this question. But the fact remains that you do need to have a certain degree of knowledge — of theory, anthropology, sociology, and/or recent trends in activism — to understand the subtle differences in these two cases.

What makes the construction of gender different from that of race is not a question to be lightly dismissed. But according to @BlackGirlDanger, if you don’t understand that difference, you should just “Get your head out of your ass.”

Sorry, but I’m not buying that. What I’d rather see than such dismissiveness is a deep conversation about how social construction works. If you want to advance a politics that embraces the contingency of identity, you need to accept how novel this concept is to almost everyone who hasn’t taken seminars in gender theory or sociology or who doesn’t regularly read The Awl.

You build a community of like-minded citizens not by bullying them or deriding them for failing to immediately grasp these subtle differences, but by engaging in dialogue, in exchanging ideas, and in mutual education. The fact is these ideas take most people a lot of time and effort to comprehend.

If the social construction of gender is different from that of race — and to be clear, I for one do believe the two cases are different — then show how. Explain it. Convince people.

I imagine there are many people reading about Dolezal today who agree she should be condemned as a fraud, and who agree Jenner was brave to come out as trans, but who are nonetheless not clear about why their intuitions differ in these two cases. Many likely don’t see why everyone is acting like the distinction between the two is obvious. And if they go out and seek edification on this topic, and instead see what many are saying about people like them — that they are simply ignorant, and should get their heads out of their asses — I imagine their reaction will likely be to walk away and move on with their lives.

They will think, This is not a movement where I belong. And as things stand, unfortunately they are correct.

Don’t reach for your revolver

Hermann Göring is apocryphally reported to have proclaimed, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ that’s when I reach for my revolver.” Reading our public discourse surrounding the notion of “culture,” I’m disturbed to find myself momentarily sympathizing with the sentiment of Göring’s misattributed quotation.

“Culture” is now reduced to yet another frontier in the backwater battlefield of Internet debate between, for example, those who claim “the only way to break the cycle of poverty is to fix the culture of poverty” on the one hand, and those who scorn any “cultural explanations of inequality” whatsoever on the other.

But we would do well to think more deeply about culture than these Manichean treatments are able to do. It is vitally important today to try and understand what culture is, how it underlies and forms our communities, how we are responsible for acting as stewards for our culture, and how to understand cultures other than our own.

The explicit dismissal of arguments that appeal to culture, as in the case of the Jacobin essay, reveals a lack of appreciation for culture’s relevance as a way of understanding the workings of society that is not uncommon on the left. And in the case of the National Review piece, culture is treated so quickly and superficially as to reduce its profound importance and complexity, a trend I have noticed in other conservative analyses.

Such insouciance about culture from across the political spectrum points to our preference for quantitative and scientific methods of understanding. For example, we are told we can only comprehend the origins of poverty either through the cold economic analysis of class conflict, or instead by appreciating the importance of culture merely as “the upshot of two fascinating new studies” by a team of Harvard economists.

Thinking more seriously about culture than these journalistic examples have done requires seeing, as the American philosopher Stanley Cavell put it, that “the human creature’s basis in the world as a whole…is not that of knowing, anyway not what we think of as knowing.” Dismissing the importance of culture in favor of economic analysis, or appreciating culture merely as a byproduct of phenomena that can otherwise be quantitatively catalogued, comes as a result of seeing the human basis in the world solely in terms of knowing.

What Cavell and other thinkers who take culture seriously want us to see is that humans are more than just knowers. Our existence cannot be explained or understood by means of numbers alone, that way of knowing which seems most widely respected today. And part of the qualitative aspect of our existence is culture, a byword for something like the sum of history, tradition, language, religion, community, law, and the symbolic expressions of the arts, sciences, and humanities. These aspects of our existence are wider and fuller than – though frequently compatible with – the acquisition of knowledge.

So I am very cautiously heartened by efforts such as the Humanities in the Public Square project announced last month by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which intends to “put humanities scholars in direct dialogue with the public on some of the most pressing issues of today.”

I am by no means suggesting humanists are uniquely positioned to be insightful about important public issues – a dubious proposition, as countless counterexamples would demonstrate. And indeed the emphasis in the NEH project on established scholars might skew it towards certain obvious institutional and ideological biases. But I nevertheless think the input of those who study culture, taken in its broadest sense, could only increase the diversity of views in our national conversation, by expanding the relatively narrow confines of the prevalent expert culture, which will always privilege some forms of knowledge over others, and refocus attention on a theme of the most profound relevance.

Against the best efforts of culture’s despisers, we should restore culture’s rightful place as an integral means of social understanding and explanation. When you hear the word “culture,” don’t reach for your revolver just yet.