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 In an early and unpublished fragment, Nietzsche famously called truth an “army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” rather than anything fixed or absolute; he would later claim,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.