(Editor’s Note: Last Monday, I put out a call for responses to Corey Robin’s essay “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children,” which recently appeared in the The Nation. This guest post by Kurt Newman, who previously wrote a fascinating series of guest posts for this blog on pragmatism and copyright law is a response to that call — Ben Alpers)
I begin with some customary business. First, a disclosure: I consider Corey Robin a friend, and I offer this note on his essay “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek,” recently published in The Nation, in the spirit of friendship. Second, an apology: I have not followed the critiques and debates on Robin’s piece, at various libertarian blogs or at Crooked Timber, so I am sorry if this is inadvertently reduplicative of others’ arguments. Third, owing mainly to a very busy few weeks ahead, I am making the decision to stay out of the comments stream entirely, although I will of course read the comments should any materialize. I would be honored to have Robin respond here, if he feels like it, and I hope he does. If anyone needs to yell at me, though, please, by all means do so on twitter. I’m @sadbillionaire.
For some days now, I have struggled to reverse-engineer Corey Robin’s essay “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children: On Friedrich Hayek.” It is, as one has come to expect from Robin, a beautiful piece of prose full of provocative formulations and generative connections. But I have not been able to put my finger on why Robin wrote this piece, and why he wrote it in the way that he did.
Robin’s essay is split into two parts. The first tackles the question of the political implications of Friedrich Nietzsche’s notoriously slippery writings. The second explores the Nietzschean character of Austrian economics, from the marginalists’ epochal shift from the labor theory of value to the theory of marginal utility to the more muscular articulations of right wing libertarianism in the work of Friedrich Hayek. Upon finishing the essay, it is a little hard to tell whether one is supposed to feel that one has learned something new about Nietzsche or learned something new about marginalism, both, or neither. My first criticism—I have two—centers, then, on Robin’s reticence, perhaps even coyness, in announcing his intentions.
On the face of it, the link between Nietzsche and Hayek would seem to lie in the two writers’ shared investment in overturning the labor theory of value, and their turn to some form of anti-foundationalist epistemology—in Nietzsche’s case, the transvaluation of all values, in Hayek’s, the notion of a collectivity of hyperrational consumers, freed from the tyranny and entropic seductions of the state, as kind of permanent state of grace––gestures that also seem to have required a critique of plebeian mediocrity and the embrace of an aristocratic posture. So far, so good. But plenty of thinkers at different times rejected the labor theory of value, and lots of theorists (including plenty of leftists) have lamented the ostensible awfulness of plebeian mediocrity. Why these two?
One option might be that Nietzsche fits a little bit awkwardly in the schema adopted by Robin in his book The Reactionary Mind. Where to put Nietzsche, on the spectrum from left to right, might simply be a bit of unfinished business. Another option: Robin is offering a kind of veiled critique of Nietzschean tendencies on the Left. But if that is the real purpose of the intervention, why not make the case directly?
This brings us to my second criticism: although one wouldn’t know it from reading Robin’s essay, there have long existed important left-wing Nietzschean intellectual movements.
In France, Nietzsche was first embraced by Charles Andler and Henri Albert in the 1890s, both of whom were radicals and Dreyfusards. In the 1930s, radical intellectuals in the surrealist milieu—Georges Bataille, Roger Caillois, Pierre Klossowski, Andre Masson, and Jean Wahl—took up the task of rescuing Nietzsche from his fascist interpreters in the journal Acéphale. Interest in Nietzsche revived in France after World War II on the Left—especially after the publication of the powerful anti-fascist re-readings of Nietzsche proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Today, Nietzschean questions stand at the center of the work of Alain Badiou, perhaps the most influential left theorist of the moment, and dominate the new radical theology inspired by Badiou’s reconsideration of St. Paul and Derrida’s late theological texts.
In the US, Nietzsche was also the lodestar of a certain swath of the left. (Inattention to this history, and also to the discursive centrality of political economy in Nietzsche’s thought in Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s otherwise impressive American Nietzsche is a disappointment). Nietzsche was without question a central inspiration for two of the most interesting heterodox leftists of the pre-New Left period: Kenneth Burke and Norman O. Brown. The philosopher then gained great influence with the arrival of French theory in the nation’s humanities and social sciences departments beginning in the late 1960s. With the apparent decline of paternal authority, and the apparent death of every legitimating metanarrative of order and progress, Nietzsche’s writings on the death of God seemed newly relevant to intellectuals aligned with anti-capitalist activism, the new social movements, and left-wing anarchism.
From feminist and gay and lesbian researchers seeking to understand the experience, from a queer perspective, of what Roderick Ferguson calls “the nightmare of the heteronormative,” the constitutive violence of gendered and racialized identity formation and maintenance—congruent in so many ways with Nietzsche’s various genealogies—assumed new urgency. From Judith Butler’s The Psychic Life of Power to Semiotext(e)’s publication of a dedicated volume on Nietzsche, if we look in the right places we can find plenty of evidence of continuing interest in the philosopher’s work in radical circles—indeed, in the radical circles most desperate for theoretical tools in light of the twin disasters of AIDS and a resurgent politicized homophobia––throughout the 1980s.
But even for those who feel that politics is only politics when it involves streets and placards and barricades, there is no denying the palpably Nietzschean character of the last several decades of left-wing activism. Consider this distillation of the politics of Nietzsche by Gilles Deleuze from a series of interviews from the late 1960s, published in the collection Desert Islands:
[W]ith God dead, the self dissolves or evaporates, but in a certain way, opens itself up to all the other selves, roles, and characters which must be run through in a series like so many fortuitous events…this power of metamorphosis at the heart of Nietzsche’s pluralism…
Zarathustra says: “The desire to dominate: now who would call that a desire?”… If the will to power meant wanting power, it would clearly depend on long established values, such as honor, money, or social influence, since these values determine the attribution and recognition of power as an object of desire and will.
More to the point, we ask: who wants such power? Who wants to dominate? Precisely those whom Nietzsche calls slaves and the weak. Wanting power is the image of the will to power which the impotent invent for themselves…The will to power has its highest level in an intense or intensive form, which is neither coveting nor taking, but giving, creating…
…. the will to power is affirmation, an affirmation of difference, play, pleasure and gift, the creation of difference…
On the other hand, some values are eternally new, forever untimely, always contemporary with their creation, and these, even when they seem established, apparently assimilated by a society, in fact address themselves to other forces, soliciting from within that society anarchic forces of another nature.
Such values alone are trans-historical, supra-historical, and bear witness to a congenial chaos, a creative disorder that is irreducible to any order whatsoever. It is this chaos of which Nietzsche spoke when he said it was not the contrary of the eternal return, but the eternal return in person. The great creations depart from this supra-historical stratum, this “untimely” chaos, at the extreme limit of what is livable.
The ultimate authority is creation, it is art: or rather, art represents the absence and the impossibility of an ultimate authority. From the very beginning of his work, Nietzsche posits that there exist ends “just a little higher” than those of the State, than those of society.
Politics, too, is in the business of interpretation. The untimely, which we just discussed, is never reducible to the political-historical element. But it happens from time to time that, at certain great moments, they coincide. When people die of hunger in India, such a disaster is political-historical. But when the people struggle for their liberation, there is always a coincidence of poetic acts and historical events or political actions, the glorious incarnation of something sublime or untimely. Such great coincidences are Nasser’s burst of laughter when he nationalized Suez, or Castro’s gestures, and that other burst of laughter, Giap’s television interview.
Here we have something that reminds us of Rimbaud’s or Nietzsche’s imperatives and which puts one over on Marx—an artistic joy that comes to coincide with historical struggle. There are creators in politics, and creative movements, that are poised for a moment in history. Hitler, on the contrary, lacked to a singular degree any Nietzschean element.
… And in our wealthy societies, the many and various forms of non-integration, the different forms of refusal by young people today, are perhaps manifestations of it. You see, the forces of repression always need a Self that can be assigned, they need determinate individuals on which to exercise their power. When we become the least bit fluid, when we slip away from the assignable Self, when there is no longer any person on whom God can exercise his power or by whom He can be replaced, the police lose it. This is not theory. All the stuff going on as we speak is what matters. We can’t dismiss the upheavals troubling the younger generation just by saying: oh, they’ll grow out of it. It’s difficult, of course, sometimes worrisome, but it’s also really joyful, because they’re creating something, accompanied by the confusion and suffering that attends any practical creation, I think.
Can anyone read these passages and not think immediately of the spirit and culture of US left-wing activism from the “Battle of Seattle” to Occupy? Perhaps there are problems with that spirit and culture; I’m not sure I know any leftists who would disagree. But the point here isn’t to suggest that the US Left is perfect: it is simply to argue that its cult of becoming, hatred of representation, aversion to power and platforms, and experimentation with collective, nomadic forms of autopoesis are powerfully Nietzschean. If that’s the case, then Robin’s essay might be better situated as a negotiation with Nietzsche’s left interlocutors than a recovery of a “political” Nietzsche from his current condition of ideological obscurity.
Robin begins with the current state of political affairs. The very wealthy control virtually the entire political process, and most of the political discourse, a breathtaking reversal of Keynesian certitudes that seemed unshakeable even as recently as the 1970s. The court philosopher of this stunning ascent of the rich is the late Friedrich Hayek, formulator of “the most genuinely political theory of capitalism on the right we’ve ever seen.”
In order to understand the epistemological stakes of the Hayekian turn, Robin insists that we return to fin de siècle Vienna. The “marginal revolution” that kicked off the Austrianization of the economics profession, Robin suggests, resonated deeply with the philosophical project of Friedrich Nietzsche, even though direct links between the two endeavors are tricky to locate. No one understood better than Nietzsche, Robin writes, “the social and cultural forces that would shape the Austrians: the demise of an ancient ruling class; the raising of the labor question by trade unions and socialist parties; the inability of an ascendant bourgeoisie to crush or contain democracy in the streets; the need for a new ruling class in an age of mass politics.”
Here, I will note that I am entirely on board with such studies of elective affinities, homologies, and sympathetic resonance. What bothers me in this formulation, however, is that the class struggle analysis is too truncated, and other, perhaps far more relevant questions are left out. Gender, for example, was being powerfully revised in this moment, with a combination of state natalism, Victorian repression, and a crisis of masculinity contributing to virulent new strands of misogyny. Late colonialism and the “scramble for Africa” were creating important new understandings of race, difference, and the redemptive power of violence, consolidating several centuries of liberal arrogance and white vainglory. One simply cannot understand what the marginal turn was without attending to its central discursive figure—the diamond—and thinking about where diamonds were coming from in this very moment. Thus, I think a case can be made for Nietzsche’s complicity in a certain growing proto-fascism, to the degree that his project was guided by a virulent misogyny and a complicated strain of Orientalism. But this is not the tack that Robin takes.
Robin proceeds from this table-setting to offer an elegant summary of Nietzsche’s career, and then zeroes in on an essay, ‘The Greek State,’ apparently the key to the Nietzsche/Hayek connection. Indeed, ‘The Greek State’ contains some thoughts that strike the contemporary reader as awful: anti-working class, condemnatory of work, classist. To see ‘The Greek State’ as typical of Nietzsche’s project, however, is, I think, eccentric.
And there is the unavoidable question of misprision: Robin is so eager to read Nietzsche as hating the working class that he does not consider carefully enough whether the “barbaric class of slaves” under the thrall of Christian “slave morality” is not, in fact, the bourgeoisie. As with the American discourses of “wage slavery,” we must ask what images of darker-skinned slavery underlined Nietzsche’s use of coerced labor as a metaphor; there is no question that a species of racism undergirds the whole conceptual project. But the same could be said of Marx and his use of the language of slavery and the notion of “Asiatic despotism”; and the hatred of the present condition of the working class and desire that it be radically transformed also animated Engels and Trotsky. I’m simply not convinced that the ideological barometer is working properly here.
From Nietzsche, Robin turns to the marginalists: Carl Menger, William Stanley Jevons, and Léon Walras. What interests Robin most is the scuttling of the labor theory of value in favor of notions of utility. The labor theory of value, Robin insists, was more than just a metric developed to accommodate the early phase of intensive capitalist development; it was something approaching an economic theology that sacralized proletarian work:
Because… materials were made useful, hence valuable, only by labor, labor was the source of value. That, and the fact that labor could be measured in some way (usually time) lent the world of work a kind of ontological status—and political authority—that had been increasingly denied to the world of courts and kings, lands and lords, parishes and priests.
This reading of the labor theory of value is problematic in several ways. First, it strikes me as an American agrarian Populist overlay on European realities: a smallholder language of anti-bank sentiment rather than the more complex calculus—inflected by many centuries of class struggle–at work on the Continent.
Second, Robin is never clear on his take on the labor theory of value. The theory, while still valuable as a metaphor and a clew that connects the “invisible” exploitation of capitalism to the more obvious surplus extraction of feudalism, nevertheless has some problems that Robin might acknowledge. Most famously, no one has ever been able to properly correlate the labor theory of value and prices. No less important, the labor theory of value valorizes a certain kind of white male labor while insisting that the forced labor of darker-skinned subalterns, the domestic work of women, and the activities of the unemployed are irrelevant to capitalist reproduction. Even more provocatively: the classical labor theory of value did not always distinguish between human and animal labor (thus, one could fairly say that for many thinkers in the Lockean tradition, the labor theory of value helped to affirm the animality of proletarians, and that for such thinkers, a European horse was more capable of generating capitalist profit than an African human).
Finally, as Robin acknowledges, Marxism itself was a critique of the labor theory of value, in its Ricardian articulation. After all, if the classical labor theory of value was so effective at sacralizing labor, why were workers treated so terribly for so much of the nineteenth century?
Equally troubling, Robin dodges what is perhaps the most important question for intellectual historians: did the marginalist project reflect changing realities of capitalism, conditions that were increasingly inhospitable to the labor theory of value, or were they engaged in a sort of creative intervention, a political project that sought to reshape the world by changing its discursive terms by forging a series of “just-so” stories?
It seems to me undeniable that the marginalists were in fact reacting to a historical event: the arrival of corporate capitalism in the 1870s and 1880s. Should Robin continue this project, this is a historical context with which he will have to attend.
As the essay progresses, Robin increasingly comes to focus on the similarities between the attack waged by Nietzsche and the assault initiated by the marginalists on the epistemological foundations of value talk: “Nietzsche’s response… was to embrace one part of the modern understanding of value—its fabricated nature—and turned against its democratic and Smithian premises.”
In light of the previous discussion, we might fairly ask: what? And from this take on value’s becoming-indeterminate as a threat to democratic potentials, Robin casts aspersions on the Nietzschean celebration of the “gift” as the utopian alternative to the vulgar commodity. I am as wary as anyone about Sennetian reveries about gifts—but there is no question that the notion of the “gift” is more complicated than Robin allows in this essay (we need only mention Mauss, Polanyi, Bataille, and the strange desire of neoliberal policy elites to marketize every surviving form of gift-giving in the global South…)
Robin’s refusal to consider Nietzschean themes like “nobility” and “aristocracy” as ironic and re-doubled results in further confusions and constrictions. Can we really write a history of resistance and refusal of capitalism, at least after Walter Benjamin and queer theory, that does not recognize in the Beau Brummels and Oscar Wildes, the flaneurs and sybarites, the dandies and the zoot suiters, a powerful idiom of anti-bourgeois affect? Is Nietzsche’s fascination with “nobility” and “aristocracy” really so different from that of Hofstadter or Genovese? A long line of left historians have seen aristocratic culture and its survivals as an important margin to bourgeois hegemony. And leftists are often surprised, as Robin shows many times in his other work, that aristocrats—the Marxes of the Master Class––often come quite close to leftist critique of capitalism; except that, to the degree that inequality and hierarchy are affirmed as the secret core of market society, they are, broadly speaking, “for” it.
On the other hand, Robin’s juxtaposition of Nietzsche and Menger and Jevons is inspired:
That was in 1882. Just a decade earlier, Menger had written: “Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being.” Jevons’s position was identical, and like Nietzsche, both Menger and Jevons thought value was instead a high or low estimation put by a man upon the things of life. But lest that desiring self be reduced to a simple creature of tabulated needs, Menger and Jevons took care to distinguish their positions from traditional theories of utility.
Jevons, for example, was prepared to follow Jeremy Bentham in his definition of utility as “that property in an object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness.” He thought this “perfectly expresses the meaning of the word Economy.” But he also insisted on a critical rider: “provided that the will or inclination of the person concerned is taken as the sole criterion, for the time, of what is good and desirable.”
Our expressed desires and aversions are not measures of our objective or underlying good; there is no such thing. Nor can we be assured that those desires or aversions will bring us pleasure or pain. What we want or don’t want is merely a representation, a snapshot of the motions of our will—that black box of preference and partiality that so fascinated Nietzsche precisely because it seemed so groundless and yet so generative.
Every mind is inscrutable to itself: we lack, said Jevons, “the means of measuring directly the feelings of the human heart.” The inner life is inaccessible to our inspections; all we can know are its effects, the will it powers and the actions it propels. “The will is our pendulum,” declared Jevons, a representation of forces that cannot be seen but whose effects are nevertheless felt, “and its oscillations are minutely registered in all the price lists of the markets.”
This is wonderful writing: lucid, generous to the reader, lean.
When Robin turns, finally, to Hayek, he makes a strong case for a certain kind of vulgar Nietzscheanism as the ground of Hayek’s misanthropy (itself the ground of Hayek’s love of the market). These paragraphs on Hayek connect back to Robin’s broader project, productively reframing the question of the advent of modern market fundamentalism as, precisely, a question: how this movement come to disavow all historical knowledge and common sense wisdom about how humans work, what they want, how they suffer, what under what conditions they need to flourish: how does it come, that is, to throw off the hard-won collective understanding of what it means to be a person in favor of speculation and games?
Robin also does an excellent job of reminding readers just how logically precarious is Hayek’s model of finite consumer choice and perfect information.* Also wonderful is Robin’s proposition of a certain kind of right wing materialism in Hayek’s moral system; he isolates this quote from Hayek to particularly impressive effect:
“Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us… is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created.”
We quickly arrive, however, at another head-scratcher: Robin suggests that Hayek and Nietzsche share a similar time consciousness. This, I think, is a misreading of the latter. Nietzsche’s vision of the event of the new takes place outside of the conventional time of capitalist everyday life; it is bound up in nineteenth century Romantic thought’s fascination with retroactivity, time travel and its paradoxes, and existential doubling. Hayek’s market time is of an entirely different genera and species.
As Robin approaches the question of fascism, it seems to me that Nietzsche (whose sister famously assembled his works in a manner friendly to National Socialist priorities) and Hayek (who was an enthusiastic supporter of repressive market-friendly regimes) drift further and further apart. The irony, here, is that a different, perhaps more persuasive case could be made for a Nietzsche/Hayek fascist convergence. That would lie not at the level of thematic resonance, but at the level of form: both share a kind of violent, annihilationist approach to argumentation and the destruction of their enemies, and both fantasize about a fully bounded body and a kind of miraculous spiritual fusion as the condition of the emergence of the new. Klaus Theweleit argued that it was this phenomenology of the body—the terror of bodily invasion and the transcendence of the ego in militaristic male bonding rituals—that was the chief cultural coefficient of the rise of Nazism after World War I. This was tied to a virulent patriarchal and misogynist conception of the proper roles and innate characteristics of men and women, articulated also through an ever-growing science of race. Within such a framework, one could easily imagine a very productive counterpoising of Nietzsche and Hayek. On the terms of this essay, however, I remain perplexed.
*Update 5/20/2013 7:38 PM
In response to comments, the author wishes to make the following correction:
Several people have pointed out to me that I mischaracterized several of Hayek’s premises. Hayek did not believe in “hyperrational consumers,” nor did he believe in “perfect information” in consumer choices. “Perfect information” has a very precise meaning in economics, and I should have kept that in mind in my writing. What Hayek believed in, within the language game of economics, was, in fact, the imperfect character of information’s diffusion in complex societies. So what I wrote about Hayek was in fact precisely the opposite of what I ought to have written.