Why the Alt-Right Loves Nietzsche

Nietzsche’s critique of modernity has fascinated thinkers on the Right and Left — but in its essence, it belongs to the Right. The Left must advance an alternative modernity.

Friedrich Nietzsche. Photograph from the series „Der kranke Nietzsche“ ("The ill Nietzsche") by Hans Olde, between June and August 1899. Original at Goethe- und Schiller-Archiv Weimar, signature GSA 101/37. Wikimedia

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that there were two ways you could respond to what he called “the eternal recurrence of all things.” This was the idea that, as he put it in The Gay Science, “this life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more.” If you were a typical human weakling, you could “throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus.” But there were other souls, greater and stronger. They could rise above the herd, stare that same demon in the eye, and respond: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”

A certain dosage of Nietzschean amor fati is required for the endeavor that the political theorist Ronald Beiner undertakes in his new book, Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right. His subject is the relationship between, on the one hand, Nietzsche and the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, and on the other hand Nazism — a matter of posthumous conscription in the case of Nietzsche, of intense mutual admiration in the case of Heidegger. Beiner wants to show that extreme right-wing politics were baked into the cake of their philosophies. As a result, postmodern attempts to fashion a “left-Nietzscheanism” or “left-Heideggerianism” are doomed to misfire.

We have indeed lived this argument before, and will have to live it once more, perhaps innumerable times more. It is territory trod, to little avail, by an impressive array of philosophers and intellectual historians: Georg Lukács, Jürgen Habermas, Zeev Sternhell, Richard Wolin, and many others. And Beiner calls on many of his predecessors throughout Dangerous Minds.

But he has a twist to add, a new element that gives him hope that his critique will succeed where others have fallen on deaf ears. Previous critics, he notes, have focused on the question of how the right-wing views of Nietzsche and Heidegger should shape our assessment of their left-wing acolytes today. But by focusing so tenaciously on “tenured radicals,” these critiques seem to imply that self-consciously right-wing Nietzscheanism/Heideggerianism is a thing of the past.

Maybe past polemics haven’t succeeded because they’ve unwittingly conceded key ground to their opponents. After all, if it’s true that the typical reader of Nietzsche or Heidegger today is a leftist — if the thinkers’ own extreme-right views are understood as an aberration, swiftly and permanently corrected early in their subsequent reception history — then the claim that there’s something intrinsically reactionary about their philosophy does seem a bit implausible.

It’s Beiner’s disgruntlement with that historical assumption that explains the last clause of his subtitle: the return of the far right. Beiner wants to change your picture of the typical Nietzschean, or Heideggerian. He enlists today’s global fascist revival and its quasi-highbrow spokesmen: Richard Spencer, Aleksandr Dugin, and their allies (ardent Nietzsche/Heidegger readers one and all).

His wager is that left-wing academics will be less sanguine about the prospect of reappropriating Heidegger and Nietzsche if those names start to conjure up images of torch-wielding mobs, like the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally pictured on the book’s cover, instead of seminar rooms and Parisian cafés.

Just Do It

It’s a creative, promising strategy — which makes it all the more disappointing that Beiner doesn’t really pursue it after the introduction. The vast majority of the book is devoted to textual exegesis of Nietzsche and Heidegger. The titles of his two long chapters, “Reading [Nietzsche/Heidegger] in an Age of Resurgent Fascism,” turn out to be disappointingly literal. The chapters are readings; they are not about reading, or readers. With the exception of a few sentences or paragraphs here or there, they could have been written in nearly any age.

The flip side is that Beiner’s readings are clear, accessible, and compelling. They are comprehensible for the reader coming to Nietzsche or Heidegger for the first time, without sacrificing textual fidelity or sophistication. Both chapters make a sustained case for what Beiner takes to be the central, motivating concern of each philosopher. These analyses underscore how much they have in common and how much their commonalities reflect their shared right-wing politics.

In Beiner’s hands, Nietzsche and Heidegger become, first and foremost, reactionary cultural critics. Their project originates in a howl of dismay at the modern world, and especially the ideals of the French Revolution. Liberty, equality, and fraternity have been a catastrophe. What came advertised as emancipatory proved to be spiritually deadening. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on democracy and innate human rationality has spawned an epidemic of arrogant mediocrity. Ordinary people vastly overestimate their capacity to reason, to know things, and to use their knowledge to improve the world. A mass society, in which all distinctions have been leveled away, is also one that has lost its sense of the tragic, of a world that must be accepted rather than changed. We need a new authority, one capable of revitalizing our culture, of restoring the order whose absence has so crippled the modern spirit. You have to break some eggs to make the existential omelet.

For Nietzsche, Beiner writes, the source of the problem is modernity’s “horizonlessness.” Nietzsche is often understood by friends and enemies as a prophet of the destabilization of all fixed certainties — values, religions, facts, the notion of truth itself. Beiner shows that if Nietzsche was such a prophet, it was more in the Old Testament than the TED Talk mold. Or perhaps the creepy-old-man-early-in-a-horror-film mold.

Nietzsche did indeed think that all those orienting convictions lacked “foundations” — but he also thought that it was necessary that we embrace some sort of “horizon” anyways. Without horizons we can’t act, or act in a sufficiently vigorous, “life-affirming” fashion.

Our horizons still lacked foundations before modernity. It’s just that in an era of pagan religion, unquestioned patriarchy, and tragic theater, no one was very stressed about it. The modern world changed all that, by bringing the Platonic/Christian preoccupation with metaphysics to a fever pitch. We started second-guessing ourselves and looking for reasons to do things instead of just manning up and doing them.

In an early text Beiner quotes, Nietzsche describes the consequence, the modern man who “can no longer extricate himself from the delicate net of judiciousness and truth for a simple act of will and desire.” Nietzsche’s redeeming hope is the famous Übermenschen, the individuals who can save us by resisting modern “nihilism” and exercising the strength necessary to create their own, new horizons — to which the rest of the modern herd can joyfully submit.

Beiner insists that it is important not to let Heidegger’s own extensive and ambivalent remarks on Nietzsche overshadow the extent to which he sought to tell a strikingly similar story about modernity. Yes, Heidegger ultimately concluded that Nietzsche represented the “culmination” rather than the overcoming of metaphysics. Yes, they differed on many specific questions — whether the Renaissance was good, for instance. Nietzsche explicitly rejected the German nationalism that Heidegger championed.

But, as Beiner writes, on the whole “the parallels between Nietzsche and Heidegger are indeed striking.” In particular, they shared the same diagnosis: a vision of modernity where experience has been made shallow and banal by the suffocating hegemony of Platonic/Christian metaphysics, rationalism, and universalism.

For Heidegger as for Nietzsche, modernity is blind to our most basic existence as doers rather than knowers. And like Nietzsche, Heidegger thinks that the result is overconfidence and underconfidence at the same time. We are underconfident in the taken-for-granted presuppositions that allow us to navigate the world in everyday life — we subject them to rationalistic criticism; we assume that they stand between us and an accurate grasp of the world, when they’re actually the only way the world is “disclosed” to us.

The result is an overconfidence in the understanding of the world produced by our rational reflection, and a hubristic faith in our ability to plan and control anything and everything. Heidegger would prefer that we respond to breakdowns in our practical ability by entering into a more “authentic” experience of our limitation and “rootedness,” marveling at the incomprehensible mystery of “Being” — the mystery that our world is at all.

Heidegger’s great aspiration for how to achieve the spiritual recovery of rootedness in Germany was, of course, the Nazi movement. The potential for Nazi rule to guide Germans home to Being was what Heidegger called Nazism’s “inner truth and greatness.” Beiner synthesizes the immense amount of evidence that has come to light about the extent of Heidegger’s allegiance to the Nazi party, his personal admiration for Hitler, and, against the insistence of a generation of apologists, his profound antisemitism.

Beiner’s analysis makes clear, in a way that past critics have not always succeeded in doing, the logic of Heidegger’s antisemitism. The glove fits. It is not just a matter of reassessing “aspects” of Heidegger’s philosophy, or wrestling with the “ethics” of appreciating the work of a really dreadful person. Beiner shows that Heidegger’s entire philosophy sprang from a story, a story about rootless cosmopolitanism orchestrating disturbing political developments in the Soviet Union and the United States, and alienating the German Volk from authentic experience. Why was it ever difficult to see him for what he really was?

No Alternative

That’s not exactly the question Beiner poses, however. He’s more interested in why Nietzsche and Heidegger found their own views appealing in the first place. “We must read the great anti-liberal theorists,” he proposes, “in order to come to a deeper understanding of precisely why they turn their backs on bourgeois liberalism and hence why many of our fellow citizens are readily tempted to do the same.” The problem is that, by assuming that the explanation can be found within the texts themselves, Beiner takes them far too much at face value. He gestures toward a sociology of reaction that takes place on the reactionaries’ terms.

As a result, in his conclusion, Beiner seems to do a bewildering about-face on his previous insistence that the logic of the Nietzsche-Heidegger worldview leads inexorably to political disaster. The reason so many people have been attracted to their diagnosis of modernity, he now announces, is that it is basically correct. There really is “a spiritual void at the heart of modernity.” And the task of the liberal democrat is to defend modernity despite the overwhelming evidence of its “spiritual or cultural vacuity.”

Not for Beiner is Jürgen Habermas’s reminder that modernity remains an “unfinished project,” completable only under particular material conditions. Or Charles Mills’s insistence that Enlightenment values of equality and freedom can indeed be actualized, but only by confronting the ways in which white supremacy has structured Enlightenment thinking since its origins.

No, Beiner’s closing argument is instead Margaret Thatcher’s: there is no alternative. “So centrist liberal managerialism is unsatisfying,” he concedes. “It’s not inspiring enough. It doesn’t move the soul. It’s banal; it’s a politics for the last man. Fine. And with what do we undertake to replace it?” As if centrist liberal managerialism is all that modernity ever was, or could be!

By the last pages of the book, the fatal Nietzsche-Heidegger error is no longer their knee-jerk distaste for reason, equality, and democracy. It is their foolish assumption that the problems with those values that they’ve correctly identified could ever be rectified. “It’s their hope/hubris that’s dangerous,” Beiner writes — their last-minute betrayal of their own commitment to tragedy and amor fati. “Who ever gave us a guarantee that the problem of the human condition admits of a solution?” Beiner ends by asking. He embraces the Nietzschean-Heideggerian either/or in full: either the delirium of Übermenschen and National Socialism, or today’s political order, eternally unaltered.

Beiner never explicitly comes to terms with the fact that he winds up endorsing a Nietzschean centrism, or the extent to which he backtracks on the agenda that he sets out in the introduction. He does highlight the Nietzschean pedigree of Max Weber, his great model for a tragic liberalism. And he makes little effort to conceal the Nietzschean elitism of his own political vision.

It is a classic double-truth doctrine. What Nietzsche and Heidegger expose about modernity is safe and even salutary for committed, enlightened liberals to understand. The titular “danger” arrives when their disturbing truth gets revealed “in a context where that commitment is not fully secure or is actively insecure.” It can be discussed, but only in hushed tones, out of earshot of the “vulgar mob” — what Beiner calls, quoting one frustrated neo-Nazi, “white trash.”

But Beiner’s initial aspiration never quite goes away. He continues to talk as if what he is after is an emancipatory intellectual project, one whose contours might be more crisply defined by a fuller appreciation of the logic of its incompatible, reactionary opposite in Nietzsche and Heidegger. It’s just that, by the end of the book, his understanding of emancipation starts to look weirdly like devotion to the status quo. By the time he lists Karl Marx in his role call of “anti-liberal theorists” whom we mustn’t try to “appropriate . . . for liberal or leftist intellectual projects,” you could be forgiven for wondering exactly what Beiner thinks leftism consists of.

Illiberal Liberalism

What is frustrating about this morass is that Beiner has, in fact, stumbled onto something significant. Beiner is absolutely right that it’s possible to offer a coherent Nietzschean defense of liberal capitalism, with Weber as one model. Beiner points toward a centrist liberalism that can be distinguished from ultra-rightism only by a decision about values, rather than a difference in underlying worldview. That doesn’t bother Beiner too much. He seems confident that the good guys can stick, indefinitely, to the basically nonrational commitment that separates them from the bad guys. Or at least that it’s the best hope we’ve got.

But if we were to do what Beiner asks us to do in the introduction — take a closer look at the history of actually existing Nietzscheanism or Heideggerianism — it might prove harder to keep the faith. We would find it disturbingly difficult in practice to separate the liberal wheat from the far-right chaff.

Take Max Weber, for instance. He ends up as the unlikely hero of Dangerous Minds, capable of seeing the “iron cage” of modernity as clearly as Nietzsche and Heidegger and “affirming” it anyway. “Because it doesn’t rest upon the entertaining of fantasies about the transcendence of modernity,” Beiner eulogizes, “Weberian nobility is ultimately more noble than Nietzschean nobility.” And yet an ardent German nationalism ran throughout the work of this “very pessimistic liberal” like a red-and-black thread. Read against the grain, Weber’s work shows less a stoic resolve in the face of modernity’s inevitability, and more a terror at its precarity, at least in its German-imperial incarnation.

For Weber, the iron cage was always under threat from some non-German menace. In his 1895 Inaugural Lecture at Freiburg University (where Heidegger would later become rector under the Nazi regime), it was Polish farmers. They were migrating into eastern Prussia and threatening the livelihood of native German workers with their racially determined willingness to labor under more degrading conditions. The solution that Weber proposed in 1893 was nothing less than the “absolute exclusion of the Russian-Polish workers from the German East.” Near the end of his life, the threat was the racially debased forces fighting Germany in World War I. He warned an audience in 1917 “that Germany is fighting for its very life against an army in which there are negroes, Ghurkas, and all manner of barbarians who have come from their hiding places all over the world and who are now gathered at the borders of Germany, ready to lay waste to our country.”

In between, Weber developed an elaborate theoretical account of the “elective affinity” between capitalist modernity and the unique cultural traits of Europeans. Capitalism didn’t just happen to develop in Europe. It was born out of Europeans’ distinctive religious-cultural capacity for discipline and instrumental rationality, as opposed to what Weber called the “boundless greed of Asians.” Weber’s belief in the world-historical “destiny” of the German state was not, as Beiner claims, an aberration, but a logical extension of the core of his thought.

Weber is hardly the only Nietzschean “liberal” to have played sustained footsie with the authoritarian or nationalist right. Scholars have noted a similar trajectory in the history of the Austrian school of economics, the intellectual cornerstone of the twentieth-century neoliberal movement. The political theorist Corey Robin elicited a storm of controversy in 2013, mostly from libertarian writers, for an essay highlighting parallels between Nietzsche and the Austrians. But some similarity is plain as day, not only (or especially) with respect to Nietzsche personally but to the subsequent Nietzschean tradition.

Weber, for instance, was an interlocutor of the school’s early twentieth-century leader, Ludwig von Mises, and an inspiration to younger members such as Alfred Schütz and Joseph Schumpeter. The most important twentieth-century Austrian economist, F.A. Hayek, issued denunciations of “rationalism” as strong as any to be found in Nietzsche or Heidegger. (The political theorist Michael Oakeshott, to whom Hayek is often justly compared, has been called the “English Heidegger.”)

More recently, there was Don Lavoie, a mentor to many influential US Austrian school adherents and, at the time of his death, the Charles Koch Professor of Economics at George Mason University. Lavoie spent his career arguing for an affinity between Austrian school methodology and the “hermeneutic” philosophy of Heidegger and his follower Hans-Georg Gadamer.

The strongest point of contact between many Austrian liberals and Nietzscheans such as Heidegger is a shared conviction that political authoritarianism can be tolerable or even necessary in the face of advancing leftism. Heidegger’s recently published Black Notebooks show the extent to which his support for Nazism was related to his terror of creeping “Bolshevism,” which he saw (of course) as powered by world Jewry. Similar considerations, sans antisemitism, drove Ludwig von Mises to declare in 1927 that fascism “has, for the moment, rescued European civilization” by suppressing communist uprisings in Italy. “The merit that fascism has thereby acquired for itself will go on living in history eternally,” he pronounced.

The historian Quinn Slobodian has demonstrated how this logic continued to underpin neoliberal support for authoritarian regimes in apartheid South Africa and Augusto Pinochet’s Chile. Whether motivated by the economist Wilhelm Röpke’s horror at the prospect of majority rule by black South African “cannibals,” or dismay at the popular support enjoyed by Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president, Salvador Allende, the Austrian tradition has proved more than willing to make its peace with the idea of a “liberal dictator,” as Hayek once called Pinochet.

So it’s less surprising than it might initially appear that Ludwig von Mises has joined Nietzsche and Heidegger in the pantheon of today’s alt-right. Richard Spencer has recommended that his acolytes read von Mises and his American student Murray Rothbard. Mencius Moldbug, the preferred brand of pseudo-highbrow neofascist leaders, agrees: “Mises is a titan; Rothbard is a giant,” he has written. The chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute (LVMI) in Auburn, Alabama, is Lew Rockwell, whom you might remember for ghostwriting all those racist Ron Paul newsletters. The LVMI’s most notorious affiliate is Hans-Hermann Hoppe, whose 2001 screed Democracy: The God That Failed has become something of a bible for the alt-right movement.

It’s not just capitalist liberals backsliding into fascism, in other words. The fascists have a hard time staying away from capitalist “liberalism” as well.

The Ironic Cage

Beiner assumes that the central dilemma of modern politics is whether one is “for” or “against” liberal modernity. But in Dangerous Minds he has drawn our attention to a history that suggests the choice isn’t nearly that simple. It turns out that champions and opponents of modernity can find plenty of intellectual and programmatic common ground. The dividing line between liberal centrism and fascist rightism looks disturbingly unstable in practice.

That’s because modernity itself is unstable. Weber was wrong. Modernity isn’t an iron cage, growing inexorably more homogeneous and predictable. It is complex; it is contradictory; it contains multitudes. “The modern gives no satisfaction,” Marx wrote: there is a relentless movement at its heart. Modernity utters promises of democracy, freedom, and equality, while entrenching a political-economic system that is structurally incapable of fulfilling them. It offers a tantalizing vision of a world steered collectively toward the satisfaction of human needs, while operating in the short term to intensify exploitation on an unprecedented scale.

As Marx was the first to explain, modern capitalism creates the conditions for its own supercession, even if taking advantage of those conditions has proved more challenging than Marx ever anticipated. The status quo’s inertia doesn’t keep it in steady state, it moves it towards revolutionary transformation. That’s why the defenders of the status quo have so often found it necessary to reach back to the resources of “premodern” despotic power to beat back demands for democracy, freedom, or equality of an unpalatable sort.

It’s no coincidence that Nietzsche and Heidegger only began to acquire an avid radical readership in the mid- to late twentieth century, when the traditional leftist project had begun to seem like a pipe dream destined to end either in Stalinist perversion or Thatcherite defeat.

It’s understandable why the anti-modernist howl might seem attractive if you’ve come to believe that the only alternative is reluctant submission to the capitalism of the 1970s and ‘80s. (Although if that instinct leads you all the way back to a qualified enthusiasm for the neoliberalism of Gary Becker and others, as it did for Michel Foucault, one might reasonably expect you to reassess your premises.) In Beiner’s mind, it’s still the same choice that’s facing us today. He thinks that a reckoning with the “return of the far right” will help us gin up the necessary resolve to make the uninspiring decision in favor of the status quo.

But there is an alternative. We can instead look to today’s far right as proof that the status quo is not self-identical, that it does contain the seeds of its own destruction, for better and for worse. Instead of treating the revitalization of post-Nietzschean ultra-rightism as another turn of the wheel of eternal recurrence, we can treat it as proof that reactionary anti-modernism will accompany capitalism, in Marx’s words, to its blessed end. We can pose a different dichotomy: socialism or barbarism. As a great fascist, W.B. Yeats, put it, the center cannot hold.