Liberal institutions straightway cease from being liberal, the moment they are soundly established: once this is attained no more grievous and more thorough enemies of freedom exist than liberal institutions! One knows, of course, what they bring about: they undermine the Will to Power, they are the levelling of mountain and valley exalted to a morality, they make people small, cowardly and pleasure—loving,—by means of them the gregarious animal invariably triumphs. Liberalism, or, in plain English, the transformation of mankind into cattle… Freedom is the will to be responsible for ourselves. It is to preserve the distance which separates us from other men. To grow more indifferent to hardship, to severity, to privation, and even to life itself. To be ready to sacrifice men for one’s cause, one’s self included. Freedom denotes that the virile instincts which rejoice in war and in victory, prevail over other instincts; for instance, over the instincts of “happiness.” The man who has won his freedom, and how much more so, therefore, the spirit that has won its freedom, tramples ruthlessly upon that contemptible kind of comfort which tea—grocers, Christians, cows, women, Englishmen and other democrats worship in their dreams. The free man is a warrior.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
Many are the angry counter-cultural intellectuals who declare themselves a “destiny” but few are those who are much more than a 15 minute idiosyncrasy. Nietzsche is one of those very few who truly achieved the epochal significance he—half joking, half deadly serious— projected for himself in Ecce Homo. That Nietzsche slipped into madness and the not so tender care of his Nazi sympathizing and anti-Semitic sister just as his influence was about to take off is one of the great tragedies in philosophy. One can only guess at the number of vulgar interpretations of his work which might have prevented.
Nietzsche’s reputation has gone through a remarkable roller coaster in since he passed away in 1900. Hard nosed analytical philosophers like Bertrand Russell took a dim view of Nietzsche’s contributions, finding them wildly declaratory and bombastic. In his History of Western Philosophy Russell summarized Nietzsche’s outlook with a line from King Lear: “I will do such things—What they are yet I know not——but they shall be The terror of the earth.” Nevertheless his reputation amongst the broader intelligentsia, from James Joyce to W.B Yeats, grew rapidly. In the leadup and aftermath of the Second World War, the view of Nietzsche again soured as many took the Nazis at their word that he was a predecessor to their views. In his The Destruction of Reason the great Western Marxist Gyorgy Lukas centered Nietzsche as the great “irrationalist” of the 19th century who paved the way for Nazi hostility towards the “masses” and veneration of a new and violent aristocracy.
But the power of Nietzsche’s thinking couldn’t be denied, nor could his profound influence on diverse postwar figures like Jean Paul Sartre, Leo Strauss, Ayn Rand and countless others. This led to a reevaluation of Nietzsche’s value, spearheaded above all by the great Walter Kaufmann’s lucid and evocative translations of Nietzsche work which became standard across the Anglo—world. In his seminal Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ, Kaufmann read Nietzsche as precursor to then ubiquitous existential individualism. Alienated, counter-cultural, and deep of course. But effectively apolitical, and certainly nothing as crude and vulgar as the Nazi portrait of Nietzsche as a barbarous proto-Fascist. At most he was a bohemian individualist; a kind of spiritual artist as beyond politics as he was good and evil.
The screw turned again in the 1960s as Nietzsche was discovered by a generation of New Left and post-structuralist thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic. They embraced Nietzsche’s perspectivism, method of historical genealogy, and fascination with power in a number of highly creative ways. Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault both developed a popular “post-modern” view of Nietzsche as a philosopher who resisted normalization and celebrated a healthy distinctiveness against the pressures of discipline or control. Foucault even declared that he was “simply a Nietzschean” who developed Nietzsche’s views on morality and power to demonstrate that values asserted as universal and rational in fact rested on forces of disciplinary oppression.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the great left-liberal Richard Rorty internalized the perspectivist Nietzsche of “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense” where the latter described truth as a “moving army of metaphors, metonymies, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding.” Rorty hoped that the extension of this Nietzschean outlook would help gentle the fanaticism and fundamentalism of political conflict, especially that coming from the political right. As he put it in Philosophy and Social Hope Philosophy and Social Hope “rightist thinkers don’t think that it is enough just to prefer democratic societies. One also has to believe that they are Objectively Good, that the institutions of such societies are grounded in Rational First Principles…My own philosophical views—view I share with Nietzsche and Dewey—forbid me to say this kind of thing.”
It was this Nietzsche that I came of age reading and this Nietzsche that many conservatives attacked for his influence on the counter-cultural left. And to be clear, I think there is still considerable value in liberal and left-readings of Nietzschean themes which repurpose his work for progressive ends. Nietzsche may have despised readers who acted like “plundering troops” who take away a few things, while distorting the “whole.” But I see no reason to adopt a tone of pious reverence towards an author who self-identified as the Anti-Christ and who himself liberally drew ideas from a wide array of disciplines and themes. However, while it may be permissible to appropriate Nietzsche for liberals and progressives we must be very clear that we are using weapons he intended be directed against us. This is because Nietzsche’s thought, regarded as a “whole” constitutes one of the most profound and sweeping rejections of egalitarian modernity ever seen.
Nietzsche and the contemporary radical right
In a cycle of eternal recurrence which might have amused him, we are now seeing another new interpretation of Nietzsche appear. A new interpretation which is in fact an old one, but filtered through the concerns of our cultural moment. This is Nietzsche the aristocratic radical and fanatical opponent of liberalism, socialism, and democracy. His presence has grown so ubiquitous that commentators are now regularly talking about the “Nietzschean” right and its influence on American politics. It can be juxtaposed against the more religious “post-liberal” right of figures like Patrick Deneen, or the “national conservatism” of Yoram Hazony as the third leg of the new three legged stool of the American right. In theory the overt religiosity and communitarian ethos shared by post-liberalism and national conservatism should inhibit a tight embrace of Nietzschean tropes. In practice things become more complicated.
In an amusing twist, the nominally Christian magazine First Things has published figures who offer discounted Nietzschean bombast like Lom3Z. In his essay, Lom3Z condemns the “Longhouse,” which encompasses “technocratic governance” but also “wokeness”and all that is “progressive” “liberal” and “secular.” This needs to be confronted since it “distrusts overt ambition. It censures the drive to assert oneself on the world, to strike out for conquest and expansion. Male competition and the hierarchies that drive it are unwelcome. Even constructive expressions of these instincts are deemed toxic, patriarchal, or even racist.” This shows the extent to which the Nietzschean right has become a major cultural player.
The modern Nietzschean right was willed into being by proponents like Richard Spencer and the alt-right, who leaned heavily on the thinking of the “Conservative Revolution” in Weimar Germany. Nietzschean ideas have since gained traction through popularizations like Bronze Age Mindset, which includes truly endless whining about the influence of soft progressive “bugmen” and calls for a new aristocracy of coconut oil glazed musclemen. These ideas have gained considerable traction with young conservative radicals in search of a more muscular rejection of liberal “effeminacy” and its replacement with a butch ethos of unconstrained power. That many of the proponents of these views are terminally online nebbish intellectuals who’d struggle to cosplay as “super-duper” Conan the Barbarians is a major paradox of praxis the Nietzschean right has yet to resolve.
The American Nietzschean right once more combines Nietzsche with various forms of nationalism and crude racist biologism. This is the temptation generations of interpreters tried to ward off because of its transparent Nazi associations; usually by pointing to Nietzsche’s condemnations of anti-Semitism and his cosmopolitan insistence on being a “good European” in Beyond Good and Evil. But the allure of a more populist Nietzsche remains an enduring idol, and its not hard to see why. One of the major tropes of right-wing populism has been the struggle to extend notions of aristocracy and status downwards to build support for hierarchical policies amongst the lower orders who may feel invested in upending them. Not coincidentally Southern antebellum racists were particularly gifted at this, with James DeBow insisting that “the color of the white man is now, in the south, a title of nobility” and observing that poor whites in the North are “at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst [their] brother here has ascended several steps and can look down upon those who are beneath him, at an infinite remove.”
Nietzsche offers an aristocratic grammar and outlook that can be extended to the national level through proclamations that one belongs to a great people who have been humiliated and shamed by decadent and corrupting egalitarian enemies. Once these enemies are overcome by a rarefied elite of super-duper men, this Eminem blonde people can once more fulfill its grand destiny through palingenetic renewal. While technically at cross purposes with Nietzsche’s exclusion of all demotic politics, this offers a useful way to drum up popular support for the far right in the same way figures like DeBow hoped to induce poor whites to fight and eventually die for the slave system that ultimately benefited the masters above all else. Bronze Age Pervert even concedes the need for these kinds of Nietzschean compromises with Machiavelli. In Bronze Age Mindset, when he isn’t congratulating himself for coming up with coining some neologism as an insult, Pervy the Populist encourages his followers to “make alliance with people who otherwise wouldn’t be your friends. I believe that democracy is the final cause of all the political problems I describe here, but in the short run democracy—the will of the people—is on our side because the democracies have been hijacked by a stupid and corrupt elite.
The nations face extinction and an era of permanent civil war because this elite wants to pillage and pillage: and wants to flood them with the shit of the world. This is the immediate threat, and on this you can be allied with people who otherwise may not shoot for the same star you do. If Ann Coulter or Pat Buchanan were in charge, you would get 99% of what you want. Therefore use them as models to solve the problems that face you, and don’t scare the peoples with crazy talk if you want to move things politically. Let the normies have their normal lives, and paint our enemies as the crazies…which they are…and as the corrupt vermin they are. If you haven’t compromised yourself go into political life maybe, and use Trump as a model for success.”
Nietzsche, the aristocratic radical
One of the major condemnations of the Nietzschean right is that they’ve failed to read the master correctly. “Drunk on bad readings” of Nietzsche as Vox’s Sean Illing put it. And in many cases that is true, as any careful reading of Nietzsche would encourage people with taste as tediously crass as the far right to refrain from depleting the culture through their “contributions.”
But this approach only goes so far. Focusing on the far right’s misreadings risks insulating Nietzsche from critique out of a desire to make him safe for liberals and the left. In his magisterial Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel Domenico Losurdo refers to this as the “hermeneutics of innocence” Its ironic that a thinker as obsessed with “hard” thoughts as Nietzsche— who read virtually every major figure in philosophy with suspicion—would be the beneficiary of such a velvet touch.
For the remainder of this essay I’ll discuss what I consider Nietzsche’s own political views, following Malcolm Bull’s correct observation in Anti-Nietzsche that “equality has had no fiercer critic than Nietzsche, whose ‘fundamental insight with respect to the genealogy of morals’ is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself. His rejection of equality is unequivocal.” So entranced with Nietzsche was this notion that he even pre-emptively rejected the popular Kaufmannesque take on his philosophy as individualist, declaring in The Will to Power that his “…philosophy aims at an ordering of rank: not at an individualistic morality. The ideas of the herd should rule in the herd – but not reach out beyond it.” That is when he wasn’t declaring that the “great majority of men have no right to life, and serve only to disconcert the elect among our race; I do not yet grant the unfit that right. There are even unfit people.”
Nietzsche’s political thinking went through a number of evolutions which have kept scholars busy for years. His work as a whole is usually divided into an early period between 1871-1876 when Nietzsche published The Birth of Tragedy and other Wagner inflected works on culture and the Greeks. The most famous idea to arise during this time was Nietzsche’s famous contrast between Apollonian and Dionysian approaches to reality, with Nietzsche inveighing against the Enlightenment optimism of the former. Nietzsche also resists liberalism’s individualism and attempt to orient life around economic production and consumption, even finding transient charms in Prussian militarism and its war against French revolutionary demagoguery.
In An Introduction to Nietzsche as Political Thinker, Keith-Answell Pearson argues that in Nietzsche’s mid period between 1878-1882, he transitioned to being a kind of ultra-elitist champion of “the aims of the Enlightenment, and promoting the cause of a rationalist, critical theory.” Both Lukacs and Losurdo argue Nietzsche embraced a kind of aristocratic liberalism during the era—embracing the principles of free thought and expression amongst the elite, and even occasionally seeing a bright side of marginal democratization. But this was not to last, and Nietzsche came to feel nothing but contempt for both decadent liberals and soft conservatives who tried to rule the masses by placating their most venal desires. Instead, the confrontation with nihilism would require a new kind of politics which was violent, stimulating, and stimulated the strength of those worthy of being strong.
By the time of The Gay Science Nietzsche is already suggesting he’s onto something original and difficult to label, insisting that he wishes to ‘conserve’ nothing, neither do we want to return to any past periods, we are not by any means ‘liberal’; we do not work for ‘progress’; we do not need to plug up our ears against the sirens who in the marketplace sing of the future: their song about ‘equal rights,’ ‘a free society,’ ‘no more masters and no more servants’ has no allure for us. We simply do not consider it desirable that a realm of justice and concord should be established on earth…we are delighted with all who love, as we do, danger, war, and adventure, who refuse to compromise, to be captured, reconciled, and castrated; we count ourselves among conquerors; we think about the necessity for new orders, also for a new slavery—for every strengthening and enhancement of the human type also involves a new kind of enslavement.”
It is in the works of Nietzsche’s maturity (1882—1889) that he developed the most refined view of his politics and his most creative set of ideas. This was undeniably a time of great energy and inspiration for Nietzsche, with Thus Spoke Zarathustra appearing in 1883 and the publication of no less than seven major works between 1886—1888 alone. Nietzsche often promised the publication of a grand systematic work, The Will to Power, that would bring all his major ideas together into a whole, but it never came to be before he descended into madness (the work published under that name was written by Nietzsche, but was a collection of statements largely organized by his sister).
Nevertheless there is a clear political philosophy in the mature Nietzsche which was new and deserves attention. Probably the most programmatic statement in Nietzsche’s oeuvre appears in the mature work Beyond Good and Evil, where he lays out his utopian vision for the ideal society.
Every elevation of the type ‘man,’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other. Without the pathos of distance such as develops from the incarnate differences of classes, from the ruling caste’s constant looking out and looking down on subjects and instruments and from its equally constant exercise of obedience and command, its holding down and holding at a distance, that other, more mysterious pathos could not have developed either…in short precisely the elevation of the type ‘man’, the continual ‘self-overcoming of man,’ to take a moral formula in a supra-moral sense.
As is often the case, the language purrs with suggestive connotation even where it is not subtle but brutal. In correspondence with Nietzsche, the Danish critic Georg Brandes described his thinking as a kind of “aristocratic radicalism,” and the former approved the view. This leads to the question of why this required a rejection of liberalism, socialism, and democracy, and what aristocratic radicalism would entail.
The pathos of distance
The poison of the doctrine ‘equal rights for all’—this has been more thoroughly sowed by Christianity than by anything else, from the most secret recesses of base instincts, Christianity has waged a war to the death against every feeling of reverence and distance between man and man, against, that is, the precondition of every elevation, every increase in culture—it has forged out of the ressentiment of the masses its chief weapon against us.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ
Nietzsche is the greatest right wing thinker of all time because he had the audacity to go further and more boldly where other defenders of aristocracy and hierarchy still fear to tread. His originality comes from the sweep and depth of his critique of egalitarian modernity, which inverts the progressive liberal and socialist trajectory to characterize history as a long fall into nihilism.
There’s no doing full justice to the sweep of Nietzsche’s arguments in an article, let alone a full contrast with other thinkers (though I attempt this at book length in The Political Right and Equality). To put it simply, esteemed right wing thinkers from Robert Filmer through Joseph de Maistre shared many of Nietzsche’s reservations about the Enlightenment claim that all individuals possess a capacity for reason (even if this proposition was reserved at first for straight, male, white, propertied individuals), and were therefore capable of deliberating on and criticizing political authority. This in turn led to calls for political equality and participation, opening the door to a world of demanding citizens rather than complacent subjects.
The right’s most sparkling intellects reacted with a mixture of alarm and disdain. The connective tissue between them is a sense that the low “herd” might well triumph, bringing about a transformative change in society. But to avoid glamorizing this excessively, this transformative change was invariably deflated by the right. A world run by the herd would be one filled with endless talk and deliberation about banalities, lacking energy and drama. De Maistre characterized Enlightenment philosophy as a fundamentally “destructive” force since it opened authority to endless contestation, rather than treating it as a creed. From the beginning Burke and De Maistre contrasted what they saw as the staid values of the herd with the sublime “pleasing illusions” and emotions stirred by submission to resplendent aristocratic power. For them, the ascent of the herd guaranteed a world devoid of color and meaning, lacking the splendor and awe that could only come from projecting sublimity onto power to transform it into authority.
De Maistre even evoked proto-Nietzschean language about how it is “always an oracle, which founds cities; it is always an oracle, which announces the Divine protection, and successes of the heroic founder. Kings, especially, the chiefs of rising empires, are constantly designated, and, as it were, marked, by Heaven, in some extraordinary manner.” Or elsewhere claiming that “lawgivers, strictly speaking, are extraordinary men, belonging perhaps only to the ancient world and to the youth of nations. Providence has decreed the more rapid formation of a political constitution, there appears a man clothed with an indefinable power; he speaks, and he makes himself to be obeyed.” De Maistre also shared with Nietzsche a keen admiration for the animating excitement of violence, and how it imbued meaning to life through bringing individuals out of their mundane concerns with self-gratification and elevating their feelings to an existential pitch.
But conventional conservatives and reactionaries often ended their critiques of liberalism, socialism, and democracy at the Reformation. As Don Herzog points out in his seminal Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, the early right had a deep nostalgia for a flavor of Christianity (often assisted by Aristotelianism) that emphasized the hierarchical structure of society. Natural human hierarchies on earth were conceived as coextensive, and participating in, more sublime hierarchies set by God. An eminent example is the popular image of a “Great Chain of Being” running from God, through his angels, to kings and downwards. For many of them, it was the decline of religious dogmatism which led to the Age of Reason and then the endless Age of Revolution. The goal was to deny the universality or even use of reason next to “dogma” or “faith” or even just the use-value of tradition, and go back to the more meaning-saturated cosmos of the Medieval era.
Nietzsche’s brilliance came from entirely rejecting this line of argument after his middle period, often lampooning this form of nostalgic conservatism as comically ineffective. In a short section of Twilight of the Idols he “whispered to conservatives” that such “a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible. We physiologists know that. Yet all priests and moralists have believed the opposite—they wanted to take mankind back, to screw it back, to a former measure of virtue. Morality was always a bed of Procrustes. Even the politicians have aped the preachers of virtue at this point: today too there are still parties whose dream it is that all things might walk backwards like crabs.” Part of his revulsion was disturbingly anticipatory, as Nietzsche chastised conservative elites the same the far right today chastises RINOS: as lacking nerve and a willingness to truly use violence and domination to put the people back in their place.
In the same book Nietzsche sneers at conservative elites who think it is sensible to educate the people, even marginally, and iterates his familiar call for the reintroduction of slavery in German society. Domenico Losurdo stresses how these passages are directed against very conservative German imperial government, which Nietzsche chastizes for being too benevolent towards the workers movement. This ranged from providing various forms of education to introducing, mostly nominal and intentionally ineffective, ways for the masses to participate in politics. Nietzsche lamented the effect these concessions had on the lower orders in imperial Germany, moaning that they will only foster a sense of equality on the part of workers and make it impossible to produce “a modest and self-sufficient kind of human being, a type of Chinaman…” He goes on to groan that the “worker has been made liable for military service, he has been allowed to form unions and to vote: no wonder the worker already feels his existence to be a state of distress (expressed in moral terms as a state of injustice). But what does one want?—to ask it again. If one ills and end, one must also will the means to it: if one wants slaves, one is a fool if one educates them to be masters.”
But the deeper basis for Nietzsche’s rejection of conservatism lies in its failure to recognize the real roots of the problem. That is that liberalism, socialism, and democracy aren’t breaks from the Christian tradition of yore. They are its secular continuation. People like Jordan Peterson can complain about declining Judeo-Christian values as much as they want: from Nietzsche’s standpoint it is the post-modern neo-Marxists (or meta-Marxists, or whatever Marxists they are this week) who are the real heirs to the Christian axiom that the wretched of the earth will have their day. This is also where Nietzsche’s intellectual and political radicalness lie, since he recognizes that any overturning of these decadent modern ideologies will also require the emphatic rejection of Christianity.
Nietzsche’s most sustained arguments for this position are made in The Genealogy of Morals and The Anti-Christ. In short, pre-Christian and especially Greek societies were characterized by an aristocratic and healthy “master morality” that divided the world into good and bad. Goodness was what beatified and strengthened the most rarefied persons and was associated with the proud nobility, and badness was aligned with slavish ugliness of the masses. Unable or unwilling to seek revenge against their masters in the physical world, the slave class directed their feelings of resentiment inwards until they became creative. The consequence was the development of a new morality which declared the values of the masters to in fact be not just bad but “evil” while the proto-egalitarian and populist values of the slave were “good.” This was for Nietzsche the basis of the Christian morality, which in turn aligned itself with Platonic emphases on the value of “truth” to further divinize their feelings of resentiment by presenting them as universal moral facts. But eventually this “will to truth” central to Christianity came to compromise the faith since Christianity “…as a dogma was destroyed by its own morality, in the same way Christianity as morality must now perish to: we stand on the threshold of this event. After Christian truthfulness has drawn one inference after another, it must end by drawing its most striking inference, its inference against itself; this will happen, however, when it poses the question ‘what is the meaning of all will to truth.”
This “inference against itself” brought about Christianity’s own will to truth brought about an end to Christian metaphysics. But not, according to Nietzsche, Christian morality. Instead of abandoning the resentiment—driven Christian belief in reason and the universal equality of all human beings, the most creative modern thinkers such as Kant found ways to secularize them. Instead of reason being the handmaiden of faith in a better future in the afterlife, the scientific method became a tool to project an endlessly improving future in the profane world. Instead of moral rules being ordained by God, they came from “pure practical reason” or the doctrine of “utility” or the “doctrine” of “equal rights for all.” These secularized philosophical ideas laid the intellectual foundations for liberalism, socialism and democracy and were so successful their genealogical origins in Christianity became swallowed up and even repudiated.
Given this it should come as no surprise that many, but by no means all, on the Christian and nationalist right are keen to reject Nietzsche. And not just because his work critiques their worldview. As mentioned, taking Nietzsche’s thinking seriously would lead to the conclusion that its actually the Biden—Sanders—Cortez types who are doing the Lord’s work, while their hoary defenses of traditional privilege and the law are a kind of insincere halfway point between true Christianity and antiquity. Nietzsche had nothing but contempt for all of this, insisting in The Anti-Christ that above all he hated the “rabble of Socialists, the apostles to the Chandala, who undermine the workingman’s instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence—who make him envious and teach him revenge…. Wrong never lies in unequal rights; it lies in the assertion of “equal” rights…. What is bad? But I have already answered: all that proceeds from weakness, from envy, from revenge.— The anarchist and the Christian have the same ancestry.” All these secular doctrines, from liberalism to socialism undermined the rabble’s instincts for submission and narrowed the “pathos of distance” between great and herd so necessary for the elevation of culture and resisting nihilism.
Resisting Nietzschean politics
Nietzschean aristocratic radicalism is a genuine threat to liberalism and all forms of progressivism because it offers those convinced of their own superiority a powerful and deep philosophy for them to dilute into cheap justifications for their own privilege. Nevertheless there are important ways that liberals can respond.
One of the first and most important is to turn the argument about Nietzschean resentiment on its head and point out the serious gap in his analysis. That is how the “masters” in any given society are very capable of their own forms of resentiment driven politics, down to even calling Trump the “only middle finger available” to stick it to liberalism. The allure of status and rank is in no small part its exclusionary qualities—the fact that one can enjoy status and rank while others can’t. Many forms of right wing politics are motivated by resentimment that that status and rank are being extended to others, even where that has no material impact on ones self. This contributes a lot to what Greg Sargent has rightly called the “Maga Persecution Complex.” Many of the nativist forms of politics which lean on Nietzschean rhetoric are predicated on the idea that “our country” is being taken away or polluted by the presence of the unworthy, who dilute the esteem with which we can hold ourselves. This has deep roots in the political right in America, as when George Wallace threatened to close schools for all if they were desegregated. One can also see it in much of the vitriol directed at student debt forgiveness. While some of the conversation has centered on immediate economic burdens, much of the right’s rhetoric has taken the form of “if I didn’t get it, neither should they.” The MAGA persecution complex is difficult to understand without grasping this basis in resentiment.
But in the long run the more important task for liberals is to confront Nietzsche more directly and insist that equality and freedom for all are the long term answers to the threat of nihilism. Here we have a great deal to do. Liberal states are currently riven by deep inequalities which expose the stark contrast between high ideals and brutal realities. Neoliberal “possessive individualism” has contributed to a corrosive ethic where the poor are made to internalize a sense of blame for their own marginalization, and the rich come to think that they owe nothing to the people who do most of the working, sweating and drying in this country. This is an unsustainable situation and creates fertile ground for the siren’s call of those who insist the powerful are powerful because they truly are better. Or, in a more populist and resentful vein, that one belongs to a dispossessed elite whose coronation will come as soon as the decadent egalitarian bugmen living high in their cathedral are exterminated. For liberalism to become meaningful to all liberal states must show equal respect and concern to all. How to achieve that is the “heaviest burden” for those of us who believe in liberty, equality, and solidarity.
Featured Image is Portrait of Nietzsche, by Theo van Doesburg