The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism

9 May

“Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche.” So said Clarence Darrow at the trial of Leopold and Loeb, the two University of Chicago law students who had murdered young Bobby Franks for no other reason than to prove that they were Nietzschean Supermen who could.

When I’m feeling mischievous, I think of using that line as an epigraph for an essay on Nietzsche and libertarianism. How many teenage boys, after all, have found their way into the free market via Nietzsche? None, one insider tells me; a lot, says another. My impression is that the latter is right, but good data is hard to come by.

Every ten years, Liberty Magazine polls its readers about their intellectual influences. The magazine draws up a list of candidates to vote on. Nietzsche is never on it. Even so, he gets written in each time by the readers. So much so that the editors have been forced to acknowledge on more than one occasion that should they put his name on the pre-approved list of possible influences he might draw more votes than some if not many of the others.

Ask any scholar about this connection between Nietzsche and libertarianism and she’ll tell you those teenage boys don’t know what they’re talking about. Nietzsche loathed capitalism almost as much as he loathed capitalists, whom he loathed almost as much as he loathed economists. Still I’ve wondered: Might there not be more than the misguided enthusiasm of adolescents connecting Nietzsche to the modern movement for free markets?

Today The Nation is publishing an essay by me—”Nietzsche’s Marginal Children“—that attempts to provide an answer. It’s long; I’ve been working on it for more than a year. But it’s my best guess as to what the connection might be.

As I make clear in the piece, it’s not a connection of influence: Though there’s been some claim that Friedrich von Wieser, who taught Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, was taken by Nietzsche—and though Schumpeter, who plays an interesting supporting role in this story, was influenced by Nietzsche and Nietzschean theorists of elite politics—the evidence for claims of direct influence are thin.

No, the connection between Nietzsche and the free-market movement is one of elective affinity, at the level of deep grammar rather than public policy. It will not be found at the surface of their arguments but in the lower registers: in the startling symmetry between Nietzschean and marginal theories of value; in the hostility to labor as the source or measure of value; in the insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint; in the vision of an idle class of taste-makers creating new values and beliefs.

Along the way, “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” makes a number of other claims.

First, ever since Walter Kaufmann, writers and readers have been convinced that Nietzsche is an apolitical or anti-political thinker. Four decades of postmodern and post-structural Nietzsches have done little to dislodge this belief; indeed, in a curious way, they have only amplified it. As this piece makes clear, I don’t think that position tells the whole story. The Nietzsche that emerges in this essay cares much about the fate of high culture, absolutely, but he’s also attuned to need for creating a polity or politics that might protect high culture from the masses, who’d been growing increasingly agitated over the labor or the social question, as it was variously called. (The fear and loathing of various working-class movements is a critical point of contact between Nietzsche and the economists who helped inspire libertarianism.) As Don Dombowsky has argued, if there is one consistent political position in Nietzsche’s thought, it is his hostility to socialism. Far from being a simple knee-jerk reaction or peripheral concern, Nietzsche’s antipathy to socialism was symptomatic of—and grew out of—a range of ideas about value, work, appearance, and caste that were central to his cultural and political vision.

Second, it’s long been noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna was a crucible of modernism in the arts and humanities as well as in politics, on the left and the right. The dying Habsburg Empire gave us Wittgenstein, Hitler, and Freud. But while there is now an academic cottage industry devoted to this notion, few have noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna also gave us the Austrian School of economics—Wieser, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter (ish), and more—and that the Austrian economists have as much a claim to the modernist inheritance as Schoenberg or Klimt. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” seeks to put the Austrians back in Vienna, where Nietzsche was a presiding influence, and to read them as contemporaries of fascism and Freud. If nothing else, I hope my reading of the Austrians restores them to their rightful place in the modernist pantheon, and reveals the philosophical range and cultural significance of the questions they were raising. For the economic questions the Austrians were raising were are also very much cultural and philosophical questions of the sort that Nietzsche and his successors wrestled with.

Third, speaking of the F word, we know that many fascist intellectuals read or were influenced by Nietzsche. And while my piece takes that connection as a given—which is not the same, it should be noted, as saying that the fascist interpretation of Nietzsche is the only or correct one or that all of Nietzsche’s roads lead to fascism; empirically, we know, that’s not the case—it seeks to parse a different connection. Where one road from Nietzsche (I’m speaking figuratively) led to the fascist notion that heroic or high politics could be recreated in the modern world, another led down a different path: to the notion that heroic or high politics could not (and perhaps should not) be recreated but that it could be sublimated in the free market. Fascism and the free market, in other words, offered two distinctive answers to the labor question Nietzsche so acutely diagnosed. And while one answer would have a remarkably short shelf life, the other, well, we’re still living it.

Which brings me to the final point. While the disparity between the free-wheeling philosophy of the market and the reality of coercive capitalism has long been known, the last four decades have sharpened it. Partly because of the rise of an aggressive defense of untrammeled markets in the name of liberty, partly because of the assault on the welfare state and social democracy. For some on the left, today’s disparity between libertarian theories of the market and the reality of capitalism proves that the idea of the free market is a simple ideological mystification. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” takes a different tack: it tries to show that the practice is built into the theory, that it is not elided there but embraced.

In writing this piece, I hope  to begin—and this is really just the beginning of a long-term project on the political theory and cultural history of the free market—to make good on a promissory note in The Reactionary Mind, which is now available in paperback. There I briefly noted that the libertarian defense of the market—while often treated as a source of tension on the right because it conflicts with the conservative commitment to stability and tradition, virtue and glory—is in fact consistent with the right’s reactionary project of defending private hierarchies against democratic movements from below. But with the exception of a chapter on Ayn Rand, I didn’t really develop that argument. So I was often asked how Hayek and Mises and other libertarian thinkers fit in. Particularly since these thinkers seemed to voice a commitment to liberty that was out of synch with my portrait of the right’s commitment to domination and hierarchy, coercion and rule. So I’ve tried to show in “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” what liberty means for the libertarian right, particularly for Hayek, and how consistent that vision is with a notion of aristocratic politics and rule.

I’m writing this post in Luxembourg, where I’m presenting at a conference in honor of European historian Arno Mayer. I’ve known Arno and his work since I was an undergraduate history major at Princeton. As I said in The Reactionary Mind, Arno (along with UCLA political scientist Karen Orren) was one of the two most important influences on my thinking about the right. And it was from Arno’s Persistence of the Old Regime that I first stumbled upon a way of thinking about Nietzscheanism as something more than the philosophy of and for apolitical aesthetes. So it’s fitting that I write this post here. For in Arno’s vision of an aristocracy that manages to persist long past its shelf date, in part through it capacity for reinvention, we see a glimpse of Nietzsche von Hayek and Mises von Nietzsche, the Leopold and Loeb of modern libertarianism.

22 Responses to “The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism”

  1. Geoff May 9, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    Have you read Bruce Detwiler’s book ‘Nietzsche and the Politics of Aristocratic Radicalism’? It’s been a while since I have, but he makes an interesting case against the anti-political reading of Nietzsche.

  2. louisproyect May 9, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    I envy you for having had Arno Mayer as a professor. I think he is the greatest living historian.

  3. fonscx May 9, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

    Big laughs from the Catholics on Modernism.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm

  4. jonnybutter May 9, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    Would that I could drop everything right this minute and go read the piece. The brilliant post will have to hold me for now, I guess.

    Four decades of postmodern and post-structural Nietzsches have done little to dislodge [the] belief [that FN was an apolitical/anti-political writer]; indeed, in a curious way, they have only amplified it.

    The idea that there even is such a thing as a completely apolitical or especially anti-political writer, strikes me as kind of weird. S. Drury sees at least political postmodernism as having a nominal left and nominal right which are, however, really just two sides of the same coin, the idea for which was minted by none other than…okay, I can’t beat the Leopold and Loeb analogy. She emphasizes the “insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint” value which political pomos seem to share in.

    Anyway, I would say that the general banishment, in the anglo-american world at least, of politics from either polite or hip or aesthetic or otherwise serious conversation is a spectacular success for the forces of reaction, whether they ‘identify as’ left or right (mostly right, though). Notice that however much modern American ‘brand’ conservatives bray (esp. online) about wanting debate, the last thing they really want is rational discussion. Whenever brass tacks start showing through the cloth, the subject suddenly changes, or one of your premises suddenly looks suspect. American conservo-reactionaries don’t care so much about really getting the best of an argument as they do about Victory.

    To say that, ‘oh, well, yes maybe FN was not exactly apolitical in a broad sense’ is just to say that he is a political writer in the best, most interesting sense.

    Thanks for your work on this, CR. Really fascinating.

  5. Benjamin David Steele May 9, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

    Reblogged this on Marmalade.

  6. jonnybutter2 May 9, 2013 at 12:26 pm #

    Would that I could drop everything right this minute and go read the piece. The brilliant post will have to hold me for now, I guess.

    Four decades of postmodern and post-structural Nietzsches have done little to dislodge [the] belief [that FN was an apolitical/anti-political writer]; indeed, in a curious way, they have only amplified it.

    The idea that there even is such a thing as a completely apolitical or especially anti-political writer, strikes me as kind of weird. S. Drury sees at least political postmodernism as having a nominal left and nominal right which are really just two sides of the same coin, the idea for which was minted by none other than…okay, won’t try to beat the Leopold and Loeb analogy. She emphasizes the “insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint” value which political pomos on both sides seem (or seemed) to share in.

    Anyway, I would say that the general banishment, in the anglo-american world at least, of actual politics from either polite or hip or aesthetic or otherwise serious conversation is a spectacular success for the force of reaction, whether its exponents ‘identify as’ left or right (mostly right, though).

    (Notice that however much modern American ‘brand’ conservatives bray (esp. online) about wanting debate, the last thing they really want is rational discussion. Whenever brass tacks start showing through the cloth, the subject suddenly changes, or one of your premises suddenly looks suspect. American conservo-reactionaries don’t care so much about really getting the best of an argument as they do about Victory.)

    To say that, ‘oh, well, yes maybe FN was not exactly apolitical in a broad sense’ is just to say that he is a political writer in the best, most interesting sense. Far from being a- or anti-political, FN is great because, among other things, he is key in clarifying or defining politics.

    Thanks for your work on this, CR. Really fascinating.

  7. jonnybutter2 May 9, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    sorry for the double.

  8. BillR May 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Karl Krauss described turn of the century Vienna as a “research laboratory for world destruction”.

  9. Nikhil May 9, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Have you read American Literature and the Free Market by Michael W. Clune? He makes interesting arguments about the myth of the free market and its draw. It would be interesting to hear your comments about it. Thanks a gain for the great blog and I am looking forward to reading the Nation essay.

  10. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) May 10, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    Corey, I find your musings interesting, but sometimes I wonder if you are seeking an answer to a strange question. This is plenty interesting to me by just telling the story. I maintain that marijuana prohibition plays more into the modern day libertarian-ism than any dusty old writings. If you want to deal them a serious blow, legalize it, because once legal there will be no more draw. You can also try to cut down the violence perpetrated by our government, and other stuff like corporate hand outs to corn and oil.

  11. Chase Richards May 10, 2013 at 9:44 am #

    Hi Corey, stirring essay, but I’m curious about how you use the terms neoliberal and neoliberalism. I’ve noticed that most specialists on non-U.S. or transnational topics understand them to refer to a sort of recrudescent right-wing liberalism: the nineteenth century had Manchesterism, the later twentieth century had Thatcherism or Reaganism. “Libertarianism” is much less common in this terminological ambit and perhaps either superfluous or antiquated; it’s just as likely to have a mainly cultural as a primarily economic resonance. On this more European understanding, the U.S. in fact has two “liberal” parties: a left-liberal (allegedly) and a right-liberal one, the latter party with a lot of often contradictory cultural conservatism thrown in. Unless I’m misunderstanding you, at any rate, you seem to associate the terms neoliberal and neoliberalism rather with the left, presumably because Americans since the 1920s or thereabouts have used “liberal” as a synonym for “left,” which nobody else in the world really does (and frankly it’s a disservice we’ve done ourselves, because it obscures genealogies and can lead to head-scratching when talking politics with people from other countries). Neoliberal in a purely American idiom (which I take to be yours), then, would seem at first blush to apply to a “new left” that has lurched to the right, when many others would understand it as the right-wing free-market dogma that began in Vienna circles, for example, and gradually infiltrated former left parties across the West. Here I think of Angus Burgin’s new book.

    • Benjamin David Steele May 10, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

      You make a great point. I get so irritated by the confusion of labels. There is nothing particularly conservative about most American conservatives, besides a few token cultural conservative issues. Left-liberal and right-liberal makes a lot more sense in describing the real difference in American politics.

  12. casino implosion May 10, 2013 at 4:27 pm #

    In these times, the desire to openly dominate and oppress others, which is a big aspect of human nature (perverse primates that we are), is not to be spoken of in public.

    It’s always there, motivating much of our activity, but now we must speak of it only in code. CR is translating the code for us. Good work.

  13. hidflect May 10, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    You’re a fine writer and thinker. Everything Matthew Yglesias pretends to be.

  14. debmeier May 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    A great piece–I eagerly wait to read it “all”. Thanks–I’ve pondered this too and your words were a help!

  15. Luke Lea May 14, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    One man’s liberty is another man’s servitude.

  16. Fallon May 17, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    Corey, this is my first contact with your writing and immediately I call in to question your sincerity. You see, I actually read Mises. He is different than Hayek. I will leave Hayek aside and be quick.

    Mises knew a lot about Nietzsche, found him interesting, and used him as an example of genius. For Mises, genius is outside the normal scope of praxeology in that he believes true genius like Nietzsche cannot do something else with their labor. Opportunity cost does not apply to genius as it does to with the rest of humanity. Is this Nietzschean to give such exception to genius? Okay– Mises was indeed strange here. I grant that. But what a minor minor divergence:

    Beyond the genius topic, Mises found Nietzsche a destructive precursor to modern totalitarian thought.

    * Mises points out the irony in Nietzsche’s love affair with atavistic man: Nietzsche himself was frail and sickly and would have been of no value to a society where hunting and fighting skills were the most highly valued assets.

    * Mises is anti-elitist in contrasting the emergent bourgeois producer to he traditional warrior type. Indeed, this distinction dovetails with the priority of classical liberalism: ‘Make way for the peaceful market order as against the status hierarchies of the Ancien Regime and oriental despots.

    * Mises included Nietzsche among the pantheon of bad historians that believed (for a variety of reasons- by virtue of Geist, millennialism, material forces, Progress, Whiggishness, evolution….) that history moves in an inevitable direction beyond the power of acting man to influence.

    Mises, from Human Action:

    “Many authors glorify war and revolution, bloodshed and conquest. Carlyle and Ruskin, Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Spengler were harbingers of the ideas which Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini put into effect.

    The course of history, say these philosophies, is not determined by the mean activities of materialistic peddlers and merchants, but by the heroic deeds of warriors and conquerors.The economists err in abstracting from the experience of the short-lived liberal episode a theory to which they ascribe universal validity. This epoch of liberalism, individualism, and capitalism; of democracy, tolerance, and freedom; of the disregard of all “true” and “eternal” values; and of the supremacy of the rabble is now vanishing and will never return. The dawning age of manliness requires a new theory of human action.”

    This quotation exemplifies Mises’s complete incompatibility with Nietzsche on the question of “value”, too. A side note: Mises was against fiat paper money and was pro-gold standard. How is this compatible with neoliberalism? Mises walked out of a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in disgust– labeling the attendees “Socialists!”. In other words, ALL of your conflations are bizarre.

    Corey, have you let ideology corrupt your sensibilities? Never mind policy recommendations etc. Please show me an example of where Mises’s praxeological foundations are marred by elitism or ideology of any kind.

  17. fallonsoccer May 17, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    Corey, this is my first contact with your writing and immediately I call in to question your sincerity. You see, I actually read Mises. I will leave Hayek aside.

    Mises knew a lot about Nietzsche, found him interesting, and used him as an example of genius. For Mises, genius is outside the normal scope of praxeology in that he believes true genius like Nietzsche cannot do something else with their labor. Opportunity cost does not apply to genius as it does to with the rest of humanity. Is this Nietzschean to give such exception to genius? Okay– Mises was indeed strange here. I grant that. But what a minor minor divergence:

    Beyond the genius topic, Mises found Nietzsche a destructive precursor to modern totalitarian thought.

    * Mises points out the irony in Nietzsche’s love affair with atavistic man: Nietzsche himself was frail and sickly and would have been of no value to a society where hunting and fighting skills were the most highly valued assets.

    * Mises is anti-elitist in contrasting the emergent bourgeois producer to he traditional warrior type. Indeed, this distinction dovetails with the priority of classical liberalism: ‘Make way for the peaceful market order as against the status hierarchies of the Ancien Regime and oriental despots.

    * Mises included Nietzsche among the pantheon of bad historians that believed (for a variety of reasons- by virtue of Geist, millennialism, material forces, Progress, Whiggishness, evolution….) that history moves in an inevitable direction beyond the power of acting man to influence.

    Mises, from Human Action:

    “Many authors glorify war and revolution, bloodshed and conquest. Carlyle and Ruskin, Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, and Spengler were harbingers of the ideas which Lenin and Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini put into effect.

    The course of history, say these philosophies, is not determined by the mean activities of materialistic peddlers and merchants, but by the heroic deeds of warriors and conquerors.The economists err in abstracting from the experience of the short-lived liberal episode a theory to which they ascribe universal validity. This epoch of liberalism, individualism, and capitalism; of democracy, tolerance, and freedom; of the disregard of all “true” and “eternal” values; and of the supremacy of the rabble is now vanishing and will never return. The dawning age of manliness requires a new theory of human action.”

    This quotation exemplifies Mises’s complete incompatibility with Nietzsche on the question of “value”, too. A side note: Mises was against fiat paper money and was pro-gold standard. How is this compatible with neoliberalism? Mises walked out of a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in disgust– labeling the attendees “Socialists!”. In other words, ALL of your conflations are bizarre.

    Corey, have you let ideology corrupt your sensibilities? Never mind policy recommendations etc. Please show me an example of where Mises’s praxeological foundations are marred by elitism or ideology of any kind.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Marmalade - May 9, 2013

    […] The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism By Corey Robin […]

  2. Sigh of Relief Effect | Kapirasong Kritika - May 10, 2013

    […] May mga sulatin din sina Carol P. Araullo at Arnold Padilla hinggil sa eleksyong automated. Ilang links mula kay Corey Robin: mula sa isang seksistang pahayag laban kay John Maynard Keynes hanggang sa mga mali-maling pagsasabi ng pinagmulan ng mga sipi, hanggang sa pundamental na anti-sosyalistang paninindigan ni Friedrich Nietzsche. […]

  3. Nietzsche and the Libertarians | Tragic Farce - May 10, 2013

    […] The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism (coreyrobin.com) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,590 other followers