Critics respond to “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”

I’ve been traveling for several days, but in the last 24 hours, a bunch of people have responded, all critically, to my “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children.”  I just got back and have a bunch of teaching to do, so I haven’t had time to read them all and may not be able to get to them for a while. But I thought I’d post them here.  I’ll try to get to them as soon as I can.

Kevin Vallier, one of the sharpest libertarian theorists out there with whom I’ve argued in the past, has what seems on a very quick glance to be a thorough critique (not trying to suggest it’s not thorough; I just only had time to skim it) over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

From the left, Philip Pilkington, who did a great interview with me about my book, also delivers what seems to be a lengthy and thorough critique over at Naked Capitalism. (Same caveat as above.)

Brian Doherty, who wrote a great book on libertarianism and with whom I’ve disagreed before, agrees with Vallier over at Reason. Jordan Bloom, at The American Conservative, also agrees with Vallier.

Anyway, that’s it for now.  More soon, I hope.

Update (May 14, 1:30 pm)

I’m afraid it may take me a while before I can get to all this—end-of-the-semester grading, we’re moving, and a family trip are all coming up—but there have been more responses.

Jeremy Kessler writes at Dissent. Freddie DeBoer writes at his blog. Roderick Long snarks at his. Nick Gillepsie touches on things at Reason.

And over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, libertarian political theorist Jason Brennan calls for me to be purged from Crooked Timber, where I also blog. Because, you know, freedom.

Update (2:30 pm)

Samuel Goldman replies at The American Conservative.

Update (9:45 pm)

At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell takes my argument in a different direction, focusing on the methodological innovation posed (and poses) for equilibrium theorists and how the Austrians filled that void.  And Doug Henwood interviews me about the article and The Reactionary Mind.

Update (May 16, 8 am)

I missed Rafael Khachaturian’s thoughts on all this, which came out last week. Some interesting stuff in there about Weber and Hobbes (though I’ve long thought the Hobbes as the theorist of an emerging bourgeoisie doesn’t make much sense, and that passage Rafael cites is complicated a host of countervailing passages that, as Keith Thomas pointed out many moons ago, suggest a more aristocratic conception of human beings driven by concerns re glory and honor).

Daniel Kuehn makes an interesting point about Deidre McCloskey that I hadn’t thought of and hope to follow up on.

Neville Morley, an ancient historian at Bristol, finds himself prompted by a fascinating chain of association to think Thucydides.

And if you’re not yet satiated, two more links here and here.

Update (May 19, 8 pm)

Another response, this one from one of my favorite up-and-coming historians Kurt Newman, writing at the US intellectual history blog.  Also quite critical.

Update (May 20, 10 am)

Two more interventions this morning. One, a sympathetic reconstruction of my basic argument from philosopher John Holbo, over at Crooked Timber. The other an elaboration of its implications for contemporary politics from polymath James Kwak.

Update (May 21, noon)

A response mostly to John Holbo’s response to me.

Update (May 22, 9 pm)

A useful corrective from economist David Ruccio. And philosopher Robin James has an interesting riff on Wagner, Nietzsche, biopolitics and neoliberalism. This line in particular was nice to read: “Corey Robin’s fabulous essay in The Nation has everyone talking about the relationship between Nietzsche and neoliberalism.”

Update (June 3, 9:30 am)

A business writer named Martin Hutchinson takes issue with me and Hayek.


  1. Scott Preston May 13, 2013 at 11:29 pm | #

    Well, Cory, you’re a brave man (or perhaps foolish, but what’s the difference usually?). Honest (perhaps) to a fault, as they say. I have to give you credit for that. And I have to give you credit, too, for having sparked an interesting argument. At the same time, though, you shouldn’t have gone where you did in trying to draw some connection between Nietzsche and the Marginals, or insinuating some paternal connection between Nietzsche and neo-liberals, as I was attempting to argue with you many posts ago. But maybe you like the no-man’s land?

    Hybris has its consequences, and I think you probably over-stepped the line.

    While all the critics have valid points, the left critique by Peter Pilkington was the one I found most engaging. You’re forced march connections between Nietzsche’s notion of values and the Marginals just doesn’t work.

  2. Daniel Rosenberg May 14, 2013 at 7:22 am | #

    Here’s another interesting review, muss less politically-charged:

  3. Jeff Doyler May 14, 2013 at 2:52 pm | #

    Just curious, Corey. Why do you say Pilkington is “from the left”? Honest question.

    • Corey Robin May 14, 2013 at 2:53 pm | #

      I thought he was. Is he not?

      • Jeff Doyler May 14, 2013 at 3:02 pm | #

        Well I’ve been reading through some of his material and I’m just wondering. Libertarianism is such a hybrid beast. Such labels can be very slippery, but the seeming effort to construct a left Nietzsche is problematic to say the least. But I don’t want to rehash the old “pomo and Heidegger” stuff. BTW I do think Rafael Khachaturian’s suggestion of Weber as a subject in the mix (“Iron Cage”) is worth exploring. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that.

  4. Ben Cohen May 14, 2013 at 4:44 pm | #

    Corey believes that conservatives (and libertarians), simply desire to preserve hierarchy and inequality. He attributes it either to a stricly aesthetic judgment, or a desire to see “great individuals” flourish.While many arguments have been advanced to defend the market, Corey chooses to ignore them and focus instead on the links between 18th-19th century reactionaries, like Nietzsche, and 20th-21st defenders of the market. My guess is that laissez faire economics would have died a long time ago if those were it’s only defenders. In reality their partial victory occurred because socialism failed.

    • Andrew May 18, 2013 at 5:19 pm | #

      Well, considering the very definition of ‘rightwing’ involves supporting inequality (although not necessarily hierarchy), and considering that conservatives and right-libertarians are rightwing, it pretty much goes without saying. Yes, there are valid reasons that many support the free market and oppose top-down state socialism and welfare, but it is not relevant to Corey’s thesis here. It was the great Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio that remarked that if we were to pick a patron saint of the left it would be Rosseau and for the right it would be Nietzsche. This is because the fundamental beliefs of both sides are best distilled in their respective writings. Therefore, I think Corey is at least on to something even if it is a bit of a stretch.

  5. bensday823 May 14, 2013 at 4:45 pm | #

    Corey believes that conservatives (and libertarians), simply desire to preserve hierarchy and inequality. He attributes it either to a stricly aesthetic judgment, or a desire to see “great individuals” flourish.While many arguments have been advanced to defend the market, Corey chooses to ignore them and focus instead on the links between 18th-19th century reactionaries, like Nietzsche, and 20th-21st defenders of the market. My guess is that laissez faire economics would have died a long time ago if those were it’s only defenders. In reality their partial victory occurred because socialism failed.

  6. Mara May 14, 2013 at 5:30 pm | #

    I was going to read the libertarian objections, and then, because of the…I would almost say revolting, but let’s just say, unbearably boorish liberatarian commentary posted just here, I was exhausted of these men, and couldn’t bear to tune into them any longer. Let them talk amidst themselves. I’m intrigued by Robin’s analysis of the arc of the aristocratic tradition.

    • Benjamin David Steele May 17, 2013 at 5:58 pm | #

      I visited some of the links to libertarian commentary. You are wise to avoid it. I’d love to see some honest debate, but I doubt we are likely to see it from that camp. Maybe a left-libertarian could offer something interesting, not hardcore right-wingers though.

  7. Glenn May 14, 2013 at 9:55 pm | #

    “Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature—nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present—and it was we who gave and bestowed it. ”

    “We”, being the wizards of mass marketing and advertising, performing the function of bestowing value, in the absence of an aristocracy, known by that name, today.

  8. Mark Pelta May 15, 2013 at 8:26 am | #

    I’m listening to your discussion with Henwood, particularly your discussion of gender roles. Have you ever watched the old acts of Nichols and May? I think their satire concretized the way many people were beginning to see the emergence of role transformations.

    • Corey Robin May 15, 2013 at 10:38 am | #

      I have seen a few of them — I’ve always had a crush on Elaine May — but never thought of them in this regard. Will have to take a second look. Now I have an excuse to watch YouTube videos: “research”!

  9. Anita Arendt de Heidegger May 15, 2013 at 10:52 am | #

    Philip Pilkington is only good at interviewing people and/or summing up their complex and lengthy arguments, as he did with Philip Mirowski not long ago (though Mirowski is not difficult to read at all). His latest critique of Robin tries to pull an alternative economics out of Nietzsche’s work, but comes crashing down with the concept of an “infinite subjectivity”. Several commenters brought him to task for this: how is one to put forward a meaningful regulatory policy if there are no patterns to be found in human behaviour? Someone with a mathematics bent pointed out that human behaviour is not infinite… Little Philip could do no better than an infantile reply worthy of Lacan where he said that the inifity he had in mind was not the mathematical but the philosophical kind. Wow…Duh!

    As to the Libertard critiques, well I would have to agree with another commenter above: these people are all the same – they sound the same, think the same, and above all pay obeysance to the same billionaire brothers, who keeps them healthy and happy with subsidies from the US government and the interest on the paterfamilias’ fortune made building refineries for Stailn.

    One has to admire Robin’s carefree attitude toward criticism on the web these days – for him it’s all the same… Most others would be rallying their forces on Twitter, but he just thinks about his current research and a family trip. It is the right attitude for a scholar, but at the same time I wonder if it is just that he (very probably) correctly guessed that with intellectual adversaries like these, one doesn’t look good making a fuzz.

    • Philip Pilkington May 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm | #

      Thanks Corey for the link. This is something I’ve been working on for a while. You just sort of crossed my path mid-stroll.


      I’m not a libertarian. If you want a label maybe postmodern-Keynesian or something like that. (I hope labels…).

      @The Keyboard Warrior Above (Arendt… etc.)

      The point was more subtle than that. It was just lost on you. Nathaniel made the point that human behavior was infinitely complex… but only for humans to comprehend. I pointed out that he was implicitly summoning up the notion of God, I.e. an entity that can conceive of actual infinity (to put it in the mathematical terms that you’re so fond of). I’d dealt with this before here:

    • Philip Pilkington May 15, 2013 at 3:32 pm | #

      Sorry, tried to post a response from my tabloid. Don’t think it went up. Apologies if two comments come up saying similar things.


      Thanks for considering the response. I’ve been working on this stuff for a while (most of the stuff is linked in my piece) and I think our paths have sort of crossed here. I’m glad.

      @ Jeff Doyler

      I’m certainly NOT a libertarian. I’m a Keynesian basically (Post-Keynesian, to be precise). I don’t believe in value theories at all. So, I guess that makes, I don’t know, a postmodern-Keynesian or something.

      @The Person Who Uses Famous Philosophers Name in Their Handle

      First of all, I was referring to infinity as it is used in ethics (that’s what my piece is about). That is, something which cannot be reduced to human comprehension or power. I think this is more fruitful than the mathematical concept (although they are linked).

      Secondly, I’ve dealt with mathematical infinity and how it relates to economics before. Here:

      So, your juvenile slurs aside (le petite Phillipe!?), I am aware of how these ideas are applied in economics — probably far more so than you.

      Thirdly, having actually engaged in policy debates constructively — something which I suspect you have never done — my critiques have NOTHING to do with being anti-regulation.

      Fourthly, saying that something is “like something Lacan would have said” does not actually deal with the issue at hand — which I fear you are unable to master.

      • Jeff Doyler May 15, 2013 at 4:33 pm | #

        Thanks for the response. So, a postmodern modernist. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but in a progressive, reactionary, or static direction? As Private Eye would say, I think we should be told. Cheers.

      • pilkingtonphil May 15, 2013 at 4:59 pm | #


        I like things that work. I’m a macro economist first and foremost. And I don’t like things that hide dysfunctionality under metaphysical cloaks. My politics? I’m a bleeding heart, naturally. But I consider them pretty secondary. What works is usually non-ideological, I find.

      • Anita Arendt de Heidegger May 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm | #

        Getting personal, Philip? Did I hurt your self-steem? Well, here’s your Lacanian comment,, for everybody to see the witty lightness of the touch with which you develop your arguments:

        “So, it’s finite for some Being. But its not finite for individuals. That Being sounds strangely like… our Lord and Saviour… Haha! Whenever people broach these questions they always slip into theological discourse without realising it. God never died, he just hid inside seemingly innocuos concepts!”

        But as the commenter you were replying to insisted afterwards, he was referring to the mathematical concept. As your reply to Jeff above reveals, your wit only serves to hide your jumbled thought. Are we really to believe that politics plays no part in it, that like a technocrat you can put it aside when you reason and put together an argument? That you don’t have an instance of what Heilbroner called Vision? That your point of view is *absolutely* objective? If that is really so, then you are being dishonest and disingenuous. That wouldn’t be out of place in an intellect of you caliber, ma petite Phillipe.

      • Philip Pilkington May 21, 2013 at 1:58 pm | #

        I’m referring to the mathematical concept in that quote. If you knew your Henri Poincare (“…an infinitely talkative divinity capable of thinking an infinite number of words in a finite length of time…”) you would realise this. But I fear this debate might be a little out of your league. Try the above linked piece on actual versus potential infinity in mathematics and then get back to me… when you lose the juvenile attitude and the weirdly displaced anger/transference at Lacan, of course.

  10. jonnybutter2 May 15, 2013 at 5:15 pm | #

    How long did it take Kevin Vallier to write that piece, I wonder? 10 minutes?! Funny it would take professor Robin weeks to write his piece but it takes only a few minutes for Mr Vallier to (supposedly) demolish it. I guess it’s not so hard to pull that off if you, a.) are impervious to subtleties like paradox, 2.) are somehow blind to the results of your ideology’s intellectual ascension over the past 35 years, and, of course, 3.) when you know The Truth. The Truth is that Robin did not ‘draw an interesting, sound and illuminating connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians (specifically Mises and Hayek), [because to do so] he had to have bla bla bla‘. Got it, Robin? Not interesting! Not sound! Not illuminating! He proved it!

    Do these guys know what ocean they are swimming in? Doesn’t seem like it to me.

    To say that Mises reduced all value to economic value implies that economic value is something substantively psychological, a subset of valuation generally. But Mises’s understanding of the economizing man was far more general.

    That really makes no sense at all, esp. in light of what came just before it:

    Mises thought praxeology applied to all human action and so man was essentially an economizing being.

    It would be quite different if Mises had said and thought that the human was an economizing being. I think the problem is the word ‘essentially’. “Essentially’ does a lot of work there.

    There is so much more, but..enough. I respond here rather than his site because this one is less crowded. Nobody cares what I say at either place, but the thread at KV’s site is already long. And I’ve had enough of arguing with guys like that – it’s like arguing with robots.

    Corey’s insights will get sharper as a result of these criticisms, but many of the people doing the criticizing won’t learn all that much. They already know.

    • Jeremy May 16, 2013 at 12:37 am | #

      “Corey’s insights will get sharper as a result of these criticisms, but many of the people doing the criticizing won’t learn all that much. They already know.”

      I’m reminded of one of the clearest demonstrations of this, by Robert Wenzel at Economic Policy Journal, arguing that raising the minimum wage would cause fewer workers to be hired:

      There are no empirical studies that can refute this. It is pure logic. And no empirical studies are needed to prove the argument. They can’t.

      Anyone using empirical data to try and prove or disprove logic is a quack.

      I think Mises pioneered this line of “my work is irrefutable by any empirical evidence” arguing. I don’t see how one could possibly debate such people.

      • NevilleMorley May 16, 2013 at 10:18 am | #

        Whether he actually pioneered the argument I’m not sure, but I have just been reading precisely that line in Mises’ Human Action, developing the contrast between history and his praxeology: his arguments are a priori, “not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts” (p.32).

      • Glenn May 16, 2013 at 11:55 am | #

        “Evidence? We ain’t got no evidence. We don’t need no evidence! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ evidence!”

      • abletreeservice May 17, 2013 at 9:41 am | #

        Wow. That Wenzel post and thread are just bizarre. I was waiting for the philosophy of science commenter to get beyond Popper, but…no (I think; I had to give up).

        I think it’s notable that the philosophical scaffolding beneath and around some of this postmodern authoritarianism stuff is pretty weak from a rational (not to say ‘rationalist’ obviously!) POV. I’m thinking not just of brittle ideologues, but also of Strauss (and some of his chupa medias), whom few ‘professional’ (?) philosophers (cough…academics) took or take all that seriously qua philosopher.

        The ultimate goal of these people is not to get or keep respect at the Academy. The ultimate goal is to ‘will’ (or wheedle) their essential way of thinking onto the world. Important to keep that in mind. As always, kudos to younger (or fresher anyway) historians like CR, Rick Perlstein, et. al. for having *respect* and even empathy for their opponents. Contrary to all the whimpering and barking you hear from The Rigid Ones, I don’t think CR does ‘smear’ jobs. That’s why his stuff can be powerful, (and maybe why they whimper and bark so piteously).

      • Benjamin David Steele May 17, 2013 at 6:07 pm | #

        I’ve tried to make sense of this right-wing tradition that mistrusts objective data as a challenge to their own self-justified, self-enclosed moral authority:

  11. Jonny Butter May 17, 2013 at 9:43 am | #

    sorry AGAIN..that last one (abletreeservice) was me. Don’t ask.

  12. Pieter May 28, 2013 at 5:45 am | #

    I’m pretty late into the discussion, but maybe this might interest someone:

    I though the the article on Nietzsche’s marginal children was simply great. The transformation of the love for charismatic ‘political leaders’, using the handles of the state to do us folks a world of good, into charismatic ‘market leaders’, who use the corporation to do us a world of good, is fascinating.

    It explains, I think, a lot of the appeal of neoliberalism. Starting in the seventies, it was no longer the state but the market that became the testing-field of greatness. Not the politician but the entrepreneur became the hero of our times.

    The concept of creative destruction played an important role in this. It began with Schumpeter, who took it from Nietzsche, and ended up in ideas about the importance of ‘innovation’ and how ‘innovation’ had created the industrial revolution and separated the West off from the Rest. We in the West created the right kind of ‘liberty’, the rest didn’t.

    Economists tend to distinguish ‘frontier growth’ from ‘catch op growth’. The first is only possible via creative destruction, the second comes about through copying. So you have ‘innovators’ and you have ‘copycats’. ‘Innovation’, from wherever it comes and whenever it comes, has become the highway to wealth – and as Boltanski en Thevenot have shown in their book ‘The New Spirit of Capitalism’, and as Corey Robin has no shown in his article, it was this idea that became cucial to the ‘new spirit’ of capitalism – a spirit precisely opposite to fans of socialst planning and bureaucracy. and to the kinds of mixed economies that had produced the wealth of the fifties and sixties.

    Boltanski and Thevenot provide a slight correction to Robins article though. They point out that the concept of creative destruction was became so attractive because it was linked to the love of liberty and creativity that was so dear to the student-revolts of the sixties. According to the new spirit of captialism liberty, and the creativity unleashed by it was best preserved in the hands of a small bunch of creative capitalists. Not all capitalists but the truely creative ones.

    Incidentally, it’s interesting to see how the idea of creative destruction and the appreciation of frontier growth has also become a leading concept in the hands of left-oriented economists like Acemoglu and Robinson, who, in their bestseller Why Nations Fail, try to prove that only inclusive, rather than extractive, institutions can create the conditions conducive to frontier growth.

    It would be nice if someone wrote a book about the history of the concept of creative destruction and how it travelled from the state to the market and informed the left as well as the right.

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