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What Nietzsche’s philosophy can tell us about why Brexit and Trump won

Hugo Drochon’s new book on Nietzsche can teach us about American populism and European disintegration.

Normally, a book about Nietzsche’s political theory would not be of interest to general audiences, but against the backdrop of Brexit and Donald Trump, I suspect it will be.

One reason is that Nietzsche anticipated our current cultural and political climate. From his late 19th-century perch, he warned that Europe’s increasingly democratic states would fall into parochialism and mass hysteria. He even condemned Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian statesman who unified Germany in 1871, for cementing his power by stoking nationalist resentments and appealing to racial purity.

Despite Nietzsche’s pointed, if sporadic, political commentary, there’s a debate among scholars about the political relevance of his thought. On the one side are those who think Nietzsche’s concerns were largely apolitical. If you comb through his texts, you don’t find much that speaks directly to traditional political concerns. And when he does touch the political, it’s never in any systematic way; there’s no unified theory.

On the other side (confession: I’m on this side) are those who see in Nietzsche a deeply political thinker. It’s true that much of his writing is about morality and the role of art in society. But if you believe, as I do, that ethics and culture are inseparable from politics, Nietzsche’s ideas are inescapably political.

The school that counts Nietzsche as an important political thinker is now one scholar bigger.

Hugo Drochon is a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University and the author of a new book called Nietzsche’s Great Politics, Drochon’s approach is to make sense of Nietzsche’s broader political thought by focusing on what he had to say about the politics of his time.

Nietzsche saw Bismarck’s vulgar “blood and soil” politics as a harbinger of things to come. It was the beginning of a period of great transformation in Europe. There was a debate about the future of the continent, and Nietzsche perceived a shift into a form of “petty politics” of the sort pioneered by Bismarck.

Nietzsche hoped for a grand unification of Europe, a trans-national politics in which high culture and art could thrive. What he witnessed instead was more fragmentation, more nationalism, more tribalism. Drochon argues that Nietzsche develops frameworks to analyze these transformations that could help us think differently about the “unraveling we’re seeing today” in Europe and North America.

In December, I sat down with Drochon to talk about his new book. I also asked him about Nietzsche’s reputation as a nihilist, the significance of his “God is dead” proclamation, and what his political musings might teach us about our current political drama.


Sean Illing

One of the things I hear most from people about Nietzsche is that he was a “nihilist” or an advocate of nihilism. But the reverse is true. Nietzsche diagnosed nihilism; he didn’t celebrate it. He saw a crisis of culture brewing and tried to point the way forward.

Why was he so worried about nihilism?

Hugo Drochon

I completely share your point about Nietzsche not being a nihilist. He was responding to the specter of nihilism that was haunting Europe at the time. First, we have to remember that Nietzsche was the theorist of the “death of God.” He said we used to live our lives according to a transcendent morality that everybody could agree on, but if nobody agrees on that anymore, then we have to confront, really confront, the challenge of relativism.

Sean Illing

I want to linger on Nietzsche’s “God is dead” thesis for a second because I think it’s arguably the most important thing he said, and probably the least understood.

There’s this idea that Nietzsche gleefully pronounced God’s death, but the next sentence after that line reads, “And we have killed Him.” For Nietzsche, it was a terrible thing that this had happened. “Since Copernicus,” he wrote, “man has been rolling away from the center towards X.” That “X” was the abyss opened up by the collapse of this belief that earth was the center of things, that history had a direction or that humanity held a privileged place in the cosmos.

How do you understand this phrase “God is dead” and why did you think Nietzsche considered it such a monumental event?

Hugo Drochon

Well, I think we have to first remember the context. This was the late 19th century and Nietzsche was talking specifically about the Christian God, or the idea of a monotheistic god. And he was referring to the values that had sprung up in the Western world which had their roots in this monotheistic tradition.

The death of God meant simply that no one really believes in this anymore. They carry on as though they do, but science and reason had completely undercut the metaphysical claims of monotheism, which is to say the idea of absolute moral truth. What we learned was that life was always in the process of becoming.

For Nietzsche, God may have died in this sense, but we were still living in his shadow. And this meant that people no longer believed in God but were living as if God were still alive. Nietzsche really wanted to challenge those types of people. He wanted to force them to reckon with the consequences of this.

Sean Illing

The claim here wasn’t that there could be no morality or values; rather, it was that we had lost the transcendent justification for the Judeo-Christian worldview, and that the moral implications of this extended well beyond religion.

Hugo Drochon

Precisely.

Sean Illing

One of the more jarring predictions that comes out of Nietzsche’s discussions about the death of God was that the next century would be defined by these grand ideological battles — that we’d have competing “isms” struggling to assert a new meaning and direction for history.

I wonder how you think about that as a political theorist?

Hugo Drochon

Nietzsche predicts what he calls “wars to determine the future of mankind,” which will take place in the shadow of God. And his reasoning is that the death of God reopens the question of what we want humankind to be.

Before, in the West at least, we had a Christian answer to this, a Christian conception of the good man. But if we don’t believe in that anymore, or if we can’t justify belief in that anymore, we have to take up this question yet again. And Nietzsche believed the next centuries would consist of wars over what the answer to that question ought to be.

Sean Illing

And these grand “isms” that dominated the 20th century — communism and fascism in particular — are very much the kind of political religions Nietzsche anticipated, right?

Hugo Drochon

That’s right. These are attempted answers at this question of what mankind ought to become, but they’re still stuck in the shadow of God for Nietzsche, and that’s because they’re still founded in these unchallengeable dogmas — about history, about human nature, about the future.

These are all mistaken insofar as they claim their vision of morality or politics is the only one possible, the only true one. What the death of God made clear, or should have made clear, is that there are no absolutes.

What he wanted to say is that there can be many different ways of existing, and societies should be organized in such a way that they allow for the possibility of many types of existences and not insist that there must be one answer, one truth, one morality.

Sean Illing

My sense is that Nietzsche did not believe humanity would move beyond this impulse for totalizing answers to questions about morality or history or higher meaning. We’re creatures that demand a higher meaning for our actions, and if one doesn’t exist, we’ll fabricate it.

Hugo Drochon

Well, Nietzsche is always talking to two different audiences. He grants that a lot of people need a kind of existential banister, some philosophy or belief system that grounds them in historical time, and that’s fine.

But his point is that these people should not be allowed to say that everyone needs to live according to these rules, and that there should be space for people who have the courage to face the fact that the world is in flux, and they should be allowed to experiment with different forms of living.

Sean Illing

To the extent he was concerned with politics, it was for this reason: to protect individuals from the totalizing tendencies of dogma — be it religious or political or ideological.

Hugo Drochon

That’s absolutely right. He asked how we might develop institutions that would defend the individual in society against pressures of mass culture.

Sean Illing

Let’s try to connect some of this to contemporary politics. What’s the thesis of your book about Nietzsche and why is it relevant?

Hugo Drochon

The conceit of the book was to ask if Nietzsche talked about the politics of his day, and if he does talk about the politics of his day, is this an entry point into trying to think about what his broader politics would be. The answer, of course, is yes. He talks quite a bit about the politics of his time.

Most of his writings are critical, and we can talk about why that is, but what he does offer is a vision of what a truly great modern politics would look like. And that vision includes a grand unification of Europe and a transcendence of petty nationalisms. What he hopes for is the emergence of a kind of trans-European elite that can lead this cultural and political revolution.

What I say in the book is that Nietzsche is writing at a time in which you could see changes in European politics that announce other things that would happen in the 20th century: the explosion of democracy, the extension of suffrage, there are emergent questions about European politics and a balance of power.

My claim is that the conceptual tools he develops to talk about these transformations offer a unique way of thinking about the unraveling we’re seeing today, especially as it relates to Brexit and, more recently, Donald Trump.

Sean Illing

You don’t really write about Trump in the book, but you’ve suggested elsewhere that he’s a sort of caricature of Nietzsche’s idea of the ubermensch (often mistranslated at “superman”). Is that right?

Hugo Drochon

Well I’ve heard it said that Trump may represent some approximation of Nietzsche’s ubermensch, and I think that’s deeply mistaken. But the reasons why it’s mistaken can help us think about what Trump actually is. First, it’s wrong because Trump represents everything Nietzsche hated. The philistinism, the mediocrity, the worshipping of money for its own sake — this is exactly the opposite of what Nietzsche advocated. By ubermensch, Nietzsche meant someone who could live beyond good and evil, beyond conventional values, who refused to appeal to herd instincts.

There’s a passage in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which he talks about the ubermensch, and I think it’s quite relevant. Zarathustra, the protagonist, comes down from his mountain retreat and tells the people in the town square that he’s going to teach them about the ubermensch, about what mankind should become, and the people are having none of it. They don’t want to hear that they’ve stopped believing in God; that life is chaos; that nothing lasts; that they’re living in illusion.

Zarathustra realizes the people are too decadent to hear this and so he decides instead to teach them about the “Last Man.” And the “Last Man” is the kind of person who doesn’t want to think, who fears progress, who is risk-averse and desirous of comfort, who just wants everything to stay the same. Of course, the people erupt in joy when they hear this because this is what they really want.

This is what Trump is to me. This is what he represents. He’s a kind of “Last Man” demagogue, telling the people that he’s going make things great again, which is to say simple and how they once were — and they love him for it.

For Nietzsche, the celebration of a man like Trump was the inevitable result of a democratic culture built on the virtues of ignorance and self-fulfillment.

Sean Illing

Part of what’s going on in that text, and really in all of Nietzsche’s texts, is a protest against the decadence of democratic culture, and certainly it’s hard not to think of Trump in this context when revisiting Nietzsche’s ideas.

Hugo Drochon

Absolutely. Nietzsche spent a lot of time thinking about decadence and resentment, and how it manifests in society. For Nietzsche, culture has to do with overcoming yourself, and anything that is static and non-moving is the death of culture. All this nostalgia and looking back you see from Trump supporters is poisonous to culture for Nietzsche because it stunts any possibility of progress.

Sean Illing

I want to talk more about Trump, but it may help to zoom back a bit and talk about Nietzsche’s broader political thought. He’s often regarded as a non-political thinker, but I’ve never agreed with that. Culture is perhaps his first concern, but he insists that culture is bound up with politics, and so how a society organizes itself politically matters a great deal.

Hugo Drochon

You’re right about this tendency to say Nietzsche isn’t a political thinker. I also agree with you that this is wrong. For Nietzsche, there’s a clear link between politics and culture in the sense that certain political systems support or produce certain kinds of cultures.

Sean Illing

What did Nietzsche hate about modernity and modern culture and how does someone like Trump reflect his critiques? Or maybe a better way to get at this is to ask: What was Nietzsche attacking in his own time and what are the analogues today?

Hugo Drochon

If you look at Nietzsche’s writings in his own time, which is the end of the 19th century, the main figure is Bismarck. Of course, there’s a huge difference between Trump and Bismarck, but Nietzsche’s critique of Bismarck is still applicable to the type of critiques you might want to make of Trump.

A key term I use in the book is “great politics.” Both Trump and Bismarck were obsessed with this notion of greatness. Nietzsche hated Bismarck’s “great politics” for the same reasons many people hate Trump’s politics: It’s rooted in fragmentation, nationalism, xenophobia — the kind of things you might associate with Trump today.

Nietzsche despised this insofar as it represented an appeal to popular resentment, to what he called herd instincts.

Sean Illing

I think it’s clear already, but it’s worth clarifying: Why was Nietzsche so contemptuous of democracy?

Hugo Drochon

Nietzsche didn’t have much experience with democracy, so he has a kind of skewed view. That said, he’s critical of democracy because he thinks of it is a leveling device, as a rejection of natural hierarchies. He believed certain people are destined for a life of culture and others aren’t, and democracy, in his mind, was a mechanism for the destruction of higher culture.

Sean Illing

You mentioned “resentment” a minute ago and of course Nietzsche is known as a philosopher of “resentment.” As you know, there’s a wave of anti-establishment sentiment sweeping across Europe and the United States.

What’s the Nietzschean interpretation of this moment?

Hugo Drochon

A term I use in the book is “misarchism,” which is a rejection or hatred of authority. Nietzsche sees it as a uniquely democratic mindset. In some ways, this is positive because you need a level of criticism in society. But it can also go too far, and Nietzsche’s view was that, over time, misarchism would tend towards the extreme.

And I think that is where we are today — there’s a rejection of elites, of the establishment, of authority itself. This is dangerous because there’s a kind of nihilism behind it. There’s not really a positive project that comes out of it. It’s just a resounding “no” and it’s not clear what comes next.

Sean Illing

You’re careful in the book to say that Nietzsche’s worldview is blinkered in its own way, but that he does give us an analytical framework that is applicable to our own time.

Hugo Drochon

That’s right. I do think Nietzsche gives us concepts which can help us make sense of what’s going on. His notion of resentment is certainly one of these concepts. Resentment, for Nietzsche, always starts with a rejection of the other. And this is what we’ve seen both in the UK and obviously in America with Trump’s campaign, which is wrapped up in white nationalism.

We can, of course, argue about the causes of the resentment, but there’s no question that it’s there and that it’s fueling the populist reactionaries.

Sean Illing

Nietzsche has this great line about not looking into the abyss lest it look back, and I can’t help but think we’ve done just that. It’s just not clear to me what’s on the other side of this wave we’re seeing. People are losing faith in the authority of governing institutions and they’re too busy throwing them off to worry about what follows.

I don’t see how this ends well. Are you more optimistic about our political future?

Hugo Drochon

Well, I think that’s a great way of putting it: Look into the abyss and the abyss looks back. All of this is definitely a big wake up call for people who consider themselves liberals. We know the world has changed, and we can’t go back to the way it was before. So now we need to have the strength to look at what’s happening and be able to formulate something that can come out of it.

We have to resist this regression into a petty, fragmented brand of politics rooted in resentment and fear. But you’re right to put it the way you did: We’re staring into an abyss and we need to stare back and try to propose something positive.

This is the main challenge for the 21st century.

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