You can’t “rescue” Nietzsche from the white supremacists, because he doesn’t want to be rescued
Nietzsche would hate us for turning him into a moralist
There’s been a lot of attention and writing devoted recently to the way that white supremacists like Richard Spencer have “co-opted” 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to support their cause. Much of it, like this poorly-written and embarrassingly-argued piece from last week, has been dedicated to explaining that Nietzsche would not have supported white supremacy.
These articles usually comb through Nietzsche’s correspondence and published works to find the moments when he dismissed anti-Semitism (of which there are quite a few). They’re not wrong — but when we stop there, Nietzsche gets fundamentally misrepresented as a moral thinker. He would hate us for that. The truth is that Nietzsche’s relationship with problematic power relations is far more difficult and circuitous than any of his apparent “saviors” would like to admit.
Walk with me while I explain why, while Nietzsche certainly wouldn’t like modern white supremacists, he wouldn’t much like us, or our reasons for rejecting white supremacy, either.
Our moral rejection of white supremacy
First, we should talk about the way in which we reject white supremacy. As a society we tend to reject white supremacy and related ideas for moral reasons. White supremacy is morally unacceptable to us.
We have standards by which we evaluate actions and intentions; right and wrong, fair and unfair, good and bad, productive and pernicious. Sure, our standards differ somewhat, but it’s not hard to find agreement on at least one thing: Nazis and white supremacists are bad, immoral, unfair, and pernicious. Their ideas deserve to be rejected. They have no place in a modern society — in any society, for that matter.
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, I put it this way:
We should understand, though, that this evaluation of white supremacy — and our moral standards in general — are products of our histories. Whether we take our histories to be evolutionary/ecological, socio-political, geographical, or otherwise, it’s not hard to see how we find white supremacy to be particularly morally nauseating (the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, or the history of slavery in the USA, for example, give us robust historical precedents to feel this way).
Understanding our moral histories helps us to understand why our moral standards are the way that they are. We can’t properly understand our morality today without taking the history of that morality into account.
Nietzsche and the genealogy of modern morality
Nietzsche agreed that, in order to truly understand modern morality, we need to understand its history. But this is tricky business: many before him got the history wrong, he thought. They associated “goodness” with usefulness, for example.
In one of his most lucid books, The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche examines the history of the dyadic concepts “good and bad,” as well as “good and evil.” Using his background in philology to examine the origins of these words, Nietzsche proposes an explanation: “good and bad” were terms that were originally defined by the “strong” and successful — the “masters,” as he put it. People with power looked inside themselves, and whatever they found inside, they called “good.” Whatever didn’t meet those standards, they called “bad.” Simple!
The un-masterful people (Nietzsche called them “slaves”) didn’t much like this state of affairs, as you can imagine. In what Nietzsche considers the defining moment of our becoming-modern as a human species, the slaves revolted and prompted a re-valuation of moral goodness and badness. They turned morality on its head.
…man first became an interesting animal on the foundation of this essentially dangerous form of human existence.
(Genealogy of Morals, first book, section 6)
Why did Nietzsche consider the victory of the slaves to be dangerous? Because the slaves had never learned to be anything except slaves. Their victory, Nietzsche thought, didn’t turn them into the masters — it turned them into mere “successful slaves.”
The slave revolt in morality fundamentally changed the way that “good and bad” worked. Instead of defining goodness first — by looking inside and seeing what was there — the slaves defined what was bad right off the bat. And they knew right away what was bad: the masters! Whatever isn’t that, that’s what we should call good. “Good and bad” became “Good and Evil.” The masters, in their strength, their confidence, their passion, were Evil — and the opposite of those traits became seen, and celebrated, as Good. Morality became resentful.
Beyond modern morality
Nietzsche saw modern morality as the logical continuation of the ideas implemented by the slave revolt. Through an analysis of Christianity and related concepts, he shows how our values still privilege “weakness” over “strength,” asceticism over passion, meekness over confidence. He thought this was awful, that it could lead to the end of our existence itself, and spent almost his entire philosophical career railing — often venomously — against it.
We had become, Nietzsche thought, afraid of love, afraid of art, of passion, music, afraid of the aesthetic and of evaluation itself. We had become unable to understand quality at all (a compelling diagnosis, given our obsession with quantifiability and statistics today).
Another path was proposed: if we rooted out all of the myriad subterranean ideas, concepts, institutions, and values that had infected us via the slave revolt, if we embraced creativity, passion, danger, and stopped being afraid of hierarchy and evaluation, maybe we could become something greater. Nietzsche’s famous protagonist, Zarathustra, was supposed to represent what humanity might be able to do: the overcoming of the modern human.
All sciences must, from now on, prepare the way for the future work of the philosopher: this work being understood to mean that the philosopher has to solve the problem of values and that he has to decide on the rank order of values.
Genealogy of Morals, first book, section 17
Nietzsche and white supremacy
Nietzsche wrote quite a bit about his distaste for anti-Semitism, but it hasn’t stopped racists and fascists from claiming Nietzsche as their own in the past. Nietzsche’s sister herself a supporter of Nazi politics and a fervent anti-Semite, selectively edited Nietzsche posthumously-published notes to make it seem like Nietzsche supported anti-Jewish ideas.
Today, white supremacists like Richard Spencer name Nietzsche as an inspiring, pivotal figure. Appealing to them are Nietzsche’s insistence on a hierarchy of values, and his depiction of the world as a collection of power-relations:
This world is the will to power — and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power — and nothing besides!
Of course, white supremacist interpretations get it all wrong. They take themselves to be overcoming modern human morality by pushing ideas that the rest of us find intolerable, by expressing the “truth” that’s occluded by liberal media biases. But they miss Nietzsche’s most significant point: by their very existence as white supremacists, they create an external enemy to define themselves against just as Nietzsche’s revolting slaves did.
Given this, Nietzsche’s rejection of anti-Semitism (and his likely rejection of modern white supremacy) isn’t based on some kind of moral revulsion in the face of anti-Semitic values: it’s based on the idea that these people are, like all moderns, still human, all too human. Nietzsche rejects anti-Semitism and white supremacy because they are still the products of a slavish mentality towards moral thinking. They create an external enemy to put all of their fears, all of their hatred, onto. Every problem gets put outside, and it is only inside, in these walls the slaves have built for themselves, where they can be safe from what is different.
Nietzsche is not our ally
When we explain that Nietzsche rejected white supremacy without also explaining why, we paint Nietzsche as an ally of our moral cause when he most certainly is not. Nietzsche hates anti-Semitism, to be sure, but he hates us, too — and he spilled far more ink over his hatred of us than he ever did over his hatred of them.
Nearly every published sentence of Nietzsche’s is meant as a crushing indictment of our slave-inspired moral state of affairs. We are no better, in his eyes, than the white supremacists we strive to set ourselves apart from. We reject white supremacy for moral reasons, and Nietzsche would spit venomously at us for thinking that we were doing anything great or noteworthy if he saw us doing it. Our moral rejection of white supremacy is, for Nietzsche, just as pernicious as the white supremacists themselves.
By implying that Nietzsche is “one of us” in his rejection of white supremacy, we disfigure his work and make him a puppet of morality. It’s bad scholarship, bad philosophy, and reductive of the very real ways that Nietzsche’s philosophy can inspire us still, today.
Nietzsche’s philosophy as a weapon
As we’ve seen, Nietzsche is not on our side. He’s not on the side of the white supremacists, either. What can we do with this? Can we still mobilize Nietzsche against our white supremacist enemies?
Of course we can — so long as we’re willing to become a bit Nietzschean!
Nietzsche’s philosophy is primarily concerned with the diagnosis of modern values as pernicious and destructive. While Nietzsche would certainly have included our values on his list of dangerous ones, we can still use the conceptual personae he has given us to wield a power weapon against white supremacists. To use Nietzschean concepts to sabotage white supremacy — he would’ve loved it.
A Nietzschean analysis reveals that white supremacists are precisely the opposite of everything they claim they are:
They see themselves as strong, but Nietzsche reveals them as the product of weakness. They see themselves as pure, but Nietzsche reveals that obsession with purity to be the product of a sick, reactive spirit. They see themselves as superior, but Nietzsche reveals that they are stuck under the evaluatory gaze of their enemies. They see themselves as brave truth-tellers, but Nietzsche shows that their singular intention is to build a wall around themselves to protect their “truth” from the light of day. They claim to be masters of the earth — but for Nietzsche they are slaves all the way through.