Nietzsche, Hayek and the Marginalists…and Max Weber?

Corey Robin has just published a provocative and interesting essay in The Nation on the connection between the conservative doctrine of Nietzsche, the marginal revolution, and the Austrian school of economics. I won’t summarize the entire piece here – it is well worth taking the time to read – but merely provide some initial impressions.

Basically, Robin traces something of an “elective affinity” between Nietzsche and the 19th century economists who ushered in the marginal revolution. These figures, namely William Stanley Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras, initiated a movement in political economy that replaced the heretofore dominant labor theory of value (subscribed to by Smith, Ricardo, and Marx) with the theory of marginal utility and subjective value. According to the latter, economic value was not inscribed in an “objective” world of commodities and relations of production, but instead in the subjective value or worth that consumers were willing to place in those objects. In other words, the value of an object depended on the lengths that individuals were willing to go to acquire it (i.e. pay for it), rather than the amount of labor that went into producing it.

Despite their pronounced political differences – Nietzsche is best characterized as an aristocratic conservative, the marginalists as pro-market liberals – Robin claims that Nietzsche’s ideas make him a useful diagnostician for the rise of the idea of subjective value and, eventually, for contemporary neoliberalism (by way of Hayek).  Whereas Nietzsche set the stage by pointing to the limits of metaphysics for grounding the world and giving human life authoritative meaning, and thereby arguing for a transvaluation of the heretofore dominant values of Western civilization, the marginalists, and later “classical liberals” like Mises and Hayek, saw the free market as the only possible arbiter of value in society. Furthermore, both Nietzsche and the marginalists shared a hostility to trade unions and the burgeoning socialist movement of the 19th century, which Robin points to in arguing that implicit in the doctrine of the free market (and particularly in Hayek) is a critique of “mass society” and an aristocratic conception praising the wealthy as the avant-garde of taste and of social value.

Taken separately, Robin’s exegeses on Nietzsche and the marginalists and Hayek are excellent and insightful. But something of a disconnect remains in the link he tries to draw between them. For one, there is little evidence to suggest that Nietzsche was aware of the innovations of Menger, Jevons, or Walras, although we are told that he did critique unnamed contemporary economists for their fixation with the term “value” and, of course, understood enough about political economy to argue that the vitality of classical Athens depended on the sequestering of slave labor away from the public life of the polis. Neither is there an indication that the marginalists read Nietzsche, their contemporary (although I’m guessing Hayek almost certainly did).

Of course, Robin is not arguing that there is a direct line of influence between these thinkers. His claim is rather that Nietzsche’s insights best capture the cultural and social forces at work from which the marginalists would draw their economic conclusions. This may be perfectly true, but there is nevertheless a kind of “x degrees of separation” game being played here, in which the appeal is more to a fin de siecle European cultural Zeitgeist than of a causal connection between Nietzsche, the marginalists, Hayek, and postwar neoliberalism. My hunch is that Robin wants to claim that one can make that connection, but it does not come through here.

The term “elective affinity” of course invokes Weber and his thesis on the connection between the development of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic. Yet perhaps Weber looms here in more than just this way. If the connection between Nietzsche, the marginalists, and Hayek is not quite one of direct influence and yet can provide us with insights about postwar neoliberalism, then why not consider Weber himself, certainly one of the most “Nietzschean” thinkers of the 20th century? Despite being deeply influenced by Nietzsche in his philosophical and meta-theoretical reflections, Weber was far removed from the marginalists and the Austrian school, instead being educated in the German historical tradition of economic thought. To my knowledge, Weber never articulated the kind of anti-statist, anti-interventionist economic policies that have come to be associated with the Austrians today. If the economic legacy of Nietzsche can point in the opposite direction, by way of a thinker who read and knew Nietzsche far better than the ones Robin focuses on, then perhaps the story gets more complicated.

Finally, the idea that an individual’s worth or value depends on how he is held by others originates not with Nietzsche nor the marginalists, but much earlier with Hobbes:

“The Value, or Worth of a man, is as of all other things, his Price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his Power: and therefore is not absolute; but a thing dependant on the need and judgement of another…And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselvesat the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others.” (Leviathan, Ch. 10)

This should not be surprising, since Hobbes can certainly be thought of as a political theorist of the nascent bourgeois order (I subscribe to this view myself). But this complicates Robin’s narrative that Nietzsche and the marginalists separately developed their theories partially in response to the labor movement of the 19th century, since we see this strand of thought emerging some 200 years earlier. Perhaps Hobbes was a conservative and a reactionary in the same vein as Nietzsche and Hayek, and this recurring emphasis on the subjectivity of value is a symptom of the pathologies of conservative thought rather than having anything to do with the struggle between labor and capital? But this suggestion in turn raises a different question – how correct would we be in applying these labels to Hobbes, whose pro-monarchist views were underpinned by a fundamentally innovative political theory of authority that in the long run did more to undermine the basis for monarchy than preserve it, and who was writing over a century before the French Revolution, when the true distinction between radicalism and reaction emerged?


UPDATE: Also make sure to take a look at Robin’s post and the unfolding debate in the comments section at Crooked Timber.

What’s the Matter with Conservatism?

The conservative intellectual tradition has been something of a hot topic among the academic/public intellectual sphere over the last few years. The rapid rise of the Tea Party three years ago (and its just as quick absorption into the Republican Party) jarred many Americans, who were probably stunned by the amount of vitriolic dislike that many average people had against Barack Obama the President. This led to a period of renewed interest in modern day conservative ideas, to the extent that respected scholars of intellectual history like Mark Lilla would actually spend time writing about and deciphering the meaning of Glenn Beck.

Then, last year Corey Robin, professor of political science at Brooklyn College, published The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin – a book that has stirred a fair amount of debate and controversy. Robin, who blogs/tweets on conservatism regularly at his website, essentially argues that there is a common tendency to defend hierarchy that is present throughout the conservative tradition, thereby linking diverse conservative figures across time and intellectual affiliation. Not only that, but conservatism has also been quite adept at morphing its own ideas and adapting to the socio-historical context of its times in order to successfully perpetuate these ideas of natural hierarchy, whether of one form or another. Responses have ranged across the spectrum. Lilla disliked it, calling Robin an “uber-lumper” who “set an example to avoid.”  A little while later, Alex Gourevitch of McMaster University provided a rebuttal to Lilla that was praised on the left, and has just published his own review of the book.

Over at his Deliberately Considered blog, Jeffrey Goldfarb, professor of sociology at The New School, has devoted some energy to finding conservative intellectuals with whom to engage. The whole series of posts needs to be read through on its own, but eventually the intellectual archdeacon of paleoconservatism Paul Gottfried obliged to weigh in, calling the Republican Party a “corrupting influence on the right” and comparing the true Right to the Christian kingdoms of Spain in the middle ages that hung on and bided their time until they were once again powerful enough to push the Moors out of Europe. If there’s one thing conservatism never lacked, its poetic imagination.

Finally, continuing this theme of renewed interest in conservatism Russell Jacoby has published a scathing review of David Gelernter’s America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled Our Culture (and Ushered in the Obamacrats) – a book that, according to Jacoby’s review, can essentially be judged by its title. But I care less about Gelernter’s argument than a more important point raised by Jacoby: that while the tide of popular opinion on the whole tends to run conservative in America, the day of The Conservative Intellectual has passed. After all, it was only months ago that we were exposed daily to the figure of Newt Gingrich as the intellectual/academic of the Republican nominees. Some liberals even lamented the passing of William Buckley Jr. as the last figure of an era when public voices of conservatism were not just ideologues, but individuals genuinely interested in ideas and a form of sophisticated discourse that is nearly impossible to find in American politics today.

At the same time, Jacoby points out that today’s conservatives are convinced of the notion that the Left won the war of Ideas in the ’60s, and so fixate on intellectuals as the group to blame for this turn of events. As he writes, “Confronted by social upheavals, conservative intellectuals tend to blame other intellectuals—socialist, liberal, secular—as the cause. They perceive political unrest as rooted in fallacious ideas advanced by misguided thinkers and indict the educational system for inculcating subversion.” The outcome is dialectically ironic: Conservatives’ focus on preserving high culture against the leveling effects of the masses leads them to emphasize ideas as the principal factor in this change and the terrain on which the battle has been fought; yet the longer the battle goes on, the more do ideas devolve into simple sloganeering and a general paucity of discourse.

Fittingly, Jacoby’s conclusion is grim:

What’s happened to intellectual life on the right? Conservatives may be succumbing to their default position. Most of the candidates for this year’s Republican presidential nomination denied the veracity of evolution; and, according to various polls, Republicans increasingly distrust science. As the world becomes more threatening, many people seek simple answers, and many Americans conclude that an elite—from which they are excluded—must be the source of the ills. They turn on intellectuals, professors, and presumably the specialized knowledge those experts trade in. Instead of resisting that tendency, conservative intellectuals such as Gelernter encourage it. In their flight from elitism, they end up in a populist swamp peopled by autodidacts and fundamentalists. They become cheerleaders for a world without intellectuals, hastening a future in which they themselves will be irrelevant.

If Jacoby’s (and to some extent, Gottfried’s) logic is followed, the disappearance of the conservative intellectual has had at least something to do with the pressure felt by the right in the era of mass electoral politics to reach voters by simplifying political problems and appealing to existing popular biases. Whereas American liberalism throughout the last century has consistently appealed to a progressive, technocratic rationale promoting social values like expertise, science, and education, American conservatives have had to reconcile the Jacksonian/Bryanist appeal to folksy wisdom and common sense with the strand of elitist republicanism that has survived, with some variation, from the Federalists to the Eisenhower Republicans to the neoconservatives. In the experience of the last decade, the skepticism of the American public to elites of any kind – whether  liberal college professors, neoconservative geostrategists, or Wall Street financiers – has led to a kind of populist moment that the Republican Party has more successfully incorporated into its political program (the Mitt Romney Presidential candidacy notwithstanding). In this kind of political climate, much like Jacoby points out, the conservative intellectual has been made redundant in a public role, for now. Whether this remains a fact behind closed doors and if it will stay this way, I don’t know.