Friedrich Nietzsche suggested in the nineteenth century that the crisis of Western civilization generated by modernity’s overthrow of the traditional European order and the loss of faith resulting from the torpedoing of traditional theology by advancements in human knowledge would have repercussions that would endure for two centuries. As the twenty-first century now enters its second decade, the confrontation with that crisis becomes ever more imminent.1 At present, Western civilization continues to exhibit symptoms of advanced decay and the five hundred year position of Western Europe and its colonial offspring as the dominant centers of power on the earthly stage is steadily being eclipsed by the rise of new great powers represented by such nations as Russia, China, India, and Brazil. Likewise, mass immigration from the Third World into the West threatens to erode the demographic majority of indigenous European peoples in their traditional homelands by the middle to latter part of the century. The egalitarian ethos that provides the foundation of the self-legitimating ideology of the Western ruling classes becomes ever more absurd in its pronouncements and oppressive in its practices with each passing decade.
Future historians will likely look back on the contemporary West as a madhouse where the classic virtues of heroism, high culture, nobility, self-respect, and reason had almost completely disappeared, along with the characteristics of adulthood generally. The present era is the era of the Last Man. The legacy of mass democracy and the values of therapeutic liberalism has been the creation of a culture of infantilism. The morality of ressentiment is now the public morality. The guiding principles of contemporary liberal democracies are an all-pervasive consumerism and loudly proclaiming one’s own status as an official victim of historic or cosmic injustices, whether real or imaginary. Self-indulgence has been surpassed only by self-pity as the guiding principle of an individual’s relationship to the wider society. The commercial values of capitalism, the egalitarian values of Marxism, the psychological values of therapeutic culture, and the tendency toward mob rule inherent in mass democracy have been synthesized by modern societies in such a way as to make the wider and more fundamental values related to the preservation and perpetuation of civilization itself virtually impotent. Perhaps even more dreadful has been the exportation of these manifestations of cultural degeneration to nearly every corner of the globe. The Americanization process generated by globalization brings with it a cancer that threatens the survival of ancient cultures that have thus far endured for millennia.
Nietzsche was one of the great visionaries who recognized this process as it was unfolding even in its early stages. In contrast to the notion of progress that dominated so much of nineteenth century thought, Nietzsche regarded much of the history of Western civilization itself as a process of degeneration and decline. The advent of Platonic thought marked a degenerative departure from the time of the pre-Socratics, whom he regarded as representing the peak era of classical civilization. The Christian conquest of the classical world was still further degeneration and, indeed, the time when cultural rot really began to take root. Modernity carried the degenerative process even further to the point where, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, Western civilization had reached the terminal stage. Nietzsche correctly predicted that the twentieth century would be a time of great warfare between mass ideological movements and that this great convulsion of Western civilization would be the prelude to the confrontation with the crisis of nihilism in the twenty-first century.2
The most poignant question raised by Nietzsche’s philosophy involves the matter of what will emerge on the other side of Western civilization’s historical trajectory once modernity and post-modernity have finally expired. It would appear that there are two primary routes which the unfolding of Western history may take. One of these is the extinction of Western civilization itself resulting from the combined forces of a loss of international power, internal rot, and demographic overrun. The other would be some sort of cultural renewal and awakening. It is this latter option for which the vision of Nietzsche provides inspiration. What would a future post-postmodern Western civilization actually look like? What would be its guiding values, mores, social structures, and political institutions? Nietzsche himself was rather vague on what his ideal type of society might be. So Nietzsche’s own preferences or inclinations regarding such questions have to be inferred rather than directly discerned.
It is clear enough that Nietzsche was not and would not today be any kind of conventional “conservative.” Indeed, Nietzsche had little regard for the conservatives of even his own time. He regarded the European nobility as decadent and unwilling to fight to retain its historic and traditional place when confronted with the rising egalitarian movements of the era. His admonition that men should aspire to greater cruelty is to be interpreted in light of his criticisms of the weakness of the noble classes. Nietzsche was a firm believer in Pareto’s later axiom that he who becomes a lamb will be devoured by the wolves. He presciently saw that the European elite lacked the resolve to effectively counter the dangers posed by the growing ideological extremisms of the era. Nietzsche was the anti-Marx. He held even the conservative icon Bismarck in contempt for his embrace of egalitarian measures like universal suffrage and extensive welfare state legislation. Nietzsche also disdained the embrace of nationalism by modern conservatives and opposed Bismarck’s project of unification of Germany’s previously sovereign regions under a centralized national regime. Instead, Nietzsche considered nationalism to be a manifestation of the same egalitarian tendencies of mass society as movements like socialism and communism.3
Contrary to the popular vulgarized interpretation of Nietzsche’s thought as a forerunner to Fascism and National Socialism, Nietzsche was greatly alarmed by the growth of the modern state and of the tendency towards militarism resulting from the mass armies made possible by the modern state’s powers of conscription. The form of the state that began to emerge in the nineteenth century exemplified Hobbes’ characterization of the absolute ruler as an all-encompassing Leviathan. The massive growth of the state was the end result of the growth of mass political participation through democratic suffrage and of mass political movements reflecting popular ideological enthusiasm. This was a criticism of the modern state that would be revisited by twentieth century elite theorists such as Jose Ortega y Gasset. As Michael Kleen has observed:
The State was a temple in which the masses worshipped themselves. In exchange for catering to their needs and flattering their egos, the masses placed their collective will under the auspices of the State where they flourished like never before in history. For both Nietzsche and Ortega, that arrangement was Janus-faced, because although the masses grew in ever-increasing numbers—high art, music, education, and individualism in general suffered. European culture began to decay. Violence and militarism (especially of the uniform variety) became the order of the day.4
Clearly, a society which reflected Nietzschean ideals would rollback the growth of the modern Leviathan state and would eschew the national chauvinisms and aggressive militarism which characterized much of right-wing and left-wing politics alike during the twentieth century. In his own predictably unique way, Nietzsche might be said to have embraced a kind of pan-European cosmopolitanism. Says Michael Kleen:
Unfortunately, Nietzsche did not leave a well thought out alternative to the modern state. Instead, he left his readers to infer his preference based on the political arrangements he criticized. In Human, All-Too Human (1878), however, he touched on nationalism and the nation state, proposing that it would be a benefit to Europeans to abolish nations and breed a “European man” that would contain the best qualities of all peoples living on the continent. He envisioned a noble class that freely exchanged ideas across Europe. Based on his other arguments, we can surmise that Nietzsche was not advocating something along the lines of a European Union or a transnational state, but perhaps a collection of thousands of municipalities along the lines of the ancient Greek polis.5
This inference regarding what Nietzsche’s preferred political model might have been seems apt enough given his suggestion that pre-Socratic classical civilization constituted the apex of Western cultural achievement.
Given Nietzsche’s pronounced hostility to the state, it is interesting to note his disdain for the anarchist movements of his era. He apparently regarded these as secularized versions of Christian utopian other-worldliness.6 This is a fair criticism given the strident millenarian strands to be found within classical anarchism, the influence of Rousseau-inspired egalitarianism on classical anarchist thought, and the embrace of anarchism by Christian moralists like Tolstoy. Nietzsche might be said to be a manifestation of a non-egalitarian anarchism, or an “anarchism of the Right,” just as he is more widely known as an exponent of “atheism of the Right” with his strident critique of Christian slave-morality. It is also doubtful that Nietzsche would be particularly enamored of modern libertarian thought, with its roots in classical liberalism, its embrace of Enlightenment rationalism, and its vulgar reduction of social life to that of homo economicus. The rise of the classical bourgeoisie in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was accompanied by all of the social and political trends that Nietzsche detested: mass democracy, the centralized nation-state, imperialism, and massive national armies. If he regarded the hereditary European nobility as decrepit, he would have regarded the rising bourgeoisie upper middle class as even more degenerate than the aristocracy it aimed to replace. If the Christian foundations of the ancien regime represented a deterioration of classical civilization to Nietzsche, how much more deplorable would he have found the economism of the bourgeoisie.
Indeed, Nietzsche’s contrast of the Appollonian and the Dionysian foreshadows the latter critique of the rationalization of modern life advanced by Weber. For Nietzsche, rationality leaves no space for the passions. Though his own atheism and materialism were clearly derivative of latter Enlightenment thought, Nietzsche himself was an admirer of the Renaissance, not the Enlightenment. One can only imagine the contempt Nietzsche would have for contemporary Western societies and their institutionalization of the morality of ressentiment and their preoccupation with safety and security. As Nietzsche counseled men to live dangerously, he would no doubt regard, for instance, the present trend towards redefining long established childhood games and toys as menacing hazards or ordinary foods as the near-equivalent of poisons as an affront to authentic virtue. He would no doubt regard the now all-pervasive institutionalization of what has been termed “political correctness” to be the ultimate in the elevation of slave-morality and the inversion of nobility. Nietzsche would likely regard contemporary therapeutic culture as a form of human degeneration that even he might have been previously inclined to regard as impossible. He would no doubt observe the circus-like atmosphere of contemporary American politics and wonder, “How can this be?” If he were a contemporary man, Nietzsche might well observe the present state of Western culture and repeat the words of Christ at Gethsamane: “Let this cup pass from me!”
A Nietzschean civilization would be one where men were once again not only invited but encouraged to live dangerously. Clearly, such a society would be an aristocracy, but not just any kind of aristocracy. It is doubtful that Nietzsche would have seriously regarded the hereditary nobility as a manifestation of his own ideal. An authentically Nietzschean aristocracy would certainly maintain more stringent requirements for admission than mere accident of birth. A Nietzschean aristocracy would therefore be an aristocracy of merit rather than inheritance, but it would not be the pseudo-aristocracy of the bourgeoisie elites for whom prowess at money-making represents the highest human type. Nor would it be the New Class bureaucratic elite that emerged in the twentieth century and from which much of the contemporary upper middle class is drawn.7 It is this class that is at present challenging the domination of the traditional bourgeoisie.8 Nietzsche would have certainly regarded the New Class as even more degenerative than the bourgeoisie itself. Nor would the aristocracy of merit be comprised of a set of totalitarian dictators of the kind normally identified with Fascism, Communism, or National Socialism. The political institutions of a prototypical Nietzschean society would be neither feudal nor capitalist nor social democratic nor totalitarian.
It is clear that in such a society economic values would play a secondary role to cultural and aristocratic values. The commercial class and the political class would not be allowed to merge in the way that they have in modern bourgeoisie societies. As Nietzsche advocated a frank atheism, it also obvious that religious institutions would likewise play a secondary role and remain separated from the state in the same manner as contemporary liberal societies. This does not necessarily mean that society as a whole would espouse atheism. Atheism may well retain its present status as the dominant perspective of intellectual elites with the common people and a minority of elites practicing the religion most compatible with their own cultural identity and familial ancestry. The renewed interest in recent times among Western peoples in primordial faiths and the growth of various forms of paganism may be an indication of a revival of non-Christian traditional Western faiths in the future. Christianity may well have to share space on the cultural stage with Odinism or Asatru at some point in the future just as it now increasingly has to share space with Wicca, Islam, Eastern mysticism, Deism, the myriad of “New Age” sects, and so forth. Tradition would certainly be an important aspect of a society organized as an aristocracy of merit, but tradition would not be an end unto itself. Nietzsche was, after all, a revolutionary whose thinking was more radical in its implications than even the thought of Marx. Tradition in a civilization guided by the ideals of Nietzsche would be regarded as a continuum that connects the present with the past and which regards the present as a bridge from the past to the future. Tradition would likewise be considered as a force which provides the individual with a sense of place within the context of these wider historical forces. Yet such a reverence for tradition would not imply stasis. Tradition would be regarded as pathway in an ongoing journey and not a final endpoint.
The most compelling question that arises from speculation on the nature of a Nietzschean society is the one that considers from where a revolutionary aristocracy would arise. Just as an aristocracy of this kind would not be one whose claim to merit was rooted in mere financial acumen, so would such an aristocracy necessarily be more than a band of political opportunists who happened to seize power through guile, connivance, and manipulation. Though Nietzsche advised men to increase their cruelty, it does not necessarily follow that a Nietzschean aristocracy would be devoid of the traditional principle of noblesse oblige. The Nietzschean elites are not tyrants. The demise of institutions which Nietzsche abhorred such as mass democracy, the modern state, the domination of commercial interests, decrepit religious denominations, and mass armies would no doubt strengthen other institutions, including many that are at present being smothered by the forces of modernity. The most obvious among these are the family, tribe, clan, and community. Still others are guilds, fraternities, cultural organizations, educational institutions that exist independently of the wider political apparatus of mass democracy, philanthropies, localized associations for the pursuit of community activities, law, science, art, athletics, professions, labor associations, farmers association, citizen posses, regional militias, and many more possible examples. Within each of these kinds of human social arrangements, there would likely arise an elite comprised of individuals of superior ability and virtue who came to be regarded by the larger community specifically and the wider society generally as deserving of their position due to their greater merit. Perhaps areas of social life requiring highly specialized levels of expertise would be governed by appointees from scholarly institutions devoted to learning and the cultivation of virtue and wisdom on the part of their individual devotees. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn was fond of pointing to the traditional Chinese civil service examination system as one reflecting the ideals of meritocracy. The scholars who comprised the Mandarin class were drawn from the ranks of those demonstrating superior skill and ability. This was not a hereditary class but one where even the lowliest peasants with remarkable talents could achieve self-advancement.
Indeed, Kuehnelt-Leddihn observed that one of the weaknesses of the Right was its failure to offer a utopia of its own as a counter to the utopias proposed by the Left.9 It is in the thought of Nietzsche that a very generalized blueprint for the intellectual backdrop of a “Utopia of the Right” can be found. With the emergence of contemporary ideologies like National-Anarchism, a glimpse becomes available into what the future of civilization might be once the era of the Last Man has passed. As one anonymous commentator has suggested:
I think that the future will be a world of dizzying social complexity, replete with small city-states with governments ranging the gamut from democratic to monarchical to theocratic, surrounded by vast hinterlands filled with eco-villages and wild ranges where hunter gatherer humans chase wild game and forage for nuts and berries, while vast trade fleets of ultra-light zeppelins transfer goods and services all over the planet, and transhumanist consciousnesses zip through endless, decentralized computer networks maintained by industrial syndicates a million workers strong, who build satellites and launch them into orbit to maintain a global network of communication so primitivists can use cell-phones to trade furs for plastic-composite bows… and so on.11
The decline of existentialism and postmodernism may well represent the final breath of Western philosophy and the fulfillment of Nietzsche’s prophecy of the 21st century as the time when Western civilization would have to face the crisis of nihilism. This dissolution of Western philosophy corresponds with the dissolution of Western civilization itself.10 The pronounced decadence of present day Western elites who actively seek to undermine and destroy their own civilization is the manifestation of the suicidal nihilism of the Last Man. The seemingly inevitable demographic transformation of the West over the next century may well mark the dawn of a new “post-Western West” out of which new primordial myths will arise.
Originally published in Thoughts & Perspectives: Nietzsche, a compilation of essays on Friedrich Nietzsche, published by ARKTOS.
1 Keith Preston, “The Nietzschean Prophecies: Two Hundred Years of Nihilism and the Coming Crisis of Western Civilization,” The Radical Tradition: Philosophy, Metapolitics & the Conservative Revolution, edited by Troy Southgate (Primordial Traditions, 2011).
3 Werner J. Dannhauser, “Friedrich Nietzsche,” History of Political Philosophy, edited by Joseph Cropsey and Leo Strauss. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963, 1972, Third edition, 1987, pp. 829-831.
4 Michael Kleen, “Nietzsche and Ortega Juxtaposed,” Strike-the-Root.Com, August 18, 2010 (archived here).
5 Michael Kleen, “Nietzsche and the State,” Strike-the-Root.Com, July 15, 2010 (archived here).
6 Charles Bufe, “Introduction,” The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, by Henry Louis Mencken. San Francisco: See Sharp Press. Originally published in 1908.
7 Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. New York: Continuum Publishing Service, 1979.
8 Scott Locklin, “Social Classes: The Upper Middle Class,” AlternativeRight.Com, August 17, 2010 (archived here).
9 Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism Revisited: From De Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990.
10 I am grateful to Michael Parish for this insight.
11 Chris George, “Wisdom and Vision,” New Kind of Mind, April 11, 2011 (archived here).