The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 24 (2002) 132-147
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Prospects For A Democratic Agon:
Why We Can Still Be Nietzscheans
Lawrence J. Hatab
n recent years, a number of writers have attempted to appropriate Nietzsche's thought, or significant elements of it, for democratic politics. 1 Needless to say, such projects are surprising, since Nietzsche was a notorious opponent of democracy and liberalism. In a nutshell, these projects have suggested that Nietzsche's emancipatory critique of Western foundationalism, essentialism, and rationalism can help correct supposed blind spots and exclusions haunting modern political ideals born out of the Enlightenment. Nietzsche's celebration of perspectivism, the openness of identity, and agonistic dynamism can prepare a vision of democratic life that is more vibrant, inclusive, creative, and life-affirming than that of modern political theories grounded in the rational subject.
Of course such ventures have met criticism, especially from those who resist the embrace of Nietzsche in much of Continental thought. Jürgen Habermas has been in the forefront of this resistance in Germany. 2 And a recent collection of essays from France, Why We Are Not Nietzscheans, 3 has reproached so-called French Nietzscheans such as Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze for not owning up to the political dangers of Nietzsche's thought. Writers such as Descombes, Ferry, and Renaut have aimed to retrieve a political conception of the subject, particularly as it pertains to the question of human rights. Their charge is that embracing Nietzsche's vitalism, immoralism, and/or elitism is either not relevant to actual political conditions or blind to the authoritarian impulses in Nietzsche's texts. 4 In America, a new book by Fredrick Appel, Nietzsche Contra Democracy, presents a cogent criticism of attempts to employ Nietzsche for democratic purposes, particularly with respect to agonistics. In this essay I want to focus on Appels challenge and attempt to reiterate the viability of a Nietzschean agonistics for democratic politics. 5 [End Page 132]
Appel aims to challenge: 1) "progressive" readings of Nietzsche that want to align his thought with democratic egalitarian ideals; and 2) postmodern readings that appropriate a Nietzschean openness on behalf of a radical conception of democracy (NCD, pp.2-4). Appel asks an important question: Why bend and twist Nietzsche to fit democratic ideals when there are other thinkers and movements in contemporary thought that can support democratic openness without Nietzsche's problematic aristocratic baggage? (NCD, p.5). He maintains that Nietzsche's thought is radically aristocratic throughout and it cannot be selectively employed for democratic purposes (NCD, pp.5-6). He also assumes that there is an egalitarian consensus in contemporary political philosophy: that all human beings are of equal moral worth, and they equally "bear" basic rights that need defending and promoting (NCD, pp.7-8). 6 He insists that Nietzsche is anti-democratic to the core, and that we cannot succeed in preserving democratic ideals by selective interpretations or by sanitizing Nietzsche with a reading of his elitism as an apolitical call for self-creation. Nietzsche does have a value for democracy, but only as a fundamental challenge on behalf of rank and domination that forces us to defend democracy more pointedly and articulately against such a challenge (NCD, pp.7-8).
The seven chapters of Appel's book provide a vivid and fair reading of Nietzsche's texts that exhibit a forceful call for aristocraticism based on rank, domination, and exploitation, which should be an embarrassing obstacle to embracing Nietzsche in the service of egalitarian political movements. Appel's position, however, depends upon an unnuanced reading of Nietzsche's motifs of domination and power, which is at least a risky proposition with a thinker as elusive and complicated as Nietzsche. The genealogical narrative of master and slave morality need not be read as a call for domination of the weak by the strong, but as an unmasking of the power plays of the weak and as an ambiguous blending of master and slave forces in cultural production, taken as a "spiritualization" of erstwhile natural forces of power. 7 While...