December 7, 2021

Emmanuel Macron is a Nietzschean politician. At least that’s the thesis to emerge from the work of Hugo Drochon, one of the French President’s most important intellectual supporters.

In Nietzsche’s Great Politics, the political theorist sympathetically articulates the German philosopher’s desire to unify Europe through a “cultural elite” emancipated from Christian morality and ruling over a servile mass. If read alongside Drochon’s essays cheering on Macron, the suggestion is that Nietzsche’s dream has already been achieved. Rather than a critic of our era, Nietzsche is its prophet and advocate.

Macron, who faces a re-election campaign in April, is rarely seen in such a heroic light. The former investment banker is more typically cast as an avatar of France’s class of consultants, managers, and other auxiliaries of transnational capital, from whose ranks he emerged and from whom he continues to draw his most avid support. For these people, Macron’s vision — extending neoliberal reforms to make France more competitive in the global market while deepening its commitment to the EU — is common sense. They are, after all, the beneficiaries of four decades of similar policies, pursued ever since President Francois Mitterand was forced to abandon his socialist economic programme in favour of a “turn toward austerity” in 1983.

Macron’s most ardent opponents, meanwhile, are the so-called “losers” of globalisation. They are members of the native working class who have suffered from deindustrialisation, unemployment, and decades of mass immigration. The expression of their dissatisfaction is divided among three channels: on the nationalist Right are Marine Le Pen and, in an intriguing new development, the pundit-turned-presidential candidate Eric Zemmour; on the socialist Left is Jean-Luc Melenchon. These anti-establishment politicians, however, are each less popular among workers and the unemployed than abstention from voting, which is the choice of a plurality of French citizens. Faced with such foes, Macron and the order he embodies could remain provisionally secure.

Drochon’s writings echo this economic analysis, but with some critical differences. He hailed Macron’s election in 2017 as a triumph of “the experts” but also compared it with De Gaulle’s 1958 seizure of power in a barely disguised coup d’etat. Since then, Drochon has provided regular, largely positive, assessments of the President’s fortunes in achieving his project of neoliberal economic reforms. These aim at turning France into what Macron called a “start-up nation”, an ambition to which Drochon remains attached. He describes Macron not only as the dynamic CEO of France but also as its stern Prince. He summarised Macron’s heavy-handed treatment of the “yellow vest” protesters, who had opposed tax increases on fuel, as showing that the President had been forced to learn Machiavelli’s lesson that it is better to be feared than loved.

But Drochon’s most important philosophical lessons about, or for, Macron, can be found in his book on Nietzsche, published in 2016, the year before Macron’s election. In it, he challenges the two dominant interpretations of Nietzsche’s politics since the beginning of the 20th century.

The first is that Nietzsche, a critic of democracy, liberalism, humanitarianism, and nearly everything he identified with England, paved the way for the rise of authoritarian movements such as Leninism, fascism, and Nazism. This reading of Nietzsche, focused on the “will to power” and the image of a “superman” liberated from the moral norms derived from Christianity, became popular in early 20th-century Europe among radicals on both sides of the political spectrum. After World War II, it was often invoked by liberals to discredit Nietzsche by presenting him as the intellectual forebearer of Hitler. In response, readers such as Walter Kauffman and Bernard Williams developed a second main school of thought. In an attempt to salvage Nietzsche’s reputation, they denied that he had a politics. Instead, they argued, he had been interested exclusively in individual moral and existential questions.

Breaking with both these traditions, Drochon reconstructs Nietzsche’s political thinking to demonstrate how Nietzsche saw democracy as a force of degeneration that would overwhelm the modern state with demands for material equality. The state, over-extended and unable to meet its goals of social welfare, would be replaced by a “new type of entity” — a hollowed-out husk of a government whose main function would be to oversee the operations of the “private companies” that would increasingly govern individuals. This era of privatisation would culminate in the return of slavery.

Nietzsche saw the withering of the state and the return of slavery as positive developments. He believed that democracy, with its promises of equality, undermined “high culture”, reducing art and intellect to the level of the newly enfranchised working and middle classes. Only by restoring “caste society”, founded on a servile majority producing goods for a privileged elite, would it be possible to ensure the flourishing of the highest human types: geniuses in the realms of art, philosophy, and politics.

This future elite would fuse the best of the continent’s existing national cultures. They would be untainted by the “slave morality” of Christianity and its heirs, liberalism and socialism. These new aristocrats would be “supermen”, openly revelling in their power, and freed from all “resentment”, from any desire for things to be otherwise. Their slaves, too, would be without resentment — happy servants grateful to be ruled by enlightened masters. They would willingly labour to ensure the well-being of an elite they recognised as morally and intellectually superior. Democracy, Nietzsche argued, would be seen in the future as having played a positive role in history by so psychologically castrating the lower classes that they would become pliant instruments in the hands of their rightful rulers.

Opponents of liberalism, particularly but not exclusively from the Right, often draw on Nietzsche’s critique of democracy when they argue that what our political order lacks is a constellation of virtues associated with greatness. Magnificence, grandeur, courage, virility — all seem conspicuously absent in our own leaders. Nor do our elites seem capable of planning for inspiringly distant futures, of animating the masses with ideals, or of imposing on themselves or others the discipline necessary for the creation of anything great.

These are the intuitions behind a sort of aestheticised, illiberal Nietzscheanism that has become one of the most visible of the various styles of reaction competing for the attention and allegiance of those dissatisfied with the current order. Around the writings of the pseudonymous Bronze Age Pervert (BAP) circle different valences of discourse in which young and not-so-young men exalt heroic, homoerotic supermen like Yukio Mishima, whose strength and vitality they oppose to the beta-male “bugmen” supposedly churned out by modern liberalism. Their rhetoric echoes that of the authoritarian Nietzscheans of the early twentieth century, who celebrated powerful individuals and despised the bovine masses of bourgeois society.

If Drochon’s reading of Nietzsche is right, however, then the vitalists of the online Right have misunderstood not only Nietzsche but also the neoliberal order. He describes that order not as an obstacle to be cleared to make way for the “superman”, but as the force preparing human material for such great-souled figures to shape to their will.

Since the advent of neoliberalism under Thatcher, Reagan, and Mitterand, the welfare state has, as Nietzsche predicted, given way to the growing power of corporations and to an international elite untethered by historical identities, religious pieties, or Christian ethical scruples. Readers of BAP, coiling around their own resentment, fantasise about a future inegalitarian order in which a revived aristocracy undoes the illusions of democracy — but we are already there!

To object that this system has not made the right people its supermen seems precisely the sort of whining that proves one is afflicted with resentment, and thus incapable of being a superman. Macron, Angela Merkel and even Justin Trudeau, the cosmopolitan leaders of our societies who rule through the manipulation of symbols to ensure that majorities remain relatively productive and content, are the real supermen. From the perspective of the angry young men who despise our leaders as effete weaklings, this may seem an absurd contention. But Nietzsche called for a new sort of ruler, a “Caesar with the soul of Christ”, who would combine the old aristocracy’s merciless exploitation of inferiors with the post-Christian democratic habits of guilefully manipulating the masses by taking on the guise of their own weak nature.

Illiberals of the Right are correct to be disgusted with the way that the horizons of contemporary life have been constricted (the “bugman” life of passive consumption), and with the character of our apparently feckless elites. They are wrong, however, to imagine that these are the same problem, and that they can be overcome by the introduction of more ruthless, brutal, and cruel supermen.

Online reactionaries’ supposedly radical alternative to the present is only more of the same, but with different branding: the inequalities of the present order stripped of their humanist pretence. The substantive, serious objection to our order would not be one couched in the thought of Nietzsche, whose political ideal it has already satisfied. Rather it would be one made in the name of liberalism, whose promises of autonomy and equality have been perverted by elites who are already far “beyond good and evil”.