How Friedrich Nietzsche helps to explain Brexit

Unthinkable: The German philosopher foresaw the rise of ‘petty politics’ in Europe, says author Hugo Drochon

Friedrich Nietzsche is probably the most quoted but also most misappropriated philosopher of the past century. Famously co-opted after his death by the Nazis to try to give them the pretence of intellectual depth, the German writer is blamed for every new demagogue to emerge on the political scene.

Recently there was a flurry of articles exploring Donald Trump's purported likeness to the merciless, power-hungry Übermensch, or "Superman", of Nietzsche's imagination. The Donald "embodies a Nietzschean morality" in his "repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak", proclaimed one academic in the New York Times.

But Nietzsche’s philosophy is a lot more complex than that, and Trump seems a poor representation of the highly-cultured, creative genius which the German had in mind.

As Hugo Drochon – author of the recently-published Nietzsche's Great Politics – explains, one of the biggest misconceptions about the philosopher was that he advocated parochial nationalism whereas, in fact, he was more of an internationalist, viewing European integration as inevitable. "Europe wishes to be one," Nietzsche proclaimed.


Drochon, a historian of political thought at the University of Cambridge, says to understand Nietzsche you must consider the time in which he was writing, 50 years before the rise of Hitler. He was observing the birth of democracy in Europe, and while many of his conclusions are highly objectionable, his analysis of herd mentality and his appreciation of the weaknesses of electoral politics are very relevant today. As is his unsettling thesis that “the democratic movement is the heir to Christianity” – something that may cast doubt on democracy’s long-term sustainability.

We tend to think of Nietzsche's Übermensch as a perfected, almost supernatural individual. What sort of ruler did Nietzsche envisage for the ideal state?

"What is most important about the term Übermensch is the prefix: 'über' or 'over'. For Nietzsche life was the perpetual overcoming of itself, and in this more precise sense the Übermensch are those who shall overcome modern mankind.

"Nietzsche's rulers, if we can call them thus, would not themselves be strictly speaking Übermensch, but would attempt to set up a society within which the Übermensch could come into existence.

"If this all sounds rather manly, we should note that 'mensch' in German in fact means 'human'. Nietzsche, leaving aside controversial comments about a 'whip', was in contact with the leading feminists of his time, and even proposed to Lou Salomé, one of the most avant-gardist women of her time."

How, in Nietzsche's view, was democracy a product of Christianity, and does his analysis raise questions about the stability of democracy in what is arguably a post-Christian Europe?

“Democracy, on Nietzsche’s terms, is the extension of slave morality into politics, as it promotes the values of the many over the few. It transforms the metaphysics of equality before God into the metaphysics of political equality. But what if, as Nietzsche notoriously announces, ‘God is dead’? What if people no longer believe in the transcendental religion that provided a metaphysical underpinning for belief in universal political equality?

“This is not to say, as has often been understood, that Nietzsche rejects democracy as a whole. He is perfectly happy to entertain the thought that a democratic life is the most suitable life for the majority of people. His main objection is that it claims to be the only type of life possible: Nietzsche wants to retain a space for those who want to try to live their lives beyond ‘good and evil’.”

To what extent does Nietzsche have relevant political advice to offer today?

“His conceptual separation between a ‘Great Politics’ of European integration and a ‘Petty Politics’ of European disintegration is still a useful way to judge what is happening in Europe today. From this perspective, Brexit seems like a classic case of petty politics, with all the slave morality elements Nietzsche associated with it: fragmentation, nationalism, xenophobia and philistinism.

“One of the terms Nietzsche coins to understand democracy is ‘misarchism’: the rejection of authority. This makes sense when we think that slave morality originates in a rejection of the political authorities of the day. A rejection of the political, economic and social elite, both of the UK and the EU, played a key role in the Brexit vote, which again Nietzsche can aid us make sense of.

“Nietzsche’s vision of a united Europe was a continental one, which presciently did not include Britain. But he thought that Europe should ‘come to an understanding’ with Britain, as it was an important trade partner. That remains the burning issue for Brexit today, and Nietzsche can help us think about how a greater vision of European politics might still be made to counterbalance the petty politics of Brexit.”

Was Nietzsche naive to think that people would be willing to accept a two-tier society whose main goal was the promotion of high culture?

“Nietzsche’s vision for the future was one in which two spheres would co-exist: a larger one which would see the continuation of democratic ideals, and a smaller one, dedicated to the creation of a new high European culture. There would of course be tensions between these two spheres, but Nietzsche takes these to be constitutive, and a way to force at least those of the higher cultural calling to demark themselves even more.

“But Nietzsche was quite content for those of the democratic sphere to be in fact materially better off than those in the cultural sphere: that those in the cultural sphere would be economically poorer.

“He writes about how the workers of his day would in the future have bourgeois lifestyles. So he’s quite happy for there to be a concern about material well-being, on the condition that those who want to pursue the cultural mission have the means to do so. Those means will have to come from the surplus that is created in the democratic sphere, and politics in Nietzsche’s idealised state will play out in the negotiation of the transfer of resources from one sphere to the other.

"From his first book The Birth of Tragedy onwards, Nietzsche's refrain had always been that it is only as an 'aesthetic phenomenon' that life could be justified. One could argue that in focusing solely on economic and trade issues the EU has overlooked a fundamental component of life: culture.

“Some of the EU’s policies have been highly successful, not least the Erasmus programme - perhaps the most successful tool in nurturing Nietzsche’s ‘Good Europeans’ - but also the research funding it has provided.

“But if we take seriously Nietzsche’s claim about the role of aesthetics in justifying life, then unless the EU heeds that advice it will remain unloved for the foreseeable future.”


Question: OK, democracy's not perfect but have you got a better idea?

Friedrich Nietzsche replies: "The republic of geniuses: each giant calls to his brother across the desolate intervals of the ages, and, undisturbed by the wanton noises of the dwarfs who carry on beneath them, they continue their high spirit-talk."