How dare you call Hayek profound?

To my eye, the response by Kevin Vallier at Bleeding Heart Libertarians to Corey Robin’s essay on “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children1 embodies a tactic that we used to refer to in competitive debate as “the spread” – the attempt to overwhelm an opponent with an effectively unanswerable list of minor counter-arguments. The “spreader” hopes that one or another unanswered counter-argument will be taken as decisive, and, if the resultant clash of minutiae leads everyone to forget the main argument, all the better. In addition to being lost amidst the recitation of ca. 23 listed “errors,” Robin’s argument is, I think, mis-characterized at the outset of Vallier’s post, where Vallier briefly sets a bar or set of bars for what, in his opinion, Robin would need to prove in order to justify his work, but rather than explain why Vallier’s assumptions strike me as arbitrary, another task almost as complex as fully responding to the errors would be, I will try to re-construct or summarize Robin’s thesis in relation to some of Vallier’s typical complaints, and to point to further implications that would be at least as problematic for Robin and the Left as for Hayek’s partisans wherever they may locate themselves politically.

Robin’s theory seems to be that the Austrians, like Nietzsche but also as advocated by Nietzsche, and also like many others from the 19th Century to the present day, founded new approaches to “value,” or to understanding and in crucial respects realizing interdependent economic, moral, and political values. The point is decidedly not that this connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians is “unique,” as Vallier demands, but that it is first typical, and, as Robin tries to show, in part for that reason exceptionally useful for explaining larger matters. The nature of this inquiry into the concept of value or the Nietzschean “transvaluation of values” helps to explain why there are so many different notions of value discussed across the course of Robin’s essay (one of the “spread” points). The objective isn’t to critique Austrian or any other economics as economic theory – I doubt Robin considers himself qualified to do so – but to understand the Austrians and by extension their modern-day descendants culturally-historically, specifically as seeking in the realm of economic activity a possible basis of “meaning production” as well as “value production,” eventually “value production as meaning production.” The “paradox” that the author understands as mere “contradiction” would be that freedom from brute economics – i.e., freedom not to have one’s value preferences overwhelmed by the pre-determinations of others (politicians, purveyors of obsolete value systems, lowest common denominator masses of consumers) – relies on general economic freedom. Because full or relatively full economic freedom is neither broadly available nor, to whatever extent available, creatively (transvaluatingly) utilized except by a relative few, it tends by definition to be the property of an elite of some kind. In this sense, the Austrians provided a modernized argument, or argument from within and for modern, mass industrial societies, for an ancient aristocratic or anti-democratic judgment on real existing political-economic life.

What it all happens to “have to do with fascism” (Vallier’s “Other Error” #6) would be that fascism represented an alternative attempt to “transvalue values,” or replace bourgeois modern values with a new value system, offering points or moments of contiguity with the Austrian as well as the Nietzschean concepts (among others). Those same concluding remarks of Robin’s that nod to leftism also seek to maintain the distinction, however, between neoliberalism (associated with Hayek and company), fascism (associated with Schmitt), “neoconservatism” (associated with Strauss), and, perhaps, temperamental conservatiism (associated with Oakeshott). Robin points out that the German Ministry of Finance occupies the former HQ of the Luftwaffe in order to emphasize the historical victory of “Nietzschean economics” over “Nietzschean politics”: They occupy the same or similar approximate power positions, but that does not make them identical: One reigns; the other lies on the famous trash heap of history.

Though Robin sometimes seems to intend to incriminate Hayek and others by association, as with the likes of Pinochet, perhaps as a way to emphasize Robin’s own continued leftwing membership in good standing, there is nothing in the core of his argument, as opposed to its polemical decorations, that a Hayekian ought to find embarrassing. To the contrary, Robin attributes “profundity and daring,” as well as pre-eminent worldly success, to Hayek and his marginal siblings. Robin’s arguments hardly need to be taken as the last word, and would, I think, benefit from a more impartial presentation (easier said than done), but, thought through, they may present at least as many difficulties to a leftist, including or especially one operating from Robin’s own presumptions, as to a conservative or to a libertarian.

Notes:

  1. My post on “the false notion of heroic self-made aristocracy” was a response to a response to a response in the discussion inspired by Robin’s essay at Crooked Timber. []

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3 comments on “How dare you call Hayek profound?

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  1. I think one would insist on a ‘Roberto Duran’ that was a thorough razing of the Robin strawman,

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