Philosophy and the Rise of Ultra-Nationalism in Contemporary Euro-American Politics.

Author:Chika, Mba


Europe and North America are currently living the politics of fear, hate and mutual recrimination. Division along class, creed, race, nationality and ethnicity has never been more pronounced, (1) as right wing demagogues stretch their grip on politics in the Northern Hemisphere. (2) In 2016, right wing populists seeking to end United Kingdom's more than four decade linkage with the European Union (EU) emerged successful in a referendum held in June, simultaneously ousting the incumbent Prime Minister, David Cameron who had stood against the Brexit campaign. As if in a sequence, against all odds and almost universal expectation, Donald J. Trump, the Republican candidate in the November 8, 2016 presidential election in the United States of America, emerged winner after running a highly divisive campaign, and advocating policies that have since forced not a few observers to wonder if we now have an American Hitler. (3) This is by no means a wild insight. As John McNeill pointed out shortly before the 2016 Presidential election, like Mussolini and Hitler, Trump scores very high in the main traits of fascism--both as a political ideology and a political movement. Such fascist traits displayed by Trump include fetishization of masculinity, leader cult, lost-golden-age syndrome, self-definition by opposition, theatricality, militarism and hyper-nationalism. (4) On the other hand, Europe and North America share a historico-political legacy, while pre-Hitler Germany and (pre-Trump) United States in particular, share what the Canadian-American (objectivist) philosopher, Leonard Peikoff in a famous book, calls 'ominous parallels'. (5) Among other parallels, Peikoff identifies 'the rise of defiant old-world racial hatreds disguised as "ethnic-identity" movements and "affirmative action"' as one of the definitive features of pre-Hitler Germany and pre-Trump America. (6)

In a similar vein, Hitler, Trump and the Brexiters, have in common, inter alia, the mimetic desire to make their countries 'great again'. How are we to understand this conjuncture? One possible explanation--an explanation that has its merits--would be to blame the rise of global terror and the refugee crisis currently plaguing some countries in the Northern Hemisphere. But Britain and the USA are not the only countries in the North that have been hit by both problems; the latter by a much lesser degree in recent times. (7) Several others (in the social sciences) have pointed the finger at the financialised crisis of capitalism beginning in 2007/2008 and the weaknesses of the Conservative Party (under Cameron) in the UK and the Democratic Party (under Obama) in the case of the United States. The foregoing possible explanations may retain some merits, but require more work to ascertain their explanatory significance. However, at the outset, such explanations appear too much like the view that the Germans took recourse to Nazism because they lost World War I; or the standpoint that Nazism was caused by the Great Depression; or the weakness of non-totalitarian parties in Weimar Republic. As Peikoff again points out, 'Austria lost that war also, but this did not cause it to turn Nazi... All the industrial nations suffered the ravages of the Depression. Few turned to Nazism.' (8)

This work pays attention to the argument that the rise of ultra-nationalism in the Northern Hemisphere as exemplified by Brexit nationalism and Trumpism, are rooted in prejudices embedded in the cultural unconscious of Europe and North America. In other words, this piece argues that Brexit and Trump represent a cultural backlash, owing greater debt (than have been acknowledged by mainstream literature and reportage) to embedded prejudices with deep roots in centuries-old Euro-American philosophical and political writings produced from within the mainstream academia. In important ways, Brexit and Trump are probably, the conjunctural afterlives of the Third Reich's volk nationalism. (9) But the foregoing claim needs to be unpacked and justified carefully. (10) To begin with, the claim does not suggest that Euro-American history, the world as we know it, intellectuals or human culture is in a linear terminal trajectory; quite the contrary: the claim here is that landmark, earth-shaking events in human history are often the outcome of multivalent, mutually reinforcing or even antithetical sub-occurrences, many of which are frequently downplayed or completely escape mainstream attention.

The greater problem is in twofold, on the one hand, in the murky morass of history, the historian and/or historical accounts are constantly in danger of missing out on an important strand in the varying impulses and underlying factors that give rise to a momentous event. The second problem is even more daunting: in the rarified cauldron of conflicting and contending evidences and interpretations of a specific event and its aftermath, how can the (objective) historian or theorist determine the factor/s with the most credible causal saliency? The answer to questions of the latter sort can be difficult to come by, but the historian/theorist is at least committed to go beyond apparent causal linkages to accommodate multiple and multivalent readings of the same story, while striving to overcome the odium of a universe of post-truth solipsism.

Hence, in the cases under examination here, the argument is not that the success of Brexit, or Trump's victory at the polls was determined solely by ingrained racism, xenophobia and populist posturing. political elitism, post-truth nihilism (akin to pre-Hitler Germany) and ascendant Putinism played a significant role in both outcomes. (11) In the specific case of Trump, other factors like protest voting in the Rust Belts of the (de)industrial(ised) mid-western states, misogyny and a pervading sense of disenchantment with the establishment especially in the white working class camp had a strong impact. However, long-standing prejudices traceable to the Enlightenment era played a significant background role in the Brexit referendum and Trump's candidacy. In other words, deep-seated prejudices in the UK and the United States are the bulwarks of Brexit and Trump's electoral triumph, Barack Obama and Sadiq Khan, notwithstanding.

Also, it would seem improbably, that Hitler's Mien Kampf (12) has directly influenced prominent American political scientists like Samuel P. Huntington, or economic historians like David S. Landes. More clearly, Hitlerism seems to reverberate in the frantically xenophobic populism of Brexiters and the divisive rhetoric at the heart of Trump's nativist insider versus outsider neo-fascist populism.

At the same time, and disconcertingly, Hitler apparently drew inspiration for his racism, anti-Semitism and volk nationalism from some of the most important German philosophers (mostly from the Enlightenment) viz., Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) among others; a point the Fuhrer (leader) himself frequently emphasised with a great pride. (13)

Indeed, in this exercise, the above-mentioned historical montage can be contested. Thus, it can be argued--Benedict Anderson notwithstanding--that it is hard to show that academicians and philosophers construct (in a unilateral fashion) political consciousness and policy programs like Brexit--which again, is hard to correlate with univocal racial ontologies. But one only needs to point to Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon, for example. More specifically, this contribution elaborates that certain philosophers have been able to develop hegemonic traditions that have directly created political outcomes, as is the case with Hume, Kant, Hegel and others' influence on Hitler and the Nazis, for example. But, again, since we lack the requisite historical distance in many instances; it is hard to show that certain philosophical ideas directly influenced social and political evolutions in human history. On the other hand, while the march and impact of philosophy and abstract theories may be slow and uneven, it is even harder to deny that they eventually permeate and change society in fundamental ways. To elucidate the basis of these introductory claims, we first turn to the racist and anti-Semitic writings of prominent philosophers of the Enlightenment, in order to show how they invented racism, influenced Hitler and helped in creating Nazism. Thereafter, this presentation highlights the continuing importance of these Enlightenment prejudices in contemporary mainstream academia and politics, in the context of Brexit and Trumpite nationalism.

The Philosophical Roots of Hitlerism and Nazism

In discussing the major influences on Hitler and Nazism, we begin with and emphasise Kant's racism and anti-Semitism for a number of reasons. First, in Germany, Philosophy 'was regarded as the pinnacle of the nation's cultural achievement, and thinkers such as Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche were as sacred to the German people as Shakespeare and Dickens were to the British.' (14) Second. Hitler took for granted the status of philosophy and exhibited a remarkable fascination with Kant's work. (15) Third, Kant's unsurpassed (post)-Enlightenment fame and immense importance in the intellectual history of modern Europe, especially in moral theory, and fourth, Kant and most of the other Hitler's philosophers emerged within the Enlightenment period, when major European philosophers including Kant were ironically advocating freedom, autonomy and universal human equality, and yet Kant was a racist and actually has a detailed hierarchical theory of race that many writers seeking to draw a linkage between his work and Hitler's beliefs, frequently overlooked, inexplicably. In Yvonne Sherrat's recent 'carefully researched' and 'meticulously referenced' account of German philosophers' influence on Hitler, entitled...

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