Thursday, January 04, 2007

Nietzche's Politics

He actually does have a politics. He refutes equality famously. And he also refutes capitalism, which is quite different from his refutation of God. Which is that, if there were gods, how could he bear not to be one. And yet, when all of Nietzsche's insights are documented, this is not of course where Nietzsche makes his most interesting and original contributions. His few comments on capitalism, in the end, reflect contemporary neoromantic criticisms. Egalitarians should engage Nietzsche's critique of equality, which is very strong. But capitalists should also pay attention to his critique of capitalism, which is quite weak.

But we can't read Nietzsche without an agenda. Our reasons for reading Nietzsche are ours. The text becomes an object which seems to speak for itself but which inevitably is read with an interest that produces the meaning for which the text is a vehicle. The interpretation becomes, to paraphrase Nietzsche's comments about Western philosophers, a confession masquerading as truth. "Objectivity" in Nietzsche's terms, demands an admission of interest--honesty, especially with respect to oneself. The methodological sin committed by so many hubristic readers is in failing to admit their agenda. But Nietzsche is not open to any and all interpretations.

Every political philosophy includes generic propositions about the human condition, epistemology, principles of judgment and recommendations for social or political change. With Nietzsche there is a lot of space between these gaps. Nietzsche's politics depend not just on the other pieces of his philosophy but also on a number of assumptions that are either dogmatically asserted or obsolete or both. For example, Nietzsche's view that there is nothing to be done with "the herd" but make them useful for the strong depends on his assumption that biological evolution is Lamarckian in form--acquired characteristics become inherited. This assumption closes off the possibility that the "herd" behavior might, say, reflect the leveling qualities of economic domination. It also closes off the possibility that Nietzsche's critique of the herd is at least in part a self-critique--a critique of the resentment against existence with which all of us struggle, and which Zarathustra himself struggles.

If we take Nietzsche's Lamarckianism seriously, we close off the more interesting implications of his critique, such as the desirability of a pathos of distance within. Remove indefensible assumptions like these, and Nietzsche's philosophy becomes productive of new political insights and possibilities.

Nietzsche's political philosophy poses a great challenge to democrats. But democrats who read him hardly take his concern with "rank, domination, and nobility" seriously. Nietzsche's primary objection to these "democratic" commitments is to their leveling qualities. This is not a unique complaint: aristocrats and conservatives have always taken democrats to task seeking to level downward. Marx chastised other socialists for their leveling conceptions of equality, emphasizing that the point of economic redistribution was to cultivate the unique potentials of individuals. An equal distribution would not accomplish this goal because the needs of individuals are not equal.

Mill cast equality as a removal of conventional barriers in order that individuals might cultivate their naturally varied potentials. Tocqueville and Emerson paid detailed attention to the strengths and dangers of democratic character and culture. Emma Goldman and George Bernard Shaw seized upon Nietzsche's conception of nobility to articulate their respective anarchist and socialist views of equality. Followers of Dewey and Arendt treat the notion of equality, not as something that "levels". They show how that has very little meaning.

Nietzsche's view is that democracy and nobility of character is unbridgeable. He does explicitly argue this. One finds counsel against a narcissism that levels the other--and hence, an ethos of attentiveness to the uniqueness of the other. Sometimes one finds the pathos of distance transformed into an antagonistic conception of equality. Nietzsche sometimes attends to the power relations that would enable a strong equality. The idea of equality remains only an idea unless the power relations are adjusted to realize it. The point, of course, is that there is no one conception of equality in Nietzsche, and this is another instance in which there are multiple political insights in his texts.

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