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Nietzsche And The Roots Of “Progressive Neoliberalism” (Carl Raschke)


The following is the second installment of a four-part series on “progressive neoliberalism”. The first installment can be found here.

Friedrich Nietzsche, whose iconic saying “God is dead” (in German, Gott ist tot, a deliberate play on words) has been grossly misunderstood by even those most fashionable theological types who flaunt it as a brand label.  Nietzsche was even more prescient well over a century ago about the coming of what we would later call “progressive neoliberalism”.

Nietzsche’s Nachlass, i.e., his unpublished literary remains consisting mostly of thought sketches, future book outlines, notes, and unfinished aphorisms, is shot through with observations about why what elsewhere he contemptuously characterizes as the “Christian-moral view of the world” has given rise to a general European culture of “decadence” that is careening on its way to catastrophe.

Nietzsche, of course, foresaw the coming of World War I (what those who lived through it named “The Great War” and even “Armageddon”) as the inexorable outcome of such decadence, whose inner secret is an overspreading and debilitating condition of nihilism.   Nietzsche’s theory of nihilism, which functions as the conceptual centerpiece from so many of his well-known ideas about God’s death, “priestly” or “herd” morality, decadence, ressentiment, and the so-called “last man” radiate outward, is unfortunately only haphazardly elaborated or developed in his published works.

But it sprawls in detail across the opening sections of his assembled Nachlass, formally published in 1930 under the seemingly arbitrary title of Der Wille zur Macht (“The Will to Power”).   The theme of nihilism, which in many ways can be regarded ironically as a more comprehensive reckoning of Nietzsche’s thought, has tremendous ramifications for the crisis of the Western imagination in a vein similar to what Mark Lilla in his The Stillborn God (discussed earlier) seeks to make us aware.

Furthermore, a close reading of Nietzsche in this connection can help to clarify what possibly Michel Foucault was pressing toward – insofar as the latter was indebted intellectually to the former –  in singling out the Christian “pastorate” as the occasion for the metamorphosis of the political into the biopolitical, and of Western liberalism into neoliberalism.   It underscores how we must read neoliberalism as a structure of valuations as much as an economic system.    In short, we may not be too far off the mark in claiming that Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the nihilistic predicament of modernity also anticipates the current political crisis which has been associated with a crack-up of the neoliberal world order.

Nietzsche opens The Will to Power, composed in the 1880s, with the following prophetic lines: “What I relate is the history of the next two centuries…the advent of nihilism.  This history can be related even now, for necessity itself is at work here.  This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere.”(3)  In other words, as with the death of God announced by the madman in Nietzsche’s parable, such an “event” is still unfolding to this very day, while its indices are many, even if the meaning behind the markers remain yet undeciphered.

Nietzsche concludes the opening paragraph: “For why has the advent of nihilism become necessary?  Because the values we have had hitherto thus draw their final consequence; because nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideas – because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these ‘values’ really had.”(4)  Most admirers of, as well as commentators on, Nietzsche train their sights on his appeal for a “transvaluation of values” through a mobilization of the will to power.

Few, however, really pause to sift through and seriously analyze Nietzsche’s critique of the historical Western value system, which he set forth in his Genealogy of Morals.  Nietzsche’s entries in the Nachlass can be regarded as a highly nuanced, further elaboration of his insights from the Genealogy with an added, distinctive attentiveness to the process by which these values have over time have self-immolated, resulting in the “tremendous event” that is God’s “death”.  Perhaps Nietzsche at the end of his life had come to recognize that was on track of something with a magnitude and consequence that even he himself was only beginning to appreciate.

In his proclaimed reversal of Platonism Nietzsche offered the seminal observation that all forms of philosophical idealism constitute in some measure a moral judgment.  It is no accident that the word Plato himself chose to denominate ultimate reality as to kalon, “the good.”  But what exactly is “moral judgment” in the strict philosophical sense?   Almost a century before Nietzsche Kant had formulated it as an act of will that subsumed a concrete aim under a general principle of “pure reason.”

Relying on the two, somewhat competitive terms for “will” in German that are missing in English (Wille, or deliberative agency versus Willkür, or arbitrary volition), Kant refined many of the tacit assumptions within the tradition of Western moral philosophy.  Only Wille can be the basis of a moral decision, because it has an end in view.   However, a truly “good” will, according to Kant, is not founded on a particular end or purpose that one seeks to accomplish, but one that wills something “for its own sake” in accordance with a strict principle of universalizability.

If a “moral judgment” is judged to be “moral” at all, it must be valid in the same circumstances for every conceivable rational being making the same judgment.  Or, as it is phrased in Kant’s famous, first formulation in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”(30)

But Kant, who formulated this universal demand as part of his so-called “practical philosophy” that was designed to reconcile the transcendental and cognitive methods of the natural sciences, set forth in his earlier Critique of Pure Reason, with the doctrine of moral obligation anchored hitherto largely in the theological argument for divine revelation, could not escape what might be called the “valuation trap.”

Without delving into all the complexities and technicalities of both Kant’s argument and Nietzsche’s critique, we can reiterate Nietzsche’s own point that any fabrication of a “universal” concept must of necessity prescind from the welter of existing and divergent intuitions of what such a thing might look like, thus prioritizing what the former called the “ought” as opposed to the “is.”  Later both Marx and Freud characterized the tendency to reify such an ought as the unconscious creation of an “inverted world”, what came to be regarded as the theory of ideology.

From the standpoint of both Nietzsche and critical theory, humankind had never really stopped confusing Plato’s “shadows of the cave” with the real.  The true “idols”, therefore, are the ones Plato’s believed a philosopher could see once a mind were lighted by the sun, the transcendent idols he named eidoi, which we translate as “ideas” in the epistemological realm and “ideals” within the framework of moral philosophy.

It was Nietzsche’s genius to fathom the singular genealogy of universalistic thinking as a whole, regardless of whether it be “practical” or “theoretical” in accordance with Kant’s framing of the basic notion.  But, unlike the critical theorists who followed him, Nietzsche was not so sanguine about the ability of philosophical thought to see through itself and reveals its inherent idolatry.  As the prophets of ancient Israel realized, idolatry is always more subtle and seductive than we are accustomed to presuppose.

But such idolatry does have a built-in tendency to corrode and like certain oak trees to hollow out gradually as they age, so that they finally collapse because of their own insubstantiality.  That is what Nietzsche implied when he insisted in The Will to Power that nihilism means “the highest values devalue themselves.  The aim is lacking; ‘why?’ finds no answer.”(9)

The self-devaluing (Entwertung) of the “highest values” is an unavoidable byproduct, according to Nietzsche, of the phenomenon of moral rationality itself.  The “death of God” is but a gripping, pictorial instrument for enforcing our awareness of this process.  “We see that we cannot reach the sphere in which we have placed our values; but this does not by any means confer any value on that other sphere in which we live; on the contrary, we are weary because we have lost the main stimulus.  ‘In vain so far!’ (11)

Even though Nietzsche is famous for presumably blaming the death of God and the advent of nihilism on the Christian world view, it should be noted that he regarded the problem as rooted in Greek philosophy itself.  In fact, he notoriously decried Christianity simply as a commodified form of the latter.  Christianity  is “Platonism for ‘the people’,” he quipped in the preface to his Beyond Good and Evil.(2)

Nihilism is not strictly the unalloyed remainder of a degenerate moral philosophy, but the destined outcome of the ancient effort to ground ethics in reason itself, as Kant had magisterially done.  Again, Nietzsche writes in The Will to Power: “The faith in the categories of reason is the cause of nihilism.  We have measured the value of the world according to categories that refer to a purely fictitious world.”(13)

Valuation, for Nietzsche, is a strategy of both discrimination and affirmation.  But in the exercise of moral judgment only one component, that of distinguishing, is enabled.  We might call this element the “critical” one, inasmuch as it differentiates, which is an essential aspect of human cognition as a whole.   But differentiation alone leads us to manufacture new “ideas” or “types” which take on a life all their own.  That is the point Aristotle emphasized in his Categories, which is one of the chief reasons logic has always dominated the other subfields of philosophy, even metaphysics.

It is inherent in the positing of a “kind”, or genus, to differentiate itself and thereby proliferate “specific” instances of the same.  As linguists such as Benjamin Whorff have subsequently highlighted, this momentum toward “specific differences” is genetically embedded within the subject-predicate structure of Indo-European languages, of which not only Greek but most Western philosophical languages are cognate iterations.

As Nietzsche makes clear, the impulse toward differentiation brings alongside the temptation toward comparison.  And with ever comparative differentiation one makes a valuation, mainly a negative one.  Thus morality as a kind of Pharisaic commemoration of the fact that one is “not like other men” arises. At the same time, it is those who form the the “gigantic mass” (die ungeheure Menge) who have not distinguished themselves in any notable way from others who control, so to speak, the discourse of morality.  The “mass man”, or “mass woman”, cannot predicate or affirm anything unique about themselves.

In Nietzsche’s parlance they lack the positive “will to power”.   Their “will” aims only to be conformed to an abstract, universal and “rational” ideal that is always pragmatically out of reach.  It remains, like the kingdom of heaven, forever transcendent, on the “other side” of the existing world.  But in their impotence to achieve this abstract (what Hegelians and Marxists would dub “alienated”) aim, they are bent on fiercely judging others, particularly those who are exemplary in their status and accomplishments, as morally suspect.  It is a deflection, or transference, of their own sense of failure.

Democratic egalitarianism, therefore, for Nietzsche becomes the exemplar of what he terms the “herd” mentality with its corresponding moralism.  It is a mentality both perpetuated and legitimated by a “Christian-moral” metaphysics of existence which constantly feeds on its own dynamism of comparison, resentment, and blaming the “other.”  The “solution”, for Nietzsche, lies not in any refinement of the basic Platonic-Christian-Kantian prototype of rational and moral discrimination, but in letting go of all such comparison entirely, the strategy which he labels as going “beyond good and evil.”

Nietzsche’s “philosophy of the future”, as he named it, would amount to utilizing difference not as a method of comparison with the covert aim of blaming and shaming, but to affirming difference as difference – in other words a “metaphysics” of difference itself.   That, of course, is what Gilles Deleuze as a disciple of Nietzsche undertook to map out in his own lifelong philosophical project.

In the socio-political realm Nietzsche foresaw “nihilism” as the permanent condition of “mass society.”  The modern populus “unlearns modesty and blows up its needs into cosmic and metaphysical values.”(19)   One calls to mind not merely the incendiary “yellow journalism” of the late nineteenth century, but the obsessive and ineffectual posturing and rage-choking partisanship and paranoia that dominates the hour-to-hour political news cycle.

The incessant parsing of every sound-byte or gesture by public figures into some sort of outrage or scandal, the amphetamine-like high that social media offers its bored and addicted users to vent constantly about every reported injustice or offense that comes to their overstimulate field of attention, the ceaseless “trolling” of contrived as well as obvious malefactors, manifests itself as an ongoing multi-media theatre of the absurd that most darkly bears out Nietzsche’s glimpse of what was indeed coming from the standpoint of his own day and age.

In the face of this “twilight of the idols”, Nietzsche notes, we substitute frenetic moralizing and rhetorical, as opposed to material, activism for religious discipline, cultivating the profile of what today has come to be termed mockingly by political reactionaries as the “social justice warrior.”  “One attempts a kind of this-worldly solution” for problems on which we used to rely on God almost exclusively, That is not, according to Nietzsche, heroism but “decadence.”  “Believing one chooses remedies, one chooses in fact that which hastens exhaustion.”(27)  Morality appears as a “great sense of truthfulness”, but it turns out in reality to be little more than a perverse kind of “sentimentality.”(46)  Or, as Nietzsche puts it acidly, “the instincts of decadence should not be confused with humanness.”(75)

What do these musings of Nietzsche have, in fact, to do with the question of neoliberalism?  In the next installment, we will investigate how such contemporary political and social theorists as Wendy Brown, Lillie Chouliariaki, and Maurizio Lazzarato have identified the systematic degeneracy of Western values diagnosed by Nietzsche as key to the neoliberal revolution.

Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion.   He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society.  Recent books include Critical Theology (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012).  He is current managing editor of Political Theology Today and senior editor for The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.  He is also one of the current co-conspirators in the formation of a fledgling initiative known as CRI, which seeks to engage the intellectual and political crisis of our times.

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