October 3, 2016
This post was inspired by Nietzsche’s Revenge by Umair Haque.
Here is a condensed summary of Haque’s points:
There are three things that characterize America.. . .
First, brutalism. An unmitigated disregard for human life . . .
[S]econd . . . cruelty is seen as virtuous.
Third, power as the end of human life.
I’m not a Nietzsche apologist, but I doubt he would agree that America has adopted his philosophy wholesale. Nor would he find our society much to his liking. But whether you love him or hate him, Nietzsche is responsible for popularizing a moral philosophy that was antithetical in every way possible to conventional European (Christian) morality. I can attest that he is to this day a bogeyman in evangelical circles. So it is a sad irony that one of Nietzsche’s favorite targets–Christianity–has gradually transformed its essential moral teachings to the point where they can be considered consistent with Nietzsche’s philosophy.
Christianity has been complicit in all sorts of other evils through history (slavery in the south comes to mind) but the normalization within the church of Nietzsche’s morality is remarkable. It is seen in the conspicuous waste of resources on buildings, wages and entertainment that consume the vast majority of money contributed to tax exempt churches. It is exemplified in the elevation of the powerful (wealthy) to positions of influence and importance for which they are utterly unworthy in moral terms (Franklin Graham being bought by Donald Trump is an excellent recent example). And worst of all it is in the thoroughly secularized (and paper thin) theology that is taught in American churches (especially protestant, but Catholics have their own version too).
In this bastardized theology, success and power are signs of blessing. Conveniently, this comports with the total commodification of human beings that we see reaching fruition. What is a life worth? In America, whether in a church pew or at a bank, a life is worth what it can consume. And we wonder why we can’t deal with climate change or any other problem beyond the extent of our expected lifetime (that is if you can afford to consume quality healthcare).
But using Nietzsche to make this point seems a little cheap. I think Haque’s assessment misses the underlying disease that causes brutality and cruelty. (The will to power just is a fact of human existence I’m afraid–morality may be culture’s attempt to cope with this).
The key to understanding the decline of human civilization (and surely that must be what it is?) is found in Heidegger’s distinction between the being of rocks, hammers and Dasein. A rock is present. A rock tied to a stick may be a hammer. A Dasein is neither but can be treated as if it were either. A surgeon treats a human body the way a geologist might treat a rock. Both are collections of smaller bits that can be studied, taken apart and modified. Henry Ford treated his workers fairly well. They were paid a decent wage for their time. But as an industrialist, his real interest was in the value of human beings as tools. People were more like hammers than rocks, but were otherwise interchangeable. This is not an unacceptable or immoral way of thinking about a production line in a factory. To treat others as Dasein means to be acutely aware that every one of them is an individual that takes a position on its own being. That means that each human being cares greatly about their relation to the world and how things may turn out. That’s what it means to be a Dasein.
Let me summarize my view on this. Haque identifies some symptoms of our current state of affairs here in America. I generally agree with him with the caveat that of course this is not a universal description of all our relations in this society. Haque doesn’t so much identify Nietzsche as the cause of this situation but rather points out that the ethical implications of Nietzsche’s philosophy appear to have become dominant in our culture. (That jackass who
runs Wells Fargo used to run Wells Fargo surely believes that he is an Übermensch even if he doesn’t know the word or Nietzsche).
That’s all well and good and makes for a good read. Haque’s not really a formal thinker but he writes some good stuff. But reading the article reminded of how often I have considered the way in which our culture has internalized the idea that individual human beings are not really human (Dasein). They are consumers. Even our intimate relations become infected by this insidious category error. It is true that there is no ethical necessity that can be derived from discriminating between rocks, hammers and Dasein. It’s quite possible that one could be fully aware of that other human beings take a position on their own being and be inspired all the more to treat them savagely. (This is called sadism, by the way). But treating other human beings as hammers (consumers) as ones default position decreases the likelihood of responding to other human beings in an empathetic way.
The brutality that Haque is getting at is an expected outcome of this kind of thinking. What type of person is most likely to experience success in America today? The sociopath, who by definition, is a person lacking empathy (among other nasty behavioral traits). I think it is safe to infer that this lack of empathy is dependent upon a belief that other human beings are not human in the same sense that the sociopath is human (if they are deemed human at all). In other words, a sociopath’s behavior is dependent upon a false belief about other human beings.
So much more can be said on this topic, and I am sure I will loop back to it again and again. It’s the only idea I have that helps me make any sense of what I see happening across our society at present. From where I’m sitting I see the future as one in which there will be only two classes of people: A pseudo-meritocratic ruling class (the “doers” or “makers”) and consumers (the “takers” and the “losers”). This is not ideology but teleology. The telos is power and conveniently we have a perfect method of measuring that.