Great Politics (assorted notes)


Convergent with the Proudhon’s anarchistic analysis of the primordial linkage between the State and war is Nietzsche’s critique of social contract theory, as detailed by Hugo Drochon in his book Nietzsche’s Great Politics. To quote him at length:

In “The Greek State,” Nietzsche also takes issue with Wagner’s On State and Religion—another manuscript that Nietzsche read while in Tribschen—which the latter had recently composed at the behest of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. There Wagner accounts for the emergence of the state as from a Hobbesian “fear of violence,” which leads to a “contract whereby the units seek to save themselves from mutual violence, through a little practice of restraint.” While Nietzsche concurred that the state of nature was one of bellum omnium contra omnes (GSt, 170), he disagreed with the idea that the state arose through a contract. He instead saw the state as originating from a “conqueror with the iron hand,” who “suddenly, violently, and bloodily” takes control of a yet-unformed population and forces it into a hierarchical society (GSt, 168). [54]


In “The Greek State,” Nietzsche concurred with the Hobbesian view of the state of nature being a bellum omnium contra omnes. But he did not account for its birth in a contract. Instead, as we just saw, he located thebirth of the “cruel tool” of the state in the iron “conquerors.” Indeed, these conquerors are themselves, on Nietzsche’s account, the state. Yet the “ignominious” birth of the state is justified as a means to genius and culture. “Nature”—we see the influence of Romanticism on Nietzsche’s early thought here—had instilled in the conqueror the state-creating instinct so that she might achieve “her salvation in appearance in the mirror of genius.” The “dreadful” birth of the state, whose monuments include “devastated lands, ruined towns, savage men, consuming hatred of nations,” is justified by nature because it serves as a means to genius. “The state appears before it proudly and calmly: leading the magnificently blossoming woman, Greek society, by the hand” (GSt, 169).

While Nietzsche’s genealogy of the state claims to be more realistic than the “fanciful,” in his own words, account of the social contract tradition, this does not imply that on his account the state cannot be justified. Of course there is a difference between normative and descriptive claims here: over the course of their writings, Hobbes and indeed Rousseau gave quite detailed accounts of the history of the state they understood to be at odds with the normative ideals they were recommending, and the social contract theorists are often thought of as having tailored their state of nature to justify the type of state they were advocating. But Nietzsche is here rejecting both their descriptive—how the state came into being—and normative claims—how the birth of the state can be justified.

The state, for Nietzsche, is justified because it opens up a space within which culture, through genius, can for the first time flourish. There are a number of elements to this claim. First, that the time and energy used to defend oneself in the “war of all against all” is redirected, within a pacified society, toward more artistic and cultural pursuits. Nietzsche explains that once states have been founded everywhere, the bellicose urge gets concentrated into “less frequent” yet altogether much stronger “bolts of thunder and flashes of lightning” of “dreadful clouds of war between nations.” Thus, much as it was for Hobbes, the “state of nature” gets transferred to the interstate level. In the meantime, however, the “concentrated effect of that bellum, turned inward, gives society time to germinate and turn green everywhere, so that it can let radiant blossoms of genius sprout forth as soon as warmer days come.” In other words, the energy that was used to simply stay alive in the individual war of all against all gets redirected, once encased in and protected by the new state, either collectively toward wars against other nations or, in the intermediary, toward satisfying a “new world of necessities”—namely, culture (GSt, 170).

The two interrelated justifications for the state—genius and culture— come together in the figure of the first genius—the military genius. Since the beasts of prey were organized on a “war footing,” the first type of state, even the “archetype” of the state, is the military state, and the first genius is a military genius. The first work of art is the state itself and its constitution; Nietzsche mentions the Spartan lawgiver Lycurgus—a thought borrowed from Jacob Burckhardt. As a military state, the first state therefore divides itself into hierarchical military castes, and this “warlike society” necessarily takes the form of a pyramidal structure with a large slave-class bottom stratum (GSt, 172). [56-57]

As with all things, however, the state decays. For Nietzsche this appears in the time of the Kulturstaat, the modern state that treats its subjects as mere means to furthering the cause of “existing institutions”. “However loudly the state may proclaim its services to cultures, it furthers culture in order to further itself.” The state also loses what Nietzsche regarded as a sense of excitement regarding its function: mass bureaucracy and the dreary affairs of parliament tore from the governing institutions the “ancient Isis veil”. In an aphorism from Human, All Too Human, the cause of modern decline is highlighted: “modern democracy is the historical form of the state.”

Cue the transformation into what Drochon refers to as Nietzsche’s “postmodern state”:

Nietzsche concludes by proclaiming “with certainty” that “distrust of all government” will result from the “uselessness and destructiveness of these short-winded struggles,” and will “impel men to a quite novel resolve: the resolve to do away with the concept of the state, to abolish the distinction between public and private.” Instead, an “invention more suited to their purpose than the state was will gain victory over the state.” “Private companies” (Privatgesellschaften) will “step by step absorb the business of the state,” including those activities that are the “most resistant remainder of what was formerly the work of the government”: protecting “the private person from the private person.”

This marks another point of at least partial convergence with Proudhon, who also foresaw the unwinding of social and political relations into the hurried networks of economic exchange. He wrote in the General Idea of Revolution in the Nineteenth Century that

…if I could make a contract with all, as I can with some; if all could renew it among themselves, if each group of citizens, as a town, county, province, corporation, company, etc., formed by a like contract, and considered as a moral person, could thereafter, and always by a similar contract, agree with every and all other groups, it would be the same as if my own will were multiplied to infinity. I should be sure that the law thus made on all questions in the Republic, from millions of different initiatives, would never be anything but my law; and if this new order of things were called government, it would be my government.

Thus the principle of contract, far more than that of authority, would bring about the union of producers, centralize their forces, and assure the unity and solidarity of their interests.

The system of contracts, substituted for the system of laws, would constitute the true government of the man and of the citizen; the true sovereignty of the people, the Republic.

Speaking of state decay, demotic chaos and long-term political cycles, Peter Turchin has written a brief-but-interesting response to Tyler Cowen’s recent “No, Fascism Can’t Happen Here”. He ultimately reaches the same conclusion as Cowen via a different route, but his final note is telling: “In my opinion, the greatest danger for us today (and into the 2020s) is not the rise of a Hitler, but rather a Second American Civil War.” The 2020s thread is picked up elsewhere.

Also keeping up with the troubles is Chris Shaw on zombie politics, which moves from the fragmentation and conflict internal to the dominant political structures towards a Carsonian-informed look at potential leverages for Exit. In other words, ideas that move in the same waters as Nietzsche’s postmodern state and Proudhon’s contract government.