One of Nietzsche’s core ideas, and one of his most misunderstood, is the will to power. Expressed most simply, this refers to an organism’s imperative to organize and exert its energy in such a way as to maximize the attainment of its goals. (Nietzsche actually expanded the idea to non-living phenomena as well, but for our purposes we’ll stick with life.) Essential to the idea is that the successful exertion is a value in itself, at least as important as the actual content of the goal. (We see already the affinity with anarchism, which always has the dual goal of living as democratically as possible, as a way of life which is a value in itself, at the same time one seeks to create a truly democratic society.)
In particular, the will to power in its grand form is no picayune struggle for survival, but an affirmative will to create something new beyond oneself as the totem of one’s overflowing existence. This is the true exertion of one’s power.
Here’s a few quotes which express the idea, by way of refuting Darwin’s thesis of a “struggle for existence” as the main phenomenon of life.
Physiologists should think before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to discharge its strength – life itself is will to power. Self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent results.(Beyond Good and Evil, section 13)
As for the famous “struggle for existence”, so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proven. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering – and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.
(Twilight of the Idols, “Skirmishes” section 14)
The wish to preserve oneself is the result of a condition of distress, of the limitation of the fundamental instinct of life which aims at the expansion of power and frequently runs risks and even sacrifices self-preservation. It should be considered symptomatic when some philosophers – for example, Spinoza who was consumptive – considered the instinct of self-preservation decisive and had to see it that way; for they were individuals in conditions of distress.
…[I]n nature it is not conditions of distress which are dominant but overflow and squandering, even to the point of absurdity. The struggle for existence is only an exception, a temporary restriction of the will to life. The great and small struggle always revolves around superiority, around growth and expansion, around power – in accordance with the will to power which is the will to life.
(The Joyful Science, section 349)
(Compare, for example, the evident decadence and exhaustion of the “progressives”, who think only in terms of survival. Or the AARP’s recent parroting of the progressives, admitting it’s been degraded to the point that its only goal is a “seat at the table”.)
As always, any normative content Nietzsche had for this was meant to be taken in a sublimated sense. It referred to one’s spiritual power, one’s intellectual and artistic power. The “growth and expansion” are to take place in the soul and in our cooperation, not in a temporal sense. That’s the highest form of the will to power, which also unfortunately manifests itself at the base animal level of power-seeking, money-grubbing, violence, war, shallow and vicious materialism, all the traits which are subhuman where we let them dominate us. It’s at this gutter that the idea is most often hijacked, distorted, slandered. But N never meant to exalt such psychopathy. He wanted to inspire us to exert our energies toward making ourselves ever more human. This is his idea of the Ubermensch, often called the “superman”, which I’ll discuss in part 2 of this post.
This debased form of the will to power is actually apropos for the critique of capitalism, since capitalism has the same character as the misconception of evolution described in those quotes. Capitalist economic theories lie when they claim to be all about scarcity and the struggle to allocate scarce resources. Capitalism is really about material plenty and how to monopolize as much of the plenitude as possible, thereby artificially generating scarcity which then justifies the fraudulent theory, is the basis of economic power imbalances, and enables the monopolist to extract even more from what little the worker and consumer still have. Peak Oil is also a scarcity gambit of capitalism, because only capitalism demands growth. So it’s not “growth demands oil”, but “capitalism demands oil”. We know for example that we can organize food production such that we can feed everyone using vastly less fossil fuels. But that would require the overthrow of corporate agriculture.
This is the “will to power” indeed, but at its lowest, ugliest, most vulgar, most destructive level.
So in the same way that Nietzsche criticized Darwinism for promoting a tendentious interpretation of nature which emphasized struggle and scarcity over nature’s real profligacy, we can criticize capitalist ideology for its lies about economic scarcity. (Although Darwin himself rejected Spencer’s social Darwinist ideology, this socioeconomic interpretation was actually implicit in Darwin’s interpretation of nature. And although N didn’t care about economics, nevertheless his description of the will to power and his accompanying criticism of Darwinism are easily transposed to the critique of politics and economics. At least I hope I’m accomplishing that in this post.)
Let’s briefly apply the lesson to food:
1. The goal of capitalism is to generate artificial scarcity out of natural and worker-made plenty. It’s the exact opposite of the Big Lie of economics, all the nonsense about allocating scarce resources.
2. In this case, even though the world produces far more than enough food for everyone to eat a basically good diet, capitalism strives to generate mass scarcity and therefore mass hunger. This was always a key goal of globalization, for example in the way the IMF targeted for eradication public agricultural investment in developing countries.
3. Similarly, food markets are naturally local/regional. Food commodification is naturally a small appendage of the market. To put it another way, a “free market” in food would be overwhelmingly local/regional.
But corporations and governments have systematically forced all food markets into the artificial strait jacket of commodification. This has artificially rendered food prices volatile and susceptible to non-linear jumps from relatively small inputs. The ethanol onslaught (another massive government intervention) has aggravated the whole effect.
Food commodification and its effect on all food markets is the tail wagging the dog, just as the finance sector has done with the real economy.
4. So this sector’s food speculation is the tip of the tail wagging the whole thing. It’s the most pure distillation of the logic of food commodification in general.
To put it in Nietzschean terms, the corporatists exercise their malevolent, debased form of the will to power in the form of political and economic aggression. Part of this will to overpower is the structure of lies they propagate, about how disappearing jobs, skyrocketing prices, ever-diminishing opportunities and freedom, and ever-tighter strangulation are all the result of some natural “scarcity”. That is, to serve their own aggrandizing will to power, they propagate the lie about our struggles really representing some “struggle for existence”, rather than the struggle for power which it really is. They want us to see our world as naturally caving in around us, rather than how we’re actually under artificial attack. They want us to struggle among ourselves for the few crumbs they toss to us, rather than comprehend how their class war has hoarded a vast bounty, all of it produced by us, all of it available to us for our prosperity, for our true exercise of power, the moment we realize what’s happening and choose to take back what’s ours.
There’s one sense in which the Darwinistic paradigm applies. Where a species is under assault by a homicidal parasite, it either fights back to destroy that parasite (including relinquishing old adaptations which have become maladaptive; I’ve discussed such political forms as representative government and ideologies like progressivism), or it perishes.
If we want to survive as a people, if we want democracy and freedom to survive, we must adapt to the new circumstances. So for example to smash the banksters would be Darwinism at its finest. That’s because under the corporate tyranny freedom, democracy, justice, morality, humanity are all being selected out.
Of course those most enamored of competition metaphors want this competition to occur only among the parasites themselves. The victims are never supposed to be allowed to “compete” back. It’s the standard “egoism for me, altruism for you”; “capitalism for me, anarchism for you”.
We’re currently mired among one of the “exceptions” Nietzsche described in the quotes above; we are struggling for existence. But this struggle is self-inflicted; it prevails because we choose to set our sights so low and accept the lies we’re told about the limits to our possible action. The moment we choose to disbelieve in these limits, they will no longer exist. The moment we stop begging for crumbs and demand the entire Earth, we shall have it.
We must perform a Darwinist turning of the tables and fight back against the enemies of humanity with all the ferocity nature can muster. Now that would be the people finally finding our true will to power.