October 14, 2009

Cycles (part 2)

Filed under: Freedom, Nietzsche — Russ Bangs @ 5:32 am


Some weeks back I started jotting down some notes on the second essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals. My purpose in going through this is to explore how humanity first came to see itself as a social being with social responsibilities. I’m not claiming N’s essay is the most important thing ever written on the subject, but it offers a thought-provoking point of entry, so I’m starting there.
In section one we saw how primal humanity’s capacity to make a promise prerequired the development of a “memory of the will”. This had to overcome our innate faculty of active forgetting. It rendered us “calculable, regular, necessary”. Now I’ll continue with section two.
How did man become calculable and necessary in his actions? It was only through the long process of what N called the morality of mores.
..the labor performed by man upon himself during the greater part of the existence of the human race, his entire prehistoric labor, finds in this its meaning, its great justification, notwithstanding the severity, tyranny, stupidity, and idiocy involved in it: with the aid of the morality of mores and the social straitjacket, man was actually made calculable.
The morality of mores is the primal world view centered on mystery, ritual, taboo, fierce adherence to the traditions or else the rains won’t come. It’s the time of obsession with an inscrutable supernatural, and the brute cause and effect reasoning which assumes that only obsessive fealty to the rituals can appease the terrible forces of fate. This is assumed first out of hope and desperation and later, as power grows, out of self-assertiveness and the feeling of power. (N gets to this later in the essay.)
For thousands of years men judged according to supernatural and ritualistic causes and effects, and the rituals were meant to render the effects calculable and necessary. In the process the human psyche was melted and hammered and bent and distorted until it took shape.
In a dialectical gyre the rituals tightened tribal cohesion and empowered tribal, ritual promising. These promises bolstered the individual’s sense of self and made him more firm and reliable in his ritual promises. 
The tribal social man emerged, and out of him, the “ripest fruit” of the whole process: the sovereign individual. This is the free spirit, the free individual, the “attempter”. He is “autonomous and supramoral”, and only he has “the right to make promises”.
This free individual as a promiser: Nietzsche describes him only as a potentiality. He doesn’t say what should be promised, and at the fundamental level it’s not a social ideal. Rather, individual integrity is prior to and is the presupposition of social integrity.
The individual promiser looks out and judges from his own “measure of value”. He promises slowly, unhurried, sparely, rarely. It’s part of his honor that once he gives his word he keeps it “even in the face of fate”.
Responsibility is the necessary human quality which underlies all the others.
“The free man..possesses his measure of value.” Freedom imposes responsibilities to live up to this measure of value.
The proud awareness of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, this power over oneself and over fate, has in his case penetrated to the profoundest depths and become instinct, the dominating instinct. What will he call this dominating instinct, supposing he feels the need to give it a name? The answer is beyond doubt: the sovereign man calls it his conscience.
“The extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom”, this power over fate, this dominating instinct: It is the free human being’s conscience. Now, wielding this freedom, people are able to contract and dispose social responsibilities. Only debts contracted under such conditions of freedom are valid, and only among free and legitimate authorities. But…
Only a free human being can have a conscience, and only through exercising a conscience can you remain free.
Only the existentially free can have a conscience:
A slave cannot. He can’t promise and he can’t fulfill, so in the name of what action could he exercise integrity? (By “slave” I refer to those born cowardly and conformist, regardless of the outward political form. A born, existential slave will always be a slave under any political circumstances, while one born free will always exercise and fight for freedom no matter what.)
He cannot own a principle, as he is himself “owned” (literally by the system, or by his own self-enslavement).
Only the exercise of conscience can make you free:
The reason those born slave-like submit to being enslaved in practice (either de facto, as in our corporate system, or de jure) is because no conscience forces them to fight. Nothing forces them to say, I’d rather die than submit to this wretched and ignoble existence.
Unfortunately this is all we see today in our political and media “leaders”, and even among most “activists”. The great revolutionary promise of the sovereign individual was supposed to be that freedom would transcend itself, that autonomous individuals, precisely because they so cherished this great gift of sovereignty, would assume the highest social responsibilities, since only in this way could they preserve and augment the aggregate freedom. The public freedom, the highest form of politics, should be the apotheosis of the human condition. This is the highest social manifestation of N’s will to power.
What went wrong? Concentrated wealth, especially the concentrations afforded by fossil fuels, machine technology, and the capitalist mode of organization, allowed the slave mentality (as slave to materialism, greed, powerlust) to hijack autonomy and debase it to sociopathy. Freedom degenerated to promiscuity. Liberty became license and the “right” to be a private vandal. Public, positive freedom was rejected and overridden by the bourgeois primacy of private subsistence. The citizen devolved into a consumer. the idealist prostituted himself to materialism. Every “promise” became a lie.
This decadent civilization has lost the ability to promise, has squandered it. There’s no legitimacy left, no authority. God is dead, religion, government, law, business, ideology, nationalism, tribalism….All debased beyond recognition; just hideous cackling caricatures of themselves in a haunted house of mirrors now in the process of burning down even as everyone still staggers about inside, laughing and crying, drunk.
If we are ever to be able to promise again, we need a complete renewal, rebirth, renaissance. This will have to start with a new morality of mores.
The old civilization has been completely hollowed out by its rot. Its dollar and Predator Drone delusions still prop it up for the moment. But everything is decaying. That’s the only exponential curve still steepening. That’s the only debt curve still vibrant. Peak Oil and the end of exponential debt will only be the secular and physical confirmations of the great spriritual event: The immolation of the modernist “tribe” on the pyre of its own burning altar, upon which it stacked far too many sacrificial twigs.
What will it mean to start anew, as a new tribe? We can’t foresee the exact character of the new forms. These will no doubt be extemporaneously dictated by the tempo of the flames and the motions of those running through them.
But as we emerge, we’ll emerge with a new ritual, a new credo, a new way of living. This morality of mores will sing the song of the next circle of society and promise, debt and delight, responsibility and right, family and freedom, law and liberty.


  1. How do you know what it will look like if it’s going to be brand new?

    Comment by Yakkis — October 15, 2009 @ 3:48 am

  2. We don’t know yet. Part of the reason the people are still letting the banks push them around is that they haven’t started even trying to conceive a different world.

    But as they become educated that:

    1. Morally and spiritually, this is not a life fit for huamn beings;

    2. As a practical matter, economically and physically (oil, water, food production) this sytem cannot be sustained anyway;

    3. Politically, given sufficient will things can be changed, and we can take measures to ease the phase change to the radically different economy and civilization which resource and debt limits will inexorably impose, and which for us has to be a spiritual imperative as well;

    as these realizations take shape and people begin to organize, we’ll start to see the outlines of the forms of the next world.

    Today is N’s birthday, BTW. 165 years of good stuff.

    Comment by Russ — October 15, 2009 @ 4:27 am

  3. Wow. Powerful. And something I wish I read a long time ago for I was having similar thoughts in the past years. Let us forge ahead…

    Comment by Strieb Roman — May 26, 2011 @ 1:17 am

  4. […] in this transition?   I already offered a more optimistic commentary and aspiration in these two posts on Nietzsche’s essay. Now two years later I’m revisiting the question in greater depth, […]

    Pingback by Post-Morality, New Mores « Volatility — October 15, 2011 @ 9:00 am

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