One of Nietzsche’s core ideas, and one of his most misunderstood, is his contrast of noble morality vs. slave morality.
The essence of the distinction is this. “Noble”, or what I’ll call positive morality, defines itself as the good and seeks to act affirmatively based upon that definition. It only derivatively defines “the bad”, and reacts, according to what contrasts with itself.
“Slave” morality, by contrast, starts out reactively, defining “the masters” and any other alien as “evil”, and only derivatively defines itself as the good. In either case its action is merely a reaction.
So to use Nietzsche’s description, the positive morality defines itself and the good according to what it calls honesty, loyalty, courage, principle, gratitude and revenge (in both cases paying back what is owed). It derivatively describes the bad, the slavish, according to the antonyms of these: lying, faithlessness, cowardice, cynicism or nihilism, the unwillingness to pay what is owed out of some despicable lassitude – ingratitude, laziness, cowardice.
By contrast, the slave morality starts by revaluing the “noble” virtues as vices. What they call honesty it calls haughtiness and arrogance. What they call loyalty it calls a stupid or childish adherence to dead ritual. What they call courage it calls aggression and recklessness. Principle becomes either stubborn impractical “purism” at best or a complete fraud at worst. Gratitude or revenge become empty interest-seeking.
It then revalues its own traits, considered contemptible by the positive morality, as “the good”. Its lying and faithlessness become humility, cleverness, prudence, the measure of intelligence. Its physical cowardice becomes virtuous pacifism and its moral cowardice becomes a salutary will to compromise, to be “inclusive”, to “find common ground”. Its lack of principle becomes “pragmatism”. Its ingratitude becomes the sense of entitlement, and its inability to avenge becomes “tolerance”.
Nietzsche’s ideas here are crystallized in Beyond Good and Evil section 260
, and he develops them at greater length in On the Genealogy of Morals
, Essay I
Nietzsche himself wrote about psychological, spiritual, and creative issues, not about politics and the economy. (Indeed, he affected to despise the latter, and one of the inferior elements of his writing is his intermittent attacks on political radicals, for whom he used “anarchist” as a catch-all term. He was basically ignorant about politics and economics and didn’t want to know about them.) But although I no longer subscribe to his spiritualized cult of aristocracy, I’m finding that if I transpose his ideas on spiritual and intellectual creators to an expression about producers in general, then almost everything he says can be redeemed for anarchism.
By producers I mean producers who have political self-respect and the will to fight.
So I’m thinking out the idea of transposing the master/slave morality in this way:
Master morality = Positive freedom, the bottom-up assertion of political and economic democracy, the assertion through day-to-day action of freedom and human dignity, and worker self-actualization. This is not primarily a “rebellion” against the criminals, seeking “liberation” from them, although it is that as well. It is first and foremost a Renaissance of our humanity, a rebirth, a revolution in the classical sense of “revolving back” to the primal human order.
Slave morality = The fetish of negative/bourgeois freedom (negative freedom is a wonderful thing, but only as a tool toward some human goal, not as a value in itself), the desire for “enlightened” elitism, “benevolent” despotism, the rancid dream of trickle-down (political, economic, spiritual, cultural), everything that is characteristic of liberals and conservatives.
One of the many parallels between Marx and Nietzsche is the shared philosophy of the producer. Marx wrote about the worker, but conceived him as a producer seeking fulfillment through his self-owned and -directed work. He conceived his ideal society based upon this. He didn’t see the worker as the consumer, except derivatively. He didn’t view people as naturally experiencing work as a chore to be endured and completed so they could get on with consumption.
We can see here how he had his own idea of the positive morality of the worker as creative producer, vs. the slave morality of the consumer. This is an extension of the labor theory of value, which Marx didn’t invent but expanded into a vision of society. The best society is that in which the laborer has freedom over his labor, where he produces as a free human being. Any coercive elitism, any hierarchy, any extraction, alienates the worker from his work.
And so it’s true in general. All parasitic elitism, all wealth and power concentration, stands between us and our freedom, between us and our labor fulfillment, between us and our humanity. It aggressively alienates us from our birthright. The criminals have taken what could have been such a wonderful world and turned it into a place of, at best, bare struggle and tension and fear, and at worst, more often, misery and slavery and violence.
Similar to Marx, Nietzsche wrote about art and philosophy, but wrote about them from the perspective of the artist and the thinker, and that’s the audience for whom he wrote. He didn’t write primarily for the art lover and reader of philosophy.
So in a sense it’s an “elite” mindset, but for the active strata among the productive populace. Both despise parasites, wasteful idlers, rentiers of every sort. It’s just a different emphasis. So in both cases the “elitism”, if we can call it that, overt in Nietzsche’s case and implicit in that of Marx, is that it’s a philosophy of, by, and for the producer, not the consumer. It envisions a social world constructed for the self-actualization of the producer, not the comfort of the consumer.
By contrast, every kind of what can be called passive elitism, all concentrated wealth and power, every trickle-down political and economic ideology – corporatism, capitalism, liberalism, representative democracy, etc. – seems focused on the hedonism of the consumer. It wants to pander to passivity. (And of course none of it works the way it claims. The comfort of the consumer, as we’re now seeing, was only provisional and temporary.)
The best of Marx’s self-directing worker (without the contradictory centralism) and Nietzsche’s self-directing thinker and creator (without the ivory tower snobbery) are combined in anarchism, which also revalues the seeming “elitism” of the affirmative producer philosophy through the egalitarianism of direct participation, equality of opportunity to work, to create, to seek human fulfillment.
Here’s some ideas from the Anarchist FAQ
, an excellent and encyclopedic resource on every aspect of anarchism. These are quoted from sections 2.7 and 2.16.
Direct action has an empowering and liberating effect on those involved in it. Self-activity is the means by which the creativity, initiative, imagination and critical thought of those subjected to authority can be developed….
Society, while shaping all individuals, is also created by them, through their actions, thoughts, and ideals. Challenging institutions that limit one’s freedom is mentally liberating, as it sets in motion the process of questioning authoritarian relationships in general. This process gives us insight into how society works, changing our ideas and creating new ideals….By changing the world, even in a small way, we change ourselves….
Anarchists, however, do not think that self-liberation must wait for the future, after the “glorious revolution.” The personal is political, and given the nature of society, how we act in the here and now will influence the future of our society and our lives. Therefore, even in pre-anarchist society anarchists try to create, as Bakunin puts it, “not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself.” We can do so by creating alternative social relationships and organisations, acting as free people in a non-free society. Only by our actions in the here and now can we lay the foundation for a free society…..
Revolution is a process, not an event, and every “spontaneous revolutionary action” usually results from and is based upon the patient work of many years of organisation and education by people with “utopian” ideas. The process of “creating the new world in the shell of the old” (to use another I.W.W. expression), by building alternative institutions and relationships, is but one component of what must be a long tradition of revolutionary commitment and militancy…..
In other words, anarchy needs anarchists in order to be created and survive. But these anarchists need not be perfect, just people who have freed themselves, by their own efforts, of the superstition that command-and-obedience relations and capitalist property rights are necessary. The implicit assumption in the idea that anarchy needs “perfect” people is that freedom will be given, not taken; hence the obvious conclusion follows that an anarchy requiring “perfect” people will fail. But this argument ignores the need for self-activity and self-liberation in order to create a free society. For anarchists, “history is nothing but a struggle between the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed.” [Peter Kropotkin, Act for Yourselves, p. 85] Ideas change through struggle and, consequently, in the struggle against oppression and exploitation, we not only change the world, we change ourselves at the same time. So it is the struggle for freedom which creates people capable of taking the responsibility for their own lives, communities and planet. People capable of living as equals in a free society, so making anarchy possible.
This is the essence of positive democracy, positive freedom. Posted in honor of Nietzsche’s birthday (1844- ).