June 26, 2011

The Nietzschean Ascent to Democracy (1 of 2)


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.


  1. I learn a lot here!

    The inability of ‘the huddled masses” to resist the repeated onslaughts of oligarchy …. until its malicious nature brings a desperation that provokes armed revolt and/or collapse…

    has been a recurring pattern. I believe its related to the lack of meaningful feedback mechanisms (and/or their corruption) within the social body.

    In a hunter/gatherer group feedback opportunities are immediate and available to all members. Hence, while such a group has some hierarchical structure (those that tend to lead and those that tend to follow)… proximity, the complex network of relationships, an awareness of mutual dependence, and the ease of ‘transaction’… will tend to make consensus a requirement. Everyone already had a seat at the table so were already prepared for the next step.

    We’ve lost that ‘proximity’… which is why localization is so important. And so are feedback mechanisms allowing frequent and potent citizen impact.

    Create a seed withing the belly of the beast… and from the ashes a new life arises.

    Leveling The Transaction Landscape: Technology and the Campfire

    Comment by Tom Crowl — June 26, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    • We’ve lost that ‘proximity’… which is why localization is so important.

      Every crime and insanity becomes so much easier when done at a distance, and when one never has to face those feedback mechanisms.

      Comment by Russ — June 26, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

  2. “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.”

    In our case, the parasite is the dominant power, framing the ideological ground rules for the fight. The parasites has succeeded in legitimizing it’s violence as a systematic necessity and criminalizing the violence that is used to counter it’s assault. 40,000/year killed by automobiles versus 4000 killed in one terrorist attack 10 years ago. The violence that is systematized (cars kill pedestrians and bikers daily) is perfectly acceptable but the violence that is anomalous (politically and economically motivated asymmetric acts of war), no matter the toll, most be confronted aggressively and with the entire complex of martial force available.

    Even food-borne outbreaks of deadly pathogens are, for the most part, shrugged off. These are the “acceptable” casualties of the industrial food system. Just like 40,000 deaths/year are the “acceptable” casualties of auto culture.

    Comment by Ross — June 26, 2011 @ 12:10 pm

    • Killing at a distance, and all of it conceptualized as mere cash flows. If anything this banality of evil is more banal and more evil than the original.

      Comment by Russ — June 26, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  3. Russ, I think your essay is especially well reasoned and beautifully written, even inspiring. I’m looking forward to Part 2.

    Comment by Joyce — June 26, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

    • Thanks Joyce.

      Comment by Russ — June 26, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

    • Russ,

      I agree with what Joyce said.

      Comment by Frank Lavarre — June 27, 2011 @ 9:49 am

  4. During the Viet Nam war, the mass murderers in command, like Johnson and Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay, were able to objectify Asians into “gooks”. Our drafted and enlisted mercenaries weren’t murdering millions of men, women and children, they were killing gooks. Today, the same kinds of psychopaths in power, put people in uniforms and pay them to enact the fantasies of serial killers. Wars of colonization are fought in order to exact profits, power and natural resources. The Middle Eastern men, women and children being murdered and displaced in Iraq aren’t human beings, they are classified as either terrorists and collateral damage. Behind every rock is a terrorist, but behind ever defense contracting corporation is a BLackrock.

    The American West was settled by Native American (“savage”) murdering psychopaths. Today, another generation of psychopaths rules the country. To the consciousless, the unemployed, foreclosed, bankrupted, food stamped, Medicared working class people are little more than numbers. They are considered to be members of a non-human underclass. Still, one wonders in this social Darwinistic system how little shits like Blankfein and fat turds like Buffet become so powerful. They can pull it off, because they have convinced the rest of us that they can squash us like bugs anytime they wish to. They are like the menacing little-man character, played by Joe Pesci, in Goodfellas. They have convinced us that they could dispose of us as easily as they might kill a cockroach, and with as little remorse. Napoleon was 5’6″ and Hitler weighed only 150 lbs, yet they were well-feared. How does a psychopath convince others to fear him, he exudes menace. Here is a perfect example of just how this can be accomplished:

    Comment by black swan — June 26, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    • Yup. The only difference is that almost everyone in corporateland and government is personally a physical coward. (Of course the swine hire thugs like that to do their dirty work.)

      Comment by Russ — June 26, 2011 @ 6:05 pm

      • As usual, you totally get it. Yet you still see the possibilities of a society in which cooperation is valued more than competition. I see a society ruled by rigged competition in which the Mafiocracy Dons allow for little more than a zero sum game. I like your vision better, but I’m stuck, for the most part, living in a world that I view with cracked lenses in my antiquated diving helmet. Like a remora, I continue to scavenge a sea of debt for any scraps the Great Whites might leave behind.

        Comment by black swan — June 26, 2011 @ 7:03 pm

  5. I suggest you pick up a copy of Francis Fukuyama’s “The Origins of Political Order.”

    Comment by Natalie Golovin — June 26, 2011 @ 7:46 pm

    • Why? I haven’t read him, but from what I hear Fukuyama wants the terminal subhuman pit of the “Last man”, so his contentions will be spun to support that ideology.

      Comment by Russ — June 27, 2011 @ 2:33 am

  6. One of the many things I’ve pondered recently is whether the Great Depression started off “Great,” or whether it was instead made so by greedy disaster capitalists consolidating their power to the detriment of the masses, just as is happening today. Clearly, the 1929 stock market crash affected far fewer Americans per capita than that of 2008. There were no 401(k)s or pensions back then. Nor were there “bailouts.”

    I think the current depression will prove to be the greatest one to date. As a result, your ideas will have a real chance to spread and grow, but you will need more time to hone them, to make them palatable to the masses. The good news is you have time. The bad news is you have time.

    Fundamentally, I think you’re arguing that liberty begins and ends with autonomy, which is inherently a local thing. No market can be a “free market” if it depends on the coordination of far-flung resources by a middle-man, as the middle-man will of necessity become the top-dog. All financialization ultimately boils down to creating a middle-man, an intermediary between market participants and what they seek to acquire. Whether the commodity in question is money or food, the middle-man can create gluts and shortages at will, and does so to further his own self-interest.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — June 26, 2011 @ 9:10 pm

    • I think that sums it up pretty well. Autonomy for the producer is an essential part of freedom. I’d choose a far more spartan material existence for the sake of this autonomy and freedom, as would anyone who truly believes in freedom, democracy, and human dignity. (Though as I argue, I don’t think that’s an either-or; on the contrary, economic democracy shall be at least as productive as corporatism. Then there’s the fact that the corporate elites are materially liquidating us all. Thus we’re headed toward the ultimate proof of the wisdom that those who would give up freedom for material luxury will end up with neither and deserve neither.)

      As for the middlemen,very rarely do we ever see one who makes any kind of necessary contribution, and even where they do arguably perform a necessary function, they rig the system to extract an obscene proportion of the wealth involved in the transaction, at the expense of both producer and customer, rather than the modest fee they might warrant.

      I fear you’re right that I have plenty of time. Even if any of these ideas do come about, it may not happen until I’m old or dead.

      Comment by Russ — June 27, 2011 @ 2:31 am

      • Hello Russ,

        I have been following along for some time now, and for some reason this comment struck a chord. Though it may seem efforts not immediately gratified have been in vain, rest assured. Your efforts today, hold meaning today. It just takes some a little longer to realize the “present”. In some respects you do have plenty of time, but time is all we have. As time passes we either get ahead or fall behind. If you feel as though you have not accomplished much with your efforts then it is because you are waiting for others to catch up to you. Thank you for all the effort you have invested into this momentous time!


        Comment by Katie — June 27, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

      • You’re welcome, Katie, and thanks.

        Comment by Russ — June 27, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  7. Long time reader Russ. I really enjoyed this post. It seems to me that the more regional a market is the better. What other key markets do you think are naturally regional?

    Comment by dan — June 27, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

    • Thanks, Dan. The most obvious reason why food markets are naturally regional is that most foodstuffs are perishable and can be globalized only with tremendous fossil fuel and corporate welfare subsidies. All other globalized sectors seem to require massive corporate welfare, and they all use the unearned oil increment as well, although if their goods aren’t perishable they could in theory continue with globalization without using as much fossil fuel.

      I don’t know which sectors (assuming infinite energy) might actually confer a political benefit by being globalized, so from a democratic point of view I’m inclined to say all markets function best on a regional basis, only being supplemented by trade from further abroad. But I haven’t exhaustively thought about that question, since globalization in general is so evidently malevolent, and because Peak Oil will force all sectors to become less globalized anyway.

      Historically, pre-fossil, the goods traded the greatest distance were all luxuries. If you think about it, that’s the only way it could be, since by definition a necessity is something you need, and therefore peoples couldn’t exist without trade, as they often did, unless their trade centered on inessentials. The same is certainly true today, although corporatism has artificially forced most of us into a position of actual dependence upon globalized distribution networks. But there’s nothing at all natural or necessary about it.

      So it follows that all necessary markets are naturally regional/local, while all globalized markets are unnatural and unnecessary.

      Comment by Russ — June 28, 2011 @ 5:05 am

  8. You asked why I thought you should read Fukuyama’s book….
    Though I am very well acquainted with Nietzsche (and most of the West’s great philosophers) and have had a thorough grounding in economic history and theory- classical, neo-classical & current-I believe there is value in looking at a new interpretation of the connections among biology,economics and political science. The summaries, filters, itiratiions that Fukuyama offers (based on new data and old propositions) keeps the mind open to new ways of arranging ideas. And it is well written & very well researched.

    Comment by Natalie Golovin — June 27, 2011 @ 8:04 pm

    • Thanks, Natalie. I hadn’t heard that before, and will make a note of it. (Fukuyama himself, however, drew a neocon conclusion from this new interpretation.)

      Comment by Russ — June 28, 2011 @ 4:53 am

    • I looked at the NYT review, and Mr. F. appears to be peddling the same old neocon sort of moralistic assumption of societal “evolution” that is exactly what is plaguing us.

      Just this one quote of his from the review is enough to gag on, much less a whole tome of it: ““My argument is that the rule of law comes out of organized religion, and that democracy is a weird accident of history… “. If democracy is such a weird accident of history, then why did it crop up in Greece and Rome? Because of their organized religion? Hinduism is an organized religion; so is Druidism and Shinto animism.

      “The absence of a strong rule of law, in his view, is “one of the principal reasons why poor countries can’t achieve higher rates of growth.”” All is to be in the service of growth!! The capitalistic US has won the game—we will beat China (see last graf of the review)—and that’s the end of history. “Dr. Fukuyama makes clear that the modern liberal state is still in his view the end of history.”

      Fukuyama, as a political scientist, may well look to “the end of history”, but I look to the end of political scientists like Fukuyama, especially those who have worked for the RAND corporation. 😉

      Comment by Lidia — June 28, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  9. To Lidia:
    What happened to open minds? There are gains made in reading on all sides and singular truths in differing perspectives. Reading the back cover & a couple of reviews doesn’t cut it. I follow many bloggers & the very progressive work being done by P2P. .. I see you don’t blame Nietzsche for Hitler as many have done. If having worked for a particular organization puts people on a blacklist, you would have been a good McCarthyite.

    Comment by Natalie Golovin — June 28, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    • Well, there’s no way to use Nietzsche (anti-state, anti-nationalism, anti-militarism, despiser of anti-semitism) in support of fascism other than by wrenching quotes out of context and claiming they mean the opposite of what N meant by them.

      But Fukuyama is in fact a neocon, isn’t he? I know he at least temporarily said he repented of some stuff like supporting the Iraq invasion. But he still has a real record of support for these crimes.

      Nevertheless, I agree that if he did write worthwhile analysis from which he drew obscene conclusions, the analysis might still be worth reading.

      Comment by Russ — June 28, 2011 @ 11:40 am

    • Well, I wasn’t reacting to the review, but to the man’s own statements contained therein.

      My choosing not to read someone’s book because of his resume and his own statements is patently not the same thing as McCarthyism. There’s this perverse wingnutty idea that disagreeing with or dismissing wingnutty ideas is somehow equivalent to denying them their rights under the First Amendment. And so we HAVE TO read Fukuyama’s book, because that’s “fair and balanced”, or something. It’s pretty humorous: Sarah Palin resorted to this quite a bit.

      Here’s how the First Amendment actually works: you can say anything you like, write anything you like, and hang out with anyone you like, but I don’t have to listen to you and your fellow travellers if I think they are full of crap! That’s the beauty of it!

      Check out the forum where papermac has posted some pretty funky documentary videos involving RAND.

      Or don’t! 🙂

      Comment by Lidia — June 28, 2011 @ 1:19 pm

      • +1000

        On a side note, the recent SCOTUS decisions re the 1st amendment are a new low even for them. Using freedom of speech to violate privacy rights. Genius, I’m sure the founding fathers believed in pharmaceutical marketing as a cornerstone of our great experiment.


        Comment by dan — June 28, 2011 @ 4:02 pm

      • To Lidia:
        I SUGGESTED the book to RUSS. There are some individuals who have the intellectual curiosity to read people that have earned solid academic reputations – even if they disagree with the author’s politics. Russ didn’t call me a wingnut and understands that some neocons may have something interesting to say.Your comment about Fukuyama having worked for Rand provoked my McCarthy remark. There were people in grad school that denounced Nietzsche for providing the evil fascists with a formative philosophy. There were others (myself included) that considered that absurd. And isn’t there something to be said for knowing your enemies? Their thinking evolves so you have to keep up.

        Comment by Natalie Golovin — June 28, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

      • “solid academic reputations”… Sounds like an appeal to authority, and thus a corrupt appeal.

        Fukuyama is not an eccentric or, shall we say, original thinker like Nietzsche. He is tendentious. His excursions all magically end up in the same place: conventional religious ideas, free markets, the USA kicks ass, and human society having adopted the current prevailing religions/free market/USA ideologies is thus improved and evolving. Except it isn’t evolving any more because we have reached the End of History: we are living in the the best of all possible worlds. What else do I need to know about him?

        You can talk to Russ, but your comments happen to be here on this public forum.

        I don’t need to “keep up” with my enemies; they are already one step ahead of me.

        I especially don’t need to line their pockets.

        Anyone who writes a book about the “development gap” between the US and third-world countries is not on my side, which is to say that they are not on the side of reality, and thus have nothing to teach me.

        “This indispensable book ends the debate over why we Latinos are not rich Americans: It’s not our culture, religion, intellects, or even the U.S. that keep us behind. It’s our defective institutions. So let reform begin. Thanks to Fukuyama and his distinguished colleagues, governments have no more excuses to avoid legal change.”–Hernando de Soto, author of The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else

        EVERYone can be rich if they exploit 5x their share of the earth’s resources (a physical impossibility)!!!


        Enough said.

        Comment by Lidia17 — July 2, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

      • To precise, not only are our enemies one step ahead of us, they are all around us. To say that we have to buy their books in order to “know” them is to assume that we don’t already…

        Comment by Lidia17 — July 2, 2011 @ 6:26 pm

  10. […] In part 1 I discussed Nietzsche’s concept of the will to power as it could be applied to political […]

    Pingback by The Nietzschean Ascent to Democracy (2 of 2) « Volatility — July 7, 2011 @ 4:19 am

  11. There’s a lot of Veblen in your remarks about capitalism’s desires.

    Comment by spark — July 10, 2011 @ 4:28 pm

    • Hi Spark,

      I’ve often had Veblen recommended to me, but haven’t gotten to reading him.

      Comment by Russ — July 10, 2011 @ 5:00 pm

  12. […] wrong, both according to basic Darwinism itself as well as the details as established by science. My post on Nietzsche’s will to power concept including common misconceptions of it is a start.)   The parasitic market, on the other hand, promotes specialization and maximum […]

    Pingback by Co-Production and the Core Economy « Volatility — August 12, 2011 @ 3:56 am

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