October 15, 2011

Post-Morality, New Mores

Filed under: Freedom, Neo-feudalism, Nietzsche — Tags: — Russ @ 9:00 am


A post in honor of Nietzsche’s birthday.
In Genealogy of Morals Essay II Nietzsche describes the alleged progress of primalism to achieve modern morality. He claims that humanity underwent thousands of years, often under conditions of extreme physical and spiritual cruelty, developing what he calls the morality of mores (Kaufmann’s rendering of die Sittlichkeit der Sitte; Hollingdale calls it the morality of custom), with what we now call “morality” being the culmination. This includes a capacity to incur debt, something not natural but by now branded into us.
David Graeber, in his seminal book Debt: The First 5000 Years, rightly places this in the category of one’s reading back bourgeois morality into prehistory, and then picturing this morality of mores period as having some implicitly “intentional” progress toward this same morality. Typical bourgeois self-servingness. I’ll add that here Nietzsche would be exhibiting the same historically fraudulent propensity he castigated in other commentators, historians and sociologists and such. I agree with Graeber that Nietzsche probably realized the mendacity of his procedure here, and that he was really presenting a more honest (i.e. brutal) depiction of bourgeois society’s own foundation story. This would fit with N’s predilection for using the enemy’s tropes against him. Thus for example he loved to use militaristic metaphors to discuss spiritual and intellectual matters in ways subversive of the statism and nationalism of the time.
Meanwhile we know, from the work of Graeber and other real anthropologists, that the “festival of cruelty” Nietzsche describes is actually a recent, ahistorical development. The true morality of mores had a radically different nature. It was mostly cooperative, peaceful, materially modest, focused on seeking health and happiness. This is the human path we so disastrously forsook, starting a few thousand years ago and plunging into the ultimate depths of subhumanity during the fossil fuel binge. Our human task is now to find our way back to the primal human path.
But now that we recognize the fraudulence of this “moral” age and all its institutions, what shall be the nature of the new morality of mores we must now enter? Will Nietzsche’s savage depictions have to come true 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, and I want to still find reasons for optimism. This will depend primarily on our democratic will and our determination to build a movement out of it. I fear that just trying to wing it won’t do. Without the built movement our likely result will be permanent enslavement or total collapse and starvation.
But with a movement vision based on positive democracy and relocalized organic food production, incorporating all the knowledge we’ve attained, we can steer between the twin perils of terminal debt enslavement and some kind of harsh, universally violent alternative.


  1. Russ,

    Off-topic. Here’s an interesting piece from Bloomberg news:


    What the author points out as hypocrisy is, in fact, confirmation of capitalism’s encroachment on democracy. And I think that is, in part, what the author is missing: the OWS movement is pro-democracy not necessarily anti-captialist. For the most part, from what I can tell, their anti-corporate arguments are really about who their government should serve.

    Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 17, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    • That’s no surprise coming from a hack like Cohan. But as described in the post on Rortybomb’s analysis of the “ideology” of the 99, the data so far contradicts the accusation that OWSers are just sore that they’re no longer getting their measly little share of the loot. I don’t doubt that some of them are like that, and indeed we’re going to need people like that at first. But some of them will evolve, and meanwhile once the real movement is rolling we can dispense with that attitude completely.

      Meanwhile the Cohan piece is based on nothing but ideological fraud. Two examples – that “property” has any legitimacy, and that free speech is a “right” magnanimously granted from the top down. (It’s funny how that argument always contradicts itself. If it’s a right, then it’s not a privilege. It’s therefore meaningless and offensive to imply that anyone should be grateful to the government for “allowing” us to exercise our rights.)

      The fact is that no right exists except where enforced from the bottom up. Swine like Cohan are actually disgruntled that the people are exercising rights at all. How dare we. Sorry, we dare.

      How’s it possible to want democracy but not be anti-capitalist? By definition capitalism is elitist, larcenous, and imposed by force. The reference sounds more like being to “representative” pseudo-democracy. (Even there it’s historically false. Not once has any people ever voted for an honestly depicted, transparent capitalism. All its electoral successes have been the result of lies and often electoral fraud.)

      Again, I don’t doubt there’s still lots of immaturity among the protestors on that point. But they’re on the right vector.

      Comment by Russ — October 17, 2011 @ 10:57 am

      • How’s it possible to want democracy but not be anti-capitalist?

        I’m speaking of motivations for the protest, not desired outcomes. Part of our conditioning is that democracy and capitalism are not only compatible but two sides of the same coin. According to conventional wisdom, wanting more democracy should be good for capitalism, too (e.g., more equitable distributions of income, etc.). To jump to the conclusion that being for democracy is anti-capitalist is something the capitalists should be arguing, and I think Cohan is doing so, just not overtly. He is basically saying that without capitalism we would not have the limited democracy that we enjoy. From this perspective, he inadvertently confirms that the protesters are right, particularly when viewed in the context of history, as the founding of the U.S. did not have the kind of immortal corporation that exists today.

        Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 17, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

      • To jump to the conclusion that being for democracy is anti-capitalist is something the capitalists should be arguing, and I think Cohan is doing so, just not overtly.

        Yes, he is. And at the same time he’s at least implicitly denying that actual democracy is democracy, while trying to reinforce the myth of representative democracy.

        Comment by Russ — October 17, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    • Relevant piece from Greenwald today: http://www.salon.com/2011/10/17/what_are_those_ows_people_so_angry_about/singleton/

      There’s an interesting narrative to be told here. I’ll probably try to tell it over the weekend.

      Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 18, 2011 @ 1:07 am

      • Yup – the only thing disreputable and hard top understand about these protests is that they didn’t start much sooner and aren’t yet much bigger.

        The fourth update is a gem. That’s a point we’ll be dealing with more and more. To the elites, any challenge outside the prescribed norms of neoliberalism including existing electoral processes is by definition “anti-democratic”, while the truth is the exact opposite. What’s anti-democratic is to still demand faith in what’s proven to be an anti-democratic criminal system. Under kleptocracy, the only true expressions of democracy are movement-building and direct action.

        I too have a post in the works about this, although it’ll be primarily about the food movement. There, too, according to some who claim to care about the state of our food, wanting to go over the head of reform-within-the-system-by-system-approved-means is “undemocratic” and indeed “unpolitical.”

        A more perfect and obscene Orwellian inversion is difficult to imagine.

        Comment by Russ — October 18, 2011 @ 5:10 am

  2. I’m so tired of hearing politicians and media pundits criticize OWS because they haven’t submitted a list of demands…….

    Here’s a pretty good response to CNN and the others:

    “Well, let’s set the record straight. It’s not that we don’t have demands; it’s that we speak them in a different language. We speak them with our struggle. Our movement is made up of people fighting for jobs, for schools, for debt relief, equitable housing, and healthcare. We are resisting ecological destruction, imperialism, racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. We are doing it all in a way that is participatory, democratic, fierce, and unwavering. There is nothing very vague about that.

    But we do not stop there.

    ….We’re only getting warmed up…..

    You will see our demands plastered on subway walls, scrawled on hanging banners, tweeted across oceans, marched on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands, shouted in unison from millions of streets, windows, and computers screens. You will see them all over the world, from post-industrial cities to the country-sides, from capitals to shanty-towns. You will see them expressed in the streets of New York City ….. when we bring the battle straight to the banks – those shiny little storefronts of finance capital. You will see our demands when we descend on the fluorescent decadence of Times Square and re-decorate it with our humanity.

    Yes, we speak a different language, a fearless and visionary one. We are shouting, with every ounce of passion and strength we can muster: Of course there is an alternative. It is us.”


    Comment by Frank Lavarre — October 18, 2011 @ 2:50 pm

    • I’m so tired of hearing politicians and media pundits criticize OWS because they haven’t submitted a list of demands…….

      Same here. But people seem entitled to tell others how to express themselves. “You don’t mourn the right way.” “You don’t worship the right way.” “You don’t participate in democracy the right way.”

      Too bad. I like what I’m seeing with OWS and hope it continues to unfold itself as it has. The legitimacy of the movement, at least for now, cannot be denied. This is what real change looks like, and I’m crossing my fingers that it can keep on going without getting coopted by the political establishment. I really think we are on the verge of a modern Glorious Revolution, which marked the final break from feudalism. What’s next?

      Comment by Tao Jonesing — October 18, 2011 @ 10:09 pm

    • Too powerful! I love it.

      Comment by tawal — October 18, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    • Good stuff. I’ve been thinking about Hammurabi’s code and other ancient constitutions as well. My basic conclusion – a true constitution has to start with a debt jubilee and see that they continue at frequent intervals. Anything else is a fraud. (I have more work to do on that idea before I post on it, though.)

      I hope we can do better than the shift of power from one gang of elites to another called in pro-parliamentary propaganda the “glorious revolution”. That was also a revolution in money, as the new monarch proceeded to monetize his war debt, producing immediately the characteristic combination of the credit money rich alongside the “real” money poor (cf Graeber p.339ff). The Bank of England was established to preside over this expropriation in 1694.

      Neoliberalism has been the climax of this double standard of “(scarce) real money for you, (infinite) funny money for me”. Indeed, an across-the-board hard money standard would be an improvement. Of course no such thing could exist, nor would it be desirable if it could. But it would be better than what we have. What we have now is the dollar being turned into the equivalent of scarce hard money for the 99%, even as it becomes an ever more profuse weapon for the 1%. Examples are permanent mass unemployment as systematic government/corporate policy, and the gutting of what’s left of public interest government spending while corporate welfare bloats infinitely. The Obama Stamp mandate shall be another enslaving demand for this “hard” money aspect of the dollar from those who increasingly lack access to it.

      Comment by Russ — October 19, 2011 @ 2:11 am

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