Modernity has been characterised not only by the great benefits brought by the increase in scientific knowledge and the technologies that have flowed from it, such as increasing wealth and convenience, improvements in health and well-being, and access to enormous amounts of information by ordinary citizens, but also by the increased possibilities for the documentation, regulation and control of our individual lives by governments, corporations or the cooperation of the two which technology has facilitated. This was already foreseen in the nineteenth century by one of sociology’s founders, Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the iron cage’ to characterise the growth of bureaucratic rationalisation in capitalist society. Other writers of the period also perceived this tendency within modernity, notably Friedrich Schiller, and Franz Kafka in The Trial. Over the intervening century the bureaucratic state has slowly but inexorably been stretching its tentacles into every aspect of social life, and this development has gathered pace with the advent of big data. With the convergence of government with big data, such as the establishment of a social credit system in China this tendency is now reaching its apotheosis in the ‘digital state’.
The argument made in this essay is that while technological developments have facilitated the drift towards the digital state, we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the promises that the digital world holds, while neglecting the matter of our spiritual being, specifically the rationality, freedom and moral individualism which is the foundation of a sustainable democratic order. While responsibility for this neglect cannot ultimately be laid at the feet of anyone but each of us individually, there are cultural currents that define the social context in which we are brought up, educated and live our lives, and those currents are driven by thinkers of great perception and boldness. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one such thinker. His influence on the twentieth century, if largely unacknowledged, has been profound, as various aspects of his ideas contributed directly or indirectly to eugenics, National Socialism, existentialism, the sexual revolution, liberal theology and postmodern philosophy. By advocating hedonism as a positive virtue, Nietzsche unleased the genie of irrationalism in Western culture, where it has played havoc with our thinking and institutions since.
I will briefly review four aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy and their influence on European culture1: the Übermensch, transvaluation of values, death of God, and the eternal recurrence. As post-modernism is the contemporary intellectual legacy of Nietzschean philosophy, I will consider how this legacy is taking forward the programme of transvaluation, and the influence that is having on the modern culture and, specifically, on individualism as the bulwark against the bureaucratic state’s total dominance. Finally, I will re-evaluate Nietzsche for insights that might yet reinvigorate individualism and the democratic tradition.
The Transvaluation of European Thought
Like Weber, Nietzsche observed the increasing bureaucratisation of European society and, while like Weber, he saw this as rooted in Christian doctrine and values, unlike Weber, he was not merely content to objectivise these values as structural components in a ‘science’ of society; instead, he called for the wholesale transvaluation of our value system. Under the influence of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of the will, he developed his ideas of the will-to-power. Nietzsche saw the phenomenon of bureaucratisation as a moral failure of Christian civilisation, particularly as represented in the bourgeois life of the middle classes, and this failure as arising from the weakening effect of Christian values such as humility, meekness, love and charity on the will-to-power. In place of these values, he sought to instil what he saw as the aristocratic values of the past, those of the warrior code of the pagan gods.
Nietzsche stands in opposition to much of what we think of as philosophy in the Western tradition, usually discussed along the dual traditions of rationalism and empiricism, which can be traced back to the debates of the ancient Greeks, although inflected through the ideas of medieval scholasticism. Rather, he made a turn into mystification and mythologisation through the medium of analogy and aphorism. His most influential work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, uses the figure of a hermetic seer, nominally based on the actual founder of the Zoroastrian religion2, who descends from his mountain to speak about the Übermensch (Over-man, more commonly translated as Superman) and announce the death of God to the world.
The Übermensch is Nietzsche’s anthropological prototype, a heroic figure, nominally based on the pagan gods of German folklore, who rejects the values of the contemporary society to live entirely by their own chosen values. The Übermensch – talented, ruthless, aristocratic and this-worldly – is the opposite of the stereotypical bourgeois middle class person that Nietzsche despised. Despite the middle classes embodying many of the virtues of stable societies and their cultural values, they are consistently a target for elitist figures, including the totalitarian ideologues of left and right of the past century and their intellectual apologists. One can see Nietzsche’s point to some extent; although most of us in the West at least are middle class, to aspire to be middle class is to accept a place in Weber’s ‘iron cage’ of an increasingly regulated existence. To the extent that we are aware of this, we feel a call to resist, and the Übermensch offers us one model of resistance. For reasons that I will develop further below I think it is the wrong model; not wrong absolutely, but too partial to address our current requirements. What it does suggest is that resistance has an element of danger, both risk to ourselves and – at least potential – threat to others.
Surveying the conditions of his day, Nietzsche believed European civilisation was on the verge of sliding into nihilism. The cause of this catastrophe he argued was that Christianity was effectively emasculating the population; belief in the afterlife, values such as meekness, humility, love and forgiveness, and turning the other cheek in the face of hostility, were diluting the will-to-power necessary for the vitality of a culture. As part of his critique of Christianity, Nietzsche, through the mouthpiece of Zarathustra, announced the death of God, meaning that belief in God and in an afterlife no longer had any power to motivate European civilisation to greatness. His riposte to Christian belief was the doctrine of the eternal recurrence. This is best understood as a thought experiment: imagine that if we had to live each moment of our life over and over again eternally, and then imagine living it without a single regret. Nietzsche was not advocating living a blameless life, but a Dionysian existence of excess without shame.
Is it true that belief in an afterlife encourages apathy towards social development in this world? One can see logically why it could be true, but there is no compelling evidence that there is a causal relationship. The Victorian period in British history was marked not only by a strong religiosity, but also substantial social reform frequently motivated by religious belief. Nietzsche obviously moved in more genteel circles, in which an insipid form of religious observance encouraged passivity rather than social engagement. This coincided with the rise of more bureaucratic states in Europe as urban populations rose with the development of capitalism and industrialisation driven by scientific discovery. Together they created a pliant cultural milieu, in which the individuality of the individual was subsumed in a culture of mediocrity. Against this reality Nietzsche railed and called for a transvaluation of values, something that entailed the wholesale replacement of the Christian virtues and the values arising from the Enlightenment with the pagan virtues of the aristocratic warrior, the elevation of a Dionysian view of human life and potentialities.
One sees something like a need for a Nietzschean reaction to the present-day dominance of illiberal values, which, together with the rise of digital technology, have emasculated the vibrancy of Western and other developed cultures. We are a few steps away from becoming vassals of a totalitarian digital state. The implementation of a social credit system in China is the precursor of what may happen globally if present trends continue, because it has a logical inevitability as well as an intrinsic appeal to the powerful. However, There is a terrible paradox to Nietzsche’s revolt against the Christian and humanist traditions of European culture; standing outside the mainstream and preaching a philosophy of the extreme – a heady mixture of violence and hedonism – against the suffocating dictates of reason and conventional morality, has weakened very core values of European and Western identity and stability and allowed the influx, cultivation and nurturing of extremist ideologies at the very heart of many of our academic institutions.
The Susceptibility of Post-Modern Societies to the ‘Iron Cage’
The ‘iron cage’ of Weber’s imagination is as apt a description of the social trends we see today as it was of his own time. Two new factors have been added: the emergence of digital technology which has accelerated and augmented the bureaucratisation of the state and its intrusion into more areas of individual and family life; the rise of a rights-based illiberalism which necessitates, increasingly, the use of the tools of state power to implement and police its diktats in every corner of society.
How have we been enticed into the iron cage, and how do we continue to live there for the most part unaware of our imprisonment? Answering those questions fully would require a historical and psychological account to be given and I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, but from a socio-philosophical perspective it can plausibly be argued that a Nietzschean transvaluation has in fact occurred. European civilisation has been based upon individualism derived from both classical Enlightenment values and Christian values. This type of individualism has provided people with the tools for both internal resilience, that is inner conviction in an extrinsic truth, and the ability to call out wrongdoing and transgression in the name of a greater good, not only moral but also social. At the same time, it has also bred a belief in fundamental freedom and tolerance, meaning an acceptance of that with which one did not necessarily agree. Beyond this, these fundamental values have provided the basis for a shared understanding and belonging in a web of communities, both secular and spiritual, in which disagreements could be discussed in a more-or-less civilised manner. It is this individualism which has now been severely weakened.
How is it then that a culture that underlay Western individualism has been so etiolated? I think that the seeds lie already in how Christianity and humanism developed through their institutional embodiments. In some respects their positive strengths and values made them susceptible to the enticement of alternative – more extreme – interpretations of their virtues. These forces include the emergence of a culture of groupthink. At some point in the development of human rights thinking, the notion of group rights became accepted. This went against the very idea of human rights in its original form, which enshrined the right of the individual to be protected from the power of the state. The protection of the rights of a group requires an inversion of this priority, that is the interference of the state in the rights of individuals in freely expressing their views on groups considered vulnerable. Of course, it can be, and is, argued that this represents progress in social matters; nevertheless, it was a breach in the protection of individual rights. The expansion of this initially laudable idea of the protection of vulnerable groups has continued apace, until it has come to occupy almost the entire discourse on human rights, and where group rights conflict with the individual right of self-expression or conscience, almost invariably group rights – the protection of one’s rights as part of a collective identity – take precedence in any legal judgement.
A second related threat is the progressive undermining of the spiritual and secular values of European civilisation. For reasons that it is beyond the scope of this essay to consider, spiritual and secular values, while often in tension, exist in a symbiotic relationship. It has often been noted that the particular religious legacy of the West has been instrumental in creating its intellectual culture. Attempts to distil the essence of rationality shorn of this historical and cultural context have inevitably run into paradox. At least since the French Revolution, though, the intellectual culture of the West has been increasingly hostile to religion, and this has permeated almost every institution and medium of mass communication. For example, the EU is an attempt to create a European identity based entirely on secular values, without any reference to its shared religious history. To some extent this trend is understandable, as it can be seen as a reaction against the past historical abuses of power of the Christian churches and the wars of religion. However, the lessons of the French revolution should disabuse us of the idea that reason alone is the guarantor of a just social order. I suspect (though I have no evidence for this) that religion creates a context of rules for an extended community in which reason can operate but is constrained; freed of this constraint, reason has nothing to operate on but itself, which at least explains the self-destructive tendencies in the hyper-rationalism of post-modern philosophies such as deconstructionism.
Post-modernism is doubtless the principal contemporary ideology with a Nietzschean lineage.3 Its indebtedness to Nietzsche is two-fold: on the one hand is its clear inheritance of Nietzsche’s diatribes against Christianity and rationality, though reinterpreted through a Marxist appeal to equality to the downtrodden (replacing the industrial proletariat with whoever can conveniently be labelled a victim of western power structures) and the subtle use of dialectic that allows the play of meaning to the verge of semantic nihilism; on the other hand is its incessant narratives and barely concealed love of confrontation and transgression: Foucault’s discourses on power and ‘symbolic violence’ (basically everything), anti-imperialist, radical feminist and queer theorists that subject even science and mathematics to their victimological hermeneutics, to the current vogue for ‘safe spaces’, ‘microaggressions’ and ‘trigger warnings’, that foreclose open debate and precipitate pre-emptively defensive acts of violence. Nowhere is this postmodern dialectic more revealing than in its apologetics for radical Islam, despite (or is it because of?) its anti-rationalist and anti-science fundamentalism, its oppression of women, support for global jihad and dreadful human rights record.
Resistance to the ‘Iron Cage’
Is it possible to interpret Nietzsche for a route out of the iron cage, towards which, I have argued, he has unwittingly helped entice us, by creating the cultural shift in values that is facilitating the advent of the totalitarian digital state? I believe that a reading of Nietzsche can be foundational to a reassessment of individualism moving into the emerging information age, both of its rationalistic elements and of its Christian morality. I will focus on two of Nietzsche’s concepts, the figure of the Übermensch and the eternal recurrence.
The Übermensch has been criticised as a type of proto-fascist ideal. They live by an aristocratic code of superiority, the will-to-power, which is what attracted the Nazi theorists to the idea and it is certainly true that the Nazis appropriated the terminology for their own propaganda.4 The delineation of the idea in itself, therefore, makes Nietzsche responsible to that extent. That, however, can be said of almost any idea: that it is subject to misinterpretation and misappropriation. A reading of Nietzsche on the subject should be enough to correct that criticism. Fascism is a branch of socialism that identifies the state with national identity rather than the industrial proletariat. The Übermenschen live by their own values, not by the values of the collective. They have no allegiance to the state, to an ideology, to a collective identity or obedience to a Führer, which is where Nietzsche and fascism part company.
I think Nietzsche was right to critique the dominant values of the culture of his time, particularly the way in which Christianity, with its focus on sin and salvation, diminished the image of man and reduced the capacities and potentialities of life in this world with the promise of a better life in the next. He was also right in predicting the slide into nihilism that occurred with the two world wars. It is possible that the very culture of inadequacy and dependence which he lacerated was instrumental in the rise of Hitler, who came as a messianic saviour to the German people. However, the image of the Übermensch should not be appropriated wholesale, but accepted critically as a corrective to the weaknesses of the dominant European culture. Particularly at this time, as people are becoming in thrall to the new digital culture and the possibilities for radical government control over the actions and thoughts of their citizens, Nietzsche’s Übermensch holds out the possibility of the individual citizen becoming more dangerous to the power of the state.
That said, this does not require a total transvaluation of the sort proclaimed by Nietzsche. Many of the values that he criticised have an important place in our culture and our psychology. The fact is, we are physically and morally limited and fail or commit sins. All cultures have evolved methods for individual and societal healing, such as confession, punishment, contrition, mercy and forgiveness, depending on the nature of the crime. I suggest rather than a rejection of the values of the culture of which we find ourselves a part, we should engage in a more critical appropriation and individualisation of those values, accepting the positive aspects and resisting attempts by the state to coerce us into its desired patterns of behaviour. It is to redress the balance in the relationship between the state and the citizen, which has flowed in the direction of state empowerment during the last 100 years. It is not a repudiation of statehood, but of the totalitarian bureaucratic state that is threateningly just over the horizon. It is also to accept the responsibility for becoming a better citizen, who holds the state to account.
The idea of the eternal recurrence (or eternal return as it is also known) is probably the most difficult of Nietzsche’s ideas to fathom. I have offered my interpretation above, and on the surface a more morally odious and nihilistic idea can barely be conceived. Yet I want to turn that on its head now, and consider how that might yet presage an important philosophical turn in European civilisation. The eternal recurrence, on Nietzsche’s own understanding, means to live beyond not merely belief in a life after death, but beyond belief itself, in a world of values. It is to live in the eternal present; not so much to live hedonistically in the present moment as such, but to live one’s values as if they are eternal values. Nietzsche therefore declares that the age to come is the new axial age, in which matters of value, whether they be religious or secular, take precedence over the matters of ontology and epistemology which have hitherto been the central concerns of philosophy.
Just as Nietzsche could not contemplate a transvaluation of European civilisation without a mythological underpinning, so too a reinterpretation of the eternal recurrence as a paradigm shift to values-based culture has its own mythology, which is best described by Maurice Berman’s concept of ‘the re-enchantment of the world’, which emerged in a book of the same name on the philosophy and psychology of science, and became adopted as a tellingly evocative motif among certain environmental writers and theologians in the late twentieth century. Coming full circle, it was, ironically, a challenge to Weber’s characterisation of the predicament of post-Enlightenment societies through a phrase he had borrowed from Schiller, ‘the disenchantment of the world’. Through ‘disenchantment’ Weber had in mind, the distancing from the immediate experience of nature – and, indeed, the experience of the sacred in nature that had predominated in the medieval mind – through the emergence of the modern scientific viewpoint, and the increasing rationalisation and bureaucratisation of society enabled by the technological and economic advances of the age, which together created a sense of alienation of the individual, from the natural environment and the social other. The disenchantment of the world is the spiritual precursor of the iron cage of bureaucratic rationalisation.
The idea of re-enchantment fulfils the need in a thoroughly secularised age for a sense of the transcendent in human life. That could be transcendence in the religion of our own culture, in a new religious, philosophical or political movement, in great art, literature and music, in the experience and contemplation of nature, in creative pursuit or in surpassing human achievement in sport and adventure, or in love. Seeking transcendence of our ego, our experience of the self, is not only an expression of our freedom and individuality, but also our desire, as an individual, to belong to the human community. Nietzsche’s concept of the Übermensch, therefore finds a more benevolent interpretation in what I call transcendent individualism, a philosophy of the self that is at the heart of resistance to the iron cage.
To speak of transcendent individualism as benevolent does not, though, mask its threat to the forces of bureaucratic rationalisation. The modern capitalist society requires us to be good workers and consumers, whereas socialism requires us to be good citizens of the state. Of the two prospects, given the choice, people have chosen the former on the whole, and the former almost universally after having experienced the latter. But the state in either case has no intrinsic interest in us as individuals, only as functional parts of its operational whole; it defends us against enemies, feeds us, educates us, provides we remain in reasonable health, and perhaps employs us, because that is the requirement of its own survival – indeed without doing those things we would call it a failed state. Paradoxically, then, though the state is, in the end, just individuals, as a deontological entity, it abstracts the individuality of the individual and, if it becomes too powerful it crushes the natural state of free thought, free expression, free action and free association that underlie authentic social belonging.
Transcendent individualism, by resisting the encroachment of the overgrown state into more areas of our lives, is the guarantor of the continuing vitality of the society of which the state is an important part. It addresses philosophically an issue which has been neglected in recent debates on democracy, the importance of individualism as the foundation of democratic societies, without reducing it to the consumer of capitalist requirement. It does not shy away, either, from the notion of democracy as a messy, conflict-ridden and sometimes revolutionary force. I do not foresee a reduction in conflict in democratic society in the future, as there will inevitably be clashes of values, but this is the essence of the form of society that builds itself on the value of the individual, one that must be eternally vigilant of collectivist tendencies and the stultifying oppression of bureaucratic rationalisation.
- I have referred to European thought and European culture rather more than the more general term Western thought and culture, firstly because this is more representative of the cultural milieu in which Nietzsche moved and wrote, but also because, although there are continuities with Western thought and culture more generally, some of the criticisms, e.g. of the character of Christianity, discussed here do not necessarily apply outside Europe.
- The modern-day Parsees of India, a small but influential community, are the last remnants of the Zoroastrian religion, which was once widespread throughout central Asia. Its influence is even apparent in Jewish and early Christian theology.
- Nietzsche’s relationship to subsequent developments is disputed and paradoxical, as it seems he is held responsible for precipitating the things he warned against. He likened Christianity to a slave mentality, making a virtue of weakness. Today postmodernism – which does have an authentic Nietzschean heritage – underpins much of social justice rhetoric and activism, yet reproduces this mentality. Similarly, while he warned against nihilism, he is considered by some a nihilist philosopher.
- It is known definitively that Nietzsche’s links to Nazism arose through the emendation of his archive posthumously by his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was married to a believer in Aryan supremacy, and was later herself a National Socialist sympathiser. Through the bowdlerised works, Nietzsche came to the attention of Nazi theorists and leaders.
Peter Baehr (2001), The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, History and Theory Volume 40, Issue 2, pages 153–169, May 2001
Ernst Bertram (2009). Nietzsche: Attempt at a New Mythology [Translated by Robert E. Norton]. University of Illinois Press.
Maurice Berman (1981). The Reenchantment of the World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Simon Denyer (22 October 2016). China wants to give all of its citizens a score – and their rating could affect every area of their lives. The Independent (online): http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/china-surveillance-big-data-score-censorship-a7375221.html
Graeme Garrard (2008). Nietzsche for and against the Enlightenment. The Review of Politics, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Fall, 2008), pp. 595-608
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Friedrich Nietzsche (2005). Thus Spoke Zarathustra: a book for everybody and nobody (translated by Graham Parkes). Oxford: Oxford University Press.