Rethinking Democracy after Nietzsche

James Mangiafico. Philosophy Today, suppl. Conflicts and Convergences. Volume 42. 1998.

At the same time that Nietzsche’s work enjoys such enthusiastic attention, his political views seem to inspire only unanimous contempt. While Martha Nussbaum, for instance, will admit that “the resurgence of interest in Nietzsche at the present time is certainly a good thing in many respects,” she feels compelled to conclude that “in political thought, however, let us simply forget about Nietzsche, except to argue against his baneful influence.” Others consider Nietzsche’s politics not dangerous but vacuous, including Tracy Strong who claims that “Nietzsche is available to a wide range of political appropriations, indeed perhaps to all.” And Richard Rorty has gone as far as to use the words mad and crazy to describe Nietzsche because, writes Rorty, “extensive attempts at an exchange of political views have made us realize that we are not going to get anywhere.” The first aim of this essay is simply to construct a meaningful political dialogue with Nietzsche. I will pursue this dialogue by means of a critical examination of a peculiar and recent response to Nietzsche, namely, the attempt by some of his apologists to excuse his anti-democratic remarks, to distance these remarks from the core of Nietzsche’s thought, and to construct a new defense of democracy within the terms of Nietzsche’s postmodern legacy. Specifically, I have in mind a position that wants both to adopt the Nietzschean language of power and to defend democracy as the arena for a rich and free expression of power. After a brief characterization of Nietzsche’s critique, I will examine a recent piece of scholarship that tries to limit its implications for democracy. Then I will make use of Foucault’s work to isolate the basic principles behind much of the contemporary discourse on democracy. And finally, I will argue that Nietzsche’s critique is more resilient than has been acknowledged.

Nietzsche’s critique of democracy comprises two basic components, each of which is well enough known to require only a cursory rehearsal at this point. The first is a denial of the traditional, theological (or at least metaphysical) foundations upon which democracy has been justified, and the second is an analysis of democracy’s effects, that is, its harmful effects, if Nietzsche is to be believed. In the first case, Nietzsche wants to part ways with the Enlightenment tradition that would found democratic theory upon a doctrine of equal rights. While such defenses of democracy may have been palatable when we were able to allow ourselves belief in God—it is easy, for instance, to understand why everyone should be treated equally if we understand ourselves to be made in the image of a perfect God-Nietzsche wants at least to encourage our mistrust of such transcendent or metaphysical explanations. Of course, not every doctrine of equal rights makes explicit appeal to a theology, but Nietzsche is prepared to argue that all must do so at least covertly. In short, modern liberalism is simply Christian morality grown ashamed of its religious heritage. To justify its democratic institutions it must rely upon any number of other idols—surrogate gods, if you will—each of which Nietzsche sets out to undermine. For instance, in response to those who wish to establish democratic theory upon a metaphysics of subjectivity, Nietzsche presents the autonomous subject to be a myth created for the protection of certain human interests and at the expense of others.4 And he offers similar arguments against other founding principles, including the common good and the social contract. It should be said that this first component of Nietzsche’s critique is simply intended to expose a crisis in justification; it alone is not sufficient to undermine democratic theory as such. Nietzsche hopes only that by highlighting justificatory weaknesses he might focus attention on the consequences of democracy.

The second component of Nietzsche’s critique is his estimation that democracy leads to mediocrity or the leveling of human possibility. There are countless versions of this claim in Nietzsche’s writings, perhaps the most succinct of which is the following: “the democratic movement is not only a form of the decay of political organization but a form of the decay, namely the diminution, of man, making him mediocre and lowering his value.” Here we can see Nietzsche’s commitment to what has been called his “political perfectionism.” Whatever role Nietzsche may envision for the state—and there are many places in which he suggests that this role at most should be quite limited and the implication of his assertion is that the political is justified only to the extent to which it fosters the extraordinary. Elsewhere he makes this explicit: a “people is a detour of nature to get to six or seven great men.” Contrary to this drive runs the democratic movement which, with its inherent egalitarianism, leads to an atrophy of the human spirit. I will later consider in more detail just how Nietzsche thinks democracy inhibits human flourishing, but it is worth noting at this point how profound he believes this antagonism to be. A good democrat does not simply dispute the value of great individuals but rather refuses to accept their possibility. “Democracy,” writes Nietzsche, “represents the disbelief in great human beings.”

There have been a range of responses to Nietzsche, not all of which I will be able to consider here. Specifically, I know of two lines of objection that I must now pass over. First, some have attempted a straightforward revitalization of human rights, either with or without an explicitly theological justification. It is not my purpose in this essay either to defend Nietzsche’s broader critique of metaphysics or to show how the various attempts to defend human rights while evading this critique will eventually fall prey to it. Rather, I want to focus on those defenses of democracy that do not make an appeal to metaphysical justification. Second, I will not have much to say about the direct refusal of Nietzsche’s perfectionism. I have in mind here Rorty’s willingness to defend democracy despite its leveling effects. “The liberal response” to Nietzsche, writes Rorty, “must be, therefore, that even if the typical character straits of liberal democracies are bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic, the prevalence of such people may be a reasonable price to pay for political freedom.” I might like to ask Rorty whether he is willing to count himself among the bland, calculating, petty, and unheroic or whether he continues, with Nietzsche, to hope for a few exceptional individuals. Also, I might be tempted to push for some clarification of what reasonable might mean in this context. Given, however, that Rorty claims a privilege for democracy even over philosophy—the title of his essay, after all, is “The Privilege of Democracy to Philosophy”—it seems that any critical examination of his premises would be fruitless.

Whatever we may make of Rorty’s response to Nietzsche, he should not be allowed to give the impression that Nietzsche’s perfectionism is merely a premise offered for the reader’s acceptance. Nietzsche takes his political perfectionism to follow from more fundamental understandings of life, growth and self-overcoming. Immediately following the passage cited above in which Nietzsche declares a people to be nature’s detour to get to six or seven great individuals, he adds: “yes, and then to get around them.” In other words, nature takes its detour only then to surpass it. But this is to say that nature takes its detour so that it can surpass itself. Nature’s movement is one of self-overcoming to which the great individual is only a means, justified by its capacity to further this movement. The operative premise behind Nietzsche’s perfectionism, therefore, must be the assertion that stagnation is death, that an organism, a species or a tradition either grows, changes and overcomes itself, or it dies. If we grant this, the debate would then turn on whether or not the course most likely to lead to a fertile evolution requires the production of a few extraordinary individuals. That is, it will be a question of whether or not, as Nietzsche contends, “every enhancement of the type ‘man’ has so far been the work of an aristocratic society—an it will be so again and again.”

That said, I want to focus for the remainder of this essay on two more subtle responses to Nietzsche, each of which concedes much to Nietzsche’s critique while attempting to preserve a viable defense of democracy nonetheless. The first is an attempt to grant Nietzsche his critique of metaphysics, and then to argue that the resulting perspectivism (or epistemic pluralism) only supports the democratic position. This line of argument generally assumes that other forms of political configuration require a level of justification that democracy does not. Democracy is conceived to be some sort of neutral default, upon which we must fall back absent any justification of privilege. The second type of response I will consider accepts Nietzsche’s perfectionism but disputes his claim that democracy is inconsistent with it. In this case, it is argued that democracy can, in fact, further the development of human excellence. Each of these two lines of response is well developed in Lawrence Hatab’s A Nietzschean Defense of Democracy, which I will take as a starting point because it so clearly articulates the details of arguments that other writers seem willing merely to take for granted.

Although Hatab chooses a variety of avenues by which to construct his defense of democracy, central to all of them is the alleged appropriateness of democracy to Nietzsche’s perspectivism. Hatab makes clear his contention that “the kind of perspectivism championed by Nietzsche would seem to be, from a political standpoint, best exemplified and least ignored in a democratic society.” But why should this be? Why is democracy the most fitting political manifestation of perspectivism? According to Hatab, “perspectivism implies the illegitimacy of any one perspective holding sway and erasing or suppressing other perspectives.” “Democracy,” he continues, “seems to be the only political safeguard against a particular site becoming totalized. The affirmation of differing perspectives in the political field amounts to a continual assertion of multiple power sites that consequently limit each other’s power by way of this ongoing confrontation 6 In other words, the danger lies not in the struggle for power but in hegemony or the uncontested concentration of power. Democracy, we are told, would disrupt institutionalized imbalances of power by fostering a mutual limitation of political powers through such mechanisms as periodic elections and term limits. “Political ‘authority’ in a democracy,” Hatab concludes, “is not something pre-established or fixed, but something continually earned, challenged, and altered.” With this we have come to what I take to be the heart of Hatab’s position: the assertion that democracy is to be preferred-that is, it alone can be considered a fitting expression of perspectivism-because its configurations of power are more easily altered. Before examining this claim, I would like to trace a bit of its history and specifically its roots in Foucault.

In an interview given only a few months before his death, Foucault described how he understood the practice of ethics in a world which is essentially constituted of relationships of power. “I don’t believe there can be a society without relations of power,” Foucault explained, “The problem is not of trying to dissolve them in the utopia of a perfectly transparent communication, but to give one’s self the rules of law, the techniques of management, and also the ethics, the ethos, the practice of self, which would allow these games of power to be played with a minimum of domination.” Foucault has no hope for the dissolution of power—he is not a utopian thinker in this respect—but he does allow himself to hope that power relations be navigated with a minimum of domination. What is this domination that ought to be minimized? In what I take to be his most succinct explication of his distinction between power and domination, Foucault explains: An

analysis of relations of power constitutes a very complex field; it sometimes meets what we can call facts or states of domination, in which the relations of power, instead of being variable and allowing different partners a strategy which alters them, find themselves firmly set and congealed. When an individual or a social group manages to block a field of relations of power, to render them impassive and invariable and to prevent all reversibility of movement … we are facing what can be called a state of domination.

Domination is defined as the condition in which configurations of power are set, congealed, blocked, impassive, invariable, or irreversible, that is, in which not every partner is allowed a strategy for altering them. Given Foucault’s stated desire for minimizing domination, we can infer that he is primarily concerned with practices that would render such hardened power relations variable, mobile, fluid, reversible, and unstable. In short, Foucault explicitly espouses the value of fluidity that motivates later defenses of democracy of the type considered above.

Although to my knowledge Foucault does not use the word democracy in this context, others will use it to signify the very fluidity of power that he envisioned. An empirical question might present itself at this point, but I must leave it to others to determine whether or not, in fact, power does flow any more freely within those societies that call themselves democratic. Suppose, rather, that we follow Hatab and others and simply define democracy to be a complex of power relations that is free of domination, that is, one in which relations of power are variable and the strategies for their reversal are available to all. How would this conception of democracy stand against Nietzsche’s critique? Would democracy, so conceived, be a fitting political manifestation of Nietzsche’s perspectivism? In other words, is this variability of power really any more consistent than other political configurations with the absence of transcendent justification?

While one cannot find a direct response to these questions in Nietzsche’s writings, at least not one that is formulated in this Foucauldian vocabulary, I want to suggest that we can construct the response he would give. It seems to me that he would not accept the terms of Hatab’s proposal because Nietzsche is committed to the impossibility of a political field free of domination. I base this conclusion primarily on the following well-known passage from Beyond Good and Evil: “’Exploitation’ [Ausbeutung] does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society: it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function.”Zo Now, it is not entirely clear what Nietzsche means by exploitation at this point, but this passage would surely be meaningless if it did not exclude the possibility of Foucault’s dream. What, after all, could exploitation mean if it were consistent with the reversibility of power?

Given Nietzsche’s commitment to the ubiquity of domination, one might ask in response how he is able to account for the distinctive character of democracy. Does it not at least appear that democracies engage in exploitation to a much lesser extent than do their totalitarian counterparts? Nietzsche would no doubt acknowledge that democracies are able to create a space in which the use of power is highly regulated and severely limited. Furthermore, he would agree that within the bounds of this space certain types of political power are quite mobile. However, he would insist that the construction of this space comes only at the expense of other interests which it cannot recognize. Nietzsche’s preferred example of these excluded interests is the fleeting pleasure of the individual which must be sacrificed for the enduring security of the whole. When the individual’s pleasure threatens the whole, the value of that pleasure can find no voice within a democracy. Perhaps this is the way it should be, but at this point I want simply to argue that this exclusion would need to count as an instance of domination in Foucault’s sense, for the strategies for its reversal are not available to the individual. If democracy is distinctive, this distinction is due less to the character of its exploitation than to the manner in which this exploitation is concealed.

Putting aside for the moment these a priori difficulties facing any attempt to construct a political sphere whose relations of power are as malleable as possible, let us turn now to consider the practical effect of such a project. Nietzsche has said that democratic institutions threaten the cultivation of excellence and further the leveling of human possibility. A second type of response to his critique would challenge this claim. Hatab, for example, although willing to acknowledge that mediocrity seems more pronounced in democratic society, attempts to “encourage a rhetoric of excellence” while “affirming and sustaining a democratic politics.” In his most creative and ambitious proposal, Hatab pursues Nietzsche’s interest in the Greek agon, or contest, and argues that fundamental to democracy is a political contest of speeches which, like artistic or athletic competitions, encourages the development of excellence. He explains:

Democratic practice can be understood agonistically in the following way: Political judgments are not preordained or dictated; outcomes depend upon a contest of speeches, where one view wins and other views lose in a tabulation of votes; since the results are binding and backed by the coercive power of the government, democratic elections and procedures establish temporary control and subordination-which, however, can always be altered or reversed because of the succession of periodic political contests.

That there is competition in the democratic process can hardly be denied; what is in question, rather, is the character of this competition. Specifically, the democratic contest of speeches is said to be distinctive because the resulting imbalance of power is by definition temporary. Everything will depend upon whether the guarantee of regular contests facilitates the rise of the excellent or protects the hegemony of the mediocre.

At this point it will be helpful for us to consider in more detail exactly how it is, according to Nietzsche, that democracy has its leveling effect. His argument is not what one might expect; it is not a version of the common anti-egalitarian line. He does not claim that democracy impedes human flourishing simply because it makes difficult the concentration of resources. It is not analogous, for instance, to the argument that the uniformity of public education limits the opportunities for outstanding human achievement. Nietzsche’s reasons are more subtle: democracy is said to hinder the development of great individuals first of all because it discourages the taste for social stratification. This taste, which Nietzsche calls the pathos of distance, is in his estimation the essential characteristic of any healthy aristocracy, which “accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who,for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. It is this good conscience with which one accepts the reduction of others for one’s own sake that we democrats find so distasteful, but one cannot overstate its importance in Nietzsche’s mind. Consider the following passage from The Gay Science: “Who will attain anything great if he does not find in himself the strength and the will to inflict great suffering? Being able to suffer is the least thing … but no to perish of internal distress and uncertainty when one inflicts great suffering and hears the cry of this suffering-that is great, that belongs to greatness.” It is certainly easy to understand why readers like Richard Rorty would be inclined to conclude at points such as this that Nietzsche must have been mad. But suppose we were to take Nietzsche’s claim seriously. What reasons might he have for declaring that greatness requires the ability to suppress others?

In essence, Nietzsche’s argument is that the ability to withstand social stratification is a necessary condition for the possibility of ethical distinction. “Without that pathos of distance which grows out of the ingrained difference between strata,” he writes, “that other, more mysterious pathos could not have grown up either—the craving for an ever new widening of distances within the soul itself, the development of ever higher, rarer, more remote, further-stretching, more comprehensive states-in brief, simply the enhancement of the type ‘man’.” In other words, if one is unable to endure social stratification, one will similarly be incapable of the resolve required for the development of elevated ethical states. And these states are, in turn, the mark of the great individual who contributes most to human enhancement.

Some commentators contend that this position is unjustifiable. Daniel Conway, for instance, in his recent book Nietzsche and the Political, writes that “the pathos of distance does not admit of further, theoretical justification … One either shares [Nietzsche’s] attunement to the pathos of distance that motivates his perfectionism, or one does not.” It seems to me, however, that this is not the right point for an appeal to intuition. I do not believe that I, for one, share an “attunement” to the pathos of distance, if by this we mean some visceral or pre-theoretical affection for the suffering of others. But I am nevertheless able to recognize the force of Nietzsche’s claim that the ability to endure social stratification makes possible and reinforces the capacity for ethical elevation. Whereas Conway sees the pathos of distance motivating Nietzsche’s perfectionism, I conversely understand Nietzsche’s perfectionism to motivate his praise for the pathos of distance. On my reading, one can say that the pathos of distance is in one sense justified if it provides for the cultivation of human excellence. The pathos of distance would thereby be considered good if it makes possible the rise of a few great individuals, who in turn make possible the enhancement or the overcoming of the human. In other words, if one grants that this overcoming is to be desired and if one agrees that this process requires the production of extraordinary individuals, then one might be able to be persuaded that the pathos of distance, however unpalatable, is necessary.

I hope by now to have made clear that democracy runs counter to the basic principles of Nietzsche’s thought. The democratic instinct and the pathos of distance are fundamentally incompatible. This is to say that the mechanisms for the regular transfer of power betray an inability to withstand social stratification. While Hatab is right to stress the competitive element of the democratic process, this is a brand of competition that would minimize its own effects. Those who win can be assured they will not remain winners for long, for they are prevented from converting their winnings into a lasting advantage. And this demand that imbalance only ever be temporary is critical. Nietzsche is clear that the intolerance of lasting authority—what he calls an instinctive preference for what disintegrates—has brought the end of credible institutions and threatens the possibility of a future:

The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows … That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery the moment the word ‘authority’ is even spoken out loud. That is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, of our political parties: instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end.

From this we can concluded that the inability to withstand social difference for long is a species of the inability to withstand social difference at all. In short, the fluidity of power that is the hallmark of democracy harbors a hostility toward the pathos of distance, a hostility that Nietzsche believes will ultimately limit the possibilities for human growth. One cannot both prevent the domination that worried Foucault and at the same time preserve the pathos of distance that inspired Nietzsche.

Let me conclude by offering the following two suggestions. First of all, more attention should be paid to Nietzsche’s claim that it is not only social difference itself but the temperament required to withstand it that breeds ethical distinction and that our current intolerance of social difference will prove to be an impediment to human growth. I must admit that it is not easy to see how one might verify such a claim. I can, however, call attention to a compelling study by Pierre Bourdieu that may rival Nietzsche’s account. In his book Distinction, which he calls a social critique of aesthetic taste, Bourdieu argues not only that refined aesthetic judgment (surely an example of what Nietzsche would consider an elevated state of the soul) is made possible by the social capital and freedom from economic demands afforded to a privileged class, but also that the social function of this refinement is nothing other than the legitimation of that privilege. Where Nietzsche sees social difference engendering ethical elevation, Bourdieu finds aesthetic distinction securing social privilege. And while Bourdieu takes no account of anything like the pathos of distance, it may count against Nietzsche that Bourdieu’s story could be so compelling without such an account.

Finally, I would like to propose a redirection of our interpretive efforts. I have attempted to show that Nietzsche’s differences with democracy are not cosmetic. I have not argued that democracy cannot be defended but rather that if some viable defense can be found, Nietzsche will play no part in it. In light of this, I would like to suggest that instead of remaking Nietzsche in our democratic image we look rather to remake ourselves with the help of someone who will disagree with us. All too often, when confronted with Nietzsche’s more alarming proclamations—including not only his views on politics but also those on breeding or gender relations—we search for ways to read Nietzsche so that he will conform to the current consensus. This is a challenging academic exercise to be sure, but it is a sterile one. If we want to be democrats or feminists or liberals or Christians, let us be so, but let us leave Nietzsche out of it. On the other hand, if we don’t know what we want to be and if we want to consider the possibility that we could be other than who we are, let us return to Nietzsche. For then his texts will come alive again.