The monsters we become

24 July 2021

10:58 AM

24 July 2021

10:58 AM

Nietzsche would have been great at Twitter. He excelled at epigrams, which are to philosophy as the fortune-cookie motto is to Chinese takeout, and he loved to hate. Scholars divide as to whether his epigrammatic excellence came from using a typewriter — he was the earliest philosophical adopter of this technology — or because he was no good at joined-up thinking but very good at vituperating about the news.

It was Nietzsche who spotted that the emerging theme of democratic society was not the reign of reason and universal brotherhood, but the ‘stupidification of the world’ and resentment. He called it ressentiment. Philosophy goes better in French, and Nietzsche had lately turned against Wagner, anti-Semitism and German nationalism. Calling it ressentiment rather than Groll, the German word, was what we would now call ‘trolling’. Nietzsche was a pioneer of this modern art. He was the first to ‘own the libs’.

If Nietzsche were among us now and considered the rubble of American politics, he might revise the epigram that the existentialist philosopher Kelly Clarkson quoted in her 2011 song, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ This is an evidently stupid notion — so stupid, in fact, that only a philosopher could have said it. On the upside, he would be triumphant about the accuracy of his line that if you ‘gaze long into the abyss’, then the abyss gazes right back into you.

If you own the libs too long, the libs own you right back. American politics, left and right, are consumed with resentment and nihilism. Performative trolling has become an end in itself, with little connection to what democracy is supposed to be about: the maintenance of the politeia, the political life of the citizens, and the politeuma, the governing regime. The take-a-knee left and the QAnon right are united by conspiratorial loathing and fantasies of righteous violence. What matters is the gratification of what the philosophers of any previous age would have called the animal instincts, but which the philosophers of our age are apparently incapable of ‘calling out’, which is why no one is interested in what they think.

Nietzsche, who died in 1900, called it. Without faith, Christianity became performative, and God a source of inspirational mood boards. Without a living soul or a serious conscience, the human being is no longer an individual but a bag of animal instincts, indistinguishable from the rest of the species. The substitute doctrines of socialism, nationalism and Darwinism offer collective redemption by economics and biology. Technology and capitalism act as force multipliers, accelerating the vortex of futility — even in America, the land that, as Allan Bloom saw, promised ‘nihilism with a happy ending’.

The American political system no longer creates the conditions that offer an alternative to a life of traditional meaning or tribal war: the pursuit of consumerist Nirvana. This should not be confused with the nihilistic Nineties band Nirvana, though the last name of its true talent, Dave Grohl, sounds like the true teen spirit, resentment, and though Nietzsche characterized our nihilism and its anodynes as ‘Western Buddhism’.

Worse, the culture of the regime and the culture of the citizens are at war in America today. The majority of Americans remain liberal in the Burkean sense: the sovereign individual, private property and the rule of law based upon the Constitution. But our institutions are liberal in the new sense. They have inherited the puritan mission to shame and redeem the fallen and smoke out the hidden sin. You are supposed to be offended by the catalogue of falsity and inanity that our institutions are pushing: that is the point of the provocation. When you are owned by the libs, your anger confirms the left’s thesis of your wickedness.

Unfortunately, the same goes when you own the libs by embracing the worst aspects of the right: your anger confirms the left’s thesis of your wickedness. This is what happens when you’re so busy with selling out to corporations, waving the flag for pointless wars and getting wound up by drag-queen story hour that you lose control of the institutions. It is also what happens if you respond to being told that you know nothing by celebrating your know-nothingness, or to being told that you’re an incorrigible racist by acting like one. ‘Beware that, when fighting monsters, you do not yourself become a monster,’ Nietzsche wrote. As looking into the abyss leads to the horror of self-knowledge, so owning the libs leads to a faceplant at the bottom of the abyss: the self-own. Nietzsche foresaw ‘something incredibly nasty’ arising from the fusion of nationalism and socialism. We are seeing the incredible American nasty arising in our time. The Democrats are set on allocating the political system’s rewards through the logic of racialized collectives. They repress the people’s protests by applying the Patriot Act to American patriots, and by the Nietzschean argument that there is no truth, only interpretation.

The Republicans are well on the way to becoming the monster they are fighting. They also embraced the relativist fiction that life is the pursuit of individual happiness, especially economic happiness, and they wrote the Patriot Act, too. Some of their MAGA wing are trolling themselves towards an electoral self-own: America as a white man’s country. Both parties are transparently out of ideas, and their will to power is showing.

The left always loses the race to the bottom in the end: they’re socialists but not nationalists, while the right are convincing as nationalists and protectionists. Eventually it will fall to the Republicans to preserve, revive or kill off what remains of the American ideal. When that moment comes, they’ll need actual ideas and policies, not epigrams of rage.

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