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The Physiology of Politics


Friedrich Nietzsche binds the political to the physiological. His political intuitions emerge from a theory of breeding: that cultures and peoples are shaped by the conditions in which they are produced. Adverse conditions breed strength and conformity of type, while superabundance leads to variation, “whether as deviation (to something higher, subtler, rarer) or as degeneration and monstrosity” (211). In Beyond Good & Evil, he pushes against the false universalism that he sees as ascendant in Europe, and injects the countervailing idea that advancement of man-as-species requires the recognition of hierarchy, of distinctions between men. Nietzsche sees the political movement toward democracy as the outer-works of a “tremendous physiological process,” the leveling and mediocritization of biological man, which is taking place concurrently (176). He condemns this future of commonness and vulgarity, but suggests that it may yield, in the exceptional cases, strong “human beings of the most dangerous and attractive quality” — a new Nobility (176).

For Nietzsche, what is noble is “all that is rare, strange, privileged, … and the abundance of creative power and masterfulness” (139). Nietzsche emphasizes the elevation of the noble: “the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility” (139). Noble qualities imply a hierarchy. If the noble soul “knows itself to be at a height,” this elevated status begs the question: higher than what? (215).

Nietzsche’s political theories are tinged with a proto-evolutionary logic. He argues that adversity in conditions produces a “fixed and strong” type of man (210). A type, a species, a culture learns to prevail because it must prevail, as failing to do so risks extermination. This “long fight with essentially constant unfavorable conditions,” both fortifies and culls (210). Through conflict and conflagration, the essential qualities that allowed a people to “always triumph,” reveal themselves more readily (210). Hardship clarifies the demands of necessity. These qualities are the “conditions of existence” and they alone are baptized as virtues and cultivated as such (211). Those who posses these common traits are valorized, while aberrant individuals are at a severe disadvantage. They will not survive or reproduce as they “easily remain alone, succumb to accidents, being isolated, and rarely propagate” (217). Early aristocracies, such as the ancient Greek polis or the city state of Venice, were embedded in such hostile conditions and thus produced “a type with few but very strong traits” (210).
The emergence of the concept of nobility coincides with conquest and exploitation; the stronger, more barbaric type of man-as-species asserting dominance over “weaker, more civilized, more peaceful” types (201). The noble caste always began as the barbarian caste. It was a ruling group which reflexively determined what was ‘good’ by looking inward at itself and fixating on those qualities that “conferred distinction and determined the order of rank” (204). What was noble was that which distinguished the rulers from the ruled; the characteristics of the ruling class — “severe, warlike, prudently taciturn” — were forged in the fire of existential necessity (211).

Aristocracy and nobility begins with an initial act of domination; they owe their origin to the brute physicality of the barbarian overcoming a more civilized culture, however this is not their end. Nietzsche believes that the enhancement of man-as-species stems from the structure of aristocratic society. The ingrained differences between a ruling caste and its conquered subjects birth a new urge, a desire for “the development of ever higher, rarer, more remote, further-stretching, more comprehensive states” (201). When Nietzsche asserts that “society must not exist for society’s sake,” he has this higher purpose in mind (202).

In order for enhancement to occur, a society must believe “in the long ladder of an order of rank and differences in value between man and man” (201). The mandate of political life is not to superimpose a false equality or to extend superficial rights, but to construct the “foundation and scaffolding” on which superior individuals can develop. Society is not produced by a collective for the improvement of all, as suggested by other political theorists, instead it justified by the betterment of an elite class. A healthy aristocracy experiences its own reproduction as the “meaning and highest justification” of political life (202). The ruling caste must willfully accept the sacrifice and reduction of “untold human beings” in order to sustain itself (202). The central conceit that “life is essentially appropriation,” cannot be corrupted or abandoned (203). Nobles require a forceful belief in their own ‘goodness’ and right to rule, for if this requisite belief fades, the enhancing function of aristocracy decays in tandem.

The political movement toward democracy belies the fragility of this belief in the modern context. The “ordinary consciousness” of Europeans resists the idea that society must be exploitative (203). Although Nietzsche rejects the “nonsense of the ‘greatest number'” — as noted earlier, for him, the end of political life is not the greatest good, but the production of a superior type — the opposing value is gaining momentum (117). And as the unfavorable conditions which maintained the virtues of the aristocracy no longer exist, the structure itself is debased. A democratic structure of governance can only result from a corrupted aristocracy; one that “sacrifices itself to the extravagance of its own moral feelings” as did the French aristocracy before the revolution (202). The political agitation for democracy, Nietzsche argues, is not “only a form of the decay of political organization but a form of decay … of man,” reflecting European man’s impending mediocrity and diminution (117). He believes that “the democratization of Europe leads to the production of a type that is prepared for slavery in the subtleness sense” (176). The source of the corruption, according to Nietzsche, is in some sense, biological.

European modernity severs the link between a type of man and the conditions and climate which produced him. Europeans are becoming homogenous. Peoples have become “more and more detached” from the conditions of their origin and thus more similar to each other (176). There is less that makes a people unique, fewer distinction which can separate one type from another. Europeans are “increasingly independent of any determinate milieu that would like to inscribe itself for centuries” (176). The harsh — and specific — conditions that once enforced virtue and produced the noble type come to an end and “the tremendous tension decreases” (211). The old requirements, which enabled existence under adversity, no longer appear necessary. Given conditions of abundance and adequate protection, variation becomes possible. The individual dares to be different. During this period, the variety of forms and modes of living explodes. Some will be improvements on the previous type of man, but many will merely be degenerate forms.

Nietzsche presents a highly physiological, and somewhat deterministic, theory of political life. He interrogates the origins of peoples and cultures, exploring how varied situational conditions can impact the political realm and is preoccupied by the portent of degeneration that he sees. He suggests that society should not be constructed for the benefit of a degenerate majority, but instead for the development of a select few, the Noble. Nietzsche provocatively asks, “today—is greatness possible?” (139). And a retrograde, backwards-looking greatness is not; the conception of the noble is the product of specific conditions, which under modernity, may no longer exist. However, while ‘modern ideas’ lead to a general mediocrity across the population and degrade previous manifestations of greatness into “an archaizing taste,” they involuntarily present a fertile ground for the cultivation of a new nobility (211).


Beyond Good & Evil, Translated by Walter Kaufmann

Rousseau and Locke on Property and the State


Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke each explore the origins of the state, seeking its essential purpose and the source of its legitimacy. Their inquiry diverges over the question of property, specifically over whether property proceeds the state. For Locke, property rights arise prior to the state as an element of natural law, whereas for Rousseau, a social contract is a necessary precondition for the creation and legitimacy of property rights. This subtle distinction metastasizes into a salient difference between Rousseau’s vision of the general will and Locke’s view of supreme power. The essential purpose of the state differs between them: the Rousseauvian contract fostering civil equality and Lockean compact preserving natural inequality.

Locke asserts that private property precedes the state; legitimate ownership is not created by contract, but derived instead from a natural right. For Locke, the origins of property can be traced to one’s undeniable ownership over their physical body: “every Man has a Property in his own Person” (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 287). From this original ownership over the body, the Lockean understanding of property unfolds. Labor, the physical actions that constitute “the Work of [one’s own] hands,” mixes the sole thing that man can claim legitimate ownership over, his corporeal body, with raw, natural material that is common to all (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 288). This exertion removes the object of his labor from the “common state Nature placed it in,” annexing it as his own and excluding it from other men (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 288). By mixing his labor with some common resource, man ‘fixes’ within it something that is unequivocally his and thus “makes it his Property” (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 288). Notably, this conversion occurs without the “assignation or consent of any body” (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 289). Locke’s conception of a right to property directly relies on the axiomatic belief that man has incontrovertible possession over his own body. By exercising this sole object over which he has complete ownership, man can plant the same seed of ownership in other resources that are external to him and common to all. He affixes part of himself within them and thus can rightfully claim them as his own. For Locke, no collective agreement is necessary for the creation of private property as reason itself vindicates and affirms this right. Labor endows property with its legitimacy.

Rousseau, on the other hand, finds nothing natural in the institution of private ownership. Property is a right that cannot exist before contract. It is not the product of reason or natural law, but rather the culmination of the “most thought-out project that ever entered the human mind,” carried out by a few ambitious men for their own profit (Second Discourse, Part II, 79). Property, for Rousseau, is merely the name given to “adroit usurpation” that gain state sanctioned and thereby was converted into an “irrevocable right” (Second Discourse, Part II, 79). While Rousseau sketches out a familiar process by which the idea of property emerges—from the cultivation of land to its division, labor conferring the appearance of ownership—he refrains from granting this right any manner of true legitimacy. Rousseau splits the mere act of possession from any moral right. In the state of nature, each can lay claim to physical control over their holdings, yet given the constant specter of expropriation, this form of ownership is tenuous. One can state the empirical fact that they control their property, yet these grounds are insufficient. Possession is decried as a “precarious and abusive right” and as lacking any justification beyond an appeal to brute force (Second Discourse, Part II, 78). As the right to property in the state of nature is derived through force alone, it could justifiably be superseded and appropriated by any greater power. Though individual labor coupled with continued possession provides an explanation for the idea of property, any right was implicitly sustained by strength.

For Locke, property is a natural right that proceeds any collective agreement; thus, the creation of the state occurs later. Rousseau rejects this view, attributing the creation of property to “convention and human institution,” so necessarily following the formation of society (Second Discourse, Part II, 84). This subtle difference in sequencing dramatically alters each philosopher’s conception of the legitimate role of the civil state. The contours of the process by which a new state is formed are strikingly similar; however the essential purpose of the state is distinct. Locke envisions a right secured by the state; Rousseau, a right created.

Locke sees “the preservation of Property being the end of Government”; that goal provides the impetus that drives men to join together and enter society (Second Treatise, Ch. XI, 360). For Locke, it is “obvious” that legitimate property exists before the state, yet “the Enjoyment of it is very uncertain” (Second Treatise, Ch. IX, 350). So, on Locke’s account, man joins society for the preservation of a preexisting right rather than the creation of a new one. As property rights originate in natural law, something which is innate and inalienable, the state’s ability to expropriate must be curtailed. Locke emphasizes the protection of property when enumerating the limits of the sovereign: “Supream power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his consent” (Second Treatise, Ch. XI, 360). The prominence given to this argument makes sense as it would be an “absurdity” for men to submit themselves to the restrictions that society imposes without at least gaining the security over their holdings that was promised in the initial contract. However, if property is sacrosanct, then the differences that result from natural inequalities — as “different degrees of Industry were apt to give Men Possessions in different Proportions” — are legitimized by the state (Second Treatise, Ch. V, 301).

Rousseau believes that “it is utterly on the basis of … common interest that society ought to be governed” (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. I, 170). The sovereign should rule, in other words, in accordance with the general will, which favors equality. The general will can be ascertained by summing up all the individual wills and cancelling out any particular differences. While “the private will tends towards giving advantages to some and not others, … the general will will tend towards equality,” as it refuses to prioritize any one individual’s perspective (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. I, 170). For Rousseau, the needs of the community are always elevated above the preferences of individuals. For example, “[e]ach private individual’s right to his own land is always subordinate to the community’s right to all” (Social Contract, Book I, Ch. IX, 169). As Rousseau believes that property derives its standing solely from the authority of the collective, the collective is therefore empowered to determine how these rights should be allocated. Society acts with a “universal compulsory force to move and arrange each part in the manner best suited to the whole” (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. IV, 173). The goal of the social contract is not to preserve property but to create a new equality upon the substrate of an unequal reality. The social contract “substitutes a moral and legitimate equality for whatever physical inequality nature may have been able to impose upon men” (Social Contract, Book I, Ch. IX, 169). Men are made equal by society; the state is advantageous to men only insofar as they all have something and none of them has too much.

At a cursory reading, the respective societies proposed by Locke and Rousseau appear quite similar in structure; one can find many homologies between the two. However, in essential role, they could not be more different. For Locke, men converge on society for the simple purpose of protecting existing rights; this is the central function of the state. As the source of these rights is outside of the purview of (and prior to) the state, the government is limited by them; there is a higher authority to which men can appeal. In contrast, there are no limitations on the power of the general will: “the social contract gives … an absolute power over all of its members” (Social Contract, Book II, Ch. IV, 173). All rights are constructed by the community and come from within it. As rights for Rousseau are a social creation, he is willing to grant society the power to transfigure itself radically in order to attain a new civil equality. For Locke, the preservation of existing rights is paramount which, in effect, maintains natural inequalities.

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