"A Cold Monster”: Nietzsche on the State Reply

Article by Michael Kleen. I’ve posted this here before but it’s worth posting again.

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Out of all modern philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) was one of the most unique critics of the modern State, yet his views on the subject have been largely overshadowed by his more famous critiques of morality, religion, and art. Since his death, only a handful of authors have broached the topic. Nevertheless, Nietzsche’s views on statism are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them down over a century ago. In his more sober moments, he saw the modern State as nothing more than a vehicle for mass power and as a squanderer of exceptional talent. In his most feverish moods, the State was “a cold monster” and a base falsehood.

During his lifetime, Nietzsche bore witness to the rise of statism in central Europe, and his disgust with nationalism, liberalism, and mass politics led him to live most of his life in self-imposed exile in Switzerland and northern Italy. Even after resigning from the University of Basel in 1879, he took to living in cheap boarding houses rather than return to his native land, which had undergone a dramatic transformation during that time. When Nietzsche was born in Saxony in 1844, the German Confederation consisted of 43 duchies, principalities, kingdoms, and free cities. He was only four years old when liberals and nationalists began to agitate for the creation of one unified German state. They succeeded in 1871, when Prussia defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War (in which Nietzsche briefly served as a medical orderly).

Friedrich_Nietzsche_-_in_uniform

In less than a decade, the German Confederation went from a motley collection of different dialects, customs, and political associations to a fully modern welfare state driven by mass politics. Contrary to the wartime propaganda image of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck’s Germany was just as liberal—if not more so—than the other great European powers. Members of the German bund traded away their regional independence for universal manhood suffrage, national healthcare, accident insurance, and old age insurance. A common criminal code, as well as court, civil, and criminal procedures, replaced a cornucopia of local legal systems. During his Kulturkampf, Bismarck attempted to erase the last vestiges of the old order by promoting one way of “Germanness,” much like “Americanism” sought to unify the United States around the Federal government after the American Civil War. This centralizing tendency was characteristic of all modern States, and according to Catholic socio-political theorist Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, “This alone is able to foster uniformity and egalitarianism, and to ensure swift execution of governmental orders.”1 Nietzsche identified the rise of the modern State, with its emphasis on centralization and egalitarianism, as one of the defining features of the 19th Century.

What is the State? In Nietzsche’s mind, the State (Staat) is something apart from other forms of social organization such as family, tribe, society, or nation. In “The Greek State” (1871), a preface to an unwritten book, he described the State as a “clamp-iron” that is impressed upon those other forms of social organization. “Without the State,” he wrote, “in the natural bellum omnizim contra omnes,2 Society cannot strike root at all on a larger scale and beyond the reach of the family.”3 He seems to have later retreated from this view of society and family, but fundamentally, he retained the notion that the State acts as a shell or harness that is imposed from without and which restrains and shapes society. Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn agreed, arguing that modern government had achieved autonomy from society and “can now be separated from the body social like the outer hull of a broiled lobster.” He added, “Nietzsche’s ‘coldest of all monsters’ would terrify pre-Renaissance man.”

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