Nietzsche and the Slaves of American Culture

A rough sketch, particularly one that exaggerates certain features, can be more useful than a finely proportioned, subtle, and detailed drawing. This may be the case, for example, when one wants to highlight certain features that otherwise may be missed if they are buried in detail and perfect lines. With this in mind, I want to discuss a disturbing aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy in order to foreground an even more disturbing aspect of American culture.

At one point at least, Nietzsche viewed what he considered High Culture—by which I take it he meant the cultural achievements of the likes of Beethoven, Goethe, Wagner (at one time), et al., and perhaps even the work of a Darwin—to justify the enslavement of lower types/classes. While there is the alternative of opting for universal equity, that can only occur with a sacrifice of culture. Safranski writes:

In his notes, Nietzsche sharpened the problem of the link between culture and social justice. When it comes to culture, he contended, a decision must be made as to its essential aim. The two major options are the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, on the one hand, and the success of individual lives, on the other. The moral point of view gives priority to the well-being of the greatest possible number of people, whereas the aesthetic view declares that the meaning of culture lies in the culmination of auspicious forms, the “peak of rapture.” (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 73.)

Nietzsche, again at one point at least, opted for the aesthetic view: art justifies, redeems, life in all of its suffering, terror, and calls for despair. Opting for the aesthetic over the moral view is, I take it, anathema to the morality so many (in the west?) pay lip service to. But are we really superior to Nietzsche here? Consider Safranski’s elaboration on the above:

Nietzsche considered the ancient Greek slaveholder society the paragon of culture for the very reason that it disallowed concessions to the “democratic herd animal.” He extolled antiquity for being honest enough not to have covered up the terrible foundation from which its blossom grew. The ancient Greeks freely confessed to the need for slaves. We can certainly find evidence in Plato and Aristotle just how staunchly and aggressively the need for slavery was defended in the name of the continued existence of culture. Just as people need brains and brawn, Nietzsche argued, society needs the hardworking hands of laborers for a privileged class, allowing that class “to engender and fulfill a new world of needs” (1,766; TGS). Slave society is an especially crass example of how refinement and culture rest on an “awful premise. In order to have a broad, deep and fertile soil for artistic development, the overwhelming majority must be slavishly subjected to the necessities of life in order to serve a minority beyond the measure of its individual needs” (1,767; TGS). More recent eras have glorified the world of work, but glorification is self-deception, because even the “terminological fallacy” of the “dignity of work” does not alter anything in the fundamental injustice of life, which metes out mechanical work to some and creative activity to the more highly gifted. Slave societies were brutally frank about their inequities, whereas our modern times feign contrition but are unwilling to forgo exploitation in the service of culture. Thus, if art justifies our existence aesthetically, it does so on the foundation of “cruelty” (1,768; TGS). (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 74-75.)

If we are already disgusted with Nietzsche, there may come more when we read moments later in Safranski:

People are sacrificed for the beauty of art, which is why the existence of art adds a further injustice to the wretched state of the world. For this reason, Nietzsche was also prepared to experience guilt in defending slavery, because he was one of those privileged few who could enjoy the aesthetic justification of the world. (Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, 75.)

You may be thinking something like, “Pour one out for ‘den armen Herr Nietzsche’; poor fucker felt guilty for his defense of slavery and his privilege.” I do not seek here to defend Nietzsche’s endorsement of slavery—though we might note that it is not necessarily in the form that slavery took in the US for example, though given his extolling of the Greek forms, it very well could be. No. What I want to do instead is to use Safranski’s reading of Nietzsche as an opportunity to turn a critical eye upon ourselves. Which selves? I want to be careful not to unconsciously write as though the only selves in question are fellow cis-gendered, white, middleclassish, heterosexual men. So the “ourselves” will be US culture and the culture influenced by it. American culture is not homogenous, nor is it consistent, etc. However, as above, I hope that even if my generalizations are problematic when taken as universal and exact, and not defeasible and general as intended, they will be useful in some fashion.

The starting point for turning an eye upon ourselves is Safranski’s wonderful, “Slave societies were brutally frank about their inequities, whereas our modern times feign contrition but are unwilling to forgo exploitation in the service of culture.” In the same vein as the popular idea that the US is post-racial, since we’ve got Oprah and Obama, there is the popular self-deception that we are also post-slavery. However, the latter is false in at least two senses. First, the prosperity found in the US today, particular that of many whites, is built on the past slavery and genocide from the birth of the nation onward. Second, the availability of cheap food, clothing, and technology is due to the enslavement of humans abroad, for example, in China, Southeast Asia, Africa, Mexico, etc., and of animals at home with factory farmed chicken, cows, and pigs, etc., and along with the latter is the enslavement of land and resources in their service. Let’s call these the various “enslavements” that the US participates in today. What makes things even worse is that Safranski’s statement is inaccurate because the culture at large does not even seem to feign contrition. Clearly there are movements against all of these things, and many folks pay lip service to them, but none of that negates the fact that the lifestyles of everyone in the US are the product of the above enslavements.

Another part of the picture, of course, is the “work” that capitalism does here. Particularly in regard to the movements that attempt to address the various enslavements. Take for example food movements. Small companies are founded to give consumers a healthier, greener, more humane food option—this typically can only be maintained if profit is not the fundamental guiding principle. If such a company takes off, it is often bought by a larger corporation whose fundamental guiding principle is profit with predictable results. Another example of this is the ever increasing popularity of mindfulness methods for therapy, particularly for dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression. Yesterday, 4.26.16, I saw for the first time reference to the “mindfulness industrial complex,” which I understand to mean the market forces that encourage ever more production of “mindfulness” products to consume—again, with predictable results: quality is often sacrificed for short-term cosmetic appeal.

Further, returning to food, the options that are supposedly healthier, greener, and more humane are too expensive for the lower classes to consume. And thus, given their position, itself due to capitalism, the history of slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and inequality in the US, the lower classes are forced to participate in the enslavements in question. This is exacerbated by their understandably buying into the conception of the good life sold to them by the market, which includes the idea that if one possesses the accoutrements of the upper classes in the form of technological conveniences (TVs, smart phones, tablets, wifi, etc.), then one has achieved a kind of upward mobility.

So, the first point is to realize that we are, in some sense, as an actually existing society/culture, worse than Nietzsche’s envisioned ideal, since we bury our heads in regard to the enslavements that our lifestyles are founded upon. However, in some ways, the follow up to this first point is still worse! Here is where we must be careful in regard to what we understand as culture and the boundaries between cultures and cultural elements. I will first state the overall point and then try to finesse it. What is still worse is that where we are worse insofar as we are dishonest—engaging in all kinds of self-deception, doublethink, and rationalizations—regarding our need for enslavements, and while Nietzsche was a son-of-a-bitch for his outspoken endorsement of enslavements, for him such endorsements were in the name of something that he saw as redeeming human existence and the necessary suffering that comes with it regardless. By contrast, the case can be made that our contemporary enslavements of people, animals, and land are not in the name, generally speaking, of something that redeems human existence. No! Instead, it is in the name of capitalist conditioned views of the good life and what we might identify as the antithesis of “high culture.” Here by “high culture” I mean most basically culture that is capable of redeeming existence, without that necessarily being the kind of culture Nietzsche designated as “high.” For us, the majority of culture that survives does so because it is profitable in the market. And thus it is slave to market demands—demands that so often appeal to the basest and lowest of what we’re capable of as humans. Evidence? So much of what is found on TV, Facebook, books that sell, music, art, games, etc. But it is not simply such content. It is also the cultural attitudes and dispositions that one so often comes across. In this context, there is one in particular that is pernicious, namely, the idea that everyone has a right to their opinion. This so often comes to: “I’ve an opinion and by that very fact it is worth sharing, standing on, and shoving in your face. Any rejection of it is merely your asserting your opinion, and since all opinions are of equal worth, there is nothing to recommend your opinion over mine.”

This latter attitude that I am identifying as a part of American culture is, it seems, in part a product of the online platforms for self-expression that encourage the projectile vomiting of inchoate and otherwise poorly formed views, values, and opinions. But it is tied, too, both to some vague, not well- or often explicitly articulated sense of egalitarianism and some assumption that access to “facts” is all that is required to form a good opinion. Thus, this wonderful quote from David Dunning:

While some smart people will profit from all the information now just a click away, many will be misled into a false sense of expertise. My worry is not that we are losing the ability to make up our own minds, but that it’s becoming too easy to do so. We should consult with others much more than we imagine. Other people may be imperfect as well, but often their opinions go a long way toward correcting our own imperfections, as our won imperfect expertise helps to correct their errors….

Our culture is more than its popular forms and their content; it is also constituted by the ways we navigate and process those forms, their content, and information more generally.


One of the problems I have with Nietzsche insofar as I understand him correctly, is his preference for High Culture. I take it that the contrast culture he has in mind is that which is common, plebeian, hoi polloi. Such a bifurcation is grossly problematic, since, at a minimum, it leaves out the culture of the colonized, the oppressed. Nietzsche sees High Culture as only possible if its massive weight rests on the bent backs of the weary commoner. Presumably part of the idea is that High Culture requires not having to toil for the basics of existence. However, complicating this picture enormously is that indigenous, colonized, or enslaved cultures/peoples have their own rich cultural traditions that may very well both transcend the dualism of high and low culture and be life redeeming. And further, part of the process of colonization and oppression is that the broader consumerist culture appropriates, in a variety of ways, the culture of the colonized and the otherwise oppressed. Easy example of these are rock and roll and the variety of cuisines thrown into the American pot.

And so, I think that Nietzsche’s understanding of culture and its products insofar as he seems to bifurcate them into high and low, is overly simplified and naïve. And, of course, not all of contemporary American culture is despicable and empty of life redeeming value. However, so much of it is. So much merely serves the function of distraction and placation, serves as the means to self-medication in the face of all that is alienating, in the face of all that requires heads buried in “doublethought” ignorance. And, worse, it is difficult to find lines of demarcation that clearly delineate contemporary, life-redeeming culture from the simulacrum—the soul-sucking, the life denying—that constitutes the rest. How are we to identify what is what, even when/if we consciously, explicitly, struggle to free ourselves of the conditioning of that very culture?—And this in the face of the “natural” tendency of so many to think, “I am different, superior, above the rest”?

Again, the second point, the worse point, is that not only do we engage in sick doublethink in regard to the enslavements our lives are built on, but the culture that rests on top of those enslavements by and large fails to redeem existence. Compounding this problem is that concomitant with capitalism, and the pernicious notions of progress and success that come with it, is an ever increasing scientism. This scientism is the valorization of science as the sole legitimate mode of inquiry—the sole standard of knowledge and wisdom. Wedded with such a scientism is the valorization of technology as the panacea for existence. A part of the consequence of all of this—the this including the history of markets—is the idea that education is subservient to the market and making a living. Thus we must promote STEM education, i.e., we must push students into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, while they forsake history, literature, philosophy, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, etc., so that they can make a living—so they can be good consumers. It is not difficult to see the vicious, self-perpetuating, ever worsening cycles of such a situation.

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