Equality and Nihilism

Daniel Avatar

We are ambivalent about calling today’s far right movements fascist. The verdict will remain out on this for some time. But as we speculate into our own ambivalence, let me suggest that a leading reason that we do not describe these movements as fascist is because they do not have an intellectual determinism about them.

The twentieth century fascisms, from Hitler to Mussolini, fetishized the intellectual in such a way that he came to serve as the expository and articulate spokesperson of the aesthetic side of the movement. The intellectual was the harbinger of the secret code of libidinal energy which sustained the fascist community. The intellectual was lower than the fuhrer on the pecking order of course, but his function was important: to serve as the embodiment of the rational mythology of the community. The Nazis fought tooth and nail to gain support from German philosophers such as Heidegger and Spengler, but both opted to be quiet members, remaining ambivalent about adopting a public relations role in the movement.

As Adorno and Horkheimer argue in the Dialectic of Enlightenment, the catastrophe of twentieth century fascism was a result of the decline of the enlightenment narrative and the invention of new mythologies and ghostly projections from the very ground of pure reason on which such folklore was meant to eradicate. The rationality of the intellectual balanced the libidinal investments of the fascist body of the community, a frenzied assemblage of repressive agitation and anxiety. The intellectual was thus an instrument of balance to what Wilhelm Reich in the Mass Psychology of Fascism notes as the core of the fascist impulse — a sexual excitation sublimation, wherein the group identification with the leader resolves pervasive repression and functions as a release from this pressure.

Today’s new fascism is less about libidinal ties, rational mythology and sexual sublimation. The superego position is now different. Not to be glib, but I put stock in this idea. The period of the repressed Protestant subconscious produced a revolt against repression which took reactionary at its peak in fascist movements. The superego demand today is an inward demand to ‘realize your true self’, ‘exceed all constraints’ but do so while being sure to enjoy at the proper amount. Becoming a node of self-valuation in the flexible gig economy does not induce repression but overwhelms the subject with a misery of never satisfying the demand. This is why we should speak more about the shame that comes with never being enough in our time rather than the guilt of the repressive society. The release we seek is one centered around the position of the other that no longer approves, judges, or provides. The state, the family, the institutions which grounded sociality in the Protestant era has now fundamentally changed.

The problem of the other and the third others (society, state, family etc.) is one of proximity to the monstrous other. This is a problem exacerbated by the crisis of global capitalism as well as this new absence of the old superego that judged, imposed guilt and repressed you. That man is gone now. Sort of.

The refugee, the migrant laborer, the Muslim. These are the fantasy figures which haunt the neo-fascist movements, and the question as to why comes down to how they read the problem of equality itself. The question hinges on why we now have such radical inequality. I don’t want to examine equality from the perspective of the post-Occupy narrative of the 1% as the sole source of class inequality. Such a script is tired, to say the least, and with Nietzschian eyes, such a script produces a new slave morality. But I don’t want to push the extremes too far.

Rather, I want to examine the concept of equality from the perspective of the quiet (neo-fascist?) intellectual movement known as the dark enlightenment, or the neo-reactionary movement. These are people chiefly interested in facilitating a return to societies of hierarchy in the strict sense, somewhere between anarcho-capitalism and neo-feudalism. Like the communist and radical left, they too recognize capital is in a crisis situation and we will not be able to return to the glory days of industrial labor where the worker was represented in a wage labour relation that afforded a modicum of social stability. This is a big part why they can have no tenable or effective connection to the neo-liberal right parties because these movements (Trump, etc.) rely on the false promise of a return to industrial labor, but without the New Deal. The neo-reactionaries want to push the antinomies of capitalism to its breaking point. But what comes after the break?

The fundamental insight of the Genealogy of Morals is that social inequality is the source of our value concepts, and the necessary condition of value itself. Nietzsche states that “equality for equals, inequality for unequals – that would be the true voice of justice”. Nietzsche thus reads nihilism as a socially constructed leveling out, or as Malcolm Bull states in Anti-Nietzsche, “a way humans join together to become less than they might otherwise be” (170).

In many ways, Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche is an excellent place to start to understand the aversion the neo-reactionaries have to equality. To be clear, I am not suggesting that Nietzsche is their foundational or most central thinker. I am suggesting that if we follow the logical conclusions of Nietzsche’s theory of social value and nihilism, we come to learn that the question which drives the nascent neo-fascist community and their quiet intellectual handmaiden –the neoreactionaires– is a problem that is centered on how nihilism comes from capitalisms attempt to impose a type of equality that levels equality out.  The problem of equality for Nietzsche does have a solution which the left could co-opt, and thus save Nietzsche from being a total fascist himself. This solution came in the form of the aesthetic community. Through the will of the Dionysian man, the uncompassionate strong have the capacity to will a new relation to the aesthetic, to shrug off the moral entirely and to affirm beauty.

But we have to understand the problem of equality in a more utilitarian sense before arriving at a better understanding of how Nietzsche thought equality produced nihilism. As a thought experiment, let’s say that you start with a population of equals at a high level. Then you add some extra people at a lower level outside the existing population (refugees for example). You then have to equalize the two groups separately, without necessarily leveling them down, but the consequence based on Parfit’s mere addition paradox is that when you unite the two populations to form a single larger population that collective population is now at a lower level than the first equal population was. This downward trend happens in a utilitarian matrix the more you add.

This utilitarian thesis takes all available goods and distributes them ever more thinly among the largest number of the population as possible, which results in the famous idea of the tragedy of commons. The tragedy of the commons understands the issue of resource allocation to be one based on scarcity and as such equality suffers from being spread too thin.  When you add extra people at each step, there no limit to how low you can go.

Why have these people that demand inclusion come about in the first place? This is the question which drives much of the hysteria of today’s neo-fascism. Nietzsche’s answer is that this negative community formed around equality squashes the strong morality and transforms it into a counter-interest of the relatively strong to sustain them: Christian compassion or total utilitarianism. Equality thus becomes nihilistic when the less than equal are introduced into the equation. This creates what Bull terms “extraegalitarianism” which represents not a good being distributed such as citizenship, property or equality itself but a form of social skepticism about value itself (167). The only uncertainty in extraegalitrianism is ‘how far can it go’ — how far can the society of unequals go until it reaches a point where the balance is affected?

The central problem with equality and an egalitarian ordering of society (to the neo-reactionaries and to Nietzsche) is that it removes the inequalities necessary in order to generate particular things of value. But herein lies the failure of the dark enlightenment itself: they propose nothing of value to replace the existing nihilist value. If leveling out progressively removes all possibility of higher forms of value from the world, they propose no higher aesthetic community based on some new form of mythology or pleasure. On the contrary, the neo-reactionaires present us with a re-doubled nihilism at its most final point. Nihilism stunted from re-valorizing any alternative to itself only offers a beastly and excessive vision of destruction.

It is more difficult (for me at least) to face the problem of nihilism within the left and revolutionary thought than it is on the reactionary right side of things. Bull shows how the left mirrors these struggles of the right, albeit in different ways. As Bull notes, the question the drives more contemporary thinkers such as Nancy and Agamben is the question of the human at the ends of nihilism. At the ends of being able to will the aesthetic community, the question of nihilism is found (for Agamben) in the figure of the sub-human. Agamben argues that nihilism turns back on itself in the subhuman; the human survives in bare life, an interstitial zone before the subhuman. The subhuman has moved out of the capacity to will the eternal return, he has entered into a sub consciousness and a hibernation.

In terms of the way that equality produces nihilism, there are indeed moments of ‘leveling down’ followed by ‘leveling out’ (or nihilism) within the revolutionary tradition itself. Since the French revolution, the move from revolution to permanent revolution, to an inevitable passive revolution is what leads to the leveling out. Interestingly, Bull shows how Gramsci’s conceptual framework is between the war of movement and the war of position – the latter is hegemony while the former is permanent revolution – but the war of maneuver gives way to the war of position – this is Gramsci’s contention. But what happens is that the passive revolution goes on forever, resulting in a distinctive form of revolutionary nihilism, where ‘everything speaks for it: its ideas speak for it, its prejudices, its customs, its needs’ (171). This passive revolution is the very definition of what Bull calls the negative community:

“Negative community, the great beast, passive revolution – all are potentially a means of arriving and extending the desert of nihilism, their very limitlessness the model of permanent revolution spreading out across the empty space of the universe” (175).

2 responses

  1. The best books I read in 2016 – Spirit is a Bone

    […] 12. Anti-Nietzsche Malcolm Bull […]

  2. Ronald Sevenster

    Egalitarianism’s principal opponent is not Fascism, for Fascism is nothing else but a functional hierarchy under a Führer. A functional hierarchy, however, is based on the idea of equality. Everyone within this system — with only the exception of the Führer — is equal in the sense that he has to obey his superiors and has command over those below him in the hierarchy. In this system all are essentially slaves because they all are totally subjected to their superiors, again with the sole exception of the Führer.

    Historically, however, egalitarianism is the rejection not of hierarchy but of aristocracy or nobility, i.e. birthright or any other right founded in a higher order. The aristocratic houses of Europe were not simply subject to their monarchs, but enjoyed a limited sovereignty in their own domains, with inalienable rights and privilegies. This sovereignty was only recognized by the king, without being derived from the monarch’s authority. The members of the nobility were thus lords in their own right by birth, and that’s a very different position from having a high position in some functionial or official hierarchy.

    There’s a spiritual pendant of this aristocracy in the Church. It is found in the distinction between jurisdiction and ordination. Although not founded on birth, once ordained a clergyman can never lose the dignity of his sacramental status. Not even the Pope can take it away. In the case of bishops, this orginal power of ordination is an important balancing factor against the powerful position of the Pope.

    Egalitarianism finds thus its most important enemies in institutions which represent aristocratic values. Today these values are mainly found in traditional or traditionalist Catholicism, and in Judaism, which is a religion completely founded on aristocratic principles. It is therefore not surprizing that today’s egalitarians are focused on undermining and overthrowing all relicts of Judeo-Christian morality, in particular the traditional morality of family and marriage, and good manners, in Western society.

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