Nietzsche: “Everywhere one enthuses, even under scientific disguises, about coming states of society in which there will be ‘no more exploitation’ – that sounds to my ears like promising a life in which there will be no organic functions. ‘Exploitation’ does not pertain to a corrupt or imperfect or primitive society: it pertains to the essence of the living thing as a fundamental organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power which is precisely the will of life.”
Nietzsche’s “will to power” has been taken as a ruthless pursuit of superiority, as the drive to overcome, dominate and subdue others. It’s probably this idea of his, more than any other, that encouraged many to see in Nietzsche a kind of pre-endorsement of fascism and inspiration of Hitler. But, once again, this represents a gross mis-reading of Nietzsche.
True enough, he was scathingly critical of those Christian utopians who foretold a future where all people would live in happy equality and perpetual peace. What would happen if we smoothed down all differences, every more-or-less, and were able to remove the friction, tension and conflict that characterize so much of our interpersonal relations? Nietzsche was not a fan of equality – or democracy, insofar as it insists on the principle that everyone is equal.
He even seems here to affirm and encourage exploitation. Isn’t that evidence enough that Nietzsche is against Christian morality. Oh right, we already determined that. But against moral decency? Ah, true again. He’s a “nihilist,” then, a moral anarchist, proto-Nazi and antichrist. Well, not really.
The straightforward definition of exploitation is based on the verb exploit, which simply means “to utilize, advance or promote.” Granted, it’s more about your advancement than someone else’s, but that doesn’t have to make it greedy or vicious. Perhaps we’re dealing here with something more analogue than digital, a variable range from too little to too much, rather than a simple “on” or “off.” The Christian morality that Nietzsche was reacting to tended (and still tends) to be digital – it’s either a virtue or a vice, praiseworthy or condemnable. Such a digital value system plays out and produces a dualistic worldview (good versus evil) as well as bipolar personalities that are unable to absorb and modulate the emotional complexity of experience.
Is a healthy human society entirely free of exploitation, competition and self-interest? The early Christian communalism as described in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles is frequently referenced as an ideal, and we know that Karl Marx envisioned a society where every talent would be harnessed, every need satisfied. But that was a fantasy. In the meantime, exploited proletarians need to muster themselves and pull down the bourgeoisie system of privilege. Sounds like exploitation just running in the opposite direction, doesn’t it? And what about those primitive Christians? That model quickly fell apart as real life seeped in and a politics of entitlement took over.
Exactly, Nietzsche would say. The drive to utilize resources, advance the quality of life, and promote the fulfillment of its own deeper nature is written into the genetic code of life itself. Efforts to push it down and put it out are really just another form of exploitation, which prompts the question of whose interests are being served in our moral repression. The “will to life” naturally arises in every living thing as it seeks its own foothold in the universe, struggles to satisfy its basic needs, and strives to actualize its true nature.
If we should remove all obstacles and flatten out all uprisings; if we could somehow assuage every hint of discontent and anesthetize the energizing nerve of our innate selfishness – would the result be a healthy society and genuine community? No. Instead we would end up with such an inertia of mediocrity and laziness, that our very survival would be in jeopardy.
Nietzsche wasn’t in support of pushing down your neighbor and sticking it to the poor. His ideal was not just another aristocracy based on the golden rule of a rogue capitalism – “The one with the gold rules.” Nor was he an advocate of a ruthless antagonism where individuals and classes are consumed in their schemes to ruin each other. He believed that our better days are still ahead, but not in a utopia where everyone is equal and all adversities have been neutralized.
We need to get along, but each of us must also get along – that is, we need to go forward in our own development and evolution as human beings. An important part of that development involves our relationships with others in society, but we must be careful not to cut the root as we cultivate the flower.
An illustration from the vineyard. Vines that are grown in super-rich soil where every emergent need of the plant is instantly and abundantly provided for don’t have to “strive” as diligently to produce fruit. As a consequence of this “privilege,” the vines will put out lazy grapes – berries that are bloated and tasteless, lacking in complexity and depth. Wine made from lazy grapes is characteristically flat and uninteresting, winding up as cheap jug wine. The overly providential vintner, by removing adverse conditions and anticipating every need, thereby enfeebles the plant’s innate “will to power” and compromises its natural intelligence.
Nietzsche might say that our culture is bringing forth “lazy grapes,” individuals lacking the complexity of character, inner fortitude and passion for life that our species requires for the next phase in our evolution. Though he waxed prophetic over the “superman” (Ubermensch) of the future, this apparent recession of the human spirit made him wonder whether our opportunity has already passed.