Nietzsche’s Influence on Political Thought II

As with Nietzsche, there is a mixture of horror at past cruelties, and a suggestion that human Enlightenment values may have produced as much cruelty in more dispersed less dramatic ways. The whole critique of the understanding of theories of legal sovereignty is clearly a taking up of Nietzsche, and while it is directed against a large current of ‘liberal’ theory, it is articulated in the service of a critique of unrestrained state and social power. Liberalism since the Enlightenment is portrayed as deeply complicit with a power of control through visibility and rationalisation, but in the service of a resistance to the cruelty of power which extends liberal sensibilities. The book that made Foucault famous, History of Madness (also know as Madness and Civilisation), has a Nietzsche influenced respect for the insights of madness, as something connected with tragedy, as opposed to the confinement, constraints and rational controls placed on it later.


The world of the early seventeenth century is strangely hospitable to madness. Madness is there, in the hearts of men and at the heart of things, an ironic sign blurring the distinction between the real and the chimerical, but with barely a memory of great tragic threat.

(Foucault 2006, p. 42-43)


As with the critical attitude to modern punishment, there is a both a challenge to liberalism, taken up in the more left wing interpretations of Foucault, and a suggestion of how liberalism can be deepened, expanded and pluralised, taken up in liberal encounters with Foucault. Foucault’s own political engagements included a period of participation in the Maoist left, but he denies that he was a Marxist in any of his writings. Other periods of his life include engagement with a wide range of protests against power, and towards the end of his writing career a growing engagement with liberal, or liberal related, concepts.


Gilles Deleuze wrote one of his earlier books about Nietzsche (reference) and had an enduring interest in Nietzsche’s thought. In his Nietzsche study, he does not present a Nietzschean political philosophy, or deny that Netzsche might favour some Caesarist or Platonist form of government, but his way of writing about power and force in Nietzsche takes the reader’s attention from such approaches to Nietzsche to an idea of Nietzsche as philosopher of pluralism, difference and becoming, with regard to forces. Deleuze’s later work suggests that such metaphysical or naturalist pluralism is a model for social and political action and ways of thinking.


Thus reactive force is: 1) utilitarian force of adaptation and partial limitation; 2) force which separates active force from what it can do, which denies or turns against itself (reign of the weak or of slaves). And, analogously, active force is :1) plastic, dominant and subjugating force; 2) force which goes to the limit of what it can; 3) force which affirms its difference, which makes its difference an object of enjoyment and affirmation. Forces are only concretely and completely determined if these three pairs of characteristics are taken into account simultaneously.

(Deleuze 1983, p. 61)

It is no surprise, therefore, to find that every Nietzschean concept lies at the crossing of two unequal genetic lines. Not only the eternal return and the Overman, but laughter, play and dance. In relation to Zarathustra laughter, play and dance are affirmative powers of transmutation: dance transmutes heavy into light, laughter transmutes suffering into joy and the play of throwing (the dice) transmutes low into high. But in relation to Dionysus dance, laughter and play are affirmative powers of reflection and development. Dance affirms becoming and the being of becoming; laughter, roars of laughter, affirms multiplicity and the unity of multiplicity; play affirms chance and the necessity of chance.

(Deleuze 1983, p. 193-194)


From the political point of view, Deleuze’s emphasis on limits, difference, affirmation, laughter, play, dance, becoming, multiplicity, chance, enjoyment, and transmutation, can be taken against authority, hierarchy, sovereignty, rationalism and elitism in the state and in political life. Society can be seen as something conditioned by the multiplicity of constantly transforming forces in which hierarchies and sovereignty relations can only be temporary, and are always under challenge. So whatever Nietzsche may have sometimes advocated in the way of Platonist politics or Caesarism can be seen as itself challenged by the Nietzschean emphasis on difference, becoming and multiplicity. Forces flow through social organisations in ways which constantly disorder them, and suggest a politics of anti-authoritarian self-transformation along with existential challenges to authority. That understanding of social and political thought can be seen in Deleuze in a series of texts beginning with Anti-Oedipus (1984), which he co-authored with Félix Guattari. These texts use references to Nietzsche, amongst references to Freud, Marx and many others. The overall effect is that of a form of libertarianism strongly influenced by Marxist theory and revolutionary politics, confirmed by Deleuze’s own political interests.

To be continued

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