Nietzsche and the Politics of his Time III

Nietzsche referred to a family legend of aristocratic Polish origins (Frenzel 1966, 10), but there is no independent confirmation, and the whole idea is really a fantasy belonging to an age in which the common-noble status distinction is questioned. Thomas Hardy’s novel of 1891, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, refers in its title to a rural lower class family which decides that it should replace its plebian name of Durbeyfield with d’Urberville like a local aristocratic family, because of a rumoured Norman aristocratic ancestry deep in the Middle Ages. The comical self-elevation to the aristocracy is followed up the by trauma of Tess’ rape by the son of a family which has purchased the d’Urberville name, as part of its own self-elevation from merchant class to aristocracy. Hardy was both a very philosophical novelist, and part, as as a great social observer amongst writers, and does capture with some wit and some pathos, the reality of the lower and middle class wish to approach aristocratic status in the nineteenth century. Hardy himself was a reader of Nietzsche. Though there seem to be positive echoes of Nietzsche’s philosophy in Hardy’s literature, his direct remarks on the subject were mostly critical, and he was one of those who thought Nietzsche to blame for Prussian-German militarism  and nationalism (Williamson 1978). There’s no reason to believe he was aware of Nietzsche’s own tendency to assume aristocratic antecedents, but he would probably have been amused to have accidentally satirised them in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

Following Tocqueville’s classic account, Nietzsche’s own criticisms of democracy add to the growth of democracy, as his own poetic exploration of inner individuality is itself serving the democratic ideal of the individual. As Tocqueville argues in Democracy in America, democracy both brings about a respect for the rights of the individual and a self-centred individualism which threatens the moral coherence of the democratic society. In some respects, Nietzsche’s exploration of immoralism and self-determining individuality is an example of that dangerous individualism, though it has a concern with the cultivation of the self and self-mastery, distinct from the vulgarity that Tocqueville associates with democratic individualism.

The aristocratic feudal world of the Middle Ages itself creates the conditions for democracy through the growth of cities with political institutions of self-government, wars which undermine the nobility, a church which promotes spiritual equality and provides a career path for poor but clever children. The culture of that world, including the spread of imaginative literature spills over into all parts of society, so that those who are below the aristocracy become part of the world of literary culture, which itself tends to cultivate empathy and egalitarian individualism, even if it does begin with the adventures of knights.  It is in this context that we should think of Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for Goethe, the poet and thinker who stood between feudalism and liberalism. Nietzsche himself notes the growth of empathy, of concern for the welfare and sensitivities of others, for example with what he suggests is a changing attitude to the sufferings of Don Quixote in Cervantes’ novel (GM II 6).  The main topic of On the Genealogy of Morality II is of how morality and legal codes are descended from customs and codes requiring punishments of extreme physical cruelty, and it is surely hard not to see Nietzsche as repelled as well as fascinated by that cruelty itself, and in any case preferring the individual who rises above by urges for cruelty  which are the source of ressentiment.

Who does Nietzsche look to as his heroes in the era of growing democracy and equality. Is it a list of ultra-reactionary conservatives, or at least conservatives suspicious of democratic enthusiasm? In such a case we would expect an appreciation of Edmund  Burke and Joseph de Maistre on the literary side, and an appreciation of Klemens von Metternich and Otto von Bismarck on the political leadership side. Burke and de Maistre are completely absent from Nietzsche’s writings, as is Metternich. Only Bismarck gets any attention (M 167, FW 104), and that is of a negative kind, since Nietzsche does not support the German nationalist aspects of Bismarck’s politics, or Bismarck’s style of government. For Nietzsche, Bismarck was a symbol of vulgarity and opportunism. One monarch of Nietzsche’s time gets some appreciation, and that is the briefly reigning Kaiser Friedrich III (EH Zarathustra I), the one Hohenzollern Emperor who favoured the liberals at home and Anglophile policies abroad. The first edition of Human, All Too Human was dedicated to Voltaire, who Nietzsche finds to be an Olympian alternative to Rousseau (MA 463), but who nevertheless was a popular hero of his time due to his defiance of monarchical absolutism. Mirabeau the Younger, a prominent figure on the moderate liberal side of politics in the early stages of the French Revolution, is mentioned with admiration (GM I 10). Another French revolutionary, the rather more resolutely republican Lazare Carnot, gets an admiring mention (M 167). Carnot survived into the Empire period as a senior figure in the state, but kept his distance from the Emperor system.

To be continued

Gezi Park, Democracy, and the Politics of Public Space

The Gezi Park protest movement in Turkey demonstrates some important aspects of what politics is. There is some sense in which politics is about elections, national assemblies and governments, but these things exist in a context. There cannot be politics without some broader social aspect, and that is certainly the case for democratic politics. In Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic early nineteenth century account, Democracy in America, he gives democracy at least two meanings. One meaning is the existence of representative institutions elected by popular voter. The more fundamental definition for Tocqueville though is the existence of equality in legal and moral status between humans. The political institutions of representative democracy are  a way of reinventing the republicanism of ancient Rome and Greece, in the context of societies which have abandoned slavery and which are more diverse than the city state of antiquity. The idea that modern democracy has some relation with ancient models, despite its major differences, has kept coming back since and was already a matter of discussion before Tocqeuville.

The kind of equality that Gezi Park protestors have been centrally concerned with is that between citizens and government members. The Turkish government has presumed that democracy is no more than the right of the elected government to do what it chooses. Significantly the Prime Minister reacted to the protests by organising rallies to Defend the National Will. In his mind the fraction of one percent under fifty per cent his Justice and Development Party received, is the National Will. Additionally the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, appears to make no distinction between his own authority and that of the party group in the National Assembly, and to believe that his actions are the actions of the National Will. The authority conferred by the National Will is what allows Erdoğan, in his mind, to order the police via government appointed governors and the Ministry of the Interior to clear political demonstrators from public spaces.

What is of major concern here is the control of public spaces and the challenges to such controls from Gezi protestors.  The protest began with resistance to government plans to build a replica Ottoman barracks containing a shopping mall and high end residences in one of the sparse green areas in central Istanbul. The government has backed down on this very specific issue, but has in all other respects reinforced its aggressively authoritarian implementation of Islamist-Nationlist politics, in a manner serving the interests of economic enterprises linked with the government through family, political or other ties. Significantly what the government has not backed down on is limiting, even banning, political protest outside  very limited areas. The protestors where cleared from Gezi Park with notorious brutality, as police sprayed tear gas and handed out beatings to anyone in their way. This extended to attacking those temporary  medical facilities where injured protestors were seeking treatment, beseiging a mosque, the Divan hotel and the German hospital. In Erdoğan’s view, this operation, and others round Turkey which resulted in the loss of five lives, the hospitalisation of thousands, including some protestors  in comas and protestors who have lost eyes, was a time of the birth of legends amongst the police.

The deaths, blindings, comas, lost eyes, and other injuries, serve the purpose of showing that the government controls public space. It is possible to organise demonstrations in Turkey, but not where it matters. The authorities will give permission in Istanbul for demonstrations in Kadıköy, the largest centre on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, which includes the remains of the ancient Greek colony of Chalcedon. It is possible for radical groups to organise large demonstrations there, but nobody cares or notices. The pro-government municipality of Istanbul is proposing a large space dedicated to demonstrations out of the city of centre. Again no one will care of notice. The national media, the international media, people found the most central parts of the city, will notice a demonstration if it takes place in a central area, which it is largely agreed has symbolic importance. A demonstration in such a place will be seen by those people most connected with the life of the city centre and maybe by the whole world through television. Even the spread of unofficial and marginal news through social media will flow towards news from such areas. Cyberspace, at least as regards political drama, is firmly focused on famous public places in historic metropolitan centres. Meaningful democracy must mean the right to demonstrate, protest and communicate with The City (as Istanbul/Constantinople has been known), the nation, and the world. In that sense ruthless state directed violence against Gezi Protestors is a strategic decision  to prevent the growth of meaningful democracy in Turkey. Without the full range of democratic rights, in the appropriate social and cultural context, democracy decays, as Tocqueville warned into ‘tyranny of the majority’, ‘administrative centralisation’ and ‘soft despotism’, which he saw as dangers embedded in democracy. The Gezi Protests are Ptotests are protests against those dangers growing and subordinating democracy.

Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism III (concluding)

One of the various clichés floating around with regard to Tocqueville is that he was in favour of decentralisation in every respect, and that the value he placed on the American republic refers largely, or exclusively, to participation in local politics.  It’s true he does put high value on that participation, but he is particularly referring to New England (now the northeastern states of New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine), so this is not something he though applied equally across the Republic.  What he is referring to is a tradition, still present in New Hampshire, of local government through participation of all citizens in a town hall meeting.  Though he does not choose to say so explicitly, we are clearly expected to think of Athenian democracy in those passages, and as noted above he indirectly refers to Aristotle on the tendency of humans to live in towns, in this context.  What Tocqueville also says is that there should be administrative decentralisation and political centralisation.  What he meant was that the federal institutions should have sovereignty with regard to what was necessary to maintain and preserve the Republic, while administration of public services should be done at the most local level possible.  In his discussion of tyranny of the majority, influenced by the Federalist Papers and influencing Mill, that tyranny is thought of as most dangerous at the local level where a nearly completely dominant majority can emerge and deny rights to the minority.  He also mentioned the related difficulty of enforcing legal rights for blacks in the non-slave states at the local level.  He also thought there were considerable dangers in centralisation, and thought those dangers might become very active in America.  He suggested that the United States was more politically centralised than the absolute monarchies of European history, and that this could threaten liberty.   The answer is to a large degree the decentralisation which provides  a version of antique liberty against the danger of the state which guarantees modern liberty becoming too big and interventionist.

In his attitude to the relation between decentralisation and centralisation, localism and federalism, Tocqueville expresses a way of handling the competing claims of ancient and modern liberty.  Ancient liberty can be established at the local level, but should be constrained by a higher level of political sovereignty, which protects individuals against complete domination by the social body, and which guarantees individual rights.  That sense of balance, or creative tension, between the two kinds of liberty, runs throughout Democracy in America.  We can also see this in what he says about ‘individualism’, in America.  Despite his attachment to individual rights, he is concerned that individualism can become a form of narrow self interest which is morally inferior and provides a poor basis for resisting tyranny.  The answer is partly for individuals to look to the overall plan of their life rather than immediate desires.  That anticipates Rawls’ discussion of ‘plans of life’ in A Theory of Justice, section 63.  Ideally for Tocqueville, this should lead individuals to a religious point of view, but even without that step, thought about life as a whole provides a barrier against individualism.  Tocqueville’s idea of individualism has much in it of what Rousseau says about ‘self love’ (amour propre) as opposed to ‘love of self’ (amour de soi).  ‘Self love’ is where we seek to feel good about ourselves in comparison with other people, with regard to how we imagine they compare us with others, in their imagination.  Another example of how Rousseau belongs to classical liberal thinking, and so libertarian thinking, in some respects.  Another constraint on individualism is the press, which Tocqueville regarded as bringing something of antique republicanism to modern liberty.  In  political communities where geographical distance and population size prevent all citizens from gathering to make political decisions in a public space, newspapers provide the nearest equivalent.  They bring people together through reading of common material which leads them to concern with common issues.  As Tocqueville notes, the post office enabled newspapers, and other forms of written or printed communication to spread simultaneously across the republic, and create a common political life.

For Tocqueville, the best modern state combines ancient and modern liberties, and we can call this libertarian republicanism, or it should at least lead us to break down barriers between republicanism and classical liberalism or libertarianism.  His political thought shows that a classical liberal-libertarian can be more of an enthusiast for ancient Athenian republicanism that an egalitarian liberal, or the school of republicanism which defines republicanism as a form of egalitarian liberalism.


Tocqueville is not part of Pettit’s egalitarian liberal version of republicanism, but that does not mean he is further from antique republicanism, Athenian or Roman, than Pettit, or that he is further removed from Rousseau.  Tocqueville uses Aristotelian republican language rejected by Pettit, but favoured by Arendt, who as we have noted above was deeply influenced by Tocqueville.  ‘The township is the association so well rooted in nature that whenever men assembles it forms itself (62/ Book I, Part One, Chapter IV).  The echo of Aristotle famous comments on the place of life in the town or city as the natural end of human life (Politics I) is clear. Returning to Rousseau, Tocqueville’s language is permeated with that of Rousseau.  He declared himself a daily reader of Rousseau, along with Montesquieu and Pascal in a famous letter to Louis de Kargolay, and it shows.  The reading of Pascal and Montesquieu is consistent with the Rousseauesque element in Tocqueville.  Pascal’s view of humanity as torn between its Godlike and animal like aspects, the confusion of humans arising from the multiplicity of desires, and the dissatisfaction left when those desires are met, flows into the way Rousseau refers to humanity as it experiences inequality in The Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract, and the way it experiences the tensions between individual will and general will in The Social Contract. The language of general and particular wills partly comes from Pascal’s essay on grace.  The contrast in Rousseau between the moral purity of a small republic based on patriotic virtue and equality in poverty; and a large monarchical commercial state, has parallels in Montesquieu.  On the whole, we might think that Montesquieu is more open to commercial society and states with a large territory, nevertheless he was  quoted by Saint-Just, the ideologue of the Jacobin terror, with regard to the virtues of simple republics.  The relation between Rousseau and Tocqueville is sometimes acknowledged (e.g. Melvin Richter’s ‘Rousseau and Tocqueville on democratic legitimacy and illegitimacy’ in Rousseau and Liberty, edited by Robert Wokler, 1995), but not often enough. As mentioned above, Tocqueville draws on Rousseau in explaining the nature of individuals in a democratic society, torn between conflicting and ever renewed desires, with regard to commercial life and all social connections.  It even incorporates the laws in democratic America, which are forever changing and conflicting.  The Constitution and the Supreme Court provides some counteraction to that, representing the general constraints that democracy requires if it is not to self-destruct.  Law as practised by advocates and by judges is key for Tocqueville, in that restraint and brings some of the virtues of aristocracy to democracy.  Tocqueville sees aristocrats as more concerned than the people with intellectual excellence, the long term, administration of the state, the survival of the nation and of basic institutions.  Rousseau’s own favoured system of government is elective aristocracy, rather than participatory democracy, and that is an outcome of his distinction between general will and government.  Like Rousseau, Tocqueville  refers to he unity of the political body.  Rousseau had opposed the unity of government to the Lockean idea of a separation between executive and legislative functions, which Rousseau regarded as an absurdity. Tocqueville has a version of the savage in Rousseau, in the American Indians.  The American Indians are beyond the pure savage stage in Rousseau, as they are not wandering the forest as isolated individuals.  They still serve as something that is ‘natural’, compared with the democracy of European settlers.  The situation of American Indians puts them in comparison with the early stages of private property and inequality in Rousseau.  He presents American Indians as individuals who are perfectly integrated into a group, who only exist as part of that group, as well as in a relation  with nature.  They demonstrate both perfect hospitality to guests and unlimited cruelty to prisoners of war.  These virtues are even those of antique city state, a comparison made by Tocqueville.  There is a relation between violence and simple freedom reminiscent of Adam Ferguson, with precedents going back to Tacitus’s view of ancient Germans and Britons. Tocqueville finds equivalents to European history in America, so while thinking of it as the place where British settlers could reproduce British ideas of law and free institutions in a pure form, he also thought of it as a place of traumatic history where all the worst aspects of European history could be found in a kind of clear simultaneity, where barbaric, antique and modern phases exist together.  Tocqueville is very taken with the idea of America as an offshoot of Britain, thought there were also Dutch, German and French settlers as well.  Tocqueville notes the terrible consequences for the American Indians of white settlement.  He thinks of it as violence which takes place with perfect legality.  All the expropriations of American Indian land, expulsions of people and forced movements, are within the law.  There is probably over simplification by Tocqueville on that point, but in the cause of an argument about the limits of law.  Much as he respects the rule of law as a guarantor of liberty with order, he is strongly aware that is can be an instrument of, or a cover for, the violation of the principles that we hope institutions of law serve.  Law requires a spirit amongst the people, for it to be used and applied properly.  He thinks of America as divided between three races (white European, black African and American Indian) and is pessimistic about the chances for just co-existence and integration between them, despite his respect for aspects of the American Republic.  He has a melancholic view of the fate of American Indians, which later history justified, and gives us the memorably sad image of American Indians leaving ancestral lands behind, near Memphis, crossing the cold river Mississippi, leaving their dogs behind, who then jump into the freezing waters in despair.

Situating Tocqueville in Debates about Republicanism, Liberalism and Libertarianism I

The overall argument here is that Tocqueville is an example of what could be called libertarian republicanism, what for Tocqueville is simply a concern for liberty in its political, civil and personal aspects.  In recent political theory ‘republicanism’ has been largely identified with egalitarian liberalism, particularly in the work of Philip Pettit and the many influenced by him, a theory of republicanism serves as a way of giving political support to the kind of egalitarian theory found in Rawls, which refers to ethics and rationality.  Pettit’s normative theory is tied up with the historical work of J.G.A. Pocock and Quentin Skinner.  For our purposes, Skinner is the more relevant.  Skinner’s view is that republicanism represents a theory of liberty which precedes liberalism.  Liberalism is understood by Skinner to mean a mixture of utilitarianism and negative liberty.  The vital figure for him is William Paley though he is not widely read anymore, and who was a 19th century theological utilitarian.  Theological utilitarianism did have an influence on 19th century liberalism, the paradigmatic liberal statesman, William Ewart Gladstone, edited the works of Joseph Butler, an eighteenth century bishop whose writing has been taking as anticipating utilitarianism.  Nevertheless, this is a bizarrely narrow way of looking at the origins of liberalism.  Skinner makes this move in order to defend a theory of republicanism as ‘Neo-Roman’ liberty, a new form of the liberty of the Ancient Roman Republic.  Neo-Roman liberty exists in a polemical contrast with liberalism which Skinner understands as a defence of apolitical, and maybe social, individualism.  The kind of republicanism advocated by Skinner and Pettit is nevertheless rather a political.  Roman or neo-Roman republicanism exists in a contrast with Athenian republicanism, or Civic Humanism.  That is in contrast with the position that  human life receives some significant part of its meaning from the political sphere and from participation in civic affairs.  The Athenian republic rested in its democratic phases on regular gatherings of all citizens in the city centre to make major political decisions, and to  make laws.  Leaders of the Athenian republic (most famously Pericles) had to convince citizens  to support government policies, even in the middle of wars.  The Roman republic had similar meetings, but the centre of power was in the Senate, a gathering of the aristocracy.  Though the Roman republic rested on participation as much as the Athenian republic, just with more emphasis on aristocratic participation, the Skinner-Pettit claim is that Rome was a very different kind of state, more a republic than Athens.  They see something intrusive, conformist and over politicised about the Athenian state, compared with the Roman state.  This leads them to take the position they attribute to emergent liberalism in the 19th century, that is the position of the individual isolated from political union.  Pettit equates Athenian republicanism with Rousseau, joining a tradition in which Rousseau is taken to be the enemy of individual liberties, and the prophet of democracy turning to totalitarianism.  In these arguments, Pettit and Skinner are very close to Isaiah Berlin’s view of liberty.  That is the view that Berlin expresses in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958).  Berlin draws on late eighteenth and early nineteenth century discussions of moral and political liberty, in a rather schematic way which does not give much sense of the scope and ambiguities of this issue.  Nevertheless, his discussion is very influential in its presentation of a clearly drawn opposition between negative and positive liberty.  Negative liberty is the liberty to be left alone; positive liberty is the capacity for self-development.  However, positive liberty is quickly taken up as an aspect of state power, directed to elevating individuals and the society as a whole, according to ideas of perfection.  In Berlin’s account it becomes the source of totalitarianism, with Rousseau, Fichte, and Hegel picked out as the philosophical villains who supposedly opened the way to totalitarianism with their notions of positive liberty.  Rousseau is contrasted with his fellow Swiss-French novelist and political thinker, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), who apparently had more respect for negative liberty in his account of the difference between the liberty of the ancients and the liberty of the moderns.  Pettit accepts the Berlin schema, old and schematic as it is.  He offers what appears to be a departure from Berlin in presenting ‘non-domination’ as a third form of liberty, in which interference by government, or other sources of power is part of liberty if we consent to it. .  However, ‘non-domination’ is presented as closer to negative liberty than positive liberty, and Rousseau is a target, with the addition of Arendt who is supposedly too besotted by nostalgia for ancient Athens.  Tocqueville is briefly mentioned as part of the right sort of Roman Republicanism, along with Locke and Mill.

So should we think of Tocqueville as anti-Rousseau, like Constant.  That is as someone opposed to Rousseau from the point of view of his liberal objection to the unlimited sovereignty of Rousseau’s general will.  If Tocqueville is somewhere on the classical liberal/libertarian spectrum then do we expect him to be more opposed to Rousseau (and Arendt) than Pettit.  Any such expectation would be false.  Let us go back to Constant.  Does he have criticisms of Rousseau with regard to liberty?  Certainly.  Does he just condemn Rousseau as the teacher of tyranny.  Certainly not.  Constant is much more measured than Pettit or Berlin with regard to Rousseau, and he is far more sympathetic to the Athenian model than Pettit.  Constant’s criticism of Rousseau is that he sometimes confuses the general will, the sovereign creator of law in Rousseau’s Social Contract with government.  Hayek makes very similar comments.  This is in line with Rousseau’s own doctrine and is simply a suggestion that Rousseau is not always consistent.  The implications of his inconsistency are quite serious as that is what allows limitations on individual independence from the social body.  Constant famously compared antique and modern liberty to the advantage of modern liberty, because he thought that is more possible in the liberty of the moderns, as opposed to that of the ancients where liberty is to be part of the social body of an independent city state.  Constant does not condemn Athens as the paradigm of antique restraints on liberty though, he refers to its commercial life, the individuality and diversity that allows, and suggests it is the ancient state closest to modern conceptions of liberty.  Constant is closer to Arendt and Athenian republicanism than Pettit.  Hayek also has favourable comments to make about Athenian republican liberty.  In particular, he refers to the role of a court in Athens which checks the constitutionality of laws as a model for the modern world.