Nietzsche: become a Yes-sayer

I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.

–Nietzsche, Gay Science, 276.

As someone who has spent some time accusing those who accuse, and feeling funny about the irony, I am glad to have this reminder. In the chapter linked above, I complain that:

As theorists of neoliberalism, we can only sing in the key of critique. We meticulously record and discuss its crimes and contradictions. When we imagine the world we want instead, we can only speak in terms of not-neoliberalism, of canceling out the current political-economic regime. When we act, we can only act in the register of protest, resistance, contestation, and refusal—of struggle against neoliberalism. We turn our faces and our bodies toward neoliberalism, it occupies the entirety of our vision and our imagination, we bathe in its dark light, and we can think only of blocking it, disrupting it, and, one day, in our fondest dreams, causing it to collapse.

I think that’s all true, and I do think we need to stop singing in the key of critique. But at the same time, in that passage I am complaining, accusing those who accuse. What would it mean to stop complaining altogether, to start “looking away,” to learn to focus on and say “Yes” to what we desire? How can we become, some day, “only a Yes-sayer”?

No to Ressentiment, Yes to Puissance!


In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche offers a withering criticism of what he calls ressentiment, the habit among the oppressed to focus all their attention on their oppressors, to obsessively document why those oppressors are evil. Ressentiment defines the oppressed as good, but only negatively: we oppressed are good only because we are not them. Ressentiment largely ignores the oppressed and their qualities because it is consumed with detailing the evil of the oppressors. Nietzsche thinks ressentiment is bad because it causes the oppressed to become trapped in a destructive energy, an energy whose purpose is only to obliterate what exists, rather than to create something new in the world. But what’s worse is that ressentiment’s consuming obsession renders the oppressed totally blind to themselves, to their capacities, to their potentials, to their strength, to their power to act into the world and create something new. The oppressed blind themselves to what we might call, after Deleuze & Guattari, their puissance. The endless attention paid to the oppressors makes it seem like they are the only ones capable of acting into the world, the only ones capable of creative agency. But of course they are not the only capable ones. We (the oppressed, the mass of people) are capable too. But we won’t see that ability unless we wean ourselves off of the easy drug of ressentiment.

My sense is that a large majority of the left media is consumed by ressentiment, that it spends most of its time complaining about the evils of those in power. One particularly spectacular example is Jim Hightower’s obsession with the Koch brothers, but there are countless others. And so this media, just like the corporate media, pays very little attention to how people everywhere are using their power to creatively construct another world.

It frustrates me, even to the point of ressentiment, and alas I guess this post in mostly in that key. So enough of this post. Enough of ressentiment. Here’s to becoming obsessed with our own puissance instead.

Marx: Pretty Good Communist Thinker


My students just had an extremely insightful discussion of two chunks of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts: “Alienated Labor” and “Private Property and Communism.”  The class has to do with the idea of community, and so we pay attention not just to Marx’s critique of the current society, but also to his imagination of the community to come.  This latter element is underdeveloped in the Communist Manifesto, but it is actually, to my mind on this reading, quite robust in the chunk on “Private Property and Communism,” especially if we augment Marx with Nietzsche and Deleuze and Guattari.

Marx develops his critique of capitalism by arguing it alienates people from 1) the product of their labor (which is owned by the capitalist), from 2) their species-being (they are not fulfilled in their productive activity but sell it as labor in return for a wage), and from 3) each other (from other workers with whom they compete, and from capitalists to whom their productive activity has been sold).

Communism, Marx argues, is the positive overcoming [Aufhebung] of alienation, and, necessarily also, the overcoming of the relations of private property.  One form of communism, crude communism, is merely the universalization of the property relation, whereby each individual becomes able to participate in owning property.  The second form is one in which either the state overcomes private property (presumably through a form of state-socialism) or the state has been overcome but property has been left in place [this passage is short and not as clear].  The third form of communism is the full form: a “positive overcoming of private property as human self-alienation, and thus as the actual appropriation of the human essence through and for man…the restoration of man as a social, that is, human being” (p. 71 of the Simon collection).  This process, this overcoming of alienation and private property, this movement to construct communism, is “the riddle of history solved and knows itself as the solution” (p. 71).

Clearly the liberals would worry about this vision, assuming it entails a Rousseauian absorption of the individual into a single and undifferentiated social whole.  But Marx is quite subtle here.  He says, basically, that what it means for people to restore themselves as social beings is to realize that the individual is a fiction, an invention of bourgeois society.  The individual is always already a product of, connected to, and dependent on others; s/he is, in other words, always already social.  This is true in a biological sense: each person’s bodily existence is dependent on the procreative and nurturing activity of many, many ancestors.  Similarly, the creative/productive activity of a given individual is utterly dependent on a host of other creators/producers from whom s/he has learned.  The things I make, in other words, are not really made by me alone, but by something I call ‘me’ that is really more like a dense knot of ideas and skills (what Marx called “senses and aptitudes”) that only exist because of the creative activity of many thousands of other humans.  To an extent my body, my senses and my aptitudes are mine, but they are also, just as much, everybody’s.  This is a lot like what Nietzsche says in Beyond Good and Evil:

I shall never tire of emphasizing a small terse fact…namely, that a thought comes when “it” wishes and not when “I” wish, so that it is a falsification of the facts of the case to say that the subject “I” is the condition of the predicate “think.” It thinks; but that this “it” is precisely the famous old “ego” is, to put it mildly, only a supposition, an assertion. and assuredly not an “immediate certainty” (Section 17).

This is the immediate inspiration for the view of Deleuze and Guattari.  For them the individual is an assemblage, a complex open system that is constantly exchanging matter and ideas with its outside.  For them each of us is an intensity on the plane of consistency: we all arise out of the same collective soup, and while we are distinct from each other, none of us is in any way self-contained or independent.  We are intensities that exist only as part of millions of other intensities scattered across the plane of consistency.  I think this is a good way to read Marx’s line that each of us “is therefore a particular individual” but also “equally the totality” (p. 73).  “The overcoming of private property,” Marx writes,

means therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and aptitudes [Eigenschaften], but it means this emancipation precisely because these senses and aptitudes have become human both subjectively and objectively.  The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object derived from and for man…Need or satisfaction have thus lost their egoistic nature, and nature has lost its mere utility by use becoming human use (p. 74).

So overcoming private property means overcoming Locke’s argument in Chapter 5, where he says that God gave the earth to humans in common, but he also gave us property in our own bodies, so that when I use my body-labor to produce a product, that product is entirely the result of my own efforts (actually he says 99%), and so it belongs entirely to me.  Locke posits that this individual with a proprietary body exists already in the state of nature, but Marx refuses this ploy.  Locke’s bourgeois, independent, proprietary individual is for Marx an alienated version of ourselves, one that obscures our true social, or human, character.

So for each of us, life in communism does not mean surrendering our natural individual freedom to a social whole.  Rather it means rediscovering the real condition of our lives: each of us is an intense accumulation of matter and ideas on the common plane of consistency.  We are each an assemblage that opens out onto other assemblages, that realizes itself only in common society with millions of other assemblages.

This line of thinking seems to dovetail quite nicely with Hardt & Negri’s idea of the common, and in particular Marx’s idea of our aptitudes being common resonates with H&N’s argument that the most important ‘common’ that is being produced today is the common intellect: the ideas, codes, affects, languages, norms that work best when they are freely shared [Marx seems to offer (here in EPM) a shadow of the “general intellect” idea that is most often thought to be found in the Grundrisse.  In addition to the discussion of common sense and aptitudes, he talks of “general consciousness” or “generic consciousness” (p. 73)].

This argument is certainly not yet fully formed in my mind, but I think I am clear on the point that in thinking communism today, we should very much  return to Marx (and especially the early work), not just as a formal historical exercise, but because he offers a rich kernel of ideas that are strikingly concordant with the way communism is being thought today.

Deleuze and Guattari: the State is a “Terror without Precedent”


Biblical Seamonster

Exciting moment in Anti-Oedipus (Part 3, Chapter 5) when Deleuze and Guattari first introduce their analysis of the birth of the modern state (and their scathing critique of it). They draw heavily on Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, especially his discussion of debt in Essay II. Deleuze and Guattari write (p. 192):

It is here that Nietzsche speaks of a break, a rupture, a leap. Who are these beings, they who come like fate?. . . .They are the founders of the State. Nietzsche will come to establish the existence of other breaks: those of the Greek city-state, Christianity, democratic and bourgeois humanism, industrial society, capitalism, and socialism. But it could be that all of these–in various ways–presuppose this first great hiatus, although they claim to repel and fill it. It could be that, spiritual or temporal, tyrannical or democratic, capitalist or socialist, there has never been but a single State, the State-as-dog that “speaks with flaming roars” (OGM, II, 16). And Nietzsche suggests how this new socius proceeds: a terror without precedent, in comparison with which the ancient system of cruelty [that Neitzsche has been discussing], the forms of primitive regimentation and punishment, are nothing. A concerted destruction of all the primitive codings, or worse yet, their derisory preservation, their reduction to the condition of secondary parts in the new machine, and the new apparatus of repression. All that constituted the essential element of the primitive inscription machine–the blocks of mobile, open, finite debts, “the parcels of destiny”–finds itself taken into an immense machinery that renders the debt infinite and no longer forms anything but one and the same crushing fate: “the aim now is to preclude pessimistically, once and for all, the prospect of a final discharge; the aim now is to make the glance recoil disconsolately from an iron impossibility”(OGM, II, 21). The earth becomes a madhouse.

Nietzsche’s Muse

The blond beast

We are reading Plato’s Gorgias in my ethics class, and I am reminded again how much of Nietzsche’s arguments about morality (in BGE and OGM) are lifted directly from Callicles, Socrates’ main antagonist in these dialogues.  Callicles says that conventional morality is a scheme invented by the weak to trick the strong into not using their power.  By this ruse, he says, “men tame lions,” an image that echoes Nietzsche’s “blond beast.”  Callicles goes on to hack at the foundation of Plato’s entire worldview–which is that people should use their reason to tame their desires–arguing instead that we should not repress our appetites but let them grow strong, and then we should use our natural powers to satisfy our appetites by any means necessary.  We should, in other words, live fully by discharging our strength into the world.  When Plato objects that this would amount to little more than perpetually scratching an itch, Callicles responds that Plato’s ideal life, in which we moderate and temper our desires through reason, “is the life of a stone.”

It is almost as though Nietzsche, a keen student of the Greeks, built his whole moral and political philosophy by scouring Plato’s dialogues, finding the characters whose arguments Plato was clearly most threatened by, and rearticulating them with a German accent.  Maybe!

Zadie Smith on Joy


Always worth reading, of course, but here she is getting at something I have been trying to understand.  She calls it joy, which for her is a “strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight.”  I have been calling it “delight” (after Nietzsche).  D&G like jouissance, Hardt and Negri prefer joy as well…. Whatever term we use, it is a feeling, a sentiment, that comes when we do something hard but rewarding.  Not the easy and cheap gratification of ‘pleasure,’ but the down-deep feeling of being awake and alive and in the world.  It is not, as she says, purely a good feeling.  It is mixed with anxiety, fear, and worry.  But it is longer-lasting, slower-burning.  A nutritious meal rather than a piece of candy.

It is the feeling we get, I argue, when we are getting democracy right.  Not the euphoria of Mubarak stepping down or the anguish of the NYPD clearing Zuccotti, but the steady, slow, radiating feeling of being an adult, of coming together with others to take our lives into our own hands.  Joy to the world.