Ah, Nietzsche. The first and last resort of disaffected males in their late teens—of the type that keeps such an ironic detachment from life as to refer to men and women as “males” and “females.” They read about The Philosopher and The Overman and The Antichrist and self-flatteringly assume that he’s talking about them. So God isn’t Great after all! So those things we call “manners” are actually vices; morality is an ancient and useless ghost from the Levant, one that has colonized our sadistic superegos and turned them against us! They rush to their keyboards, informing fellow travelers in r/atheism about their discovery. We might indulge their bright-eyed enthusiasm and forgive them for never getting to the passages where Darwin appears as a villain and—what is worse to Nietzsche—a plodding and pedantic bore.
Why do I now relive the combination of admiration and revulsion I felt when I first read Nietzsche? Well, a gentleman by the name of weedguy420boner introduced me to this:
Cyber-dystopia, meet your new official philosopher.
Society has for many years showered the computer-literate with special favors. We have in wholesale fashion displaced our old stereotypes about scientists—heroic men and women, living as ascetics, grasping towards new truths without fear of the consequences—onto coders, social media gurus, and the venture capitalists who enable them. We have thought their characters’ more chivalrous those of other subcultural votaries. (They’re not in some cases, as a Google News query for “Penny Arcade” would reveal). We have treated their cultural products as somehow embodying a greater authenticity than whatever we might categorize under the dread rubric “mainstream.” The Revenge of the Nerds franchise has aged worse than other cinematic classics—yes, even the hammy and ham-fisted On the Waterfront—because the idea that programmers are eo ispo persecuted outcasts has no basis in sociological fact.
We’ve reaped the consequences in the form of Silicon Valley Nietzscheans, digital Leopolds and Loebs. The visionaries behind Candy Crush and the rest of the app-based grab bag now feel so above hoi polloi that finding new ways of taking their money is not so much an exercise in business strategy—which is as it should be—as it is a deeply expressive release. Nietzsche tells us that creative power is a value higher than truth—“the will to truth” of so many Enlightenment milquetoasts was nothing but the covert discharge of the impulse to dominate, the will to power—and such power comes from recognition. It is not enough that I think that I’m noble and that my creative output is great, but others must think so as well. These ideas are narcotic to people who, like me, earn a living through the manipulation of abstract symbols; Nietzsche offers our ever-insecure selves a way to constitute our identity through others’ groveling before out “creative genius,” even—or, rather, especially—as we treat these others with contempt.
Nietzsche in fact hated the capitalism and its entrepreneurial avatars for all the unusual reasons. It wasn’t objectionable as an engine of exploitation or inequality or social disruption. (In fact, in one of the few passages that directly addresses politics, he presciently writes without rancor that in the future private actors will assume responsibility for even the most public forms of human activity, like war). It was objectionable rather because the elites it produces are wholly unlike the Greek aristocracy that sired Aristotle. He accused them of being uncurious and uncourageous “last men,” addicted to comfort and material plenty, inferior to even the devout farmer because they treat nothing with reverence and touch everything with their unwashed hands—guilty above all of “the introduction of parliamentary imbecility, including the obligation of everyone to read his newspaper at breakfast.” Abolishing suffering, which the liberals and socialists of Nietzsche’s day earnestly championed, held out not the promise of a New Jerusalem, but rather the threat of a hedonistic commonwealth in which art is impossible and Farmville is the primary obsession.
(An aside: it is unclear if Nietzsche deliberately tinged this portrait of the last man under bourgeois capitalism with anti-Semitism. What is clear is that, despite explicitly disavowing the label of “materialist,” he believed that there is no body-mind dualism, a falsehood derived from the structure of Indo-European languages, and that biology therefore produces ideas. He wrote the Europe’s salvation from “decay” and the looming threat of Russian power lay in breeding a super-race of Jews [embodying adaptability and the virtues of the modern age] with Prussian nobles [embodying time-tested traditional qualities]. Now would be a good time to draw your attention to the fact that Nietzsche, though a great German writer and unrivaled detector of hypocrisy, was not a great philosopher in the conventional sense and was also completely insane).
Are the brave entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley more like the Last Man than they are the Overman who delivers us from spiritual oblivion? The answer may be a matter of taste. But what is clear is that if we do not want their deliverance—if we do not want to live under Ayn Rand’s Nietzschean interpretation of capitalism—we will need to cool our ardor for digital hero-worship and take stock of our values. Neoliberalism consolidates and fails to improve the world by the sensible standards that David Hume and Adam Smith set for evaluating the market economy: the provision of abundance; the amelioration of the struggle of existence in the earthly world. In light of this, it is no surprise that frankly anti-utilitarian defenses of capitalism are growing more common. Charles Murray warned against universal healthcare because, like Nietzsche, he believes that striving and suffering—other people’s striving and suffering—puts individuals on a higher moral and aesthetic plane and wards off the nightmare of the last man’s world.
As for me, I say we first end the scourges of want and privation and injustice, at least on a trial basis. If it turns out we miss them, we can always bring them back.