IX.    Capitalism and Nihilism.

        "Have you ever heard about the madman who on a bright sunny morning, lit a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out incessantly: "I seek God! I seek God!" As there happened to be many people standing near by who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why? is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or is he in hiding? Might he be afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? - the people cried out laughingly, all in a hysterics. The insane man then jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. "Where has God gone?" he shouted out. "I will  tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not (therefore) have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? - for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife - who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What rituals, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event - and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!" Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in amazement. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, breaking it into pieces and extinguished. "I come too early," he then said. "I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling - it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star - and yet they have done it themselves!" It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and asked to explain what he was doing, he always gave the reply: "What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?"                                                        
    Above is perhaps the most important page in all of Nietzsche’s writings.  It’s meaning has been the subject of numerous essays and discussions among philosophers and scholars around the world. While interpretations vary somewhat, it is generally agreed that Nietzsche is not suggesting here that Jesus Christ in heaven, or his Father, have suffered fatal heart attacks, been murdered and overthrown by some renegade saint, or anything else of the sort. What he rather means is that human belief in God (and traditional metaphysics, generally), at least in some sense, has died. Given the rise of fundamentalism in many major religions in recent years, that might seem like a strange, even incorrect, statement to many readers. Several published surveys, in fact, indicate that the vast majority of Americans do claim to believe in a God of some sort. But this does not necessarily prove Nietzsche wrong. As the madman himself indicates:
     I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling - it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star - and yet they have done it themselves!"

    Nonetheless, the extent to which the average American today, who claims to believe in the Christian God, really does, is a debatable. The common cliches of the religious right which we’ve all heard are alone enough to raise some suspicions. That is, very few if any of these have anything to do with helping the poor, the sick, or the homeless. On the contrary, rather than being altruistic or charitable in nature, most are quite egoistic. That is, rather than tell you what you ought to do to show Christian love toward your neighbor, they’re more often than not about what you must do to save your own soul. Pretty selfish, isn't it? And what must you do? Well, not a whole hell of a lot. Accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, read a few lines of scripture now and then, sing a few hymns, donate money to the church, and you’re ready to be called up into “the rapture.” No longer is there any requirement that you seek forgiveness or pay any sort of reparations to person you may have wronged. You simply need to ask Jesus Christ to forgive you; and he always will. What is more, the severity of the harm you’ve done to someone doesn’t much matter either. “We’re all sinners,” and “Jesus Christ paid the price on the cross” for all of our sins. And because of this, one sin is not distinguishable, with respect to severity, from any other. Whether one has committed some small petty theft of a candy bar at a Walmart store, or cheated some elderly people out of a good chunk of their life savings by means of some home improvement fraud, makes no difference.

    This represents a considerable shift. In the Christianity of old, people defrauded and people otherwise wronged by others took heart in the belief that the perpetrators of the evil done to them would be duly punished in the next life— that theirs was a just God. No more. The situation now is rather the reverse: the perpetrator now takes comfort in the knowledge that the price for his heartless cruelty and thievery, the “wages of his sin,” has already paid by someone else— his Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. That is to say, whereas the old God loved and gave comfort to the poor, this New One of the fascist religious right loves and comforts the rich, the powerful, and the ruthless every bit as much (actually, when you think about it, a good deal more). But such equality
in the afterlife (in the terms of everyone who accepts Jesus entering the afterlife with an equally clean slate)  means gross inequality here on earth, with the world’s biggest thugs and thieves now getting by far the better "new covenant" deal. In fact, the bigger the thief and thug you are, the bigger the winner you are under these new “we’re all just sinners anyway, all sins are equal in the eyes of God,” rules of the new religious right theology. So why waste your time, merely defrauding senior citizens? Why not attack an entire country and seize its natural resources? Jesus Christ, with his death on the cross, paid the wages of all sins. No longer (theologically speaking, at least) are there any greater or lesser sins. Whether you’ve merely visited some of the “wrong” web sites on the internet, or lied to an entire nation to justify going to war, it makes no difference. You’re a sinner pure and simple either way, and you need God’s saving grace. All you have to do is ask, and it’s yours. Is this a deal or what?  Well, if we bring all of this down to earth, a “deal” such as this is precisely what is called nihilism. A God that will forgive worst crimes against humanity, merely for the asking, or one who cannot distinguish petty theft from mass murder, if not dead, may as well be. And if not dead, at the very least he’s been stood on his head. If not the death of reality (Realität) as Nietzsche claimed in one of his last works, what we have here, at the very least, is the death of justice in this modern day, fundamentalist fascist form of Christian theology. And with the rise and fall of justice, so goes truth. And if scripture is to be believed at all, God is nothing at all, if not truth. So if there is no truth, and no reality, then there is no God— God is dead.

    The American religious right, of course, with all of its slogans, didn’t exist in Nietzsche’s time. But capitalism most assuredly did. So quite possibly Nietzsche is not even talking about people’s professed religious beliefs at all, but what at the outset of this book I called their habitus (and Nietzsche himself does use that term as well, when describing psychological states). With the possible exception of the American religious right, few will deny that Christianity, or any other religion, is usually a good deal more than a belief system, and that it is a way of life. Included in any such way of life, of course, is a specific way of acting toward other people. And for the vast majority of Christians, this has traditionally meant treating others in a charitable and loving way. Prior to the rise capitalism some four hundred or so years ago, the vast majority of Christians by and large probably lived according to this principle (when they weren’t on crusades murdering Moslems, and stealing their belongings, at least). But capitalism itself operates on altogether different principles or “articles of faith,” as John Brand calls them.  The first of these, Brand tells us, is found in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, Book I, chapter 2.:

      It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their own advantage.

    Not a terribly Christian “love thy neighbor” approach, to say the least. Then, in book IV, Chapter 2, Smith gives what Brand calls the second article of faith of capitalism, the so called “invisible hand” doctrine.
    He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Thus, we now see the original source of Rand’s “great discovery,” the doctrine of “rational self interest,” and, and the belief that “altruism” is bad for society as a whole. It’s right here in Adam Smith (who in turn got it from Bernard Mandeville). Smith of course doesn’t use the word altruism here, but that’s merely because he wrote this in 1776, and the term had yet to be invented. But call it what you will, Smith finds here that society as a whole is better off with everyone pursuing selfish or egoistic aims, than it would be if everyone tried to promote “non selfish” ends. Whether such a proposition might have been more believable in Smith’s day (before anyone knew anything about ecology, and before the advent of the nuclear and biological weapons business) is a but a matter of conjecture. Notice however, that Smith is talking about small business proprietors, not large scale industrialists— such as loggers, strip miners, and munitions manufacturers. This makes his argument sound a good deal more convincing than it might, had he been talking about industries such as these, or small children working dangerous sweat shop conditions of the textile factories of the day. But by the late Nineteenth Century when Nietzsche wrote his little aphorism about the madman, these conditions, in Britain and America particularly, in which small children, and adults as well, worked long hours under horrible conditions were well known.

    With this as background, we can perhaps more easily understand certain otherwise puzzling parts of Nietzsche’s story. When the madman says he’s premature in his announcement, this reflects (in my own view, at least) the fact the most people had not yet fully realized the contradiction between the way their Christian values told them they should live, and treat other people, and the way the capitalist system demanded they live if they wanted to prosper. Donating food to feed the hungry on and the like was fine, but didn’t reverse any of the prior week’s activities (which may have well included paying one of the recipients of the donated food less than a living wage). Christian ethics, in other words, was for all practical purposes dead, but few religious people had directly faced this simple truth. Instead they lived in two separate and isolate worlds: the real world of rationalism, science, and most importantly of all,  the profit motive, on the one hand; the Kingdom of God within them [Luke 17:21] on the other. But can these two worlds really coexist? Nietzsche thinks not. Indeed, as I read Nietzsche, it is this very God within that has been slain by the very act of living non Christian values. This is what the Madman is talking about. And why is he mad in the first place? The double life he tried to live drove him mad— a split personality, schizophrenia as we say today.

    In any case, with the advent of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, the Madman’s God is effectively dead and buried. A new god (as per Nietzsche’s prediction), is born; his name is John Galt. But this god is a good deal more pompous and crude than some of his predecessors. As we say in the vernacular, he is a bit full of himself. But to a follower of Rand his almost exactly what the person of Jesus Christ had formerly been to the devout Christian: a paragon of virtue, a paragon of rationality. He is mankind’s redeemer as well: he is the one who shows men what they must do in order to be “saved” from their current “fallen” state of socialism and altruism. He is “the way, the truth, and the light.” If men follow him, they can live; if they don’t, they will surely perish. Of course, that which they must do is exactly what the God of Christians has told them not to do. God is dead; the new god is born.

    One might very reasonably counter argue that far from being any sort of “god,” most people have never even heard of John Galt. And if they have, it is simply a name they’ve seen on some bumper sticker asking who he is. This is quite true. But by the same token, as an archetype of human behavior, a far greater number of Americans could be seen as “following” Galt, than ever could be rightly seen as following  Jesus Christ. Those who follow him may never have heard of him, or read a word of Rand, but odds are they’re very familiar Limbaugh, Hanity, Savage, and the rest. You can just about bet your life that they vote Republican. They may very well attend fundamentalist Christian Churches, and have fish symbols on the backs of their expensive luxury automobiles and SUVs. They may very well pay lip service to Jesus Christ and the Bible on Sundays, but during the week, at their businesses or executive jobs, their “Lord and Master,” in practical terms is anybody but Jesus Christ. It isn’t Nietzsche’s Zarathustra either. It is the “overman” Zarathustra was looking for: John Galt.

    Let us now go back to Nietzsche, take a closer look, and see if what he wrote some 125 years ago might be brought to bear on what is happening today. Like Rand, Nietzsche was concerned with the whole issue of values, as well as morality in general. Like Rand, Nietzsche thought that Christian morality was a slave morality (or as Rand phrased it, a morality of “self sacrifice”), and that in the final analysis, it was born out of hatred— hatred of the superior noble class (See Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals). Another theme of Nietzsche’s, not explicitly discussed by Rand (mainly because Rand’s thought is not nearly as profound as Nietzsche’s), but equally important for our purposes is that of nihilism. Nihilism, simply put, means that nothing exists— that there are no absolute values, no absolute truth. Nietzsche is sometimes credited with being the originator of this doctrine, but that is not true. In fact, there is one ancient Greek philosopher, whose name escapes me, but of whom it has been written that “aside from the fact that he was a complete nihilist, nothing is known about him.” Would he have wanted it any other way? No true nihilist would. But Nietzsche was by no means an advocate of nihilism. Rather, he thought it was a problem endemic to modern society, and much if not all of his work, in one way or another, is an attempt to come to grips with it. More specifically, Nietzsche thought nihilism was an inevitable result of the “death of God.” In fact, in the opening sentence of Heidegger’s aforementioned nearly 60 page essay on the subject, he says :
    The following exposition attempts to point the way toward the place from which it may be possible some day to ask the question concerning the essence of nihilism... This pointing of the way will clarify a stage in Western Metaphysics that is probably its final stage..  Through the overturning (Umkehrung) of metaphysics accomplished by Nietzsche, there remains for metaphysics nothing but a turning aside into its own inessentiality and disarray. The suprasensory is transformed into an unstable product of the sensory. And with such a debasement of its antithesis, the sensory denies its own essence.... It culminates in meaninglessness. It remains, nevertheless, the unthought and invincible presupposition of its own blind attempts to extricate itself from meaninglessness through a mere assigning of sense and meaning

    What Heidegger means by all of this becomes clearer as the essay unfolds. Later in the essay, to answer the question of“what is nihilism?” Heidegger quotes one partial answer given by Nietzsche himself. It is a situation in which: That the highest values are devaluing themselves.  But what are these highest values? Heidegger explains as follows:
    God, the suprasensory world as the world that truly is and determines all, ideals and ideas, the purposes and grounds that determine and support everything that is human and human life in particular— all this is here represented as meaning the highest values.

    But again, according to Nietzsche, these values keep devaluing themselves.  How does that happen? When all attempts to put them in to practice in everyday life meet with failure and frustration. For example, I try to feed people better quality food at my fast food restaurant, nothing less, in fact, than what I would feed my own family.  But I then suffer economially because my competitors who are far less conscionable, are able to cut prices, and eventually run me out of business. Still worse, I’m labeled an eccentric or something far worse for having been such a poor businessman. My former customers look down on me because I drive an old automobile. And of course, if I myself go to someone else’s fast food restaurant after mine has failed, I’m going to be fed inferior quality food. All of this has a very significant psychological effect upon me.

    So now, what good, if any, is a value that one cannot realistically practice?  of what value are  such values? None whatsoever. Such a supposed “value” is actually meaningless. So what now, of Christians values, which tell us that we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves? To the capitalist, who pays his workers as little as possible, and works them as hard as possible, often to serious physical detriment, and fires them when “good business” practice demands, Christian morality is every bit as meaningless, for example, as a military general’s value of pacifism. No military general can do his job and at the same time be true to the value of peace. If he does, he will be fired as soon as he refuses an order from his commander in chief to attack a supposed enemy. Likewise, running your business as though you really believed in absolute Christian values leads only to your own demise, benefitting only your competitors who, in turn, wish you nothing but harm. Hence, it turns out that in the real world, the only value that does you any good is all is self interest, about which there is nothing absolute at all— it is all relative to you. But this, precisely, is nihilism— the denial of all absolute good, value, and truth. Acting as though such absolute truths and values really did exist, therefore, only works toward the utter frustration and defeat of the actor, thus proving in the end (practically speaking) to be anything but what one might call a value. Such “highest values, as Nietzsche calls them, thus act to negate themselves; or, as Nietzsche puts it, to devalue themselves.

    This is, of course, the whole point of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. Christian values of peace, love and altruism lead to social decay, and thus “devalue” themselves. But what Rand failed to see (until perhaps, the very final days of her own unhappy life) was that contrary to her claim of Objectivism having to do with something called “absolutes,” it is, on the contrary, an utterly nihilistic philosophy. Under her “unknown ideal” system of capitalism, the only thing that means anything to anyone is his or her own profit and gain, which in turn means nothing to anyone else. If this is an absolute anything, it is an absolute moral relativism— which is to say, nihilism.

    Thus we see that pure laissez faire  capitalism, Objectivism ’s supposed ideal, being based on the profit motive, is nihilistic to the core. It is in effect a war, not precisely of all against all, but of each against all, in which none have the greater good of society as a whole as any sort of  practical motivation whatsoever. This, incidentally, is the very antithesis of what we call community. Thus, contrary to Ayn Rand’s (more precisely, Adam Smith’s and Bernard Mandeville’s) picture of the selfish efforts of each actor adding up to one gigantic good for all, each is looking to get the most out of the rest, but only the richest and most powerful have any real measure of success. This is why XYZ Fast Food Corporation feeds you unhealthy food: it tastes better to you and costs them less. This is also why Hollywood produces violent and otherwise low grade films: they are highly profitable. Occasionally, there are exceptions here; great artistic films are made frequently, but most people never see them. Thus, while each actor acts in what Miss Rand calls their “rational self interest,” this makes for a highly irrational society as a whole in which we all, more or less, wind up eating unhealthy diets, and seeing mediocre movies that do little to inspire us. And we certainly all suffer the effects of greenhouse gasses and global warming, simply because it is more profitable to keep the world running on fossil fuels, rather than more environmentally friendly alternatives. This can all be described, in a word, as nihilism.

    Last but not least, one of the most profitable industries is the weapons industry, sometimes inappropriately called the “defense industry.” These industries not only gladly produce and sell weapons of mass destruction; just as importantly, they support political candidates who will make their use all the more likely. In the final analysis, a social system based on the profit motive becomes one of self destruction. Such is precisely the nature of nihilism. Each pursues his own selfish aims with total disregard for any “greater good” because such a “greater good” does not exist. Such a system is thus, ultimately, on a path of self destruction because each is at war with the rest, each trying to gain the maximum advantage over the rest. Society thus gradually degenerates into something far more akin to a video game, in which each player wants to “kill” the other, than anything which might be reasonably termed “civilized society.”

    To conclude, let us recall that nihilism knows only destruction. If nothing is true, then nothing is sacred. Anything and everything must therefore be permitted, even nuclear annihilation. How can this be so in a “philosophy” which on the contrary, claims that truth is absolute, and that one must think and be rational? The short answer to this question is that just because one happens to believe his impulses and whims are reflective of some absolute objective reality, doesn’t mean they are; nor, does it make one any less of a nihilist than another who harbors no such illusion. Such a person is simply one of those people Nietzsche’s Madman spoke about, one who had not yet heard the news of the death of God. Or perhaps more accurately, he has yet to hear the news that John Galt was born mentally defective.
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