Nietzsche, the Left and the Value of Weakness
Does it make sense to think about poverty as weakness?
For a lefty like me, for whom reading about the staggering poverty and exploitation of the Victorian era did a lot to form and shape my politics, the suggestion can seem like an insult or a slap in the face.
But, then again, we live in a different world now: with a welfare state, universal health, education and other services (though of course some of these like legal aid are being slashed back by the present government).
Talking about poverty as weakness injects a personal element into the issue that sensitive souls and the poverty industry might recoil against, but I think it can also help us to conceive of poverty in a better way and address it more effectively.
The idea of poverty as weakness is derived from a controversial source. Over the past week or so I have been reading a fair amount of the iconoclastic German philosopher-poet Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings, initially for the weekly philosophy group that I attend.
Delving into Nietzsche can be a thrilling activity, for there are few writers who are better at puncturing the pretensions of the self-righteous and over-mighty than he. He also doesn’t mess around with his criticisms, offering gratuitous offence to just about everyone and anyone: Germans, Christians, Englishmen, women, pretty much all philosophers from Plato onwards; all faced the force of his sometimes-ferocious and sometimes-mischievous scorn.
He had an unremitting focus on the ‘human, all too human’ that we hide and reduce through our moralities and rationalising, taunting readers for their relation to apes, plants and worms. He also had a largely novel way of looking at life: not so much as a battle between good and evil, but as between ‘master’ and ‘slave’ moralities and values of strength/health and weakness/sickness.
This sort of language shocks and deters the new reader in particular, not least because of the partial appropriation of his terminology by Hitler and the Nazis after his death. But it also fascinates with its brilliance and individuality, and now Nietzsche is largely recognised as a particularly modern thinker. He is cynical, sarcastic and cutting and doesn’t have time for the great systems of thought put together by the august professors of reason, morality and science. He is also a great writer: perhaps the greatest writer of philosophy ever.
Applying Nietzsche’s views to the issue of poverty and its relation to morality can be discomfiting, especially for us on the Left.
As Walter Kaufman put it, for Nietzsche, “the value of a morality depends on its relation to health, or life, or ultimately power”.
I think many of us need to question whether our moral concern for poverty does in fact value health, life and power or rather values the poverty itself. In giving priority to poverty, do we step over a line where our moral concern becomes more important to us than the issue itself? I think many of us do precisely that.
That is a classic Nietzschean perspective. He might say: ‘You hold your politics more to make yourself look good among your peers and to feel superior than to achieve any real change. Your ideals are fake and self-justifying.’
Applying this perspective more widely to the Left brings up other problems.
Let’s think about terms like ‘social justice’ and ‘a fair society’ for example. These terms have little meaning in and of themselves – something you can gauge from the absence of anyone using their opposites: very few people would seriously say they wished for ‘social injustice’ and ‘an unfair society’.
These are not values as we sometimes like to claim. They are more like platitudes.
But Nietzsche would not say they have no meaning; far from it: just that their importance rests more with the person using them rather than whatever he or she is claiming to talk about. A fair society may be a meaningless platitude in itself (unless we are prepared to create a population of fair people to occupy it), but it serves a purpose in binding people together, providing a language of good and bad: labels with which to distinguish friend from foe.
Nietzsche and the Poverty Industry
Nietzsche’s perspective also sheds not-altogether-favourable light on what I called earlier “the poverty industry”. This term can sound particularly vindictive and unfair, but there is more than a germ of truth in it.
This is a place in which those of us on the Left are generally reluctant to tread, so casting our eyes to the Right can provide perspectives we would not normally provide ourselves.
One such perspective is provided in a paper written by Kristian Niemietz for the fiercely free market ‘think tank’ the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA). In a review of this paper, Rob Lyons writes, “the discussion of poverty all but stopped [in the 1950s], only to re-emerge in the 1960s in a different form - not as a measure of the physical difficulty in surviving but as ‘impeded social participation’.
He adds: "‘absolute’ poverty was replaced by ‘relative’ poverty - usually defined as having a level of income below some percentage of an average income. Today, for example, the usual measure of relative poverty is something like ‘the number of people earning less than 60% of the equivalised median income’. On this kind of measure, according to Oxfam Great Britain, ‘nearly 13 million people live in poverty in the UK’ – that’s one in five of the population, including 3.8million children, 2.2million pensioners and 7.2million working-age adults.”
This 60% figure is the standard measure of poverty nowadays, used widely for example in this story from Guardian reporting on how benefits and tax credit changes will push an extra 200,000 children into poverty. Yet, as we can see from the methodology, this measure is actually measuring inequality.
Inequality is an issue deserving plenty of attention for its own sake, but it is a fundamentally different thing to real poverty defined along the lines of not being able to put food on the table. There is a dishonesty being practised here - using the natural moral concern of people about poverty to bring support while quietly redefining the word to mean something different.
There is a danger with institutions set up for specific purposes that over time they come to depend on the problems they are focused on. This includes the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), for which the redefining of poverty as inequality has the effect of increasing its own importance. The strap line on CPAG’s website says: ‘Help us end child poverty in the UK’. But the measure CPAG uses makes it almost impossible to do this, thereby providing the institution and wider industry with ample long-term justification for its existence.
This, again, is a classically Nietzschean argument in which we see rationalisations and justifications as serving power rather than power used to serve rationality (and be in no doubt that the likes of CPAG have significant social and political power – especially on the Left).
Poverty (and Weakness) as a Value
There is a deeper issue here though with poverty as a value – as something to be given attention and supported – rather than as about people being given attention and supported, as people. On CPAG’s lines, we could end child poverty by simple redistribution – by doling out many more billions in cash. Again, this is addressing inequality more than poverty.
It would seem to me that a more interesting definition of poverty would have at its forefront weakness in society – a poverty of life skills and knowledge (like cooking, knowledge of food and what nature provides for free, and how our world of institutions works). This then automatically feeds into action, which is less focused on money handouts and more on furnishing people with the skills needed for them to make better lives and avoid real poverty. Mixing up our Nietzsche and our socialism, we might put it a different way: that we should seek to increase the power of people rather than subsidise their powerlessness.
Given the vituperation and cynicism for which he is notorious, some of Nietzsche’s sayings shock in the other direction, for example when he talks of his great love for mankind. On welfare and poverty, we might draw towards a conclusion with a short excerpt from The Gay Science: “All great problems demand great love”.
We should be in no doubt that ‘great love’ will never come from an impersonal state doling out money to people. It can only come from other people who are personally involved and care: from family, friends and local communities which share space and time together. The challenge for government, for the Left and for Labour’s One Nation vision in the United Kingdom, is to convert those ideas into policies and practice – the irony of course being that government must lead, even if it cannot and should not seek to complete the task.