Nietzsche, values and democratic politics

Nietzsche gets blamed for a lot of things, not least nihilism and relativism.

This is unfair, but life is unfair. As the philosopher John Gray pointed out in a talk at the London School of Economics on 25th February, a writer has little or no control over how others interpret and appropriate their writings, not least if they are dead.

On nihilism and relativism, people often misunderstand Nietzsche for having advocated what amounts to these things. But this wasn’t the case. He was rather describing what he thought had happened as historical development, largely from Christianity’s emphasis on truth which undermined itself, and philosophers like Hume and Kant exposing the insecure foundations of religion (and indeed of much positive philosophy).

A portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche

Martin Heidegger explained in one of his lecture courses on Nietzsche, ‘The phrase “God is dead” is not an atheistic proclamation: it is a formula for the fundamental experience of an event in Occidental history.’

Heidegger added:

‘By nihilism Nietzsche means the historical development, i.e., event, that the uppermost values devalue themselves, that all goals are annihilated, and that all estimates of value collide against one another. Such collision Nietzsche describes at one point in the following way:

.  . . we call good someone who does his heart’s bidding, but also the one who only tends to his duty;
we call good the meek and the reconciled, but also the courageous, unbending, severe;
we call good someone who employs no force against himself, but also the heroes of self-overcoming;
we call good the utterly loyal friend of the true, but also the man of piety, one who transfigures things;
we call good those who are obedient to themselves, but also the pious;
we call good those who are noble and exalted, but also those who do not despise and condescend;
we call good those of joyful spirit, the peaceable, but also those desirous of battle and victory;
we call good those who always want to be first, but also those who do not want to take precedence over anyone in any respect.’

I can see the truth of this by just looking at my personal behaviour: how I sometimes praise people for acting in one way but then praise others for acting the opposite way. I might criticise someone for being dictatorial but in the next breath criticise someone else for not being decisive and driving through their vision.

It seems that there is no way out: that we are all hypocrites and stuck in a nihilistic universe.

I don’t think this is the case though.

We should certainly accept that values do not have ultimate, rational foundations. They are not rigidly and universally applicable at all times and in all places by all people, and they are certainly not rational because positive rationality is beyond our ken.

But they do help guide us in our behaviour. We demonstrate them in our everyday lives – for example by being tolerant of some views with which we disagree, or by consulting with all members of an organisation about some major change being considered.

But these demonstrations of values only make sense in particular situations. It makes no sense to be tolerant of someone you agree with, or indeed when sitting alone reading a book. Likewise there is no reason to practise equality by consulting everyone in an organisation about which paper clips to buy. Values are only applicable in particular situations. They are situational, and not resolvable into calculation and determination.

This is the domain of real life, which is the domain of decision-making, and the domain of decision-making is the domain of politics.

Through different people demonstrating different values in their lives - both on their own and in institutional life – some values gain currency and others don’t. This is what politics is. Political parties variously stand up for and demonstrate different values, albeit falteringly and inconsistently.

Loosely, we might say that in economic terms the Conservative Party stands up for individual responsibility while Labour emphasises our responsibility to each other as part of society. Existentially, these emphases are generally reversed. Conservatives emphasise collective affiliation, group responsibility and tradition, while liberals both on the right and left are keen to detach people from these things (except when ideology intervenes, for example on the left with the upholding and protection of certain group identities like of women and ethnic minorities).

Values as such put into words and explanations the more visceral attachments that drive so much political affiliation.

In an environment in which these political affiliations are shifting and dissipating, it seems to me that anyone seeking approval from the electorate would do well to re-cast and re-emphasise what they stand for and what they pledge to demonstrate by their behaviour in office. As I wrote back in 2012, of Labour, “Asking our people to commit to a set of values would be a powerful reminder about what standards we expect of ourselves, while sending out a message to the wider world that we are principled and ethical in what we do.”

People are right to lose trust in politicians for breaking their promises, but it is surely worse if they make no meaningful pledges and promises in the first place, for in this way we have nothing to measure them by. Values in politics have their power in applying not just to policies promised but also to behaviour and those policies which have not been publicly promised (of which we can be sure there are many). Maybe that is why our political leaders tend to avoid them.

For more on not-dissimilar themes, see Philosophy, thought and literature page.


  1. Well, I arrived at this blog thanks to your brave defence of those of us not taken with neoliberal immigration, and I now I find myself engrossed in everything else it has to offer. You've even made me look again at Karl Popper, a man I had written off as being a capitalist apologist.

    Bravo, comrade.


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