notes on Nietzsche's great politics

LI feels like a little note on politics is called for. The comments thread following the dialectics of diddling post made me realize that, just as Bataille divided economics into the “restricted” and the “general”, one could make the same distinction in politics. Mostly, I’ve been arguing under the sign of restricted politics, claiming that the various discourses of the truth are not just contingently located in institutions.

But general politics exerts itself beyond institutions. Nietzsche’s Grosse Politik, with its vocabulary of breeding, no doubt contains the stirrings of fascism – but it also contains a truth. Nietzsche’s great politics is about war. But the war that he describes is not between nations, nor classes, but a war of life style. A war about the living. In this sense, the great politics of the last hundred years has occurred across and around the restricted politics. For example…

For example, the greatest political event of the twentieth century. What was it? Was it 1917? Was it 1989? Was it 1947, the date marking the independence of India? All of these events fall under the sign of restricted politics. But to my mind, surely the greatest political even of the twentieth century was the collapse of agricultural populations across the globe.

How did this occur? I think four factors suffice: the development of the technology of storage; the invention of fertilizer; the mechanization of transport; and the mechanization of the farming process. Since the first Mesopotamian civilizations, a society that relied on livestock and agriculture was a society that was largely rural and peasant. In 1996, according to David Clark, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the world population lived in urban areas.

Now, what is most astonishing about this fact is that it found little expression in the restricted political sphere. Who, in the U.S. the Soviet Union, Germany, Italy, India, actually questioned the fourfold technological mechanisms that were driving the smallholder out of existence? Not even the peasant parties proposed the banning of refrigeration, or fertilizer, or tractors – these things just “happened”. Of the great political figures of the 20th century, only one – Mao – engaged in a rearguard battle against this correlate of modernization. After the great disaster of the Great Leap Forward, with its Marxist orientation to industry, Mao began to rethink the end of the peasant base of society – and out of that came such disasters as the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. It is one of the ironies of the fourfold techno-structure that it makes it not only economically, but demographically impossible to support a mostly smallholder economy – for as the cities get larger, the agricultural sector has to get exponentially more efficient, or famine sets to work. According to McNeil’s environmental history of the 20th century, to support the world population at the size it was in 1999 without fertilizer, an area bigger than the size of the Amazon rain forest would have had to have been plowed. And he doesn’t subtract the other elements – take away the road system and the railroads and the better storage facilities, and modern societies would utterly collapse. In other words, urbanization is so much part of the system that the system is not only set up to make smallholding agriculture difficult, economically, but an actually menace to the urbanized populations.

As I said, the collapse of those agricultural populations rarely was presented as a choice any population or government was making. No American president ran on the ticket of radically shrinking the farming population; no Soviet premier proclaimed that policy either. The coordinates were as though set, as though insulated from any politics at all. Instead, secondary issues – price supports for agriculture, or collectivization – were the ones that penetrated the restricted sphere of politics.

Of course, the agricultural population collapse is uneven. In India, for instance, in 1996, only 26 percent of the population lived in urban areas – in China it was 41 percent. But the population flow is inexorably in one direction. But it happens across the capitalist/socialist boundary. In the U.S.S.R., as late as 1929, 80 percent of the population was rural. In 1990, 34 percent was. Agro-industry in the U.S. and collectivization in the U.S.S.R. resulted in the same linking of agriculture to urban populations and the same restructuring of agriculture on industrial lines.

According to David Clark – from whom I get all these figures except the one about the U.S.S.R, which comes from Nicholas Spulber – at the beginning of the 19th century, fewer than 3 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas. This was the oldest order. We have all dealt with the effects of its destruction in terms that organize restricted politics. And there is nothing in itself wrong with this. But it is the great politics that is the mover. And it is the effect – the side effect – of the great politics that will set the agenda for the foreseeable future, from the acidification of the ocean to the seizure of the atmosphere by the developed economies.


Anonymous said…
Geseze der Erd, und die Schritte,
Wo mit Nectar gefüllt, schreitend in Winkeln Gesang?
Wo bedeuten sie denn, die bäurisch sinnigen Sprüche?

-Hölderlin, Brod und Wein


roger said…
"Wo bedeuten sie denn, die bäurisch sinnigen Sprüche?"

I obviously need to pay more attention to Hoelderlin. What a hard line to translate! the peasant's stock of phrases, his word - as Bakhtin would say. His earthy proverbs. His transcript.
northanger said…
good stuff roger. look at page 19 of Nandita Biswas Mellamphy's paper: The Three Stigmata of Friedrich Nietzsche: Great Politics, Eternal Return, and the Philosopher of the Future

then page 20:

"This, I believe, is the active and operative principle of Nietzsche's concept of Grossepolitik (or "great politics" as mentioned in Beyond Good and Evil), its reactive manifestation being "petty politics" which Nietzsche equates with the knee-jerk impulse to preserve and institutionalize a certain configuration of forces (this is why the Hobbesian origins of the liberal subject inevitably make it 'slavish' and 'impotent'). As Nietzsche describes it, pessimism is the handmaid of affirmation in the sense that pessimism, "as an analytic" of forces (WP §10) can manifest both as strength and as decline -- actively as well as reactively -- and in this "critical tension" extremes appear and become predominant" (WP §10). Affirmation must first work through negativity, through "negations" (WP §11), intensifying the process of devaluation that consists in "the smashing of idols" by the "hammer of philosophy" (Twilight of the Idols). But this tension is productive because it is a reticulation that may produce active effects."
Anonymous said…
Hey North, how nice to have you back in the loop, I mean orbit...I mean, good to hear from you!

LI, this is such a suggestive post, and what it addresses really seems to exceed an institutional framework, any attempt to frame it as such. For what is involved - or "happening" - is migration, on a massive scale.

"The coordinates were as though set, as though insulated from any politics at all." The four coordinates you refer to are all technological and yet if they pass as set and insulated from politics, they pass as "natural".

Which, as you say, "sets the agenda" - the side effect - for the acidification of the ocean and the seizure of the atmosphere. It also does not a little - "naturally" - to the migration and the migrants and their "nature" and passage. In passing, a mere side effect.

That phrase by Hölderlin is difficult to translate isn't it! I wonder if the question or rather practice of translation - ubersetzung - isn't related to that of nature/technology and migration. Hölderlin sure did attempt to translate, even if his attempts led to much civilized and knowing smirking - by Goethe and Schiller for example, nicely settled in their places. Hölderlin is quite the writer of migrations, of voyages, and "ex-centric orbits".

I'm rambling, sorry. These last few posts and discussions did make think again of Holderlin. And how it is difficult to discuss what is difficult to translate - carry across. A question of sides and side effects! I could ramble on about how Hölderlin was intimately involved in the elaboration of the "speculative" and "dialectics", with his buds Hegel and Schelling. And how that might relate to philosophy and politics, as "speculative idealism" wasn't quite unrelated to a couple of revolutions, the Copernican Revolution of Kant and the French Revolution and what came to pass or not. But of course, Speculative Realism doesn't have anything to do with the Dark Ages of "correlation".

So here is a French translation of that Hölderlin phrase:

Où présagent-elles, les sentences paysannes sensées?

roger said…
Amie, I'd love it if you would do some more rambling about translation as passage.

Because one of the passages for these drugs, these spices, these psychoactive substances is, of course, through a process of refinement. In this, as in so many other things, sugar is the model - as Mintz points out, one of the great problems in sugar production was coordinating the harvesting of the cane and the refinement of it, a process of boiling and crystalization. Which took place in an extreme heat that could weaken and ultimately kill the man or the woman who did the stirring, the pouring, and the grinding of the crystals. It was one of the reasons that the slaves in the Caribbean had such short life spans.

It was that passage from the plant, the leaf, the bud, to a process of greater and greater refinement - better controlled, better understood - that brought about the whole industry of chemistry. It begins with refinement, and with certain 'necessary exotics", as Mintz calls them. Which paid for the state in the 18th century - the rum, the tea, the sugar.

I've been trying to emphasize that the movement towards and from the new world happens in tandem with the movement to and from the ancient world - the world that Hoelderlin translates from, the world that becomes the reference for both civilization and savagery. .
roger said…
Hmm, maybe my comment made no sense. Sorry! There hovers before me, in the air, a tantalizing parallel between two processes - refining and translating - but I can't put that parallel into words just yet.

Yet I'm pretty sure that the continent of Synthetica is reached by way of refinement. And that I want to ... allude to that machine that works to project the artificial paradise on our eyeballs.
northanger said…
hi Amie! i found some english Hölderlin

roger, you should read that Palmer Eldritch quote in that 3 stigmata link.

don't make me google that guy i saw on tv the other night: he makes mummies by injecting plastic. i think.
Anonymous said…
LI, that is indeed a very tantalizing parallel between refining and translating. I'm not quite sure either how to articulate it. Could it be a matter of a refining of technical skill and of usage? Which also leads to over-refining, over-use?

Gut auch sind und geschikt einem zu etwas wir,
Wenn wir kommen, mit Kunst, und von den Himmelischen
Einen bringen. Doch Selber
Bringen schikliche Hände wir.

(Hölderlin, Blödigkeit)

These lines are again difficult to translate, precisely because of the play between geschikt and schiklich. As you know, geschikt is both the past participle of the verb schiken ('to send') and an adjective meaning 'skillful'. How to translate geschikt here? And then again Geschik doesn't just mean skill, it can also mean fate.

Anonymous said…
North, thanks for the link to the English translations. They include Bread and Wine, so I wanted to see how the lines I quoted were translated. Alas, the translation is of an "earlier version" of Bread and Wine, which doesn't include those lines. Damn.
But now I can't resist quoting further.

Möcht' ich ein Komet seyn? Ich glaube. Denn sie haben die Schnelligkeit der Vögel; sie blühen an Feuer, und sind wie Kinder an Reinheit. Größeres zu wünschen, kann nicht des Menschen Natur sich vermessen.

(Hölderlin, In lieblicher Bläue)

roger said…
Wow, was that last quote from the last phase of Hoelderlin's career? To blossom in fire with the purity of a child.
Actually, the German poet I've been thinking of is Goethe - the homunculus in Faust. Which I'm planning on doing some stuff with, here. Funny how Goethe is the opposite pole of Kleist and Hoelderlin.
Anonymous said…
Seems to me lile the adequate explanation nees the relations of production more than the means. the means were just that in the higher order as instruments of commodification, just as in the simultaneous destruction of handicrafts production.

Chuckie K
roger said…
Mr. K., I'm not quite sure that I understand. Are you saying that the means are simply variables, and have no effect on the relations of production? That the relations come into play and absorb anything? Whether our commodity is opium or cotton? Because that is an explanation I am turning against, here. Or perhaps it would be better to say I'm trying to twist it. I would claim that subsumption under the term 'means' gives us a false abstraction - and that this false abstraction is one of the ways the relations of production are naturalized. Of course, a merchant can trade opium or cotton over the computer, or he can sell derivatives, or whatever. There's an enormous fungibility inscribed in the system. But my point - which I will try to make without gargling about systems and levels and such, but it is hard! - is that the trader's point of view, that ceaseless flow of interchangeable commodities, is a historic product with effects itself - effects that actually effect the relations of production. The cultural transformations wrought by the system of substitutions are not simply an accidental outcome of industrial production, nor are they secondary. I would say, instead, that the development of the relations of production are mutually dependent on the system of substitutions. And that the primacy of the production of certain products should help us to see this. Sugar bore on its back the society in which the heavy industrial processes were invented - steal, steam power. Opium and tea bore on their back the very reason for colonial expansion. And to say these psychoactive materials were secondary seems, to me, to let an abstraction - the idea of means - overwrite this history.

Of course, you might be saying something else. I'm tired, Mr. K! It has been a long day.

But I will have more to say about the system of substitutions.
northanger said…
Damn. wish you guys would translate stuff sometimes :(
roger said…
North, you are right when you are right. And you are right!
I presume you are referring to the confused comments that I exchanged with Chuck K. All I am really saying is this: whether the relations of production fall under the label capitalism or socialism doesn't matter in terms of these underlying tendencies, the 'great politics". Neither capitalist nor socialist nations debated the social meaning of the fourfold technology I outlined. But simply assumed industrialization and growth. I'm happhy with the idea of convergence -which I think is a pretty good label for what happened.

Now, I'm not making some luddite claim that fertilizer should have been abolished - far from it. I'm saying none of the systems of the relations of production willed or understood what was happening, until at a certain point they assumed that it would happen inevitably. But those (non)-decisions aren't just in the past - we will all have to debate them in the future. That is where the environmentalists, those sentimenal whalehuggers, are much more clear-eyed than anybody else.
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