What is the state? Why do we obey it? Should we obey even when it oppresses us? And what can we do for our freedom against its tyranny? These questions come to mind every time I see the appalling treatment of governments of their subjects. In quest for insights, I have read extensively, but nothing has struck me so profoundly as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883).
The book covers a multitude of themes but in one of the sections, “Of the New Idol” in Part I, Nietzsche talks about the state: “The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.” He says, “State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it tells lies too; and this lie crawls out of its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”
“Zarathustra as character in the treatise,” Richard Falk notes, “is presented as a prophetic voice of Nietzsche, the person who stands outside and in solitude so as to understand better what is taking place inside, a voice that is shrill with anger, impassioned by conviction, and dedicated to truth-telling, however heretical.” Falk contends that it is important to remember that “Nietzsche was experiencing a young German state that was seeking unity by promoting an intense cult of nationalism that would eventuate in self-destructive major wars twice in the 20th century.”
In Nietzsche and the State, David Gordon says that although Nietzsche was in politics far from an authoritarian, in his youth he supported the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, whose militaristic politics he then rejected in later years. Most probably, it was the political situation of the time that influenced Nietzsche to write one of his most famous and great works.
Nietzsche’s depiction fits the character of all modern states but of some more so than others. While reading “Of the New Idol”, I kept thinking about my country of origin, Pakistan, and what it has been doing to its people, particularly the oppressed groups. For far too long, innocent people have gotten killed in bomb blasts, target killing and numerous other mysterious ways. Many have gone and keep going missing for raising their voice against this cruelty.
However, rarely has the state caught these criminals and terrorists. The perpetrators turn out either suicide bombers found in shreds on blast sites or “unknown” assailants, who are so adept at escaping that the entire security machinery is “clueless” as to where they come from and where they go back in hiding. The state does not feel responsible at all for the safety of the people.
But, for the thinking man of this merciless polity, these are all cold lies, as Nietzsche would put. Where it serves its interest, the state would find law breakers out from the bowels of cities and the highs of mountains. But when upholding the law goes against the state’s interest, it would turn a blind eye and look the other way.
In Pakistan, the conscience-stricken citizens among all the many obedient subjects, who have challenged the state, are silenced, harassed, detained and even killed. These great souls have, in Falk’s words, risked “a life-threatening response by challenging the authority of the repressive regime in power.” No one listens to them because the monster roars, “On earth, there is nothing greater than I: the ordering finger of God am I.”
The cold monster whispers dark lies about its god-ness and greatness to all and sundry. The ways in which technology has facilitated the spread of the propaganda of the modern state would be unthinkable for Nietzsche, but the good news is that it has also almost equally empowered the people. The passage maintains that this cold monster would surround itself with “heroes and honorable men” and “bask in the sunshine of good consciences.”
These are usually normal men with normal roles as fathers, brothers and uncles in the family, but when it comes to the relation between the people and the state, they become uncontrollable and evil monsters. Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Bashar al-Assad and others have shown this cold monstrosity. I have wondered how are these men capable of such extraordinary coldness. Sometimes, the answer is nationalism. Sometimes power. Or greed, sociopathy, pleasure and wealth. Or a combination of all of the above.
Nietzsche maintains that this new idol will give you everything if you worship it. In this way, “It buys the splendor of your virtues and the look of your proud eyes. It would use you as a bait for the all-too-many.” But if you oppose it, even for the most righteous of reasons, you risk irking the monster, hence inviting its ire upon yourself. That is why most subjects choose complacent ignorance over conscientious dissidence. But if pushed too hard, the subjects, like in Tunisia and elsewhere, do rise to challenge the coldest of all cold monsters’ authority. In Pakistan, the 26-year old Manzoor Pashteen, the leader of the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement, challenged Pakistan’s mighty army at the beginning of last year.
Surprisingly, 139 years after publishing his book, Nietzsche’s words are relevant and invigorating even today. Most states, even liberal democracies like the United States, violate the rights of their citizens. African Americans are routinely killed by the police and incarceration rates are the highest in their community. Myanmar, India, Israel, Turkey, and on and one, most states violate the rights and dignity of their people.
What should be done when the state violates its citizens’ rights but demand compliance? This is perhaps one of the most difficult questions that some of the greatest thinkers/philosophers of all time have tried to explore. Anarchist philosophers reject unjust hierarchies of power in favor of ” self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions.” Philosophical anarchism is the view that citizens don’t have obligation to obey the law, although they have good reasons to comply with it. Philosophical anarchists believe that the state lacks moral legitimacy: However, they don’t advocate violence to eliminate it.
Liberal philosophers believe “that government is necessary to protect individuals from being harmed by others, but they also recognize that government itself can pose a threat to liberty.” The English-born American political activist and philosopher Thomas Paine expressed in Common Sense (1776), “Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…”
According to liberals, the solution is to devise a rules-based system that not only gives government the power necessary to protect individual liberty, but also prevents those who govern from abusing that power. Libertarians, like liberals, strongly value the protections of individual freedoms. But unlike liberals, “Libertarians usually see the kind of large-scale, coercive wealth redistribution in which contemporary welfare states engage as involving unjustified coercion.” In other words, the libertarians advocate the minimalist state.
To conclude, one should listen carefully to Nietzsche for his depiction of the nature of the state helps us understand the gross violations of rights by almost all states in varying degrees. But one should also remember that without the state, the regulation of human behaviour and the protection of individual rights would remain a pressing challenge for society. Moreover, would a stateless society or societies, as some anarchists advocate, be ever realizable? It is especially difficult to imagine so, as the modern state has brought most tribal and indigenous communities in its fold.
In the end, in Falk’s words, “To remove the blindfold, and see the state as the coldest of monsters is a necessary wakeup call for which we should thank Nietzsche for, even now, 139 years after Zarathustra was published. And yet we also need to resist the temptation to fall into a deeper sleep by adopting a posture of unrealizable and unacceptable negation of this strange political creature called the state. In the end, the state is not a monster, but a work in progress.”