Nietzsche writes in one of his better-known fragments, On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense, that the concept of ‘truth’ is an illusion which we have forgotten as such. This forgetting of the illusion is driven by the desire for knowledge; in other words, it is the desire for truth that transforms illusions into knowledge and masks them further by calling them ‘truths’. The power of desire turns against all possible opposition by declaring that lies are deceptions of the real that utilise real words to fabricate a false image. Nietzsche’s larger focus here isn’t an attack on epistemological frameworks but on the language that already validates those frameworks:
In a similarly limited way man wants the truth: he desires the agreeable life-preserving consequences of truth, but he is indifferent to pure knowledge, which has no consequences; he is even hostile to possibly damaging and destructive truths. And, moreover, what about these conventions of language? Are they really the products of knowledge, of the sense of truth? Do the designations and the things coincide? Is language the adequate expression of all realities?
Our language formulates arbitrary abstractions that rarely (if ever) ‘really’ exist. Take for instance, the concept of ‘leaf’: it exists as an abstract class that is always instantiated differently. The qualities of ‘leafness’ are made so that one can say a lettuce leaf is a leaf just as much as a maple leaf even though the two have different qualities as well. Another example would be that of ‘worm’ in which its definition is slippery enough that it could be twisted to also designate the concept ‘snake.’ In other words, the language of ‘truth’ is at best metaphors. The cynic in Nietzsche sees in that language something a bit more sinister, that which will become the Will to Power breaking through language. Correct perception can only be an aesthetic relation; that is, perception is art. It follows from this that powerful speakers will be able to paint perceptions and to mask them as something more than perceptions–as ‘truth’. It is in this vein that I wish to turn to the primary focus of this article: concepts we (Americans and possibly the West in general) have deluded ourselves in believing.
Three concepts which the US has consumed wholeheartedly are the illusions of freedom, its cousin democracy, and capitalism. These began to be consumed en masse after WW2 during the beginnings of the Cold War, but it must be kept in mind that these are strictly arbitrary and their influence can be found much earlier. In order to paint America and the West as being radically different from the USSR and communism, we began to market to ourselves these differences. It is during this time that the phrase ‘under God’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in order to differentiate America from atheist Russia. However, all of this was a marketing ploy, much like the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ for the actions in Iraq. We’ve been able to see the fruits of this marketing in the last 20 years once the Cold War ended. We’ve deluded ourselves further into thinking that our military actions in various places (post-collapse Russia, Yugoslavia, Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc) as spreading freedom and democracy (oh, and capitalism, of course). Ironically, we have never been a free nation. Our freedom has always had qualifications, some quite reasonable (e.g. restricting murder) and some less reasonable (e.g. restricting ‘free speech’ obscenities). The way the marketing works is that our ‘freedom’ is only a relative measure typically used in comparison to what is perceived as the most oppressive nations (e.g. USSR, mainland China, East Germany, etc). We’ve then taken this relative comparison and made it an absolute statement: not only are we more ‘free’ than (insert oppressive nation) but we are truly ‘free’ and all that the concept contains. What this rhetoric produces is not only the belief that ‘we’ are ‘free’ but that there cannot be anyone more ‘free’ because we ourselves are already ‘free’. By utilising this language and forgetting the relative nature of the original claims, we have created a situation in which one cannot think of ‘freedom’ outside of the restricted concept we’ve been marketed. While the US is not as overtly oppressive as Oceania from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, we’ve created the paradigm of the perversion of fascism it utilised.
The same also goes for the concept of ‘democratic.’ There are countless occasions in which we’ve elected one president under the guise of repairing the problems of a previous president (e.g. Obama’s election), but what we’ve failed to notice collectively is that the executive branch uses this in order to further abuse its privileges and abridge ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in order to give us a ‘better’ place (e.g. the original PATRIOT act). As long as people continue to vote reactively, we will continue to see the restriction of ‘freedom’ under the guise of a ‘good-natured’ president that is trying to restore ‘freedom.’ In contradistinction to this, the ‘restoration of freedom’ is a re-interpretation of the concept of ‘freedom’ in light of the new, limited ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’. Another useful example is the American Civil War in which we quickly discovered that a state cannot peacefully leave the union (further echoed in Texas v White). We may begin to see this issue rise again in cases like Montana and Georgia. The US Constitution names the government as a republic (and only a ‘democracy’ with qualifications) and requires/guarantees all states within to have the same kind of government. In other words, we’ve created our own definition of ‘democratic’ so that we ourselves are the epitome of such and there can never be another who is more ‘democratic’. We have forgotten how we became ‘democratic’ and refuse to allow others that same path.
Our last illusion is that of ‘free market capitalism’. In some ways, we can never have a ‘free market’ society because we are only human and it will be abused however which way possible. We have also been able to paint the West as the only source of ‘free market’ capitalism even though mainland China (which is still ‘communist’) has allowed ‘capitalist’ growth beyond what the US could imagine. In a ‘free market’ system, there are no absolutes except the abstract concept of value. Everything has a value and this is always in flux and depends on the production of desire (through marketing techniques). Capitalism is the believing machine that believes in humans who, in turn, provide for its very survival. Yet we have forgotten that even capitalism is an illusion created in the past few centuries. Capitalism subsists in the world by managing the production of desires through marketing and advertisement; ‘You need that $50,000 car to feel happy‘ which then leads to ‘you need that $75,000 car to really feel happy.’ This process of a never satisfied desire is very familiar to psychoanalysis, as it is a manifestation of the unchecked ego. It is by its very nature never satisfied for the satisfaction of its desires implies the end of its existence. The unchecked ego transforms its process of desire by desiring desire itself; this provides the vehicle for it to exist indefinitely as the desire of desire is one that can never be satisfied. Capitalism is able to survive by tapping into this process and equating objects (e.g. cars, food, phones, computers, etc) with that desire–but only temporarily. The team of capitalism and ego have wreaked havoc on the individual and, by extension, society by reducing the individual to a set of desires and an illusion of freedom. You are free to do what you desire, as long as you are happy in doing it! Fortunately for capitalism, the means to enjoy desire also includes the proliferation of capitalism.
In short, we are slaves to our own desires. Capitalism abuses this enslavement and has helped us delude ourselves into thinking we are free. We have never been free; but we willingly delude ourselves into thinking such and ignoring it by buying things to satisfy our displaced desires. And it is this distinct lack of freedom that we find in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. For we know that the law is spiritual – but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want – instead, I do what I hate. But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me. For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me. So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
Paul’s escape from this ‘freedom’ is servitude, slavery by choice. It is a wonderful working of rhetoric of Paul here in that he short circuits the concepts of freedom and slavery by arguing to be free is to be enslaved and to be enslaved is to be free. Because of ideology, mankind is never free…and because of this, whichever ideology is the most prevalent will always be the most corrupt and it will always delude us into thinking we are free.
Returning now to Nietzsche, who sees the rhetoric in Paul; Nietzsche also sees in Paul the very reactive nature that continues the cycle of ideology (cf The Antichrist). For Nietzsche, the real escape isn’t choosing another ideology (e.g. religion) but moving past ideology altogether and returning to active thinking. In other words, freedom is to actively shape one’s own reality by taking controlling of one’s own ideology. That is the true power of the overman in Nietzsche (cf Thus Spoke Zarathustra). It is with this purpose in mind that the mad man in Nietzsche’s The Gay Science proclaims the death of God. It is not because some entity known as God is killed by Nietzsche (for that already happened 2000 years ago at the hands of Jewish ressentiment according to Nietzsche) but that the ideological Master that was erected in place of that God is now dethroned and revealed to be the powerless creature of ressentiment. Freedom is the power to create values, something which mankind has long since forgotten. This is the same power that capitalism wields over us now and the revolution isn’t finding a better ideology (e.g. socialism, communism, etc) but the radical revaluation of ideology itself to show the chains that always bind us.