The best way I can think of to summarise what Nietzsche is doing in this last section is this: that he explaining the workings of the class system, of oppression, of the methods by which the ruling classes maintain control, and piercing through the lies and evasions which it usually uses to cloak this – and replacing them with the simple and profound lie that those who suffer do so because they are inherently set up to suffer.
He repeatedly speaks of ‘the sick’: “Those people who are, from the outset, failures, oppressed, broken”. Now it’s an open and interesting question how far some people are born with a greater disposition to suffering, a greater sensitivity – or, more likely, born with a greater sensitivity to all forms of experience, and then unfortunate enough to have a childhood that sets up mental loops that turn this into ongoing and inescapable negative experience.
But it’s clearly not the primary explanation for who suffers and whose dreams are broken on the rack. The obvious primary explanation is that some people’s lives are destroyed and curtailed and kept in a cage by social rules, in order to maintain and gratify the power of others. The sick, that is, are not sick – they are injured, and injured by those who Nietzshe calls ‘the strong’, “the successful and victorious”.
If we keep this in mind – if we ‘read between the lines’ of Nietzsche’s sometimes lurid prose to see the role of class (economic class as well as sex class), we can see Nietzsche as sketching out for us the contours of how morality, religion, asceticism, function to defend class interests.
So for example, Nietzsche makes a big point out of the ‘threat’ that the oppressed pose to the oppressors. In his terms, the threat is that by ‘imposing themselves on the consciences’ of the ruling class, they will destroy their ability to take joy in life (the poor darlings!) – they will ‘contaminate’ the rulers with their suffering. This cannot be allowed, because, according to Nietzsche, it is these strong happy beautiful people who will do all great works and create all human progress.
Now to re-read this with our socialist spectacles on, we need to note two things. First of all, Nietzsche speaks of an essentially symbolic or emotional threat, but whereas he projects the source and essence of suffering onto the sufferers, we can see what’s really at issue – those whose happiness relies on the suffering of others must separate their happiness from any consciousness of that suffering. They must repress it from their awareness, and must deny it to themselves, in order that they can continue to accept and maintain the system that produces it. They need to have their cake and eat it too.
Secondly, Nietzsche, because he cannot attribute any real power to ‘the weak’, must treat the threat they pose as purely an emotional one. But it’s transparent that behind this there stands the spectre of the moment when ‘the weak’ realise that they are, in fact, strong, and decide that ‘the strong’ can quite easily be disposed of. This threat of ‘nihilism’, a ‘giving up on life’, is partly a veil for the threat of revolution, the class-system’s ‘giving up on life’.
So the requirement that Nietzsche ‘diagnoses’ is in tension: on the one hand, someone must go to the oppressed and speak their language and stop them from revolting – but on the other hand, the ruling classes must retain a certain distance in order to preserve their psychic equilibrium. As he formulates it, there must be a doctor for the sick, but the healthy cannot play that role. Hence the need for doctors who are themselves sick – this is what Nietzsche identifies as the role of asceticism and of priests. But their ‘doctoring’ is not a way of healing the suffering – indeed, because their role is to dominate and control all suffering people, they are driven to spread and increase suffering as much as possible. What they offer is various forms of ointment that keep the suffering safe and prevent them from destroying each other or ‘the healthy’.
Nietzsche admits it almost-openly when he says that a priest must”fight shrewdly, hard, and secretly against the anarchy and self-dissolution which start up all the time within the herd, in which that most dangerous explosive stuff and blasting material, ressentiment, is constantly piling and piling up…the priest is the person who alters the direction of ressentiment”.
Let’s look a bit more closely at why and how this works. For Nietzsche, the apparent self-negation of asceticism is illusory – it’s actually a self-affirmation. What has happened is simply that ‘self’ has been redefined: now the self that denies ‘others’ the self that is denied. A faster, for example, identifies themselves with that force, that will, which is triumphing over hunger – the will to food is treated as a subordinate, an alien will to be conquered. In doing so, suffering is not avoided – for the person does not cease to feel the hunger, they cannot deny the fact that it remains their hunger even if they deny it – but now that suffering can be given meaning, can be turned into gratification. Asceticism thus allows suffering to be converted into a sense of power.
There is a lot of psychology that gets done in this text so I’ll only summarise it briefly. Through various methods the pritest prescibes for the wretched of the earth different ways to numb their pain, or to make it bearable – the goal was neither to do away with the suffering altogether, nor its cause, but to avoid it producing either insurrectionary rage, or despair and suicide.
But the difference between the two remains. In social terms, this can be seen in their opposed interests: the interests of priests are generally conservative, while the interests of the oppressed are, almost by definition, revolutionary. And in psychological terms, though, we can see that the same trade-off, the same ascetic suffering-for-sense-of-power is at work, but from different directions: for the priesthood, it is a matter of seeking power and opting, as a method of so seeking, for the infliction of suffering and numbness on oneself, while for his ‘herd’, it is a matter of trying to barter some crumbs of sense-of-power for the suffering which is already imposed on them.
Nietzsche’s overall attitude towards the theses of The Genealogy is contradictory. He exposes quite neatly and perceptively how so many supposedly noble ideas – good, evil, guilt, conscience, justice, purity, selflessness, etc. – are really methods of torment and cruelty concocted so as to maintain and defend oppression and inequality. Yet at the same time, he is clearly more enthusiastic about inequality and oppression than about almost anything else – his whole philosophy is geared towards a love for anyone who can and will treat other people like dirt and control them. And so in this sense his ‘unmasking’ of moral fictions is really a defense of them.
And yet at the same time, he can’t stomach priesthood, asceticism, religion and ‘morality’ and such things – they repulse him with their sickness and ill-health, their stupidity and ‘foul smell’. And so he constantly proclaims the need to go ‘beyond good and evil’, to break free of religion and ‘morality’ and such things, to dispense with superstitions and create a new ethos of health and beauty and power and self-affirmation.
But he’s caught up – if the priestly ethos he despises is so necessary, how can it be gotten rid of? Won’t ‘the sick’, ‘the masses’, ‘the herd’, then break free and destroy everything? The only apparent solution would be simply to annihilate them – but then who will the new ubermenchen rule over?
In short, Nietzsche is caught in the contradictions of class society: he wants hierarchy and elitism and the power that comes from dominating others, but without the messy, sickly, life-denying ideologies necessary to control the masses. He wants to be a king (or even just to watch a king, to know that there are kings) whose subjects submit of their own free will, without any need for the machinery of oppression.
Now in a sense that’s quite possible – but only if everyone else is king too. If each person ‘affirms’ not only themselves but others, if each person can, like a king or a millionaire, feel that all of society caters to them, that all of its members respect and value them, that each social decision is based on their worth – if, in short, the free development of each becomes the condition for the key development of all: well, that’s communism.
Nietzsche doesn’t want this. He wants the happiness of some only on the condition that it’s contrasted with the wretchedness of others. And yet he refuses to accept the self-denial, the ideology of wretchedness, which guarantees this. Far from being the prophet of any new morality, he’s a lost soul, perceptive but only to a point, lamenting the historic triumphs of the oppressed and the difficulties they impose on all oppressive systems. He belongs not to the future but to the past.