In “Nietzsche and the State” and “Ortega and the State,” I examined critiques of statism by two prominent modern European philosophers. Because Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) witnessed the rise of the modern state in central Europe, and José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) experienced statism’s maturity and destructive potential, these two philosophers offer an excellent juxtaposition with which to critique contemporary statism. Although they did not agree on every point, their perspectives shed light on the leviathan.
Both Friedrich Nietzsche and José Ortega y Gasset were alarmed by the development of the modern state, which matured to ascendancy in the late Eighteenth Century. In the 1860s and ‘70s, Nietzsche witnessed Otto von Bismarck forge his native Germany from a collection of dozens of independent political entities into a German Empire with a strong central government, mass conscription, national welfare programs, universal manhood suffrage, and an urban mass media.
Nietzsche died before the First World War, but José Ortega y Gasset lived to see the nation-states of Europe engulfed in that conflagration along with the chaos that followed. He saw the revolutions of Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler, and that of his own country, Spain, which degenerated into civil war shortly after he published La rebelión de las masas.
The events of their lifetime undoubtedly had a profound impact on the philosophies of both men, and both departed from their philosophical analysis to point out contemporary events to illustrate their critiques. They knew these events could not be escaped, although both Nietzsche (who fled to Switzerland and northern Italy) and Ortega (who fled to Argentina) tried. While Nietzsche loathed politics, however, Ortega took an active role in attempting to guide the events of his day in his own country. Ortega believed that a liberal republic in Spain could moderate and control the violent excesses of the social transition from pre-modern to modern. History proved him wrong.
Both Nietzsche and Ortega understood the growth of the modern state as a force originating in the rise of mass political participation. Consequently, they were concerned with the state’s orientation toward the mass—the pedestrian and commonplace—and with its hostility toward exception, high culture, and the individual. “The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select,” is a maxim Ortega wrote in The Revolt of the Masses, but that is a maxim often echoed by Nietzsche throughout his own writings.
In a certain way, then, both philosophers characterized the state as an edifice designed to serve and glorify the masses, or the “herd,” as Nietzsche was fond of writing. The state was a temple in which the masses worshiped themselves. In exchange for catering to their needs and flattering their egos, the masses placed their collective will under the auspices of the state where they flourished like never before in history. For both Nietzsche and Ortega, that arrangement was Janus-faced, because although the masses grew in ever-increasing numbers—high art, music, education, and individualism in general suffered. European culture began to decay. Violence and militarism (especially of the uniform variety) became the order of the day.
Where José Ortega found the origin of this “rebellion of the masses” in the development of the bourgeoisie in the late Middle Ages, Friedrich Nietzsche saw its origin in an inversion of Noble virtues began by the Apostle Paul in the First Century. He argued that both Christianity and mass political movements, such as socialism, were faiths of “little men” whose weakness paraded as moral principles. For Nietzsche, the statism of the Nineteenth Century was the fruit of a seed planted in the Roman Empire nearly two millennia before.
Unlike Nietzsche, Ortega found some potential in the rise of the masses. This event, although earth-shattering, was pregnant with possibility and a destiny. In the leveling of society and the growing similarity between American and European society, he argued, “the uprising of the masses implies a fabulous increase of vital possibilities.” Whether those possibilities were actualized for good or ill, however, remained to be seen.
It is an undeniable fact of present times that the state—urban, secular, bureaucratic, industrial, and all-encompassing in its power to tax, wage total wars, police, spy, and organize society in any way it chooses—has become the dominant feature of human life. There are few aspects of human life that the state does not regulate or police to some degree, whether one lives in Beijing, Budapest, or Baltimore. In many ways, the modern state has evolved beyond Nietzsche or Ortega’s worst fears, even while becoming ever more subtle and sophisticated in its techniques.
Although it is difficult for us today to comprehend the fundamental transformation in government that occurred in the past two hundred years, the philosophies of Friedrich Nietzsche and José Ortega y Gasset allow us to come to the understanding that the modern state is an artificial construction designed to serve certain common interests ultimately detrimental to individual aspects of human culture and development.
Although Nietzsche and Ortega disagreed over when and why the modern state developed, both understood it as one effect of the seizure of political power by a numerical majority that had been previously ruled by hereditary elites. This event was unprecedented in history in its scope and scale. Paradoxically, the same movement that freed the common man from one form of authority enslaved him to another, which both Nietzsche and Ortega believed to be more intrusive, arbitrary, and irrational to one degree or another.
As José Ortega pointed out in Revolt of the Masses, we will never return to a time before the advent of the modern state, however, perhaps we can support Nietzsche’s sentiments when he wrote that statist ideologies like socialism, “can serve to teach… what danger there lies in all accumulations of state power, and to that extent to implant mistrust of the state itself. When its harsh voice takes up the watchword ‘as much state as possible,’ it thereby at first sounds noisier than ever; but soon the opposite cry comes through with all the greater force: ‘as little state as possible.’”