Nietzsche and the Big Society
Karl Marx once said that ‘Philosophy is to real life as masturbation is to sex’. I hope he’s wrong. Because if I’ve learnt anything it’s that the best way to do Philosophy is in public.
Right now we’re standing on the tide of thousands of years of ideas and thinkers. They’re inspiring, incomprehensibly important and sometimes just plain ncomprehensible but the more they become the exclusive preserve of the ivory tower academic, the more we run the risk of losing them.
So that’s what this blog is, it’s eight weeks of using those ideas. Of doing philosophy. Of asking questions that, out of fear, boredom or short attention spans, don’t always get asked. And turning to the greats for some answers.
Take the Big Society, for example. David Cameron sees it as this overarching idea that could come to define this country at this moment. Nearly everybody else thinks it’s a joke. It’s hard to hear it mentioned without evoking images of a sort of conservative equivalent of a Disneyfied communist Russia, all of us pitching in to make our country great, possibly whistling while we work. But is there anything to the Big Society? Could there be?
“Citizenship isn’t a transaction – in which you put your taxes in and get your services out. It’s a relationship – you’re part of something bigger than yourself and it matters what you think and feel and do.”
When Cameron outlines this cornerstone of his policy, what strikes me the most is just how much it sounds like religion. He’s playing on something important here, a need, a void, something that’s missing that feels like it needs to be replaced.
Religion used to provide that ‘something bigger’ for everybody. It throws us all into this cosmic battle between good and evil. There are Biblical heroes to inspire us and sinful pitfalls to avoid. Our lives and our very existence are given universal significance as we’re all written into this constantly evolving story. But Christianity isn’t the dominant ideology of this country now and hasn’t been for quite some time. We are no longer bound together and united under a common God. This is what Nietzsche meant when he said that God was dead. That there is no longer one immutable source of values which we all can draw from. For better or for worse we’re a nation of individuals, following our own lights, only bound together when we choose to be.
It’s not a coincidence that this generation’s moral language of choice is the language of rights and not duties. We know about our own individual existences, we know what we are entitled to have and what we are entitled to be protected from. But beyond that there’s a messy philosophical wilderness. Do I have a duty to help my neighbor? I’m sure I do, but what do I say to the person who thinks otherwise? I can’t invoke God because I don’t believe in him. Saying it’s the right thing to do just begs the question. Saying I have to help him because he’s a person too is open to claims of ‘so what?’ Without some measuring stick with which to check our moral dispositions then don’t they just become reduced to personal preferences?
If this is where we stay, stuck in a society that can’t insist on any shared values, then we’ll never again be able to feel part of something bigger. Sure I share my life and my obligations with my friends and with my family. But that person walking down the street will just be another person. If I choose to be altruistic and help them then good for me, but no one can complain if I don’t.
On our having murdered God Nietzsche asks, “What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” For the conservatives harkening back to bygone times, Cameron’s Big Society is the resounding reply. It might not be much of an answer, but at least it admits the question.