So Donald Trump is now in the White House; the leader of the western world. In his inauguration speech, he promised to put America first, to repeal many of his predecessor’s achievements in the of trade deals with Asia, nationalised health care and control of carbon emissions and to make America great again. Trump is not a liberal democrat; he does not see himself as keeping the world safe; he is willing to go to any lengths as long as this is in America’s interest. While the white male voters of middle America cheer to the rafters, the rest of the world holds its breath.
It was Freidrich Nietzsche in his polemic, ‘On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)’, who described the masters of society as ‘blonde beasts’, who are only interested in the acquisition and the retention of power. These are the rulers; the powerful. They are vital, confident and self regarding, but also amoral and corrupt; they hold the rest of society, whom he termed, the slaves, in subjugation. They are the Trumps of this world.
Morality, Nietzsche asserted, begins as a reaction by the slaves against the power of the masters. Their grievance and frustration cannot be used in direct revenge against the rich and powerful, but is internalized as moral qualities of virtue, compassion, self control and denial, which makes them feel superior and virtuous.
Entrapped by their own virtue, the morality of the slaves encourages constant self examination, shame, guilt and punishment. It isn’t enough to behave badly; people could also punish themselves for having bad intentions or thoughts. Not given to self reflection, the blonde beasts have no such misgivings; they think and do whatever they want.
Eventually the slaves revolt against their masters under the guidance of their spiritual leaders or priests, who preach a life of righteous asceticism unsullied by shame and guilt and subject the slaves to the moral guidance of an all powerful but ‘abstract and imaginary’ God, whom only they could represent on earth. A kind of moral and liberal democracy prevails but does not necessarily make people happy as it is built on self examination, confession, guilt and sacrifice and leads to suspicions of inequality among different groups. So the price of civilization, according to the misanthropic Nietzsche, is a guilty conscience and endless self abnegation while the philosophical/scientific notion of asceticism distances society from life and the emotions into unattainable sterile abstractions. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth, but that may not satisfy them.
But politics runs in cycles. The revolt of the slaves eventually destroys itself (see Newsnight’s video on my facebook page. In his dialogue with Plato, Socrates came up with the shocking suggestion that tyranny evolves from democracy. The argument goes something like this. Democracy maximises equality and freedom. Everybody is equal and everybody is free to do exactly as they like. The more democratic a society becomes, the more the freedoms multiply, men are interchangeable with women, animals have rights, children criticise their parents, foreigners can come and work, teachers are afraid of their students, the rich look like the poor. Any inequality is criticised: elites and the wealthy are particularly despised, the weak are suspect. That’s when a would-be tyrant seizes his opportunity. He is usually of the elite but is a traitor to his class and is often given to excesses of power, greed, and sex. He takes over a particularly obedient mob and attacks as corrupt his peers, who either flee or try to appease him. He offers a relief from the endless choices and insecurities of democracy and rides a backlash to excess and presents himself as the personified answer to all problems, and in the face of the certainty of absolute power, democracy repeals itself.
Does this seem a simplistic and ultimately depressive notion? Democracy was conceived as a way for large numbers of people to live together in relative harmony, their emotional impulses contained by the laws and morals of society as effected by their secular and spiritual leaders and controlled by their institutions. So is tyranny is the inevitable outcome of a democracy that has created expectations it can never fulfil? Has democracy undermined itself by being too liberal. We in the western ‘civilised’ world have enjoyed a liberal democracy that has lasted for 70 years and have sought to impose the same system on others. The election of a blonde beast in the USA and the near election of another blonde beast in the UK are indications that liberal democracy has succumbed to the hedonic appeal of power.