4. Power Versus Culture

Submitted by Toms on September 6, 2011

The creation of castes as a governmental necessity
Plato's teaching concerning the division of the state into classes
External limitations of class divisions as an assumption for political power
Aristotle's theory of the state and the idea of "inferiors"
spiritual barrenness of power
Power and culture as opposites
State and community
Power as a privilege of a minority
Power and law. Natural law and "positive law" the dual role of law
Freedom and authority
Law as barometer of culture
The struggle for rights in history

Every power presupposes some form of human slavery, for the division of society into higher and lower classes is one of the first conditions of its existence. The separation of men into castes, orders and classes occurring in every power structure corresponds to an inner necessity for the separation of the possessors of privilege from the people. Legend and tradition provide the means of nourishing and deepening in the concepts of men the belief in the inevitability of the separation. A young rising power can end the dominion of old privileged classes, but it can only do so by immediately creating a new privileged class fitted for the execution of its plans. Thus, the founders of the socalled "dictatorship of the Proletariat in Russia had to call into being the aristocracy of the Commissars, which is as distinguishable from the great masses of the working population as are the privileged classes of the population of any other country.

Plato already wished, in the interest of the state, to attune the moral feeling of the individual to an officially established concept of virtue. Deducing all morality from politics, and thus becoming the first to set forth the intellectual assumptions of the socalled "reasons of state," he already saw clearly that class division was an implicit necessity for the maintenance of the state. For this reason he made membership in one of the three orders on which his envisioned state was to be founded a matter of fate, on which the individual had no influence. However, to imbue men with faith in their "natural destiny," the statesman employs a "salutary fraud" when he tells them: "The creative god mixed gold in stuff from which he made those among you who are intended for rulership; you are therefore of most precious worth. Into your helpers he put silver and into peasants and other labourers, iron and bronze." To the question, how the citizens could be brought to believe this deception he answered: "I think it impossible to convince these themselves, but it is not impossible to make the story seem probable to their sons and descendants during the coming generations." 1

Here we find man's destiny determined by a mixture of abilities and characteristics received from God, which determines whether he shall be master or servant during his life. To plant deeper in the imagination of men this belief in an inevitable fate and to give it the mystic sanctity of a religious conviction has up to now been the chief aim of every power policy.

Just as the state is always trying within its borders to abolish equality of social position among its subjects and to perpetuate this separation by differences of caste and class, so externally, too, it must take care to keep itself distinct from all other governmental organisations and to instil into its citizens the belief in their national superiority over all other peoples. Plato, the only one among the Greek thinkers in whom the idea of national unity of all Hellenic peoples is at all clearly apparent, felt himself exclusively a Greek and looked down with unconcealed contempt upon the "barbarians." The idea that these could be considered equal to the Hellenes, or could even approximate them, seemed to him as presumptuous as it was incomprehensible. This is the reason why in his ideal state all heavy and degrading work was to be done by foreigners and slaves. He saw in this a benefit not only for the Hellenic master caste but also for the slaves themselves. According to his concept, since they were destined anyhow to perform the lowly services of the slave, it should appear to them a kindly decree of fate that they were to be allowed to serve Greeks.

Aristotle grasped the concept of man's "natural destiny" even more clearly. For him, too, there existed peoples and classes designated by nature to perform the low tasks. To these belonged primarily all non-Greeks and barbarians. It is true, he made a distinction between "slaves according to nature" and "slaves according to law." Among the former he placed those who because of their lack of selfreliance are destined by nature to obey others. Among the latter were those who had lost their freedom by being taken prisoners of war. In both instances, the slave is but "a living machine" and, as such, "a part of his master." According to the principles stated by Aristotle in his Politics, slavery is beneficial both to the ruler and the ruled; nature having endowed the one with higher faculties and the other with only the rude strength of the beast, from which fact the roles of master and slave arise quite of themselves.

According to Aristotle man is "a state-forming being," by his whole nature destined to be a citizen under a government. On this ground he condemned suicide, for he denied to the individual the right to withdraw himself from the state. Although Aristotle judged Plato's ideal state rather unfavourably, especially the community of possessions advocated in it, as "running contrary to the laws of nature," the state itself, for all that, was for him the centre around which all earthly existence revolved. Like Plato, he believed that the management of the business of the state should always be in the hands of a small minority of selected men destined by nature itself for this calling. Hence, he was logically compelled to justify the prerogative of the elect by the alleged inferiority of the great masses of the people and to trace this condition to the iron rule of the course of nature. In this concept, in the last analysis, every "moral justification" of tyranny has its roots. Once we have agreed to separate our own countrymen into a mentally inferior mass and a minority designed by nature itself for create activity, the belief in the existence of "inferior" and "select" nationalities or races follows quite selfevidentlyespecially when the select derive a benefit from the slave labour of the inferior and are relieved by them of care for their own existence.

But the belief in the alleged creative capacity of power rests on a cruel self-deception. Power, as such, is wholly incapable of creating anything, being totally dependent on the creative activity of its subjects, if it is to exist at all. Nothing is more erroneous than the customary view of the state as the real creator of cultural progress. The opposite is true. The state was from the very beginning the hindering force which opposed the development of every higher cultural form with outspoken misgiving. States create no culture; indeed, they are often destroyed by higher forms of culture. Power and culture are, in the deepest sense, irreconcilable opposites, the strength of one always going hand in hand with the weakness of the other. A powerful state machine is the greatest obstacle to every cultural development. Where states are dying or where their power is still limited to a minimum, there culture flourishes best.

This idea will appear daring to most of us because a clearer vision of the real causes of cultural events has been completely obscured by a mendacious education. To conserve the interests of the state our brains have been crowded with a mass of false notions and silly assumptions, so that we are mostly incapable of approaching historical matters without prejudice. We smile at the simplicity of the Chinese chroniclers who record of the legendary ruler, Fuhi, that he endowed his subjects with the arts of the chase, of fishery and of stockraising, that he invented the first musical instruments and taught them the use of letters. But we repeat quite thoughtlessly what has been drummed into us concerning the culture of the Pharaohs, the creative activity of the Babylonian kings, the alleged cultural achievements of Alexander of Macedonia or of Frederick the Great. We do not even suspect that it is all foul witchcraft, lying humbug without a glimmer of truth in it, which has been repeated so often that for most of us it has become a clear certainty.

Culture is not created by command. It creates itself, arising spontaneously from the necessities of men and their social cooperative activity. No ruler could ever command men to fashion the first tools, first use fire, invent the telescope and the steam engine, or compose the Iliad. Cultural values do not arise by direction of higher authorities. They cannot be compelled by dictates nor called into life by the resolution of legislative assemblies.

Neither in Egypt nor in Babylon, nor in any other land was culture created by the heads of systems of political power. They merely appropriated an already existing and developed culture and made it subservient to their special political purposes. But thereby they put the ax to the root of all future cultural progress, for in the same degree as political power became confirmed, and subjected all social life to its influence, occurred the inner atrophy of the old forms of culture, until within their former field of action no fresh growth could start.

Political power always strives for uniformity. In its stupid desire to order and control all social events according to a definite principle, it is always eager to reduce all human activity to a single pattern. Thereby it comes into irreconcilable opposition with the creative forces of all higher culture, which is ever on the lookout for new forms and new organisations and consequently as definitely dependent on variety and universality in human undertakings as is political power on fixed forms and patterns. Between the struggles for political and economic power of the privileged minorities in society and the cultural activities of the people there always exists an inner conflict. They are efforts in opposite directions which will never voluntarily unite and can only be given a deceptive appearance of harmony by external compulsion and spiritual oppression. The Chinese sage, Laotse, had in mind this opposition when he said:

Experience teaches that none can guide the community;
The community is collaboration of forces;
as such, thought shows,
it cannot be led by the strength of one man.
To order it is to set it in disorder;
To fix it is to unsettle it.
For the conduct of the individual changes:
Here goes forward, there draws back;
Here shows warmth, there reveals cold;
Here exerts strength, there displays weakness;
Here stirs passion, there brings peace.
And so:
The perfected one shuns desire for power,
shuns the lure of power,
shuns the glamour of power. 2
Nietzsche also had a profound conception of this truth, although his inner disharmony and his constant oscillation between outlived authoritarian concepts and truly libertarian ideas all his life prevented him from drawing the natural deductions from it. Nevertheless, what he has written about the decline of culture in Germany is of the most impressive significance and finds its confirmation in the decline of culture of every sort.

No one can finally spend more than he has. That holds good for individuals; it holds good for peoples. If one spends oneself for power, for high politics, for husbandry, for commerce, Parliamentarism, military interests -- if one gives away that amount of reason, earnestness, will, selfmastery, which constitutes one's real self, for the one thing, he will not have it for the other. Culture and the state -- let no one be deceived about thisare antagonists: The 'Culture State' is merely a modern idea. The one lives on the other, the one prospers at the expense of the other. All great periods of culture are periods of political decline. Whatever is great in a cultural sense is nonpolitical, is even antipolitical. 3

If the state does not succeed in guiding the cultural forces within its sphere of power into courses favourable to its ends, and thus exhibit the growth of higher forms, these very higher forms will sooner or later destroy the political frame which they rightly regard as a hindrance. But if the political machine is strong enough to force the cultural life for any considerable period into definite forms, then it will gradually seek out other channels, not being bound by any political limitations. Every higher form of culture, if it is not too greatly hindered in its natural development by political obstructions, strives constantly to renew Its creative urge to construct. Every successful work arouses the need for greater perfection and deeper spirituality. Culture is always creative, always seeks new forms of activity. It is like the trees of the tropical jungle whose branches when they touch the earth always take new root.

Power is never creative. It uses the creative force of a given culture to clothe its nakedness and to increase its dignity. Power is always a negative element in history. It decorates itself in false feathers to give Its importance the appearance of creative force. Here also the words in Nietzsche's Zarathustra hit the bull's eye:

Wherever a people still exists, it does not understand the state but hates it like the evil eye and a sin against laws and customs. This sign I give you: Every people speaks its own language of good and evil, which its neighbour does not understand. It invented its own language for laws and customs. But the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says, it lies. And whatever it has, it has stolen. Everything about it is false. It bites with false teeth, rabidly. Even its guts are false.

Power always acts destructively, for its possessors are ever striving to lace all phenomena of social life into a corset of their laws to give them a definite shape. Its mental expression is dead dogma; its physical manifestation of life, brute force. This lack of intelligence in its endeavours leaves its imprint likewise on the persons of its representatives, gradually making them mentally inferior and brutal, even though they were originally excellently endowed. Nothing dulls the mind and the soul of man as does the eternal monotony of routine, and power is essentially routine. Since Hobbes gave to the world his work about the citizen, De Cive the ideas expressed there have never quite lost vogue. They have in the course of three centuries in one form or another constantly occupied the minds of men, and today dominate their thoughts more than ever. But although Hobbes, the materialist, did not base his ideas on the dogmas of the church, this did not prevent him from appropriating as his own the fateful dictum: "Man is fundamentally wicked." All his philosophical contemplations are based on this assumption. For him, man was just a born beast guided by selfish instincts, without any consideration for his fellows. The state alone put an end to this condition of "war of all against all" and became a terrestrial Providence whose ordering and punishing hand prevented man from sinking hopelessly into the slough of bestiality. Thus, according to Hobbes, the state became the real creator of culture, forcing man with iron compulsion to rise to a higher level of being, no matter how repugnant this might be to his inner nature. Since then this fable of the cultural creative role of the state has been endlessly repeated, and allegedly confirmed by new facts.

And yet this untenable concept contradicts all historical experience. It is exactly by the state that the remnants of bestiality, man's heritage from ancient ancestors, have been carefully guarded through the centuries and cleverly cultivated. The World War with its abominable methods of mass murder, the conditions in Mussolini's Italy, in Hitler's Third Reich, should convince even the blindest what this socalled "culture state" really is.

All higher understanding, every new phase of intellectual development, every epochmaking thought, giving men new vistas for their cultural activities, has been able to prevail only through constant struggle with the authority of church and state after their supporters had for whole epochs made enormous sacrifices in property, liberty and life for their convictions. When such renewals of spiritual life were finally recognised by church and state, it was always because they had in time become; irresistible and those in authority could not help themselves. But even this recognition, gained only after violent resistance, led in most cases to a planned dogmatising of the new ideas, which under the spiritkilling guardianship of power gradually became as utterly benumbed as all previous attempts at the construction of a new intellectual outlook.

The very fact that every system of rulership is founded on the will of a privileged minority which has subjugated the common people by cunning or brute force, while each particular phase of culture expresses merely the anonymous force of the community, is indicative of the inner antagonism between them. Power always reverts to individuals or small groups of individuals; culture has its roots in the community. Power is always the sterile element in society, denied all creative force. Culture embodies procreative will, creative urge, formative impulse, all yearning for expression. Power is comparable to hunger, the satisfaction of which keeps the individual alive up to a certain age limit. Culture, in the highest; sense, is like the procreative urge, which keeps the species alive. The individual dies, but never society. States perish, cultures only change their scene of action and forms of expression.

The state welcomes only those forms of cultural activity which help it to maintain its power. It persecutes with implacable hatred any activity which oversteps the limits set by it and calls its existence into question. It is, therefore, as senseless as it is mendacious to speak of a "state culture"; for it is precisely the state which lives in constant warfare with all higher forms of intellectual culture and always tries to avoid the creative will of culture.

But although power and culture are opposite poles in history, they nevertheless have a common field of activity in the social collaboration of men, and must necessarily find a modus vivendi. The more completely man's cultural activity comes under the control of power, the more clearly we recognise the fixation of its forms, the crippling of its creative imaginative vigour and the gradual atrophy of its productive will. On the other hand, the more vigorously social culture breaks through the limitations set by political power, the less is it hindered in its natural development by religious and political pressure. In this event it grows into an immediate danger to the permanence of power in general.

The cultural forces of society involuntarily rebel against the coercion of institutions of political power on whose sharp corners they bark their shins. Consciously or unconsciously they try to break the rigid forms which obstruct their natural development, constantly erecting new bars before it. The possessors of power, however, must always be on the watch, lest the intellectual culture of the times stray into forbidden paths, and so perhaps disturb or even totally inhibit their political activities. From this continued struggle of two antagonistic aims, the one always representing the caste interests of the privileged minority, the other the interests of the community, a certain legal relationship gradually arises, on the basis of which the limits of influence between state and society, politics and economicsin short, between power and culture are periodically readjusted and confirmed by constitutions.

What we mean today by "law" and "constitution" is merely the intellectual precipitate of this endless struggle, and inclines in its practical effects more to one side or the other according as power or culture achieves a temporary preponderance in the life of the community. Since a state without society, politics without economics, power without culture, could not exist for a moment and, on the other hand, culture has thus far not been able to eliminate the power principle from the communal social life of men, law becomes the buffer between the two, weakens the shock and guards society against a continuous state of catastrophe.

In law it is primarily necessary to distinguish two forms: "natural law" and socalled "positive law." A natural law exists where society has not yet been politically organisedbefore the state with its caste and class system has made its appearance. In this instance, law is the result of mutual agreements between men confronting one another as free and equal, motivated by the same interests and enjoying equal dignity as human beings. Positive law first develops within the political framework of the state and concerns men who are separated from one another by reason of different economic interests and who, on the basis of social inequality, belong to various castes and classes.

Positive law becomes effective on the one hand by giving the state (which everywhere in history has its roots in brute force, conquest and enslavement of the conquered) a legal character; on the other hand, by trying to achieve an adjustment between the rights, duties and privileges of the various classes of society. However, this adjustment has permanence only as long as the mass of the conquered submits to the existing condition of the law or does not feel itself strong enough to fight against it. It changes when the demand of the people for a reformation of the laws becomes so urgent and irresistible that the ruling powerobeying necessity and not an inner impulsehas to take account of this desire if they do not wish to run the risk of being completely overthrown by a violent revolution. When this happens, the new government formulates new laws which will be the more liberal the more vigorously the revolutionary will lives and finds expression among the people.

In the despotic realms of ancient Asia, where all power was embodied in the person of the ruler, whose decisions were uninfluenced by the protest of the community, power was law in the fullest meaning of the word. Since the ruler was revered as the immediate descendant of the godhead, his will prevailed as the highest law of the land, brooking no other pretensions. So, for instance, the famous code of Hammurabi was based wholly on "divine law" revealed to men by sacred command, and in consequence of its origin not subject to human judgment.

However, the legal concepts expressed in the codes of an autocrat are not merely the will of a despot. They are always bound up with ancient morals and traditional customs which have in the course of centuries become habitual in men and are the result of their communal social life. The Code of Hammurabi is no exception to this rule, for all the practical precepts of Babylonian law, springing from the needs of social life, already had validity among the people long before Hammurabi put an end to the rule of the Elamites, and by the conquest of Larsa and Jamutbal laid the foundation of a unified monarchy.

Right here appears the dual character of the law, which cannot be denied even under the most favourable circumstances. On the one hand, law gives ancient custom, which has taken root from antiquity among the people as the so-called "common law," a definite content. On the other hand, it provides for the prerogatives of privileged castes a lawful aspect, which conceals their unholy origin. Only by a careful scrutiny of this patent mystification can we understand the profound belief of men in the sacredness of law: it flatters their sense of justice and at the same time establishes their dependence on a higher power.

This inner discrepancy becomes most clearly apparent when the phase of absolute despotism has been overcome and the community participates more or less in the making of the law. All the great contests in the body politic have been contests about law, for men have always tried to confirm their newly gained rights and liberties by the laws of the state; which naturally led to new difficulties and disappointments. This is the reason why thus far every struggle for right has changed to a struggle for power, why the revolutionary of yesterday has become the reactionary of today; for it is not the form of power but power itself which is the root of the evil. Every power, of whatever kind, has the impulse to reduce the rights of the community to a minimum to make secure its own existence. Society, on the other hand, strives for a constant extension of its rights and liberties which it seeks to achieve by the limitation of the functions of the state. This is especially apparent in revolutionary periods when men are filled with the longing for new forms of social culture.

The contest between state and society, power and culture, is thus Comparable to the motion of a pendulum which proceeds always from one of its two polesauthorityslowly struggling toward the opposite polefreedom. And just as there was once a time when might and right were one, so we are now apparently moving toward a time when every form of rulership shall vanish, law yield place to justice, liberties to freedom.

Every reconstruction of the law by the incorporation of new rights and liberties or the extension of those already existing emanates from the people, never from the state. The liberties we enjoy today, in a more or less limited degree, the people owe neither to the good will nor the special favour of government. On the contrary, the possessors of public power have left no means untried either to prevent the establishment of new rights or to render them ineffective. Great mass movements, indeed actual revolutions, were necessary to win from the possessors of power every little concession; they would never have yielded one of them voluntarily.

It is, therefore, a complete misconception of historical facts that leads a highflown radicalism to declare that political rights and liberties as laid down in the constitutions of the various states are without significance because they have been formulated and confirmed by government. It is not because the possessors of power viewed these rights sympathetically that they established them, but because they were compelled by outward pressure. The spiritual culture of the time somewhere burst the bounds of the political frame, and the ruling powers had to submit to forces which for the time being they could not neglect.

Political rights and liberties were never won in legislative bodies, but compelled from them by external pressure. Moreover, even legal guarantee by no means gives security that such rights will be permanent. Governments are ever ready to curtail existing rights or to abolish them entirely if they believe the country will not resist. It is true that attempts at curtailment have sometimes resulted disastrously for possessors of power who did not rightly estimate the strength of their opponents and did not know how to choose the proper time for action. Charles I had to pay for his attempt with his life; others, with the loss of their power. But this did not prevent constant new attempts from being made in this direction. Even in those countries where certain rights like freedom of the press, of assembly, of organization, and so on, have for centuries been established among the people, the governments seize every favourable opportunity to curtail these rights, or by judicial hairsplitting to give them a narrower interpretation. America and England furnish us in this respect with many examples that constitute food for reflection. Of the famous Weimar constitution of the Germans, put out of commission on almost any rainy day, it is hardly worth while to speak.

Rights and liberties do not persist because written down legally on a scrap of paper. They become permanent only when they have become a vital necessity for the people; have, so to speak, entered their very flesh and blood. They will be given regard only as long as this necessity survives among the people. When this is no longer true, no parliamentary opposition avails, and no appeal, however passionate, to respect the constitution. The recent history of Europe provides striking examples.

  • 1Plato, The Republic. Third Book.
  • 2Lao tse, The Course and the Right Way. Translated from the German of Alexander Ular. Published by the Inselbucherei, Leipzig.
  • 3Friedrich Nietzsche, GotzenDammgrung ("The Twilight of the Idols").