Nietzsche’s nightmare – the rise of the untermensch, a world ruled by mediocrity

History has been unkind to Nietzsche as his writings have been seen as one of the giving a philosophical underpinning to the emerging Nazi movement of the 1930’s. Principally because his sister pillaged his notes to produce ‘The Will to Power’, which appeared to endorse the ideology of National Socialism. Certainly Nietzsche appeared to give some credence to this reading of his work. In one of his last books he refers to the superiority of the ‘blond beast’ of Germany, however this was written at a time of his increasing mental breakdown and cannot be taken as characteristic of his thought.  Even then the phrase ‘blond beast’ cannot be taken as an implicit endorsement of German nationalism. Readers of Nietzsche have forgotten that he was primarily an aesthete and it is in that context that his writings should be understood.  

Throughout the twentieth century there have been constant reinterpretations of the Nietzsche’s philosophy. While his sister was the first there have been countless others. One writer that adopts the Nietzschean theme is Ayn Rand in her text ‘Atlas Shrugged’. A novel that through its endorsement of the now dominant philosophy of Neo-Liberal economics has become one of the books that all aspiring politicians claim to have read. This novel demonstrates a worship of the rich and powerful and  a contempt for the poor. However Ayn Rand’s failure as with all the others, was to misunderstand Nietzsche’s will to power, it was not about power. Nietzsche himself expressed doubts later about the naming of this concept. Personally I think it would have been better phrased as the will to aspire, that is the drive to fulfil human potential. 


When Nietzsche introduced the concept übermensch (super or over man) he was not so much thinking of übermensch as the superman as a man of extreme  physical strength but the man of superior intellect and sensitivity. His first three candidates for the role of übermensch were the artist, philosopher and Saint. Saint Francis would have been one of an übermensch as Nietzsche originally intended the term to be used. He had the vision to seen the failings of Italian society of the 13th century, he rejected the role of chivalrous knight, which was seen as the highest ideal that could be aspired amongst the rich merchant class of Assisi. He saw not knightly chivalrous’ warfare but murderous warfare between city states. St. Francis had the qualities to make him an übermensch; he had superiority and uniqueness of intellect allied and the courage to go against the norms and conventions of his age. The distancing of time negates the radicalism of St. Francis. His preaching was seen by later Pope’s as a threat to the social order. After his death the Pope had two Franciscan friars burnt, because they had condemned too forcibly the wrong doings of the rich and the powerful. 

Nietzsche later dropped the Saint from his typology  of supermen. 

Twentieth and twenty first century writers tend ignore the influence of the thinking of Classical Greek thinkers on Nietzsche. One such Greek was the philosopher Aristotle, who wondered how can you classify ever changing beings such as man. It was obviously wrong to identify man only through his physical characteristics, as these characteristics kept changing. What was it that identified the child and the man as being the same creature? Aristotle’s answer was that it was ‘Being’, that is what they had the potential to become. The child would evolve into the intelligent thinking being that was the mature man. Nietzsche’s insight was that the potential of each man or woman was different, not all,  in fact only a tiny minority were capable of achieving the full human  potential. He despised the common herd of humanity that lacked the potential to achieve this highest level of being. What he saw was a society in which the rules were written to benefit the average of humanity. The poor specimens that made up the mass of humanity needed rules and regulation, as their independent thinking tended on their towards barbarism and animal like behaviours. Behaviours that needed controlling for the social good. Unfortunately for the fate of humanity these rules and regulations constrained the übermensch to such an extent that they were denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential. It is impossible to calculate the loss of society of this unfulfilled potential. How many Michelangelo’s  had been confined to a life of mediocrity because of the oppressive nature of a society of mediocrities?

Nietzsche hated democracy because it enshrined the rule of the mediocre. Some of his fiercest criticisms were directed at the British, as he saw the triumph of the business orientated bourgeois as the triumph of mediocrity. He wanted a society in which the übermensch would thrive, as what could be a better society than one in which the best of humanity thrive, as opposed to one in which the worst prosper. It was his despair that caused him to make the more extreme statements that he made towards the end of his life, when he was nearing mental and emotional breakdown. He  despaired that the rise of industrial civilisation was embedding in society the rule of the mediocre, that is the industrial bourgeoise. 

German nationalism he despised as there could not be a superior people, only a society in which the superior were allowed to thrive. Übermensch could only be individuals not nations. 

Nietzsche’s left many notes, that is notes made for book written and for those yet to be written. It from these notes that Elizabeth Forster Nietzsche could draft a philosophy of German nationalism. A philosophy of power which misused Nietzsche’s concept the will to power. What she changed it into was something akin to Chamberlain’s social Darwinism, a philosophy of competing racial types. A competition in which the Germanic Aryan racial type was best fitted to win. Other philosophies of power  developed in that century, one of which was that of Ayn Rand. A philosophy of the power of wealth, a philosophy in which wealth became the criterion of human worth, or as she described it a philosophy of rational selfishness. This particular one has become extremely influential in the contemporary world. 

This philosophy is clearly explained in her novel ‘Atlas Shrugged’. This  novel starts in a dystopian society of the future, a society in which business enterprise is oppressed through a series of restrictions imposed on it by a dictatorial government. Restrictions that eventually provoked a businessman’s strike. The billionaire owners of business gradually disappear and without them at the helm of their businesses, these businesses begin to fail. The rich have disappeared, so as to avoid the depredations of the  ‘looters’, these looters are the government and labour unions which extort wealth from the non looters (the rich) through the threat of force. Wealth which is squandered on the undeserving poor. The productive entrepreneurs have had enough and can no longer tolerate the leeching of their wealth by the non productive looters and mooches.  Without the beneficent rich directing their companies chaos results and thousands of the poor die, because they lack the ability to provide for themselves. The death of thousands of these non productive leaches, she sees as a great benefit to human society, as they made no contribution to the well being of society. Eventually these self secluded billionaires return and restore prosperity and freedom to society. Freedom for Rand was the removal of restrictions on the rich powerful wealth creators, restrictions such as labour protection laws, that prevented them introducing the most cost efficient methods of production. A society that would cease its persecution of the rich wealth creators. In Rand’s utopia all are free to use their talents to maximise their individual wealth, nobody had the right to expect the society to support them. If there were poor hungry people it was their own fault, either through lack of effort or ability. There was no reason why the members of society should show any concern about the poor, as in this society all had an equal opportunity to become rich, if some ignored that opportunity it was their fault.

Rand did not create the callous Neo-Liberal society of today, but her philosophy of power is one of the more substantial foundations on which it stands. It would be difficult to argue that she was more influential that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, but her novels through simplifying the tenets of Neo-Liberalism contributed through popularising this philosophy. Her novels give the best explanation of the thinking behind Neo-Liberal thinking, in which people are valued for their worth as wealth creators. Those such as the poor who make meagre contributions to wealth creating are deserving of society’s contempt.

However the people who she elevates to the status of super men, the billionaires are the mediocre men who Nietzsche despises. They are to borrow Marcuse’s phrase the ultimate ‘one dimensional men’. A  simple historical comparison will demonstrate this. Cosimo de Medici, the man who dominated Florence in the late 14th century, was a wealthy banker which would have qualified him as one of  Ayn Rand’s financial supermen. Yet he was more than just that, he was a patron of the arts and artists he was responsible for funding the completion the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (the “Duomo”, Florence’s cathedral). He had the foresight and wisdom to support the bankrupt architect Brunelleschi in completing this work. He was the patron of great artists such as Fra Angelico and Donatello and of perhaps patron of the greatest philosopher of his time, Ficino. Cosimo committed a great part of his wealth to public works, the magnificence of contemporary Florence is in part due to him. This contrasts with the selfish rationalists of Rand. These people avoid try to making any contribution to the society in which they live. Britain may be host to record numbers of the super rich, but the majority avoid paying tax. While their lack of tax payments show their unwillingness to contribute to the well being of society, they will also leave nothing behind in the form of public works. Any visitor can tour Florence today and marvel at its architectural splendours, whereas future visitors to London will see little to admire in in various shopping malls and office blocks of today.  If there was a negative  prize for the worse architecture in the world, London would regularly win the prize. The mediocrity of the new ruling class of politicians, financiers etc, is reflected in the mediocre buildings they erect. In biblical terms are a little more than the barbarous temples to mammon, in which worship and wonder are replaced by the act of buying and selling.


Cosimo de Medici, Portrait by Jacopo Pontormo; the laurel branch (il Broncone) was a symbol used also by his heirs [4]

The reason for my selecting Cosimo de Medici is that he is typical of the merchant princes of Renaissance Italy. These men used a large part of their wealth to sponsor public works on their cities, they vied with each other to get the best artists to create the greatest works of art of their cities. Cosimo de Medici is perhaps the type of capitalist that could be classed as one of the übermensch.  Today the super rich celebrate their philistinism. One suspects that Renaissance Italy was the one country that was most hospitable to the übermensch, while in contrast contemporary Britain is one of the least hospitable. 

This inhospitable climate can be demonstrated in the attack on the humanities in the universities. Mediocre men, be they politicians, university vice chancellors or businessmen can only see value in education if it  contributes directly to increasing the national income. When applying (unsuccessfully) to do a theology PhD, I was asked to write how my research would benefit society. Since I proposed to research the esoteric language that was used to speak of God, the I could not. The new type of university Vice Chancellors are all committed to make universities more productive in the business sense and of more direct benefit to the economy. These new university managers see no place for a liberal education as it does not translate in cost effective learning. Why study English literature, when the more cost beneficial course would be to study English as business communication?  Today those that want to study English or a modern language are favoured if it’s linked to business studies. Similarly the old tradition of disinterested research is being discarded in favour of that research that can best be demonstrated to show an economic benefit.  The cull of those cost ineffective departments has speeded up with the new coalition government of millionaires. A wrecking ball has been used on British universities in the expectation that from out of the rubble a profitable business enterprise is to be built. 

In the 1930’s great European philosophers came to teach in British universities, philosophers such as Isiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Ernst Gellner and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Either because they were freeing a regime that threatened their liberty and/or British universities with their tradition of disinterested research were congenial places to study.  Now such philosophers would merely use Britain as a transit point on their way to the more welcoming universities of the USA. 

Why I criticise Ayn Rand is not because she helped make Neo-Liberalism possible,  but because her doctrine of rational selfishness elevated selfishness into a virtue. The tax dodging businessman is no longer an immoral individual avoiding his social obligations, he is instead a moral non looter. They are acting morally in that they don’t want to see their hard earned income frittered away on poor ne’er do wells.  By elevating a particular kind of narrow mindedness (one that sees wealth accumulation as the only good), she has given sanction to the rule of mediocrity. A Cosimo de Medici would be regarded with horror by his billionaire contemporaries of today, all they would see is a billionaire frittering away a large part of his wealth on goods that produced no cash return. Perhaps it is in art that the clearest example is shown of the rule of mediocrity, Renaissance Florence produced  Michelangelo’s David, while contemporary Britain has produced Tracey Emin’s unmade bed.  

Rather  than initiating a new era of freedom as its proponents expected, the free market revolution has led to the rise of the new mediocrity, the rule of the untermensch (under man). Untermensch not as used by the Nazi’s to denote subhuman’s but men of dullness of mind, men self satisfied lacking any greater vision. Men and women with a preference for things as they were, wanting a return to an imaginary world of social peace, one unthreatened by change.  It is these men and women that dominate Britain, a Britain where thinking the same as the right people is the most admired trait. As demonstrated in Parliament where all the senior ‘responsible’ leaders all share the same view of Britain. They can see no alternative to austerity, anybody that suggests otherwise is subject to abuse, as witnessed by the demonising of Syriza. Syriza with its threats to end austerity in Greece is a threat to the agreed political consensus, where the fear is not the Syriza will fail, but that it will succeed. Therefore by continuing to insist on the inhumane policies that have impoverished Greece, they make it unlikely to happen. These scared people exclude from power the übermensch as they would threaten their position through change. Wherever you look in Britain the upper layer  of any institution, whether it be in parliament, finance or the universities, they are dominated by the untermensch. Mediocrities  of unbearable dullness who work collectively to ensure that the exciting, the new and the challenging ideas and people remain marginalised. Hayek thought that the social democracies of the 1950’s were drifting into a new serfdom, what he did not foresee was that his alternative society would be one by a ruled by a new class, the untermensch, the ultimate of one dimensional men. 


Friedrich Hayek – the author of ‘The Road to Serfdom’ – one of the leasing advocates of what is termed Neo-Liberalism

Milton Friedman – the leading proponent of Chicago school  of Free Market Economics


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