One of the most annoying constructions of contemporary sociology is Richard Florida’s conception of the “creative class.” Florida isn’t necessarily wrong in his claims, and indeed I am sympathetic to some of his arguments, though much of his analysis turns upon taking a naïve conception of creativity and moving the goal posts so that this intuitive conception of creativity comes to be bestowed upon patently uncreative individuals who pad the ranks of the corporate hierarchy. By marginalizing a “Bohemian” creative class and putting at the center of his analysis the suits who congratulate themselves on being creative, he has arguably misconstrued the sources of creativity in society, but that is not what I want to focus on today.

Here is how Florida defines his “creative class”:

“I define the core of the Creative Class to include people in science and engineering, architecture and design, education, arts, music, and entertainment whose economic function is to create new ideas, new technology, and new creative content. Around this core, the Creative Class also includes a broader group of creative professionals in business and finance, law, health care, and related fields. These people engage in complex problem solving that involves a great deal of independent judgment and requires high levels of education or human capital. In addition, all members of the Creative Class — whether they are artists or engineers, musicians or computer scientists, writers or entrepreneurs — share a common ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit.”

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited, second edition, pp. 8-9

Florida’s use of the phrase “high human capital individuals” (employed throughout his book) begs the question as to who exactly are the low human capital individuals. Needless to say, formulations like this are self-congratulatory to the point of delusion, because no one who uses the phrase “high human capital individuals” believes themselves to be anything other than a high human capital individual. Here Nietzsche is relevant, though what he said of philosophers must now be applied to sociology: It has gradually become clear to me what every great social science up till now has consisted of — namely, the personal confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious memoir.

We need not employ Florida’s annoying formulations. Let’s consider another approach to essentially the same idea. Take, for example, Marx’s version of the “creative class”:

“Milton, who wrote Paradise Lost, was an unproductive worker. On the other hand, a writer who turns out work for his publisher in factory style is a productive worker. Milton produced Paradise Lost as a silkworm produces silk, as the activation of his own nature. He later sold his product for £5 and thus became a merchant. But the literary proletarian of Leipzig who produces books, such as compendia on political economy, at the behest of a publisher is pretty nearly a productive worker since his production is taken over by capital and only occurs in order to increase it.”

Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, London et al.: Penguin, 1976, p. 1044

Clearly, Marx here evinces no romantic notions of the creative genius in isolation, praising the Leipzig hack over the genius of Milton. And this is Florida’s conception of “creativity” in a nutshell, nearly indistinguishable from “productivity” as used in contemporary economics. One can imagine in one’s mind’s eye Richard Florida reading this passage from Marx and nodding his head with an odd grin on his face.

Suit-and-tie guys who are “knowledge workers” in their own imaginations, but in who are in reality time-servers in a corporate hierarchy, are the members of the “creative class” who are fulfilling the function that Marx assigned to the Leipzig hack. In other words, the same kind of people who, fifty years ago would have been reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, are the same people who still today are reading the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, but now they fancy themselves to be part of the “creative class” and they take micro-doses of LSD when they go to Burning Man each year to “unleash” their creativity.

But this is exactly the kind of “creative class” that the global economy wants and needs; Marx had put his finger on something important when he raised the Leipzig hack over Milton. The less creative you are, and the more you have adapted yourself to be a creature of the institutions you are serving, the more successful you will be (according to conventional measures of success) and the more money you will make.

The pedestrian fact of the matter is that industry — whether something as flashy as the film industry or something as prosaic as the energy industry — advances mediocrities to its top positions. Usually the top people are mediocrities with some redeeming qualities, or a hint of limited talent, but still mediocrities. The truly creative types know that mediocrities are being advanced beyond them and taking the top positions in the industry, and that there is nothing that they can do about this. These truly creative types aren’t living the life of the one percent; indeed, they aren’t living the life the ten percent. Most of them make less than six figures, and there are probably many plumbers, sheet rockers, electricians, and truck drivers who make a lot more than them, and who have no massive college debt hanging over their heads.

The Bohemian creatives, the ones actually creating things, find themselves in the position of performing alienated labor at the behest of their corporate masters, who neither understand nor appreciate them. Having failed to learn one of the simplest lessons in life — that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar — the lowest strata of the creative class spew their resentment at every opportunity. (The dirtbag left today might be thought of as part of a Bohemian fringe of creative types, though at the political end of the creative spectrum.) They are so convinced of their own virtue that they are unable to see or to comprehend that they themselves have become the bitter, punitive gatekeepers that as “creatives” they presume to despise.

Resentment, it seems, flows uphill. By creating a permanently resentful underclass, which is the basis of the entirety of society (because the underclass have the jobs that keep industrialized civilization functioning), the resentful underclass creates a popular culture derived from this pervasive resentment, and this pervasive popular culture resentment eventually finds its way into the routines of comedians, into television, into films, and ultimately into élite cultural institutions, which imagine themselves setting the cultural and aesthetic agenda, but which in fact respond like reactionaries to the authentic energies of the lower classes.

The phenomenon of resentment flowing uphill manifests itself powerfully among the “creative class.” As we have seen, the most creative members of the creative class experience the appearance of fame but the financial reality of entry-level positions, so that they belong to the permanent underclass and its bitterly resentful view of the world, which is a view of the world from the bottom up. They are well aware of their low financial status, and that they do not share in the rewards of the uncreative members of the “creative class.”

Ultimately, the resentment of the creative class and the bourgeoisie becomes, over time, the resentment of the élites, and this is when we know that society is rotten from top to bottom. When those who have been given every advantage and every preferment in life are bitter and angry about their world, clearly something has gone off the rails. Of course, the resentment of the élites is expressed in a distinctive way, filtered through their thinly-veiled dog whistles and symbols, but not only is it there to be seen, as clear as day, but also pervasively present throughout the institutions that they superintend.

Apparently, it isn’t enough to rule the world and to enjoy a standard of living that is the envy of the masses; more than this, one must have the acquiescence of those masses in their subjection to the rule of élites. Mere compliance and conformity is not enough; there is also to be some formal recognition that the élites deserve their status and are making the best choices for the rest of us. (We live in a meritocracy, right?) When this recognition is not forthcoming, we glimpse the resentment of the élites for those they fancy the low human capital individuals.

It is a fascinating commentary on the resentment of the élites who grow out of a “creative class” that Nietzsche’s analysis of ressentiment crucially turns upon creativity:

“The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye — this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself — is of the essence of ressentiment: in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all — its action is fundamentally reaction.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, section 10

This is a dialectic of creativity, in which creativity has nothing to work on, so it works on nothing — ressentiment is the creation of new values from nothing. It is an ex nihilo morality par excellence. Nietzsche once wrote of the finest flower of ressentiment, as related by Walter Kaufmann:

“Among the exceedingly few discoveries made in recent times concerning the origin of moral value judgments, Friedrich Nietzsche’s discovery of ressentiment as the source of such value judgments is the most profound, even if his more specific claim that Christian morality and in particular Christian love are the finest ‘flower of resssentiment’ should turn out to be false.”

From Walter Kaufmann’s introduction to his translation of On the Genealogy of Morals

Today our finest flower of ressentiment is the resentful élite who rule over us with a bad conscience — the creative class, the powerful, the educated, the well connected, the wealthy — and who never tire of reminding us of how deeply we have disappointed them. This is the kind of contempt that is exhibited when urbanites speak of “white trash” or some such similar social construct that expresses the bitter hatred of the privileged for the downtrodden. Both in the US and the UK, the political parties that formerly represented the interests of the working classes have been transformed in the past half century into parties that represent urbanized professionals, and they do not even bother to veil their contempt for the working class, who now appear to them as a distasteful embarrassment at best, a contemptible mass at worse, fit only to be ridiculed and despised.

In a Nietzschean analysis, one would expect that it would be the creative few who would be de facto Übermenschen, and so possessed of the virtues of the Übermensch — or, if you prefer, the virtù of the Übermensch — therefore these few would be among the least resentful elements in society, because the Übermensch expends his energies. If we were a society dominated by a truly creative class, we should be a society and an economy of supermen, creating new values and spontaneously releasing any pent up energies, but it is ressentiment that rules the present. Why?

The artificiality of our institutions, which demands that the ruling élites must bend the knee to democratic forms and make a pretense to upholding the rule of law that, in theory, binds their actions no less than ours, constitutes the hostile external world against which the ruling élites react, the Other that is Outside and Different. The creative deed of the élites of the creative class is its emphatic “No!” directed against the world from which it seeks to distinguish itself. Robbed of triumphant affirmation, they must rule without appearing to rule, and the reality of power coupled with its seeming denial is creating new values even now, though these are values that only can be savored in submerged and secret places — that is to say, in the hearts of the members of the creative class.

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Freedom and Ressentiment

1 September 2013


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sometimes when I am asked my favorite book I reply that it is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which is the most systematic of his books on ethics and which gives his most detailed exposition of ressentiment. I reread the third essay in the book today — “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” — keeping in mind while I did what I wrote about freedom day before yesterday in Theory and Practice of Freedom.

To give a flavor of Nietzsche’s argument I want to cite a couple of passages from the book that I take to be particularly crucial. Firstly, here is the passage in which Nietzsche introduces the idea of ressentiment becoming creative and creating its own values:

“The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 20

Near the end of the book, Nietzsche reiterates one of his central themes, that man would rather will nothing than not will:

“It is absolutely impossible for us to conceal what was actually expressed by that whole willing that derives its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animalistic, even more of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from appearance, transience, growth, death, wishing, longing itself — all that means, let us dare to grasp it, a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental prerequisites of life, but it is and remains a will! …And, to conclude by saying what I said at the beginning: man still prefers to will nothingness, than not will…”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 120

One of the themes that occurs throughout Nietzsche’s works is the critique of nihilism — Nietzsche finds nihilism in much that others fail to recognize as such, while Nietzsche himself has been accused of nihilism because of his iconoclasm. The immediately preceding passage strikes me as one of Nietzsche’s most powerful formulations of unexpected and unrecognized nihilism: willing nothing.

I think Nietzsche primarily had institutional religion in mind, especially those institutionalized religions that put a priestly caste in power (whether directly or indirectly), but there are plenty of examples of thoroughly secular forms of ressentiment developing to the point of creating its own values, and I think one of the principal forms of secular ressentiment takes the form of the denial or the repudiation or the rejection of freedom. The denial of freedom is a particularly pure form of the nihilistic will saying “No!” to life, since life, in the living of it, is all about freedom — we realize our freedom in the dizziness that is dread, and make our choices in fear and trembling. Many people quite literally become physically ill when faced with a momentous choice — so great a role does the idea of freedom play in our thoughts, that our thoughts are manifested physically.

The denial of freedom takes many forms. For example, it often takes the form of determinism, and determinism itself can take many forms. On my other blog I wrote about determinism from the point of view of the denial of freedom as a philosophical problem — something I wanted to do to counter the prevalent attitude that asks why so many people believe in their own freewill. This approach seems to me incredibly perverse, and the more reasonable question is to ask why so many people believe they do not have freewill. Now, Nietzsche himself was a determinist, so he likely would not be sympathetic to what I’m saying here, but that does not stop us from applying Nietzsche’s own ideas to himself (something Max Scheler also did in his book on Ressentiment).

Probably the most common form that the denial of freedom takes is a rationalization of a failure to take advantage of one’s freedoms. This is a much more subtle denial of freedom than determinism, and in fact assumes the reality of free will. If the palpable reality of freedom, and the potential upsets to the ordinary business of life that it presents, were not all-too-real, there would be no need to formulate elaborate rationales for not taking advantage of one’s freedom and opting for a life of conformity and servile acquiescence to authority.

Understanding that freedom is honored more in the breach than the observance was a well-trodden path in twentieth century thought. Although Freud had deterministic sympathies, his theories of reason as the mere rationalization of what the unconscious was going to do anyway incorporates both determinist and free willist assumptions. The denial of freedom is a central theme in Sartre’s work (the spirit of seriousness and the idea of bad faith are both important forms of the denial of freedom), and through Freud and Sartre the influence on twentieth century thought and literature was profound. I have previously cited the role of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a paradigm of inauthenticity (in Existential Due Diligence).

All one need do is look around at the world we’ve made, with all its laws and statutes, its codes and regulations, its institutions and rules, its traditions and customs — it would be entirely possible to pass an entire lifetime in this context without realizing, much less exercising, one’s freedom. And these are only passive discouragements. When it comes to active discouragements to freedom, every nay-sayer, every pessimist, every wagging finger, every shaming tactic, every snide and cynical comment is an attempt to dissuade us from enjoying our freedom and entering into the same self-chosen misery of all those who have systematically extirpated all traces of freedom from their own lives.

Everyone who has given up freedom in their own life understandably resents seeing the exercise of freedom in the lives of others, and when this resentment turns creative it gives birth to every imaginable form of slander of freedom and of praise of servility — whether to a cause or to a movement or to an individual or to an institution — not to mention endless rationalizations of why the refusal of freedom isn’t really a refusal of freedom. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe any of it. Don’t buy into it. There is nothing in this world that is worth surrendering your freedom for — not matter how highly it is praised or how enthusiastically it is celebrated — this praise and this celebration of unfreedom is nothing but the creative response of ressentiment directed against freedom.

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A New Bogey Man: Market Fundamentalism

The purveyors of economic ressentiment have introduced a novel term of abuse — market fundamentalism. We are to understand that the ills that have been with us since the dawn of civilization — poverty, war, exploitation, injustice, inter alia — so recently credited to globalization and other bogey men, are now to be laid at the door of market fundamentalism. Part of the abuse heaped upon market fundamentalism can be put to hardships following upon the business cycle in contraction (such criticism is muted during periods of expansion), part to perennial discontent on the political left, and part to the widespread belief in Europe that they have transcended the crude capitalism that brought them to their current enviable economic success.

If by market fundamentalism we mean an economic system in which market forces are allowed to function with a minimum of interference from government regulation and centralized economic planning, then the closer we approximate market fundamentalism, the more rapidly the market will be able to accommodate changed conditions, and the smoother the transition will be in times of dramatic economic change. This does not mean that a dramatic economic disruption can be smooth in an absolute sense, only that it will be less disruptive and less prolonged than if well-intentioned intervention prevents market forces from operating. The more vigorously we try to delay the market’s day of reckoning, the more brutal the reckoning will be when it arrives.

Marx Knew Better

If we attempt to fix industrial, commercial, and financial arrangements in a manner that reflects the economic reality of one particular moment in history, as soon as that moment passes the fixed arrangements cease to function and there is not only an economic reckoning, but a potentially disastrous reckoning on the part of a society that deluded itself into believing that it could define the terms of its own participation in History. Marx knew better. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon he wrote, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (1852)

"History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this." Hence the role of individual intiative and self-interest, thought Marx didn't see it this way.

Marx: "History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this." Hence the role of individual initiative and self-interest, thought Marx didn't see it this way.

The attempt to regulate our way out of market adjustments to prevailing conditions will foster precisely the catastrophic economic crises that Marx predicted, and if the response to such crises is more regulation, the severity of these crises will increase and perhaps even lead to a generalized economic crisis. Moreover, the institutions that manage financial crises on behalf of nation-states (or, at least, which attempt to manage financial crises) must be counted along with the industries they regulate as part of the economic system (not least due to regulatory capture). They, too, must be allowed to fail. If they are ineffective, they will be swept away as certainly as a failing industry.

Time and Tide

Time and tide, we are told, wait for no man. The business cycle is a tide, and it is no respecter to persons or nations but ebbs and floods according to market forces. Marx thought he could prove that the crises of industrialization that follow from the business cycle would increase in severity until the system of capitalism destroyed itself and was superseded by communism. Marx’s vision was somewhat myopic in this respect. Compared to the Great Depression of the first half of the twentieth century and the Great Inflation of the second half of the twentieth century, our financial crises are, in general, less severe than those of the past. We have, quite simply, gotten better at managing the business cycle.

The business cycle is the concrete embodiment of what Schumpeter famously called creative destruction. The upswing of the business cycle is the creative phase; the downside of the business cycle is the destructive phase. Let us not mince our words: the destructive phase of creative destruction can be excruciatingly painful. Industries are destroyed, careers are ruined, families suffer and individuals are reduced to despair.

Machiavelli Knew Better

The ugly truth of capitalism is that obsolete and decrepit industries must be ruined, and the uglier truth is that all who invested in or are employed by doomed industries will be ruined along with them. From the ashes of the ruins will rise the Phoenix of a transmogrified economy, but those who have been ruined will not be able to derive much hope or enjoyment from the perspective of their drastically reduced circumstances. This rude awakening to what the market can do if it turns against you is perhaps more than many can bear. Machiavelli claimed that a man would sooner forgive the execution of his father than the loss of his patrimony.

"...when it is necessary for a prince to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony." The Prince, Chap. XVII

"...when it is necessary for a prince to proceed against the life of someone, he must do it on proper justification and for manifest cause, but above all things he must keep his hands off the property of others, because men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony." The Prince, Chap. XVII

Most advanced industrialized economies have a social welfare net, the intention of which is to catch those who have been ruined and to save them from the most abject poverty. This, however, is cold comfort to those who have once experienced affluence. To be saved from starvation and homelessness is a profoundly humiliating experience to those who have been more accustomed to handing out charity rather than receiving it.

We might call these sad souls financial exiles, as their condition is analogous to the ancient punishment of exile, the poignancy of which Ovid so eloquently attested. Financial exiles retain their lives, their families, their citizenship, and a few tokens of their former affluent lives, but they have come down in the world abruptly, and are unlikely to again enjoy the considerable rewards of financial success.

Dreams of a Post-Industrial Twilight

If it were the case that all the political entities in the world could unanimously agree to desist from the ruthless ways of capitalism, and the great globe of the earth could be handed over whole to collectivist cooperation, the entire internationalism system could quietly allow itself to slip into a long, post-industrial twilight, in which each sector of society gets to keep the privileges and standards of living of the immediately previous generation by preserving the economic arrangements of that generation in the economic equivalent of a glass case, like a museum piece. However, we already know this not to be the case.

Whatever the absurdities of collectivist rhetoric that may come from the leaders of Russia and China, it is evident to the most cursory examination that these are nation-states bent upon economic dominance at any cost. Capitalism, by any other name, is just as ruthless. Whether the currency of competition is technology, natural resources, armaments, population, or any other measure by which one state can gain an advantage over another, we can be certain that other nations will pursue these advantages to the best of their abilities. As a result of historical accident, the West currently retains economic and technological advantages that can keep it from being swept aside by other powers, but this dominance could be forfeited in a single generation so that the historical accidents of our time could efface those of earlier times.

As Husserl noted in another context, though not a necessarily unrelated context, “The Dream is over.”

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“Après moi le déluge.”

Edmund Husserl: "The dream is over." In other words: “Après moi le déluge.”

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