Why the state is the “coldest of all cold monsters”: an anarchist perspective of Nietzsche’s critique of government

As a libertarian anarchist and student of philosophy, I find it interesting to read through the history of thought and to find philosophical passages that are leaning towards libertarian anarchism. This time, I will discuss Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of government that will muse many libertarians and anarchists.

In a passage, entitled “The New Idol” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche introduces the state as “the death of peoples”.

He continues by saying:

“State is the name of the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies; and this lie slips from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.”

What follows will be my analysis of what I think are the most important points in the passage. I will dissect this passage into three separate critiques of the state.

1. The state lies when it says: “I, the state, am the people!”
Statists have often propounded “we are the government”, or “we are the state”, or “the voter is always right”. This is however, nothing but an illusion – a metaphor that has been repeated so many times that we have forgotten that they are illusions. It gives us a false sense of self-empowerment and a belief that we possess a certain political power to change the political process.

If “we are the government”, what are its logical implications? If everyone is the government, then is our government’s foreign policy not our foreign policy? If the Dutch government attacks Libya, then it should be us that attacks Libya. If German politicians, due to political disputes decide to attack the Netherlands, then according to this statist logic it should be us that are attacked by them, the Germans. German Jews are not murdered by their Nazi government, but ‘committed suicide’. If our governments hold us in prison, it is us who imprison ourselves. If our governments decide to put sanctions on Iraq which lead to hundreds of thousands of starving children, it is us who do this to the Iraqi children.

This logic is absurd. We are not the government or the state. It is not us who starved the Iraqi children to death. It is not us who attacked Libya. It is the political elite who did this.

2. Whatever the state gives you, it has stolen from the people.
Nietzsche continues the passage by saying that the state is created by destroyers

“who lay snares for the many, and call it state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them… the state lies in all the tongues of good and evil; and whatever it says it lies; and whatever it has it has stolen.”

According to Nietzsche, the state artificially creates cravings and determines what is good and evil. Moralities would naturally erupt among the people, but the state poisons this natural process and makes those who don’t obey its laws turn into enemies of the people.

The essential point, I want to focus on here is the claim that whatever the state possesses has been stolen. This phrase puts the state as a group of bandits who dominates and exploits its people. This view is in line with what Franz Oppenheimer calls, “the political means”. According to Oppenheimer, there are two means through which one can acquire wealth. The first means, “the economic means”, is by producing goods and services and through voluntary exchanges. The state does not produce anything, but acquires its wealth through organized theft and taxation of the productive classes. This is “the political means”.

3. The state is a false idol that preaches death, seeks power and drowns in corruption.
Nietzsche writes that

“It [the state] will give everything to you, if you worship it, the new idol: thus it buys the lustre of your virtue, and the glance of your proud eyes. Through you it seeks to seduce the all-too-many! Yes, a hellish artifice has been created here, a death-horse jingling with the trappings of divine honors! Yes, a dying for many has been created here, which glorifies itself as life: verily, a great service to all preachers of death!”

The state understands that people are corruptible and willing to give up their values and virtues in exchange for power. In addition, the state creates idols and honors that are not honorable at all. It even elevates the dying for the state as an honorable activity and calls those who are willing to give up their lives for the state ‘heroes’. In this sense, states are preachers of death!

They are corrupt and we should

“[E]scape from their foul stench! Escape from the idolatry of the superfluous!
Escape from their foul stench! Escape from the steam of these human sacrifices!
The earth is yet free for great souls.”

Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885)