David Brooks has described Russia's interventions in Ukraine and the rise of the "Islamic State" in Syria and Iraq as "revolts of the weak." That sounds paradoxical since both ISIS and Vladimir Putin are perceived to advance their interests through raw application of force. To call them "weak" is almost to say that strength, or at least brute force, is weakness. However, Brooks isn't talking about physical strength or the kind that finds expression in warfare. Instead, Russians, Muslims and others are "weak" if they "can’t compete if they play by the normal rules of civilization." By appealing to pure force, "they are conspiring to blow up the rule book."
When is strength not strength but weakness? When a transvaluation of values is underway. Brooks's column put me back into the Nietzschean frame of mind I've worked within on and off for a while recently. It had struck me that in modern times we had seen an ultimate transvaluation, an upending of Nietzsche's own genealogy of morals. As I remember it, he theorized that morality, as we know it, arose from a revolt of the "weak." Previously, when the strong, or strength, ruled without question, people thought only in terms of good and bad. Strength was good, the lack of it bad. Morality introduced the idea that the opposite of good was "wrong" or "evil." The strong should not claim power simply because they are strong; to thus rule over the weak was morally wrong, if not evil. Nietzsche proposed that the weak conquered the strong, on one level at least, once concepts of morality prevailed at every class level.
Nietzsche imagined morality as the revolt of have-nots against haves, and so called it a sklavenmoral or "slave morality," but in the 21st century morality both sides appeal to its principles. Isn't it a sklavenmoral, a repudiation of strength, when the haves tell the have-nots that they may not take what they need to survive (or simply what they want) even though they can, presumably, through strength of numbers -- either in raw physical terms or through the vehicle of democratic government? Here's an important difference: the sklavenmoral of the have-nots targets the haves' conscience by calling them evil and warning them of divine retribution or other bad consequences of their abuse of power, while the sklavenmoral of the haves targets the conscience or, rather, the low self-esteem of the have-nots by calling them weak and arguing that they don't deserve the things they want or need.
Sklavenmorals are probably inevitable in any competitive environment. In less philosophical terms, this sort of morality is rooted in the feeling that your more successful competitor has cheated in some way. That feeling presumes that your own way of doing something is sufficient if not exclusively correct, and shields you from the more painful conclusions that someone else's way is better or that you're inherently limited no matter what way you do things. When competition is a given, any rules proposed are inevitably self-serving. The rich have gotten wealthy the right way, for instance, and it's wrong for others simply to take wealth from them by force or other means the wealthy don't respect. Force is proof of bad character and an essential weakness of those who can't play by the rules. True competition, however, has no rules, and the only true rule is that which ends competition -- or at least competition for survival. By Nietzschean standards that itself is slave morality, and by my own it still is, I suppose, since I'm proposing a competition against a natural order of competition with the rules changed in my favor. This anti-competitive morality has one special virtue, I suggest: it'll never be hypocritical, as nearly all other moralizing is, whether philosophical or political.