How the Battle of Algiers Defies Master / Slave Morality
The Battle of Algiers presents a strong example of Nietzsche’s concept of ‘master and slave morality’ within a real world context. While not directly rooted in a theological base such as the example of Judaeo morality given by Nietzsche throughout The Genealogy of Morals, the National Liberation Front of the Algerian War functions on the concept of ‘good and evil,’ or the ‘slave morality’.
For them, morality lies in what is best for the whole. The concepts of self-gain, or an independent, individual good based upon what is good for the self, such as that of the morality of nobility, is cast aside to instead embrace a moral code that benefits the poor, oppressed majority of society. It is this moral code that works to justify the actions taken by those within and in support of the National Liberation Front, as from their view while casualties would indeed occur it would be justifiable, even if not necessarily right, to allow them in order to do what best works to help the oppressed classes as a whole within their society.
In opposition to this, you have a shining example of the ‘master morality’ embodied in the authorities of colonial France. Here, you find morality being driven by self-interest. The good of these figures is embodied within glory, success, acclaim, and ambition alongside all of the other self-focused hallmarks of nobility (in this case the self being applied to a group of nobility, being that of the nation of France and its royalty, to which those acting on their accord feel tied as one). Their actions are also justified by their moral system, as while many may be forced into oppression, living lives that are allegedly infringed upon or made worse by the presence of France in their territories, the individualized good that is attained in the form of conquest and the acclaim that accompanies it to them makes this approach worthwhile.
This situation in which two moral codes, oppositional to each other, exist in conflict is that of which Nietzsche described within his essays on morality. What differs here, however, is the ultimate result (or how that result is achieved).
Nietzsche describes a shift taking place due to a moral slave revolt. Those of the ‘slave’ grouping in the beginning view themselves as bad in the same way as those of the noble, ‘master’ group. However eventually, they revolt.
Nietzsche views them as incapable of physically revolting against those who oppress them, and so instead this revolt takes place on a moral level. Those who are suffering can only bear doing so if they define that suffering as good and the act of doing so as a choice that they make. As this happens, those who they begin to praise are the oppressed instead of the noble. The suffering become the entities of good, not those who rule over them. This method of thought leads to the idea of blame, and with blame guilt. It seems that Nietzsche would say that these foster the spread of the ‘slave morality’, only through the spread of ‘ressentiment’ and guilt can it gain following and become dominant, as those within it are weak and incapable of physical or political uprising.
However Nietzsche did not live to see the era of worker uprisings and socialist revolutions, and the tale of The Battle of Algiers goes on to paint a different picture of this shift in power dynamic. The National Liberation Front of Algeria did indeed develop the ‘slave morality’ that Nietzsche described as they formed a new moral code based upon sympathy, empathy, and the good of the whole, however, instead of revolting solely through a moral transition spread to those of the nobility, they in essence weaponized their new morality in order to take the physically offensive stance that Nietzsche thought them incapable of.
Instead of taking the place of violence in the face of their oppressors, their morality of the whole grew to justify and strengthen it. Their morally consequential view of reality, when pushed to its extremes, went on to embrace the good of the whole even if it meant that losses would need be sustained which allowed them to develop for themselves moral justification and determination to go forward and physically overthrow the nobility in order to guarantee increased well-being for those underneath them.
The example put forward by The Battle of Algiers, and others like it throughout recent history, works to present an alternative to Nietzsche’s view of the ‘slave morality’ as too weak to fight and instead only spreading through resentment and guilt. It paints a picture of an enslaved group of society that can instead take up arms to physically remove their masters.
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844–1900. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. London, England; New York, New York, USA: Penguin Books, 1990.
Stella Productions; production, Igor Film; directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. The Battle Of Algiers. New York, N.Y.: Mount Kisco, N.Y. :Axon Video Co.; distributed by Guidance Associates, 1988.