If we look beneath the transient events of the day, the question of nihilism bursts to the forefront of modern politics. Political nihilism, and liberal society’s attempts to contain it, are the essential phenomena driving a renewal of cultural conflict1. If nihilism is not understood and overcome, the intensification of these disputes may tear apart society itself.
Sure, we don’t need to center nihilism - it’s possible to simply analyze politics as a mechanistic setup of social forces, but in reality this is ineffective. Without nihilism as an explanatory framework, we are left with a merely scientific theory of politics, which can’t pretend to predict the events it explains as historical accidents. Not only is society too complex to analyze from a scientific perspective, but social science also cannot account for the aspects of human nature which drive change. These forces appear to it as brute facts about humanity, rather than meaningful human concerns which demand philosophic explanation. How, then, can accounting for nihilism grant us a more philosophic understanding of politics?
Political nihilism is the negation of the regime as an end in itself. It’s the Fight Club, 4chan, burn-a-Starbucks, “they’re all bastards”, neo-Situationist, Epstein-didn’t-kill-himself, “no ethical consumption”, Groyperesque, This Account Has Been Suspended, fuck-you inchoate raw impulse to reject liberal society. This anti-liberal instinct, which is distinguished from conservative reaction in its youthful vigor and carelessness of damage, is too unstable to exist in a pure form, but expresses itself through other political movements. The stated goal of the political nihilist is rarely explicitly negative, but their utopias of tomorrow are hazy justification for the ecstatic destruction of today2. Nihilism exists in all regimes, whether liberal or illiberal, but it poses a particular danger to liberal democracy. Where totalitarians may crush nihilists with boots, liberals must meet them with words.
If not logical, goal-directed activity, how should we sketch out nihilism? At first, it appears simply as a drive or instinct we can take as a brute fact of human nature. Just as Freud posited a death drive, we can imagine an innate human drive for political destruction, an anger at society placed in our breasts from birth. Bracketing the origin of nihilism, then, we may see how this instinct expresses itself today. The characteristic feature of modern society’s approach to nihilism is its continued recapture by mechanisms of control, which redirect nihilistic activity into forms of conflict which acknowledge an ultimate validity of the modern social order. Usually, the nihilist becomes a political sloganeer, their destructive energy channeled into tribal conflict - which affirms the wider regime even as it corrodes the foundations.
Because these mechanisms of control are weaker on the American Right, political nihilism is easy to spot there. To paraphrase a comment I saw recently: “I don’t know anything about the coup in Burma but, if the State Department is against it, it’s probably a good thing.” The negation of the regime is the point, whatever goals are served by opposing the State Department hover in the background. This visibility of nihilism follows from an increase in left-wing possession of mainstream institutions - without being captured by institutional mechanisms of control, the excluded Right’s nihilistic impulses are exposed publicly (and, without coordination, diffuse ineffectively into the ether). Indeed, populism of the sort which sees the elite as a purely distinct enemy, a swamp to be drained, is the crudest expression of coordinated nihilism. The regime is identified with the state, the state is reified as “The Beltway”, or “Coastal Elites”, or just “Them”, which then becomes an external symbolic enemy the nihilist can rage against. Whatever sunlit uplands of Constitutional glory beckon after the struggle are decisively secondary.
I won’t speak too much about left-wing nihilism because, as it is more captured by mechanisms of control, more of it is redirected by those mechanisms into ordinary political activity (the tribal struggle for power within the horizon of liberal democracy). Where nihilism appears on the Left, it often takes a nostalgic form, a desire to return to 20th-century anti-capitalism. Think, for instance, of the Dirtbag Left’s atavistic Marxist aesthetics. While submission to mechanisms of control gives individuals satisfaction of their nihilistic drive, it also robs them of revolutionary potential - for when you march long through the institutions, the institutions march back into you. However, nihilism, as the pure impulse to negate the regime, continually reappears in ways which demand its re-co-option by liberal institutions. No mechanism of control offers a true solution to nihilism.
The Heart of Nihilism
The liberal regime has three futures: it may continue on, may be replaced by something better, or be replaced by something worse. If we are to improve its future, and not merely examine it, we must consider nihilism as more than an instinct. What causes the nihilist to hate the regime?
Martin Gurri, in The Revolt of the Public, offers a materialist explanation: because the children of postmodernity no longer understand the historical processes which gave rise to what prosperity and liberty we have, they fail to see the limits of political action. The nihilist’s demand for fulfilment through politics manifests as rage against the regime which fails to provide it. This creates privileged but wrathful youth who would burn down Manhattan in their anger at New York rent. Presumably, the same phenomenon is operative on the Right, as a sense of obstinate entitlement to ‘50s picket-fence dreams.
This diagnosis adds much to our analysis (in particular, it allows us to remember that nihilism can be an understandable response to materially oppressive regimes, such as the Arab dictatorships Gurri analyzes), but it remains inside a liberal-materialist framework which cannot treat nihilism as it understands itself. Nihilism is seen as a failure to understand the value of the liberal regime, not as a mindset which understands liberal democracy and yet rejects it.
Where Gurri and the materialists go wrong is in assuming that all political fulfilment is material, that it can be fully explained in terms of status and resources. This may well be the case when we are examining nihilism as captured by mechanisms of control like parties or universities, but it captures an expression of nihilism rather than its origin. Rather, modern political nihilism, like the German nihilism identified by Leo Strauss, is the historically particular manifestation of something far deeper.
What does the nihilist want? “Not this!” Nihilism is the act of saying ‘no’ to the world, which in political form manifests as a ‘no’ to any regime - in Strauss’s formulation, “the rejection of the principles of civilization as such.” However, the passionate cry of “not this!” is not coupled with any concrete demands which the regime could meet. Nihilists may develop their theories of what is to be done, but such a ‘yes’ is generally flimsy in comparison to the iron-clad ‘no!’ which preceded that theory and created the need for it.
It has been noted that we often see clueless defenders of liberalism who believe that, by knocking down a nihilist’s proposed alternative to the regime, they have defeated his underlying rejection of it. This is not the case, because the fulfilment the nihilist demands is not just material or political, but moral. Strauss calls the origin of nihilism “a love of morality” - but a passionate love which demands moral satisfaction beyond what is possible in liberal society. In fact, the nihilist demands a nobility and justice in political life which no regime can provide. While he may bite at the regime from below, he does so out of a passionate attachment to ideals above it. This refusal to accept the limitations of political life is certainly romantic. It responds to a real and radical insufficiency of the liberal regime. But nihilism, too, is inadequate, and it cannot be allowed to win.
The Conflict of Nihilism and Liberalism
Let’s get back to reality. We live in a liberal regime which is threatened, as all regimes are, by political nihilism. Again, we have three possibilities: the destruction of liberalism by nihilism, the victory of liberalism over nihilism, or the maintenance of the status quo.
The victory of nihilism, depending on how we define it, is either impossible or disastrous. The nihilist will never experience true victory, because their unspoken demand for perfect justice in political life is impossible. However, nihilists have obtained political victory before, and their idealized new states rapidly became tyrannies worse than the regimes they overthrew. While it would be pleasant to believe liberalism could simply crush nihilism (aren’t we so nice, after all? And so free?), this would be a murder-suicide. Liberalism can’t silence nihilism without killing its own dynamism. We would degenerate into an illiberal regime, propped up in silence with hoary taboos. Even that is unlikely to work, since nihilism is so protean - more likely, nihilism’s protest will become fury on behalf of liberalism itself, with lost liberal values becoming the lodestar of nihilistic rejection of the ‘liberal’ regime’s hypocrisy.
As for the maintenance of the status quo, the reliance on systems of social control to contain nihilistic energy is itself dangerous. By weaponizing nihilism as a tool in political conflict, we have sleepwalked into a wide-ranging crisis. To the public, our institutions are becoming polarized, distrusted, sclerotic, narcissistic, and, ultimately, illegitimate. Support for political violence, secession, and extremism is on the rise whichever way you turn your head. One can deny the legitimacy of these grievances, but not their existence. And, ultimately, nihilism doesn’t care what you think of its legitimacy. Ignoring this danger is a risk too great to run.
This impasse, then, requires something other than a political solution to nihilism. It requires an overcoming of nihilism on its own terms. Again, what is the demand of nihilism? Political nihilism identifies a radical insufficiency in political life itself - a moral, psychological, and aesthetic insufficiency which is ultimately a problem of philosophy. On the basis of this insufficiency, it rejects liberalism as unworthy of respect. However, this insufficiency at the heart of nihilism marks the point at which nihilism and liberalism can truly recognize each other. The radical problem of nihilism is also the founding insight of the liberal regime: that political life cannot provide the true fulfillment our highest nature demands. This mutual recognition is the first step to overcoming.
When we return to the first principles of liberal society, we see that liberalism understands political nihilism far better - with far more respect - than modern anti-nihilists. Distinctively among ideologies, liberal society understands the limits of political life just as the nihilist does. The citizen of a liberal society can even share the nihilist’s fundamental impulse: a love of morality/justice/beauty/etc. which the political regime fails to satisfy. But the liberal regime understands nihilists better than they do themselves, as it understands explicitly that such a demand for perfection can never be satisfied politically. Because liberalism explicitly acknowledges this limit to the political, the liberal citizen can love what is good without lusting for the power to seize it. Instead of stewing in political nihilism, we are free to choose private life and pursue happiness in a more realistic manner.
The obvious conclusion is that we should create, nurture, and care for the parts of private life which provide a chance to realize our desire for human happiness. Whether through communities, practices, ideas, or all three, a flourishing private life is the healthiest answer to political nihilism. But I can’t just leave you with It’s Time To Build… In fact, political nihilism also has a critical philosophical significance. Only by understanding the limits of political life can we build a firm political philosophy, just as Socrates could only begin to know once he had discovered his own ignorance. If we are to truly think about the modern age and its future, we must ground ourselves in an explicitly philosophic certainty, not mere opinion or prejudice. This knowledge of the limit of political life, which both the nihilist and the utopian lack, is the first thing of which we can be truly certain. If it is time to build here, we have just laid our first stone.
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- Let’s be very clear here: we live in a liberal regime and the vast majority of US domestic politics has been intra-liberal. Classical liberals, tax-and-spenders, libertarians, mainstream Democrats, New-Dealers, neocons, etc. all subscribe to the fundamentally liberal character of our regime. Representative democracy, freeish markets, individual rights, freedom of expression, a firm distinction between public and private life, and so on. Note that this is why I prefer to talk about ‘the regime’, or ‘society’, rather than ‘the state’ - the distinction between state and society is a creation of the liberal schema without merit to the nihilist.
- Of course, not all nihilists hold utopian beliefs, and not all utopians are nihilists. For a quick and dirty distinction: where the revolutionary utopian believes the end justifies the means, for the nihilist the end is an excuse for the means. These tendencies coexist not only within movements but within individuals - many a nihilist was once a disappointed utopian, and some nihilists even come to believe in their dreams.