Politics as a Battle Against Nihilism: Why Conservatives Can’t Legislate Past Meaninglessness
In his 2003 speech to Civitas, an up and comer named Stephen Harper made the following comments about the Left’s belief systems:
“Conservatives need to reassess our understanding of the modern Left. It has moved beyond old socialistic morality or even moral relativism to something much darker. It has become a moral nihilism – the rejection of any tradition or convention of morality, a post-Marxism with deep resentments, even hatreds, of the norms of free and democratic western civilization. This descent into nihilism should not be surprising because moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy.”
Since then there has been a veritable explosion of right wing commentary on the dangers of nihilism. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Jordan Peterson’s sudden rise to fame combating “post-modernism” and “cultural Marxism” which he sees as fundamentally nihilistic forces. They lead to a belief in relativism and meaninglessness, whose consequent demeanors are either both abject cynicism and a rejection of the world, or a totalitarian demand to re-impose order upon it. This is one side of a complex story. The other side is why these post-modern and cultural Marxist philosophies emerged in the first place. For Peterson, and others, these philosophies and the movements they inspire are symptoms of a broader movement in Western Civilization away from the inherited traditional values that embody the wisdom of our ancestors. What we therefore need is a return or at least a reevaluation of these traditional values. As Peterson puts it in 12 Rules for Life-An Antidote to Chaos:
“A long period of unfreedom-adherence to a singular interpretive structure-is necessary for the development of a free mind. Christian dogma provided that unfreedom. But the dogma is dead, at least to the modern Western mind. It perished along with God. What has emerged from behind its corpse, however-and this is an issue of central importance-is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing, utopian ideas. ..Nietzsche for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death. But this is the element of his thinking that appears weakest, psychologically: we cannot invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.”
Harper and Peterson are just the most articulate and intelligent conservative critics to have made this observation. More comically polemical critics like Dinesh D’Souza, Dennis Prager, and Donald Trump have made similar claims. Ironically, many of the latter group belong to what I have broadly deemed post-modern conservatism: with their identity politics of tradition and authority, and their effacement of truth standards being mobilized in the fights against the alleged boogeymen of nihilistic left wing cultural Marxism.
In this article I am going to discuss why so many conservatives seem concerned with the problem of nihilism and what be done about it. I will make two interrelated claims. The first is that conservatives are correct to be concerned with cultural nihilism, but have misdiagnosed its causes and symptoms. This suggests that moving away from cultural nihilism will take steps which may not be amenable to many modern conservative thinkers. The second claim is that, while we might be able to deal with cultural nihilism, there is no obvious solution to the problem of philosophical nihilism-whether there is an objective answer to the question of life’s meaning. Since there is no obvious solution to this problem, we will have to accept that the prospect of philosophical nihilism will remain for a long time to come.
The Conservative Critique of Cultural Nihilism
Cultural nihilism can be broadly understood as the growing social consensus that there are no higher values which society should respect and individuals strive to realize in their own lives. This is often affiliated with the threat of relativism and social fragmentation. Relativism is taken as a symptom of cultural nihilism since if there are no higher values we need to respect and realize, everything is a matter of subjective opinion. There is no standpoint from which we can legitimately criticize or prohibit what others choose to do or value. This in turn leads to social fragmentation. Since there is no standpoint from which to legitimately criticize or prohibit what others choose to do or value, people will increasingly pursue their own private objectives without concern for other individuals or society as a whole. This gradually leads to what Alasdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor termed atomism: the feeling of being alone and valueless-able to do what we want, but without connection or a feeling that what we or anyone else does matters.
Conservative critics like Jordan Peterson date the emergence of cultural nihilism the origins of modernity. With the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, came an increasing tendency to question everything. This led to growing skepticism about the wisdom of social conventions, and most importantly, religion itself. This culminated in Nietzsche’s legendary proclamation in the 19th century that “God is Dead!” inaugurating a new and nihilistic era in human history. In reaction to the cultural nihilism that emerged with the ‘death of God’, increasingly atomized individuals turned to totalitarianism and cynicism. Early in the 20th century, cultural nihilism is seen as birthing the totalitarian Communist and Nazi movements, which were radical and atheistic attempts to reimpose order on the world. Now that they have disappeared we are witnessing the transformation of individuals into cynical relativists fragmenting society. These cynics developed post-modern cultural Marxist philosophies explicating the implicit doctrines of cultural nihilism.
This explains the almost religious fanaticism with which these conservative critics attack post-modernism. It is not simply a contest of one academic school against another. For critics, like Peterson, this is a battle to rescue the soul of the West from the threat of cultural nihilism. These conservatives argue that we must return to the traditional higher values of the West. Depending on the tenor of the critic, this can either mean returning to classical liberal meritocracy, accepting a kind of cultural Christianity in the case of Peterson, or a full blown return to the churches even if that means accepting irrationalism qua Dostoyevsky.
The Limits of the Conservative Critique of Cultural Nihilism
Cultural nihilism is indeed a dangerous force which should be confronted. The deficiencies of atomism, relativism, and social fragmentation are real and should be confronted by the responsible and concerned. But I do not think conservative critics have adequately diagnosed its causes. Their criticisms mainly operate at a purely ideological level, often in isolation from complex material and technological developments. They look with suspicion at Enlightenment skeptics and outright hostility at post-modern philosophers, seeing them as singularly responsible for the emergence of cultural nihilism. In everyday terms, this often translates into criticizing academics and other “elites” who hold trendy opinions and are apparently singularly responsible for the destruction of society. Firstly, I think this characterization of post-modern thought is deeply flawed and not particularly rigorous. To give just one example, Peterson goes on a long diatribe about Derrida in his latest book and cites not a single work by him. To be blunt, it shows in his bad misinterpretation of what the Derrida says. Much the same is true of other conservative critics of “cultural Marxism.” But secondly, and far more importantly, it ignores far more significant forces operating to produce cultural nihilism. This is the deeper problem with conservative criticisms.
Post-modernism was largely a reaction against Marxist “grand narratives” in theory and practice. But the actual “cultural Marxists” of the Franfkurt School, actually had a great deal to say about cultural nihilism; understandable given most of them were Jewish emigres fleeing from the Holocaust. They followed Marx’s observation that in capitalist society, traditional social values tend to “melt into the air.” Perhaps more radically given our hyper-partisan times, they also drew on the work of conservative thinkers like Max Weber to radicalize this thesis. They argued that in a capitalist society, people are increasingly driven to see themselves as “one-dimensional” beings whose primary focus is satisfying the desires that had been manufactured for them by markets. Capitalism tends to destroy traditional moral barriers to the production of new goods, for instance, taboos about sex and responsibility. It also has a dissolving effect on communal relationships, since in capitalist societies individuals were driven to regard themselves and atomized consumers who must “look after themselves” to invoke Margaret Thatcher’s memorable phrase. Adorno deepened this concern by observing that in capitalist societies, traditional aesthetic standards of excellence tended to dissolve. The culture industry, concerned to produce easily digestible and primarily entertaining products, avoided the production of artistically challenging and demanding works. Fifty Shades of Grey replaced D.H Lawrence. The total impact of this was to produce a society of atomized and nihilistic consumers quietly consuming to pursue the desires manufactured for them, indifferent to others except when they interfered in the pursuit of this desire.
Later critics have deepened this observation. Alasdair Macintyre has observed that capitalism has had a desultory effect on tradition by encouraging individuals to look only at the means they have-notably money and status-rather than the moral ends they should pursue with others. David Harvey has gone a step further and observed that there is a close affiliation between the latest stage of capitalist society, neoliberalism, and the emergence of post-modern philosophies. He has claimed that post-modernism’s focus on “militant particularism”-a fancy word for identity politics-is entirely consistent with the neo-liberal position that individuals should not be constrained in the pursuit of their private and narcissistic sense of identity since many of them will do so primarily through consumption.
Neoliberals also have a concern to destroy moral standards that stand in the way of producing more goods. As Harvey puts it, who do you think is more responsible for the sexualization of culture: a few post-modern professors authoring dense theoretical tracts, or the television industry? Post-modern cultural nihilism is a symptom of cultural change brought about by neo-liberal capitalist practices.
My point here is to observe that conservative critics of cultural nihilism often insulate capitalism and material forces from barbed attacks. This is what attests to their strange and monological focus on universities and academic fads. It is easy enough to attack intellectual elites, who will never inspire the same merit based respect as a self-made post-modern conservative like Donald Trump. But easy isn’t good enough. If cultural nihilism truly is a problem, we need to address it by looking at the far broader and more insidious trends brought about by our social and economic climate.
Conclusion: Nihilism as a Philosophical Problem
““A wish is not a fact. Even by proving that a certain view is indispensable for living well, one proves merely that the view in question is a salutary myth: one does not prove it to be true. Utility and truth are two entirely different things.” – Leo Strauss, German political philosopher
There is another, deeper problem, for conservative critics of nihilism. They tend to focus all of their energies on criticizing cultural nihilism; the public consensus that nothing matters. Perhaps cultural nihilism can be ameliorated by social change, though I think the problems relate more to material and economic concerns such as inequality, rather than academic and educational issues. But ameliorating cultural nihilism cannot eliminate it as a general philosophical prospect.
The great Oxford moral philosopher Derek Parfit has written an eloquent book On What Matters addressing this problem. Invoking Nietzsche amongst other, Parfit observes that nihilism is not simply a cultural problem. It is a very real meta-ethical and metaphysical issue that can only be resolved if we obtain an objective answer to the question of what “matters,” or as Heidegger would put it, “why there is something instead of nothing at all.”. Peterson claims that we should draw on our biological and human history, seeing the values that have developed throughout history as a kind of evolutionary gift bequeathed to us by the past. Maybe. But that in itself does not provide an answer to whether these values are objective, or whether there is any real value in the world. It could be that at their root, these values simply emerged as a fortunate accident in an otherwise indifferent and valueless universe. In such as case, these values are just salutary myths that help us figure out who we are and what we should do. This is a good thing, but for us, not intrinsically.
This is a dour note to end on, but I will simply say this. Conservative critics like Peterson, Harper, and others may wish to combat cultural nihilism. If that is their concern, I believe they should look far more at economic and material systems they have hitherto left unscathed or even praised. But no political movement, self-help book, or transformation of the academy can resolve the philosophical problem of nihilism. For that, we need a great deal more deep thinking into the deepest problems of science and philosophy, and to my mind a more egalitarian distribution of wealth to enable a fuller flourishing of the human intellect for all.
Edited by Sarie Khalid