How the Economy Creates Today’s Cultural Conditions

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) considered nihilism a transitional stage that accompanies human development. It arises from frustration and weariness. When people feel alienated from values, and have lost the foundation of their value system but have not replaced it with anything, then they become nihilists. Nietzsche saw that the old values and old morality simply didn’t have the same power that they once did. For Nietzsche nihilism requires a radical repudiation of all imposed values and meaning. He believed we could eventually work through nihilism – in the process destroy the main interpretations of the world, thus open the opportunity to discover the correct course for mankind. In the last thirty years changes in technology, education and economics have intertwined to create today’s cultural conditions. We need to understand why more and more individuals now believe contemporary cultural conditions reduce the possibility of experiencing life as meaningful.

The year 1900 ushered a new era that changed the way that reality was perceived and portrayed. Later this period would come to be known as modernism and would forever be defined as a time when artists and thinkers rebelled against every conceivable doctrine that was widely accepted by the Establishment, whether in the arts, science, medicine, philosophy, etc. The modernists were militant about distancing themselves from every traditional idea that had been held sacred by Western civilization. Whereas in the past, a worker became involved in production from beginning to end, by 1900 he had become a mere cog in the production line, making an insignificant contribution. Thus, division of labor made him feel fragmented, alienated not only from the rest of society but from himself. One of the effects of this fragmentation was the consolidation of workers into political parties that threatened the upper classes.

During the 1980s, school systems lowered educational standards to protect children from failure. The world would be saved from crime, drug abuse and under-achieving through bolstering self-esteem. This self-esteem movement has had a significant impact on the school system – in order to ensure positive self-esteem education standards were lowered, creating a milieu for extreme individualism. When there is too much self-esteem there are problems of self-tolerance, entitlement and narcissism. This person demands automatic and full compliance with his/her expectations. The cult of self-esteem that was created in schools provides a pool of individuals in the 21st century who view the world from an emotional rather than a rational perspective, supporting extreme individualism and allowing personal feelings to over come the distinction between right and wrong. This person is addicted to the attention of others for admiration, applause and admiration. Behind this façade they only care about appearances.

The Enlightenment metanarrative promoted that rational thought, allied to scientific reasoning, would lead inevitably toward moral, social and ethical progress. Postmodernism, a symptom of nihilism, reflects contemporary culture as marked by widespread fragmentation and loss of faith in historical progress. When the West declared itself the winner of the Cold War, its collective narcissism was exacerbated – setting narcissism as a new cultural standard in Western society. Social media has enabled a whole generation of narcissists – Facebook enforces self-promotion. The prevailing ideology of neoliberalism feeds the culture of narcissism that is having a toxic effect on community, culture, politics, the economy and even the environment. The neoliberal state has no vision of the good society or the public good, and no mechanism for addressing society’s major economic, political and social problems. Today neoliberal ideology defines the social relationships of poor people and the attitude towards them that supports an economic system that creates inequality.

The appeal of the populists has grown with mounting public discontent over the status quo. In the West, many people feel left behind by technological change, and the growing inequality associated with a neoliberal economic system. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns. But today, a growing number of people have come to see rights not as protecting them from the state but as undermining governmental efforts to defend them. Encouraged by populists, an expanding segment of the public sees rights as protecting only these “other” people, not themselves, and thus as dispensable. In the recent election Donald Trump sometimes overtly, sometimes through code and falsehoods, spoke to many Americans’ discontent with economic stagnation and an increasingly multicultural society in a way that breached basic principles of dignity and equality.

Friedrich Nietzsche claims there is no objective fact of what has value in itself – culture consists of beliefs developed to perpetuate a particular power structure. The system, if followed by the majority of the people, supports the interests of the dominant class. That we should think there is only one right way of considering a matter is only evidence that we have become inflexible in our thinking. Trump’s populism has degraded into nihilism – the consequence of lost opportunities especially amongst the young. This nihilism is a response that reflects how difficult it is to fight a system that priorizes profit over people. Also, the failure of intellectuals to offer the public viable alternatives account for the rise of these movements. The real question is how to achieve reforms despite an entrenched economic and political system. Today’s cultural conditions appear to have created a demand for radical transformation that has been dramatically underestimated.

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala et al. identified three types of people in UK threatened by changes: (1) authoritarians who fear other groups will threatened their status quo within the nation, (2) people high in social dominance orientation who compete for their group dominance, and (3) collective narcissists who believe the UK is so great it is entitled to privileged treatment, but claim this important value is not recognized by other countries. Narcissism and the feeling of entitlement create a group who oppose rational evidence of a debate, leading to polarized positions. In this culture, angry individuals can be recruited to causes without a rational debate. They feel justified in asserting themselves, defending their perceived rights. Collective narcissism created by people who perceive they are part of a disadvantaged group are more likely to have unrealistic belief in the greatness of their nation and support populist ideologies.1

Political nihilism involves the destruction of illusions, the negation of mythology and the removal of the elite who profit from the existing propaganda of artificial confusion. Neoliberals created the illusion cutting taxes for the rich will actually create well paying jobs for the rest of society. By linking the welfare of working-class Americans directly to the prosperity of the rich, the neoliberals protect the insulated interests of corporations and the wealthy without the fear of backlash. In the 21st century the myth of the market hinges on the illusion of a supposedly natural order in the economic realm. However, in this so-called evolutionary environment of the market the income gap between the wealthy and the rest of society continues to grow. These illusions must be destroyed with truth – tax cuts for the rich do not create well-paying jobs for the middle class and there is no justification for the presence of competition in all parts of social activities.

Postmodernism was supposed to be the end of the ‘grand narrative’ or the metanarrative apparatus of legitimization. However, if we accept that all perspectives are equally non-binding, then intellectual or moral arrogance will determine which perspective has precedence. This creates an environment where ideas can be imposed forcibly with little resistance, raw power alone determining intellectual and moral hierarchies. Neoliberals have taken advantage of this, developing a metanarrative about the importance of markets for promoting the virtues of freedom, choice and prosperity. As this metanarrative is created and reinforced by power structures, they are therefore untrustworthy. Neoliberalism constructed a system that not only benefits the upper class but also effectively justifies this outcome – the political and social domination of the upper class are presented as normal outcomes of the functioning of the free market. The neoliberal metanarrative offers society legitimization through the anticipated completion of a (as yet unrealized) master idea.

Democracy is in decline because economic inequality is on the rise. The bedrock of democracy is citizens’ political equality despite unequal wealth, and high inequality inevitably erodes the barrier between wealth and political influence. In the US there is a fake populism driven by President Trump that directs his followers downward against marginal, and outwards against foreigners, rather than upward against the powerful. Trump’s people tapped into collective narcissism – which they continue to draw on at post-election rallies. A Polish study found that people who felt less in control of their lives were more likely to show signs of collective narcissism. The ideology of the low self-esteem person is created by the increasing economic inequality between themselves and the economic elite – the neoliberal economic system.2 This leads to inequality of opportunity where families find themselves trapped by economic stagnation, which undermines hope for change. The existing neoliberal economic system creates cultural conditions that many now find reduce the possibility of experiencing life as meaningful.

1 Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, Rita Guerra and Cláudia Simão. (27 Nov 2017) The Relationship between the Brexit Vote and Individual Predictors of Prejudice: Collective Narcissism, Right Wing Authoritarianism, Social Dominance Orientation.

2 Christian Jarrett. (3 March 2017) How collective narcissism is directing world politics.

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