Political nihilism is the belief that no government is really needed, it believes that individuals can get by without any social institutions – consistent with a minimal government that never gets too bad – in that there is not much difference who wins or loses. It is a belief that one can just drop out and be an observer and be fine – like the way most of our youth are already doing this. For the political nihilist it didn’t matter whether Trump or Hillary wins because politics plays an insignificant role in his or her life, as fringe groups are always complaining and exaggerating. This thinking took an abrupt change in 2020. The COVID pandemic exposes the ugly underbelly of the political nihilism of the Trump administration. They possessed information that pointed to an impending crisis and chose to do nothing with respect to planning and communications – significantly increasing suffering and death across the country. Consequently, in the 2020 election more people than ever got involved and voted.
In the 1980s Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) started to consider and discuss the nature of reality and the effect of technology on social life. He claims political resistance is getting harder and harder. Citizens are shape-shifting into consumers and actively participating in their own marginalization. For postmoderns like Baudrillard, television and now social media immerse people in their own private realities. The constant battle for our attention means that we can experience whatever version of reality we prefer, whenever we prefer. Even worse, because media platforms are competing to win audiences, the incentives will always push them in the direction of catering to our worst impulses. After a while, we’re just awash in self-curated content. They could see how innovations in technology, capitalism, and media were distorting our shared sense of truth. And none of them – not even the most pessimistic – could’ve imagined the epistemic anarchy unleashed by Facebook or YouTube algorithms.
The nihilist wants to destroy the existing social order for no valid reason, and the narcissist strives to feed from others even if it destroys them. While these are not the same, there are some overlapping ego-centric ideologies. Trump is not a nihilist; he is a narcissist. The narcissist is infatuated with his own opinion, while the relative values of everyone else’s opinion approaches zero. At its greatest limit nihilism and extreme narcissism are equivalent. Where did people turn in 2020. For the first time in forty years, we heard the term “existential threat.” Existentialism – a loss of hope in reaction to a breakdown in one or more defining qualities of one’s self or identity – is the attempt to confront and deal with meaninglessness… to not succumb to nihilism, to not give up or avoid responsibility. Trump is associated with “existential threat” because many perceived his actions threaten American democratic values and believed America is being governed against their will.
Trump politics is one of nihilism. It is one of rejection of existing systems of meaning – things like political correctness, non-racism, cordiality, cooperation – and offers nothing but the absence of these structures in their place. Ordinary life would go on all around this cultural elite, proceeding much as before: an endless cycle of creation and destruction, violence, oppression and exploitation, as those who failed to keep their destructive urges under control unleashed their nihilism on the world. So even the ideal political arrangement designed to serve the interests of the cultural elite would essentially be an exercise in nihilism by all except the elite who would benefit from it. Essentially, the Trump administration encouraged increased polarization with both sides accusing the other side of destroying ‘the system’, while failing to offer a constructive positive alternative to the status quo – for over four years.
Behind postmodernism’s “incredulity towards metanarratives” is a belief – promoted by Michel Foucault and others – that the influence of the oligarchy is primarily connected with power and oppression. After three decades of globalization the neoliberal version has become the dominate economic ideology or metanarrative, rationalizing a system of minimal government and taxation, and individualism. This heralds the return of predatory capitalism that classical liberalism backstopped in the 19th century. Neoliberals are part of a long, intellectual, (or anti-intellectual) tradition which seeks to deny the importance of meaning (or belonging that get in its way), and even destroy its relevance. Why would anyone want to do that? Because, as history shows, destroying meaning is the key to gaining, at least temporarily, power and control, whether it be over other human beings or natural processes in general. One of Jean Francois Lyotard’s primary concerns was how metanarratives are often used toward “the goal of legitimizing social and political institutions and practices, laws, ethics, ways of thinking.”
Nihilism’s impact on recent culture and values has been pervasive and profound. The seeds of identity politics were further sown in the philosophical writings of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Pluckrose explains that, for Derrida, “the author of a test is not the authority on its meaning… the reader or listener makes their own equally valid meaning.” Thus, if a speaker says something that a listener interprets as “offensive,” that “offensive” feeling is considered valid, even if it misconstrues what the speaker intended to communicate. For Derrida, modern men and women have a duty “to deconstruct the opposition… to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.” One can find support for cancel culture and identity politics within such postmodern interpretations. Political nihilism has unleashed the menace of identity politics and placed race and identity at the center of the struggle for power.1
We are in the middle of a transition and transformation that will determine if we can move forward as a democratic society or slip into eventual dictatorship because of our unwillingness to become aware or awakened, act upon that awareness, adapt to a changing landscape, and successfully manage the challenges placed on our 21st century doorstep. The old systems are dead and dying, we now all know that to be true. But we must find something to put in their place. Without meaning, all things become justifiable, all thoughts and actions morally acceptable. Somehow, we need to find the next step. We need to begin creating a new meaning. We need to consider existentialism. Both existentialism and nihilism begin by suggesting that the world, and life, is inherently meaningless. For Nihilism, that’s where things end. There is no positive assertion as a result. Life is meaningless. Politics is meaningless. Ethics are meaningless. For Existentialism, there is an extra step. Life is meaningless, therefore we can and should create our own meaning.
Presently we exist in a hierarchical system in which elites are superior, have no empathy for the middle class, in fact, express distain for those who they consider inferior. For example, it is the middle class who were caught off guard with the 2008 economic crisis, and in fact, the plutocrats ensure they are blamed for the economic problems. The level of equality of opportunity determines how people perceive inequality. Societies in which individuals have the same chances to obtain valuable outcomes such as income, education and health, have a higher tolerance to inequality. The answer must address the growing concentration of wealth, the costs of climate change, the concentration of important markets, the stagnation of income for the working class, and the changing patterns in social mobility. Existentialist thought concerns itself with trying to understand fundamentals of the human condition and its relation to the world around us.
Existentialism puts special emphasis on personal choices and on the problems and peculiarities that face individual human beings. As a result, meaning is not provided by the natural order, but rather can be created, however provisionally and unstably, by human beings, actions and interpretations. It is necessary to resist this regression into a petty, fragmented brand of polarized politics rooted in resentment and fear. As the pandemic has demonstrated, however, it is not the existential dangers, but rather everyday economic activities, that reveal the collective, connected character of modern life beneath the individualist façade of rights and contracts. While cell phones have enabled citizens to document how the cult of individualism supports the use of police brutality to control minorities, concerned citizens now see how political nihilism creates something that is seriously wrong with the underlying structure of the current social and political system.
Any ideological response to neoliberalism must not only advance institutional alternatives to bring us back from the brink of neoliberal nihilism, but basic decency. For Kierkegaard, the real problem of life was to discover one’s true talent, secret gift, authentic vocation. So, freedom acts as a universal value. People are striving for freedom, for only in it and through it can the creative human potential be realized. The lack of freedom to make choices creates a group working below their capabilities precisely because they have no other option, thus they become susceptible to rhetoric from populist politicians with simplistic solutions. After four years of a populist president, more and more Americans realize the need for transparency, honesty, and the need to move towards achieving a more equitable balance between the interests of labor rights and economic competitiveness – to restore freedom.
1 Helen Pluckrose (27 May 2017) How French “Intellectuals” Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained. https://areomagazine.com/2017/03/27/how-french-intellectuals-ruined-the-west-postmodernism-and-its-impact-explained