Tuesday, 14 January 2014


The phenomenon of globalization and the tendency toward nihilism on the part of many people around the world is a subject that has received some attention in recent writings, largely in academic circles. Because ordinary citizens feel that their voices do not matter, because they see that only the political and socioeconomic elites have a say in what happens to the destiny of a society, some become fatalistic and nihilistic. This group rejects that there is anything citizens can do to change society for the better of all people, or even the majority; they feel that those who enjoy power have always determined the destiny of the rest and nothing changes in this respect, despite the advent of modern means of mass communication.

The sense of helplessness and powerlessness forces some not only toward nihilism, but toward the belief that "free will" is itself an illusion for the ordinary person and a reality only for those exercising political, economic and social influence. The more radical nihilists believe that being a nihilist is itself not a choice, but rather something that the institutional structures impose upon the masses in order to reduce them into docile instead of active sociopolitical role.

Originally introduced during the French Revolution by German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, the concept of nihilism deals with the individual's state of mind as the dominant societal institutions shape it through experience. In this respect, nihilism, by rejecting or at least redefining socialization, morality, faith, ideology, has been of interest to those in social sciences and humanities and it became part of political groups from the 19th century to the present. Just in case the reader misinterprets the concept of nihilism and associates it with relativism, or even worse, "just do your thing", or "decorate your home the way you feel", far from it. This is about exercise of human will and rejection of institutional forces that shape the human being into a commodity, affording it value accordingly.
There is no contradiction between nihilism and activism as history has shown in 19th century Russia, and 20th century Italy, France, and Spain to mention a few countries where nihilists have been immersed in class consciousness. Second, there are varieties of nihilism from Anarchist to Apocalyptic and Existential. After Greek sophists were the first to establish the ideological foundations of nihilism, 19th century Russian and European intellectuals and activists constructed varieties of nihilist ideologies to express discontent with the status quo and at the same time offer a vision for the future. There are indeed varieties of nihilism from Bakunin and Nietzsche to modern-day “Apocalyptic Nihilism” that may be a definition to which many in the western world understand when they use or encounter the term. There is of course Nietzsche’s rejection of the ABSOLUTE and thus the implied absence of values other than ‘power’, and Sartre’s definition that human freedom is in essence negative from which creativity stems. 

In every historical epoch society’s social order in general and hegemonic elites specifically are determined by the political economy. From the late Middle Ages until the last Absolutist monarch in Russia, European kings used ‘Divine Right Principle’ to rule on behalf of spiritual and temporal lords, to the detriment of serfs, workers, and the middle class. Resting on the Enlightenment (Locke and Rousseau) the French Revolution introduced ideology as the basis of representative (of the bourgeois elites) government; a development that would have a far-reaching influence in most of the world throughout the 19th and 20th centuries until the Bolshevik Revolution that used ideology to exclude former elites and justify regime theoretically representing the working class. 

Whether ideology has been used by bourgeois hegemonic elites to justify conformity to a political economy and institutional conformity essentially designed to perpetuate the social order or whether by Marxian elites to justify forging of a new social order, ideology has been dynamic. Lenin had to modify Marxism to conform to Russia’s pre-industrial social conditions, and then he had to modify his own ideology against the reality of serious problems the country was facing during and after the Civil War. Similarly, F. D. Roosevelt had to redefine the ideology on which American political economy and all institutions were based against the reality of the Great Depression. Oblivious to the needs of the population, Stalin and the elites backing him used ideology as a vehicle to justify ruling like Ivan the Terrible. 

In China, Confucianism served the emperors well for centuries in a society that was fairly self-contained, until self-containment in the age of imperialism entailed the decline of China and the imperial system. Again we see that stagnation resulted from the failure of rulers to reject Confucian ideology and embrace reality of change. Ideology under Mao moved society forward, given he inherited chaos that the war lords and imperialists had left behind. After trying the Great Leap forward and Cultural Revolution, Mao embraced d├ętente and opened China to integration with the West. China as one-party state directs a capitalist economy and is no longer committed to the ideology of the 1940s, or 1950s, or 1960s. In the post-Cold War era of the 1990s and throughout the first decade of this century business elites were greatly elevated in stature. However, a series of market and economic crises since WWII have shaken popular confidence in the propaganda business elites have been using to perpetuate the existing system and their privileged positions. 

Why does the early 21st century feel like the new "Age of Anxiety", in a sense a repeat of the interwar era right after the First World War and amid the Great Depression when people were losing faith in bourgeois institutions and the rationalism of the Enlightenment on which society was built? Why does the following quotation from the Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, (1929) have such a strong message to deliver to the youth of our time?

"I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. I see how peoples are set against one another, and in silence, unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another. I see that the keenest brains of the world invent weapons and words to make it yet more refined and enduring. And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account?"

Is Western Civilization experiencing a new Age of Anxiety because globalization under neoliberal policies has devastated middle class society and its institutions? Is nihilism the only thing that makes sense until society finds its way back to a more harmonious, socially just and creative path?

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