democratic nihilism

From Thomas Hibbs, Shows About Nothing

Once radical autonomy takes hold it is hard to resist its nihilistic implications. As…noted…the art of American film has often taken the possibility of nihilism quite seriously; our inability to overcome it completely instructs us about the insuperable limitation of American life. Although the search for explanation and meaning is unfulfilled or ends tragically, it remains an ennobling imperative. The advent of democratic nihilism threatens to deprive us of any shared vision—or even the aspiration for a vision–the absense of which creates a social, political and artistic vacuum.

Two points:

First of all, Hibbs flits about regarding what exactly he means by “democratic nihilism”. There are different ways to view it. On the one hand, it can refer to the manner in which individual choice is anchored to “cultural nihilism” by way of an “autonomy” that is simply not thought through much beyond the signals pop culture throws out to American youth. If so then, again, this is the responsibility of a political economy that views radical autonomy as just another way to market commodities.

So, don’t blame “philosophical nihilism” for that, Mr. Hibb.

What concerns me, however, is that he is suggesting “liberal democracy” itself is the real culprit. That, in other words, we need to trim its sails and ponder a route that, say, Burke or Rousseau or Hobbes would be more inlined to embrace: far more conservative and far more politcally structured.

Secondly, and closely related to the first point, is this whole notion of a “shared vision”. Personally, I start reaching for my
holster whenever I hear words like “vision” expressed in a religious or moral or political context. I tend to associate it with folks like the Tea Party and Osama bin Laden. Oh, they want us to have a “vision” all right. Their own, I’m guessing. And, of course, they would prefer that we all voluntarily share it. It’s just that, when you don’t, these “visionaries” almost always have more…uh…coercive methods at their disposal?

Thanks but no thanks. I’ll keep my own counsel, if you don’t mind.

Hibbs’ point is to link autonomy that is not grounded in “shared values” to “nihilism”. Democracy run amok as it were. Cultural nihilism is, indeed, everywhere. And it is certainly an aspect of autonomy no longer anchored to Ozzie and Harriet. But where did this come from? Certainly, in my view, not from philosophical nihilism! Not from Locke or Voltaire or the democratic ideals that flowed, in part, out of the Enlightenment.

“Selfishness” is a good way to encompass it perhaps. But radical autonomy in our contemporary world precipitates what I like to call pathological selfishness—as opposed to the more conventional kind. In the conventional scheme of things, a selfish person is one who at least considers others in evaluating her behaviors; but, instead, invaribly chooses to disregard them and act in accordance with what she perceives to be in her own best interest. A pathologicaly selfish person, on the other hand, does not even consider others at all for the most part. It is me! me! me! from the cradle to the grave.

And I firmly believe that, had Nietzsche and postmoderism never evolved in the history of contemporary philosophy, little in the world we live in would be all that different.

Hibbs is at Boston College, correct? A BC prof is just about the last person on earth that would have anything accurate, or even interesting, to say about Nietzsche. I imagine he does, indeed, prefer the inanity of Ozzie and Harriet to the Jewish hipness of Seinfeld. I have the strong suspicion that he is not complaining about nihilism as much as he is secretly (dishonestly) complaining about godlessness. Shared vision, indeed.

Stupidity reaches a climax among the people who argue—without having learned a thing from history or being able to read a single sign of our times—that man knows what is good for him: “the people know”. From this absurd assumption derives a suicidal form of government, parlimentary democracy, born among the tyrants of mankind, the West. Alas, it looks like the bubble of democracy will never burst: as we struggle to enter the new millenium, we can abandon all hope.

Democracy and the public right to vote guarantee that no one other than the syncophants of the people will rise to power—and people never clamour for anything other than bread and circuses, regardless of the costs and consequences. Even the one possibility, comparable to winning the lottery, that some intelligent exception might rise to the positions of power, is completely lost with democracy. Our hapless species might also produce a rare mutation within its ranks: someone capable of controlling the people without being led by it; someone capable, when necessary, of taking a stand against the people. But unfortunately the era of hereditary kingship and feudal lords is over, and even the rise of dictators has been made impossible: mankind is carefully planning its own demise.

~Pentti Linkola, Democracy, The Seal of Ruin