Imagine Bernie Sanders Burning a Black Leather Jacket

The politics of antinihilism

Why This Matters | Max Kramer | April 13, 2016

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Nihilism is the sexiest philosophy by far. It’s defined in terms of human life being inherently meaningless, the universe lacking any kind of order, meaning, or logic, and often includes a component of rejecting morality; that is, saying that no act is inherently right or wrong in a moral sense. The best way to get a quick grasp is its enshrinement in popular culture in the image of the dark loner. His (and it’s virtually always a he) actions have a quality of effortlessness, not in the way of a practiced athlete but rather in the sense that he doesn’t feel the need to put effort into his actions. He looks out over everything, somehow it’s all within his grasp, and he seems just slightly bemused by other people’s scurrying about. Eventually, he’ll take someone aside, and with a bit of condescension but also with goodwill, he’ll explain how he attained this unforced cool: everything out there, all those things you worry about and pine after–they’re bullshit. They don’t mean anything. Nothing does, in fact. All these things, there’s nothing secret beneath them, no inner sanctum of meaning. And once you realize that, life becomes a lot less stressful and there’s much more time to just be cool.


This figure is a nihilist. He’s seen through the figment of the structures we’ve put in place as a society to the cold, dark heart of a vast and spinning universe. These days, it’s becoming easier and easier to be a nihilist, or his mopey cousin, the pessimist (if a nihilist is the cool guy in the leather jacket, the pessimist is someone who looks like this and gets upset about girls not being attracted to how bleak he thinks human existence is). In previous eras, it was kind of clear what the problems of the world are. For example, during the Cold War, evil had a logic. Either the Communists were directly working to undermine our way of life (and they were!) or the Americans were undermining efforts to fight for human dignity and freedom (and they were!). In our modern world, the enemy is harder to identify, and it’s harder to identify why they act the way they do. Global terrorists are Muslims (except when they’re not) and Muslims support terrorism (except when they don’t). Police brutality against black youth is a clear case of racism (except when it’s not). It’s almost as though there isn’t a logic to things any more. The meaning existed right there, on the surface of things.


Politics has always been anti-nihilist (by which I mean a stance opposed to the position of nihilism). The practice of making laws and feeling the need to impose a structure on the world, often according to transcendent rules of morality, is diametrically opposed to the nihilist stance of meaning and structure and morality as artifice and nothing more. In his On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche traces the dichotomies of good/evil and good/bad, leaving bare their status as historical developments rather than transcendent truths about the world. For him, laws based on these conceits cannot govern men.


Interestingly, it seems as though our recent political world has turned out a bit nihilistic as well. There’s a huge weight about to drop down on us and wipe us clean–global climate change. Most Americans now agree that it is an imminent and totalizing threat, and yet no one seems to want to do anything about it. We have identified the guillotine’s blade, but we are just kind of gawking at it. We have transitioned from speeches about preventing climate change to speeches about coping with it, minimizing its damage, as though we are trying to bargain with the executioner about how deep the cut will be before we really try to put a stop to it. Watching our world sink and doing the political equivalent of shrugging is as nihilistic as it gets. As an aside, the ever-decreasing segment of the population that thinks that global climate change is a vast conspiracy of the scientific community or that to believe in it is to disbelieve in the word of God are distinctly anti-nihilist, as they firmly believe that there is some sort of logic that keeps everything functioning in a certain way.


This point goes for other political problems, specifically terrorism and rising income inequality. The rhetoric of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, respectively–people who say that only they are the ones that can truly do something about these issues rather than paying them lip service–are galvanizing people. They’re waking them up out of their nihilism by reaffirming the anti-nihilism of politics, for better or worse. The way we fix terrorism is by not letting in Muslims. The way we fix income inequality is levying higher income taxes on the top brackets and making education and healthcare, the great flatteners, available to everyone. These both rest on simple logical structures. They express beliefs about distinct relationships between objects in the world and beliefs about meaningful definitions of those objects.
These ruptures in the political fabric may be what it takes to return us to a more comprehensible world. We must take care in this venture–we precipitate this shift at the risk of never being that cool guy in the black leather jacket.