Portrait of the nihilist as the sum of our negations

Olso bombing: July 2011

Olso bombing: July 2011

[The following is a selection from my new book, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, Amazon link below.]

What is this uncanny beast, born of the Fifth Wave and now stalking into the uncertain future?  After all the talk of public and authority, of network and hierarchy, where – you ask – does he fit in?

Above all, he is seized and animated by a very particular feeling.  I will characterize this feeling more explicitly later:  here, let me begin by saying that it partakes of alienation.  The world of the nihilist does not belong to the nihilist.  It belongs to the forces of selfishness and to repulsive people.

He considers his elected government to be a thing apart, and beneath contempt.  That is the view from below.  George W. Bush told him that the invasion of Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, but none were found there.  Barack Obama explained to him that the stimulus would cap unemployment, but millions more lost their jobs.  Jose Luis Zapatero refused even to mention the word “crisis” to him, while economic disaster ravaged Spain.  I called these episodes failures of government, but that is not how the nihilist sees them.  He thinks his rulers are liars and cheats, and he fills the web with angry rants on the subject.

He can do that because he’s extremely well connected, in the current sense of that word.  He’s Homo informaticus run amok.  At the high end of his communications skills, he might be a hacker in Anonymous, vandalizing Sony’s corporate database.  At the low end, he could be a young rioter coordinating a looting expedition on his messaging service.  The nihilist comes to life through his digital devices.  Without them he would sink to a condition identical to nothingness:  he would be silent.  Instead, he is fantastically well informed about those few odd topics that obsess him, and he produces a torrent of hard-core negations posted about the world around him.

Being connected, the nihilist is networked.  He can link to others just as destructive as him, and bring them together in a flash of real-time mayhem.  And there are always others:  the nihilist isn’t one but many.  He belongs with the public when he’s interested in an affair, as sometimes he is, but his predilections are sectarian to an absolute extreme.  He is morbidly, monstrously, against.  He imagines he would be happy, if the society in which he lives were wiped out tomorrow.

In politics, this impulse pushes him way beyond rejection or revolt.  The nihilist is a political black hole, allowing no light or mass to escape his violent embrace.  Yet he’s not a professional agitator, as he surely would have been in the last century.  He’s a private person, an amateur in politics moving among other amateurs.  Nihilism, in him, isn’t a full-time job – it’s a latent condition.  It erupts on a case by case basis.  The fuse might be lit by some news on his Twitter stream about the war in Afghanistan or the flood of immigrants into his country.  Or he might just reach a tipping point in that all-consuming feeling that partakes so much of alienation.  Then he becomes what he is:  an agent of annihilation.

In the assembly of protesters, his is the loud, irreconcilable voice.  In the peaceful demonstration, his is the hand heaving a Molotov cocktail through the shop window.  In confrontation with police, he is eager to shed blood.  In online forums, he is fertile with ideas to hack, expose, paralyze the institutions that run the world.  He is the bomber, the random shooter:  a terrorist without a cause.

I could go on.  He is possessed by a fuzzy but apocalyptic sense of doom, for example.  The world, he holds, is going to wreck and ruin.  To push it along is the best thing.  The government could fix everything and solve our problems if it tried – for all his alienation, the nihilist is convinced of that, and the most persuasive evidence he has of government corruption is that life keeps getting worse.

But enough:  I want to get to the heart of the matter.  I am arguing here that the nihilist haunts democratic politics like a specter portending disaster, but I don’t believe the most significant factor pertains to what he is, or what he thinks, or even what he has done.  The disquieting truth about his emergence is where he comes from.  The threat to the future, if there is such, originates in his past.

The nihilist benefits prodigiously from the system he would like to smash.  He’s not marginalized – not a street person, not a forsaken soul, not a persecuted minority.  He stands in a very different relation to the established order than did, say, an industrial worker in Victorian England or a Catholic in Communist Poland.  He’s not a sufferer in any sense, whether relative to historical standards or to the world today.  On meeting him, you would not recognize him as someone alien to you.  Talking to him, I would not necessarily think that he’s a different type of person from me.  In the way such things get reckoned today – statistically, in the gross – he is you and me.

The mortal riddle posed by the nihilist is that he’s a child of privilege.  He’s healthy, fit, long-lived, university-educated, articulate, fashionably attired, widely traveled, well-informed.  He lives in his own place or at worst in his parents’ home, never in a cave.  He probably has a good job and he certainly has money in his pocket.  In sum, he’s the pampered poster boy of a system that labors desperately to make him happy, yet his feelings about his life, his country, democracy – the system – seethe with a virulent unhappiness.

Feelings of this sort compelled Daphni Leef to pitch her tent on Rothschild Boulevard to demand the destruction of “swinish capitalism.”  She came from an affluent family.  She was a film school graduate and held a job as a video editor.  Compared to most people anywhere or anytime, hers was a privileged life.  Yet she seethed with a sense of injustice because he couldn’t afford her old apartment.  She felt the system was fundamentally rapacious, and she would bring it down to shorten her commute.  “We all deserve more,” was her one commandment.  In the clouded mind of the nihilist, that “more” stretched infinitely toward utopia.

Similar feelings drove the “neither-nor” indignados to turn their backs on representative democracy.  Historically, Spain had recently emerged from poverty and military dictatorship, and the current generation, even after the crash of 2008, was the wealthiest, best educated, and socially and politically freest the country had known.  Yet those who raised the banner of “neither-nor” seethed with an irreconcilable feeling of grievance:  like Leef, they felt they deserved infinitely more, and were willing to tear down a system that had failed to give it to them.

“Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,” said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship.  “We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.”

So here we have a privileged class in revolt against itself.  Here we have the beneficiaries of democracy loathing democracy and clamoring for its demise, even without an alternative in sight.  Like the character in the cartoon, the nihilist hates the knotty branch on which he sits, and conceives the idea that it should be sawed off.  Does he know he will plunge to earth and break his neck?  Maybe he does know:  nihilism is a suicide pact.  Or, possibly, does he think he will levitate on the air, defying the laws of gravity?  Maybe he does think this way:  nihilism is a call for the obliteration of history, and, at its most obdurate, a declaration of war on cause and effect.

I ask you to ponder the words of the young indignada I just cited.  She said her parents were grateful for electoral democracy.  Her generation was the first to make a virtue of ingratitude.  José Ortega y Gasset, a fellow Spaniard, once discerned a “radical ingratitude” in the type of modern person he called “mass man” and portrayed as the spoiled child of history.  Mass man is heir to a long and brilliant past.  The good things in life in the world he was born into – security, freedom, wealth, vacations to warm places – are in fact the outcome of a specific historical process, but mass man doesn’t see it that way.  Newly risen to education and prosperity, he imagines himself liberated from the past, and has grown hostile to it as to any limiting factor.  The good things in life have always been there.  They seem detached from human effort, including his own, so he takes them as given, part of the natural order, like the air he breathes.  Gratitude would be nonsensical.  Mass man accepts the gifts of the system as his due, but will tear up that system root and branch, present and past, if the least of his desires is left unfulfilled.

The nihilist is by no means identical to Ortega’s mass man, but both share certain family traits.  More accurately than alienation, a radical ingratitude describes the feeling that makes the nihilist tick.  His political and economic expectations are commensurate with his personal fantasies and desires, and the latter are boundless.  He expects perfection.  He insists on utopia.  He has, in Ortega’s words, “no experience of his own limits,” at least not as something he should accept in good grace.  Every encounter with the human condition, every social imperfection and government failure, triggers the urge to demolish.  Fortified by the conviction that he deserves more, he feels unconquerably righteous in his ingratitude – a feeling sometimes validated by late modernist governments bent on the promotion of universal happiness.

All this matters only diagnostically:  as a symptom of a sickness of the system.  The way I have characterized him, the nihilist looks to be a blurry figure, a part-timer lacking a program or an organization.  He might be networked but he is also nameless.  The riddle he poses is whether, in any sense, under any combination of events, he could gain enough momentum to damage or wreck the democratic process.

The answer shouldn’t be difficult to arrive at.  Follow the thread of this book to one possible conclusion, and you will be there.

The nihilist, it seems to me, isn’t necessarily an alienated individual, a clever “V” figure behind a Guy Fawkes mask, bent on blowing up the status quo.  A lone-wolf attacker like Anders Breivik, who killed 77 random persons in Norway because he hated immigrants, is only a glimpse, a warning, of more horrific possibilities.  From the evidence of the preceding chapters, it should be clear that the bundle of destructive impulses I have called the nihilist represents a latent tendency in the public in revolt.  Potentially, he is a multitude.  Under certain conditions, he could be you.

Every public in the story I have told mobilized from a privileged position.  That was true materially, politically, morally.  None were paupers.  None were pariahs.  The public was constituted in this condition:  it did nothing to achieve it other than appear on the scene.  The protesters in Tahrir Square were the sons and daughters of the well-off Egyptian middle class.  They were born to privilege.  The indignados, offspring of the first generation in Spain to rise out poverty and tyranny, cherished the ambitious expectations of a privileged class.  Tea Partiers, Occupiers, protesters in Turkey, Iran, Venezuela, Ukraine – all wielded negation as a birthright.  Command of the information sphere, distinguishing feature of our moment, was bestowed on the public by companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Born to privilege, the public must maintain some relationship to the institutions and individuals that raised it out of necessity and bondage.  If the past is acknowledged, that relationship must be one of indebtedness.  The Romans littered their homes with carved images of illustrious ancestors.  But when, as is the case today, the public rejects history and longs to start again from zero, its relationship to the institutions that sustain it will be one of radical ingratitude.  Once privilege is felt to be natural, a matter of birth rather than previous effort, the phantom that is the nihilist becomes flesh in the rebellious public – and any failure, any fall from perfection, will ignite a firestorm of discontent.

I called this a latent condition.  Latency has been sometimes actualized – this book can be read as a series of variations on that theme.  From above, governments have failed habitually, and are doomed to fail while they continue to promise the impossible.  The public, from below, has seized on each failure to batter the ruling institutions, on occasion with a nihilistic contempt for the consequences.  In between, attempting to mediate the conflict, stand the clumsy mechanisms of representative democracy.  The answer to the riddle of the nihilist, I said, wasn’t particularly difficult to arrive at.  Those who worry about the future of democracy – and I count myself in that number – have good reason to do so.

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