“Across Western Europe the great word is ‘emancipation’: emancipation from family identity, emancipation from sexual identity. After all this emancipation, what is left? Nothingness.”
A specter is haunting the West: the specter of nihilism. Conservative critics across the globe are increasingly framing themselves as pushing against a deeply nihilistic culture. This culture is characterized by self-absorbed cynicism at best and totalitarian identity politics at the worst. The story of how we got here differs with each conservative account, but the broad contours are largely the same. The Enlightenment, for all its virtues, brought about a cultural shift in orientation. Individuals from formerly stable and morally upright cultures were increasingly encouraged to question every settled value; as Kant put it, to have the “courage to use (one’s) own understanding.” While more liberal conservatives accept this still classically liberal cultural shift, most will still claim that it led to growing skepticism about the wisdom of traditional, most notably Christian, mores. People became increasingly individualistic and concerned to pursue their own private pleasures without concern for traditional mores, leading to greater and greater social fragmentation. These cultural dynamics were made explicit in Nietzsche’s epochal claim that “God is Dead!” officially inaugurating the new age of the nihilistic “last men.” According to conservative critics, today we are witnessing the dark consequences of these transformations. On the one hand we have atomized hyper-individualistic cynics who believe in nothing and pursue only their own private pleasures. On the other hand we see the totalitarianism of identity politics and a demand to accept further social fragmentation under the benign sounding guise of promoting “toleration” of radically non-Western groups.
A specter is haunting the West: the specter of nihilism.
The Conservative Response
According to many of these conservative critics, liberal elites are leading the charge in promoting cultural nihilism. On a political level, they push for policies that will lead to greater social fragmentation and atomism, such as higher rates of immigration from non-Western countries, the acceptance of large numbers of refugees, and concerted efforts to break down gender gaps which may exist for legitimate reasons. On a cultural level, liberal elites in the media, the entertainment industry, and academia promote post-modern and relativistic philosophies, which maintain that all cultures are equal and must be tolerated. This encourages generations of young people to call for the dissolution of traditional morals and institutions, under the auspices of promoting greater tolerance and pluralism. For many conservative critics, these transformations have been a disaster which demands a political and cultural response.
For more liberal conservatives such as David Rubin or Nigel Farage, the solution to cultural nihilism must be a return to classical liberal, meritocratic principles implemented by a resurgent nation-state. Other critics, including illiberal democrats such as re-elected Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban and Polish President Andrzej Duda, have adopted soft-authoritarian practices to push against immigrants and constrain political opposition. Finally, there are those such as Canadian superstar Professor Jordan Peterson who believe the only solution is a return to the traditional mores of Christianity. As he put it in the Amazon #1 Bestseller 12 Rules for Life:
“A long period of unfreedom-adherence to a singular interpretive structure-is necessary for the development of a free mind. Christian dogma provided that unfreedom. But the dogma is dead, at least to the modern Western mind. It perished along with God. What has emerged from behind its corpse, however-and this is an issue of central importance-is something even more dead; something that was never alive, even in the past: nihilism, as well as an equally dangerous susceptibility to new, totalizing, utopian ideas. Nietzsche for his part, posited that individual human beings would have to invent their own values in the aftermath of God’s death. But this is the element of his thinking that appears weakest, psychologically: we can’t invent our own values, because we cannot merely impose what we believe on our souls.”
Capitalism and Cultural Nihilism
I believe these conservative critics are deeply misguided in their diagnosis of the situation. While cultural nihilism may be on the rise, the accounts of these critics are strangely idealized. For the conservative critic, cultural nihilism has its roots in the sophistical cafes and salons of Enlightenment Paris and is now propagated by insidious liberal elites who wish to destabilize Western civilization. These accounts never acknowledge the transformative impact of far more powerful social forces: most notably the emergence of capitalism and its tendency towards the creative-destruction of traditional values. This was noted by Marx more than a century and a half ago:
Conservative critics are deeply misguided in their diagnosis.
“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Interestingly, more insightful and balanced conservative and traditionalist communitarian critics such as Max Weber and Alasdair Macintyre have also noted the tendency of capitalism to destroy social values in order to produce a society of desire-seeking individuals who feel unconstrained by traditional mores. Since the 19th century, capitalism has transformed the globe by revolutionizing the values of every society it touches. The post-modern identity politics that are held in disdain by many conservative critics are, in many respects, the product of just this capitalist environment. As noted by David Harvey, the post-modern position that all values are contingent and socially produced is largely consonant with the belief of capitalists that new values and related needs can be manufactured, and new subjectivities based around consumption can be produced. Throughout this, old values are overcome as barriers to the production of the new. To give just one example invoked by Harvey, who do you think is more responsible for the sexualization of culture: a few post-modern professors authoring dense theoretical tracts, or the television and film industry looking to make a fortune?
Conclusion: Post-Modern Conservatism as a Product of Nihilistic Capitalism
Conservative critics will never successfully abet the culture of nihilism they so disdain as long as they refuse to engage in systematic analysis and a critique of capitalist society. But very few have chosen to do so. They have instead limited their attacks to the easy targets of liberal “elites” who are at most themselves the products of capitalist dynamics. This limitation is not without consequence. It has led many right wing critics to abet the emergence of nihilistic post-modern conservatism as a reaction against social fragmentation and the alleged hegemonic power of liberal “elites.”
Post-modern conservativism is the product of cultural nihilism masquerading as a solution. Post-modern conservatives claim that the locus of truth and morality are homeland identities which have been marginalized by social fragmentation and the demand for more tolerance of difference. They demand that the traditional morals treasured by homeland identities be restored, and a culture of tolerance replaced by one of “responsibility” for toeing the traditional line. Oftentimes these post-modern conservatives also claim to be fighting against the nihilism of trends such as cultural relativism and social fragmentation, as with President Trump’s Warsaw speech calling for a defense of “Western Civilization.” But this is to be accomplished by deconstructing the ideals of truth, democracy, and respect for difference that constitute the best features of that civilization. This has resulted in the erosion of institutions and norms designed to protect the most vulnerable in society.
This is an extremely worrying development.
It is possible that the ascendency of post-modern conservatism will swallow the still too globalized and outdated neo-liberals who increasingly cling to power. Neo-liberal icons such as David Cameron and Hilary Clinton have seen their authority melt into the air under pressure by post-modern conservatives who denigrate them as progressive liberal elites of another stripe, eager to integrate more tightly into the global economy with its rootless cosmopolitans and relativistic multiculturalists. In their place post-modern conservatives have elected illiberal strongmen who disdain the very idea of truth and wish to establish a more homogenous nation-state that will remain oriented by internal capitalist dynamics. This is an extremely worrying development that should be of concern to all.