You Are Not a Nihilist
“Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.”
― Cornel West
Nihilism as a philosophy can be defined by its rejection of human value-systems alongside the rejection that meaning is intrinsic to life and the greater universe. To be more precise, the above description of nihilism really only covers the branch of existential nihilism. There are of course other branches of nihilism centered around epistemology (that knowledge cannot exist) and metaphysics (that reality cannot exist), but those are irrelevant to this discussion as the only forms of nihilism with any real cultural purchase are of the existential and moral variety (that morality cannot exist).
One of the more glaring cultural reverberances accelerated into significance by the despair hyperdrive that is 2020 is the regressive retreat taken by many to describe themselves as “nihilist”. Broadly, they exist across the political spectrum with the Right edging out the Left ever so slightly. And, like with most cultural phenomena of the 21st century, they exist mostly on the internet, frozen in the hypothetical plane that constitutes the frictionless medium, lost deep within the hall of mirrors that form the internet’s discourse architecture wherein everything is simultaneously true and false.
An Escape Attempt
These so-called nihilists will often cite their withdrawal from politics as a material application of their worldview. By this, they mean that they have taken it upon themselves to not emotionally invest in the two-party American political system whose shrinking Overton window affords less and less room for working people to exist.
In America, “politics”, as it is portrayed by the media, is distilled by little more than the mind-numbing Republican vs Democrat debate and all of its disseminating symbology. The result is a culture war devoid of anything materially meaningful, instead concerned with the act of wearing a goddamn mask, for example. The wasteland of American politics exists on a terrain that is purely symbolic as both parties maintain no distinction from one another on issues concerning the economic material base. After all, only in America could the two ruling political parties be against Medicare for All in the midst of the worst global pandemic seen in a century.
Suffice to say, withdrawing from this soul-dissolving process does not make one nihilist, but rather quite rational given the circumstances. Understandable as it may be given the media’s ability to manufacture consent, the nihilist still falls short here for thinking that this is all “politics” has to offer.
In the same vein, the 2020 nihilist will cite with glee their simultaneous commitment to both personal detachment and a relentless pursuit of maximizing self-pleasure. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your outlook, pursuing your own pleasure, something which we’re all engaged in, is not nihilism; it’s capitalism. Perhaps one could argue that it is a societal exhalation of nihilism since in the longterm this worldview is predicated on heightening exploitation that ultimately leads to total social and ecological collapse. However, it’s still fundamentally a value system ritualized in hedonism.
Furthermore, the tendency to call oneself nihilist is largely born out of the idea that our desires are intrinsic to our individual spirits. In fact, the reason nihilism as an identity runs deeper on the right is likely due to the libertarian obsession with this very idea. This fantasy alone undergirds many of the most harmful social dynamics that form late-stage capitalist hegemony, a hegemonic culture centered around personal pleasure, and above all else, the ego.
Of course, philosophical materialists argue that the driving force behind the formation of one’s desires is the social order one finds themselves a part of. That it is a societal construction, a reproduction of the social anima at the smallest possible level of the Social: the Individual.
In reality, the self-described nihilist is as much a slave to the late-capitalist machinery as any other subject to its rule, only the so-called nihilist utilizes nihilism as their preferred method of cope. If you ask one of these supposed nihilists why they hold the desires they do they will draw a blank. In truth, they have never interrogated their desires in earnest since no such incentive structure exists under capitalism. Indeed, capitalism and its ruling class are at all times actively engaged with reinforcing just the opposite. Thus, the first step the nihilist must take to break from this state is to interrogate their desires deeply and honestly. What most will find is that the presupposed desires they once thought to sit at the center of their being are mere compensatory manifestations, coping mechanisms, and escape.
Yet Another Call to Log Off
I’ve written before on the ways in which real value comes from rewarding social engagement. The need to log off goes far beyond the detoxification one undergoes when disconnecting from the corrosive prism of social media. Logging off is the preface to fruitful social engagement which itself is the inaugural step in the long process of dethroning the ego. It’s hard to blame these supposed nihilists when many of them are simply casualties of the internet.
Veritably, a life spent on the internet is a life alienated to a degree that Marx could have never foreseen. Even those who wield the internet to temporarily escape their material conditions cannot escape the depressing neoliberal marketplace of personalities that exists on the internet predicated upon a series of entrepreneurial incentive structures where people make living their job. The rampant and necessarily highly visible (and thus overrepresented) auto-exploitation by these personalities on Twitter, Twitch, Instagram, Tik Tok, Patreon, etc. serves as a constant stark reminder to the internet user of just how bleak the economic alternative of holding a “normal job” must be for people to religiously pursue these vacuous social-entrepreneurial opportunities instead. The resulting dehumanization and ego-exaltation of social media are thus central to its very function.
On top of this, the atomizing effects of capitalism are magnified many-fold on the internet right down to our individualized algorithmically curated social media feeds. When everything is marketized, nothing appears organic. The infinite simulacra of symbols wither away the spirit until all that remains is a level of jadedness and cynicism only known by the weathered internet veteran…I speak from experience.
To reiterate, logging off can serve as the first step to reintegrating one’s value system with that of a socially-oriented one as opposed to a hedonist individualist framework. Only then can the libidinal urge to personally indulge be overridden and only then can the process of unchaining oneself from the nihilist orientation, a stand-in for the ego, truly begin. In the end, offloading the illusory sense of personal identity that underpins one's ego onto the society around them allows one to feel apart of a larger social organ and an active participant at that. This connectedness erodes away individual alienation as it then supplants reinforcing cycles of both structured and unstructured social life which in turn provide meaning. Something which most of us could use more of.
In closing, it isn’t surprising that COVID-19 has heightened the levels of alienation, especially among young people, to a new extreme. However, this modern current of faux nihilism has permeated the zeitgeist since at least 2016.
As with countless other societal ailments, the Coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the deep contradictions that form the precarious late-capitalist hegemonic world order — be it at the level of the economic base or atop the pure superstructure. The now plainly visible retreat into nihilism among those worn down by the internet, politics, and life in 2020, in general, is yet another reflection of this rapid and widespread worsening of material conditions. And a clear manifestation of the spiritual costs associated with living under such an alienating world-system. I don’t possess all the answers, but what I know for certain is that a reclamation of our attention away from the stupefying spectacle-ized internet is necessary for us to reintegrate healthfully as a society.