Politics of nihilism

St_johannis_fire_goettingenAt a recent discussion sponsored by the invaluable John Adams Center, someone remarked on the seeming incoherence of current progressive politics. As I understood the analysis, the progressivism of the early 20th century had reasonably clear (if tragically misguided) aims, but the progressives of today seem only interested in promoting the next novelty.

The nihilist Basarov in Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons accepts the charge of wanting to “destroy everything.” He says “the ground wants clearing.” Specifically, he challenges his interlocutor to “bring forward a single institution in our present mode of life, in family or in social life, which does not call for complete and unqualified destruction.”

This calls to mind the Occupy “movement” with its incoherent and idiosyncratic demands, but that is only a more colorful manifestation of the “relentless cult of novelty” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s phrase). Nor is it confined to the more paranoid segments of street activism. The official positions of the national government and of politicians of both parties, not to mention the entertainment and media cultures, reflect hostility to fixed standards (e.g., the left’s family policy). They are increasingly “striking at restraints without considering what they preserve” (Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order 50 [ISI edition 1995]).

All that is left is a restless quest for the satisfaction of transitory desires. It seems ironic at first that these atomistic individualists seem so interested in enlisting the power of the state, but if the only unifying principle is equal satisfaction of desires (James Kalb’s formulation), it seems obvious that the only entity with the ability to remove all obstacles (especially social) to that end is an omni-competent state. The state in turn benefits because it is able to, in the name of ensuring equal dignity, banish competitors who favor rival conceptions of the good. Divided into a multiplicity of narrow interest groupings, no coherent alternative to the government is likely to emerge.

In a retrospective essay about the Occupy movement, the author complains of being “trapped in the amber of immutable America” (notice that it is “immutability” that is seen as the problem). It is probably more accurate to say that the Occupy movement itself was trapped in the amber of its own self-regard. The relevant term is “trapped.” Habitually responding to one’s fleeting preferences or continually adjusting government policy to facilitate novel demands for satisfaction prevents any meaningful liberation.

Nihilism does not appear to be a long-term strategy (although with the national debt what it is, long-term solutions may be beside the point) but if the end is merely the seizure and maintenance of power, it will contribute to that result as well as a more “coherent” policy like communism.

I’ve had occasion before to mention the aphorism attributed to G.K. Chesterton: “Never take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.” Increasingly, explaining standards and restraints is a precondition for sane policy, and sane policy will require turning back the nihilist program.

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