Nihilism is a Bogeyman

Freud observed that humans are polymorphously perverse, meaning that if one method of erotic pleasure is made difficult then other methods will be devised to fill the void. Something similar can be said about the experience of meaning in life. When one framework of meaning is discredited then others are found. Ordinary people derive a sense of meaning from close loving attachments; from expressing an authentic voice in conversations, working and playing with others, helping and nurturing others (including plants and animals); learning and practicing crafts and skills, noticing the beauty of nature, craft, and art; polymorphous perversity; thinking about dreams; being creative without supervision, and having intelligent agency in making a life as well as marks on the environment.

Often the view from upper levels of social hierarchy is that inequality itself is the source of everybody’s meaning in life, so that questioning inequality amounts to “nihilism” which opens a terrifying abyss of meaninglessness. When celebrities of power feel their narratives and privileges being questioned they cry out, “Without us, the rest of you are nothing. …” (in the spirit of Atlas Shrugged) Leaders of the Church uttered this when the fear and gloom of Christendom lost its grip on the popular imagination. Aristocrats uttered it when the French Revolution tore at the old regime. Yet people generally still muddle along not especially worse-off then people were before. It would seem from this that meaninglessness is the recurring nightmare of “masters of the universe” who live off old myths of elite exceptionalism. Leaders of business and industry got worried by the flower-power counter-culture of the sixties, and especially by feminism. Their control of culture was put at risk by those movements and a counter-stroke was organized and executed using great wealth to increase control of news media, the selection practices of representative government, and judicial appointments.

That recent history was witnessed by the baby-boom generation and suggests that “capitalism” isn’t simply “private ownership of the means of production”, but actually the permanent control of key parts of an economy by particular groups which are motivated to retain control by an ideology glorifying their exclusive superiority. It would mean that the surface structure of capitalism conceals a deep structure dedicated to perpetuating radical inequality under the control of a self-appointing group aiming for decisive influence over taxes, laws, and war.

It isn’t uneven accumulation of property which is vicious, but rather the claims of a minority to have a mysterious right to control and supervise the whole collective. Uneven accumulation of property is simple inequality, but control and supervision is radical inequality. There have been theories of radical inequality since at least the time of Plato. Plato belonged to an anti-democratic aristocratic social pod and had a personal interest in legitimizing an aristocratic overthrow of Athenian democracy. He fantasized an apparently reasonable stratification of society and then imagined his model of stratification to be innate within the subjectivity of every individual. The three parts of subjectivity for Plato were appetites, competitive spirit, and abstract rationality. It is possible to interpret appetite and competitive spirit as motives for quick fix consumption and conflict which provide momentary thrills followed by deepening emptiness, the abyss of meaninglessness. Those impulses were the ones Plato claimed to dominate most people. Plato imagined the higher rational mind to be receptive to cosmic ideal forms, his ultimate source of meaning, but Plato gratified his class vanity by granting effective rationality exclusively to an educated and gifted few, so justifying control of the polis by the only social class with the leisure for higher education, the class of slave-owners.

The Medieval theory of social order in Christendom identified three functional groups which combined in a sort of human pyramid. Those higher in the pyramid had the right and duty to supervised and control those below. Muscle-power workers formed the most numerous and lowest stratum. Those peasant agricultural workers were identified as Plato’s appetite driven workers. Masters of war formed the next level up, were much fewer than workers, and held formal possession of most land and natural resources. That was the class of military-estate families, the aristocracy, identified as Plato’s spirited fighters. Priests and their organization, the Church, formed the apex of the pyramid. The priestly clergy were supposed to be Plato’s contemplative, highly educated, other-worldly ruling class. The upper hierarchy of the Church claimed special knowledge of God’s will through divine revelation, and exclusive ability to evaluate everybody’s compliance. Augustine’s teaching was that ordinary people needed to be supervised harshly in order to prevent them from expressing their hereditary sin and intrinsic evil derived from Adam’s and Eve’s original sin and expulsion from Eden. That doctrine was exploited by the Church hierarchy, as well as by military-estate families, to depict themselves as divinely appointed supervisors and as such justified in their parasitic taxing of peasants. Of course, there was an intimate connection between military families and the Church because the second sons, who would not inherit the family’s aristocratic title and estates, would often go to university and into the Church hierarchy. Peasants were not part of society as conceived by aristocrats, but merely parts of the natural environment to be exploited.

Both the class of military-estate families and the personnel of the Church were parasitic upon the agricultural labouring families. What those peasant families received in return for the labour and product confiscated from them as rents, fees, taxes, and tithes was very little, and it was meant to maintain a radical inequality between them and their lords. Often the rural labouring people had a status near slavery. Yet, they were not taught the skills of surviving from the land by the military-estate families or by officials of the Church. Those vital skills were part of the ‘folk’ culture of the peasants themselves, and they would have survived on their own using those skills. They did not need the social groups which taxed them.

In yet another version of radical inequality theory, right-wing expressions of Romanticism idolized special celebrity geniuses and understood them as incarnations of a supra-individual cosmic spirit. Napoleon Bonaparte was a great inspiration for such Romantics. The genius should be permitted to do whatever he wants and he must be forgiven. Napoleon illustrates the Romantic vision of how societies grow and develop. So could Hitler. Right-wing Romantics could see creativity only in celebrity geniuses. The contemporary cult of celebrity and the star system is a legacy of that nineteenth century Romanticism. The Romantic worship of celebrity geniuses contains a mixed message about individualism. It is the worship of certain special individuals only and includes a dismissal of “the crowd” which is assumed to consist of less than truly human specimens. Rigidly hierarchical social class was standard in Europe at the time, and inclined Romantics to think of creativity as a divine gift granted to few. They supposed that creative geniuses merited special treatment as “supermen” who were above the laws of society, not only because of their special contributions to art, literature, music, math, science, commerce, and government, but because they were uniquely animated by divine inspiration. Unlike the ordinary rabble they were incarnations of a feature of God or the metaphysical creativity which sustains the world. That was close to the idea of aristocracy which had endured since Medieval times.

The Economic Theory

The current form of radical inequality theory is an application of the idea that economic consumption, accumulation, production, and exchange express the dominant force in human nature. Every individual’s personal identity is culturally assigned on the basis of his or her way of making a living, both in terms of a specific purchasing power and a function or title in the system of production. In a market economy you can quantify the social esteem of each category of work by how much it is paid. The market price is an exact measure of its cultural value-assignment. Within that culture, people become their economic niche. Each individual is the inheritor of a unique kit of genetic and cultural characteristics, which then determine his or her personal economic place, each with a particular level of trophies, dignities, influence, and wealth from competitions for scarce resources. The consumer-competitor does not suffer the burden of work as punishment for original sin, but to merit a quantified license, in the form of money, to consume in pursuit of elusive happiness. Need and deficiency come first, and deficiency is the stimulus which drives productive labour. When economic accomplishment is the quintessential human fulfillment then subjectivity disappears into the objects it consumes and the trophies it wins.

There is a market incentive-and-reward system to motivate accomplishment, and placing high in that ranking is itself among the greatest goods. People choose professions, knowledge trades, partly to declare themselves as persons of substance and gravitas. Maintaining a high-volume cash flow, say by speculating on asset prices, is another means to the same end. Conspicuous distinction from less accomplished people, from “the crowd”, is crucial to the reward system. Stardom presents inequality in a positive light and glamorizes it as a creative principle.

In the economic system of stratification, just as in the medieval social pyramid, those higher in the system assume the right and duty to supervised and control those below. Hierarchical supervision in the context of knowledge or function-based division of labour might seem to be an instance of necessary and mutually beneficial stratification. However, these rankings are always overgeneralized. They are used to justify a general value assignment or value definition of each person. The value-ranking of individuals is always extended beyond the function that the division of labour is designed to achieve. For the vast majority these value assignments and identities are humiliating and insulting and based on an extremely narrow personal test, or none at all.

It is going to be unavoidable that a person must pick from a list of unsuitable ways of earning an income. An income is still a necessity. What is not unavoidable is social pressure on individuals to think of their means-to-an-income as representing their personality. People should not be led to expect personal fulfillment from what they need to do merely to pay the bills, to survive. Real self-expression is still a personal requirement and takes place outside the workplace and usually outside the market economy.


In modern democratic societies citizens vote for representatives to speak for them in legislative assemblies. Political parties appoint party leaders. Somehow when the representatives arrange to form a government under a party leader, that person declares him or herself to be the leader of the people at large. A representative has transformed into a leader by some political alchemy.

Commercial culture has a significant leadership myth which looks like a recapitulation of right-wing romanticism. There is an assumption that important developments happen because of leadership. If you identify the budding leaders among the emerging generation, then you see the future of the society. This is odd with respect to declared democratic values, in which individual voices are supposed to count more or less equally and people are elected as representatives, not leaders.

There are indications that people high on organization charts actually consider themselves to be leaders and not just functional overseers. They believe people lower down on the organization chart need and search for leaders to teach them how to live and deal with problems. They believe people actually look up to them for direction and that they therefore serve a broader social function.

Commercial culture acts toward individual subjectivity as a bundle of deficiencies, needs, appetites, and a compulsion to self-assert, to win. Such an entity is fulfilled by being supplied with consumables and competitions, and the heroes are the few who win their way to the top of the ‘food chain” in the organization of supply. This view assumes that only collective projects and narratives lift individuals from insignificance and decrepitude and provide dignity and meaning to their lives. It supports the legitimacy of meritocracy, leadership, the star system, as if fulfilling purpose is a scarce commodity granted to the masses by special inspired geniuses. We now live within a cultural combination of the romantic vision of a meritocracy of celebrity geniuses mediated through the older system of estate-family hoarding of status, property, and power across successive generations. There is just enough opportunity for entrepreneurial geniuses from outside the permanent hierarchy to maintain the myth of meritocracy. It is taken for granted that the great productive and distributive operations that maintain the economic lives of modern populations inevitably lock people into a supervisory culture which determines how we define and experience our existence.

Dissing the Masses Culture

People in dominant positions encounter, create and participate in, to some degree, a culture of domination which accounts for and justifies their position. It is a culture with roots in Plato, Augustine, and right-wing romanticism. That culture teaches that the majority of humanity is more or less unconscious, stupid, and limited to primitive urges, that the masses are interested in simple forms of food, sex, glitter, other people’s misfortunes, religious spooks, daydreaming, and idle gossip. In their moments of highest alertness their world is full of superstitious terror from which they seek shelter. Since they contribute so little to the alleviation of their problems, help must come from extraordinary persons who conceive projects and arouse the masses to work in realizing visions. These extraordinary persons constitute a natural elite which has a duty to dominate the masses for their own good. This is the only way the masses will ever have a chance to experience something better than superstitious terror or semi-consciousness. The elite creates meaning for the masses, creates whatever small experience of the sublime is possible for them. Although leadership is a high honour and duty it is also a heavy burden, a sacrifice the elite makes for a higher good.

The dominating political group wants to believe that other groups are supervised and controlled for a good reason and not just for the advantage of the most vicious. Features of human nature which resist control, such as emotion or appetite, are marginalized and assigned to specific social groups to justify their marginalization and their being kept under special control.

Democracy as a Problem, Freedom from Control as a Problem

People have a problem with the idea of strong democracy because of mistrust of the majority, ‘the crowd’, a legacy of the long tradition of inequality and control theory. The majority of citizens is assumed to be ignorant, lazy, self-indulgent, emotionally flighty, thoughtless, forgetful, dishonest, and shallow. The idea of that lot being on the loose and possibly having political influence is a nightmare for many who see themselves as rational, acute, informed, and hard-working. Although that image of the majority is a gross exaggeration, it is true that we cannot assume some simple conception of good motives and abilities in human beings generally. This does not apply only to the undistinguished majority, however. Fluctuations in the stock market demonstrate the emotional flightiness of the investor class. Enron, Anderson Accounting, tobacco companies, asbestos companies, asbestos company doctors, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Roman Church protected pedophilia, and the laundering of tax evasion and drug money by mainstream banks, have all been tips of icebergs of organized criminal activity among the distinguished meritocracy. Criminals pass through all social filters purported to advance only the most worthy. They demonstrate that there are no trustworthy social filters and that bad motives and incompetence are prominent in the minority elite and are in no way especially characteristic of the majority. The meritocracy as well as the undistinguished majority is too often criminal and generally unworthy to rule.

The legitimate conclusion from general human fallibility and criminal intent is that absolutely nobody is sufficiently trustworthy to have power over others. The way to counteract faults and shortcomings of people is to restrict the control that some have over others and to give everybody the best chance to develop their own gifts and creative agency. No one is qualified or justified to keep the world safe from the masses by making sure we are all organized and supervised into corporate productive activity. That same activity is the inspiration for corruption. Still, we have to avoid somehow the tyranny of the most vicious, which is always the result of anarchy. The rule of law seems the most obvious way. The role of sovereign government must be protection and enforcement of laws against oppression. Acts of oppression and domination are exactly what ordinary people experience as crimes, the clearest cases of evil. Acts of oppression are those which situate people to be unable to proceed with their initiatives, enjoy the products of their work, make a distinctive mark, or be honoured. Tactics of oppression are confinement; corporal or verbal injury, insult, or threats of them; insufficient recognition, reward, or compensation for work or use.

Warnings of the terrors of nihilism exploit the fact that individual subjective intelligence has no appearance. That lack of appearance or substance seems to make it difficult to accept that subjectivity does have directionality and force. It speaks in its own voice. There is no abyss of meaninglessness waiting to swallow us up, because every subjectivity is a transcendent source of meaning. Fear no abyss, we are already soaring.

Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.