There is the history of nihilism that idealized natural sciences as a single solution to the question of material existence without God and another that would critique science upon empirical, ideological, and ethical grounds.
“A decent chemist is twenty times more useful than any poet,”
The history of nihilism is of a moment in time. Russia in the 1860s was a suffocating place. The majority of the population were serfs breaking under their new freedom (to make payments to their former lords by decree of the Czar in exchange for working their land) or choking under the superstition and conservatism of the Orthodox Church. Russia was also at a crossroads: having proven itself among the great empires of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon it also found itself an intellectual backwater. Very little of the democratic unrest that had affected the Continent had consequence in Russia. Even Czar Alexander II’s dramatic move of freeing the serfs was more motivated by his romantic sensibility after having read Turgenev’s “A Sportsman’s Sketches” than an urge to transform Russian society.
As a consequence of this environment historic nihilism embraced positions that we could largely understand as reactionary rather than as intentional. (This is something that is endemic to revolutionary traditions and, arguably, should be included in their definition.) Given how short the life span of the historic nihilist period was (spanning both the foundational and revolutionary period) it is hard to imagine what the consequence of a rigorous universal skepticism would have been if it had had the time to develop and transform. What would a group of people with nothing to lose have been capable of?
If philosophy is the practice of tilling the earth then it is no wonder that most thinkers spend their time wandering overturned soil searching for lost seeds and replanting. If nihilism was the political philosophy of skepticism in a time when society was framed by the Orthodox Church and Czarist regime it’s no wonder that it left very little room for tradition. If the Church represented spiritualism, superstition and sentimentality then a philosophy for the modern time would have to reject all of these things. If the Czar represented the ossified autocratic bigotry of a monarchy then freedom would have to be the progressive, democratic republicanism of France. This is the limitation of parochial skepticism.
How is inquiry limited?
The history of science is a semantic journey through eras. Science was once concerned with the formation of the world along with how we should live in it and was indistinguishable from Philosophy. The terms were synonymous. Later there was fragmentation: understanding the world through experimentation and sense perception (empiricism) became a discipline distinct from understanding the world through reasoning (Rationalism). This dialectic was resolved in the scientific world by Newton’s combining of the axiomatic proof with the mechanical discipline of physical observation resulting in the system of verifiable prediction that largely remains intact.
Science became a codified and bureaucratic process that involved the relationship between the practitioners of science, financiers of science, and an increasing number of Scientific Societies (post-16th century). The role of a Scientist became distinct from that of one who sought knowledge about the natural world. A Scientist was one who both went through training that framed the scope of their inquiry but, to succeed, because adroit at the political machinations of court, papal, and eventually secular society.
There were discontents to this normalization of inquiry. Alchemists blended understandings of multiple theoretical and spiritual traditions in the pursuit of solutions to speculatively enormous problems (transmutation, age, disease). The heterodoxy that alchemists relied upon was eliminated by the emphasis on quantitative experimentation, and reproducible results.
Technology, in the form of the Industrial Revolution, as an organization of social life insulated homogeneity by delivering results. Technology is best understood as a separate but related field of inquiry from Science with a field of vision further narrowed by the motivation of creating applications. The mass production of technology has never been the result of any other force than the desires of power. In terms of the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century this looked like the transformation of the social life of England into one of an urban population dominated by factories. It also involved the extraction of resources across half the globe (India being a generous source of capital for industrial England) into the control of very few.
In the name of efficiency the product is the goal not the process of discovery and examination.
What is the limitation of specialization? Questions are no longer the pursuit of technicians or philosophers, answers are. Solutions to human problems are framed in material terms along entirely different lines than the cause. Corrective lenses do not cure bad eyesight, or stop one from watching television or staring at a computer screen, but allow one to continue exactly the pursuits that eyesight is good for. This kind of leveling exemplifies the motivation of specialization. If the structure of daily life forces certain kind of behavior (for instance the ability to see books and screens) then the kind of characteristics that could develop by people without sight are left undiscovered. As daily life constrains our options further we are forced into narrower and narrow tunnels. Eventually we find that we have chosen one thing, at the cost of every other thing, and in the name of survival.
What form should our skepticism take?
There is an active conversation among radicals and greens that begs response. The classic presentation would be a dichotomy between the allegation that technology is neutral on the one hand and that it embeds an essential ‘negative’ value on the other. Clearly technology is neutral only to the extent that you assume the values of the present order. If those values are not assumed then technology is not any different than history, philosophy, or science. They are the weapons that power use to fragment and control the population. One cannot understand our society without having a working, theoretical, and practical knowledge of technology and as a result most will choose to. The value of understanding our society is up for debate though.
If, following the nihilists of the 1860’s, we were to advocate for a parochial skepticism then it would be enough to revolt against rent, usury, asphalt, bureaucrats and their henchmen, etc, etc. If we were to respond even further in kind it would be against the excessive aspects of our society that most resemble Czarist Russia. Our response would look like the opposite of the moral majoritarians and large government fetishists. Instead of valorizing natural science it is possible that this line of thought would lead to an ascetic ethical system along the lines of anarchists that eschew digital technology for analog. This far, and no further! would be their motto.
Assuming that parochialism is a limitation, which is probably true in the light of the failure of revolutionary movements of the counter-culture, then what is next for contrarians. What would a universal skepticism look like as a method of inquiry, social form, and practice? Would the nihilist practice of today look more like the obsessive scientist of Fathers and Sons or the paranoid murderer of Crime and Punishment.
If a political nihilism is a specific rejection of the world as-it-is it is still make priorities. Nihilism still has a legacy. The reason that the positive program of a Nihilism today wouldn’t include a DIY naturalist science isn’t just because of the implication of science having changed over the past 150 years but because the very notion of a positive program has changed in the eye of radicals. Any evaluation of a nihilist program has to take into account exactly how tentative it would be. A universal skepticism runs into similar problems that a universal positivism does, who exactly does the universalizing?
We will begin, with this limitation in mind, an evaluation of three specific approaches that both overlap and are contained within a nihilist perspective: Critique as practice, Avocation of the Deed, and Negation — as rhetoric, practice, and form.
Rhetorical negation is not the existential navel-gazing that appears indistinguishable from ennui. It is the position that political engagement with the present order is inconsequential but that articulating that political position is not. The writings of Tristan Tzara exemplify this position.
The practice of negation may very well be an artifact of the denatured intellectual environment of North America but represents the active non-activism that confuses participation in political projects without tying them to political (and politicized) social movements as an ‘armchair’ activity. This is a practice without strategy, possibly done for its own reward. The activities of many anarchist reading groups qualify for the position.
Formal negation is likely the most widely held political nihilist position. It is the practice of not submitting to the aggression of the dominant order by avoiding it. The sentiment that one does not attend political protests because they do not enjoy the presence of the police or do not vote because every choice on a ballot is shit are examples of this position.
The thread that runs through all of the negation approaches is the stance of non-participation as political practice. This lends itself to the criticism of nihilism as solipsism which serves as a nice counter-point to the criticism of leftists as rhetorically self-sacrificing moralists.
Avocation of the Deed would be the most stereotypical nihilist political position. Many would-be-nihilists use the claim of strategic avocation as a shield to discuss their desires. Knocking over electrical towers and phone lines are their own reward, linking them to The Generalized Struggle for Human Emancipation™ is window dressing. The question of sensational actions, of horrific deeds, remains a central question for radicals of all stripes.
The legacy of Propaganda by the Deed is evaluated incorrectly. On the one hand the vast majority of PbtD actions were not violent actions against capitalists, leaders, and bureaucrats but the practice of daily life. On the other there is an argument that if the revolutionary struggle was doomed to failure, due to lack of preparation and a thousand other reasons, that going out shooting (which PbtD could safely be described as) was a valid exit strategy. What were the alternatives? Life as an exile chasing every hint of Revolution like the Communards? Chasing every summit hoping for another Seattle?
Today’s avocation differs from PbtD by placing the emphasis on the deed rather than the history or public relations consequence. This may entail giving up a certain kind of power, since others become the managers of your message, as in the case of suicide bombers but the clarity of the deed speaks louder than any politician’s message.
The practice of Critique entails using a suite of empirical and intellectual tools to evaluate the behavior and actions of others. It is a practice that does not stand alone but leans on others and in that way is the most social nihilist practice. The idea that nothing should stand: belief, value, or paradigm and no positive program installed in their place is at the core of the nihilist project.
Nihilism in the 21st century differs from that of the 19th on one important question. Rather than being a reactionary political practice resulting from a specific political context (Czarist Russia) it now draws its inspiration from an understanding of the philosophical trajectory of 20th century, the revolutionary movements of the 19th and 20th, and a sober understanding of exactly how little these well-springs offer one who would resist.
In hindsight natural science was the liberating response to a society dominated by mystical reverence for leader and God. In the absence of a simple response to today’s similar and extended problems an anarchist nihilism offers a category, a frame of reference, rather than the pat answer political discourse tends to favor. Nihilists will not become black-clad boy scouts, summit hoppers, or politicize thriving off of the detritus of an excessive society. There will not be a comfort for those of us whose rejection of this society includes its opposition.