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Woke Culture Isn’t Nihilistic

(Lauren Holt)

If the woke activists who are willing to wake up at 5:00 am to march for racial justice are nihilistic, they sure seem to find nihilism plenty meaningful and inspiring.” 

“The doctrine of equality! There is no more poisonous poison anywhere: for it seems to be preached by justice itself, whereas it really is the termination of justice. ‘Equal to the equal, unequal to the unequal’—that would be the true slogan of justice; and also its corollary: ‘Never make equal what is unequal.’ That this doctrine of equality was surrounded by such gruesome and bloody events, that has given this ‘modern idea’ par excellence a kind of glory and fiery aura so that the Revolution as a spectacle has seduced even the noblest spirits. In the end, that is no reason for respecting it any more.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

Several months ago, no less a figure than the former Prime Minister of Canada, the Right not particularly Honourable Stephen Harper, decided to throw his two cents into the ongoing culture war. In an interview with the American Optimist podcast, he denigrated the “adolescent egos of the woke university crowd” for holding on to an impoverished philosophy unfit for governing society. For those of us familiar with his government’s antics, which included associating with the late crack-smoking Mayor of Toronto Rob Ford, accusations of puerile adolescence on the part of one’s political opponents elicited a few yawns. The former Prime Minister then went on to make a more interesting argument, asserting that woke ethics were “entirely nihilist” and bent on “ripping down everything” to “end the democratic system.” Given his own government’s long rap sheet of anti-democratic behavior, as well as Prime Minister Harper’s soft spot for would-be authoritarians like former President Donald Trump, we will put aside his newfound pieties about democracy. But the claim that woke culture and activism are nihilistic is undoubtedly provocative, echoing similarly sober rhetoric by figures such as Sohrab “Purple Hair Will Be the Death of our Civilization” Ahmari and Ben “The Handyman” Shapiro.

Accusations of nihilism have become so ubiquitous on the political right that the term has, ironically, become almost meaningless. Most often, it just seems to mean “anyone who challenges established value systems.” This, then, could include everyone from Socrates to Jesus. Given how often conservatives complain about woke values becoming the new hegemony, perhaps it is actually conservative critics like Prime Minister Harper who are the real nihilists, attacking our new sacred dogmas. In fact, in the following essay, I will argue that this joke has more truth than one might expect. This is because woke culture is not, in fact, particularly nihilistic. In reality, it is much more accurate to say that what defines wokeism is precisely that it is the opposite of nihilism. The whole world becomes supersaturated with moral significance, leading to an often pious demand that the entire past be redeemed in the present for the sake of a better future. Following Nietzsche, we could even characterize woke culture as a secularized continuation of the Christian millenarian project by other means.

Nihilism and Politics

As was mentioned, today’s political right often believes nihilism to mean an attack on established or cherished value systems. In this respect, it is “disintegrationist” or aspires to “[rip] down everything.” In holding this view, modern conservatives echo a long line of modern reactionary commentators going back to Joseph de Maistre, who shared similarities with today’s critics of critical theory in describing Enlightenment philosophy as fundamentally a destructive force. Through encouraging endless criticism and discussion of existing social institutions, the Enlightenment liberals and philosophes ceased to treat “government as a true religion” with its dogmas, creeds, and ministers. “To annihilate it or submit [government] to the discussion of each individual is the same thing; it lives only through national reason, that is to say through political faith, which is a creed,” wrote de Maistre

Of course, today, very few conservatives would be willing to agree with de Maistre that the Enlightenment as a whole was a destructive force and that we should return to scholastically-vindicated aristocracy. But the sentiment that one must either revere the rust of antiquity or enter a potentially meaningless and chaotic void remains, even if centuries of experience have shown that we have been there, done that, survived, and even flourished. Moreover, it is not at all clear how simply submitting our value system to criticism and opening it up for reform is integrally nihilistic; indeed, beyond just being an important part of our heritage, most criticisms of established power legitimize themselves either explicitly or implicitly through appeals to variably sophisticated conceptions of justice, fairness, and the like. If the woke activists who are willing to wake up at 5:00 am to march for racial justice are nihilistic, they sure seem to find nihilism plenty meaningful and inspiring. So the remarkable thing about these accusations of disintegrationist nihilism is their paradoxical shallowness via fixation with surface doxa.

A more intriguing question emerges if we ask whether woke culture has an elective affinity with more contemporary and rich conceptions of nihilism. From the 19th century onward, the most profound analysts of nihilism rarely took the superficial line of just seeing attacks on values systems as inherently nihilistic. For authors such as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy, who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, nihilism was best understood as a psychological condition resting on a meta-ethical and ontological shift that occurred in secular modernity. In the absence of a source of a transcendent anchor for our sense of value in the form of God, we were left to face the emptiness of a merely materialist universe in which everything was permitted. While this could seem liberating to proponents of emancipatory modernist doctrines, the whole edifice rested on a house of cards. For while the “death of God” meant we could do as we like, we were stripped of any final set of reasons to want what we wanted. When we asked “What is it all for?” the answer could only be nothing. This was expressed with terrifying power by Tolstoy in his A Confession. Written in middle age after a lifetime of fame and wealth, Tolstoy faced the problem of nihilism:  

“I understood that it was no casual indisposition but something very important, and that if these questions constantly repeated themselves they would have to be answered. And I tried to answer them. The questions seemed such stupid, simple, childish ones; but as soon as I touched them and tried to solve them I at once became convinced, first, that they are not childish and stupid but the most important and profound of life’s questions; and secondly that, occupying myself with my Samara estate, the education of my son, or the writing of a book, I had to know *why* I was doing it. As long as I did not know why, I could do nothing and could not live. Amid the thoughts of estate management which greatly occupied me at that time, the question would suddenly occur: ‘Well, you will have 6,000 desyatinas of land in Samara Government and 300 horses, and what then?’… And I was quite disconcerted and did not know what to think. Or when considering plans for the education of my children, I would say to myself: ‘What for?’ Or when considering how the peasants might become prosperous, I would suddenly say to myself: ‘But what does it matter to me?’ Or when thinking of the fame my works would bring me, I would say to myself, ‘Very well; you will be more famous than Gogol or Pushkin or Shakespeare or Moliere, or than all the writers in the world—and what of it?’ And I could find no reply at all. The questions would not wait, they had to be answered at once, and if I did not answer them it was impossible to live. But there was no answer. I felt that what I had been standing on had collapsed and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and there was nothing left.”

Connected to this were more socio-psychological diagnoses by authors like Friedrich Nietzsche and Theodor Adorno, which attempted to locate the roots of the shift to nihilism deep in European culture and thought. Whatever their evaluation, all of these figures concluded that the spread of nihilism produced distinct kinds of mass reaction: some of them banal and exhausted, others explosive and violent. People responded to the sense that existence and life were meaningless in a variety of ways. This demonstrates that no one was so fully and consistently nihilistic that he held that nothing one does matters at all and so there is no point in doing anything. This kind of utter abnegation is an impossible position for any living human being to hold for a long time. Instead, modern nihilists responded to the dilemma of meaninglessness in a variety of ways. The least interesting withdrew from the world, into cynicism, hedonism, and indifference. Others tried to carry on as though life mattered in the absence of any guarantees—usually through existential projects of personal and aesthetic fulfillment. And, at worst, one saw violent responses where nihilists reveled in the negation of existence as a kind of negative aesthetics but a nevertheless empowering activity. Despite his reputation as a kind of bohemian aesthete, Nietzsche himself flirted with this latter position in his darkest moments.

Wokeness and Nihilism

None of these genuinely nihilistic responses is fit as a description of what we might call wokeness. Woke activists certainly do not withdraw from the world into indulgent apathy. If anything, the emblematic critique by conservatives themselves is how annoyingly hyper-engaged they are. There is a sense in which woke activists find existential fulfillment in personal and aesthetic projects. But these are never purely individuated, and they are always given a moral dimension. And for all the efforts to paint woke activists as dangerous militants who spend their days citing deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Spivak, the basis of their militancy is always figurative and constructive. The intention is to demand rectification for those still impacted by past injustices, which will inevitably entail challenging the power of the status quo and even enacting radically constructive change.

In this respect, wokeness is less a nihilistic doctrine than a kind of post-secular religious outlook, and I mean that without any disdain. This was itself predicted by figures like Nietzsche, who often mused that the great egalitarian doctrines of modernity—liberalism, socialism, and fraternal democracy—constituted a kind of continuation of the leveling Christian impulse despite their rejection of its metaphysics and traditionalist interpretations. They were the “residue of Christianity and Rousseau in the de-Christianized world.” What Nietzsche meant by this was that the more egalitarian dimensions of Christianity, which held that all are siblings in God’s love and that to wield power over another was unjust, would carry on influencing the culture even if people no longer bought into the onto-theological foundations. Indeed, he was struck by how even in his day modern thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and others sought to carry on the Christian mission by re-establishing it on new, more skeptical, but no less activist philosophical foundations. We might go further and point out how, in the absence of possible redemption within eternity, the compulsion to demand salvation in the here and now would become ever more demanding.  

We can see how readily Nietzsche’s diagnosis fits contemporary woke culture. For many proponents of woke militant particularism, the past consists of a litany of national and civilizational injustices and sins which have been allowed to persist and fester since that works in the interests of the powers that be. Carrying on the spirit of the American Civil Rights movement, which itself had deep roots in Christian evangelism, woke culture insists on exorcizing these demons and castigates the kind of pharisaical hypocrisy that emerges in centrist liberals: those who mouth the right pieties but “neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness” in the words of Matthew 23. Connected with this is the Millenarian hope, often vague but widely held to, that once these sins are expunged we will have created something approximating a reasonably just society or even what John Rawls called a realistic utopia. This would be a society where the sacral qualities of each individual and group are acknowledged, human needs are cared for without discrimination or preference, and the hubristic conceit that some are more worthy than others is permanently transvalued. Nietzsche would be horrified and would insist this is why we must go back to an aristocratic ethos more ancient still than Christianity.

Conclusion: Overcoming “Wounded Attachments”

Seen from this perspective we can appreciate why it is, in fact, many conservative defenders of hierarchy who are being untrue to the Christian ethos that they often characterize as the essential bulwark against nihilism. They are often defending lobster aristocracies and Achillean meritocracy à la Patrick Bateman. Whatever woke culture is, it is not particularly nihilistic. If anything, its expansive conception of power as registering even in the everyday discursive practices and symbols of language, culture, and videogames, coupled with demands for justice and fairness conceived on egalitarian lines, connotes a universe saturated with struggle and meaning. A valid critique one could make of the worst elements of woke culture is this paranoid overdetermination of reality, where even innocuous and banal gestures and words are interpellated into a system of stringent moral evaluations and social deliberation. In these circumstances, what is needed is a divestment of meaning, rather than restoring a sense that something matters.

I emphatically agree with the ambition to create a more equal and fair society, though my own conception of justice is a liberal socialist one. However, I do believe that this zealous and even puritanical disposition—with “a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn,” as Mark Fisher put it—is a problem. More importantly, I think that Wendy Brown is correct that its conception of historical time sometimes gets mired in past “wounded attachments.” Acknowledging and rectifying historical traumas through political reform is an integral part of moving on. But attaching one’s self inextricably to a sense of victimhood and persecution ensures that we will never escape from systems of oppression. Oppressive power remains the determinative operator in our life, skewing every project for the future and inhibiting our ability to conceive of new and more democratic forms of life. But these criticisms reflect the fact that woke culture remains resolutely anti-nihilistic in its orientation and ambitions. Contra Stephen Harper, the proper critique is not that its ethics are “entirely nihilist” but, rather, the exact opposite: Its praiseworthy yearning for justice and expansive conception of power can become perverted into fundamentalist urges to condemn and see wickedness everywhere. In these moments, the proper response is to say, with Saint Paul, that it is love of neighbor and not rabid devotion to the moral law that makes one good.

Matt McManus teaches at the University of Calgary and is the author of A Critical Legal Examination of Liberalism and Liberal Rights and the forthcoming The Emergence of Postmodernity, among other books. He can be found on Twitter @mattpolprof

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