We academics like to believe that people do things for rational reasons. They may not be good reasons, or even remotely credible ones, but they will follow rationales of their own. Someone has done something because…. His or her aim is… They have motives and purposes, however deluded and twisted. Most people have put a modicum – if only a modicum – of thought into what they believe. There are ways in which their belief systems can be stood up to make a kind of sense. Even when in fact they make no real sense at all – I’m reminded here of the Brexiteer who didn’t care about Continental trade being cut off because he did all his shopping ‘down the road at Tescos’ – you can see a kind of logic behind them: some joined-up thinking, however risible.
The obvious way of countering this kind of approach might seem to be to point out how ‘stupid’ it is’. The problem with that is that it runs the risk of positioning you as an ‘élitist’; which however slots into another of your antagonist’s belief systems – which tends automatically to discount just this kind of implied intellectual superiority. It’s also disturbing for an intellectual to think that things might happen for reasons he or she can’t explain, and so are a waste of time trying to analyse. (Analysis, after all, is our job.) Just over a hundred years ago – at the height of popular ‘jingoism’ in Britain – a little-known political philosopher called Graham Wallas dubbed this ‘the intellectualist assumption’. (It’s in his Human Nature in Politics, 1907.) It may be our own ‘intellectualist assumption’ that is one of the things preventing us clever people from truly understanding what is going on in the world today. We’re trying to work it out rationally, even if that ‘reason’ includes aspects that don’t seem very rational to us. Even ‘prejudices’ are based on something. But what if they aren’t?
An excellent article that John Field recently sent me reminded me of one body of belief that might give part of the answer. It’s by Garrret Keizer, and appears in the New Republic: https://newrepublic.com/article/151603/nihilist-nation-empty-core-trump-mystique?utm_source=social&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=sharebtn&fbclid=IwAR2r05nyGYrqJa-nYeUR_PUGQifJ5teTigBX_naoDGu-prSeEcQGhkE2YnM. It’s a long read, but worth it.
I first came across ‘nihilism’ in the course of my researches into the revolutionary groups that ‘my’ London Metropolitan Police Special Branch was set up to counter at the turn of the twentieth century. (See my The Origins of the Vigilant State, 1987.) At first I confused it with ‘anarchism’; but it was, and is, not the same at all. Anarchists work to abolish government, but only because that will enable a more perfect society to emerge. (In present-day terms, they’re usually found not on the Left but on the Right of politics, among the extreme ‘neo-Liberals’.) Nihilists want to abolish everything. Here’s Keizer:
‘Leaving nuanced definitions to the philosophers, I would define nihilism as a combination of three basic elements: a refusal to hope for anything except the ultimate vindication of hopelessness; a rejection of all values, especially values widely regarded as sacrosanct (equality, posterity, and legality); and a glorification of destruction, including self-destruction—or as Walter Benjamin put it, “self-alienation” so extreme that humanity “can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.” Nihilism is less passive and more perverse than simple despair. “Nihilism is not only despair and negation,” according to Albert Camus, “but, above all, the desire to despair and to negate.”’
Might that not describe the basic ‘motivation’ (if it can be called that) of so many bombers, shooters, Trumpists (Keizer was thinking of them), ‘shock-jocks’ and even Brexiteers today? And of Fascists in the past? It’s the act of destroying that thrills them. The outcome is irrelevant. Or is that to over-intellectualise it?
In a way it’s a reversion to a sub-human, animal (or infantile) way of behaviour. Animals and very small children don’t ‘think’ of future consequences, though they may be biologically programmed to prepare for them (birds building nests, babies seeking the breast, and so on). They’re led only by their feelings and instincts. That’s not the same as being ‘stupid’, as stupidity requires a kind of thought. It’s the negation – annihilation – of thought. Haven’t we all felt like that, for mercifully brief moments? (Oh, fuck all this!) It – non-thinking – can be exhilarating and even liberating. And it may be what leads us – humankind – into the kinds of mess we are finding ourselves in now. It’s our inner nihilism, or bestiality, or infantilism, coming to the surface.
God I’m depressed!