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The Negation of Nihilism by John Latham

“Capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a process of nature, its own negation. It is the negation of the negation.” – Karl Marx cited by Engels, F. Anti-Dühring (1877)


The nineteenth century was an age of glorious optimism in the industrial nations. Liberals, anarchists and socialists thought that the future was a wonderful prospect. The Paris Commune had illuminated the imagination of rebels. Charles Darwin had liberated many people from superstition. Technology had developed fast. Grand ideologies like Marxism seemed to have coherence and the welfare state gained momentum in Germany. English hegemony over Ireland was on the wane. The patriarchy was also being questioned. But the twentieth century showed that the brutality inflicted by imperialists in colonies could happen at home. Europe collapsed into barbarism. Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer were moved to write the powerful Dialectic of Enlightenment to explain the emergence of fascism.

The development of the Keynesian welfare state allowed Europeans to ignore some of their bloody past. And the evolution of the European Union permitted different peoples to get along. But there was always a tendency towards complacency. Emergent problems like climate change were not dealt with. Peripheral regions in the EU never seemed to get sufficient structural funds to compensate for the unevenness of capitalist progress. The disintegration of the Soviet Union added to the smugness. The European Union adopted the Euro without sufficient planning. And the crisis of neoliberalism caught most politicians and economists napping. There were no radical forces in the wings to rise to the challenge of history. Elite groups exploited the Great Recession and then pushed hard to restore business as usual.

The sensible individual would weigh all this shit up and try to make a buck. Monetise everything could be their slogan. There is nothing like political defeat to spread nihilism. The advent of Trump and other virulent forms of nationalism seems to have swept aside historic ideas of social solidarity. Even feminism has suffered a major setback. But being prudent can lead to a great deal of misery. It can be fun to participate in something larger than oneself. After the death of Thatcherism, there is such a thing as society. In cold halls there are people who once dreamed the same dreams you dreamed.

And there are causes. Privatisations to be fought, benefits to be defended. And there are meetings to identify more causes. Strikes to support, and information to share. It might not be realistic to move against global capitalism, but it might be possible to maintain local democracy. Of course, there are downsides. It can get tiring. You may have heard a speech so often you could make it yourself. And there can be people who will change before your eyes at the first glint of power. But without the dirt there would not be any weeds.

Nihilism is a really strong force. It can manifest itself in many forms. Tricky, it can come at you from different angles. You may have thought that you have beaten it. But it can come right back at you. It is contagious. It is the snicker of the white comedian who ‘hates’ political correctness. It is the Trump supporter who accosts you on the bus. It is at the bottom of the vodka bottle. It is the blue eyes of the woman who works away at the Department of Work and Pensions. It is the Key Performance Indicator which justifies bureaucratic sadism. It is the man who eats a large chocolate bar outside the foodbank before eating a large meal in the pub. It is the eyes which see all these things. It is the brain that personifies intellectualism. It is the heart that forgets that people are social creatures, that neglects the framing impact of the mass media, that deletes the invisible suffering at the end of the phone.

It’s the little cracks which let the nihilism out. Look at the unintentional comedy of the House of Lords. An institution stuffed with people who have made it to the best care home in the UK through the will to power. While it fails any democratic test, it carries on regardless. It should make a political person angry. It should make them think back to David Lloyd George and his battle to deliver a budget for the people. But it is better to listen to them droning on. Such immaculate manners after such fine lunches- “my noble learned lord”- isn’t there a tautology there somewhere? Isn’t a lord noble by being a lord? Isn’t that the whole point of lordship? These are the people who will not protect the National Health Service from privatisation, but they are learned and amusing. Absurdity will have its way.

Once outdated oppression seems ridiculous, the idea of gradual change does not appear quite so impossible. It is no coincidence that the playwright George Bernard Shaw was a socialist. His life and work gave him a penetrating insight into the horrors of the class system. The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism may have an unfortunate title and tone, but it is well worth reading to this day. It may well be that significant political progress is unattainable under late capitalism, but those who never try to change things will never access the sublime craziness of challenging nihilism.



Older than he cares to admit, John spends his time feeling even older than he is. He produces content, while seeking quiet contentment. He supports Liverpool FC and Jeremy Corbyn, and likes the colour red. His blog Cheepcheepcopy is a scrapbook of political economy, with book reviews. Comments are always welcome.





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