Overcoming the Compelling Logic of Nihilism
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“Thou shalt not kill.”
We now live in the era of the nonessential. If we are not deemed essential workers, or deemed to be engaging in essential travel, we are under house arrest. While this condition stimulates vigorous discussion as to what sort of nation we’ve become, and reminds us how tenuous our individual freedoms really are, it may also stimulate an even deeper and more unsettling question.
How does it benefit the ecological health of planet earth, or further the dreams of a global elite, to have several billion human beings performing jobs whose value is eclipsed by the overhead required to sustain their superfluous lives? Who cares if they live, voraciously consuming dwindling resources, while offering nothing to further the collective aspirations of the ruling class?
The current pandemic puts this nihilistic reasoning into compelling clarity. If so much of the world’s population is “nonessential,” why should they exist? Why should their burgeoning numbers and rising expectations be tolerated any longer? Let them die.
If there were no other reason to nurture the life-affirming values of Christianity then to counter the arguments of nihilists, this would be enough. Turning to other cultures for similar affirmations, one may hope, as the Dalai Lama famously put it, “the purpose of religion is not to build beautiful churches or temples, but to cultivate positive human qualities such as tolerance, generosity, and hope.”
Now more than ever, those values must surface. Because a coldly rational appraisal of planet earth’s nearly eight billion human souls is likely to yield a coldly rational conclusion; there are too many of us. Way, way too many. One might even consider nihilism to be a tough moral choice. Kill off humanity to save the planet.
It’s easy enough to dispute this contention. Technological advances may continue to outpace population growth, especially since global population is expected to peak within a few decades and then slowly decline. There is adequate land area on earth to accommodate ten billion people or more. Magnificent megacities and the industrialization of outer space are just some of the wondrous advances that could make life in the second half of the 21st century fantastic beyond imagining.
Burst Bubbles, Shattered Dreams
The global pandemic, however, has revealed how easily an optimistic vision of the future can be shattered. The repercussions of this disaster are only beginning to be understood. From a medical perspective, this is not merely a dangerous new disease that poses greater-than-average challenges. It is evidence that any rogue state has or will soon have the ability to release an engineered virus that could wipe out billions of lives, and there appears to be very little we can do to stop them.
Moreover, this pandemic illustrates that in the event of biological warfare, fascist police states will wield a decisive advantage, with their capacity to monitor the biological health and control the physical movements of every individual. And the rising international tensions accompanying this global pandemic are only beginning.
Opportunistic military moves by the Beijing-Tehran-Moscow axis during this crisis may or may not explode into wider conflict. But in the long run, the pandemic shutdown will continue to disrupt every nation on earth, overturning a web of mutually necessary trade connections. Nations that depend on food imports, and require both foreign aid and relative domestic stability to distribute it, may not be able to cope. Nobody knows how bad this could get.
The economic fallout from this pandemic also underscores the fragility of our prosperity. Since 1900 the global population has quintupled. While population growth has leveled off in most of the world, in the poorest nations that are least able to handle it, populations continue to explode. What will happen when food aid slows or stops? In the rest of the world, aging populations confront an uncertain future. Will they be able to survive on their savings if their savings are wiped out in a market crash? Will they be able to survive on government retirement benefits if their governments are insolvent?
Desperate Times Breed Nihilistic Passions
The answers offered by nihilists are the reductive panaceas that appeal to the desperate and tempt the demagogues. Tribalism, belligerent nationalism, the seductive enticements of socialism, and perhaps the most nihilistic of all, the solutions of extremist environmentalists.
It’s not as if environmentalists, or to be more precise, Mathusians, don’t have an argument. It might be quantified this way: If every one of the nearly 8 billion people alive today used half as much energy as the average American uses, global energy production would have to double. That’s actually a slight understatement, and if you believe fossil fuel cannot be part of our energy future, you’re climbing an impossible slope.
The extreme green solution is a total collapse, which accelerationist groups such as the Deep Green Resistance either consciously or unwittingly advocate as they “target the strategic infrastructure of industrialization.” The other is socialist rationing that presumably would allocate a shrinking supply of global energy equitably to all the peoples of the world. One must wonder how many billion eggs would have to break to cook that omelet.
The nihilism of socialism is perhaps the most naïve, because no socialist admits they’d like to see yet another iteration of the murderous thuggery which, throughout history, has claimed millions of lives in pursuit of socialist utopia and social justice. But at its core, socialism is nihilistic, because it denies and crushes an essential part of human nature, the survival instinct that motivates individuals to acquire and protect their property through industrious personal efforts.
Instead, socialism centralizes economic decision-making and arbitrarily redistributes wealth. It destroys individual initiative, breeds cynicism and corruption, and ultimately requires tyranny to exist. Socialism is inherently nihilistic because, without incentives, economies lose the vitality necessary to advance technology and increase productivity. The fate of every socialist regime that ever existed was implosion, usually not before delivering decades of misery and murder.
21st Century Capitalism Has Allied Itself With Socialism
What passes for capitalism today has alienated billions around the world, and ironically, the reason for this is that in important respects capitalism and socialism have become almost indistinguishable. In past centuries, capitalists acquired massive personal wealth, but never lost their connection to the nations that nurtured their success. While capitalists abused workers in the first century of the industrial revolution, in Western nations compromises were struck that protected workers’ rights. A mixed capitalism emerged that enabled a strong middle class to develop. Thanks to globalization, all of that is now under assault.
Capitalists today, all too often, view the entire world as an undifferentiated market. People are capital units to be traded and exchanged as easily as any other commodity. Their internationalism dovetails synergistically with the doctrine of international socialists. The worst of both world views have surfaced, with capitalist speculators siphoning trillions out of an excessively financialized global economy, all the while supporting socialist doctrines of open borders and an overreaching regulatory state.
And why not? Open borders drive down the value of labor. A strict regulatory environment destroys the ability of smaller competitors to emerge. And “green” mandates restrict access to new resources at the same time as imposed scarcity elevates the prices and the profits for those monopolists who already control the market.
California’s dysfunctional alliance between socialists and corporate monopolists illustrates this counter-intuitive reality. California’s socialist government has created a regulatory environment that makes home construction virtually impossible. The state government has thrown open the borders, announcing and funding “sanctuary” for illegal immigrants, it has released tens of thousands of prisoners, downgraded or eliminated the penalties for property and drug crimes, and made it against the law for police to arrest vagrants. The monopolists who control California’s economy are helped by these regulations. Whatever housing they build is subsidized by taxpayers and sold at astronomical prices. The flood of indigents onto the streets guarantees a perpetual housing shortage and unaffordable rents. But it can’t go on.
This phony compassion is the most pernicious nihilism of all. The corporate socialists who run California have been destroying its middle class for years, but now they are putting those efforts into overdrive. In the name of socialist compassion, California’s elected officials are going to destroy the incomes of hardworking people, then use federal bailout money to purchase their foreclosed homes, and then allow those homes to be occupied, at taxpayers’ expense, by homeless people who themselves were put onto the streets because of government policies. Why own property? Why work?
Will Californians ever revolt against unsustainable compassion, promoted by opportunistic hypocrites and naïve dupes? Will California’s exhausted productive class ever realize that there will never be relief, that their burden of taxes and regulations to protect and serve the less fortunate will only get heavier until it destroys them? Will they continue to allow themselves and their children constantly to be told they deserve whatever additional burden they must carry because of their “privilege,” and because of the oppressive historical legacy of their ancestors? Will they submit quietly to an institutionalized nihilism focused specifically on them?
California is a case study in corporate socialism at its absolute, nihilistic worst. How long can a government declare war on its hard-working citizens, in order to serve the nonessential? Or have the elites that populate this marriage between capitalists and socialists decided that everyone is nonessential?
The case against nihilism, like the case for optimism, is always harder.
As automation inevitably displaces workers, nearly everyone will eventually become nonessential. New economic models will have to be found that preserve economic vitality and growth while no longer relying on an increasing population. New energy and resource technologies will be necessary; fusion power, indoor agriculture, asteroid mining. Nations and cultures will have to be protected, not commoditized in the name of social justice. Reasonable steps must be taken to preserve wilderness areas and protect the health of the environment, but that must be balanced against the needs of humanity.
Most of all, any viable political economy looking to evolve in the 21st century must preserve individual incentives. Perhaps nearly everyone is becoming nonessential, but nonetheless, what they earn and what they own must retain a connection to how hard they work and what they can offer of value.
Without that connection, aimless individual hedonism, personal nihilism, will be rewarded more than hard work and accountability. Such a society shall be obliterated by nations and cultures that have preserved their vitality. Such a society deserves to die. But on the streets of Los Angeles today, that inverted, and very nihilistic model, is spreading like a wildfire riding on the Santa Ana winds.