On Nihilism

Commentators struggling to explain the shocking and wholly unexpected outcome of the recent UK election have suggested that a significant part was played by fear. The electorate was encouraged to fear a minority Labour government supported by the SNP, to fear a return to a high tax and spending, and the influence of a surge in support for UKIP indicates a fear of immigration, and even of Europe. The narrative set out by the Conservative Party, often repeated and rarely challenged, was that only they could keep us safe. It’s clear that instilling fear was to some extent a deliberate strategy, though it may also be a more nebulous and less easily defined aspect of the political climate. But what is the nature of this fear? What are we supposed to be afraid of?

It seems to me there are several layers of fear: older, deeper layers that are losing their grip on us yet still exert some power, and newer layers nearer the surface, whose effects are more sharply defined. Of these, the newest, sprung on us by neoliberalism, is the fear that we may be going mad.

The Hobbesian fear of a war of all against all that drives us towards civil society and obliges us to accept the security provided by a sovereign power is perhaps still there, deep in our political psyche, but it’s not what we’re feeling, or being encouraged to feel.

Promoting a fear of the other – of those not like us – is a familiar device. In the UK, this may take the form of a fear of immigration, but is most tangible as a fear of Islamic terrorism. Even though there may be some basis to the fear of terrorism, and it has led to increased police powers and increased surveillance, this was not a factor in the election. The issue of immigration is harder to call, as it was a prominent theme in the lead up to the election and has driven some voters into the arms of UKIP, which had an impact both on the strategies of other parties and on the distribution of votes in the election itself. If pressed, people who declare a concern with immigration generally say they’re worried about pressure on public services, school places, and jobs. Is this just to mask an underlying racism and xenophobia? Perhaps it is, at least to some degree. Yet this may not be the real problem. The obligation to mask traces of racism behind a concern with public services and jobs is not only to make it somehow more acceptable. It is also an example of the way political questions have to be expressed in economic terms in order to be taken seriously, and – quite apart from the issue of immigration itself – this points towards the kind of fear that I think we are encouraged to feel most strongly today.

One of the distinguishing marks of neoliberalism is the way it extends an economic form of analysis to parts of life that had not previously been understood in terms of investment, profit, loss, and competition. Not only are internal markets created in healthcare, education, and the prison system, for example, but each of us is encouraged to think of ourselves in entrepreneurial terms. The old fashioned injunction to ‘make the most of what you have’ becomes a requirement to ‘make more of yourself.’ As Michel Foucault puts it: “the individual’s life – with his relationships to his private property, for example, with his family, household, insurance, and retirement – must make him into a sort of permanent and multiple enterprise” (Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, trans. Graham Burchell, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 241). Earlier forms of liberalism involved deferring to the market as the arbiter of the true or natural value of commodities as they were exchanged, but this mechanism now extends its reach beyond commerce to the whole of life. Foucault again: “we reach the point at which maybe the object of economic analysis should be identified with any purposeful conduct which involves, broadly speaking, a strategic choice of means, ways, and instruments: in short, the identification of the object of economic analysis with any rational conduct” (Foucault, 268-269). In neoliberalism, then, two decisive shifts occur: politics is subsumed beneath the management of the economy, and rationality is defined as economic calculation.

When people argue for more public investment – health, education, welfare, house building – they are accused of giving voice to a political desire that has not been disciplined by economic calculation. From the perspective of neoliberalism, it is not merely ‘naïve’ to imagine that politics could make sense independently of the immediate imperative to balance the books, it is actually irrational.

This is where we can see a new kind of fear being laid down (though it echoes an older theological discourse of our relation to sin). The dismissal of political desires not disciplined by economic calculation involves an incitement to fear two things: to fear political discussion of how to live and what to value; and beyond this to fear that we may ourselves be irrational for wanting to engage in such discussion. If austerity requires a compliant people, then this compliance is secured in part by instilling a fear in each of us of our own incipient madness.

DW

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