The meaning of official nihilism

What does it mean that our society has officially rejected the notion of a common moral reality in which all participate? (See, e.g., Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”) Officially, it means that we’re free, democratic and progressive—we give everyone the right to establish his own values, make consent the basis for authority, and strive through the market, the provident state, and anti-discrimination rules to enable each to get what he chooses, as much and as equally as possible.

In actual fact, of course, government can’t be as clean and friction-free as that. It doesn’t run itself, so someone must be in charge. Further, efficiency, neutrality and formal rationality, the only standards for good government that can hope to survive the abolition of common moral reality, are plainly technical questions that should be decided by disinterested experts rather than the majority. If there’s no common moral reality then majority rule can only be the will of the larger number to get whatever it happens to want. That can hardly be a legitimate principle of government except under special controlled circumstances.

It follows that there has to be a class of guardians to run the show. To perform their function the guardians must take whatever steps are necessary to maintain their authority. That means that men have to be brought to like a society in which efficiency, neutrality and rationality (as interpreted by experts) are all-controlling public ideals that trump everything. If they don’t like the society, they’ll reject it, and if they reject it the principle of consent as the basis of authority is lost.

The problem with teaching men to like advanced liberal society, though, is that man is passionate and spiritual. He won’t accept the lesson unless he is made into something other than what he is. The guardians feel up to transforming him, however. Since they recognize neither human nature nor higher law as a limitation, they look on human society as an object to be reconstructed, and feel justified in extending their power into every corner of human existence in order to remake it on more rational lines.

The free and democratic society thus turns out on inspection to be the totally managed society, with ambitions that extend to the reconstruction of human nature itself. It is, in fact, the totalitarian society. Totalitarianism is simply the belief that life in society should be a conscious human construction for purposes human beings choose. Once that is accepted, it is not “humanity” but government—some particular group of men—that decides by its own will what everything is and should be, and claims the rightful power to make the decision good. It thus claims for itself—and attempts to exercise—power that is more like God’s power than anything men have claimed for themselves in the past.

In America, of course, what is growing up is a soft totalitarianism. It is imposed by the logic of the accepted public philosophy, and by innate tendencies of modern rationalized forms of social organization, rather than by mass rallies, secret police and firing squads. Our methods grind slower but finer than the crude ones used in the last century. It is a totalitarianism of manipulation, carried forward by an amoral and utterly ruthless technological approach toward dealing with both public life and human nature in organizations. It is a totalitarianism that cannot be discussed or even identified, because public discussion and what is recognized as knowledge are in the hands of its proponents, and because the transcendent standards needed to distinguish between freedom and manipulation have been abolished.

So what can be done? To deal with a truly basic problem you must go to the source. Totalitarianism results from the disappearance of the notion of a common moral reality in which all participate. If there is no such thing, then notions of human dignity and freedom make no sense. Man becomes raw material for the schemes of the strong, deceitful and ruthless. Moral and political order, then, must begin at the center. The solution to our most basic political problems today lies outside of politics. It is not political, but religious.

1 thought on “The meaning of official nihilism”

  1. So, will our soft totalitarianism

    So, will our soft totalitarianism bill itself as a religion or make up a religion to partner with itself?

Comments are closed.