Originally Published 04 March 2002
by Robert Fine, Department of Sociology
To ask the question today - what is the 'politics of nothing?' - is to refer to the phenomenon of destruction in the modern age. We are surrounded by competing banalities. On one side, we hear a repeated indictment of 'evil ones' who blow things up, be it Buddhist statues or world trade centres, apparently out of a simple demonical impulse. On the other side, we are plied with 'good reasons' why people should want to blow up symbols of western power: blame is placed on American foreign policy, the poverty of the Arab masses, or even once again on the Jews - this time, what they are doing in Israel. Banality is pitted against banality.
In his Letters to a German Friend, Albert Camus traces two 'politics of nothing': one that belonged to his fictional German friend, the other that belonged to himself: "We have both long thought that this world has no ultimate meaning and that consequently we are cheated". It seemed to Camus that neither for his friend nor for himself was nihilism a choice. It was a social condition. Camus posed the difference between them thus: "you readily accepted despair and I never yielded to it".
Hannah Arendt also wrote of nihilism as a social condition. She identified it with the crisis of authority that occurred when the three pillars of pre-modern civilisation - tradition, religion, authority - collapsed. In reply to a call for a renewed inquiry into ultimate values, Arendt says: "I am sure that this whole totalitarian catastrophe would not have happened if people still had believed in God or in hell - if there were still ultimates. - The meaning of her remark was not that nihilism can be combated through a restoration of traditional values. After all, she commented, the Nazi was nothing if not a good family man. It was that those who were still firmly convinced of so-called "old values" were the first to change their old values to new. Give people one "banister" and they easily exchange it for another.
These old existentialists saw that the spectre that haunted Europe was nihilism, and they fought against a politics of nothing that simply endorsed this self-devalorisation of bourgeois values. They argued that European nihilism arises out of an often-justified disgust with the fake world of bourgeois values. Thus in the aftermath of the First World War the surviving elite of the front generation often expressed the hope that the whole culture and texture of bourgeois life would go down in 'storms of steel'. Since the bourgeoisie paraded publicly the virtues that it actually held in contempt, radicals elevated violence and cruelty as supreme capacities of humankind. At least this destroyed the duplicity upon which the existing society seemed to rest. Such 'spiritless radicalism', as Arendt called it, was at first outrageous to a bourgeoisie, but it in fact knocked on an open door and became increasingly welcome to those who were tired of managing the tension between words and deeds and ready to reveal a more naked brutality.
Auschwitz and the Gulag epitomise the fact that the destructiveness of our age cannot be understood on the assumption that action is purposive or that violence is instrumentally rational. Violence ceased to be a means to an end and exceeded all sense of utility. The lunacy of the camps may be illustrated by the orders pouring out of Himmler's office warning commanders that no economic or military considerations were to interfere with the extermination programme. The camps were not simply an aberration; they reveal something about the excess of destruction that is part of our world. They translate the nihilist promise that 'everything is possible' into the threat that 'everything can be destroyed'.
We are left with the same question that faced Arendt and Camus: not how to deny the actuality of nihilism but how to turn the experience of nothingness into something affirmative. Can one live believing in nothing? Nietzsche asked. His reply was yes, if one accepts the final consequences of nihilism. It is the advantage of our time, he wrote, that 'everything is permitted'. I would add that if we are to take seriously the idea of a politics of nothing, then politics itself is not to be spurned. Values are now inexorably political. There is no pre-political moment of truth. In the politics of nothing everything depends on us - on what we do, how we think, our understanding of the world. To hold on to this strange idea of a 'politics of nothing' is to express a need to comprehend the elements of destruction within modern experience and to explore the new possibilities for freedom present within them.