By Joseph Hille | December 11, 2017
Think about the news media you are exposed to and the academic articles you read regarding contemporary political trajectories. On the left, one likely reads many critiques of neoliberalism; while on the right, the same is likely true for socialist ideals. This is the case in any system of differing political beliefs: one will attempt to debase the other. As this practice of debasing and criticizing systems of government—rather than proposing solutions—has become the most prominent way to discuss international relations, naturally, nihilist ideals have begun to take over.
An optimistic nihilist is one who believes that in the absence of a true meaning to life, one must work towards their own personal happiness. While this way of life may seem harmless to others, we must acknowledge the broader effect of a societally nihilist mindset: one which validates self-concern, must in turn invalidate the concerns of others. The current rise of nihilism as a dominant philosophical belief inherently brings about nationalism as its broadened version of self-focus. I will go on to argue that this “broadened self-focus” fomented by nihilism today is the nascent state of what will become radical nationalism; or in other words, Nazism.
The original scholar of nihilism—Friedrich Nietzsche—predicted its rise back in the late 1800s, flourishing philosophical systems and dialogues in regards of it intercontinentally. Nietzsche’s assessment was as follows: once one understands that there is no higher purpose to the life we live, our “action, suffering, willing and feeling” will have no meaning.  One who embraces these values, and thus understands that individuals may set their own purpose for life, is defined by Nietzsche as an “Ubermensch,” or a “superman.” Nietzsche’s prediction was an optimistic one at the time; it was a proposition for human enlightenment, though it may have seemed to be an abandonment of care for life. It was instead a desire to understand the reality of it. Nietzsche, however, failed to predict the use of nihilism as a tool to mobilize people behind a common characteristic. Adolf Hitler, however, did see this potential.
In his rise to power, Hitler built the concept of the Aryan race upon Nietzsche’s “Ubermensch.” Germany during the 1930’s was a nation with a majority that faced burdens from the first World War — burdens put on them by their previous generation—which, naturally, they wished to blame on others. Hitler defined the qualities of an “Ubermensch”—one who is intelligent enough to set their own purpose for life—as qualities exclusively inherent of the Aryan race. On the other hand, Hitler coined the term “Untermenschen” to describe Jews, homosexuals, and black people, as well as all others, meaning “inferior humans.” Hitler saw in his people a self-focused mentality, as well as a lack of care for understanding the meaning of others’ suffering because of that. Thus, nihilist ideals, compounded with ego and a desire to blame others, allowed the “Ubermensch” to be used to create something entirely antithetical to it—a group of people so happy to be told that they are enlightened, that they lose the ability to be critical of the absolute trust and loyalty they give to an individual that makes them feel that way. Yes, this is a simplification of WWII and the Holocaust, but my point is that while nihilism may come in many forms—the optimists who serve themselves being the most common—there will always be those who manipulate it for their own benefit.
More contemporary examples of those who have abused this common weakness of the nihilist mindset in the past two years in the Western world is of two democratic processes which have been leaning toward drastically nationalist ideals: The United Kingdom’s European Union membership referendum and the election of the 45th U.S. President, Donald Trump. While it is easy to look at both campaigns and sum them up as political movements with nationalist and exclusionist ideals at their core, we must look closer to recognize the populism that allowed these two movements to resemble the nihilism that Hitler’s followers possessed.
For the sake of this argument, I will focus on the common factor of refugee barring that both political movements ran on. As rational beings, we humans are naturally programmed to empathize. Thus, the easiest way to discount the suffering of others is to dehumanize them. Within the propaganda leading up to the Brexit vote, Nigel Farage—arguably the leader of the movement—used images of masses of refugees with their faces blurred and quotes such as “Breaking Point” in bold laid over these images.  This imagery successfully discounted the ‘human’ aspect of the suffering in the involuntary displacement depicted, by instead shifting the victimization to the voter. The voters in this case (very much resembling the post-WWI followers of Hitler) were in valley regarding employment rates and economic growth, and were largely made up of hard working lower-class individuals looking to blame this on others. The original failure of these voters, as members of a democracy, was accepting from Nigel Farage and other right-wing U.K. politicians, that they are the enlightened individuals among their nation, thereby allowing their nihilism regarding the situation to be capitalized on for the gain of others. On the side of the politicians, one could assess that Nigel Farage and Donald Trump are both nihilists as they seem to simply not care to assess the suffering they cause others if it brings them personal satisfaction and—in their cases—political clout.
In the case of Donald Trump’s presidency, another one of the most infamously powerful nihilists known worldwide is Julian Assange, of Wikileaks.  Assange runs his business on the concept of “radical transparency,” and while this may seem like a liberating principle for an organization fighting political hegemony, it is not employed by Assange without ulterior motive. Whereas others such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden have leaked information to weaken the hold an uncensored power has had on its people, Assange takes the role to weaken a system he professes the dismantling of. Assange’s concept of “freedom” is more akin to anarchic nihilism. An example of such actions is his decision to release information damaging the political campaign of Hillary Clinton one month before the election. By swaying elections and controlling the private information of others, Assange has made an ally of Trump, giving hope for Assange to attain asylum in the United States. Understanding the reality of this situation only tempts one to be more furious with the system in place and the ease with which individuals take power and act.
The average citizen of Earth today has a voice, as seen frequently in these past two major political events. On Facebook and Twitter, as well as other social media platforms, we are bombarded constantly with stories of global suffering as well as the political opinions of our acquaintances. Those who post their political opinions on Facebook do not post to be questioned or start a dialogue, instead they post for validation. This encourages the average individual to respond to the world’s suffering by expressing their disapproval of the oppressors, and then moving on as if they have contributed to solving it. Taking this common process apart, we can see the positive intention; but at the same time, we see the same self-serving principles that we see within a nihilist, wherein the validation received from posting an opinion is a satisfying counter to the guilt caused by the powerful influx of images of injustice.
An extension of this, is that of the savior complex, more specifically, the White-Savior Industrial Complex—as coined by Teju Cole—which shows the tactless counter to the negative effects of nihilism. The example Cole gives of this complex is through the actions taken in response to Joseph Kony’s regime and human rights violations as leader of LRA Militia in Uganda.  In response to a film released in 2012 discussing the atrocities Joseph Kony caused, especially regarding the suffering of children in Uganda, countless charities were formed to remove him from power. The story went so viral within the U.S. that the Senate approved of sending troops. Ultimately, the movements worked. The American charities run widely by white people succeeded in removing the violent oppressor in a faraway African nation. The failure of these movements is that they stopped there. The positive intentions in the case of these charities and movements are misplaced and only exist to serve the ego of its so called “charitable” contributors. As soon as one terrible man became viral, it was time to do something; because we could no longer claim ignorance. Thus, our guilt took over, causing us white industrialists to passionately aim not just for the removal of an evil man; but for the removal of the evil from our mind. White industrialists now believe any evil that rises to power in Uganda is a problem for someone else—we have done our job and gotten out; thus, we ignore the systemic nature of suffering, rendering us no more effective than the nihilists that understand and ignore, favoring themselves.
We must remember, no matter how much we paint nihilists as an infection to the progress of the world and indirectly blame suffering on those who embrace their ideals, nihilists, by definition, see no meaning to “action, suffering, willing and feeling”. I would argue though that this may technically be an enlightened state of understanding of what it is to be human and have purpose. However, we must also see the ‘nihili-zation’ of the world as a process of removing empathy from the natural human condition. If we do not care about the sufferings of others, we are redefining what it is to be human, and creating an anti-culture based on self-focus rather than on forming anything based on collaboration and compromise. General optimism and hard work, sympathy and fighting for voices to be heard, and equality of living standards is for now—then we may all have the headspace to peacefully participate in the nihilistic deconstruction of the human condition.
 Wilkerson, Dale. “Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
 Halpern, Sue. “The Nihilism of Julian Assange.” The New York Review of Books.
 Freedland, Jonathan. “Why Is Assange Helping Trump?” The New York Review of Books.
 Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2012. Accessed November 06, 2017.
Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/2 54843/.
Freedland, Jonathan. “Why Is Assange Helping Trump?” The New York Review of Books. October 19, 2016. http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2016/10/19/wikileaks-why-is-assange-helping-trump/.
Halpern, Sue. “The Nihilism of Julian Assange.” The New York Review of Books. July 13, 2017. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/07/13/nihilism-of-julian-assange-wikileaks/.
Wilkerson, Dale. “Friedrich Nietzsche (1844—1900).” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://www.iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/#H4.