Capitalism and Nihilism

Nihilism, I contend, broadly comes in two different flavors. There is the nihilism of hopelessness and existential dread, whereby the meaninglessness of everything is more contemplative, yet psychologically paralyzing. I tend to fall more into this camp. The second flavor is selfishness and greed. A person concludes there is no meaning to anything, so why not just enjoy myself?

This post was inspired by the Wisecrack video below:

The above video examines the South Park character Cartman through the lens of two types of nihilism, though for my purposes I would consider them related. They look at the philosophies of Max Stirner and Ayn Rand. Both of them fall more into my “capitalist” definition of nihilism. For those who know Max Stirner, it would probably seem strange to call him a capitalist, but I am using the term loosely here. Indeed, it would probably be better to use the term “egoist.” Why I call it capitalist is because it bases actions on self-interest insofar as it says that my only imperative is to do what pleases me. This is the idea in capitalism that a group of people all acting in their own (rational) self-interest will maximize utility in a society.

Stirner differs from Rand in concluding that a person ought not elevate material and sensual pleasures, since these are values instilled from the outside rather than generated by the individual. Rand, on the other hand, believes that status and material wealth matter greatly in a person’s value.

They both agree, however, that value is determined by the individual. I think Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy is abhorrent, and even when I was a committed libertarian I never understood why other libertarians liked objectivism. To me it always seemed like exactly the charge levied against libertarians by others: that they were selfish, cruel, and cared only about money. To me, the Randian objectivist was the libertarian stereotype I had always wished to dispel.

With Stirner’s philosophy, I think it runs into the same problems as those anarcho-communists / anarcho-syndicalists who wish to abolish private property. Such a thing would require a powerful, totalitarian state to uphold. Without such a state, things would simply turn into an anarcho-capitalist society, where property rights are upheld by the individual: my property is whatever I can defend. This is why the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist folks are so adamant about gun rights, because they believe that ownership of property goes only as far as what an individual can personally defend. If a society is truly stateless and a person wishes to use something currently in my possession (because there is no private property and therefore it is not mine), I can choose to defend that thing with violence or the threat of violence and then that thing is de facto my property. A powerful state would be required to stop people from defending what they view as their property. As a result, a society where ideas of property are abolished in a Stirnerian sense (his idea that property rights are ideas instilled from outside and therefore are not generated by me, thus making them illegitimate) would not work. We either would end up with a totalitarian state (thereby negating the anarchy part of anarcho-communism) or we would end up with anarcho-capitalism (which, if we’re honest, would also quickly descend into totalitarianism, but that’s a subject for another time).

My point here is that I am classifying both Max Stirner and Ayn Rand together under a very loose conception of capitalism.

The other flavor of nihilism, with its more hopeless, existential bent, is nearly impossible to adopt. Indeed, philosophies such as existentialism and absurdism have attempted to reconcile an ultimately nihilist conclusion about human existence with the desire to continue existing. To not find some way of rationalizing our continued existence forces a person to either become cripplingly depressed, potentially resulting in suicide, or seeking distraction. These distractions tend to be of a hedonistic bent, either through sensual pleasures (drugs, alcohol, sex, food) and/or by reverting to the capitalist flavor of nihilism.

The question then becomes: is capitalism a form of (egoist) nihilism? Early capitalist thought derived capitalism from ideas of natural rights (see, for instance, Locke’s political philosophy), which is a much more religious, non-nihilist philosophy. The natural rights of each individual entails and ensures our rights to life, liberty, and property. From this the capitalist economic system can be derived (I go through this in more detail here). I think, however, that capitalism has become divorced from this philosophy of natural rights. It has taken on a flavor more similar to Adam Smith, who had a much more pragmatic view of capitalism, whereby keeping the market free had to do with the ineptitude in principle of the government to direct the economy. This is where the egoist aspect of capitalism comes in: nobody knows myself better than me, therefore only I ought to decide what actions I ought to take.

It’s interesting that the same idea – capitalism – can spawn from two very different schools of thought (natural rights and egoism). I think a place where both would diverge most, however, is that capitalism derived from natural rights would forbid the sort of lobbying, pay-to-play, “not quid pro quo” corruption rampant in our system now. Egoist capitalism, on the other hand, would say that any sort of corruption is fine as long as you can get away with it.

I would conclude, as with most philosophy, both ideas (natural rights and egoism) were created by humans to rationalize what we want to do, anyway. Whether I say I ought to be able to do as I please because of natural rights or because I am answerable only to myself, I end up in the same place: *Cartman voice* whateva! I do what I want!

The United States is an interesting experiment in attempting to reconcile a non-nihilistic Christian metaphysics with a capitalist ethics and political philosophy. This attempt at reconciliation between what is ultimately a form of nihilism (capitalism) and Christianity is what spawned moralistic therapeutic deism, which goes as follows:

  • A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Essentially, Christianity in the United States has transformed (just like natural rights and egoism) to rationalize doing what I want.

It’s not uncommon in libertarian thought to think of capitalism as the most natural order for society. Government is viewed as an unnatural external force that disrupts and pollutes the economy, causing it to deviate away from achieving maximum efficiency. Indeed, in communist and other totalitarian societies (and even in more open societies when it comes to things like drugs and sex) black markets almost inevitably arise. Black markets are a kind of free market insofar as they are free of government subsidization or oversight. This suggests that something at least resembling capitalism is a natural tendency for people. We (at least think we) desire things and a free market offers the best way (that we have come up with so far) to maximize the quantity and variety of things we might find desirable.

This post is an indictment of capitalism. But don’t take that to mean that it is advocating for communism or fascism or any other sort of state control over the economy or other aspects of people’s lives. This same nihilism is not only present, but overly abundant within government. Politicians are not only subject to these same base human tendencies, but they tend to be worse than the general population. Government draws in and rewards the most sociopathic, corruptible, and egoist from society. The vast majority of politicians (especially at the national and state level here in the U.S.), I would argue, are not going into government out of a sense of civic duty but pure self-interest, whether that interest is money, power, self-aggrandizement, or some combination of the three.

So, what should we take away from this somewhat meandering post? I am a nihilist (of a more absurdist bent) and philosophical pessimist, so my view is that everyone is a nihilist and every belief system is an attempt to rationalize or live in denial of our nihilism. Nihilism is the natural state of existence and consciousness an illusion erected before the void. Consciousness persists by buying into this illusion, by fooling ourselves into believing that we matter.. Capitalism is an expression of this egoist illusion absent any form of ideological denial of our meaninglessness, distilling the illusion down to its bare essentials: satisfying immediate desires. Any justification of capitalism only adds flair to this grand deception in order to make it more palatable to a species unable to grapple with its own meaninglessness.