Progressive Nihilism

Progressive Nihilism December 8, 2023

Progressives used to be believe, as should be obvious, in progress.  Things are getting better and better, and once we solve the problems that are hanging on from the past, we will have a glorious future.

Even progressives at their most radical and violent thought this way.  Marxists were convinced that while history is a bleak tale of class struggle and the revolution will be bloody and ruthless, eventually the state will wither away and communism will create the workers’ paradise.

Such utopianism sounds naive today.  Not even progressives believe it.

According to today’s progressive ideology, oppression is systemic, a matter of one group imposing its power over other groups, and there is really nothing beyond that.  Social change amounts to replacing one oppressive group with another oppressive group, preferably the one that used to be oppressed.  But there is no end to that pattern of oppression, no utopia towards which one can strive.  Eventually, global warming or nuclear war or an asteroid or the burning out of the sun will put an end to us.  In the meantime, we can make our brief lives meaningful by subverting the status quo in a never-ending resistance.

Ashley Frawley in Compact writes about this change in his article The New Progressive Nihilism. It’s behind a paywall, but here is his thesis:

As progressive optimism declined, so did the notion that politics could reach for something beyond itself. In its place has been substituted a progressive nihilism. In the late 20th century, the vanishing of a utopian horizon left only a politics of subversion, in which disruption became an end in itself.

He applies this cynical brand of activism to the Left’s reaction to the massacre of Israelis by Hamas:

Why would disruption for its own sake come to be seen as progressive? Because the idea emerged that whatever perpetuates the existence of a politically unsalvageable world, consciously or not, is morally suspect. Families that reproduce patriarchy, institutions laden with racism and sexism, and so on—all are complicit in the perpetuation of a system that must be brought down. Ordinary people going about their lives are also complicit and deserve to be disrupted—hence, the tactics of climate activists who blockade roads and prevent commuters from getting to work. But within the capitalist-realist framework that “there is no alternative,” there is no faith in a better future. All that is left, then, is an endless politics of “resistance”: not overcoming, not creating, but resisting, subverting, and disrupting.

This radical politics of subversion also informed the immediate, instinctive sympathy felt on the progressive left with Hamas terrorists, rather than Israeli civilians on Oct. 7. Wasn’t Hamas’s onslaught the ultimate act of subversion that burst through the banality of day-to-day life with a dramatic spectacle? The victims were “disrupted” amid their everyday routines, their complicity with an oppressive system was subverted. Mass slaughter is the ultimate “disruption,” the ultimate “carnival against capitalism.”

Although, I suppose, when the Left is in power–as it already is in many respects–and it goes about oppressing its enemies, it doesn’t approve of resistance and subversion then, a tactic some conservatives are turning to.

Conservatives, of course, don’t believe in progress and so have always been skeptical of utopian schemes.  If anything, conservatives look not to the future but to the past for their golden age.  Conservatives generally have more modest goals, making small improvements and reforms, which, together, can amount to significant betterment of society.  But it will never be perfect, and there will always be more work to do.

That isn’t very motivating, though.  Simply opposing the progressives with their penchant for ruining what we already have is often enough of a cause.

Christians don’t believe we can build a utopia either, given the reality of human sinfulness.  And yet, Christians do have ideals and a hope that can motivate them to do what they can as they love and serve their neighbors in this life.  They are saved from cynicism and nihilism by the conviction that an actual eu+topia (“good place”) awaits them after they die, and for the whole world when Christ returns.

This eschatological hope is the message of Advent.


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