Intellectuals have ushered the world into a dangerous age of political nihilism

This one’s on you, academia.
This one’s on you, academia.
Image: AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
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On the surface, it would seem that intellectuals have nothing to do with the rise of global illiberalism. The movements powering Brexit, Donald Trump and Third-World strongmen like Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte all gleefully reject books, history and higher education in favor of railing against common enemies like outsiders and globalization. And you’ll find few Trump supporters among the largely left-wing American professoriate.

Yet intellectuals are accountable for the rise of these movements—albeit indirectly. Professors have offered stringent criticisms of neoliberal society. But they have failed to offer the public viable alternatives. In this way, they have promoted a political nihilism that has set the stage for new movements that reject liberal democratic principles of tolerance and institutional reform.

Intellectuals have a long history of critiquing liberalism, which relies on a “philosophy of individual rights and (relatively) free markets.” Beginning in the 19th century, according to historian Francois Furet, left-wing thinkers began to arrive at a consensus “that modern liberal democracy was threatening society with dissolution because it atomized individuals, made them indifferent to public interest, weakened authority, and encouraged class hatred.”

For most of the 20th century, anti-liberal intellectuals were able to come up with alternatives. Jean-Paul Sartre famously defended the Soviet Union even when it became clear that Joseph Stalin was a mass murderer. French, American, Indian, and Filipino university radicals were hopelessly enamored of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s.

The collapse of Communism changed all this. Some leftist intellectuals began to find hope in small revolutionary guerrillas in the Third World, like Mexico’s Subcomandante Marcos. Others fell back on pure critique.

Academics are now mostly gadflies who rarely offer strategies for political change. Those who do forward alternatives propose ones so vague or divorced from reality that they might as well be proposing nothing. (The Duke University professor of romance studies Michael Hardt, for example, thinks the evils of modern globalization are so pernicious that only worldwide love is the answer.)

Such thinking promotes political hopelessness. It rejects gradual change as cosmetic, while patronizing those who think otherwise. This nihilism easily spreads from the classroom and academic journals to op-ed pages to Zuccotti Park, and eventually to the public at large.

For academic nihilists, the shorthand for the world’s evils is “neoliberalism.” The term is used to refer to a free market ideology that forced globalization on people by reducing the power of governments. The more the term is used, however, the more it becomes a vague designation for all global drudgery.

Democratic politics in the age of neoliberalism, according to Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, is “something of a pyramid scheme: the more it is indulged, the more it is required.” They argue that our belief that we can use laws and constitutional processes to defend our rights is a form of “fetishism” that is ultimately “chimerical.”

For the University of Chicago literary theorist Lauren Berlant, the democratic pursuit of happiness amid neoliberalism is nothing but “cruel optimism.” The materialist things that people desire are “actually an obstacle to your flourishing,” she writes.

According to this logic, we are trapped by our own ideologies. It is this logic that allows left-wing thinkers to implicitly side with British nativists in their condemnation of the EU. The radical website Counterpunch, for example, describes the EU as a “neoliberal prison.” It also views liberals seeking to reform the EU as “coopted by the right wing and its goals—from the subversion of progressive economic ideals to neoliberalism, to the enthusiastic embrace of neoconservative doctrine.”

Across the Atlantic, Trump supporters are singing a similar tune. Speaking to a black, gay, college-educated Trump supporter, Samantha Bee was told: “We’ve had these disasters in neoconservatism and neoliberalism and I think that he [Trump] is an alternative to both those paths.”

The academic nihilists and the Trumpists are in agreement about a key issue: The system is fundamentally broken, and liberals who believe in working patiently toward change are weak. For the Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “indifference” is the “the hallmark of political liberalism.” Since liberals balance different interests and rights, Santos writes, they have no permanent friends or foes. He proposes that the world needs to “revive the friend/foe dichotomy.” And in a profane way, it has: modern political movements pit Americans against Muslims, Britain against Europe, a dictatorial government against criminals.

Unfortunately, academic anti-liberalism is not confined to the West. The Cornell political scientist Benedict Anderson once described liberal democracy in the Philippines as a “Cacique Democracy,” dominated by feudal landlords and capitalist families. In this system, meaningful reform is difficult, since the country’s political system is like a “well-run casino,” where tables are rigged in favor of oligarch bosses. Having a nihilist streak myself, I once echoed Anderson when I chastised Filipino nationalists for projecting “hope onto spaces within an elite democracy.” Like Anderson, I offered no alternative.

The alternative arrived recently in the guise of the Duterte, the new president of the Philippines. Like Anderson and me, Duterte complained about the impossibility of real change in a democracy dominated by elites and oligarchs. But unlike us, he proposed a way out: a strong political leader who was willing to kill to save the country from criminals and corrupt politicians.

The spread of global illiberalism is unlikely to end soon. As this crisis unfolds, we will need intellectuals who use their intellects for more than simple negation—professors like the late New York University historian Tony Judt, who argued that European-style social democracy could save global democracy. Failing that, we need academics who acknowledge that liberal democracy, though slow and imperfect, enables a bare minimum of tolerance in a world beset by xenophobia and hatred. For although academics have the luxury of imagining a completely different world, the rest of us have to figure out what to do with the one we have.