The 19th Century was a very significant period, especially in the field of Philosophy. This era laid the foundations for Modern Philosophy and shaped the course of this discipline for centuries to come. It is also the time when Renaissance Modernism matured into its final stages(at least in Western Europe where Feudalism was being completely dismantled) since religion was dethroned from its position as the central ideological doctrine of society, it no longer formed the backbone of the hegemony of the ruling classes. Religion wasn't the dominant worldview anymore, it had collapsed by now. But radical change is always accompanied by deep crises. Western Europe was walking on the path of tearing apart the religious worldview of the Dark Ages in hopes of reaching the destination of enlightenment but what they were unaware of was the fact that to reach their destination they would have to overcome the hurdle of crisis. A crisis which awaited them eagerly— The Crisis of Nihilism.
It is this crisis that we shall explore in this article. We will begin our journey from the feudal times to understand the historical context in which Nihilism arose and then move on to the significant developments in Philosophy throughout the Renaissance period and the rise of Modernist Philosophy, which will then enable us to understand the crisis of Nihilism in its totality. But we shall not stop our investigation there. I would like to dedicate a section completely to a phenomenon I call "Capitalist Nihilism", where we explore how Capital and Capitalism have added fuel to the fire of Nihilism that burns in the minds of working masses of the world.
FEUDALISM, IDEOLOGY AND GOD
Human civilisation has organised itself in many ways from time to time and Feudalism is one such form of organisation. As Gramsci proved through his work, no society has ever been able to maintain itself without an ideology of its own, an ideology that is dominant within the society. The hegemonic ideology. But one society can adopt multiple 'hegemonic ideologies', there will be some common traits or themes within these ideologies. Eg; Liberalism and Fascism are two 'hegemonic ideologies' of Capitalism. They have their differences but they have quite some common traits too, like Protection of the Right to Private Property, using State power to serve Corporates and of course preserving capitalism at any cost. These themes will be shared by any and all variants of Liberalism, Fascism or any ideology of Capitalism. Every era of human history, as stated earlier, has some hegemonic ideological themes which are unique to that era itself. These themes are seen as principles or norms which should dictate our social organisation and also our moral or ethical positions. It is needless to say that these ideologies strive to maintain a particular structure of society, which is often exploitative in nature, and thus will always serve the interests of the ruling class. Feudalism too had its own ideology— Religion.
Religion, in feudal times, provided the masses with a 'meaning'. The people had a role to play in the grand scheme of things and that role could only be fulfilled if they kept following the word of God (of the ruling classes actually. The privilege of hindsight allows us to understand that God was really only a messenger of the ruling classes and not the other way around.). Their actions, thoughts, happiness and even their suffering had an objective, they weren't working for the sake of working; they were working so that they could help God fulfill his plan for the world. The Abrahamic Tradition posits that there would be a 'Judgement Day' where people will either get into heaven or into hell. Thus under the influence of these traditions, people would work or live to get into heaven. The Indic Traditions of Hinduism(some streams of it) and Buddhism on the other hand, don't subscribe to the concept of a heaven-hell dichotomy. Rather these religions advocated the concept of rebirth. Hinduism suggested that if one remains pure and virtuous in one life then they'll be reborn as a "Brahman" or a Savarna but failing to do so will result in one's rebirth into an Avarna family(an obvious ploy to justify the inhumane Caste System). Buddhists, on the other hand, put forward a theory in which the end point of liberation was Moksha or Enlightenment which would end the cycle of rebirth.
The objective of these worldviews is exposed not only by their unscientific approach to the question of life and death but also by their egocentric nature. Humanity and human society is always placed at the center of the Universe in these theories. The whole Universe revolves around humanity. It is our actions that will bring about both the apocalypse and the salvation of this vast universe. But, as we know, change is inevitable and change was long overdue in these societies. So soon change would be unleashed upon them.
THE BEAST OF MODERNISM
This universal objective of human life or the meaning of life were a result of the God centric morality and the religious worldview but as modernism came into full swing, this worldview began falling apart and the meaning of life along with it. The 19th Century was witness to the publication of texts which shook the very foundations of the Religious Worldview like an explosion. Some of these works include:
Modernism had completely destroyed the religious vestiges of the Feudal times. The God serving meaning of life being dissolved with it. But this wouldn't end here, for now that the Beast of Modernism was unleashed, it would wreak havoc. This beast, hungry for truth and enlightenment, would tear apart the Religious Worldview to satiate its hunger. It would feast on the 'objective meaning of life'. It would create— chaos.
THE CHAOTIC DEATH OF GOD
"Whither is God?" he cried; "I will tell you. We have killed him---you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Isn't night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him."
—The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche
This passage is perhaps the most accurate literary representation of the ideological, philosophical and subsequently moral dilemma that modernism has created. Nietzsche was not particularly referring to the literal death of a divine entity but rather the death of Feudal Values and Worldviews. Till now, God formed the basis of our understanding of reality, especially, our place in it. God gave people a goal and their lives a meaning. Society's whole perspective of reality was now crumbling under the weight of the mountain of rationality unleashed by humanity's very own hunger for the truth. This is the crisis of Nihilism, the crisis of accepting that reality is not Human-centric. The very idea that humans and human society are just a mere coincidental(if not accidental) product of Universal Contradictions and not the masterpiece of some divine entity, the idea that life has no meaning whatsoever, the idea that any and everything we do is useless in the longest run are the ideas that form the basis of the Philosophy of Nihilism. Humanity had to come to terms with the fact that it or anything it did is not just 'not special', but also pointless; it did not serve any higher power or any grand scheme. This pointlessness, this feeling of helplessness, this generated the crisis of Nihilism.
The Death of God unleashed chaos in the realm of human knowledge, chaos that was reflective of the socio-political and economic landscape of Europe. This period in European history is marked with Republican Revolutions which were challenging the Feudal Political systems at the time but had not given shape to Liberal Democracies yet. This political chaos of Europe is reflected in the chaos of the Modernist Worldview. But that chaos too subsided. We found a new god to worship— Capital.
Early 20th Century saw the complete rise of Liberalism, which had taken root as the primary ideology of the world during the 20s. We now had a system of Morality, Ethics and Values; a new god which influenced us everyday; a new entity that we submitted ourselves to— Capital. But even today, after the establishment and reestablishment of Capital (Rise Neo-Liberalism in the 90s) as our God, Nihilism is an ideology which can be relatable to many people. But why? The answer lies within Modernist Thought itself.
ALIENATION AND NIHILISM
Alienation as a concept has been part of the central subtexts of Karl Marx's works, even though Marx's approach to Alienation has changed multiple times. His original approach to Alienation was Idealist in nature but slowly he adopted a more Materialist approach. But it is not his conception of Alienation that concerns us today, but rather how it can harbour Nihilistic sentiments within us.
Alienation or, in Hegelian terms, Estrangement, refers to a phenomenon where humans are detached from their labour and that gives birth to mental health crises. Think of it like this; we as humans spend at least one-third of our day at our workplace working and in the end we are completely detached from the product of the labour, we have no idea who will use the final product, what for or how and often we can't even afford that final product(Alienation from the Product of Labour). But it doesn't end here, it should also be noted that we as workers don't have any say upon the process of production or how we work(Alienation from the process of Labour). Everything from the methodology to the timings of the workplace is directly or indirectly controlled by the capitalists while we are reduced to being cogs in a machine who don't know what they're doing or don't even have any say in the process. This is our central concern.
Let us take some examples, consider an Industrial Worker and a White Collar Worker. Both of them spend their time away working and generating value for the Capitalists with no relationship with their product or the production process. For 8 hours or more(it's usually more than 8 hours) they are just acting as cogs in a machine, they are not human, they are indulging in meaningless mechanical work. Work which leaves them so tired that it is not even possible to do or think about anything else, they can't commit to anything for they have been sucked dry by mechanical labour requirements. There is no space left in your life for hobbies, relationships or general chores other than your job; your job consumes everything like the Blob from The Blob. There's nothing left of them. The White Collar worker escapes this by hiring househelp etc.(their position as a Labour Aristocrat can also make things easier for them) while the Industrial Worker has no options(other than expropriation of domestic labour through marriage if he's a man). Thus the only thing that dominates their life and activities is a Job which they, reasonably, find meaningless.
As we've understood the relationship a worker has with their job, one of meaninglessness and parasitical labour, we can now say that if a person with such a job relates to the Philosophy or Crisis of Nihilism should we be surprised? Now, many find solace in the 'objective' of blindly earning money, accepting Capital as your true God but even that cannot save them from the inevitable and unavoidable devastation of Alienation. These people cannot be 'happy' or 'content' even if they live luxuriously, not because they're greedy, but because they're estranged, they're alienated. They're hollow from the inside and try to fill the void left by the appropriation of Surplus Labour with tacky consumerism, supplementing their physical attitudes, overconsumption or binge-consumption and recreational substances. But at some point of time, all else fails, and reality hits us as we as humans once again face the crisis of our virtues and values falling apart like stale bread, we are once again hit with the Crisis of Nihilism— The Nihilism of Capital.
Marx perfectly sums up the the estranged Nihilism that Capital gives birth to when he wrote in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844
The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre or to balls, or to the pub, and the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you will be able to save and the greater will become your treasure which neither moth nor rust will corrupt—your capital. The less you are, the less you express your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the greater is the saving of your alienated being.
Another accurate representation of this condition can be found in the following quote from Capital Vol. I:
Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.
But when, at the end of the day, the worker comes home completely exhausted and distraught, his ability to work or do anything completely sucked out, a part of his conscious self hollowed out by his job; why does the worker question all of existence instead of questioning the form of existence?
NIHILISM AND CAPITALIST REALISM
If or whenever we draw a comparison between feudal and capitalist systems of hegemony, the first and foremost difference that comes to mind is the ability of capitalist hegemony to shape our worldview. This ability is also what Mark Fisher studies in his book "Capitalist Realism". Fisher notes that capitalism or capitalist hegemony has become so powerful, so deep-rooted in our minds that it has transcended the form of a system of hegemony— instead it has turned into a homogeneous cultural mindset that restricts or destroys our very ability to imagine and reason beyond the limitations of the capitalist framework. This is what Fisher has termed Capitalist Realism; the conception that capitalism is the only viable or efficient system of social organisation rendering any other alternative unimaginable or utopian.
This idea became the predominant notion of the Post-Soviet world when the fall of the Soviet Union was used as a justification and the exploitative nature of the capitalist mode of production wasn't just offshored but rather projected as an inherent ill of the human species itself; exploitation was attributed to "human nature" and capitalism was propounded to be the only system with the majestic ability to rationalise or control our greedy exploitative nature. The ideological apparatuses of the State and the bourgeoisie created an "eternal present" where capitalism remained dominant without any challenge. This phenomenon was best embodied in the phrase "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagining the end of capitalism" and "capitalism is human nature". At this point in history, the difference between capitalist and feudal hegemonies wasn't just quantitative but also qualitative. Capitalist hegemony has turned into the demon that takes over our complete consciousness by whispering at the back of our heads.
The effects of this phenomenon are felt every moment. One of the best examples of this would be the popular discourse around Climate Change and Environmental Damage. It is capitalism and its profit prioritisation policy that has brought us to the very brink of extinction yet whenever popular discourse regarding the climate catastrophe and methods of prevention are discussed they are always discussed, not just within the boundaries of capitalism, but with people's consumption patterns at the center. According to such discourse, people using plastic straws is more concerning than only a hundred companies being responsible for 70% of the world's carbon emissions or the fossil fuel industry actively discouraging Solar Power research and facilities because it is "not profitable". Capitalism is about to destroy the planet and yet we cannot imagine a planet without it. It is easier for us to imagine the end of the world through a climate catastrophe than to imagine the end of Capitalism, that is Capitalist Realism at its finest.
But how is the philosophy of Nihilism related to Capitalist Realism? Well, I would argue that Nihilism only appears to be a reasonably radical philosophical thought because of Capitalist Realism. If we consider the original nihilists like Max Stirner, they obviously rejected capitalism alongside all other social systems but that was not enough. Philosophies don't exist in a vacuum, they exist within the ideological framework of society and thus, much like society itself, ideologies have their own dominant sections and subservient sections. Any ideological or philosophical thought must interact with the hegemonic ideology of society and this interaction can manifest in one of two ways— either the thought is appropriated and absorbed within the hegemonic ideological fold or the thought stands in staunch opposition to the hegemonic ideology. Nihilism, while rejecting capitalism, never staunchly opposed its exploitative nature and thus it was, eventually, inducted into the capitalist fold.
Nihilism benefits from the mass's inability to imagine a life outside of capitalism. The masses experience the exploitation of Capital on daily basis and truly understand that this system is not just, they also understand that their labour is being, in a way, wasted on acquiring profits for the capitalists, they realise that their whole being is being consumed by capital itself and they are being reduced to zombies but still they cannot imagine a life outside of capitalism. This exploitation, this meaninglessness or lack of purpose seems natural to them. So the masses, unable to imagine a life beyond capitalism, beyond working day in and day out without a set purpose, accept this slow death of the human within them as the one true way of living their life and end up rejecting life itself. The only 'life' they've ever known and the only purpose they've ever had is getting a job and working, the only life they have is providing their labour to capitalists and that is not a life worth living. Hence it's obvious that they've rejected life itself. But if for a second, the lens of Capitalist Realism were to be removed, Nihilism were to be removed, what would we see? Capitalism for the all consuming hellspawn it is.
Thus we can conclude that Nihilism has been inducted into the fold of capitalist ideology, a philosophical thought, that although seems like a rebellious ideology that can liberate us but truly it only gaslights us by projecting the ills of capitalist life on all of human existence as a whole. As the colour of Capitalist Realism fades from our worldview, we will find the radical shade of Nihilism also fading away. The ability of Capitalism to project its worst qualities upon us, with barely anyone noticing, to term our very existence as suffering, is the Nihilism that serves Capital, it is— 'The Nihilism of Capital'.
 Something I'd like to add too is I don't believe that people are truly so stupid to actually believe every word of their religion. Somewhere they hold on to it because it gives them a purpose, even if it's a twisted one, that helps them make sense of their life and suffering. I also believe that their morality is much more dear to them than their religion and people have shown that they're ready to reform their understanding of religion in order better suit their individual and social morality.
Marnina Avirup is a Marxist-Leninist writer from West Bengal, India. They write on both international and Indian issues (or their correlation). Most of their work is on Political Theory, Comparative Politics, Political History and Philosophy from a Marxist-Leninist perspective.