If the political power necessary for changing the world is not found “in lifeless virus particles which are utterly indifferent towards the world around them” as we asserted at the end of the last chapter, nor is it found in the US electoral machine or useless political figures like Ruth Bader Ginsburg that are also utterly indifferent to the world, then where is it found and how is it built? Although we have a lot of thoughts on the answer to that question––many of which have been revealed or implicit throughout this project––to even ask it is to also recognize a kind of thinking that needs to break from the capitalist imaginary.
In some ways, we have come to think like an indifferent virus. Or, rather, the kind of thinking that is most prevalent in the imperialist metropoles––even amongst progressives––is one of denial or nihilistic indifference. This is not the result of the pandemic, nor is it the result of the fascist movements pushing reactionary leaders into power, but was already emerging as a necrocapitalist characteristic before the global pandemic and along with emergent fascism. Again, the pandemic merely revealed the already existing depredations of a decaying system that has been morbidly violent from the beginning; emergent fascism is evidence of this decay. As these depredations came more and more to resemble the death throes of the system itself, and as coherent and sustainable revolutionary organizing vanished from the imperialist metropoles, the proclamation of the “end of history” became a proclamation of “no alternative” and even “no hope” for those who could not see beyond the boundaries of the imperialist strongholds in which they resided.
Within this cancerous and necrotic capitalist reality denial or nihilism manifest as the only possible attitudes, as long as we think within its confines. Denial might take multiple forms but these forms are over-determined by fascist and liberal perspectives, both of which are invested (in their own ways) in saving capitalism from collapse. Inordinate focus on the US elections is a form of denialism, specifically a denial of our ability to organize and create another world. But such focus also demonstrates a nihilist attitude, an indifference to organizing political power because it has been drained of meaning.
Nihilism also takes multiple forms: i) its own fascist variant as the nadir where collapse is embraced as judgment against those deemed weak (who let the virus, to cite one example, “dominate” them rather than “dominating” it); ii) a liberal individualism of giving up and accepting, with a pseudo-zen magnanimity, that armageddon is fait accompli; and most importantly iii) an anti-capitalist variant of loss, mourning, raging in the face of inevitable environmental and social collapse. It is this last species of nihilism that should concern us the most since it represents the power of contemporary crisis capitalism to infect the imagination of the left.
Indeed, nihilism is an attitude that is harder and harder for anti-capitalists to avoid. We have witnessed multiple failures and have been socialized to forget or dismiss any success. We lived through the trauma of the collapse of the great revolutionary projects. We were fed the false hopes of movementism and were incapable of recognizing that these fragmented projects were doomed from the outset. We witness a world crawling towards the edge of destruction, maniacally pursuing mechanics of species suicide. We understand that everything about capitalism is a lie, we know that it cannot save itself from itself because of its logic, but our imagination is such that the possibility of rupturing from this necrotic sequence is unthinkable. Within the reality demarcated and described by the capitalist imaginary another world is impossible and it is very difficult to pursue the revolutionary slogan, famously proclaimed in May 1968, that the revolutionary imaginary is about demanding the impossible.
Faced with the vast graveyard that the world has become nihilism, when judged within the constraints imposed by capitalism’s vision of reality, certainly feels like a viable option. According to the capitalist imaginary, resistance is impossible or (as the Orwellian discourse coupled with Cold War ideology has promoted) will result in a more horrific state of affairs. Hopelessness becomes normative amongst would-be militants who are separated from the world-building projects of revolutionary communist parties. Even militants who join such party projects might drop out and give up when events do not proceed as quickly and smoothly as they would like. While there is indeed a petty-bourgeois variant of this hopeless nihilism (“nothing matters so I might as well enjoy what little time I have while complaining that capitalism has pushed the world into a death drive”) it is common amongst the exploited and oppressed masses as well. The working class is taught that there is no future but drudgery and meaningless labour, that workers’ failure to rise above their circumstances is their fault alone––because they are not creative enough, because they lack the incentive, because they are not thinking enough positive thoughts.
But it is the pseudo-progressive strain of “left” nihilism that attempts to push this sentiment enforced by capitalist ideology as a viable anti-capitalist option. Lee Edelman’s No Future is a perfect example of the petty-bourgeois wallowing in capitalism’s death drive, presented as radical. So-called “queer nihilism” (along with “nihilist communism” and “anarchist nihilism”) emerges from Edelman’s morbid acceptance of the capitalist imaginary. Nihilism is the “common sense” of necrocapitalism, even when it presents itself as critique.
The apotheosis of contemporary nihilism is that strange sub-region of speculative philosophy known as anti-natalism, a philosophy that claims to prove, as the name of an anti-natalist article puts it, why it is better to never come into existence.1 Represented by philosophers such as Théophile de Giraud Peter Zapffe, David Benatar, Julio Cabrera, and horror author Thomas Ligotti, anti-natalism asserts that non-sentient existence is preferable to sentient existence, sentient existence is in essence pain and harm, consciousness is a monstrous evolutionary aberration, and thus it would be better if humans simply ceased to exist. As Ligotti summarizes this philosophy:
For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death––and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying––and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering––slowly or quickly––as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we ‘enjoy’ as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are––hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones. (Ligotti, 11)
On the speculative level, this philosophy is influenced by the very materialist understanding that the history of conscious human existence, as well as the history of any form of sentient life, is both a tiny blip in the long ancestral history of matter and takes up minuscule space in a massive unthinking universe. The upshot of this very large materialist insight is that we should not think that humans possess an especial destiny, that they are better than other forms of life, or that we are the center of existence. Anti-natalism, however, adds a warped ethical injunction to the insight that non-sentient existence is older and larger than sentient existence. The former, it asserts, is preferable to the latter. Such an assertion, though, confirms the anthropocentric conceit since its reversal merely reaffirms what the initial insight attempted to undermine: the centrality of human consciousness. Human consciousness again becomes a central focus, though one that is problematized rather than being exhorted to be de-emphasized.
Hence, to assert that we come from nothing and exist for nothing is not enough for anti-natalism. These assertions again become puzzles. Ligotti complains that “[n]o philosopher has ever satisfactorily answered the following question: ‘Why should there be something rather than nothing?’” and then asserts that such a question “suggests our uneasiness with Something.” (Ligotti, 71) And yet, if we reject the privileging of anthropocentrism we should recognize that “from nothing and for nothing” (Meillassoux, 110) are answers to this question, and answers that allow us to think an existence broader than human consciousness. The only reason that this age-old question is a puzzle is because it emerges from an anthropocentric framework. Such a framework is precisely what allows anti-natalists to focus on the monstrousness of human consciousness, the claim that existence is pain, and to move on to privileging the non-existence of humanity over its existence. By focusing on a utilitarian calculus of pain and pleasure, and claiming that pain (and harm) is normative to human existence, David Benatar asserts that “there is nothing bad about never coming into existence, but there is something bad about coming into existence, all things considered non-existence is preferable.” (Benatar, 348-349)
On the speculative level it is an exercise in futility to argue against those dedicated to the axiom that the non-existence of humanity (and indeed all sentient life) is preferable to its existence. Charges that anti-natalists should simply suicide if they truly believed in what they argued are usually met with scorn: due to the programming of human consciousness, and in the words of the character Rustin Cole from True Detective (which was based on anti-natalist philosophy), they “lack the constitution” for suicide. Besides, what do the suicides of a handful of misanthropic philosophers matter when the problem they feel like they are diagnosing concerns all of sentient existence? Hence, following Zapffe’s so-called “last messiah”, anti-natalists can simply argue that they work to “bear witness” (again, as Rustin Cole puts it), to argue this truth to the rest of ignorant, conscious humanity, and to struggle for the solution of mass sterilization where all of humanity will agree to eradicate itself. Nihilist utopianism.
It cannot be denied, after all, that reality is horrendous and that, even if we side-step David Benatar’s argument about “asymmetry” and argue that some pains and harms are simply part of life and not an insurmountable category of being (psychological and emotional pain, the fact that we will become ill and experience various level of distress simply because we are mortal and fragile), there is still the fact that the vast majority of the world experiences extreme harm and pain. Natural disasters, famines, wars, genocide, vicious labour conditions, immiseration, and multiple forms of pain and harm characterize the living conditions for the majority of humanity. Moreover, the unfolding facts of environmental devastation and now a global pandemic attenuate all of the above problems, resulting in a very bleak looking future that is becoming nearer every day.
But these terrible facts of material existence are facts that multiple radical social theorists have grappled with, have agonized over, and have concluded that the solution is to struggle against them and change society so that such predations and their affects can no longer exist. Many of these social theorists were and are not starry-eyed utopians unaware of pain and thus deceived (as anti-natalists would have it) into thinking such pain and harm was not a big deal; many of them either originated from, or embedded themselves in, those marginalized populations that experienced the worst aspects of social-historical violence. For example, Christina Sharpe writes about “the ways our individual lives [meaning individual black lives] are always swept up in the wake produced and determined, though not absolutely, by the afterlives of slavery.”( Sharpe, 8) According to Sharpe, this “wake” inheritance continues to globally affect black lives into the present, where the pain and immiseration of the past persists as a material memory upon the body of the present. “Racialization and colonization have worked simultaneously to other and abject entire peoples so they can be enslaved, excluded, removed, and killed in the name of capitalism,” writes Indigenous scholar Jodi Byrd: “These historical and political processes have secured white property, citizenship, and privilege, creating a ‘racial contract,’ as Charles W. Mills argues.” (Byrd, xxiii) Sharpe and Byrd are just two contemporary scholars, each occupying a position of social marginalization, amongst a litany of radical social theorists who have experienced and explored the multiple predations of capitalism and its colonial roots, whose response to a visceral experience of marginalization is to demand an end to the mechanics of oppression, exploitation, and predation. Indeed, the vast majority of social theorists and organizers who originate from populations that have experienced the most abject pain and harm do not argue for the obliteration of sentient life even though they understand, intimately and viscerally, what this pain and harm actually means.
Therefore, what is truly monstrous about anti-natalism is not the supposedly profound “truths” it reveals; it is that it is an ontological confirmation of the imaginary of necrocapitalism. None of the anti-natalist philosophers are individuals who have experienced the abjection of contemporary global capitalism––who have lived in what Mbembe calls the “death worlds” of the current conjuncture––and in fact most of them belong to quite privileged and largely comfortable demographics. To demand that humanity embrace extinction when those who have been historically threatened with extinction have always struggled against it, is worse than cynical. In the context of the global pandemic an anti-natalist might argue that we are merely dealing with non-sentient planet wiping out sentience, and that this is a “good” thing. Or perhaps they would take it as evidence of the pain and harm that is a normative part of existence, confirmation that we should cease to exist rather than struggle against it.
Past nihilisms were confirmations of the dominant orders of meaning by assuming that all meaning was lost with the loss of these orders; they rarely attempted, outside of polemical and aesthetic statements, to be conscious and theoretical celebrations of nihilism. Nietzsche described these past nihilisms as ressentiment or self-hatred. Of course, being the “nineteenth century dirtbag philosopher” (Mitropolous, 32) that he was, Nietzsche’s answer to nihilism was an occulted bourgeois triumphalism. But he was correct insofar that all forms of nihilism are produced by melancholia, ressentiment, and cynicism. Contemporary iterations of nihilism, however, are the most melancholic, resentful, and cynical nihilisms yet despite––or perhaps because of––their attempt to present themselves as theoretical assemblages. Anti-natalism takes this necrotic wallowing to the speculative level, reifying the current order’s hatred of existence.
To be clear, anti-natalism is a minor philosophical position. In fact, its proponents enjoy this minor status because they feel it confirms that they possess the kind of profound insight that only a few enlightened intellectuals could ever hope to gain. In this sense, it is also an elitist position and thus anti-mass as its own dismissal of the insights from the oppressed masses demonstrates: such insights, for the anti-natalist, are delusions of the herd. They are, in a weird sense, inverted Nietzscheans who have somehow managed to copper-fasten the elitism of his philosophy with the ressentiment he despised. So why should we take their claims seriously? Largely because, as noted above, anti-natalism is the apotheosis of contemporary necrocapitalist nihilism. It represents a kind of trope in contemporary thinking, a trajectory of the thought of the necrocapitalist subject. It is where the thinking encouraged by this conjuncture leads: an indifference that is so far gone it celebrates its indifference by imagining it is profound.
Although proponents of the bourgeois electoral circus argue that refusing to participate in the spectacle of elections is callous indifference, and thus evidence of a nihilist attitude, might it in fact be the opposite? After all, once we examine these electoral systems with even the smallest amount of critical thought we are presented with an avalanche of absurdity. Aside from the limited options, aside from Lenin’s joke that they are conventions where the bourgeoisie competes amongst itself to best misrepresent the people, aside from the fact that any and every elected regime has done nothing to make the world better but has in fact continued exploiting, oppressing, and straight out murdering the majority of humanity… Aside from all of this, they are always compromised within the bounds of bourgeois democracy––they cannot even guarantee the limited grounds of bourgeois reason! Legitimized political parties court the most powerful members of society and demand that the marginalized just get on board, refusing to listen to any of their demands. People wait in line for hours to vote only to discover their vote won’t be counted. Entire populations have their democratic rights suppressed; rumours are spread of illegitimate non-citizen voting while nobody cares about those citizens who are barred from voting. And all of this happens while imperialist states disparage and destabilize the conventions of voting in other nations. To find meaning in such a concatenation is impossible, and everyone who even thinks about it for more than a few minutes is forced to realize how meaningless it is. We would have to be nihilists regarding everything else about social existence to care about the electoral system: nothing really matters, and nothing will change, but we might as well vote since there is nothing better to do.
Meanwhile, the government of Alberta has started to defund and privatize its provincial medical system right in the midst of a pandemic. Meanwhile Joyce Echaquan died livestreaming the abuse she endured in a Québec hospital because she was an Indigenous woman, and the only result was a dialogue about reconciliation and a debate about whether systemic racism actually existed. The death tolls continue and, in the face of this death, there is denial (such as the absurd Barrington Declaration) and there is nihilism. But there is also outrage, and maybe this outrage can generate something productive. Something that does not collaborate with the electoral circus; something beyond necrocapitalist thinking.
1 This is the title of David Benatar’s essay Why It Is Better to Never Come Into Existence that was reworked as a chapter in his book Better Never To Have Been.