Re: A neo-liberal nihilism?

George Gabriel
25 June 2009

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Thomas Ash > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > this post]

All ideologies offer conceptions of a person upon which their social vision is constructed. For neo-liberalism this is that of the “rationally self-interested” individual, a being solely concerned with its own self-interest and to be judged “rational” according to the efficacy with which that interest is pursued. Power and self-interest, a nihilistic nightmare.

In his latest post Thomas Ash suggests that “rational man” is a mere “simplifying assumption” which predicts our actions with a relative degree of accuracy and which neo-liberals need not insist captures all the motivations that move us. Likewise we can be comforted that such a philosophy extends only to certain domains of our behaviour, not on the politics of offering one’s seat.

This mushy Jekyll and Hyde human being, free from self-interest in certain concerns and moderately guided by it in others provides no individual ethic whatsoever. Neo-liberalism, as envisioned by Thomas on an individual level issues no directives except for those demanded by the legally constituted neo-liberal system. It is from this lack of something to say presumably that neo-liberal claims to be somehow “realistic” derive.

We have seen the dangers of a macro social vision that provide no individual ethical imperatives before. Historically determinist Marxism stripped values in the name of inevitability and thereby commended only an ethic of acceleration, it was this that Camus observed to lead to “Slave camps under the flag of freedom, massacres justified by philanthropy”. Thomas suggests that neo-liberalism is not necessarily committed to an “egoistic code of ethics”, but if this leads to a vacuous “realistic” conception of personhood the consequences are equally to be feared - the absence of an individual ethic within an ideology is as dangerous as its presence, it’s just that the latter holds the promise of a better future too.

My original point was however, not that neo-liberalism is committed to an “egoistic code of ethics”. Neo-liberalism does not say pursuing self-interest is good, on my understanding it is called inevitable and thus leads to a deeper more dangerous nihilism than the one derived from our mushy Jeykll and Hyde.

Thomas suggests “rational man” is a modelling assumption, if so it sits in a powerful dynamic – that as it deviates from reality it incurs risk. Simply put, if I model my hamster’s behaviour badly the chances of me making correct predictions of its actions decrease and so betting on these predictions becomes riskier. If man is posited as rationally self interested, and in fact behaves irrationally and against his self-interest constructs, such as the subprime mortgage sector, suddenly appear incredibly risky.

More dangerous still this risk is external to the model and is therefore more easily ignored. The neo-liberal solution to it is, as with many other movements in doubt, fundamentalism. To make neo-liberalism safe man must be the model, and the model is that of a purely self-interested individual who deifies only efficacy in the pursuit of his wants. Neo-liberals fall into psychological egoism and fall further into nihilism through faith.

This is reflected in the structures of the quintessential neo-liberal institution, modern banking. Basically every structure of this institutional environment is premised on the “rational self-interested man”, whether it be the executive wage arms race or the bonus culture which is again on the rise. Even reformed mechanisms designed to control bankers are premised on this interest, such as delayed payment of bonuses designed to make bankers less short termist and the “end” of rewards for failure.

I do not say that the self-interest of bankers is money alone. In fact bankers would be better off if they spent more time on their self-interest than chasing an ever-greater wage. A banker friend recently told me he couldn’t live with the woman he loves because she won’t move to the city, when I asked him why he wouldn’t then quit we were left sitting in silence. The point is that in a hyper-materialist culture bankers, and neo-liberals more widely misconceive human interest with the same breath with which they declare it sovereign. But this does not mean that when bankers proclaim psychological egoism, that individuals only and exclusively pursue their own self-interest, they do not fall deep into the nihilist abyss.

But the need for nihilism is more than a leap of faith to prove a point and remove risk. Quite simply an ethic is not so easily contained, and make no mistake, the presentation of personhood, whether a loosely approximated model or not (person lite?) is exactly that. It is well and good for Thomas to suggest that neo-liberalism does not take Robinson Crusoe too far, but neo-liberal models of the individual are of a purely self-interested individual. What good is it to add “but not really, and not all the time” as a footnote to psychological egoism when almost all theorising is based on this (mis)conception of a person?! Slowly but surely this footnote fades as practice overwhelms theory.

But there is another motor driving the neo-liberal nihilist descent. A nihilist is one who believes that morality does not exist, there is no good or bad except that which society creates and thereby either empty space or an un-authoritative impostor. In my last post I wrote “A mediocre, grasping selfishness theorises itself into the extremes of psychological egoism”, the missing link in this chain is of course nihilism! For a nihilist who believes in nothing, the first, most mediocre and misleading inference to be drawn is that one’s pursuit of self-interest is legitimate – “if there is no right or wrong, why not just do what I want?” Where Nietzsche, Camus, Hegel, Marx and Kierkegaard dared to try and construct or move beyond morality the ranks of modern nihilists feebly seek to legitimate their own selfishness inspired by hyper-consumerism. The environment now found in the city attracts exactly those people. The often highly intelligent, affable, middle class individuals who believe in neither ethics nor religion are greedily drawn to the banks where their nihilism nurtures the egoism of Robinson Crusoe.

Feebly selfish nihilism nurtures neo-liberalism, while neo-liberalism’s conception of the individual leads to nihilistic psychological egoism whether through faith or the lack thereof – a desire to describe “reality”.

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