Q&A / January 10, 2024

Wendy Brown: A Conversation on Our “Nihilistic” Age

The Nation spoke with the political theorist about the multifront crisis of the post-Trump era and the moral and intellectual commitments of scholars and higher education.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Wendy Brown.

(Photo by Damon Young)

In her recent book, Nihilistic Times: Thinking With Max Weber, the political theorist Wendy Brown offers a meditation on the political and academic ethos that many think has marked American society since Donald Trump’s election, but which she treats as longer in the making. We are living in nihilistic times, Brown argues, due to centuries of eroding religious authority over values, the inability of science and reason to provide successful alternatives, and the commercialization of contemporary life. The result is a crisis of human values, which are simultaneously personalized, politicized and instrumentalized. “Compressed to hash tags, bumper stickers, yard signs, ephemeral group identities or advertising bait… values lose their depth and endurance…their capacity to shape moral order.” Hence the decline, she continues, in legislative and popular commitments to substantive democratic debates about values, including the value of truth, and the rise of polemics and power politics in their stead.

What, then, is to be done? In offering answers to these questions, Brown turns to two famous lectures delivered by Max Weber, the famous German sociologist, at the end of the First World War: “Politics as a Vocation” and “Science as a Vocation.” These lectures spell out Weber’s thinking on the effects of nihilism on both scholarly and political work and his attempt to stand up for basic values in both.

I spoke with Brown about her understanding of contemporary nihilism, why Weber is the guide we need, and what role the university and scholars should play in society today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: “Nihilism” is one of those philosophical terms, like “deconstruction,” that is used in popular discourse but connotes something rather different from its older academic usage. You argue that the term is apt for describing the current political moment. But what do you specifically mean by it? In what sense are we living in nihilistic times?

Wendy Brown: Nihilism is commonly understood today as an individual attitude of darkness, despair, or cynicism in which nothing in the world, including life itself, is thought to have meaning. It’s often associated with ennui or depression, but of an aggressive sort, which is why punk and school shootings are among its familiar cultural expressions. However, there’s a rich tradition of theorizing nihilism in which ennui and despair are but symptoms and do not capture nihilism’s roots or the complete plant. This is the tradition associated with Nietzsche, and with the early Russian existentialists, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, where nihilism is a saturating, historical, cultural condition of modernity, one specific to the crumbling of religious authority spurred by the Enlightenment.

What happens here? As religious authority wanes, the foundations of all values—including the value of truth itself—crumble. When science and reason begin to displace religious truth, values lose their moorings, because these new forms of credible knowledge do not replace religion as a foundation for values and cannot themselves deliver values. As Tolstoy reminds us, science tells us how things work, but not what anything means or how we should judge or esteem it. Similarly, reason allows us to calculate, deliberate, analyze, or scrutinize, but it cannot deliver ultimate meaning or value. So the new sources of truth arising with European modernity are powerful in building worlds, but also in stripping out the settled sources of meaning and value judgments bound to religion.

The problem of nihilism arises in the space between an era of values delivered from God (or nature) and the broad acceptance that meaning and value are human creations, judgments, ascriptions. Nihilism expresses the cultural, political, and knowledge condition of this in-between, where we assume that if meaning and values don’t have external, nonhuman foundations, then they don’t exist. We might even say that nihilism is an expression of religious melancholy; certainly, it is still caught in a religious framework—the very conceit that the world is meaningless or life is meaningless attributes meaning-making to something other than ourselves.

As religious authority wanes, fundamental values—including the very value of truth—don’t die, but rather lose their absolute status and go a little haywire as a result. Scientific knowledge and its truth come apart from value, from meaning, and thus from the question of “the good.” When the value of values declines, values don’t vanish but become trivial, fungible, instrumentalizable—at the extreme, they are reduced to branding and power purposes. This is the story today of how values are wielded by corporations, influencers, and politicians.

Everyone knows, for example, that Big Oil is not building a sustainable planet but that branding itself this way is essential. Just as everyone knows that Trump is no Christian but discovered an evangelical Christian base that could enhance his own power, which in turn is mainly food for his narcissism. Similarly, most of his supporters know that Trump did not win the 2020 election, but this truth is irrelevant to their passionate attachment to him. All of these elements—instrumentalized values, narcissism, a pure will to power uninflected by purpose beyond the self, the irrelevance of truth and facticity, quotidian lying and criminality—are expressions of nihilistic times. In this condition, values are still hanging around—they’re still in the air, as it were—but have lost their depth, seriousness, and ability to guide action or create a world in their image. They are reduced to instruments of power, branding, reputation repair, narcissistic and other emotional gratifications—what we today call “virtue signaling.”

This also raises another feature of nihilism, namely the refusal to submit emotionality to reason and a more general condition of disinhibition. As Nietzsche and Freud teach us, one of the important things values do is secure conscience and, in relation to it, deliberation about action. Human values are guides for knowing what we should and shouldn’t countenance in ourselves and others. So once values become lightweight, as they do in nihilistic times, so does conscience and its restricting force. Conscience no longer inhibits action or speech—anything goes. Relatedly, hypocrisy is no longer a serious vice, even for public figures.

Finally, nihilism generates boundary breakdowns and hyper-politicizes everything. Today, churches, schools, and private lives are all politicized. What you consume, what you eat, who you stream or follow, how you dress—all are politically inflected, but in silly rather than substantive ways. “Cancel culture”—again, on all sides of the political spectrum—is part of this, as an utterance, a purchase, an appearance, becomes a political event and responding to it a political act! This is politics individualized and trivialized.

Through his reading of Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, Max Weber became steeped in this way of thinking about nihilism, and it frames his famous lectures on knowledge and politics that are my focus in this book. Weber was trying to plot a way through nihilism, both by insisting on the human responsibility for creating values, and by carefully re-inscribing boundaries between spheres aimed at protecting them. This seriousness about the problem of nihilism—one that has grown tremendously in the century since Weber delivered his famous lectures on knowledge and politics as vocations—is why I engage with him closely in this text.

DSJ: Might there be reasons to be wary of relying on Weber’s thought for understanding the present moment? After all, he was a German nationalist who embraced power politics—indeed, Jürgen Habermas famously described Carl Schmitt, the so-called crown jurist of the Third Reich, as the “natural son of Weber”?

WB: What does it mean to think with another scholar—including one with whom one may have many differences and disagreements? Thinking with someone, especially a powerful interlocutor like Weber, does not mean “relying” on their thought, but rather engaging their insights and provocations, reflecting on their approaches to problems—and their limitations in addressing them. For me, this is as true of thinking with Marx, Adorno, or contemporary critical theorists as it is of thinking with Weber. You cannot just work with theorists with whom you are in accord. That’s intellectual mirroring or imitation, not thinking. And you cannot submit the history of social and political theory to political litmus tests. No one would pass, and it’s a silly way to approach reading and learning.

I’m frankly baffled by anxiety about intellectual engagements with political opponents, especially dead ones. Why so fearful? It strikes me as an anti-intellectual posture, where one imagines being captured by the engagement or tarred by the association. In that respect, it indexes precisely the nihilistic breakdown between knowledge and politics, the erasure of a line between intellectual inquiry and public power that I just outlined—as if to engage the thought of others is to ally or stand with them. Was Aristotle afraid to think with Plato? Marx with Hegel or Ricardo? Arendt with Heidegger, Augustine, or Machiavelli? Or contemporary theorists with (the racist and misogynist) Arendt? Martin Luther King with Socrates? Paul Gilroy with Hegel? No. Would you go to the barricades with these interlocutors? No!

That said, I don’t countenance the “toolbox” approach to theory, where you just pluck concepts or phrases from theories without regard for the larger argument, including its unavowed premises or implications. This practice tends to reduce theory to concepts, tropes, or positions, sacrificing theory’s luminescence, its capacity to light up an entire world, potentially from a radical or critical perspective. It often also misses the deep politics of the specific formulation or problematic one is interested in, thus foreclosing the enrichment of thought that deep engagement with a worthy thinker provides. So careful, contextualized reading is important, but this isn’t the same as submitting to—or, as you put it, “relying on”—a thinker.

DSJ: Your book pays close attention to Weber’s famous discussion in “Politics as a Vocation” on the differences between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility. Weber suggested that in a modern world of ever-increasing values, it would be not only naïve and ineffective but dangerously irresponsible to base one’s politics on the “flame of pure conviction.” Such was the sin, Weber thought, of pacifism. If anything is to be accomplished, he argued, an ethics of responsibility must be embraced, one which allows for the wise and discerning management of divergent values. Don’t you think, though, that in our time, the ethics of responsibility—a kind of lesser-evil mentality—has been abused to justify all kinds of military adventures? I mean, isn’t it something like Weber’s logic that killed the anti-war and pacifist wings of the Democratic Party?

WB: Whenever someone starts a sentence with “Don’t you think…,” alarm bells go off for me. You know you’re being tested against a conviction passing as common sense. So let’s have a look at your conviction that Weber’s political ethic of responsibility is fundamentally centrist and compromising, and throws every left project under the bus.

First of all, Weber’s “ethics of responsibility” for politics was not what you call a “lesser-evil mentality.” Quite the opposite: What Weber summoned as the vocation of the political actor was a deep commitment to a particular cause twinned with a recognition that politics is a singular sphere, one that always features contingency—your action may produce results at odds with what motivated it—and that also always has violence in the wings, because politics does. These two features of political life—the fact that political action is fundamentally untethered from results, hence cannot be justified by a pure principle animating it or by the end at which it aimed, and the fact that violence is one of its ineradicable elements—are together at the heart of the ethic of responsibility.

Ethically, Weber is saying, a political actor must attend constantly to these two features of politics if one is not simply performing virtue or satisfying one’s own ego at that trough. But this requirement does not negate pursuit of a radical cause. Rather, the ethic demands that the actor pursue the cause in a political way—with alertness to contingency and what the action might unleash, especially but not only state violence or other horror shows. It is a counsel to be tactical in relation to one’s cause, to be sure, but above all to avoid grandstanding, narcissism, and moral purity in politics—in short, to avoid confusing politics with either theater or church, saving one’s own soul. In conjuring an ethic specific to the context and content of the political realm, Weber is also telling the grandstanders and the high moralists to go find a stage for their impulses where they will be less dangerous and distracting. Given the preoccupation of so many wonderful left activists today with virtuous practices and speech, this counsel strikes me as quite relevant. It is also relevant to groups like antifa, which sometimes acts from what Weber calls “pure motive” or a means/ends justificatory frame.

Second, this ethic is not about “the wise and discerning management of divergent values,” as you put it. It has nothing to do with management and is not itself a value-pluralist ethic, though crafting it involves recognizing that political worldviews are not “true” but, rather, deep convictions. They will clash with other deep convictions, and only power—not science or truth—will permit one or another to prevail in the political realm. Such recognition helps actors back off from the two ethics with which Weber contrasts the ethic of responsibility: the ethic of ultimate ends (such as a passionate nationalism, or communism, or neoliberalism, that makes any means justified in the effort to instantiate the state) and the ethic of conviction (such as a principle of nonviolence or Christian love guiding every action, regardless of the political implications or consequences). These ethics aren’t bad or wrong—again, they’re just inapt to politics, where contingency, struggle, and the potential for violence can easily turn them into their opposites or into complicity with horror.

Finally, with the ethic of responsibility, Weber seeks to counter the nihilism that not only erodes the boundary between politics and other spheres but unleashes narcissism and an unvarnished will to power in place of a serious worldly cause. The ethic is specifically bound to pursuing such a cause and getting individual gratifications out of the picture. Again, it is not about demanding causes that are moderate—Weber knows that the greatest political causes, and especially those associated with charisma, were always revolutionary—but being clear-eyed about the distinctive nature and conditions of political life.

DSJ: Weber, of course, also associated the ethics of conviction with Marxism. Are you sympathetic to his critique of Marxism? I ask this, in part, because your recent writings in the criticism of neoliberalism seemingly look more to Weber and Foucault for inspiration than Marx.

WB: I’m not sympathetic to Weber’s critique of Marxism, though I value the supplements he offers for a Marxist understanding of capitalism—not so much his well-known Protestant-ethic thesis as his appreciation of capitalism’s governing power and legitimacy as bound to its forms of rationality, and his appreciation of how capital’s separation of means from ends (worker from owner, producer from product, etc.) adds to its efficiency, hence power. All this helps enrich a Marxist critique of capital and its successive iterations.

But perhaps you’re asking not about Weber’s critique of Marxism but his critique of neo-Marxist revolutionary stances—particularly the revolutionary Bolshevism of his own German milieu. In a highly qualified way, yes, I’m sympathetic to Weber’s point that revolutions, and their aftermaths, invoke the political, transpire in the political domain, and are secured politically. Thus, everything from Soviet gulags to Latin American left dictatorships aren’t things to be explained away with omelet metaphors or means-ends justifications.

These forms of state violence are part of the unfolding of the revolution and part of what we socialist revolutionaries are responsible to and for. It’s an old point: The problem of political power largely receded from Marx’s own concerns in his work on Capital. Many of his heirs and followers have also given the problem of political power, and its imbrication with violence, too little attention. But political power never withers away, which is part of why working out the “democratic” in green democratic socialism is as important as working out the “green” and the “socialism.” Weber is only one of many 20th-century thinkers who reminds us of this.

DSJ: You explain that Weber thought charisma absolutely essential for political leadership. He did so on account of the unavoidable role that desire plays in politics, not to mention the bureaucratization and rationalization of modern life that suffocates human freedom. Today’s right-wing movements, you observe, understand this and, in turn, use charisma to their political advantage. Why are liberals so reluctant to embrace charisma and the role that desire plays in politics—a mentality, you say, that often ensures their defeat?

WB: Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were both charismatic in their own ways, of course, but they were also so politically moderate that liberals could take comfort in the fact that the charisma was just for rallying votes, while the neoliberalism and proceduralism, not to mention the policy-wonk-ness, were the heart of the matter.

There are so many reasons why liberals are suspicious of charisma, even of strong leadership! There’s liberal anxiety about fascism and liberal horror of populism, to be sure, but also quotidian liberal commitments to rational procedures and institutions and, above all, continued belief that the Good, the True, and the Reasonable remain aligned and tethered to progress. Liberals are largely terrified of desire and emotion in politics and of excited, mobilized masses.

Notwithstanding all the critiques, most liberals and leftists still believe they have reason and truth on their side, which they don’t, and that democracy lines up with reason and truth, which it doesn’t. What we have is a set of commitments. If we are going to contain the climate disaster and avoid fascism, we’d better reckon with this fast. We need to build compelling visions of an alternative political and economic order—visions based not on “interests” or rationality, but which recruit popular desires and yearnings for a better world while reinterpreting or rerouting most existing expressions of those desires and yearnings.

Why? It is perfectly reasonable for middle- and working-class whites to seek to dismantle democracy, and to challenge everything from school curriculums and progressive taxation to decent responses to refugees and migrants to protect what remains of their privilege. We can refute the premises of these positions until the cows come home. But only a compelling vision of a less frightening and insecure future will recruit anyone to a progressive or revolutionary alternative future—or rouse apolitical citizens for the project of making that future. This vision must be seductive and exciting, and it must be embodied in seductive and exciting leadership and movements, hopefully oriented by an ethic of responsibility.

DSJ: Weber’s emphasis on charisma in “Politics as a Vocation” appears to be the opposite of his message in “Science as a Vocation,” which limits academic life to rationality, disciplinary rigor, withdrawal from the world, and the like. In some sense, you agree with this view when stating that “it is essential to have a moat between academic and political life.” How would you respond to critics who see this as an apolitical approach to academics that ultimately serves to buttress the political status quo?

WB: Why would a commitment to rigorous critical analysis “buttress” rather than dismantle the status quo? Why would stepping away from the fracas of the political sphere to reflect on political positions result in affirming the way things are? To the contrary, allowing the academic realm to be intensely politicized is more likely to reproduce what you call the “political status quo,” and it also sacrifices the potential of academic inquiry to probe and query it.

Weber does not remove political values from classroom discussions or scholarly analysis, and neither do I. What he prohibits is promulgating rather than interrogating values, whether those of faculty who abuse their power when they use the lectern as a pulpit, or those of students who want their political views to be treated like religious beliefs—personal, untouchable, unchallengeable. The point of the “moat” between the two realms is to protect a zone where knowledge can be pursued without being politicized in the cheap way that nihilism does as well as a zone where values can be examined. It is to produce a space for thinking, exploring, examining, and to be potentially undone by this experience.

For Weber, pushing through nihilism in the knowledge domain involves, among other things, teaching students that values are human-made yet decisive. They don’t descend from the heavens or emerge from nature, science, or logic, but they are at the heart of what it means to be human—to craft one’s own life and contribute to crafting the world. Thus, their eruption in the classroom, whether in a text or a participant, is an occasion to examine their predicates and entailments, not simply to “respect” or “balance” them or allow them to “compete” with each other, all of which merely perpetuates their nihilistic degradation.

It goes without saying that knowledge and teaching are always imbricated with power. Facts are always interpreted and discursively organized; methods have politics; neutrality in knowing is nonsense. Knowledge is never objective, independent of politics, framing, and situatedness. That said, nothing is more corrosive to serious intellectual work than being governed by a political program, whether that of states, business interests, the church, a revolutionary movement, or even academic ax-grinding. Yet nothing is more inapt to political success than the unending reflexivity, critique, and openness required of scholarly inquiry and imaginative reflection. Incessant critical thinking impoverishes political effectiveness, just as incessant politicization impoverishes critical inquiry.

In Weber’s compressed account: “Words in the classroom are ploughshares to loosen the soil of contemplative thought; words in the political realm are swords against enemies, weapons.” Or to paraphrase Stuart Hall: In the academic domain, we study the problem of facticity, analyze narratives, and explore meaning’s inherent slide, while in the political domain, we wield facts, seek to secure a hegemonic narrative, and arrest the slide of meaning. To confuse these domains compromises both. The confusion is also the effect of the nihilistic boundary breakdown Weber charts and aims to escape with the separation. He invites us instead to recognize values as all-important yet without foundations, to understand politics as the struggle over values and the academy as a place to inquire and learn, to critically reflect and even be undone by critique, not simply to assert theological-political truths.

DSJ: Where, then, do critics on the right go wrong when they accuse academia of being a hothouse of liberal activism? In other words, how do you connect your argument regarding academic responsibility to the issue of academic freedom?

WB: Well, to the extent that some (not all) left-leaning faculty and students refuse the “moat” we were just talking about, these critics aren’t wrong. However, the right also refuses it and simply wants to install right-wing political values in place of left-wing ones to govern classrooms and campus culture. It’s still the same problem.

Academic freedom is extremely important, of course, especially as the right seeks to destroy it. We have to defend academic freedom as the collective right of faculty to be free from interference by power—religious, political, and economic—in what we research, write, and teach. Today, we also need strategies for extending this right to those who do three-quarters of the teaching in American universities, namely lecturers, adjuncts, and graduate-student instructors. All this said, it is important not to let academic-freedom concerns overwhelm or frame everything about pedagogy and research, including questions about what and how we ought to teach today, how we approach our scholarship, how we handle politics in the classroom. Like all other rights, academic freedom is a protection against power, not a positive program.

DSJ: You state that the STEM fields have an undermining effect on democracy in that they “elevate vocational training…above all else.” In what sense?

WB: The STEM fields don’t undermine democracy. Rather, college framed exclusively as job training or a “return on investment”—both of which yield excessive emphasis on the STEM fields at the expense of other parts of higher education—contributes to undermining democracy. Why? Because this framing occludes the value of higher education in developing knowledgeable, thoughtful democratic citizens capable of grasping and analyzing the major problems and predicaments of our time.

In democracies, citizens are supposed to rule themselves. To make such rule possible today, citizens must have several kinds of knowledge and analytic capacities. An understanding of science and technology is important, as are studies in the social sciences and humanities. We cannot rule ourselves if we don’t understand the world we inhabit. Uneducated democracies have always been dangerous; the more complex the powers that organize them, and the more sophisticated the media representing those powers, the more serious this problem becomes.

DSJ: You suggest that the politicization of the university and the trivialization of values in politics are lowering the level of both. In what sense?

WB: Look what’s happening in the academy this season: Consider the disingenuous arguments about putatively anti-Semitic speech (“from the river to the sea”) designed solely to block or tar criticisms of Israel. Such arguments, of course, degrade the importance and substance of real anti-Semitism, discursively eliminate Palestinian lives, and radically constrict the very possibility of intelligent inquiry and discussion that should be the hallmark of academic life. Or consider the Claudine Gay debacle, now turned into a debate about the merits of DEI and a Black female scholar at Harvard’s head, or a lament about her “missteps,” but which at bottom was a calculated and organized move against elite universities by the right. Both are instances of power politics displacing overt political struggles over values as well as overtaking academic spaces, the spaces where values ought to be probed and debated. This is why I think nihilism, and its ramifications, illuminates far more than lazy references to polarized or post-truth societies, which merely re-describe nihilistic symptoms.

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Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins runs a regular interview series with The Nation. He is an assistant professor in the College of Social Studies at Wesleyan University and is writing a book for Yale University Press titled Impossible Peace, Improbable War: Raymond Aron and World Order.

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