"Liberal nihilism" is a term you'd expect to hear from a conservative talker or read in a Republican column. You know what I mean: "Those liberals' moral relativism is nothing but nihilism! They don't believe in any eternal truths! etc!" Probably the term has been used that way, but I saw it most recently in the pages of the indisputably liberal Nation magazine. In a sense, however, Mike Konczal uses "liberal nihilism" the same way conservatives might. Konczal accuses liberals of failing (if not refusing) to make moral judgments. He blames them specifically for failing to make a moral critique of the stagnation of wages for the working poor. Instead, he claims, too many liberals blame the problem on impersonal market forces. This stance is nihilistic to Konczal because it denies any role to political or moral agency. It holds no one responsible. Reading this reminded me of Jill Lepore's piece in last week's New Yorker. She was criticizing Our Kids, the same new book by sociologist Robert Putnam that inspired David Brooks to call for a moral revival in America. The book she describes sounds more liberal than the one Brooks read. Lepore notes that Putnam laments the loss of a "sense of civic obligation and commonweal -- everyone caring about everyone's kids" that won't necessarily be compensated for by Brooks's moralism. But as Lepore describes it Our Kids might also be seen by the likes of Konczal as a work of liberal nihilism. Putnam himself writes that his "is a book without upper-class villains," though he adds later that "the absence of personal villains ... does not mean that no one is at fault."
Lepore contrasts Putnam's reluctance to alienate any potential reader with the attitude of Steve Fraser, whose The Age of Acquiescence I've just read. Fraser contrasts the massive resistance to industrial exploitation in the 19th century with the apparent acquiescence that characterizes our age. In Lepore's summary, Fraser complains that "the left isn't willing to blame anyone for anything anymore." In his book, he condemns the same sort of complacency in the face of "the market" that Konczal deplores. Konczal quotes another critic to make his point more starkly: "Whenever someone starts talking about the free market," David Graeber wrote, "it's a good idea to look around for the man with the gun." The point of all criticism of acquiescence to the market is that the market is not a force of nature but a creation of political will. That doesn't mean that economics is bunk, but it does mean that economics alone can't explain why the country seems worse off economically than it was fifty or sixty years ago. Nor can any conspiracy theory involving Republicans and their ideological and corporate comrades, since they had no control over the postwar recovery of Europe and Japan and the competitive pressures on the American economy that resulted. But the critics of "liberal nihilism," or whatever you want to call it, are correct to note that economics can't justify all the decisions in the public and private sectors that have left the working class with a dwindling share of national wealth.
All the critics seem to agree that liberal nihilism is grounded in some sort of fear. To Konczal "nihilist" narratives of impersonal market forces "are palliatives meant to relieve the anxiety of facing a massive political problem. Lepore attributes Putnam's refusal to name villains to an excess of nonpartisanship: "It's easier to work with all sides if no side is to blame." Fraser casts his net wider. American acquiescence, he argues, is a product of a consumer culture that encourages individualist thinking and discourages both traditional frugality and the spirit of self-sacrifice for larger causes that, in his account, sustained the labor movements of the past. The Age of Acquiescence might be dated back to the "Treaty of Detroit" period after World War II when businesses offered unions many material concessions and unions mostly renounced any intention to truly democratize the workplace. Workers' resistance in the 19th century, by comparison, was driven by a nostalgia for autonomy lost to factory discipline and industrial economics, and inspired by visions of an alternative social order that are largely absent among today's workers. Fraser describes not so much liberal nihilism as working-class nihilism: the absence of any vision of real working-class democracy. Market fetishism works on all levels to scare people off from tampering with the system, but critics like Konczal and Fraser want to tear down the curtain concealing the men behind the market curtain. They can't decide what people will do about the revelation. But it can't hurt to remind then that they can do something.