Libertarianism as a Form of Nihilism
Robert Geroux February 13, 2014 - 12:06pm
What happens when you adhere to a system of ideas that prioritizes the market as an arbiter of value? What happens when you repeat incessantly that the best, or perhaps the only measure of value arises out of commodification and exchange? Should it be surprising that in the world created around that commitment, certain other "core values" become endangered or maybe even extinct?
I don't want this entry to be a polemic, but no doubt it will be read as such. My sense here -- not a fully-formed and elaborated argument to be sure, but an initial thesis -- is that in a practical and political sense, libertarianism is a form of nihilism. By this I obviously don't mean that libertarians believe in nothing, or that they are moral relativists. In fact, the opposite is true, if we move from a debate over this or that particular value to the question of systems of valuation. At this level, libertarians argue that a single system is in fact authoritative: the market authoritatively confers value. Other expressions, especially those mobilized by the state, are not only wrong but potentially oppressive.
This radical priority on what Marx called exchange-value has a problem: How do we value things in themselves? Is there a way of valuing objects or subjects -- human beings for example -- that doesn't address what they might contribute to the market of goods and services? What about the vulnerable who exist on the margins of markets and don't contribute anything commodifiable? The implication here is that life itself only gains value when it enters the market -- in the labor of a worker, for example. Before that moment, it's off the radar; we can't even speak of life in the libertarian vocabulary as being "devalued" because outside the market there's no scale, no measure of better or worse. It literally doesn't exist. It is in this sense that I would call libertarianism nihilistic: in its total commitment to exchange value it marginalizes and even kills-off other systems of valuation. Sadly, such systems might be more sensitive to entire ways of life outside the tedium of capital flows and commodity exchange.
About the Author
Robert Geroux is a political theorist and assistant professor of political science at DePauw University.