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Libertarianism as a Form of Nihilism

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.



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Robert Geroux: You've raised interesting points. No doubt commodity exchange is important.

However, you refer to "other systems of valuation." But you do not explain any other systems of valuation. What other systems of valuation do you have in mind, and how would you explains each of those other systems of valuation? 

Robert Geroux: You've raised interesting points. No doubt commodity exchange is important.

However, you refer to "other systems of valuation." But you do not explain any other systems of valuation. What other systems of valuation do you have in mind, and how would you explains each of those other systems of valuation? 

Great starting point for some very interesting questions. Not sure I'd have picked "Nihilism" as the term, however, and I'm not convinced that the way you've framed it works. I'm open to being persuaded otherwise, however.

I might have gone with a word like "supremacist" or "hegemonic," and then made the focus of activity that occurs outside the realm of commodity exchange "subaltern." Thus, among the priorities of libertarianism is a sorting of people not into those who are or ar not, but into those who are good and those who are bad.

Perhaps this is nihilistic in the same way that you mean it. I hope that you share mroe of your thoughts in the comment thread.

(When I was in a PhD program, my research was in extreme right wing politics, so I am primed to see an explicit overlap of the white supremacist and libertarian ideologies.)


First, I think you are talking about one specific part of the overall "right-libertarian" philosophy, namely market capitalism.  I don't mean to get into a semantic argument but I think it is very important to not let general phrases like "libertarian" be co-opted by those who have very narrow market capitalism interests.  There are many more facets of both right- and left- libertarian philosophy and a richness of thought and tradition that I think is getting lost when we use the word in this narrow way.

To being said, I would agree that market capitalism in its truest form has some nihlistic tendencies, but only in the sense that it is amoral.  However, I would disagree that it is purely nihilistic since it does not posit that NOTHING has any intrinsic value (although yes it does suppose that PEOPLE have no intrinsic value).  Rather it supposes that the invisible hand of the market is the supreme authority and arbiter of value and all that is right and good.  Market self-corrections, a rising tide lifts all boats, and all that.  So it clearly worships a false god, but it does not say there is NO god.

interesting topic - Would love to hear more thoughts on this.

I agree that "nihilism" isn't quite striking me as the most appropriate term. It seems more to me that the market evangilists imagine that the market transcends human dignity, and conversely gives us meaning.

Acceptance of this is less nihilism, I think, than idolatry.

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.


The word "value", of course, has more than one meaning.  As the questions are posed here, I'd think the answers are pretty clear to those of us of a Christian orientation: human beings certainly have value apart from their market value.  We hold to the intrinsic dignity and worth (value) of all human beings as creatures of a God who is good, loving and just, and this truth gives rise to moral values that, among other things, urge us to protect the welfare of the poor and marginalized.  At the same time, work itself is an important value in Christian anthropology, as it is through work that humans attain the dignity that God has in mind for us.  This dignity through work, though, is not always reflected in the market value of the labor being expended - hence the conundrum that shortstops and linebackers earn more than nurses and teachers.

When we discuss important topics like this one, which use words with multiple meanings and connotations like "value", I wonder to what extent such words, pregnant with many possible understandings, have the ability to shift our way of thinking by virtue of those connotations.  When the anti-abortion movement took possession of the world "life", it's quite likely that they scarcely thought of all the implications of claiming the pro-life standard; Cardinal Bernardin and then John Paul II elaborated on the meaning of "life" and drew conclusions that, in some cases, probably were not particularly palatable to those who first wrapped themselves in the pro-life mantle.  A word like "liberty", which helped foment the American revolution, seems curiously shorn of its expressive power these days - probably to the chagrin of the US bishops.  But a word like "rights", particularly when appended to "human" or "civil",  seems more powerful during our lifetimes than perhaps it did two hundred years ago, when arguably human and civil rights were less less highly valued than they are now.  Now there is an effort to revivify a movement by appending "rights" to "worker's", but it is still to be seen whether that notion will stir people to action.  In the case of the word "value", i think we've seen a diminishment in common discourse, such that the intrinsic value of a human is reduced to his market value.  We're bound to resist this diminishment, I believe.


How central is the deification of the market to libertarianism? And how widespread is it outside libertarianism? IMO those are the first questions that have to be answered in deciding if libertarianism can be called nihilistic.

My outsider's impression is that the mainspring of libertarianism is what Justice Brandeis first called "the right to be left alone" (a right not specified in the Constitution, it needs to be pointed out). Like any ideology, libertarianism has spawned its sects and heretics. I couldn't say with confidence that market absolutism is a necessary part of libertarianism. But I could easily stand corrected.

My insider's impression is that the absolute ascendancy of the market over any and all objections is hardly confined to libertarianism; that it owes its existence -- perhaps -- to the rise of science after the Enlighetnment, and that it turns up in decision-making everywhere from corporations to households to rectories. And if that's the case, there isn't much to be gained by pointing out that it also sticks to libertarians. ISTM that the major sin or our era is not abortion but idolatry, that what's in our wallets is our idols, and that the Church should be inveighing against it, and would be if more church leaders could imagine a world run by something other than money.

That last sentence is obiter dicta.

I see libertarian as valuing a puritanical calvinist ethos that it sees as rooted in the bible. That God tells adam and eve that from here on end, we will have to toil with the sweat of our brow, in order to survive, as punishment for sin, is the starting point of libertarianism. The more you work the better a person you are,is the meme. We see this  every time a politician stresses how his/her parents worked themselves to the bone and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to show  they're good people.This gets coupled with the calvinist notion that god rewards us in this life if he finds us pleasing. Hence material wealth is a sign that you are favored by god-a good christian. Put these two concepts together, work is the highest value there is, and calvinist; if you're rich you must be good, and that sets the course for radical right wing laisez faire capitalism.It's a distortion of christianity and humanity. And prior to globalization which exposes capitalism as a pyramid scheme, prior to globalization it did mean advancement for the majority of people in the US and great creativity and high standard of living. But it's becoming morally untenable in a country of 350 million.Now it becomes apparant that an enlightened technologicaly advanced society has to provide for all its citizens, that relying on the wealthy to provide  living wage jobs and decent benefits  is not sufficient in a globalized economy. Exploitation of others labor whether at home or abroad is not ethical and not christian/ humane. Libertarians  are in denial if they really believe that charity will fill the gap if a centalized governemnt ceases to insure everyone's well being whether through decent labor laws or providing for a guaranteed income or job. They forget the exploitation that those on top resort to, to remain rich and powerful without a government to prevent abuse.The  unimpededed- free - market- will -solve- just -about- everything human, ethos, is nihilistic as it sees the quest for material  and ever increasing growth as the engine we should all be on and want to be on .It has God as  validating the system but the system becomes the idol.  

I think that Rose-Ellen Caminer is correct in seeing libertarianism as stemming from an immoral Calvinism rather than an amoral nihilism. It sees the wealthy as blessed by God and the market because of their merit and the poor are cursed. To interfere with the natural working of the market is to interfere with the Divine order.


To address your points the best I can,

1. Your questioning of the premise of the topic is justified.  Deification of the market is not necessarily central to libertarianism, in the broader context of the word.  In fact some libertarian thought is specifically opposed to it.  Hence my concerns in my earlier post about using the term libertarian in such a narrow context.  When we are talking specifically about various right-libertarian philosophies it does become central.  I am no scholar on these matters but I have read some of the literature on the movement and it's various offshoots.  I would suggest that anyone with even a passing interest of this topic do some independent reading.  It is really interesting stuff.  Yes the Enlightenment did contribute to libertarian philosophy as it was starting to take shape as a movement per se, though from my understanding at least it contributed to both left- and right- libertarianism.  I am also under the imoression that -for the purposes of this discussion - we are talking about libertarianism as expressed in the current day US - which definitely has a more dominant capitalist-centric orientation.

2. You are absolutely correct in stating that the worship of the market is not unique to libertarianism.  But then again the whole God vs Mammon question predates libertarianism and market capitalism altogether.  I think Robert's intent was to examine what contemporary right-libertarian economic philosophy (maybe the "Austrian school"??) has in common with nihilism, and not to say that this is specific to libertarianism, but I will let Robert clarify exactly what he was going for.

"Laissez-faire market capitalism" is a bit more unwieldy but perhaps more accurate than "Libertarianism" for this post?


P.S.btw;I welcome the fact that so far anyway, it appears that  most of today's immigrants;from Latin America, China, Russia, Europe etc. unlike the immigrants of the past, are not buying into this libertarian; pull- yourself -up by -your- own- bootstraps, your value- is- proportional- to- how -much -you -work, ethos.Or the; let  the bull market "animal spirits"[paganism] reign supreme.They fully expect, and rightly so , IMO, that the state has an obligation to take care of it's people.That's the purpose of the state; first  to have a legal framework to ensure individual rights and freedoms and for defense and  then, especially in a highly advanced stage, to provide for the well being of its citizens. Even providing them with  living wage and benefits, jobs or incomes, health care,upper  education free of charge  for those who qualify."Entitlement" , is not a dirty word ,nor is "nanny state"; It's the hallmark of fairness, equality , justice which a democractic advanced society embodies or should embody. The right wing libertarians are appalled that so many people are on food stamps. Those on food stamps have no shame;it is right and just that if there are no living wage jobs, the government should make sure the people are fed!The scandal for them and the left in general,is that there are not enough living wage jobs with benefits and that the right is adverse to providing a guarteed job or living wage for its citizens.That it is more important that a capitalist enterprise remain profitable to its shareholders  then that it provides a living wage and  benefits, shows that the workers are being held hostage to the capitalists.The same that was said when workers started unionizing is now being said by the right about people demanding more equitible distribution of wealth.There will be no businesses if workers get more. It was untrue then and it's untrue now,The right wing libertarians want to hold back progress as they cling to the more and more marginalized  model of laissez faire capitalism.They are the last die-hards on the planet, I think.Fifty or a hundred years from now, these demands will be seen as recognized civil rights and the right wing libertarian position will be recognized as patently unethical .The phrase "pursuit of happiness" does not get most  21st century immigrants  flag waving like it did 20th century  immigrants but Obama care sort of does. 

Makes Libertarianism sound like a religion rather than a political/economic system.  It seems to set the Market up as god and all who exist are subject and answerable to the Market. That the Market should choose who lives and who dies. As if the Market is our creator and we are its creations instead of the other way round.


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