politics and nihilism: reflections on australia’s political disillusionment

Following the decimation of the Labor Party in the weekend’s Queensland state election there are a number of seemingly insurmountable issues to be reckoned with.

Not least is the reality that in contemporary Australia we have a problem in national politics – the population is fed up with it!

The blame is often pointed at leadership and there is no doubt that this plays a part in the problem. The latest leadership challenge between Gillard and Rudd was not fought on policy but on personality. The other side of the political spectrum is equally reproachable, mindlessly opposing almost everything that proceeds from the government and failing to provide a policy position on basically anything.

Our national leadership is unimaginative and uninspiring, a sentiment constantly repeated throughout media outlets. There seems to be a shortage of principled thinkers willing to take risks on their convictions. As Malcolm Fraser noted on Monday, the Federal Parliament is “a place … littered with apparatchiks.”

With such uninspiring leadership the population, particularly the young, become disillusioned with the political process. This is perhaps best indicated by the sharp decline in political party membership.

But to argue that all political disillusionment proceeds from uninspiring leadership is shallow, a clawing at what are ultimately symptoms in order to find a cause.

What might then be the cause? There is of course no simple answer, though I have my suspicions.

We are caught in a world where sheer materiality is a major characteristic of our collective worldview. The resultant problem is a two-fold paradox; we are too materialistic (since we deny, either verbally or in our lifestyles, that there is anything more than ‘stuff’) and we are not materialistic enough (since we desire to transcend the limitations of the material world). The potent mix of hyper- and hypo-materialism makes for a kind of nominalism that affirms our (supposed) lack of external guidance, our obsession with pleasure and our (supposed) infinite potential for progress.

The effect of our increasingly materialist worldview is a widespread descent into nihilism and hedonism. I wonder whether the nihilism that has canvassed Western society is (at least partly) at the root of our political demoralisation. In a political economy where wealth accumulation is the ultimate good such nihilistic accumulation becomes, as Russian theologian Sergei Bulgakov has said, “a spiritual force, influencing the human spirit from within; it changes from a source of limitation to a source of temptation.”

Such nihilism is, of course, an eternal bedfellow with hedonism. According to Bulgakov when society is “drowning in sensuality,” as we currently are, it leads to “life without ideals, spiritual embourgeoisement,” for this “is the inevitable logic of hedonism.”

We are devoted to luxury, not necessity, and Bulgakov calls this “the triumph of sensuality over spirit, of mammon over god…” The effects on politics are profound. At the very least nihilism results in the impossibility of a common vision for society since life is meaningless, without value or purpose. It is no wonder we have lost any distinction in political discourse between standard of living and standard of lifestyle – hedonism is the only recourse in such a nihilistic world.

In such a meaningless world is it any wonder that people come to despair the future and lose hope in politics?

When nihilism pervades politics there is no basis for long-term policy discussion. Personalities overshadow policy not simply because of the idiocy of politicians, but because there is no common foundation for such policy debate. Indeed, there is a reason why the Labor Party is in desperate need of some soul-searching (what does it stand for in this contemporary age?) and the Coalition, devoid of moral aptitude, consists of a National Party that has all but abandoned its rural constituency and a Liberal Party whose name would be a hilarious irony if it were intended as a joke.

Both major parties have become detached from their traditional values making the chances of long term policy formation unlikely, much less bipartisan work toward a common future, which seems remote. No wonder political debates are often infuriatingly incoherent; in a world of meaninglessness politicians speak in disparate “languages” about incongruent social visions.

Our political leaders are not really leaders of thought; they are simply following the larger trend of moral nihilism. The asylum seeker issue continues to be a poignant illustration – the projection of evil, from deep within our colonial psyches, onto vulnerable asylum seekers is more than an exercise in political point-scoring; it is an indication of an absence of moral conviction, itself the product of a view of the world lacking in meaning, purpose and transcendent values.

While this implicitly theistic reading may be contentious, I feel it provides a place of discussion for the underlying causes of our political demoralisation. Blaming our leaders is too easy; what are the larger problems in which you and I are complicit? What is our role in bringing new life to a political and social scene that is implicitly nihilistic?


Posted on March 28, 2012, in Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I don’t know how you can say its uninspiring leadership. It would seem that the majority of Queenslander’s would think differently.

    • Quite easily, for at least two reasons:

      1) It is a sentiment constantly expressed by public figures (no less than Malcolm Fraser on Monday), media outlets and public opinion.
      2) The Queensland election result reflects, by all accounts I’ve come across, a punishment of the ALP, not an affirmation of the LNP.


  2. So are you going to sell your fancy guitars? use a simple one.!…
    Of course you make the assumption that governments should lead rather than fill the gaps.
    Malcolm Fraser attacking political hacks – he got into parliament at 25 im sure he knows something about it.

    • To respond in short: no, no, and yes.

      A bit of expansion: 1) not sure why my “fancy guitars” are so fancy, or why selling them would be un-hedonistic; 2) That’s actually not consistent with what I actually said since i never suggested governments should lead, only that they act according to our wider nihilism. I thought I was pretty clear at the conclusion that we have responsibility; 3) Tell me you aren’t going to echo the Liberal revisionism of Fraser?

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