In rereading my translation of Conservative Revolution and Neoliberalism, I found that the language strains most around the words I least fully understand. As I wrote a while back, moments of obscurity facilitate their own forms of navigating a text, but certain words recur, their reception increasingly contingent on some burgeoning or established definition the reader has in mind. Sometimes, even if not mentioned by the text, these words are only meaningful with respect to their use in earlier writings. I don’t know if Ruy planned on adding any elaborations or citations, or if this was written for an audience already familiar with a shared conceptual vocabulary. But, even if I have the “right” word in English, I still don’t know what to do with it, because I don’t really know what Ruy’s doing with it.
One of these words is nihilism [niilismo]. Alongside the break of or from the liturgy [ruptura da liturgia], nihilism is introduced as an element that is “present in (but not exclusive to) the populist universe.” It only appears one more time in part one, in reference to Wendy Brown’s discussions on the subject, which are described as a theorization of what constitutes something truly revolutionary: an “outright corruption of the truth.”
The second part positions nihilism as something more specific, or at least relatively so. Ruy writes that “it is necessary to turn towards its significance,” which, “in historical terms… has something to do with Greek sophism.” Ruy continues “without entering into more thorough considerations about the significance of the sophistic… it seems to me that it was the first moment in which there appeared a kind of discourse around violence and cynicism, as well as the break from the demand for truth.” It is unclear whether “it” refers to sophism or nihilism, but Ruy later writes that, “as for what I called ‘nihilism,’ defined as a radical corruption of the idea of truth, this is typical of classical fascisms, a true invention of theirs.” Nihilism, then, is presented as a result of fascisms, suggesting that, if sophism inaugurated a break from the truth, nihilism marks a different relation to truth: a “sort of lying that is hyperbolic because it scandalously clashes with the truth.”
The significance of nihilism as an element of populism, however, is not addressed in the text. In many of his earlier writings, collected in the books A esquerda difícil [The Hard Left] and Outro dia [Another Day], nihilism is invoked not with respect to populism, but as a tendency — a nonradical radicalism — of certain factions of what he calls the far left. He considers “revolutionarism,” along with “vulgar petismo” [adherence to the center-left Workers’ Party, or Partido dos Trabalhdores (PT)], as a way the left has gone astray. This is then subdivided into two variants: “traditional revolutionism, which calls for revolution and believes in its realization; and the nihilist variant, which, on the level of analysis, broadly professes the ‘revolutionist’ vision of the world, but believes that the doors have shut and that there are no more ways out leading to progress.”1
Ruy’s invocations of nihilism are often accompanied by a language of exits, of openings and foreclosures. In one interview, he describes nihilism as “the tendency to speak of a global closing-off of the situation and the alleged impossibility of taking any politically concerted and productive stance.”2 Elsewhere, he writes that the nihilistic tendency differs from more traditional revolutionism because “it is pessimistic in relation to the possibilities of revolution,” in “insist[ing] there is no way out of the current situation.”3 Since an exit must exist, it also must be found: otherwise, Ruy argues, we remain beholden to “the impasse that condemns us… to the self-satisfied narcissism of certain nihilists — I refer to only the faction that attacks the government — who barely hide how much they revel and participate in the catastrophe.”4 Nihilism, in the aforementioned passages, reads as a sort of resigned self-indulgence in the face of a perceived lack of political alternatives or possibilities. If revolution is a valorized possibility, it is held to be unattainable, only desired insofar as it is already foreclosed.
Perhaps the nihilism of Conservative Revolution is a different strain, something Ruy would conceive of years later and position as nearly a century old. But, if the corruption of the truth is understood as marking a revolution, how might we understand these two valences of nihilism — one truth-oriented and distortive, the other a resigned “revolutionism” — as interrelated through what Ruy might call a “galaxy”?
In the final chapter of In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, Wendy Brown articulates an understanding of nihilism in the neoliberal moment, predominantly through the ideas of Nietzsche. For Niezsche, nihilism entails a devaluation of values, “voiding them of foundation and truth.”5 Further, not only is truth “devalued along with every other value in a nihilistic age,” but “this degrounding and diminuation reveal truth as a value.”6
In turning to Weber in Nihilistic Times, Brown is able to introduce a conception in which “values are fundamentally political because they are ungrounded today, because they cannot be secured by or as truth.”7 The political nature and import of values is related to its uncertainty as truth, not in the sense of facticity but as a value that is itself devalued. In the constellation of neoliberalism’s effects and affects, as well as the experience of a compromised or uncertain futurity, we are faced with “formations of power that do not merely trivialize, but openly defile and defy moral values.”8 Their language and interlocutors are different, but Ruy and Brown mark similar shifts, from a voiding or break from the truth to its corruption or defilement.
For Weber, Brown continues, “the only responsible actor in a nihilistic age, and the only one able to carry us beyond the age, is one who fully confronts the predicaments of meaning making today and rises to the challenge of creating meaning in a world absent its givenness.”9 Perhaps the making of meaning is the making of an exit. If not understood as a way out, an exit is a door, a break in the wall, a vulnerability, a risk. “There are exits,” Ruy writes, “but they are not panaceas.”10 Rather, they are possibilities, and, to arrive at a more equitable and sustainable mode of life, they need to be considered meaningfully.