Motivating the Nihilists

Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance

by Simon Critchley, Verso, 2007.

Simon Critchley, a philosopher in the Continental vein, offers us Infinitely Demanding, a brief text in which he aims to explicate a possible movement from ethics to politics, and from commitment to resistance. It serves as an index of what is promising and what is a dead end, both ethically and politically, in certain academic approaches to radicalism. Perhaps most interesting about Infinitely Demanding, however, is that rather than remaining at the level of abstract discussions of political theory, Critchley also seeks to connect his claims with the activities of some current protest movements. In his book, activists could find the rudiments of a common language and some concepts for theorizing their own activity. At the same time, however, the book does not escape the defects that affect much theoretical work on ethics and politics: overly narrow theoretical and practical panoramas.

Infinitely Demanding opens by staging the problem of nihilism for ethics and politics – that all beliefs or values increasingly seem meaningless and all actions appear equally worthless. From there, ethics is presented as a way to overcome nihilism (Critchley theorizes ethics as a singular commitment to a situation or cause that renovates the meaning of action), and politics appears as the actions resulting from that overcoming (resistance to state power). Critchley proposes that the problem of nihilism is overcome when ethics moves from being based on a moral code or law to the raw experience of ethical demand, and when politics abandons the struggle for the seizure of power in favour of an endless resistance to power.

Is Nihilism a Problem?

Critchley begins with a programmatic introduction that presents the problem of nihilism, which he assumes no one would ever confess to. Either one is not a nihilist, or is, but will not confess to it. Unconfessed nihilists are either passive (“focused on himself and his particular pleasures and projects for perfecting himself”) or active (“various utopian, radical political, and even terrorist groups”). While the category of passive nihilist suggests a critique of individualism and consumerism, especially the North American variety, Critchley’s “active nihilist” is an unlikely hodgepodge of utopians, radicals, communists and anarchists, and terrorists, with al-Qaeda as their “quintessence.” What they all share is “find[ing] everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, [they try] to destroy this world and bring another into being.”

The way out of these forms of nihilism is to turn back beyond the hollowness of meaning that produces them, returning to the problem of motivation. Critchley’s assumption is that the social, political, and economic circumstances that currently hold sway are demotivating. However, the conceptual tools required to remotivate unconfessed nihilists do exist, especially in recent ethical theory. And while those with a desire for justice might feel close to nihilism as state power continues to grow and capitalism seems ever more absolute and unsurpassable, a newly conceived ethics can give rise to a new politics of resistance. This politics does not need or expect to seize power or conquer capitalism. Instead it resists them from within. According to Critchley one can be anti-capitalist and anti-state without ever hoping to succeed. Consequently, “far from failure being a reason for dejection or disaffection, I think it should be viewed as the condition for courage in ethical action.”

I agree that one need not count on success to become active. But who is Critchley referring to when he asks how we might “fill the best with passionate intensity”? Those among “the best” who have fallen to nihilism? The best among the credulous rest? The background of presuppositions concerning relations between intellectuals and “the masses” should be made explicit, especially because many people are motivated without an explicit ethics. This is a key component of anarchism and seems absent from Critchley’s theory. I also remain unconvinced that nihilism is always a problem, perhaps because I have met even stranger creatures than Critchley’s active and passive nihilists. If active nihilists think the new world will be more meaningful than this one, they are still too credulous. There are passionate, intelligent people among us, people capable of acting in a political sphere and of subtracting themselves from it as well – and they confess to nihilism. These individuals exist outside of Critchley’s taxonomy and pose a serious problem for it. They make clear that Infinitely Demanding divides the social-political world up too crudely.

Ungrounded Ethics and Neo-Anarchism

It is precisely the beliefs and values that have traditionally composed morality that nihilism undermines. Critchley seeks to overcome this undermining by provocatively suggesting that “the question of the metaphysical ground or basis of ethical obligation should simply be disregarded… Instead, the focus should be on the radicality of the human demand that faces us, a demand that requires phenomenology and not metaphysics.” That is, the emphasis must shift from deducing the foundation of ethics to embracing a phenomenology of ethical experience. According to Critchley the “demand” is impervious to nihilism. It is therefore not surprising that – although Alain Badiou, Knud Ejler Løgstrop, and Jacques Lacan are all summoned as interlocutors in the discussion – it is Emmanuel Levinas who serves as the main point of reference. Levinas claimed that ethics had priority over metaphysics and ontology as “first philosophy,” and that the first fact of ethics was the face of the Other. One’s experience of the Other is irreducible and precedes even self-knowledge. It is the beginning of experience as such. In this way, it makes all experience and all subjectivity part of ethics. One interesting aspect of Critchley’s reading of Levinas is his claim that the nature of ethics is the same for both secularists and theists. If the problem of grounding or justifying ethical theories is set aside in favor of a phenomenology of ethical experience, any sort of ethical experience that brings about the radical demand is good enough: the face of God, of my lover, of the strange neighbour, of the hungry or tortured Other.

The problem of nihilism is perhaps not as immediately discernible in politics as it is in ethics. As Critchley describes it, one facet is strategic and has to do with identifying politically effective actions that are in line with the ethical demands one experiences. But prior to that is the question of motivation: Critchley seeks to “provide an ethical orientation” that might support “a remotivation of politics or political action.” For him, political action “does not flow from the cunning of reason, some materialist or idealist philosophy of history, or socio-economic determinism, but rather from … a ‘metapolitical’ moment of ethical experience.” This idea of a politics motivated by a morality without sanction is, if not already anarchist in most senses of the word, compelling to many anarchists.1 For Critchley, this ethical component both motivates political action and maintains it as democratic. I would like to underline that this is a different account of motivation than the passage from ethics to politics as usually conceived, because the ethics at stake is situational: theorists or philosophers can recommend actions, motivating people to act, but ethics has no sanction.

For that reason especially, it is promising that Critchley attempts to connect his argument with existing movements, and does so in an affirmative tone. “The ethical energy for the remotivation for politics and democracy can be found in those plural, dispersed, and situated anti-authoritarian groups that attempt to articulate the possibility of … ‘true democracy.’” He doesn’t, however, seem to have (or at least never refers to) any direct experience of these movements. When he presents what he calls “anarchic meta-politics” as a basis for and extension of anarchist theory and practice, it’s safe to say that he is not especially familiar with either. With respect to anarchism, Critchley is a combination of a dreamer, a friendly observer, and a supporter. He seems to situate himself primarily in some sort of philosophical Left that needs to be steered to anarchism while holding on to a certain young Marx. It is not surprising that citations of authors closer to Marxism than anarchism (Ernesto Laclau, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Miguel Abensour) far outnumber references to anarchist texts or movements. I do not mention this to maintain some sort of purity or specialization of anarchist thought and practice, but rather to underline the extent to which Critchley’s discussion is based on an imagined and imaginary anarchism that operates under names like “anarchic meta-politics” or “neo-anarchism.”

At the same time, Critchley frames his argument as explicitly anti-Leninist (and makes, both in the introduction and the appendix, the claim that contemporary Islamic terrorism is neo-Leninist). “Politics,” Critchley writes, “is praxis in a situation that articulates an interstitial distance from the state and allows for the emergence of new political subjects who exert a universal claim.” This perspective is emphatically counterposed to attempted or successful seizures of state power. Again, Critchley maintains that the presence of states is inevitable for the foreseeable future. What ethically motivated movements do, then, is confront state power by creating and acting within “interstices.” Critchley illustrates the opening up of interstices with a strange quote from Levinas: “Anarchy … cannot be sovereign. It can only disturb, albeit in a radical way, the state, prompting isolated moments of negation without any affirmation. The state, then, cannot set itself up as a Whole.”

As Levinas made clear, and as Critchley repeats, this is a passage about philosophical anarchy. Critchley’s interpretation of this philosophy translates it into the language of a thoroughly anti-authoritarian politics (“anarchy is the creation of interstitial distance within the state, the continual questioning from below of any attempt to establish order from above”). This is the overall ethical force of anarchism. Because of this, Critchley maintains that “the great virtue of contemporary anarchism is its spectacular, creative, and imaginative disturbance of the state.” While I find this philosophical affirmation of protest movements to be valuable, I am also deeply troubled by the way it makes confrontation with state power the defining or at least most meaningful moment of anarchist or anti-authoritarian practices generally. By doing so, he misses out on countless collective and community activities not to mention more or less secret individual pursuits which, though they are understandably off the radar of an interested outsider, nevertheless compose many of the most significant part of contemporary anarchism.

The True Split is in Politics

Critchley concludes with an appendix entitled “Crypto-Schmittianism – the Logic of the Political in Bush’s America.” It offers a schematic conjunctural analysis of the US and its politics, emphasizing the supposed influence of Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt on the Bush administration. How did Bush get re-elected in 2004? According to Critchley, “I think part of the story is that certain people in the Bush administration have got a clear, robust, and powerful understanding of the nature of the political. They have read their Machiavelli, their Hobbes, their Leo Strauss and misread their Nietzsche.” Meanwhile, the Democrats are “too decent, too gentlemanly or gentlewomanly. They are too nice […] It seems to me that they don’t understand a damn thing about the political.” For this reason, Critchley suggests that the Democrats should study Carl Schmitt and Gramsci. The argument as to the bookishness of the Bush Republicans goes so far as to contemplate whether George W. Bush is stupid (he isn’t, Critchley argues). From there, Critchley returns to the main argument of the book, distinguishing between three political alternatives available in the current conjuncture. They are “military neo-liberalism,” “neo-Leninism” (our old friends the active nihilists) and the “neo-anarchism” he recommends.

Reading the appendix, I felt I was watching Critchley be dragged back into the ultimately self-referential Leftism of so many Continental philosophers. The vision of an ethically inclined phenomenologist charting out a turn to a politics of resistance that had some chances of building a bridge with existing movements and non-academic theorizing that I got from the chapter had me interested. The appendix botched that image. The first aspect of the problem is an over-identification of the Left with Democrats or “left” electoral parties. Critchley discusses the US Democrats and what they should do, and whether “we” should support them. For many of us, this is completely irrelevant to the theme of the contestation or evasion of state power. Second, the assumption that the Bush administration can be understood by speculating about the texts they’ve studied (“They have read …” and so “they understand the nature of the political”) is the intellectualist fantasy of a professor. Supposing there were a nature of the political, there could be no golden road, no special texts that one must read to understand it. The third aspect of the problem is a more grave version of the second: Critchley devotes space to claiming that “Bush thinks” as though this mattered. What all of this amounts to is the familiar phenomenon of an intellectual who simply cannot let go of the mirage of electoral politics and political figureheads. Unfortunately for Critchley, being intellectually and emotionally involved in their activities amounts to anything but resistance.

Despite two awkward references to the “Situationism of Guy Debord,” it never seems to occur to Critchley that the Spectacle is more than image-based propaganda. It is a social relation, or lack of relation, really, that makes it possible to speculate, for example, about the reading lists of cabinet members, the plans of huge and institutionalized electoral parties, and even the intelligence or lack thereof of figureheads, as though these mattered for the politics of resistance. While engaging in such speculation, we miss the fact that we have been duped into believing that we belong on the same purported Left-Right continuum as huge electoral parties, satisfied that we are farther left than the Democrats. This, it seems to me, is the limit of Critchley’s political thought. It is friendly to anarchism, or at least to anti-authoritarian protest movements, but it cannot shake its identification with a Left that continues to define the limits of political action in terms of engagement with the state and forbids stepping beyond them. Because of this, Critchley can only conceive of anarchism reactively. And while activists might learn something about how they are perceived and how they might explain themselves using Critchley’s generous gestures, they will find little in the way of a broader social or strategic imagination with which to chart future actions.


1 Critchley approvingly cites David Graeber’s formula: “Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy. Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.” What is telling concerning Critchley’s attraction to anarchism is that he usually conceives of ethical discourse as a theory or a philosophy (emerging from an experience, granted) rather than an ethos or even habitus, a way of life first and discourse second, as Graeber’s ethnographically inflected writings do.