Cultural Creativity in the Age of Nihilism
A recent op-ed in the New York Times titled “We’re Doomed. Now What?” by Roy Scranton lays out the case for our humanistic need to create new meanings in an age where climate change, violence, and fear grip all of global society in a nihilistic meaninglessness. This nihilism takes the form of militaristic jingoism, market fundamentalism, and the political mainstreaming of open racism and nationalism. Scranton quotes Neitzsche, “Man will sooner will nothingness than not will.” Eric Fromm, also influeced by Neitzsche, explains this idea more clearly: when man does not have the potential to actualize his potentialities creatively, he turns to destructive impulses. Man needs an orientation, and when there are no possibilities for productive orientation, he destroys: life, property, and culture.
Interestingly, in Chris Hedge’s column this week, he lays out how this destructive urge in the face of despair is manifest today in the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s destruction of antiquities as well as in Glenn Beck’s disgusting xenophobic rhetoric and in the American right wing’s call to “carpet bomb.” These calls for destruction apeal to disenfranchized men’s yearnings to impart their will – for humanity’s worse if left with no alternative.
In many ways, those who are not so socially or economically isolated also face a form of alienation or despair. While those participting in the corporate economic “core” may be materially affluent, there may remain a malaise if not a despair. Based on Eric Fromm’s “marketing orientation,” or the idea that modern man defers to the market and not his own productive yearnings to determine what is meaningful activity, the comodified workplace can leave man feeling comodified and alienated. In this way the economic system leaves so many participants alienated and in despair, like the investment banker who’s own search for meaning in a meaningless comodified system leads him to work until he is in such despair that he decides death is better than continued existence.
How do we move forward from here as middle class Americans? Science, the industrial system, globalism, and the technology revolution have given us material and intellectual means that are unfathomable by the majority of humans – historically and even today. However, many of us still live with a deep sense of fear, lack of control, and alienation. If economic life has left us with a deficit of meaning in life, perhaps we must look to humanity’s greatest historical thinkers for meaning: Judeo-Christian-Islamic teachings of unconditional love for our fellow humans, Buddhist teachings of truly experiencing the present moment, and the Socratic tradition of constant rational examination of our beliefs, premises, and world views. We could also add Marx and his views on capitalism – that the economic system exploits the vast majority of participants for the benefit of a few. However, perhaps we need a new “messianic” perspective to deal with the fact that our economic system has provide economic abundance for hundreds of millions, yet not the meaning that many seek from their economic activity.
There are many manifestations of this movement today – they are starting to emerge. The term “cultural creatives” has been coined to describe a new form of progressivism that puts economic activity in its proper place – as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Among the financial blogosphere, Mr. Money Mustache and his anti-authoritarian ideas on frugality, investment, and low-carbon lifestyle is a wildly popular example of this emergent worldview. What is the nature of this new “cultural creative” ornetation?
The basic premises of this new orienation are that economic activity must serve as a means rather than an end. Through rational frugality – reasonably-sized housing, efficient reliable and economic cars, self-care in the form of cooking and household chores and DIY ethics, the middle and upper-middle classes can live well on less than their income. This surplus can be invested to provide economic security and calm the anxiety of facing the often fickle labor market.
On the spiritual, social and intellectual front, this move away from economic production for the sake of mindless consumption means a renewed focus on spirituality, creativity, and intellectualism. It has been said that “consumption is not creativity,” and new found economic freedom can free time for philosophical, spiritual, creative, and political engagement. Spiritually, we would all have time for devotional practice – be it prayer or meditation. Philosophically, we could pore through the works of humanity’s greatest thinkers – historical and contemporary. Creatively, we could experience a renesiance in folk art – pottery, photography, carpentry, painting, and independent film. And politically, we would have the time to engage in the democratic process in a grass-roots manner to ensure that all citizens have the right to the necessities of life: food, shelter, healthcare, and education so as to have at least the possibility to actualize spiritually, intellectually, creatively, and politically.
Perhaps most importantly, such a reframing in the middle and upper middle classes could shift the values of other social stratum by creating new cultural norms. Rather than the working class and poor aspiring to unachievable or unfulfilling expressions of wealth – expensive cars, branded clothing, and a never-ending cycle of electronics consumption, such shifts in economic life could elevate thrift, saving, education, and creativity as aspirational “goods.”
This vision for the United States and the world may seem like a radical utopia, and perhaps it is. However, many people are already living this life today, and many more are moving towards this post-materialist way of living their lives. The possibility to change our economic lives to serve our human potential, rather than our serving economic means, is within each of us. It simply takes the faith and motivation to live rationally based on values that are both intrinsic and that have been communicated from the ages by the great teachers of humanity.