Attack of the Nihilists
“’Are these the Nazis, Walter?’ ‘No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there’s nothing to be afraid of.’” -The Big Lebowski
Since the so-called insurrection of January 6, big media, big government, and big corporations have been demanding the collective scalp of the Trumpian alt-right. If we don’t somehow make those 70 million Trump voters disappear, the subtext goes, American democracy is doomed.
The alt-right agrees that American democracy faces an existential threat, but disagrees vociferously about the nature of the threat. Whereas Democrats and corporate media consider Trump’s cult of personality a fascist regime in the making, and his followers deluded and none-too-bright storm troopers, the deplorables, for their part, view the corporate Democrats as TDS-addled censorship-loving election thieves bent on establishing a “woke” dictatorship.
What does all this sound and fury really signify? What we are witnessing is a clash of barely-coherent yet increasingly frenetic ideologies—something the previous generation never imagined when it famously proclaimed the end of ideology. Its seems that Francis Fukuyama never read his Dostoevsky. If he had, he would have understood that the collapse of the grand récit of modernity would not lead to universal satisfaction under neoliberalism, but instead to ideological extremism, chaos, and bloodshed.
Dostoevsky literally wrote the book on ideological extremism and its causes and consequences. That book is Demons, otherwise known in various translations as The Devils, The Demons, and The Possessed. The author’s penultimate novel, it details the process by which liberal parents and educators produce radicalized, ideology-maddened children bent on tearing down the world into which they were born. This unquenchable thirst for destruction—call it nihilism if you will—is the engine of all post-religious political ideologies, be they of the left or right. Socialism, anarchism, communism, fascism, Nazism, woke-ism: all share a barely-concealed urge to blow up the inherited social order, ostensibly to rebuild it as some sort of nebulous paradise on earth. But all those rebuilding plans are just window-dressing. It’s the destruction, only the destruction, that counts.
Dostoevsky originally envisioned Demons as political polemic, but it expanded into a polyphonic masterpiece in the writing. Horrified by news reports of nihilist leader Sergey Nechayev’s orchestration of a pointless political murder, Dostoevsky set about fictionalizing the story, hoping to shed light on how the sensitive, genteel, well-meaning liberals of the 1840s had prepared the way for the 1860s generation of nihilist lunatics. (Today, we might ask ourselves how the complacent neoliberals of a generation ago, especially their avant-garde academic fringe, managed to midwife the emergence of today’s woke generation of sanctimonious COVID-masked rioters, Antifa thugs, social media censors, gender-denialists, statue-smashers, and others bent on the nihilistic extermination of American and human tradition if not reality itself.)
Demons, published in 1871-1872, predicted the rise of even worse nihilisms—and future developments, including the emergence of Bolshevism and Nazism, seemed to fulfill its prophecy. But what Dostoevsky foresaw was not so much particular events as a recurring pattern: Liberal parents neglect the religious education of their children, who grow up to embrace radical political ideologies as a poor substitute for faith and the spiritual life. That’s why Western culture has been trapped in an oscillating dynamic between liberalism and nihilistic radicalism for roughly two centuries, with no end in sight. The only off-ramp, as Dostoevsky never stopped screaming from the rooftops, would be a decisive return to religion. That seemed a pipe dream in the 1870s. But one hundred years later, the collapse of Communism and the Islamic Awakening would restore it as a conceivable option.
Dostoevsky’s rogues’ gallery of 1860s nihilist intellectuals includes Nikolai Stavrogin, a high-born charismatic rule-breaker with a penchant for cruel and shocking actes gratuites including pedophilia and other experiments that “could have taught the Marquis de Sade a thing or two”; Peter Verkhovensky, a volubly mendacious activist and organizer dedicated to overthrowing his “oppressive” society by burning everything down, BLM-Antifa style; and Alexei Kirilov, who believes he can simultaneously overcome belief in God and fear of death (two sides of the same coin) through suicide. Finally, and perhaps most prophetically, there is the historian Shigalov, who can see where it’s all heading: “Proceeding from unlimited freedom I end with unlimited despotism.”
The liberal Dr. Frankensteins responsible for breeding these demonic intellectual monsters are represented in the novel by Stephan Verkhovensky, Peter’s father and Stavrogin’s tutor. A self-styled freethinker and legend-in-his-own-mind who fancies himself a threat to the status quo, Stephan is in fact pathetically ineffectual in his slavish but worse-than-useless devotion to the modern, Godless, socialistic ideas arriving in Russia from the West. His pupils, the up-and-coming generation of 1860s nihilists, will, unlike their teacher, at least make a real effort to live out the implications of those ideas—with tragic consequences.
Today’s equivalent of the Stephan Verkhovenskys are the postmodernists, who conquered the humanities wing of the academy in the 1990s and planted the flag of nihilistic relativism on its ramparts. Their attack on the real, the true, the absolute, the just, the transcendent—on God, really—was, like Stephan Verkhovensky’s logorrheic effusions, a purely imaginary campaign, conducted within a well-remunerated “safe space,” with few if any direct real-world effects. But their pupils listened, took heed, and eventually acted.
The chief lesson of the Stephan Verkhovenskys of the world, deeply imbibed and put into practice by the Peters and Stavrogins and Kirilovs, is rejection of reality, both natural and social. They are in deep-seated revolt against God, traditional authorities who claim to be His representatives, and anything else that inhibits their freedom to be and do whatever they like. Since the world, its traditions, and its authorities (not to mention God) are constantly frustrating their capricious desires, they are driven by hate even when they profess the most humanitarian ideals. “It is all the fault of the system, the fault of our evil traditions, the fault of the authorities! Burn down the cities! Smash the statues! Defund the police!”
Some even hate their own God-given chromosomes and hormones and genitalia so much that they are driven to extremes of medical self-mutilation. Their carnival barkers, woke ideologues, only slightly less uncomfortable in their own skins, launch ferocious campaigns to “cancel” anyone who refuses to join the game of million-gender make-believe.
The scene in Demons in which an elegant society ball, featuring liberal literary speechifying from the 1860s Russian version of today’s Democratic Party, is organized as cover for Peter’s nihilistic socialist goons to burn down much of the town, reads like something out of today’s headlines. Julia von Lembke, the organizer of the society ball, plays the role of Nancy Pelosi, while Peter and his murderous arsonist friends represent Antifa-BLM.
Another startlingly contemporary concern of Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel is the central role of pedophilia. Stavrogin, the iconic central character or “antichrist” if you will, harbors a dark secret: Many years ago, his efforts to live amorally, as though God genuinely didn’t exist, led him to perpetrate a terrible seduction-rape of an innocent child, who subsequently committed suicide. But though logic tells him that in a world with no God and hence no ultimate basis for morality he had no good reason not to follow his desires to their limits and beyond (shades of Woody Allen) he is nonetheless tormented by extreme remorse.
Stavrogin’s situation recalls not only that of Woody Allen and other accused celebrity sex criminals, but also looks forward to the way pedophilia has become the last sexual taboo and hence the last resort for sexual blackmailers. Meyer Lansky, the mob boss who owned J. Edgar Hoover and (indirectly) almost everyone of consequence in the postwar 20th century USA, didn’t need pedophilia; he could blackmail his targets with photos of just about any non-marital liasons. But today, we are living in a world ruled by Jeffrey Epsteins and their Israeli intelligence bosses, who know too well that “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that underage swing.” Even consensual cannibalism and incest are losing their transgressive luster. Our absurdly “sexually liberated” culture, awash in birth control pills and abortions and pornography and viagra and celebration of almost all varieties of deviance, is still ashamed of pedophilia, a century and a half after Nikolai Stavrogin. Apparently the Antichrist hasn’t quite achieved 100% control of our sex lives…at least not yet.
In a world without God, where is the transcendence? You can’t just get rid of it. Yearning for transcendence is hard-wired into the human soul. In Demons, ideologies of Godless freedom lead to warped attempts at transcendence: Stavrogin transcends morality by raping and suiciding a child; Peter through elaborate orchestrations of gratuitous destruction; and perhaps most interestingly, Kirilov through directly assaulting God by committing an elaborately thought-out suicide.
Today, some seek to transcend the banality of secular materialism through wokeness. By joining an ostensibly idealistic movement attempting to radically change society and make history—or better yet, erase history—the wokester lives for something larger and greater than himself, or so he imagines. Such feeble simulacra of spiritual awakenings pale in comparison to the Kirilov-like planetary suicide attempts currently being engineered by the transhumanist movement and their singularity-seeking allies in genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, artificial life, and nanotechnology. These folks, like Kirilov, think they can challenge God by killing themselves…along with the rest of us. (No, Marvin Minsky, we will not get lucky and they will not keep us as pets; it, not they, will be a self-reproducing toxin, a cancer on the planet and perhaps the universe.)
Dostoevsky couldn’t have foreseen the singularity. But he did see how nihilist revolutionaries were pushing Russia towards the destruction of the old order by way of an unprecedented bloodbath…and how the forces driving the destruction were generational and rooted in the way each succeeding generation cares for, or fails to care for, its children. In Demons, the liberal intellectual Stephan Verkhovensky is the absent father (of Peter) and the irresponsibly irreligious teacher (of Stavrogin), and it is ultimately his failure as a father figure that turns the next generation into demons. We see the same kind of abdication of paternal/religious authority in the erosion of patriarchy in contemporary America. In the black community the socially-engineered destruction of patriarchy and religion (the two are related because only religion gives a man sufficient reason to sacrifice himself to protect and care for his family) has produced unprecedented rates of crime, drug use, and out-of-wedlock birth. Other US ethnic groups, including the white majority, have also been devastated, though quiet desperation and antidepressants and ID-politics idiocy among the middle and upper classes, and opioids and alcohol and Trumpolatry in the working classes, are more common than street crime.
Since the baby boom began after World War II, increasingly absent fathers have produced increasingly disturbed (or “demonic”) generations of children, culminating in the mass psychosis of the Woke generation. Will the Wokesters ultimately stage a new Bolshevik revolution-cum-civil-war, a 2020s American bloodbath? That is what Strauss and Howe’s Fourth Turning theory predicts. As I recently wrote in Crescent Magazine:
Some who expect the worst, including Trump’s sometime advisor Steve Bannon, cite the Fourth Turning theory of sociologists William Strauss and Neil Howe. According to that theory, cyclical generational changes driven by child-rearing patterns have created an 80-year cycle in American history. At the end of each 80-year cycle, a cataclysmic bloodbath occurs, destroying the previous dispensation and opening the way for a new one.
If Strauss and Howe are right, we are right on schedule for a bloodbath. Around each of the years 1780, 1860, and 1940, oceans of blood were shed, generating new American myths that drove new political dispensations. 1780 marked the first American civil war, a bloody series of fratricidal atrocities mythically remembered as “the American Revolution.” 1860 brought the Civil War. 1940 brought World War II and its many holocausts, including those of Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki (and the sacrifice of over 300,000 American lives, a small portion of the global tally of 75 million).
How much bloodshed will emerge out of the yawning chasm opened by America’s internecine conflicts of 2020? All three of America’s previous bloodbaths were won by equivalents of the blues—the people who wanted to tear down the old order. The Revolutionists of 1780 demolished the British colonial order and built a union of largely independent states. The Yankees of 1860 annihilated that loose union of sovereign states and replaced it with federal tyranny. And the pro-war party of 1940—a minuscule portion of the electorate, which overwhelmingly opposed US entry into World War II—put federal tyranny on steroids by turning power over to an unelected military-industrial-banking complex and its permanent Deep State.
Based on historical precedent, we might expect the red-vs-blue war of the 2020s to end in yet another decisive blue victory, erasing all vestiges of tradition and enshrining an even more extreme form of tyranny (if such a thing is possible). But as an Arabic proverb says, “a thing that exceeds its limit turns into its opposite.” If what Alan Sabrosky calls “the Blue Terror” goes too far, stampeding over its opponents and censoring and silencing dissent with excessive hubris, a red reaction might be spurred to some sort of victory, however pyrrhic—whether by establishing its own tyranny of terror, or by breaking the nation into pieces.
Is the red reaction, represented by such groups as the Proud Boys, a voice of sanity? Or is it just another “demonic” and ultimately nihilistic ideological movement? If Dostoevsky were a columnist at the Unz Review (the only site that would publish him if he were alive today and participating in the American culture wars) he would undoubtedly argue that the Proud Boys and most of the rest of the alt right are correct about the necessity of patriarchy, but wrong about grounding it in ethnicity rather than religion. You are calling yourselves European chauvinists? he would sneer. Are you out of your minds? Europe is the source of the infection! Come to Mother Russia! Return to the Holy Orthodox Church and to Christ! Work to restore the Czar, and in the meantime make do with the next best thing, Vladimir Putin!
If he could overcome his provincial prejudices, the author of Demons would also look favorably on the Islamic Awakening, especially its manifestation in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Instead of Church and Czar, Islamic Iran is ruled by a clergy headed by the Supreme Leader on one side of the balance of powers, and a democratic-republican government on the other. That kind of balance between religious and worldly authority was the norm everywhere until the illuminati nihilists uncorked the French Revolution and let the demons of totalitarian secularism out of the bottle.
In any case, returning to America and Strauss and Howe’s Fourth Turning, it’s worth noting that although the American nihilist revolutions that occur like clockwork every four generations have always been won by the blues, they also have always succeeded in re-establishing patriarchy, for an all-too-obvious reason: The new regimes emerged from bloody all-out wars that were fought and won by extremely masculine people, XY and even occasionally XYY chromosome people with more high-IQ outliers and an average of 30 times as much testosterone as those other people who are born with XX chromosomes (are we still allowed to say “men” and “women”?) When the the testosterone-crazed hairy-chested killers come home from the wars and shack up, they tend to re-establish masculine authority in the households they form. And thus the four-generation 80-year cycle starts anew.
So if everything proceeds according to schedule, today’s Fourth Turning, the one that started around the year 2020, will presumably turn into some sort of bloodbath, at home and/or abroad, after which the victorious killers will once again re-establish (relative) patriarchy. Can you imagine the Woke generation of gender-bending nihilists doing that? I can’t. So something will have to give. Either the reactionary pro-patriarchy relatively religion-friendly reds will finally win one, or the blues will undergo a bloodbath-catalyzed metamorphosis and emerge as reconstructed patriarchs. (Or, quite plausibly, Strauss and Howe will be proven wrong, and the Fourth Turning will be a dud.)
What could make the Fourth Turning different, and a real pattern-breaker, is the likelihood that the Woke Yankees will finally lose a big war. If the US tries to lead the maritime and rimland powers against a Russia-China-Iran alliance defending the Eurasian heartland, Eurasia may very well defeat Oceana, with catastrophic consequences for the Yankee aggressors. Following the string of victories in the Fourth Turning bloodbaths of 1780, 1860, and 1940, a loss in the 2020s would shake Leviathan to its foundations. Who knows what, if anything, would emerge from the rubble.
It’s hard to predict the future, as Yogi Berra said, because it hasn’t happened yet. But however the red-vs-blue clash plays out, and whatever geopolitical dispensation emerges next, one thing is reasonably certain: People will keep reading Dostoevsky, and even the non-reactionaries will admit that his Demons got a lot of things right.