The nihilism of progress and American Empire

“Cthulhu may swim slowly, but he always swims left.”

It has been said that a liberal standing still will eventually become a conservative. This means that liberalism is a relative term, an indefinite process that is always changing and moving toward something else. When it was founded, the United States and its constitution were liberal inventions derived from the principles of life, liberty and property. And yet the arrangement of the country at its inception could hardly be considered liberal today: women could not vote, and African Americans were still slaves. This so-called liberal state of affairs is a regression from the progressive politics of today’s liberals. Conversely, if you were to take a conservative today and put them back in time fifty years or so, their position would be considered liberal by the day’s standard.

This observation tells us two things about liberalism. First, that it is not a fixed frame of reference with clearly defined ideological precepts. It a process occurring across history which is dependent upon the time and context it is applied to. If yesterday’s liberals are today’s conservatives, there is nothing ontological or essential intended to be designated by the term liberalism except comparison to something else.

The second point is that history always tends toward becoming more liberal. In history, the left always wins; the trajectory of liberal democracies is one in which things are constantly becoming more and more liberal. In this sense, the United States is a process of development by self-discovery in which new and more progressive ways are found to interpret the constitution. Liberal progress is always taking place and things are always getting better.

Because liberalism is a process, it requires movement and the inertia of forward progress to justify itself and sustain its own existence. And since liberalism is always in flux, the only thing that can be said to be essentially liberalism is the state of flux itself. Liberalism can rescue its own ontology if there is actually a fixed point or state of affairs which it intends to progress towards. If there is a predetermined destination that liberalism is moving towards and which it will eventually actualise, then liberalism can be defined that specific ideal it is striving for. A situation can be judged as liberal depending on how well it fits that ideal — then, the comparison evoked by liberal relativity at least refers to something constant.

The issue is that such a fixed ideal does not exist. The American constitution was not deemed liberal because its creators held onto the eventual hope that it would actualise the abolishment of slaves and that economic and legal rights would eventually be spread evenly between genders. Now that these things have been achieved, liberalism is still unsatisfied with itself. It still insists there is greater liberality to be found on the horizon. This suggests that liberalism does not have a fixed frame of reference at all, at least not one which can be clearly defined and articulated. Instead, a liberal regime always defines itself by something outside of itself — something perpetually external. Once it makes progress, it reassesses against that externality and continues to move forward, but it always remains external and, therefore, inaccessible. Things can always be more liberal. There is always something to improve.

This illustrates how liberalism must keep itself progressing toward an imaginary and unobtainable idea in order for things to remain liberal. This movement must always be sustained. The easiest dimension on which to maintain progress is a cultural one. Culture is adjustable and convenient to transform. As such, liberalism prefers to keep reinventing itself on a cultural axis while leaving the underlying conditions of a polity intact.

An example of liberalism’s preference for cultural change above all else is its historic treatment of gender. Liberalism saw that women did not have the same ownership and labour rights as men, and that there was a significant inequality between the genders as a result. Thus, it endeavoured to emancipate us by removing this inequality, making it legally and socially acceptable for women to have the same participatory rights as men. Included with this was the right to participate fully in the labour market — to a pursue a career rather than remain homemakers.

One must think seriously about the kind of freedom this bought for women. Is the right to subordinate women to the same system of alienated wage labour really something worth celebrating? Even more disconcerting is liberalism’s neglection of the economic dimension to the issue. Gender has primarily been a category for organising the division of domestic and economic labour amongst a family. Homemaking and child rearing — crucial and yet unpaid labour — was the task of women, while men were left to earn a salary which could sustain that domestic sphere.

By allowing women to participate in wage labour, liberalism relieved the obligation to domestic labour. However, liberalism did so without offering an alternative means of distributing domestic and economic labour evenly. The structure of economic labour remained the same. People (now both men and women) were required to work eight-hour days to earn a salary to support their lifestyle. The need for domestic labour did not disappear: one still must provide for their children, organise meals, and look after themselves and their dependents. Only now this domestic labour needed to be accomplished in addition to regular economic labour, while the average work hours for this continue to reflect a now non-extistent understanding between men and women where the labourer had a spouse to support them on the domestic front. Without such an understanding, people are locked into jobs with poor work-life balances, unable to find the time and energy to do the basic domestic tasks to support ourselves.

From the perspective of labour alone, our quality of life has become worse off following the liberal emancipation of gender. This was because gender was only a cultural problem for liberalism. The economic dimension — the division of labour — was ignored entirely. Instead, the liberal narrative insists women were confined to their homes by the omnipotent power of the patriarchy. Not out of a matter of economic necessity but because of some innate desire in masculinity to conquer and subordinate the feminine other. And since it could not acknowledge that gender was an economic problem, it did not provide an economic alternative.

The fact remains that the cultural axis is the most useful one for liberalism to find ‘progress’ in. The fluidity and inter-subjectivity of culture allows for liberalism to construct its own phantom enemies which simply do not exist. It is easy for liberalism to pick a fight with the abstract cultural ideal of the patriarchy. Here, liberalism can define success on its own terms, independent of any common reality. If it were to pick a fight with the economic reality of the patriarchy, then it would be required to define the patriarchy in terms of the common influence it exerts over a shared reality. As an economic enemy, we can only be free from the patriarchy when our shared experiences have been improved in a substantial way — in this case, when there is no longer an economic need for gendered labour. As a cultural enemy, we are simply free from the patriarchy whenever liberalism tells us it is so.

By sustaining its progress within the cultural sphere alone, liberalism creates the phenomena of world denying politics. This is where politics refuses to appeal to a common reality that unifies collective experiences and instead embellishes a fiction full of contradiction and paradox. Joe Biden is the height of this, a candidate that bills himself as the single most progressive candidate in American history while quietly insisting to his supporters — which include most of Wall Street and the entirety of the US security apparatus — that nothing will fundamentally change. The liberal-managerial caste swoon with nostalgia for the Obama years every time they see the man on TV. So, radical progressive or moderate centrist — which one is it, Joe? It depends who you ask, and, for the purposes of the Democrat’s campaign, it need not matter in the slightest.

An American politician can represent many things at once, all of them contradictory. Take Biden’s VP Kamala Harris. As a woman of colour, Harris is lauded as the Democrat’s response to the black lives matter protests. Although Harris’ record suggests something different — as a Californian state prosecutor, Harris was responsible for locking up black people for petty crimes in which she vehemently opposed attempts to reduce sentences for nonviolent crimes because prison labour was too economically valuable.

In response to protest calling for a reform of the criminal justice system, the Democrats have given the American people the very representative of what is wrong with the system, all the while pretending that it somehow fixes it. Contradiction is everywhere — for the Democrats, nothing is fundamentally real, and you are a fool for ever thinking so when an entire world view can be crushed and reassembled by simply changing the channel of evening news.

The liberal ideal of progress is therefore a nihilistic one. With no predetermined state that liberalism needs to set itself toward pursuing, the goal markers of ideology are relative and ever-changing. Liberal progress is whatever it needs to be in the moment — taking on as many politically useful appearances as it needs, even if they contradict one another. So long as there is some notion of progress that can be gestured to, then it is good enough. Twenty years ago, self-styled progressives would have rallied against a candidate like Joe Biden. Now, he is seen as a necessary and healthy compromise for a broken nation. Progress can be anything liberalism wants it to.

The nihilism and contradiction of liberal ideology is what makes the neo-colonial apparatus of American empire so successful. At its core, the American social contract offers its citizen a clean conscience in exchange for the consent to govern. This enables America to hyper fixate on its own questions of moral purity while ignoring the atrocities that are committed in their name elsewhere. Because liberal America is perpetually wrapped up in an unending state of progress, there is little it can do wrong and most people get to generally feel good about the whole thing without admitting anything beyond the insular.

The hypocrisy of the black lives matter campaign is case and point. An entire nation — indeed, the entire developed world — finds itself continually shocked with the violence people of colour are subject to at the hands of domestic authority. This is a narrative which almost entirely neglects the heinous acts, both historical and present, that enable Western power; acts which continuously and mercilessly sow suffering that disproportionately affects people of colour around the globe. The United States backed intervention in Yemen — just one instance of neoliberal empire — has led to catastrophic famine. What good can police reform do when the blood of 85,000 children is on your hands?

One of the first lessons in political theory is the uncomfortable truth of conflict. Your pleasure is bought with blood. The art of politics is and has always been about exercising power. With power comes violence. Liberalism is the first ever attempt at building a functioning political system that denies this — or at least tries to hide its ugliness from their citizens. It can disguise a game of power within its contradictions. It fixates on an ideal of infinite progress, bringing with it a slate of childish bickering and moral infighting. The appeal of the social contract is that it absolves the question of atrocity with smaller, insular ones.

Citizens of the American-led ‘free world’ thus find themselves living neurotic double-lives. On one hand, they are living in some of the most progressive and morally righteous nations in all of history, but on the other hand, their prosperity continues to be enabled through the senseless brutalism with which it treats the abject other. Westerners do not want to think about the other. They cannot comprehend the fact that their way of life is inflicting pain on someone somewhere for no good reason at all — except, maybe, because they want the new iphone. What makes liberalism compelling for so many people is that they do not have to think about these things. So long as liberalism continues the march of endless progress, these citizens will never confront the uncomfortable reality of their own regimes. Because if there is always progress, then these regimes will inevitably refashion the world into something new and good — we just need to give them the time to get there.

Things are getting better, obviously. They always have, and always will.