SOCIOL 4EE3 Lecture Notes - Lecture 9: Thrasymachus, Neoliberalism, Socratic Questioning

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13 Oct 2015
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Week 9 Summary
Somya Paliwal
Nihilism in America
This chapter by West discusses the transformation of postmodern politics to a matter
influenced by capitalism and the excessive force of economics, the market, and neoliberalism.
West argues that today, America is faced with the threat of “deadening nihilism” which
suffocates democracy in the country and brings a national atmosphere of hopelessness and
lovelessness. The chapter says that America is influenced by corporations and “market morality”
which diminishes citizens’ feeling of purpose or meaning, and creates national feelings of despair
and disappointment. Not only have citizens given up, but politicians have as well because they
no longer see hope in reshaping the nation, and resort to corrupt tactics and cynicism in their
strategy and policy. Democracy has been overrun by capitalism and has brought forth
overpowering nihilism and an aura of lifelessness. All of this is what West calls nihilism of
despair. The second nihilism he mentions is nihilism of the unprincipled abuse of power, or
political nihilism, whereby elites no longer have faith in the democratic system and therefore
resort to violating democratic morality and allow market forces to dominate. Leaders under the
influence of political nihilism are intoxicated by power and will deny any claims that criticize
their methods or policies. West breaks down political nihilism into three categories: evangelical,
paternalistic, and sentimental.
With each type of nihilism, West gives an example which best illustrates its
characteristics and methodologies in action. The example he gives for this type is in Plato’s
Republic, where Thrasymachus disregards virtues of integrity and truth and seizes the
opportunity for relentless raw power. In this category, imperial elites dominate public policy and
often employ militant tactics, which West sees in members of the American Republican Party. He
says they are blinded by delusions of making America the world’s superpower and abuse their
power for this purpose, at the expense of democracy. They justify their actions by saying it is for
the good of others and power is a means to an end. Anyone who opposes their tactics is deemed
unpatriotic according to West.
On the flip side, West identifies paternalistic nihilism which is characteristic in the
Democratic Party. His example of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov shows complete
cynicism in democratic morality and people must accept that they have to work with the corrupt
system they are handed. The Democratic Party paternalistically accepts to work within this
system in efforts to shield the public from the truth. West, however, argues that figures like
Roosevelt and Johnson exemplify hope in democracy and that the Democratic Party can revive
itself morally if it is more concerned with black concerns, and sees them as public interest. West
says the Democratic Party is so closely connected with the Republican Party and caves to its
policies, but they never admit that to the public.
Sentimental nihilism is largely found in media culture and displays its failure to uphold
principles of democracy in exchange for entertainment. Instead of acting as democratic
watchdogs or critics of abusers of power, it is largely influenced by media competition for
viewers and selling itself to the market. West argues this exemplifies sentiment over truth telling,
where members of the media may believe in democracy and their duty to uphold it, but those
principles are merely sentimental because they sell out to market pressures. Even though they are
aware of corruptness within political powers, they turn a blind eye towards it because they fear
drops in market value and power. This contributes to democracy’s demise because free press is
essential for truth telling and keeping corrupt parties in check.
West insists that this dominant nihilism in American culture is historically derived
through multiple quests for empirical power and domination of whites over minorities. White
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