Humanism vs. Nihilism: Has the Occupy Movement Gotten Away from Chris Hedges’ Nonviolent Vision for It?

From its inception, Chris Hedges has been a key intellectual supporting the Occupy movement, and he sees its lineage in the nonviolent tradition of Tolstoy, Thoreau, Gandhi, and King: absorb blows without returning them. This (presumably) arouses the conscience of spectators to injustice—including those spectators in positions of power—and substantial and sustainable change in society then begins to occur.

That, at any rate, is the theory.

Here’s what Hedges claims the Occupy movement is about:

This is a struggle to win the hearts and minds of the wider public and those within the structures of power (including the police) who are possessed of a conscience. It is not a war. Nonviolent movements, on some level, embrace police brutality. The continuing attempt by the state to crush peaceful protesters who call for simple acts of justice delegitimizes the power elite. It prompts a passive population to respond. It brings some within the structures of power to our side and creates internal divisions that will lead to paralysis within the network of authority. Martin Luther King kept holding marches in Birmingham because he knew Public Safety Commissioner “Bull” Connor was a thug who would overreact.

This is very, very high minded. But what if the things animating a lot of the Occupiers turns out to be less lofty and downright crass, such as a simple shaking of the fist at the emptiness and meaninglessness of existence, envy of the rich, and an Oedipal desire to see the high and comfortable brought low?

Enter the nihilists. They don’t share Hedges’s vision for the Occupy movement. They call themselves the Black Bloc, and Hedges fingers them for Occupy’s “failure to remain a unified, nonviolent opposition,” characterizing Black Bloc tactics in the following arresting manner:

Groups of Black Bloc protesters, […] smashed the windows of a locally owned coffee shop in November in Oakland and looted it. It was not […] a strategic, moral or tactical act. It was done for its own sake. Random acts of violence, looting and vandalism are justified, in the jargon of the movement, as components of “feral” or “spontaneous insurrection.” These acts, the movement argues, can never be organized. Organization, in the thinking of the movement, implies hierarchy, which must always be opposed. There can be no restraints on “feral” or “spontaneous” acts of insurrection. Whoever gets hurt gets hurt. Whatever gets destroyed gets destroyed. […]

The Black Bloc movement is infected with a deeply disturbing hypermasculinity. This hypermasculinity, I expect, is its primary appeal. It taps into the lust that lurks within us to destroy, not only things but human beings. It offers the godlike power that comes with mob violence. Marching as a uniformed mass, all dressed in black to become part of an anonymous bloc, faces covered, temporarily overcomes alienation, feelings of inadequacy, powerlessness and loneliness. It imparts to those in the mob a sense of comradeship. It permits an inchoate rage to be unleashed on any target. Pity, compassion and tenderness are banished for the intoxication of power. It is the same sickness that fuels the swarms of police who pepper-spray and beat peaceful demonstrators. It is the sickness of soldiers in war. It turns human beings into beasts.

“We run on,” Erich Maria Remarque wrote in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God only knows what devils: this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance.”

What Hedges seems to be coming up against here is a tension that runs through the 21st century generally: humanism vs. nihilism. If God is dead (and it certainly appears that He is, at best, on life support), then the struggle is between competing humanist and nihilist visions for the future.

Think about it.

Both the right and left have representatives of humanism and nihilism. The right has George Will, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum (all clearly in the humanist camp) as well as obviously Machiavellian nihilists like the Leo Strauss-following Bill Kristol. The left, in its turn, has humanists (such as Noam Chomsky) and nihilists (such as the Black Bloc and the atheist authoritarians who run China).

Thus the strains in the Occupy movement that Hedges identifies are problematic everywhere in contemporary politics. Ever in danger of lapsing into nihilism, humanism continues to prove itself to be a pallid replacement for God. The revival of religious fundamentalism in alarmed reaction is a symptom of this. As is nihilism itself.

When people have a close look at the humanist project, and absorb its ontological groundlessness, a lot of them fall into despair—what’s the ultimate point in being especially humanistic in orientation?—and in reaction turn to religious fundamentalism and nihilism.

Focusing, for example, on just making money without regard for others is itself a form of nihilism. Don’t be surprised if the Black Bloc nihilists throwing stones today are money grubbers at midlife. Perhaps one or two of them might even become Wall Street bankers themselves.

And others will become fundamentalists.

What Chris Hedges, I think, needs to do is reread Sophocles’s Oedipus and stop plucking out his own eyes: the Occupy movement’s Edenic origins in nonviolence is one of the stories liberals tell themselves to conceal an underlying panic that God is dead and the world has actually long been hollowed out. Violent subterranean forces are always at work in social movements because existence itself is a bad deal and there’s lots to be outraged about (and few readily identifiable targets). Even God is a slippery target for outrage, for if He exists, He keeps hidden and never talks. Outraged by this state of affairs, the murderer is within, not just without.

Put another way, there’s probably very little that humanists can do to stop the fundamentalist and nihilist trends at work in the world because humanism itself is in large part responsible for birthing these trends. Humanism, nihilism, and fundamentalism go together. (“This, I tell you, brothers, you can’t have one without the others.”)

That’s the unpleasant truth. Face it.

But we humanists (I count myself a humanist) should still push back against these trends. What else can we do?

Below is Barry McGuire as an alert-to-irony humanist, outraged by war and injustice, in 1965. But such a pious stance was obviously too much for him to inwardly carry alone. Later in life, he became a fundamentalist Christian.


Here’s McGuire in his Christian phase:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Humanism vs. Nihilism: Has the Occupy Movement Gotten Away from Chris Hedges’ Nonviolent Vision for It?

  1. mhasegawa says:

    Thank you for this discussion. I worry that the Occupy movement which was once supported by the majority of Americans but the message is getting muddled now by what is happening in Oakland. And while not violent, supporters hacked into the Boston Police Department website in retailiation for the BPD clearing the encampment here. Without violence and few arrests, I have to say. Unfortunately, this reminds me of the split between the student anti-Vietman War movement and the Weatherunderground.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      The analogy surrounding the Vietnam War that you offer is right, I think. As is the tension between King and Malcolm X over the path to black liberation.

      But notice the religious dimension that was present in the 60s, but absent in the Occupy movement. King had Jesus to appeal to, a readily recognizable symbol in our culture of both the receiving of suffering and hope. If you were a Christian, King could appeal to your Christian conscience and ask you to copy the nonviolent Jesus, follow him into suffering, and believe that the “arc is long, but it bends toward justice.”

      In turn, Malcolm, when he became a more pious Muslim, mellowed in his rage toward whites.

      And historical examples of nonviolent protest pointed people to Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Thoreau—all of whom had a deep spiritual tradition that supported them: Krishna in the Gita (Gandhi), Jesus (Tolstoy), and the Temple of Nature (Thoreau).

      With regard to Vietnam, the hippie Hindu and Buddhist scene (as exemplified in Alan Ginsberg’s chanting OM with masses of people in Hyde Park during the Democratic Convention) served to keep people more otherworldly and chilled out than they might otherwise have been.

      None of these things are present in the Occupy Movement with anything like an equivalent force. Since 9-11, right and left have deeply split over the value of religion in society, and most people on the left tend not to appeal to it as readily. And postmodernism has even made the integrity of the self, the Enlightenment, humanism, and modernism problematic.

      This leaves Occupy deeply vulnerable to nihilism, decadence, conspiracy paranoia, and general despair.

      Where else can the energies go after the State cracks down? There’s no promise that the arc is long but bends toward justice. There’s no grounding for maintaining a determination to love without retaliation. There’s just bewilderment and rage–a desire to fight or escape into narrower concerns.

      There’s a real chance that Occupy will inadvertently accelerate individual decisions to check out of politics as another form of vanity—a striving after wind. Leave it to the rich and authoritarian nihilists to decide on the direction of society. You can’t resist them anyway. That’s what a lot of people might conclude after witnessing Occupy fall apart in directionlessness.

      That whole FOX News meme that the protesters didn’t know what they were protesting was meant to be slanderous, but was, at a very deep level, true. Occupy brings attention, not just to the 99%, but exposes the nihilistic crisis at the heart of the left.


  2. Pingback: James Holmes: Disturbed Christian or an Occupy Black Bloc Activist? | Prometheus Unbound

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