In the introduction to his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse wrote:
Does not the threat of an atomic catastrophe which could wipe out the human race also serve to protect the very forces which perpetuate this danger? We submit to the peaceful production of the means of destruction, to the perfection of waste, to being educated for a defense which deforms the defenders and that which they defend.
Do we really need a revolution when people can buy and sell bottles that are reasonably described by the word "plastic"? Is a system even worth the trouble of overthrowing when it produces such nonexistent realities as Enron? Will the hegemony of spiritual technology lead us to the precipice of sending virtual armies off to thwart the android counter-revolutionists while the real ones return fire with actual weaponry as we beat our fists in the air and cry "Foul!"?
The prospects would surely be amusing were it not that social criticism since at least the nineteenth century has encouraged us to think in terms that might be labeled as "enlightened pragmatism." That qualifies as a long-term intellectual investment, one which adherents, admirers and psychic embezzlers of the Frankfurt School would be reluctant to abandon.
From my personal point of view, get an academic hottie to marry you. If that is inconvenient, you might consider that the negationist components of conflict theory have remarkable staying power as well as practical applications. A considerable amount of conflict theory's nihilist flare-ups come from Europe, where what at one moment appears to be communist in nature suddenly spits into the wind and reveals itself as fascist. The belief that contemporary society and the culture it manufactures is inherently false (read: bourgeois) is something of a meeting point between the two otherwise distant points on the infinite ideological continuum. The argument in favor of arbitrarily rejecting not only the products of that culture but the industries that make it is an attractive one. Like many attractive arguments, it contains some truth, some distortions, and some purposeful lies. And even the distortions and lies make nice use of metaphor, imagery and other elements of poetry, which may be the reason we can read someone such as T. S. Eliot and be mesmerized by the majesty of his constructions and yet hate his reactionary guts. (In fact, the whole right wing of the imagistic poets of the early twentieth century--including a few poets I quite like, such as Eliot, Stevens, and even that traitorous snail Ezra Pound--indulged in the ultimate blend of conspicuous consumption with bourgeois subterfuge as they based the artistic success of their writings on the degree of difficulty in decoding what they were too hammered to say in a more lucid manner.)
Sometimes we say yes to nihilism. Often this is more in the sense of influence than in direct action. Direct action has some a priori requirements that most people simply cannot withstand for long periods of time. For instance, we may enjoy listening to whatever the contemporary equivalent of the Velvet Underground is, but walking around with the kind of automatic rejection of the endless culture blasts is hard work, especially since there's always that nasty chance that we might inadvertently miss out on something good. Besides, knee jerk negation sounds uncomfortably like Archie Bunker.
"Nothing is true--all is permitted," wrote Betty Bouthoul in The Master of the Assassins in 1936. Or it was written by Alexander Dumas in 1844 in The Count of Monte Cristo. Or Vladimir Bartol said it in Alamut in 1938 (while sarcastically dedicating the book to Mussolini). Or maybe it was in 1960 when William Burroughs said it in Minutes to Go. It may even have been sung by Jim Carroll on the album Catholic Boy in 1980. It is a current, if you will, that runs through a video game from 1994 called Assassin's Creed. "Nothing is true; everything is permitted." Those six words can reveal a twitching nerve impulse that reacts like neon to anything from the rapture of liberation to a punch in the jaw from a violent hedonist.
I hope the importance of the passage from Marcuse at the beginning of this has not gotten soft. I will try my own interpretation again: The nature of falsity in our present time is at least in part due to our manufactured struggle against a mechanical enemy who despises us because of our artificiality. A brief lesson in recent history may clarify. In 1979 we handed the Soviet Union what United States National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski categorized to President Jimmy Carter as "their Vietnam," meaning the U.S. could support the Afghan rebels in their war of liberation from the Soviet Union and thereby drain the USSR of their political, economic and spiritual ability to survive. In the process of doing this (successfully, it should be noted), we empowered the formation of the Taliban. When the Soviets were defeated, the negation of what had been the reigning culture was rejected by the ideologically stunted yet technologically savvy members of the Taliban government, known between 1996 and 2001 as The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These "students" (which is what "Taliban" means) drew support for their unacknowledged country from the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, the Mujahideen, and a small group of militant financiers nowadays known as Al-Qaeda. In keeping with the multinational tenor of our times, none of these political organizations can be said to have ruled a specific country, a fact very much in keeping with their organizational structure, which is said by Khalid al-Hammadi to be "Centralization of decision with decentralization of execution." Today's living is akin to the one described as "dream like" by William Faulkner in Absalom! Absalom! where he writes "You run without moving from a terror in which you cannot believe, toward a safety in which you have no faith."
A streak of nihilism runs through what I guess we had all better be prepared to start calling militant Islamic extremism. (And who really cares if ISIS or some other group of barbaristic warmongers represents true Islam? The concept of religion--regardless of its actual, final and cosmic verisimilitude--is de facto an interpretation of and by human beings, just like the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence. Any religion's terrestrial validity depends on who you are at a given moment and because some other people will always experience the same concepts differently from the way you or I do, and because metaphysical validation can only occur beyond our current plain of consciousness, i.e, after we are dead, it may behoove us one and all to avoid saying that this or that group does not represent true Islam, true Judaism, true Hinduism, true Christianity or true Scientology. Just because the behavior of some adherents makes us sick, that does not mean those adherents lack their own truth, which of course brings us right back to "Nothing is true; everything is permitted.") Militant Islam extremism never existed in a vacuum. It has always been reinforced by the more sophisticated yet no less barbaric attitudes and actions of Englishmen, Americans, and Europeans, to name but a few. Relations between Sunni and Shia Muslims in what is now called Iraq may have been historically unstable, but in the years immediately prior to the U.S.-led coalition invasion in 2003, Sunni and Shia coexisted peacefully in that country.
As you may have heard, such is no longer the case.
We in the West have thus created enemies--united them, to some extent--who despise us in no small part for having operated in such a way as to have made their existence (as far as they themselves are concerned) necessary.
One consequence of being the masters of a system that creates falsities ranging from streaming music by a professional plagiarist such as Kid Rock to grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri, from the compulsive use of electronica to the delighted acceptance of being entertained into a stupor by things we do not even care to understand, is that our society does ram billions of tons of bourgeois bullshit down our collective throats. The decision we may have to make is whether we really are what we eat. Saying yes to negation--with some skill, meaning without accidentally giving over power to the National Front or to the Democratic or Republican Party--can even free a person up to the point where he or she might seek a type of enlightenment void of pragmatism. Do you play your musical instrument because you want to be a millionaire or because you enjoy playing it? Do you paint your masterpiece because you want to be the new Picasso or because you have something worthwhile to communicate? Do you plant your spring garden because you want to have the biggest spread of marigolds on the block or because you love the smell of the blooms? Do you brush your dog because you want to be the next Patty Hearst at the Westminster Kennel Club or because the dog's fur feels good when you rest the side of your head against it? Do you want to be a soldier because it gives you the opportunity to vent your anti-social proclivities while wearing the legitimacy of a uniform or because the Nazis are actually kicking down your neighbor's front door?
It serves the interests of people who hold real power in this world for artificiality to blend with reality. I doubt the existence of any conspiratorial collusion in this. At the same time, a conspiracy--a breathing together--may be necessary to shatter it.