European (Union) Nihilism

Syriza’s election in Greece signals a response to the European Union’s latent nihilism — one that Nietzsche and Heidegger both foresaw.

European (Union) Nihilism

FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER continue to be controversial political figures in European culture. But this should not hold us back from singling out the aspects of their thought that allow for an emancipation from nihilism — the same nihilism that, in our view, affects European politics today. Many continue to consider Nietzsche a precursor of Nazism; in Heidegger’s case, more evidence is now available of his indisputable involvement with the anti-Semitic regime in the 1930s. Still, both thinkers elucidated not only European nihilism but also its consequences. This is the philosophical background of Syriza’s recent election in Greece, the first representative of an anti-austerity party to obtain power within the European Union. This election should not only be conceived of as a political event, but also as a response to the European Union’s latent nihilism.

Heidegger, in his writings on Nietzsche in the 1950s, defined nihilism as the process in the course of which “there is nothing to Being itself.” He was not only thinking of the forgetting of Being (existence) in favor of beings (objects), but also of the future of Europe. And this future, as we have since been able to see, has turned out to be a metaphysical organization of society in which science and power reciprocally sustain themselves through technology Before we get to nihilism, then, a quick word about metaphysics.

According to Heidegger, thought is metaphysical when it tries to determine Being as presence, that is, as a simple set of descriptions of the present state of affairs, thus automatically privileging terms of temporal, spatial, and unified presentness. This is why Heidegger believed that “insofar as the pure relationship of the I-think-unity (basically a tautology) becomes the unconditioned relationship, the present that is present to itself becomes the measure for all beingness.” Even though these sets of measurable descriptions took diverse approaches throughout the history of philosophy (from Aristotle’s motionless true substances, to Kant's transcendental conditions of experience, to John Searle’s ontology of social functions), philosophers were always directed to consider Being as a motionless, nonhistorical, and geometric object or fact. Truth, in this form, became a correspondence that adapts or submits to Being’s descriptions; thought dissolves itself into a science, that is, into the global organization of all beings within a predictable structure of causes and effects. In the 1950s, when Heidegger stated in his course What is Called Thinking? that “science does not think,” he was not simply denigrating it, but rather pointing out that it functions exclusively within causes and effects previously established. Now, if science today has become an instrument of oppression, it’s not simply because its technicians pose as respected officers who organize Europe’s political, economical, and cultural life, but also for metaphysical reasons, because Being has been forgotten, discharged, and annihilated. This is probably why Heidegger was able to predict already back then that “Europe will one day be a single bureau, and those who ‘work together’ will be the employees of their own bureaucracy.” This bureaucracy has become the essence of EU measures, or better, science in Heidegger’s terms.

And here is where we return to nihilism. Syriza’s victory in Greece’s recent elections represents more than the emerging possibility of the weak redeeming themselves from the imposed austerity measures of the European Union. It also signals a breaking away from European (Union) nihilism. Arthur C. Danto explained that nihilism represented for Nietzsche “a thoroughly disillusioned conception of a world which is as hostile to human aspirations as he could imagine it to be. It is hostile, not because it, or anything other than us, has goals of its own, but because it is utterly indifferent to what we either believe or hope.” Although philosophical nihilism has little to do with the term’s ordinary political connotations, the European Union nonetheless has instantiated it through measures imposed by technicians predominantly indifferent to the aspirations of Europeans. Haven’t we reached the moment, as Nietzsche explains in The Will to Power, where “the highest values devaluate themselves”? Europeans, as the last elections and polls show, are increasingly disillusioned about their economic conditions and their leaders and have almost lost all faith in the idea of European unity. We believe that this disillusionment is not caused exclusively by the EU’s controlling corporate interests, or by Germany’s interest in maintaining the debt of Greece and other southern countries. Rather, it is the Europeans themselves who reflect back and realize the EU’s latent nihilism.

Perhaps the “logic of decadence” that Nietzsche uses to explain nihilism’s development, tracing it back to three essential causes, can also be related to this declining faith in the Union. According to Nietzsche, nihilism commences when a providential order is assigned to history. However, when it turns out this providential order does not to exist, it loses meaning. Second, nihilism arises when the world and its unfolding are conceived as a totality in which every part has its place in a systematic whole. In this case, it is not so much that this whole or system has become false; it has simply turned out to be unbearable for human existence because it neutralizes politics, finance, and culture through globalization. This is how we arrive at the final, extreme form of nihilism: the loss of faith in the metaphysically relevant world and in truth itself, at least as it is traditionally understood (as temporal, spatial, and unified presentness, as we explained earlier on).

That loss of illusions can signify either the absolute incapacity to will any more, or the joyous and creative recognition of the fact that there exists no order, truth, or stability outside the will itself. Nihilism derives precisely from having wished, at all costs, to find these exterior organizing principles. It can thus be both the incapacity to experience a meaningful existence and a practical way to escape from this decadence. The first aspect of nihilism, where “a decline and retreat of the spirit’s power” takes place, is considered “passive.” The second is defined as “active,” a “sign of the increased power of the spirit.” But if the power of the spirit exerts itself primarily by dissolving everything that demands consent as objective structure, eternal value, and fixed meaning, then saying “no” to this is arguably a sign of activity, that is, of active nihilism.

Who, then, is the active nihilist in Europe today? The ones who state the accusation, as Slavoj Žižek put it, that the “government in Greece is composed of a bunch of populist extremists who advocate ‘irrational’ and ‘irresponsible’ populist measures”? Or those who “struggle for an entire way of life, the resistance of a world threatened by rapid globalization or, rather, of a culture with its daily rituals and manners, which are threatened by post-historical commodification.” Regardless of the EU’s warnings and threats, the people of Greece have accepted this risk by voting and supporting a party determined to dissolve the objective, fixed meanings as determined by the EU — or, as Heidegger would call it, to contest a condition that has become metaphysical. Metaphysics is the condition where “the only emergency is the absence of emergency,” that is, “where everything is held to be calculable, and especially where it has been decided, with no previous questioning, who we are and what we are supposed to do.” It is a form of passive nihilism. Greece, within the European Union, is considered an emergency, an alteration of the ongoing neutralization of politics. The active nihilism that Greece has endorsed is manifest not only in their minister of finance, Yanis Varoufakis, who has refused to engage with auditors from the Troika, but also in Alexis Tsipras’s role in promoting leftist anti-austerity politics throughout Europe. The emergency in Europe is not Syriza, but rather all those who submit “passively” to the Union’s flattening measures: its enforced absence of emergency.

In sum, the active nihilism or emergency that Syriza enacted by saying “no” to the Troika is an event that involves not only Greece but all of Europe. This might be the only possibility that allows Europe to wake up from the passive nihilism of its bureaucratic dream, which its governors (the commons, the council, and a substantial part of the Parliament) have imposed and wish to conserve. As Pope Francis recently said in his native Spanish, one must “hacer lio,” that is, generate non-violent disorder, disarray, or say “no” to the international capitalist establishments that are choking the European economies, and in particular those of the South. One must “make a mess.” This means being active European nihilists, the only ones who can confront the Union’s ongoing political, financial, and, most of all, spiritual decadence.


Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher and cultural commentator.

Santiago Zabala is the author of The Remains of Being(2009), The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), and co-author, with Gianni Vattimo, of Hermeneutic Communism (2011).

LARB Contributors

Gianni Vattimo is an Italian philosopher and cultural commentator. He is the author of, among other books, The Future of Religion and After the Death of God.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is the author or editor of 13 books and has written for The Guardian, The New York Times, and Al-Jazeera. His most recent book is Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts(McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020). His web page is (Photograph by Xavier Cervera.)


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