Abstract of Cornel West’s “Nihilism in black America”
by Tyson Livingston
Description of Article
The article discusses the plight that is at the center of the issue of the future prospects of black America. West initially indicates that currently there are two camps, the Liberal Structuralists, who are concerned with such issues as equal employment opportunities, availability of child care and health care, etc., and the Conservative Behaviorists, who focus on the waning of the Protestant ethic black America, specifically issues such as hard work, deferred gratification, frugality, and responsibility.
West indicates that both camps ignore the central issue facing black America, which is nihilism, an issue that he asserts is a threat to the very existence of black America. He defines what he means by nihilism with this statement: “ Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no national grounds for legitimate standards or authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness” (277).
West states that the Liberal Structuralists tend to shy aware from this type of issue because it focuses more on morals, which tends to be a taboo subject that they feel takes away from their focus on structures. On the other hand, the Conservative Behaviorists are inadvertently contributing to the nihilistic condition because they describe blacks as agents to affect their upward mobility while avoiding the inherent structural barriers that exist in society. The result is a deepening of nihilistic attitudes as much of black America encounters barriers that the conservative say do not exist.
In highlighting the central issue of nihilism in black America, West also provides a brief background of the issue, and how it has really been central to the struggle of blacks since their first encounters with the New World. He states that, however, black America was able to maintain civic and religious organizations that provided a form of armor against this condition of hopelessness by teaching and passing down cultural and community values of love and service to others. Ironically, it was after the civil rights movements of the sixties and early seventies, and the reduction of the fear of white physical retribution, that nihilism began to take a firm hold. He also points out the role of the market way of life, which creates an image of the “good life,” especially as expressed through the culture industries of TV, music, video, etc., promoting a way of life that espouses comfort, convenience, and sexual stimulation. In his words, the result of all of this is that “sadly, the combination of the market way of life, poverty-ridden conditions, black existential angst, and the lessoning of fear toward white authorities has directed most of the anger, rage, and despair toward fellow black citizens, especially black women” (279).
West does provide something of a solution to the problem of black nihilism, or at least an initial stepping stone. He is highly critical of black leadership, and indicates that solutions must rather come from grass roots movements that focus on local issues rather than strive for the limelight, be centers of political conversion, and that hold black political leaders responsible to promoting love ethics and the support of these local issues.
Corporate Market Institutions
Comments and Questions:
Let me start by saying that I really liked this essay, mostly for its structure. West is very good at outlining his topic and supporting points within the essay, making it very easy to understand and follow what he wishes the reader to be aware of. He is also excellent in defining his terms and stating what he means when he uses them. He does this for nihilism, love, the two camps in the black American debate, political conversion, corporate market institutions, pleasure, and other terms.
Overall, I think he makes a good argument. I had some initial trouble with his critique of the Conservative Behaviorists trying to make black people see themselves as agents. My initial reaction is to think that by thinking of yourself as an agent it provides at least a modicum of empowerment. He states that “on the surface, this is comforting advice, a nice cliché for downtrodden people. But inspirational slogans cannot substitute for substantive historical and social analysis” (277). Even though he continues his argument by indicating that any agency on the part of a black American must be considered within the context of his or her victimization, I got the sense that he was opposed to the idea of agency almost completely. He uses phrases such as “inseparable from, but not reducible to” that initially made me feel he was trying not to sound polar in his views but actually was.
However, my initial impressions began to change as I read further. Later, he indicates that he rather promotes agency through the love ethic, which is in fact “a last attempt at generating a sense of agency among a downtrodden people” (280). This would seem to be a legitimate attempt to promote black Americans as agents in the way that West approves, in relation to their level of victimization. This is especially true in light of his criticism of black leadership from which the initial ideas of the Puritan ethic stem. In this light, it is no wonder that he critiques the Conservative Behaviorist for their attempts to promote agency. Their version of it is a shallow and blinded agency that is only open to a few privileged few and would hide the conditions of the bulk of black America.
My only other mild complaint about the essay, is that I feel I have missed out on some of the power of his argument by not having read Toni Morrison’s book. While he holds it up as an example of a solution, he gives little in the way of details. Perhaps this is intentional, as he feels his readership would be more familiar with the work, or as a push for more people to read and consider this piece of literature.
Overall, I find this article very engaging, and wonder if the questions he deploys toward black America are not applicable elsewhere in American culture. Nihilistic ideas are present in other aspects and sub-cultures of American society, and have expressed themselves in such things as school shootings, home-grown terrorism, and increased crime statistics, as well as just general discontent and feelings of powerlessness. Materialism and the values espoused by the Corporate Market Institutions are ever increasing and solidifying. I wonder if some of West’s solutions could be applicable on a broader scale, that if localized grass-roots movements are the way to bringing back some of the values West idealizes to our society as a whole.