Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Samuel Moyn reviews Nihilistic Times

Wendy Brown. Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2023. 144 pp.

Review by Samuel Moyn

1 February 2024

Wendy Brown’s exquisite meditation on Max Weber’s classic lectures on knowledge and politics as vocations less show than stipulate that we are living in nihilistic times ourselves. It is, Brown says, what makes Weber relevant now. Brown’s engagement with Weber thus aims to cull from Weber’s own responses to this situation a few lessons for a century later.

Sensibly, Brown argues for a critical retrieval of Weber’s insistence on the isolation of scholarship from politics, though on different grounds than made sense to the German sociologist: academics can and must teach values, but the conversion of academic spaces into political ones plays into the hands of those who decry instrumentalization of knowledge. Meanwhile, Brown insists on much more wariness of Weber’s inchoate longing for charismatic leadership empowered to choose responsible courses—without idealizing rationality or technocracy as the default of the left against the populism of the right, since there is no politics without desire.

There is no doubt that she proves that spending time with Weber is worthwhile. But I do wonder whether it is accurate to sense ourselves in as close proximity to Weber as Brown does. The extraordinary pathos of Weber’s struggle with the disenchantment of the West deeply reflected his place and time—more and more obviously the more time passes. His very contingent and time-bound sense of the post-Protestant dereliction of meaning and value was offset by a temptation (born of reading Søren Kierkegaard, as Lawrence Scaff showed) for a decisionistic mode of commitment in politics.

Brown argues that neoliberalism has hollowed our ability to commit to meaningful frameworks, but arguably it has also left us in a radically distinctive political situation that involves less the loss of meaning than the loss of power. Our time is less nihilistic—since diagnoses of nihilism generally presupposed an observed plenitude for which they were nostalgic—than blocked and disorganized. And, as Brown herself emphasizes, Weber’s distaste for the coming of democracy in theory and practice makes him less compelling a diagnostician of our own maladies, which appear to involve a deprivation of power more than an incapacity to how to use it in emancipatory ways.