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Therapeutic nihilism and us


In these days of evil on the telly – and on the computer screen and in the climate shift, etc. etc. – my mind has been drifting towards the topic of therapeutic nihilism. In a sense, when peeps say we can imagine the end of the world more than we can imagine the end of capitalism, they are positing some natural power in capitalist arrangements that is powerfully reminiscent of the state of medical science in 1844, when the Viennese doctor, Josef Dietl, published his manifesto in the Zeitschrift der K.K. Gesellschaft der Aerzte zu Wien that proclaimed the proper scientific limits of medicine.

“Why don’t we demand of our Astronomers to turn the days into nights, of our physicians that they turn winter cold into summer heat, our chemists that they turn water into wine? Because it is impossible, that is, because it is not grounded in the principles of their sciences, and because astronomers, physicians and chemists are upright enough to confess that they couldn’t do it. But then, why do we demand that our doctors heal lung diseases, dropsy, arthritis, heart disease, etc.? Are these demands somehow grounded in the principles of his science? Absolutely not!”

The list of diseases is impressive, and impressively, we don’t have a “cure” for arthritis, for instance, even today. But the twentieth century not only saw the invention of airconditioning, turning summer heat into winter cold, but an amazing structure of therapies that could address the body’s ills in a manner undreamt of by Dietl.

In 1844, this world of cures – or therapies that could alleviate illnesses, such as insulin for diabetes – seemed extremely distant. It was an unimaginable world.  Dietl’s nihilism was a reasonable belief that the cure was an area not of science, but of chance. However, this did not mean doctoring was substantless: “The doctor must be valued not as an artist of cures, but as a scientific researcher [Naturfoerscher].

I often take this stance towards Marx. The communism he strove for depended, of course, on the thoroughness of the capitalism that he diagnosed. In a strong sense, it arose out of it, like … well, like the response of the body to a disease. The analogy is inexact, however. This body is the disease, and its cure is a new body, arising from the old one. Resurrection.

We all know how the resurrection belief has worked out – it has become a master trope in our metaphoric imagination, but it has less of a grip on our sense of the real future. Although, of course, literally billions  of people believe that it will, more or less literally, happen.

In the case of our political economy, it is easy to see that most economists are even more mired in a nonsensical world of cures than that of Dietl’s colleagues. To believe that you cure inflation with unemployment and then you heat things up until unemployment sparks off inflation is to have the most primitive sense of the general economy. It loses sight, in fact, that the economy is not a master but a servant – a servant of the social whole. Its only reason, its only footing in humanity, is to make the quality of human life better. It it doesn’t serve that purpose, kick it to the curb, start over. To rephrase slightly the slogan of the Wat Tyler rebels: “First we’ll hang all the economists.”

In fact, as it proved, therapeutic nihilism was not so nihilistic as all of that. Diagnosis eventually lead to water being turned into wine, or at least to an Austrian physician discovering blood types in 1901 and blood transfusion becoming a real thing after the discovery of anticoagulants, research that was hurried up because of (natch) war, as in World War One. Turning water into wine was nothing compared to transfusing blood properly and easily to a patient, but the creep of blood blood blood in the twentieth century mapped the creep of cure cure cure. Diagnosis, the left hand, found cure, the right hand.

A hopeful story. We are not mired in a world of therapeutic nihilism forever. We don’t have to accept that.


Bruce said…