In her brilliant review of The Social Network, Zadie Smith makes an important observation regarding Mark Zuckerberg (or at the very least, his depiction in the film) - the mystery of his vocation.
If it’s not for money and it’s not for girls—what is it for? With Zuckerberg we have a real American mystery. Maybe it’s not mysterious and he’s just playing the long game, holding out: not a billion dollars but a hundred billion dollars. Or is it possible he just loves programming? No doubt the filmmakers considered this option, but you can see their dilemma: how to convey the pleasure of programming—if such a pleasure exists—in a way that is both cinematic and comprehensible? Movies are notoriously bad at showing the pleasures and rigors of art-making, even when the medium is familiar.
It may indeed be that Facebook involves extending 'the hacker ethic' into everyday life, but mischievously divorcing that ethic from the technological domain which it initially accompanied. As I suggested in this post, the hacker ethic becomes especially disruptive, once no longer confined to coders (just as economics becomes most disruptive when no longer confined to the analysis of markets). But Smith's point is a good one nevertheless. Part of Zuckerberg and Facebook's power lies in refusing to inhabit any known 'vocation' (Weber), 'Sphere of justice' (Walzer), or 'order of worth' (Boltanski and Thevenot).
It strikes me that Britain's coalition government is doing something similar: promising to unleash chaos into public services, but without offering any justification for doing so. As I've argued before, this betrays a certain manic psychological element. But it may also be politically astute. George Osborne is a man entirely at ease with his own unpleasantness, thereby side-stepping Tony Blair's achilles heal, namely vanity. It was Osborne, as much as any Cameroon advisor, who suggested he remain sidelined in the run up to the 2010 election. He knows what the public thinks about him but doesn't care.
If Polly Toynbee is even half right in her assessment, we have a genuinely and frighteningly radical government on how hands. But to what end? With what justification? Driven by what vocation or sense of worth? Answers are few and far between, which must surely be considered a strategy. A government that justifies itself immediately establishes certain implicit limits for itself. It offers its critics a moral benchmark, which it itself has introduced. To justify is, therefore, to close down the scope for chaos, to set tramlines for the whirlwind of innovation. As David Stark argues in The Sense of Dissonance, innovation (as enacted by entrepreneurs) involves "keeping multiple evaluative principles in play", thereby preserving an element of uncertainty and maintaining respect for the power of contingency. Stark is writing about the economy, but transported to the realm of politics, this same principle sits at the heart of a Machiavellian or even Schmittian concept of realpolitik.
Zuckerberg's genius undoubtedly resides in refusing to adopt a single benchmark of success, as The Social Network well demonstrates. John Naughton wrote a nice piece a few weeks back about why the brutish Winklevoss twins would not be in Zuckerberg's position right now, had they retained control over Facebook - they were in it for the money. But Facebook seems, even more than Google, to succeed through a complete absence of moral rulebook, rather than a moral pluralism. The same is true of this increasingly disturbing government, which gives less and less account of itself, yet discretely unveils greater and greater policy ambition. To say that 'The Big Society' provides the moral vision behind the current NHS reforms is like saying that 'friendship' provides the moral vision behind a for-profit, privately-owned internet platform with half a billion users.
None of this is to say that Mark Zuckerberg or George Osborne is actually a nihilist. I'm not sure I believe in the possibility of nihilism as a consistent philosophy, but only as lurking existential unease that cannot be articulated. Articulation is already an exit from nihilism of sorts. However, the condition of the modern individual, as Weber would see it, is for one's vocation or meaning or ethos, to be a painfully private one. At best, it is shared by a small community, but never by society or state at large. The Weberian individual pines for a re-enchanted world, filled with shared meaning for all, embodied in great public figures or works - but this is never realised.
The Zuckerberg-Osborne strategy is the inverse - it is to refuse articulation, to keep one's personal vocation as private and mysterious as possible, to create an illusion that one has no justification for one's actions. It is a lie, of course, but one that then maximises room for manoeuvre. In practice, the nihilist is not quite without any morality, just without any confession of one; laughter is offered in place of explanation or justification. Twenty years ago, the Conservative government used to ban Sinn Fein's leaders from having their own voices broadcast, as a means of constraining their demands within the nihilistic category of 'terrorism'. Today, Tory politicians turn this same trick to their own advantage, by demanding that chaos sweeps through the public sector, but refusing to articulate why.