Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]

12 comments on “Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

  1. I tend to agree that organizing for reform is a useful tactic in building a mass movement with the ultimate goal of dismantling capitalism – so long as the specific reform doesn’t become an end in itself. It’s very difficult to persuade people to join a a mass movement to bring down capitalism before they fully understand the full impact of capitalism in their lives. At the same time, people who are truly committed to genuine change quickly come to realize that fighting for single issue reforms doesn’t produce lasting change. People in this situation eventually conclude that systemic change is necessary.

    • This is the contradiction that activists always face. In the 1930s, there were communist, socialist and still-militant union movements that threatened to topple capitalism. Instead, people settled for reforms (very strong reforms, yes, but still reforms) and much of those have been taken away. Systemic change is what is necessary — next time, we can’t settle for less.

  2. Alcuin says:

    Cynicism wasn’t always associated with negativity. Prior to the 1600s, it was a force to be reckoned with. But because cynics always question the ulterior motives of those in positions of power, the meaning of ‘cynic’ gradually changed over the centuries so that it became an epithet instead of a praise-worthy stance. If you are interested in exploring what cynicism is all about, I suggest visiting The Cynic’s Sanctuary and reading this article in The Guardian.

    • Well, let’s see. I highlighted two passages from The Guardian article. First this paragraph:

      “I often feel that ‘cynical’ is a term of abuse hurled at people who are judged to be insufficiently ‘positive’ by those who believe that negativity is the real cause of almost all the world’s ills. This allows them to breezily sweep aside sceptical doubts without having to go to the bother of checking if they are well-grounded. In this way, for example, Edward Snowden’s leaks about the CIA’s surveillance practices have been dismissed because they contribute to ‘the corrosive spread of cynicism.’ “

      I do think I am not out of line in suggesting that “breezily sweep[ing] aside skeptical doubts” is definitely not what occurs at this blog. And, generally speaking, the only dismissing of Edward Snowden’s revelations are by those who wish to pretend the U.S. government doesn’t engage in systematic spying on its population and all is well. The Guardian writer is flailing at a straw man.

      “Perhaps the greatest slur against cynicism is that it nurtures a fatalistic pessimism, a belief that nothing can ever be improved. There are lazy forms of cynicism of which this is certainly true. But at its best, cynicism is a greater force for progress than optimism. The optimist underestimates how difficult it is to achieve real change, believing that anything is possible and it’s possible now. Only by confronting head-on the reality that all progress is going to be obstructed by vested interests and corrupted by human venality can we create realistic programmes that actually have a chance of success. Progress is more of a challenge for the cynic but also more important and urgent, since for the optimist things aren’t that bad and are bound to get better anyway.”

      An oversimplification, setting up a silly black-and-white, all-or-nothing contrast that bears little resemblance to the actual range of human responses to the state of the world. The author wishes to hold on to his self-image of a cynic, and that is fine. Believing that the world can be better isn’t pollyannaish as the Guardian writer implies and isn’t necessary an act of an optimist. It simply is the act of someone who is not paralyzed by the enormity of the task and the power of those who profit from the state of the world.

      There is a world of difference between a “healthy cynic” who sees herself a “realist” for acknowledging just what we are all up against and the cynic who simply sees it all as hopeless and loudly proclaims this at every opportunity. I have known quite a few in the latter category, and that cynicism is corrosive. I don’t see how you can possibly be a serious activist without being an “optimist” to some degree. That you work toward a goal does not mean you believe things aren’t so bad and will get better anyway; otherwise why would you bother to go to all that trouble?

      • Alcuin says:

        Well, now. I think you are confusing a cynic in the tradition of the Greek school of philosophy with the later definition of a cynic, which took root in the 16th century. Is it a coincidence that the definition changed with the rise of capitalism? I think not.

        Here is the definition of a cynic, according to Rick Bayan, the founder of The Cynic’s Sanctuary:

        (n.) An idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision (emphasis mine). — Rick Bayan, author of The Cynic’s Dictionary (and host of this site).

        I submit that you are a cynic in the Greek sense, because you definitely do not wear rose-colored glasses. Anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with Marx’ definition of capitalism has long since tossed aside his/her rose-colored glasses.

        I have long been accused of being a cynic so several years ago, I took it upon myself to do a bit of research into what a cynic really was. Once I found out, I became a proud cynic instead of one who felt guilty to be called one. The term is indeed an epithet, but that is fine with me, because now that I am informed, I chuckle when someone calls me a cynic, knowing that I will have the last laugh. True cynicism is the foundation upon which social change must rest. Following the ‘company line’ will get us nowhere, as is abundantly evident in the articles that you write for this site.

        Cynic philosophy, I have read, appears to have been influenced by Buddhism, which is quite interesting, I think. Idealism and cynicism can co-exist. As I wrote before, cynicism wasn’t always associated with negativity.

        • As usual you have been very thoughtful in your response and I’ve wanted to think about what you have written. Speaking for myself, I would consider the type of person you are discussing, and which also applies to the George Bernard Shaw quote below, as a “realist.” I consider the sort of person described in Negative Capitalism — a deeply pessimistic personality who has given up on the world and/or is dismissive of anyone else’s attempt to analyze and work toward changing conditions — to be a “cynic,” consistent with the current customary usage of the word cynicism.

          The type of person you are describing is not at all the type of person described in Negative Capitalism as emblematic of cynicism, nor the type of person I had in mind in writing the review. You have given me (and I imagine others) a lesson in the mutation of language. As to your concluding thought that “Idealism and cynicism can co-exist,” I have no argument against it in the context of which you present it. I personally would use different language to say the same thing: “Idealism and realism can co-exist”; and in fact I would go further and say the two must co-exist.

          You have made your case far better than The Guardian author to which you linked. Let us all stomp into the ground our rose-colored glasses, for we will never make the world a better place unless we do so.

  3. Alcuin says:

    “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

    – George Bernard Shaw

  4. Debra says:

    Hand in hand with cynicism is infantilization (not sure that is really a word). We keep getting treated as though we were children and people are perhaps so overwhelmed that they take the bait. As a result our sense of agency is constantly eroded.

    • This happens to us in many ways. After 9/11, for example, “big daddy” Cheney and Bush II said they would protect us and all we had to do was to be quiet and go shopping, never letting the slightest doubt enter our little minds. For many people — far from all, thankfully — it is easier to withdraw into their personal lives than to attempt to do something about the gigantic social problems that ultimately affect us all.

      • Debra says:

        And that indoctrination can be so subtle. I was watching tv recently and it seemed like every car commercial had a child as the protagonist. I kind of wondered about that. What could that mean? So many commercials do aim for the inner child with their cartoon images and nursery rhyme like songs. As much as I hate it I have to admire the perfect seamless way this whole system works together.

  5. […] killer symbolizes.  Taylor Swift’s music kind of embodies the same sort of cynicism used to reaffirm today the ruthless, parasitic hedonism of “1989”.  Any cynicism found in the […]

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