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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.

A 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.