Fashionable Cynicism and the Politics of Despair

It may shock younger people to learn that there was a time when people believed in politics.  For better or worse, most people in this country believed that through a variety of political means (parliamentary or otherwise) society could be changed, for the better.  At some point, this ceased to be the case.

Now, people who have come across me or my work before may well be entitled to conclude that I am entirely in favour of this sort of thing given my clear political commitments, general disdain for this society of total administration and proclivity for the occasional wallet secreted picture of Chairman Mao .  Cynicism isn’t something you can build political and cultural practice on, it just hides the despair we feel over the lack of control in our lives.

Lets think about the election.  During the banal spectacle of a simulated debate, an obscene authoritarianism hulked its way to the microphone stand;  this is the first election where every single thing that is going to happen has been known so widely in advance.  Fucking off all the brouhaha about hung parliaments and what not, it is clear which way Rupert Murdoch and the rest of the UK’s ruling class have decided this election will go.  A huge Tory win, Labour hammered and  probably the lowest turnout in election history.

Obviously voter “disaffection” (feel free to replace this with your term of choice, in line with the argot you have cooked up to justify your home office funded programme to “combat” this “problem”, going forward) has got nothing to do with laziness or whatever.  Lets get this out of the way once and for all.  If something will make your life clearly, materially better you will do it.  No matter how lazy, or disaffected  someone might be, they generally will get up to use the toilet.  Why? Because it makes life clearly and materially better not to be surrounded by shit.  But when you can’t conceive of a way to get rid of the awful smell, you’re not going to play an active role in the necessary disposal of waste.

We are being primed to accept three things: That a party will be elected on a ticket of public spending cuts and cavalier neo-liberalism of a kind that would make Blair fall to his knees and weep for the old days; That this will happen with the consent of about one third of this countries adults; That this represents some sort of legitimate “contract” for governance.  The whole tedious charade of the so-called television “election debate” was designed exclusively for this; to  mask the absence of any real debate, or indeed, any actual election.

And in the midst of all this, the ideology of cynicism plays a key role.  No one votes, because we all know the politicians are all the same.  But this doesn’t translate into real political action. Once such a cynical view of bourgeois politics might (at the very least) lead you into armchair Anarchism, a furtive spoiling of your ballot paper, or a vote for the Monster Raving Loonies.  Maybe even into radical politics, who knows?  But in the cynical age,  a protest vote means a vote for the jack booted, goose stepping, swivel eyed lunatics of the BNP, Gary Bushel’s English Democrats or fucking UKIP.

This cynicism played a lead role in the staging of the “expenses” scandal.  Never mind the fact that the MP’s bonuses are probably quite tight by the standards of city boys who live off the wealth created by others in a much more direct way than any public servant or MP.  Forget that Hazel Blear’s expenses were scooped by the Telegraph, a newspaper which formerly belonged to man whose extradition papers she signed.  The real issue is that nothing happened.  The world carried on turning and the mother of all parliaments continued to issue laws passed by certifiable crooks.  There were no riots or strikes or redistribution of the stolen wealth because, clever cynics that we are, we expect this kind of thing; we know people are just mean, corrupt bastards.

Interestingly enough, this kind of cynicism is just as typical of the behaviour of the governors, as it is of the governed.  Witness the “scandal” when Gordon Brown called some woman a horrible old bigot, or some such.  He made no attempt to justify his comments (a fairly easy thing to do given that she had said he wasn’t addressing the “problem” that is Eastern European people).  Instead he just grinned, apologized and went back to work.  Why didn’t he make an argument?  Why didn’t he say she was a bigot?  Point out that constructing ethnic groups as “problems” is, very precisely, racist?  Because clever and cynical as he is, he thinks the general populace is as bitter and bigoted as that woman.  In light of this it won’t surprise anyone to learn that ongoing and secret cross party talks are attempting to get “law and order” off the agenda before the next election.  The whole political class know that prisons and the like aren’t working.  That more than nine out of ten of everyone in gaol is there for non-payment of fines.  But the clever and cynical politician, “knowing” that reality has no bearing on the situation and “seeing” the electorate as a motley collection of reactionaries and Daily Mail reading Nazis, would rather scheme to keep something out of the public sphere rather than try to raise the level of debate.  Whatever radical pose a cynic strikes, he knows that people are just mean, stupid bastards.  So what was once a matter for public discussion is now to be undertaken privately,as a purely administrative affair.

But things aren’t like this everywhere.  From Bolivia to Iran and Kyrgyzstan waves of elections, strikes and protests have shaken and overthrown governments.  Political ideas are in circulation and people discuss the way the world might be, rather than cynically and cleverly thinking that “things are just the way they are”.  As artists, we should not be surprised that where ever such social movements flourish, so does the relevance of art.  Art is by its nature radically anti-cynical; it is impossible without the conviction that something other than the present order of things is possible.  In aesthetics, as in politics, the negation of what is affirms something which is not.  The desire to make beautiful things is the opposite of impotent despair and clever cynicism.  Like the Kyrgyz workers, we scavenge through the remains of the past hoping some glittering shard will illuminate the present and prove a building block: A new place to live.

So lets not get too down beat. Certainly lets not get clever and cynical.  The election may be all stitched up, but our response is not.  Nick Clegg’s prediction of “Greek style social unrest” in the face of the cuts that any victorious party is going to have to make, may well come true.  If so, the social movement at its heart must be based on a  view of humans as something more than stupid, mean and corrupt bastards.  Maybe even as dignified, free and beautiful creators of their own lives, who knows.  What’s clear is that cynicism is bad for politics, bad for art and bad for your health.

 Nil desperandum, as they say in Kyrgyzstan.


3 thoughts on “Fashionable Cynicism and the Politics of Despair

  1. “The whole political class know that prisons and the like aren’t working. That more than nine out of ten of everyone in gaol is there for non-payment of fines.”

    If more than nine out of ten where in gaol for selling/taking drugs would it be any better? I personally never met anyone in 16 months for non-payment of fines, I mainly met drug dealers, many of which where non-violent, gaol doesn’t work because it does not address the problem, people want drugs… people serve drugs.
    The only people that should be locked up are the people that are a threat to other people. In this sense the Israeli government and those who back it are ideal candidates… not the drug dealers and people who like getting fucked to escape the abysmal reality we are forced to endure.

    1. I checked my facts and you are right. I had confused some facts about England and Ireland (where around half the prison population is locked up for crimes related to non payment). Of course I agree with you that it certainly doesn’t improve the situation if people are locked up for drugs offenses, just like crimes against property (which, I should of pointed out, doesn’t just include non payment but also the far larger group of crimes related to petty thieving etc). To be honest, the only reason I use that statistic is because I (mis!)heard it somewhere and its the kind of thing that makes a certain kind of goose stepping, jack boot wearing, Daily Mail reading lunatic pay attention. Nevertheless, I will change the routine and start pointing out that the majority of people in gaol are certainly not there for crimes against other people, but for crimes against our pathetic neo-prohibitionist drugs legislation. The long and the short of it is that we should stop saying the prisons are over populated, and start saying the population is over imprisoned. And we should start believing in the power of politics to change the world again. Otherwise its this shit forever, I’m afraid.
      Thanks for the comment and I hope your enjoying the blog.

      Here’s to the end of the abysmal reality!


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