Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era


I am 24 years old, a worker and ‘a graduate without a future’…

– J.D. Taylor

“I am 24 years old, a worker and ‘a graduate without a future’, and I do not write from a position of academic, social or political privilege: my only stake in financial capitalism is a five-figure debt. I am profoundly angry and depressed by what I see around me, but I am also hopeful that a new era can be created by this generation, provided the blurry errors of history, cynicism and individualism can be traded in for strategy and a new social democracy, underlined by a revolution of citizens in law and constitution.”1

What struck me is that here is a bright young man who has been educated by our system, and has at the end of his struggle discovered the sad fact that other young women and men are discovering: there is no future for them in this global economy. It’s not that they don’t want to work, not that they aren’t bright enough too work, it’s the simple fact that this economy works on fewer and fewer actual persons, and a greater need to dispose of its workforce in surplus labor, etc. This is as old as Marx. I want to go into it again. If you don’t know the truth of it by now then it’s probably too late to inform you. If you’re reading this you can study it yourself on sites like Kapitalism 101 or Marx and Engels Writings. Along with a basic introduction on Karl Marx. Also the basic archive of Lenin, Mao, etc. at Marxists Internet Archive.

From the perspective of J.D. Taylor, a young graduate without a future the problem is straightforward and simple from a street level of living his life: “Cynical passivity is the problem. Nothing less than a basic quality of life is the prize and the end.” This sense of cynicism under late capitalism as pure apathy and affectless indifference is what many term anhedonia: is defined as the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable, e.g. exercise, hobbies, music, sexual activities or social interactions. In the political sphere it’s that many young people feel more overwhelmed or helpless in the face of forces they neither control nor understand. The sense that politics is no longer working, our leaders can’t be trusted, the economic system is failing us: a general sense that we’re all fucked leads to this cold and resolute apathy and indifference. One might almost say it’s a form of fatalism or acceptance that nothing can be done: that this is just the way it is so one might as well accept it as fate and be done with it. Buck up and do what has to be done, without emotion or passion, just get on with one’s life the best one can.

I see that in many of many of the young people I meet. A sort of hopelessness that things are not going to get better, that our leaders are off golfing or playing games among themselves over ideological tidbits rather than actually doing anything to fix the world economy. This sense that what we’re seeing in Greece might come knocking on our door next. As young Taylor will tell it: “In an era of negative capitalism, life itself becomes negated and alienated from its sources of happiness and social support. Relaxation is accompanied by guilt. Debt becomes a social and political condition.”

As Nietzsche would once say concerning the debtor that there is this sense of solemnity involved, a sense of “dismal things” in which the moral concepts of “blame,” “guilt,” “conscience,” “bad conscience,” “repression,” “duty,” “self-torture,” and “self-humiliation”. It’s what Maurizio Lazzarato will term the process of subjectivation in becoming an “Indebted Man”. It’s this sense of suddenly being thrust into a position of utter self-reliance, of taking responsibility for one’s poverty, one’s unemployment, one’s precariousness: becoming an entrepreneur of self in which one’s whole existence is under the sign of the creditor/debt relation.2

As young Taylor will see it at street level many “working-class and ‘underclass’ young people in British urban areas have demonstrated that they feel they have no stake in their communities, demonstrated in the violence inflicted on their own alienated communities, [while many] young middle-class graduates have been similarly disinherited by the lack of any real forms of sustainable employment in the country” (KL 66-69). He lives in the UK. Like many people young Taylor sees no alternative to the present system:

there is no positive capitalism, making an old argument for something seemingly opposite like communism is also pretty suspect. Such an idealistic system is very difficult to establish in practice without resorting to totalitarian measures to ensure its own security from war by external capitalist states, worried about unrest in their own impoverished populations.(KL 143)

With the failure of political communism due to State Socialism in both Russia and China in the ’90’s most on the Left have been hard put to come up with an actual alternative to the status quo. Most on the Left have fallen silent are have fallen back into previous academic holes of Marxist or Post-Structuralist conclaves caught between failed anti-capitalist movements or social democracy, etc. Autonomist philosophers of Italy like Berardi, or Hardt and Negri offer intellectual fodder that has stirred little in the way of action, while philosophers such as Zizek wander through the post-modern Pop cultural worlds and offer statements of inaction rather than true Acts: a metaphysics of the Void and Conflict –

The position of Wisdom is that the Void brings ultimate peace, a state in which all differences are obliterated; the position of dialectical materialism is that there is no peace even in the Void.3

Or Hardt and Negri:

Ours is finally a laugh of destruction, the laugh of armed angels which accompanies the combat against evil. Happiness has a dark side. Spinoza describes the joy of destroying what does harm to a friend.” This destruction has nothing to do with hatred, from which, indeed, nothing good can come. And this joy has nothing to do with Scdiadenfreude, enjoyment derived from the misfortune of others. The destruction of what causes harm is secondary to the increase crease of power and joy released by its removal. The extirpation in ourselves of our attachments to identity and, in general, the conditions  of our enslavement will be extraordinarily painful, but still we laugh. In the long battles against the institutions that corrupt the common, such as the family, the corporation, and the nation, we will spill no end of tears, but still we laugh. And in the struggles against capitalist exploitation, the rule of property, and the destroyers of the common through public and private control, we will suffer  terribly, but still we laugh with joy. They will be buried by laughter.4

A sort of joy through creative destruction, at once an escape and a flight through the malaise, through pain and trauma that might or might not lead out of the labyrinth; yet, we’ll be laughing. But exactly where this destruction of the old will lead no one tells us, no one defines it, no one even offers a hint as to what it might look like. Instead we get this jubilant festive anarchy of the commons bound up in a self-delusion of joyous destruction in its destruction of the economic system and infrastructure of the current world.

I can see why many on the left are no longer looking to the intellectuals for advice on matters of politics or economics from the left. I know I’m being harsh, but what troubles me about academic exercises: all the traveling around speech making, discourses, etc. is that it hasn’t stirred up anything since 1968. Do you think it will now? The so anti-capitalist movement was a wash out. It was more of a self-aggrandizing lesson in self-jubilation that didn’t really have any effect on the present system at all. Even the uprising around the world have fallen silent and back into apathy and cynicism. So what now? As young Taylor sees it we’ve all become pin codes in an impersonal system, customers and producers of debt, private atoms of debt rather than political citizens in a public arena:

The modern individual is now a customer, rather than a citizen of the public. The modern citizen is free to borrow from banks and to spend and this is her/ his lot and responsibility, the extent of the social contract in contemporary capitalism. It no longer requires a signature or opinion as mark of consent, but a pin code. (KL 227)

As he’ll reiterate “my experiences and those around me tell the same thing: lives 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.” (KL 237) What he’s saying is that we need to begin rebuilding our lives in the ruins of capitalism rather than seeking some utopian dream of other worlds. This is where we live, if we don’t figure out how to live with what we’ve gotten ourselves into and either fix it or reform it we’re sure and hell not going to do much better by destroying it and ourselves in the process. With prospects of the unknowns ahead of us with Climate Change, recent news that we might even be moving into a small ice-age in fifteen years.

As Taylor tells it maybe it’s time to rethink our options. “Dissent at just a cultural level is safely self-nullifying to the financial power and arrogance of neoliberal governments. Instead of thinking about an alternative, there needs to be a decisive and determined move towards transforming life around us, and this has to be done on the level at which control and negation occurs –the political and the economic.” (KL 329) Like many frustrated young and old alike young Taylor wants to do something, anything is better than just apathetic acceptance. We need a disciplined dissidence, but one that is effective and disrupts capitalist financialism where it hurts most:

This needs to be through a series of spectacular disruptions, for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and ecological destruction wreaked on social life globally as an effect of capitalist modes of production. Examples include hacking, debt-strikes and tax-strikes, creating new local and national parliaments autonomously, community organisation, damage to financial sites of exchange, community ‘supermarket sweep’ competitions, and so on. (KL 375)

Of course his populist leanings come out in a sense of this being a popular front for a social democracy:

Disruption by a single mass of chaotic elements will tip the scales back towards democratic decision-making with maintaining and improving social life as the heart of its concern – social democracy. By being focused around a simple and strategic programme of goals like social democracy, constitution and citizenship, the democratic mass can remain united in the pursuit of civil war against neoliberal finance. (KL 383)

All of this is good and true, yet I get this sneaking feeling crawling up my spine that his voice is probably like ten thousand other young people out there thinking the same way about the same things. And what’s eerie is that no one is doing this? No one is organizing, no one is protesting, no one is acting. I see all this action citizen writing going on  (that is probably talking only to the choir) but for the most part going by the wayside unread and less acted upon. Why? Why is their so much being published that isn’t doing a blasted thing to wake people up? It’s not like there isn’t already a ton of great critiques of neoliberalism and its utter failure, its slow burn through society and the globe, its power to enslave people… blah blah blah… but all this great critique has yet to wake people up out of their apathy, their affectlessness. Why?

I mean listen to young Taylor grasping for something, anything:

The search for individual happiness itself is part of the drug of contemporary cynicism. Cooperation and coming together in democratic communities to realise one’s development collectively, rather than as sad individuals, offers one solution. (KL 1277)

Is that it? Are we all sitting in our little solitary silos like dark prophets of some new age cult, lacking in community, disorganized, spouting our rhetoric to the academic windmills like Don Quixote’s tilting our swords against the neoliberal fortresses like denizens of some dilapidated fantasy? Unable to come together, we sit around belly-aching about this strange cancer in our midst? We’re drugged by our own inability to act, bound to a sorrowful and despondent gaze, a rancorous staring movement of the electronic whir of the screen waiting for someone else to do what we want to do for ourselves? – Act.

Young Taylor grasping again:

Although many workers are well aware what it is which causes their anxiety and debt in the short-term, perhaps the time comes now for a collective therapeutic catharsis of the neurosisanxiety of negative capitalism, and its continuous controlling demands for productivity. Such a catharsis might begin with a violent libidinal overthrow, rejecting stoical acceptances of continual deprivation, and for once taking responsibility of winning and attaining democratic desire. This means acting up, and not expecting events like ‘the end of the world’ or other hopeful catastrophes to come and break clean with a ritual holocaust. It requires politically claiming feelings like humour, immorality and anger instead of suspect old tripe like righteousness or dignity. (KL 1341)

A little humor, a little immorality and anger? Is this it? Got to love this guy at least he’s trying. Sounds like the musical festivals during the sixties when people came together in political activism holidays and gathered around the likes of Hendrix, Baez, Joplin, and Dylan, etc. Where is the music activism? Where the comics of protest? It’s all commercial gibberish now, with country singers bellyaching over profits, etc.  Hey we already have a comic in Slavoj Zizek, but what’s he done for us? I mean really? He admits he has no answers, only more questions. So a few jokes here and there to get a point across about Hegelian dialectic: sure, that’s good as far as it goes, but once you know the jokes you kind of want a little more than the rhetoric of a warn out humorist glibly spouting his intellectual monstrosities of Christ or Hegel, don’t you? I shouldn’t be so harsh on Zizek, at least he tries. But that’s the point, there’s a few voices here and their trying – and hundreds more publishing, but there’s nothing changing in the world. And, if I remember correctly Marx was all about changing the world, not talking about change.

Well I’m running out of room here, so I’ll leave you with one last piece from young Taylor:

Again it must be stated: being simply for or against capitalism is a dead-end of melancholic passivity, popular with lazy academics, activists and artists who consider themselves as the only valid opposition in town. Moral categories of righteousness, or indignation, are entirely irrelevant to its processes. Negation is a condition of disempowerment in an era determined by financial capitalism, where neoliberalism is its theorist, advocate and apologist, and cynicism its most common collective response. Whatever the continued economic crises in Europe and the US, financial capitalists will continue to increase their profits and share of wealth production, and the token punishment of one or two ‘rogue’ speculators whitewashes the wider process of upwards wealth redistribution. Life is too short to waste time in symbolic struggles like e-petitions, marches, or the first-past-the-post electoral system, and these processes and the sources of information used to form public opinion are largely manipulated and forged anyway. Thanatopolitics must be met with a politics of the zoo. If anxiety is an omnipresent fear of unknown cause, then it is clear how and why negative capitalism pervades life and is the cause of this anxiety. It is the fearful villagers, and not the anxious K., who alone have the potential to destroy the castle, in a violent anonymous revolt which destroys financial and information control architectures. If the Castle is to be undermined with cunning and strategy, workers must realise the desperation of a lost future quickly and act optimistically, intelligently, collectively and with devious negativity towards the embodied destruction of the old Castle around them. (KL 2323-2335)

Sounds like barn burning to me, but once the barn is burned want the winter snows kill the chickens, horses, and humans that used the barn? I mean what the hell are we going to replace this beast we’ve all created: neoliberalism? We’re all guilty of it. It exists on a global scale. We let it happen. This is our shame, our guilt, our responsibility. Isn’t it time we cleaned our own mess up? It’s not like it’s a big pile of shit one can bury, no its a human product that we all created together. So it’s up to humans to solve. No God isn’t going to come and save you. And killing the culprits would include killing ourselves. So what’s the alternative. Hmm… maybe we could begin by coming together and deciding on a plan of action. Maybe we could get a few good brains together and implement a little change, start the engine of change-up again, realize the future is still where we left it – waiting for us to begin again, fail again, begin again from the beginning. Maybe that’s it we just need to begin… again!

It’s like a water pump: you just turn the spigot off. That means we shut the economic system down at the source. It means that the financiers, the bankers, the economic systems that support this racket must be shut down first. Then we might actually return to politics, seeing that we’ve botched this pony show already. Kick out the dogs that have bowed to the financiers and put some organizational limits of such worlds. If need be we can restructure the whole shit-and-caboodle. Hey, who said we need abstract crapology? Sometimes what you need is a little more action. Hell, even Jefferson said we’d need a revolution every twenty years or so to keep our leaders in line. You think he was just joking?

The problem we face is no longer at the national level. The old style revolutions of the French or American type want cut it anymore. This is global in scale and local in scope. Whatever we do it will need to include all the people’s of the earth, not some small fractional segment. You think you can handle that? Otherwise we’re spinning our wheels, going nowhere fast. What worked in one era want work now, yet the pathway will. What I mean is this: worker’s organizing themselves. This economy is based on service and knowledge. We have to break the monopolist hold of unionizing. They’ve made it both normative and legally impossible to unionize workers in most service and cognitive based industries. It’s so segmented and singular. Yet, this need to be part of the local agenda.

At the global level we need to organize the outcasts and excluded. Those who have already been written out of the equation by the capitalists themselves. The slum dwellers and refuges of the world. Helping the powerless to become powerful in their own right. Truly if one studies the past it was the power of institutionalized formations that were able to break the backs of former capitalist monopolies. It worked once it can work again. Yet, no one seems to see this or is doing it. We’ve been educated to fear collective action, collective movements, collective organizations. This has been the agenda of neoliberalism from the beginning to conquer and divide, to put the fear into people through media propaganda in literature, news, TV, cinema, etc. The myth of the solitary rugged individualism may have died in the west, but its ghost is alive and well. We live our lives like atomized ants. Even in our onlife worlds we appear to be connected to each other, but in actuality we’re along with each other instead. These very technologies that McLuhan thought would create a global village have created a new tribalism of conflict and subcultures that seem more than ever slowly being absorbed into the portal commercialism of Google and other search engines under the control of global capital. No one knows what google excludes from its searches but google. No transparence. Most of the time one is fed only the acceptable news according to the propaganda system. All the other portals of dissident channels of information are either blocked by anti-virus programs or show up after ten thousand hits in a search. So that the average citizen around the globe is usually getting ideologically filtered news rather than an array of unfiltered and unbiased systems of information.

This is too long a post… going to stop…

1. Taylor, J.D. (2013-03-27). Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era (Kindle Locations 42-45). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
2. Maurizio Lazzarato. The Making of the Indebted Man. (Semiotext(e) 2012)
3. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 415). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
4. Michael Hardt;Antonio Negri. Commonwealth (p. 383). Kindle Edition.

3 thoughts on “Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era

  1. Too much to say and no time to say it at the moment. Hope to get back sooner than later and add my (yes, probably useless and futile) 2 cents. There is a lot I agree with here.

    NB: dere be typos a’plenty, mate…


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