Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Cynicism, Kynicism and Poverty in Britain

A new word which I've sighted on a few blogs recently is "kynicism", a word coined by philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in order to separate out the concept of political cynicism into two opposing ideas. Kynicism is the progressive half, in which, for example, people mock George Bush for acting like a peacenik when it comes to other countries' wars, or are sceptical of any statement by Zimbabwe on human rights. The conservative half he calls cynical reason, and this is what people express when they say that, for example, there will never be peace in the world or that no one can change the Zimbabwean human rights situation. In short, cynical reason is a philosophy of inaction whilst kynicism is a shrewd caution in assessing the actions of those in power.

However, I'm not sure I necessarily agree with this characterisation. For one thing, it is impossible to find out where one cynicism ends and the other begins. Cynical reason, deployed effectively, is an incredibly effective propagandist tool - e.g. the conviction of some of America's working and lower middle classes that new taxes and unionisation will just bring about more misery and unemployment has led to a weak labour movement. But will experiments in kynicism not bring about similar results? If we convince the public that the Conservatives are not concerned about being green or helping the poor, then we are not using the logic of cynical reason, which might be that of climate change denial or trickle-down theory, but we do end up with a situation where the Conservatives can commit terrible crimes against the environment or the poor and not be thought to be hypocrites, since no-one believed their rhetoric in the first place.

The central question must be how to characterise authorities or powerful people and organisations that have agendas we oppose in order to evoke the maximum of active resistance rather than passive cynicism. What forms that resistance takes is a second question.

Fig 1: Something to be cynical about:

Despite the economic boom days, the poorest in Britain (primarily the unemployed) have actually seen their real income go down. Both inside and outside the Labour Party, we can resist policies which have caused this (among them the removal of the 10% tax rate and cynical reforms of the unemployment benefit system).

(Courtesy of the BBC's page of credit crunch graphs).

1 comment:

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