College Quarterly
Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4

Rehabilitating Cynicism: Art as Political Action

by Howard A. Doughty

The elements of my argument are simple and sequential.

  1. We live in the midst of rapid technological change that is transforming the material base of social life, not only in advanced industrial and postindustrial countries but globally as well.
  2. This transformation is being undertaken at high human cost within a capitalist context that is politically suppressive, economically oppressive, cultural repressive and ecologically suicidal.
  3. The transformation is also far from complete and, as failed experiments in so-called Marxist revolution have amply demonstrated, messianic attempts, in the absence of necessary preconditions, to create socialist utopias quickly produce dystopias.
  4. In the meantime, the plutocracy, the power elite, the ruling class, the patriarchy, and the vestiges of racial and ethnic discrimination and their supportive socializing instruments in the mass media and education exercise ideological control over a public that has retreated into the idiocy of private space. The rulers are cynical.
  5. In response, the vast public—with noble but largely ineffective exceptions—has implicitly aligned itself with its own masters by consenting to indulge in private ambitions and anxieties and by abandoning resistance and dissent. The ruled are cynical.
  6. The cynicism of the oppressors and the cynicism of the oppressed are two sides of a cynical coin in which the interests of corporate institutions prevail in the absence of a restorative opposition.
  7. Traditional opposition to cynical power and cynical compliance has come from the political left, which is now in disarray, partly because of the apostasy of over-compromise, and partly because of an infatuation with forms of "postmodernism" that have yielded to uncritical ethical and epistemological relativism.
  8. Without jettisoning the real contributions of postmodernist thought, it is essential to restore the Marxian tradition as a critical, yet scientific, method of inquiry, most likely building on the unapologetic empiricism of anthropological and other cultural materialists in dynamic tension with creative cultural critics and the arts.
  9. Until such time as the material conditions for fundamental social change have matured, there is merit in drawing upon a contrarian form of Cynicism arising from the original Athenian dissenters and constituting a long, thin line of spiritual, scientific and social critics. These "upper case" Cynics conducted themselves in art and in politics with the utmost attention to principle. They confronted hypocrisy, avarice and cruelty openly. They relied on reason and sought advice from nature to make provisional judgements about human thought and action. They had the wisdom to understand that most of their battles would be lost, but that there was virtue in carrying on.
  10. Such optimism as they have allowed themselves has been rooted in the faith of people like American journalist I. F. Stone: "The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you are going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got to be willing—for the sheer fun and joy of it—to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it." (Quoted in sojomail, 2004).
  11. For those lacking this sort of esprit de guerre, an alternative attitude is nicely captured by Henry S. Kariel: "Artists maneuvering in a postmodern manner, actors treating all the world as stage, espionage agents prevailing in no-man's-land, and children playing with reality are at one in enacting their lives in the darkest of times. Unheroic, amoral, and composed, they are our last best hope" (Kariel, 1989, p. vii).

And so …

This article is concerned with an interim strategy for political development that has the potential to do what can be done under the circumstances. Escape from Max Weber's "iron cage" is not contemplated; the recognition of the dimensions of the cage, a few modest improvements in the prison conditions and the relentless naming of the jailers is not as ambitious a goal as can be desired; it may, however, have to do for the time being. The strategy amounts to the rehabilitation of Cynicism as a method of interrogating, undermining and preparing the way for more systematic efforts to confront what can only be described as social insanity or even evil. The project of rehabilitation is premised on the belief that it is possible to distinguish clearly between "lower case cynicism" and "upper case Cynicism".

Lower case cynicism may refer to the thought and action of those who use power to manipulate public opinion and behaviour for reasons of winning personal economic or political gain and it may also be applied (though this is not something that concerns me here) to those who are selfish, deceitful and uncaring in their personal relationships. It may also refer to those who have become savvy, but lack the resources or the will to become manipulators themselves, who respond to the postmodern political economy of late capitalism by withdrawing from public into private life and who, in their private lives, expect to be exploited or abused by their acquaintances and intimates.

In the alternative, upper case Cynicism involves the thought and action of those who follow in the tradition of the ancient Cynics, beginning with Antisthenes and his more famous pupil Diogenes of Sinope. They offer trenchant critiques of popular culture, ideology and social conformity, seek self-reliance, treasure liberty, and retain now unfashionable notions of public virtue based in a genuine appreciation of nature and humanity's proper place within it.

The main intent of the paper is to encourage the project of rehabilitating Cynicism by showing that the philosophy of "Cynicism" can be used to diagnose and provide a therapeutic for the political pathology of "cynicism." Believing that a clear intellectual and practical line connects the followers of Antisthenes and Diogenes through the ages, recognizing plain linkages to Stoic, Epicurean and early Christian thinking, and finding an enduring pattern in various Cynical forms and guises leading to the present day, a case will be made for selectively using Cynical strategies to expand the contemporary political arena. Seeing possibilities for probing the alleged boundaries of our existence and conducting experiments in political action that will, if nothing else, put on public display the potential uses of democracy, Cynical demonstrations will show us what we can get away with and, perhaps, help us to expand our limits in previously unanticipated ways. Now open, now hidden, upper case Cynicism will be associated with a variety of contemporary "contrarians", who defy nihilism and who are dissatisfied with the desolate poses of ironic indifference to technological society now out of control.

Self-consciously applying the neglected insights of political theorists such as Henry S. Kariel, I will endeavour to display the basis for a political aesthetic that, almost alone, offers possibilities for public meaning in a privatized social economy. Advertising artists performing on a movable stage, acknowledging audiences keeping their balance in a world of empty performance, and admiring children playing with no thought of necessity or purpose, I will attempt a minor contribution to the demystification of what passes for reality and outline directives for action that celebrate the experimental while not losing sight of cultural and pseudo-political processes and events that, with our collusion, continue to constrain us.

Cynical Labels

Since my first concern is with the language of cynicism, it is apt to commence with a consideration of words, their use and their meaning. There are some who believe that empirical, no-nonsense "ordinary language philosophy" has something more to teach us about our words and thoughts than do literary flights of fancy and speculative excursions into the history of ideas. If this is so, then the terms "cynics" defined as people holding particular attitudes, "cynical" used as an adjective describing those attitudes, and "cynicism" understood as a summary of those attitudes generalized, systematized and applied across a wide social and cultural spectrum are in singularly sorry shape. The words are poorly understood and inconsistently applied. Ordinary people often use them but few understand what they mean by them. Since my purpose here is to advocate the rehabilitation of cynicism, I will therefore not rely on ordinary language, or at least not entirely. I must, however, acknowledge Babel and, so, will not be able to exclude entirely what people generally seem to think cynicism is.

I begin by setting out in further detail three competing definitions, for it is my belief that cynicism is one of those disputed terms that W. B. Gallie identified as "essentially contested" (Gallie: 1962, p. 121). By that he meant that arguments involving such terms were mainly semantic. In saying this, I intend no disparagement. Semantics, after all, is almost as badly misused a word as cynicism. People carelessly avoid serious issues by brushing off criticism as being "just semantics," failing to understand that, if we do not pay heed to semantics, we will quite literally not know what we are talking about. Take art, for example. It would be relatively easy for us to imagine an oil painting and to consider the statement that "this oil painting is a work of art." Without much difficulty—assuming no one was being wilfully ignorant or perverse—we could probably agree, on the basis of empirical evidence, that this is a painting and that it was painted with oils. We only run into difficulty regarding the question: Is it art? In dispute will be our contrary definitions of art and the criteria we think must be met in order to allocate any particular object—this hypothetical painting, for instance—to the aesthetic category of a work of art.

Something similar happens with language used to identify social, political and philosophical beliefs. For the past half century and more, philosophers of language such as T. D. Weldon have made the case that normative terms such as justice, liberty, rights, democracy, socialism and so on are meaningless except as terms of applause or abuse. They have, he insisted in his seminal work, The Vocabulary of Politics (1953), no commonly accepted empirical referents and are, therefore, useless in intelligent discussion. As terms of approval or abuse, of course, they had their place, but that place was limited to calling out "hurrah" or "boo" in reference to some policy, practice or putative principle. In the United States, for example, the term "liberal" seems to be used largely as short-hand for individuals who fail the Republican party's tests for patriotism, piety and personal morality. So successful has this been that even moderate Democrats duck the term and shrink from the challenge of acknowledging and defending liberal politics. I would add the term "cynicism" to Weldon's list, but I would deny that all such terms (including liberal and conservative) are meaningless. They are, I would counter, objects of dispute precisely because they have multiple meanings all of which are accepted by some, rejected by others, but taken seriously by a respectable number of citizens who bicker about which meaning is correct.

In the case of cynicism, it is difficult to turn the page of a newspaper or popular magazine, or to watch a news or public affairs program on television without having the word "cynical" pop up. Much as some women used to use the weasel phrase "I am not a feminist, but…" and then go on to advocate some fundamental feminist position, so many people today preface sceptical comments about politics by saying "I don't want to sound cynical, but…" and then go on to denounce politicians as liars and thieves, and to express their democratic discontent by proudly announcing that they will not vote in some future election. By these lights, to be cynical is to adopt an attitude that might once have been summed up in such sociological terminology as "apathy," "alienation," and "anomie."

You will notice that I have limited discussion to the adjectival form of the word. I intend by this to suggest that people who currently fret about the health of the democratic polity are not necessarily worried about people in their domestic lives or in their roles as producers, consumers, moviegoers or even volunteers. They are vexed only by the fact that their fellow citizens seem annoyingly ignorant about and indifferent to their rights and obligations as voters. It is very easy to say that Jane and John Doe are loving parents, tireless workers, green shoppers, attentive audiences and splendid soccer coaches, but still describe them as cynical in terms of the official political system (or some other specific formal social arrangement such as organized religion, professional sport and so on).

If, however, the Doe's attitudes and actions are generalized, and they treat not only electoral politics but also their families, their jobs and their extended social relations in a way that might best be called misanthropic, if they are suspicious, possibly paranoid and never willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, then the noun may be used. They can be promoted (or, better, demoted) to the class of cynic. We may well enjoy their company if they are otherwise jolly people but just "turned off" politics; we may not be so generous if they display a similar spirit toward other elements of their lives and, we may suspect, about us when we are not in their presence. We have less time for a cynic as a noun than cynical as a limited adjective when all that is being criticized is the current collection of elected officials and political parties, fund-raising evangelicals or millionaire baseball players and team owners of all sorts. Moreover, when the dyspeptic opinions of cynics are collected into a set of statements which summarize an anti-social point of view and raise (or lower) it to the status of a comprehensive ideology, then we are dealing with full-blown "cynicism," and few of us are comfortable with that.

What I have described, of course, is just one variant on the theme. It is the aggregate ideology of people who have been, somehow and to some extent, disillusioned with contemporary social mores and have decided that this or that social institution—political lobbyists, used car dealerships, the mass media, psychiatry, the petroleum industry, schools, the civil service or the legal profession—has somehow betrayed their trust. In small and limited doses, the expression of disillusionment can be socially acceptable, sometimes even amusing when delivered as satire. In large quantities and when broadly applied, however, it can be toxic.

As suggested at the outset, another common use of words such as cynic, cynical and cynicism applies not to those who are upset with hypocrisy, euphemism, lies, "strategic thinking," "vision statements" and all the rest of the corporate rhetoric that flows, like sludge, through the sewers of our lives, but to the hypocrites, liars, strategists, visionaries and corporate communications experts who fleece us like lambs and expect us to be grateful in the bargain. Corporate crime, political larceny, and institutional malfeasance in all its forms do not happen in the absence of criminals, larcenists and malefactors. Cynical "spin doctors" and the powerful interests that employ them constitute the second definition with which we are concerned.

Whether George W. Bush and the Vulcans at the Pentagon, assorted officials at Enron, protectors of paedophile priests, miscellaneous public relations experts and all those people who phone at supper time trying to sell timeshares in a condo in Redondo are congenitally stupid, demonically evil, self-absorbed ideologues or simple extortionists, knaves and charlatans is an open but ultimately secondary question. What they have in common is a variously sophisticated understanding of their society and the steps that must be taken in order to become politically, socially and financially successful. If some or all of them eventually stumble, it is not because they failed to work the system but because they came to believe in their own invulnerability. They did not misjudge the credulity of the public; they succumbed to hubris and overplayed their hands. For all the self-important swindlers and moral majoritarians that come crashing down, however, others rise in their places.

These cynics are the bane of the first set. It is these people who are the true misanthropes and consciously deceptive panderers to public gullibility. They are the ones who eventually persuade otherwise well-meaning folk to abandon their faith, store their public virtues in the deep freeze and either try to get their own back by cheating on their taxes—why not, everyone does it—or by retreating into the vanities and entertainments of the spurious present, the wholly subjective enjoyments of mindless consumerism, the vacuous excitement of "reality" TV, or the unbridled emotional commitment to this or that professional sports franchise where they will idiotically shout "we're number one" on those occasions—rare of late in Toronto—when a group of physically adept mutants triumph over their rivals falsely "representing" some other world-class city such as Tampa, Oakland, Philadelphia, or even New York. When they are embarrassed to be caught displaying such dopey behaviour, by the way, they will sometimes apologise by saying that they are escaping from the tensions of the real world; in fact, they are surrendering to them.

All of this, of course, is no news to anyone with the wit to flip a light switch. What is perhaps controversial is my chosen path to redemption or, if that is too lofty an aim, then at least to some sort of socially relevant therapy. Thus comes the third variation on the cynical theme—the tradition of post-Socratic philosophy that traces its tortuous path back to Antisthenes, Diogenes, Crates, Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi and on through the likes of Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Oscar Wilde, Jessica Mitford, Kurt Vonnegut, Abbie Hoffman, Gore Vidal, John Livingston, Jared Diamond, George Carlin, Emmy Award-winning television personality Jon Stewart and (for a time) Christopher Hitchens.

Dozens of other names could be added, of course. I would be tempted to include William Shakespeare, William Blake, Henry David Thoreau, Albert Camus, rock group Jello Biafra & the Dead Kennedys, and almost any added assortment of Bohemians, Beatniks, Hippies, Yippies and Wiccans that could be shoehorned into a pantheon of people devoted to at least a few of the classic Cynical tenets. My friend and colleague Hugh Dow would add Ivan Illich, George Orwell, bell hooks and Raymond Williams. Others are invited to add to their own inventories.

Criteria for inclusion would have to include the tendency to disdain glory for its own sake, to remain indifferent to the opinions of others, to champion the truth as they saw it, and to plead for self-sufficiency, naturalism and simplicity as the greatest tokens of virtue and for freedom of speech as the supreme human right. Of course, not all would—like Diogenes—be content to sleep in a tub or be courageous enough to tell Alexander the Great that he should stop blocking the sun. Oscar Wilde surely would not meet the standards of self-sufficiency, simplicity and the control of worldly desire. Anomalies exist. It would be asking too much to seek out a "perfect" cynic.

What's more, because Cynics have suffered from association with cynics for a long time, it might be hard to find many Cynics who would be pleased to be called Cynics. Oscar Wilde, for example, uttered the iconically Cynical line that a "cynic" is someone "who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Plainly, he would not be pleased to be lumped in with a bunch of ascetics. And, I suppose that there are still many Christians who think that Jesus would be a bad fit in the Cynical fellowship (though prominent members of the justly famous Jesus Seminar are pretty sure he would find the company congenial). The New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) certainly would not have liked to see Jesus taking up with the likes of either Diogenes or Oscar Wilde. It says, for example, that Cynicism "sprang from the ethical doctrine of Socrates regarding the necessity of moderation and self-denial. With this ethical element, it combined the dialectical and rhetorical methods of the Sophists. Both these influences, however, it perverted from their primitive uses; the Socratic ethics was interpreted by the Cynics into a coarse and even vulgar depreciation of knowledge, refinement, and the common decencies, while the methods of the Sophists became in the hands of the Cynics an instrument of contention rather than a means of attaining truth." Secular commentators have gone even farther. Wrote Ragnar Höistad (1973, p. 627): "Cynicism is not a philosophy, it is an asocial, amoral, and anti-intellectual way of living." Cynics and cynicism, it is plain, have few friends.

A more even-handed assessment was made by Sheldon Wolin. He was content to say that Cynicism has sometimes led to withdrawal from politics and the adoption of a kind of contemptuous quietism, but he has also acknowledged that the early Cynics were responsible for successfully breaking old ties to "the laws, customs, institutions and class structure" of "conventional" society and values and forging "the outline of the individual person … with startling clarity (Wolin, 1960, p. 78)."

The judgement of two and one half millennia remains unsettled; so then, why do I applaud the Cynics? They do not, I cheerfully acknowledge, form an obviously coherent group. They possess no unambiguous body of doctrine, no shared metaphysics, no common ontology, no communal epistemology and no collective ethics nor joint aesthetics to bind their tradition together. Some are humble; some are arrogant. Some are hermits; some are in show business. Some are tragic and intense; some are joyful "fooles". They are a collection of characters that is sometimes said to share nothing but an "attitude," and not necessarily a likeable one at that. They are psychologically eclectic and socially diverse. Moreover, while I could attempt to make a case that the Cynics were and remain committed to democracy, human rights and socialism (Crates certainly seems to fit that template and so, mainly, does Jesus), it is plain that there are strong elitist strains in much Cynical thought. Cynics tend not to suffer "fools", much less to do so gladly. This intellectual snootiness, however, does not reflect an authoritarian Platonic commitment to inherent inequality and a willingness, following Socrates, to propagate a "noble lie" intended to ensure social order, to justify class division and to legitimize state oppression (See: Plato, The Republic, Book 7: 514a - 517c). It merely reflects disdain for those who yield to immediate and transient material interests and acquiescence in pathological ideological deceptions. Mindful of human moral frailty, Cynics nonetheless had hope. They believed once and believe today that virtue is not innate; it can be taught and learned. Wickedness, therefore, may be widespread but it is not the inevitable condition of humanity.

Why Support Cynicism?

That said, why endorse Cynicism specifically? Western thought contains many traditions that contemplate emancipation from all kinds of hardship, stupidity, cruelty and persecution? The enlightenment, the age of progress, bourgeois reformism and the promise of science and technology from the eighteenth century to our own stand well together as exemplars of one such theme—the use of human reason to improve our individual and collective quality of life. Likewise, romantic rebellion against some of the hideous and unnatural implications of scientific, technological and industrial culture cannot wholly be disdained. We likewise cannot gainsay the passions of Nietzsche or of the phenomenologists and existentialists who sought "authenticity" in lived experience. Benevolent religious movements from the Quakers and the Shakers to the Salvation Army and preachers of the Social Gospel all invoked a divine spirit to bring relief from human suffering in this life as well as the next. (What's not to like about Tommy Douglas?) We must also acknowledge the fury of otherwise scientific sociologists like Max Weber who pretty much summed up the twentieth-century in his metaphor of the "iron cage," though now silicon might be the element of choice (Weber, 1958). Believers in reform of various sorts have castigated authoritarianism and pled for human emancipation with Karl Marx being, by far, the most important such interpreter and prognosticator on liberation. What privileges Cynicism over Marxism or, for that matter, other modernist philosophies and ideologies such as liberalism, environmentalism and—where available—"progressive" conservatism?

Committing Treason

The answer lies in the now common observation that every generation of intellectuals commits treason anew. Thus has Marxism also been betrayed and at least temporarily sidelined as a powerful guide to a humane future. I do not here refer to the Dostoievskian tragedy of the Russian revolution, or the brutal farce of the Chinese. Marx was prescient enough to know that it was a monstrous distortion of his views even to attempt a "communist revolution" in late feudal Russia or a China still burdened by "the Asiatic mode of production." Darwin had demonstrated that (if my Latin is holding up) natura non salit (nature does not make leaps); Marx understood that human social evolution does not make leaps either. It is not, therefore, Lenin or Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot or even Enver Hoxha whom I accuse of treason here. They were never part of the authentic Marxian tradition from the start and, as a result, the ruination of their "experiments" should bring no sadness to genuine Marxists despite the witless triumphalism of corporatists from Ronald Reagan to the talking heads at CNN and Fox.

No, the treason comes in less dramatic forms: Theodor Adorno siding with S. I. Hayakawa in disgust at student radicals in the 1960s; ex-Ontario Premier Bob Rae, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and other democratic socialist apostates, caving into alleged reality, playing at pragmatics, and unctuously urging us to try to convince Lord Black, the Asper family and Rupert Murdoch that it is not their kind of capitalism but a kinder kind of capitalism that we should pursue; and, currently, Bob Rae (again) preparing to tell current Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty how we can all participate in the quest for enlightenment and employability through postsecondary educational revitalization and the creation of a learning society. A new ideological social contract is in the making. You watch!

The treason is the betrayal of social democracy and the cozying up to late capitalism. Just as the Church abandoned the radical political project of the Christ, so have Marx's insights and ideals been frittered away, when they haven't been transformed into hideous tyrannies. Take the example of Ralph Miliband's children. For anyone who is unfamiliar with him, Miliband was arguably the foremost British commentator on Marx's relationship to contemporary politics. Along with historian John Saville, he founded and was long an editor of The Socialist Register, an annual collection of essays that sustained progressive scholars for much of the last half of the twentieth century. His books, The State in Capitalist Society (1969) and Parliamentary Socialism (1973) and related work such as Leo Panitch's The Canadian State (1977), helped fill an ironic gap in Marxist thought — the consideration and critique of the political order. Apart from specialized books such as Gary Teeple's Marx's Critique of Politics 1842-1847 (1984), the role of the state has rarely been adequately addressed within the Marxist tradition. Miliband did much to make up for that.

An independent thinker, he was caustic in his criticism of social democratic organizations such as the British Labour Party, as is his pupil Panitch of Canada's NDP. He fought the tendency to "over-compromise" with capitalism and strove to build genuinely socialist alternatives. "The last conversation I had with Ralph," said a close friend, "he was savage about Blair." Miliband died a decade ago, and so never saw Blair and New Labour come to power, much less to become George W. Bush's stalwart ally. Perhaps it is just as well.

In Marxism and Politics (2004), newly reissued after a quarter-century, the analysis Miliband presents is as cogent and persuasive as when it was originally written. Constructing a solid account of class and class conflict as we live them today, his goal was to reinvigorate Marxist political theory and to build upon that understanding an enduring alternative to capitalist hegemony. He failed. His time has passed or, better, has not yet arrived.

Before he let his disgust with "Islamofascism" take him over to the side of President Bush (though he now seems to be hinting that he'd like to come back), Christopher Hitchens made the perceptive remark that Marx's great insight was that, although socialism was an idea before Marx, democracy was an idea before Marx, and social revolution was an idea before Marx, the old boy knew that you cannot have any of them until you're ready for them, and you can't have one without the others (Hitchens, 1988, p. 242). We are not yet ready for socialism. We are not yet ready for democracy. We are certainly not yet ready for social revolution.

Our sluggishness can be both embarrassing and depressing. Miliband, among the founders and foremost charismatic leaders of the "New Left" in the 1960s, would surely be chagrined that his enterprising, ambitious, thirty-something sons have distanced themselves from the old radical. David Miliband is a cabinet minister and one of Tony Blair's closest confidantes. Ed Miliband chairs the Treasury department's Council of Economic Advisors. Ralph Miliband, however, remains "a large, challenging presence … a symbol of how the left used to be—and of what his sons and their New Labour colleagues have reacted against." In time, it may be revealed that, in this case at least, father really did know best. That time is some distance away. To date, the proletariat has seemed ever so slightly reluctant to assume its revolutionary mantle and play its world historical role.


While we wait, we should ponder a second (and more pervasive) sort of treason. If political actors have abandoned the practice of socialist politics, academics and the contemplative class have even more thoroughly tried to re-theorize themselves in a radical postmarxist drift, thus producing what my old mentor, Henry S. Kariel, called the "desperate politics of postmodernism."

The political slide was a consequence of the dissolution and fragmentation of the Old Left of stupefied Marxist orthodoxies, reactionary communist parties and bureaucratic "business" unions. Some of the fragments took to embodying "identities" and creating a pastiche of race and gender, somewhat complicated by the participation of postcolonials, variously repressed minorities, culture critics, environmentalists, animal rights activists and anti-gun lobbyists. The New Left, composed of earnest, aging "soixante-huitards", embraced aesthetics (Hutcheon, 1992) and high-fibre diets, and abandoned hope in the proletariat as an agent of social justice (Gorz, 1982). Historical materialism was jettisoned (Aronowitz, 1981) and, as Harvey relates, at a 1983 convention of luminaries assembled to discuss "Marxism and the interpretation of culture … most of the authors paid far more attention to Foucault and Derrida than they did to Marx (Harvey, 1991, p. 354; Nelson and Grossberg, 1988).

Carrying with them some of the most abstruse linguistic baggage since phenomenology emerged from Germany to test our tolerance for obfuscation, postmodernists advanced a paradigm of what Charles Jencks has called, in his readable and thorough essay, "the Post-Modern Agenda" (1992), tragic optimism. The arcane inventory of neologisms used to discuss ordinary life extraordinarily became the butt of many jokes, especially since the radical pomo analyses were frequently couched in a tone of pure intellectual snobbery. In tomes of "remarkable silliness," French intellectuals transported what art critic Robert Hughes calls their "left-wing bigotry about l'Amérique" to their relentless texts and semiotext(e)s, and went on to denounce—all the while perversely celebrating—the land of "oppressed blacks, the ghosts of slaughtered Indians, rednecks in pick-up trucks, hippies and Pentagon generals that was the USA." Imagining (redundantly) Disneyland under martial law, they created "a bellicose caricature, an imperialist Hulk, a crass société de consommation," which, in fact, described only part of America (Hughes, 1990, pp. 376-377). What's more, even when they managed to descend into real life, they engaged "schlock, kitsch, animated cartoon stylizations, television trivialities, mass-media slickness, and commercial clichés" to focus on the "trite, the degraded, the simplistic, and the debased" which now had "a perverse allure." According to Kim Levin, this surfeit of superficiality became a simulacrum (to use Beaudrillard's favourite term) of postmodern society (Levin, 1988, p. 163). From this grab-bag of infantilism, superficiality and cultural amnesia (the "agony and the anomie"), they constructed a pantheon of apocalyptic generalizations that did not even pretend to meet any empirical definition, much less pass any empirical test. And in the process, they destroyed you and me.

"Against modernist values of seriousness, purity, and individualism, post-modern art exhibits a new insouciance, a new playfulness, a new eclecticism." So say Best and Kellner (1991, p. 11). The price of insouciance, however, is often the abandonment of agency.

According to pomo theorists, writes anthropologist Buck Schieffelin (2003), the postmodern turn has taken us down a path of radical relativism, where "every object, act and message is inherently indeterminate (lexically and instrumentally)." We always "have to 'read' or 'grasp' it in some way—and it always eludes us (ultimately)." Authorship dies, texts die, readers die and we find ourselves standing "over against" a world that is the transient and contingent "site" of our existence. The things of the world remain inherently "other and indeterminate," while imposing themselves as "our continual and fundamental 'topic' of conversation around which we organize intentions and co-ordinate our discourses and practices—where, in effect, we achieve working agreements amongst ourselves that enable us to move on." Heading in the opposite direction from the remaining champions of reason (see Doughty, 2003), eclecticism seems to betoken not merely polyvocality but cacophony.

Witnessing real death in "real time," we are content to comment on the mediation of the media and to speak knowingly of how much the bombing of Baghdad resembled a video game. What has deconstruction done? What hath semiotics wrought?

I do not mean to speak ill of the dying, but they do seem to insist upon it. As Andy Wernick (1993) described Jean Beaudrillard's ascent from a "minor heresiarch in the world of Homo Academicus to megastar on the intellectual rock circuit," he embraced "the secret of human destiny past the dead point at which history has ceased to exist, constantly striving to outstrip events [in] the manic curvature of contemporary time." Preoccupied with simulation, the reification and adulation of alienation, postmodernists seek "to excise negative characteristics and remodel things into ideal forms." How else to explain political correctness, a dangerous bowdlerization of political life in the misnamed form of semiotic correctness (about which there is nothing notably political)? No longer able to speak meaningfully of good and evil, "all we can do is discourse on the rights of man—a discourse which is pious, weak, useless and hypocritical" and "invariably deployed in a … reactive mode." But Evil has not, of course, disappeared: "it has metamorphosed into all the viral and terroristic forms that obsess us."

In The Catastrophe of Postmodernism, John Zerzan points to "the incoherence, fragmentation, relativism—up to and including the dismantling of the very notion of meaning." We seek out "the marginal, while ignoring how easily margins are made fashionable." We experience "the death of the subject" and wallow in "the crisis of representation."

Consumer narcissism and a cosmic "what's the difference?" mark the end of philosophy as such and the etching of a landscape, according to the Krokers and David Cook (1989), of "disintegration and decay against the background radiation of parody, kitsch and burnout." (Unattributed quotations are culled from Zerzen). Henry Kariel (1989, p. ix) concludes that, "for postmodernists, it is simply too late to oppose the momentum of industrial society. They merely resolve to stay alert and cool in its midst. Consciously complying and yet far from docile, they chronicle, amplify, augment it. They judge it as little as it judges itself. Determined to assail nothing," he explains, "they are passively impassive. Their strategy is inexplicable … unless seen in the light of a narrative which holds, as mine does, that the industrial world is indeed out of control, that we are inexorably moving toward meaninglessness and oblivion."

Surface, novelty, irony and contingency prevail—there are no grounds available for criticizing our crisis. If the representative postmodernist resists summarizable conclusions in favour of an alleged pluralism and openness of perspective, it is also reasonable (if one is allowed to use such a word) to predict that if and when we live in a completely postmodern culture, we will no longer know how to say so. It will be the water and we will be the fish.

Selected elements of Levi-Strauss and Althusser, Saussure, Lacan, Derrida, Barthes, Benjamin, Lyotard, Deleuze, and Foucault (to whom Finn (1993, p. 123) refers as "the new kids on the block," as recent additions to the "pantheon of proper names and authoritative texts" that comprise the male canon (Morris, 1988, p. 12) are combined to produce a disembodied form of cultural criticism which is content to deconstruct modernist bourgeois hegemony and shrug at the consequences—no body counts, no agent orange. It is language that speaks, not the author. History is a process without a subject. Not only is teleology to be jettisoned but causality as well, for there is no raw data to explain. We are no longer permitted to have problems; we must construct problematics instead.

Enough. As Michael Moore has asked more than once: "Is the left crazy or is it me?"

Modernism, with its cheerful belief in representation, ambition and technological innovation combining to betoken progress, held some promise for providing fulfilment or, at least, understanding. Until the apparent end of modernism—for North Americans sometime between the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the first election of Richard Nixon, perhaps amidst the police riots in Chicago in August, 1968—"high culture" was seen as a repository of moral and spiritual wisdom. Now there seems to be no such belief. It is possible to hold the likes of Berlusconi and Bush and the Vulcans in contempt; it seems pointless to try to do much more.

In the '60s, as modernism appeared to reach the end of its development, the austere canon of its painting gave way to pop art's uncritical espousal of consumer culture's commercial vernacular. Postmodernism, and not just in the arts, is modernism without the hopes and dreams that made modernity bearable.

Postmodern Art

At the outset of industrialism and the corresponding dissolution of the "ancien régime," Edmund Burke (1955, p. 112) offered this lamentation on behalf of an obsolete and decaying organicism :

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions that made power gentle, and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life … are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our weak and shivering nature, and to raise it to a dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd and antiquated fashion.

Similar plaints are pertinent today. Postmodern art's eclecticism is an arbitrary recycling of fragments from everywhere, especially the past, often taking the form of mimicry, kitchen magnets and sampler records. Demoralized, derealized, and dehistoricized, art can no longer take itself seriously. The image no longer refers primarily to some "original," situated elsewhere in the "real" world; it increasingly refers only to other images. In this way it reflects how lost we are, how removed from nature, in the ever more technologically mediated world of capitalist techno-postindustrialism run amok.

Kroker (1996, p. 36) put it this way:

Windows 95 opens out onto the dominant ideology and privileged life position of digital flesh. It installs the new codes of the master occupants of virtual worlds: frenzied devotion to cyber-business, life in a multimedia virtual context, digital tunnel vision, and, most of all, embedded deep in the cerebral cortex of the virtual elite an I-chip: I, that is, for complete indifference. Technological acceleration is accompanied by a big shutting-down of ethical perception.

Arthur Kroker's conclusion to this short piece is worth repeating in full:

In technology as in life, every opening is also a closing, and what is closed down by the tech hype of Windows 95 is consciousness of surplus flesh. That's Srebenica: the surplus flesh of Bosnian Muslims who do not have anything to contribute to virtual worlds: fit subjects only to be ethnically, and physically, disappeared. They can be ethnically cleansed because they have first been technically cleansed. They are surplus to world domination in a cyber-box.

Postmodernism views the self as a linguistic convention; as William Burroughs put it, "Your 'I' is a completely illusory concept."

It is obvious that the celebrated ideal of individuality has been under pressure for a long time. Cynicism offers a way to restore it. Capitalism made a career of celebrating individuals while simultaneously destroying them. Now debased as a criterion for value by ideology and history, personal autonomy needs to be redeemed. Postmodernism had revealed that autonomy has largely been a myth, and that cherished ideals of mastery and will are similarly totemic. Self-celebration soured into self-abnegation and led to EST seminars of ritualized humiliation, a Marine boot-camp for the mind; invited to excel, we have been Mary Kay-O'd.

While excellent at describing corporate lies, postmodernism mainly offers a dispersal of the human subject so radical as to render it impotent, even non-existent, as any kind of agent at all. Emancipation is therefore unthinkable, much less unactionable, for there is nothing left to be liberated. Postmodernism dissolves in its own contradiction. It wants to erase the thoughtful person while depending on an already discredited subjectivity to continue its critique. Postmodernists emerge as intellectual dandies metaphorically dancing on the graves of their forebears and chanting fugues that celebrate their own non-being, all the while collecting honouraria for senior common room chats and royalties for the dense texts to which they deny existence.

If postmodernism identifies a subject as no more that a social construction of technological capitalism, a fragmented arrangement of libidinal impulses, empty of ethics and individual identity, a mere by-product of consumer purchases, media representations and polling data, what is plainly needed—apart from a good kick in the pants, preferably from the work boot of an honest labourer—is an exercise in Cynical wisdom, a confrontation not so much with "reality" as with its systematic distortion through the mechanisms of ideological hegemony.

Enter Diogenes …

… lamp in hand in the darkness of noon, seeking an honest man.

First step? Develop a skill for one-liners and performance art, not directed against the ruling class, which one can regard with temporary indifference, but at mocking the mawkish interlocutors of wholly verbal discourse revolutionaries.

I imagine Diogenes pursuing Adorno at his piano or Foucault in his bathhouse, smearing mud on the carpet and spitting at the myopic graduate students imbibing Beaudrillarian bromides as they wallow in the detritus of their doctoral theses on discourse about discourse about discourse.

That, however, won't pass muster as an enduring strategy. It is, however, a necessary preparation in the form of transitional anger.

We next need call upon Nietzsche (who loved the great destroyers, for they are the only true adorers). He points to a tonic for recovery. Postmodernism, after all, has constantly eroded our assurance of reality and our capacity to commit to action within it. The quintessentially postmodern point of view bespeaks the movement of thinking from decadence to its elegiac, or post-thought phase; or, as John Fekete summarized it, "a most profound crisis of the Western mind, a most profound loss of nerve." Ever more mediated, life in the Information Age is increasingly controlled by the manipulation of signs, symbols, marketing and testing data, and the ubiquitous "focus group." Our time, says Derrida, is "a time without nature"; but nature dominates puny human thought, especially when that thought is a celebration of the puny human thinker recast as a cosmic self-negation.

Postmodernism privileges culture because it denies nature. This is monstrous. Postmodernism tells us that culture is all we can ever have, and that even its foundations, if they exist, are not available to our understanding. Postmodernism is apparently what we are left with when the modernization process is complete and nature has gone for good. Nature hasn't gone anywhere, of course, and it won't. The ideology of human domination from the 26th verse of Genesis through Walt Disney's "Tomorrowland" has been noxious. Yet, though human ingenuity may alter the natural world making it unliveable for human beings, we can take solace in the fact that nature never has been nicely balanced and, despite our best/worst efforts, it will survive our passing in other forms.

Postmodernists, of course, are not content to locate themselves in their own elaborate urban myth; they quickly abandon culture as well. The hedonism of words—paralleling a real-life dandyism—considers concepts not in terms of their validity but only for their efficacy as tactical tropes for language games played on a relativistic playing field where the rules are seen only through a looking glass and dismissed.

Says Frederic Jameson: "Never in any previous civilization have the great metaphysical preoccupations, the fundamental questions of being and the meaning of life, seemed so utterly remote and pointless."

Says Peter Sloterdijk: "The discontent in culture has assumed a new quality: it appears as universal, diffuse cynicism."

The erosion of meaning, pushed forward by intensified reification and fragmentation, causes cynics to appear everywhere. Psychologically borderline melancholic, they are now symbols of pervasive social vacuity. From the motor-mouth of Ann Coulter to the preachments of cultural atavists and the celebrations of ever more invasive technologies seeking to monitor the temperature of our water heaters and our taste in Internet websites comes the revelation that the answer to the pathology of cynicism is the pursuit of Cynicism.

Says John Murphy: "Obviously, culture does not dissolve merely because persons are alienated. A strange type of society has to be invented in order for alienation to be considered normative."

Barthes proclaimed a "hedonism of discourse."

Lyotard counselled, "Let us be pagans."

Some pagans!

Blank, dispirited, pulpous, spongy academic sterility posing as the negation of oppression, it offers life in a simulated shopping mall where a suitably branded and hermetically sealed world has been made safe for fashionable self-indulgence over white wine and spinach salads masquerading as philosophy.

To be fair, Baudrillard may be on to something. Modernists recoil from the threats of the postmodern project. They worry that, once the rug is pulled from under the self-confident progressive actions of solid bourgeois men, there will be nothing left. "Today," intones Tom Darby, "if a person is not a nihilist he can be one of only three things. First, he can simply be ignorant of the new world … Secondly, he can know of it yet … misunderstand it. Thirdly, he can know of it and deny it. The first is naïve, the second foolish, the third cowardly (1986, p. 4). Such concerns are largely the laments of intellectuals who are overly invested in an obsolete vision. Gerldine Finn (1986, p. 123), for example, notes that, like modernism, postmodernism is both a master discourse and a discourse of mastery. Though Darby may have lost some ground, the new postmodern canon is advertised as a male invention as well (see also Kariel, 1990). For Beaudrillard, however, the important truth is not the obvious nihilism implied in the affirmation that there is none, but that in the suggestion that the question of truth or non-truth is obsolescent. The difference between true and false is dissolved in the logic of Capital, as laws of the universe become subject to the primum mobile of exchange. This, for Marx, was the starting point not the premature end of history as technocapitalist apologists from Daniel Bell to Francis Fukuyama would have it, but the condition required to work toward its authentic beginning.

What we have instead is a kind of reverse millenarianism, an apocalypse of shattered grammar.

Against Marxism

"Both post-modern and postindustrial theories are explicitly focused against Marxian theory … there was much discussion of a 'post-Marxist turn among former radicals. … post-modern theory manifests a 'postie syndrome' of radical rejection of previous positions to create new discourses and theories adequate to the allegedly novel social conditions." (Best and Kellner, p. 276).

Beaudrillard accepts the Marxian frame. Prior to industrialism, surplus commodities were available only for exchange among a small elite. Use value then determined market value. The industrial mode of production changed all that. Vastly increased quantities of production led to the commodification of goods that had previously been domestically produced or that were not produced at all. The emerging capitalist economy added new dimensions. Manufactured products replaced domestically produced artefacts. Agricultural factories and (sub)urbanization made kitchen gardens obsolete. New industrial products were transformed from curiosities to apparent necessities. Even "abstract qualities, like love, goodness and knowledge, which had previously been thought to be immune from the operations of buying and selling, themselves enter the realm of exchange value … [and comprises] Marx's era of 'general corruption', brought about by the penetration of the market much further into the realm of culture and signification." (Cooper, 1997, p. 51). Welcome Hugh Hefner. Welcome Oprah and Dr. Phil.

To emphasize the notion of corruption, however, is to become entrapped by simple moralism. As Frederic Jameson (1984, p. 63) has observed: "… we are within the culture of postmodernism, to the point where its facile repudiation is as impossible as any equally facile celebration of it is complacent and corrupt. Ideological judgement on postmodernism today necessarily implies, one would think, a judgement on us as well as on the artifacts in question."

This is what I attempted to spell out over thirty years ago (Doughty, 1972), when I, cheerfully following Susan Sontag (1966), described the emergence of a "new sensibility," a "protean" form of popular music that went beyond the traditional concepts of Dionysian and Apollonian art to become experimental and eminently postmodern. Challenging the rationalist, modernist preference for being, form, order, appearance and beauty (the Apollonian, which nourishes a art imitative of the essential order of the universe in painting and sculpture), the Protean alternative disdains commitment to any particular form, preferring an aesthetics consonant with the Protean personality. That personality, according to Robert Jay Lifton (1971, p. 102) engages in "experiments and explorations—some shallow, some profound—each of which may be readily abandoned in favour of still new psychological quests."

Having lost faith in an orderly future of technological social progress, yet contemptuous of mindless sensuousness and decadent romanticism, Protean art manifested itself throughout popular culture. Attentive to the sort of social criticism that portrayed the contemporary human condition as one of alienation—a term central to Marx and deeply psychologized by neo-Freudians from Karen Horney to Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse—yet sceptical of programs for revolutionary personal or political transformation, the protean artists need only to make the Cynical turn to become self-consciously critical and progressive themselves.

Unlike the contrasting Dionysian revolt which emphasizes becoming, content, chaos, reality and sublimity, and which sustains an art that seeks to transcend ordinary experience in order to achieve a mystical or orgiastic union with the cosmos, typically through lyric poetry and dance, the eclectic, shape-shifting, Protean performances decline subscription to anyone's revolution or redemption. Borrowing a page from my favourite late-nineteenth century madman, Protean artists make it elaborately clear that transcendent art—symmetrical or sensuous, rational or romantic—is not for them and, if anything, they condemn the Dionysian elements in Wagner's theatre, for instance, even more than the sensible good taste for "its nihilism disguised as music," they imagine, "would instigate nothing less than the revolt of the masses (the phrase is Nietzsche's)" (Kariel, 1970, p. 223).

Like aesthetics itself, which Eugene Kaelin (1966) described as wandering childlike through the house of philosophy without ever settling down in a room of its own, Protean art is sensitive to human suffering but unable to construct a means to comprehend, much less to ameliorate it (cf. Kaelin, 1966) and is apt to identify political diagnoses, treatment and prognoses as toxic in themselves.

Re-enter Marx.

Postmodernism has done its best to disassemble narrative structure which is necessary for science, social projects and Marxian analysis alike. Today, the main defenders of large narrative accounts of our society come, paradoxically, from conservative scholars. Contrasting the views of those who, like Fukuyama, have chosen to declare "the end of history" (leaving the likes of President Bush to clean up the messy bits), others (Himmelfarb, 2004) are demonstrating that the right is no intellectual monolith dominated by the errant disciples of Leo Strauss (See Lilla, 2004a, 2004b). Both strands (there are others) of conservative thought are united, however, in wanting Marx dead, buried and deposited in the composter of history. The reason is not that they fear the withering logic of dialectical materialism, the immutable laws of historical evolution, or the possibility that the gnomes of Switzerland or the US Federal Reserve will suddenly be captured by that embarrassing little bit of classical economics—the labour theory of value. No, they are mainly distressed that all the old, familiar arguments may once again gain legitimacy and coherence. Marx asked impolite questions about who wields power and to what ends. Such questions frighten, almost equally, the absolute right and the putative left from Tony Blair (now irrevocably sullied by his foreign policy) to John Kerry (whose failed campaign was waged on a promise of becoming "Bush Lite.") Should the parliamentary left ever choose to raise real issues, of course, things could quickly become ugly. We would come face-to-face with the concentration of wealth and power that currently dominates us and that we studiously avoid discussing in plain terms.

Limpid concepts such as class, working poor and corporatism have been erased from the political lexicon. John Kerry, for example, said he was fighting for the "middle class" against the super-rich. The poor and the proletariat seem simply to have vanished (perhaps that is why they failed to show up to vote). In any case, objective social categories are not of interest to conservatives (except within the confines of their private clubs,) where social class division are not merely acknowledged but celebrated (there is class warfare and the rich are unquestionably winning). What is worse is that they seem to be of little interest to those segments of the left (which is even more fractured and factionalized than the right) that have come under the sway of relativistic postmodernism.

As far as social research and critical theory are concerned, postmodernists generally agree that scientific inquiry, assumptions about a pre-existent external world in need of discovery as opposed to a socially constructed world with neither permanence nor definition, and efforts at structural explanation amount to nothing more than the political attempt to put scientists in control. Science, in this view, is just another narrative, no more and no less valid than anthropological mythologies or advertising campaigns for SUVs, DVDs or any other abbreviated technological mediation. The implication of this uncritical epistemological relativism, well expressed by Ben Agger (1998, p. 54), is that calling science a narrative at all "is to reduce science to a pre-scientific story-telling that enjoys no epistemological privilege." Such an approach not only gnaws at the souls of logical positivists and Popperians but also undermines the projects of all those who seek to comprehend order in the universe (Neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose clinical work is famously with "crazy" people, carries a wallet-sized Periodic Table of Elements in his pocket to remind himself that there is an objective world which is organized around certain fundamental principles that can, themselves, be discerned even by frail and feeble human brains like yours and mine.)

Reducing systematic science to small science and ultimately to subjectivity and solipsism is, of course, nothing new for social scientists. From Immanuel Kant to Wilhelm Dilthey, and on through Freudian, neo-Freudian and post-Freudian psychotherapy, Husserl's phenomenology, Kohler and Koffka's Gestalt psychology, Lewin's field theory, Geertz's "thick description", Garfinkel's ethnomethodology, group dynamics, experiential ethnology, symbolic interactionism, and "emic" anthropologies in all their forms, a certain approach to human studies has regularly refused to grant legitimacy to inquiry even tangentially tainted with positivism. Radical subjectivism, psychological idealism and mushy humanism have long since been swatted down—though to no permanent effect—by rigorous empiricists (Meehan, 1967, 190-286) and cultural materialists alike (Harris, 1980, 258-342). What is new about the postmodernist project is its capacity to hitch its wagon to evident social trends—trends that, it claims, spell the end of the social as such.

In North American society, social critics since Tocqueville have been aware of the erosion of public space and the apparently paradoxical dissolution of authentic individualism by what was once popularly called "mass" society. Especially in the 1950s, mainstream sociologists called attention to the hypocrisy and hollowness of bourgeois values and the conformism of bourgeois society. (Riesman, 1950, Fromm, 1955). Unwilling to confront the possibility of materialist explanations for social malaise amidst material plenty, such critics became, directly or indirectly, counsellors of despair. They astutely saw that public action is replaced by private experience, usually in the form of commodity fetishism or insipid entertainment. Then, they understood the residual private experience to be an illusion. The pertinent effects of this analysis, however, are meagre for there are few roads open that do not lead, in Everett Knight's terms (1959, p. 97), to "barren disillusionment" and the assurance of "getting nowhere despite the immensely increased dangers of this kind of irresponsibility." Rescue from this most vapid nihilism requires Marx's tradition to endure and, to endure, Marx's tradition needs to recover its capacity to comprehend the postmodern mode of production. That it has failed to do so adequately is partly the consequence of its insufficient attention to the actual transformation of capitalism, which is not merely exhausting of old forms (as implied by the phrase "late capitalism") but revitalizing itself by globalization, computerization and the creation of a virtual economy to supplant the industrial production of manufactures.

Blinded by an inability or unwillingness to reconceptualize social class in keeping with new labour arrangements, many Marxists failed to do what their putative mentor demanded—rewrite and rewrite and rewrite until you get it right, then publish and rewrite again. Encrusted with conceptions of work that had their origins in "dark satanic mills," Marxist "fundamentalists" carried on in isolation from demographic, economic, technological and ideological evolution. Clinging to the sacred texts, they became increasingly defensive of their ideas and correspondingly aggressive in rooting out those who dared to criticize. Thus, they invited the singing of "Marxism was wrong" slogans that came to a crescendo as the Soviet Union collapsed (not soon enough). The bloody-minded and bloody pretensions of the Comintern and the self-delusions of those who refused to believe the hideous distortions of Marxism that came to dominate "socialist" societies opened the door for the stark realization that those who accused "dialectical materialism" of teleological ambitions bordering on the theological (with attendant concentration on the purge of heretics and, with them, of creativity) were not all wrong (cf. Garaudy, 1970, 1972; Momjan, 1974).

The Grundrisse

Rather than revisit old squabbles, however, it may be time to revisit old texts, specifically the Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, a seminal work left untranslated into English for over 115 years after it was written in 1857. Martin Nicolaus, who first alerted the English-speaking world to its importance (Nicolaus, 1968) and published the first complete translation five years later (Marx, 1973) stresses that "the Grundrisse represents unquestionably the most significant new development, comparable to the Theories of Surplus Value and the Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 ('Paris Manuscripts')" to be made available in the twentieth century (Nicolaus, 1973, p. 7).

What is all the fuss about? Well, it seems that Marx had some rather prescient things to say about the capitalist mode of production that cast him in rather better light than many of those who have been mirthlessly dancing on his grave for over a century, and especially for the fifteen years since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

Knight (p. 98) put it well when he pointed out that "Marx was not a Marxist because for him dialectical materialism, far from explaining the movement of history without recourse to the spiritual, accounts for such movement … and the materialization of idea—the changes man brings about in pursuing his goals."

He calls our attention to the second thesis on Feuerbach (Easton and Gaudet, 1967, p. 401): "The question whether human thinking can reach objective truth—is not a question of theory but a practical question, In practice man must prove the truth, that is actuality and power, this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute about the actuality or non-actuality of thinking—thinking isolated from practice—is purely a scholastic question."

He invites us to understand that ideas are neither wrong nor mere ephemera, but are only powerless in the absence of circumstances in which their truth may be proven. He imagines a Marxist approach to human agency, a "hard core of marxism which time cannot touch. Man," he affirms (Knight, 1959, p. 101) "is the unique source of value, and the economics of supply and demand is an attempt to reintroduce the supra-human. An article is not valuable because it is scarce, it is scarce because it is valuable, because men have put a value upon it." The deviation of Marxism into a more or less crude form of scientism came about not because of Marx's materialism, and certainly not because of any incipient structuralism of the sort imposed upon him by the likes of Althusser (see especially Althusser 1970, and Althusser and Balibar, 1970) and rebuttals including Thompson, 1978 and Clarke et al., 1980); it came about because of the appeal of over-determination which gave a misplaced teleological motor to the often quirky vicissitudes of history and presented a promise that empirical human beings could fulfil, but that abstract historicism could not guarantee.

Three Points

First, a close reading of the Grundrisse makes it plain that both those who took his economic analysis as presented in Capital to be his legacy and wrote off his earlier writings about alienation as no more than immature ramblings are mistaken. Likewise, those who focus exclusively on his treatment of alienation to the exclusion of his economic studies are in error. There was no radical break between the "young Marx" (Hegelian and humanist through and through) and the "mature Marx" (economic reductionist, dialectical materialist and incipient totalitarian). According to David McLellan, Marx successfully achieved a "synthesis of his ideas on philosophy and economics" and the Grundrisse is "the work which, more than any other, contains [that] synthesis" (McLellan, 1971, p. 14).

Second, Marx anticipated the skeletal outline of the technological transformation of capitalism: "once absorbed into the production process of capital, the means of labour undergoes various metamorphoses, of which the last of these is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery. … [The system] is set in motion by an automaton, a motive force that moves of its own accord. The automaton consists of a number of mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves can be no more than the conscious limbs of the automaton" (McLellan, p. 132). Marx correctly understood that not only was the efficiency of industrialism enhanced by automation, but also that the nature of work was fundamentally transformed from the skilful manipulation of a tool to the mindless monitoring of a machine that does the productive work of many people. Taken further, the productive energy ceases to be a labour process at all. Human beings become largely irrelevant to the making of goods and exist only as organic prostheses for active machines and as abstractions divorced from the concrete technological process "whose unity exists not in the living workers but in the living (active) machinery, which seems to be a powerful organism when compared to their individual, insignificant activities" (McLellan, p. 133).

Third, we have already witnessed one consequence of this technological transformation. The agricultural sector, which Marx already understood to be reduced to the "pure application of the science of material metabolism" arising out of the labs at Monsanto, now employs well under five percent of the Canadian workforce. Manufacturing claims less than twenty percent of all workers. Most of the rest are engaged less in production (for we do not produce anything other than words and sales chits) than in consumption. Yet, for all the real benefits of clean offices, responsive keyboards, cheerful "soft rock" music and endless repetitions of the admonition to "have a great day," our work is more stressful, our wealth stagnating or declining, our labour time increasing. Most of us cannot even look to a finished product—a piece of furniture, an automobile, a field of lettuce—whether or not we comprehend that we have been technically exploited in producing it by dint of a careful reading of the theory of surplus value. At the end of the day, every day, we find that we have created no useful product. We push paper, pound keyboards, advertise things for sale, repeat the mantra, "Would you like fries with that, sir?" amuse each other with clever forms of chat as social workers, stand-up comics and professors and, if we are especially talented physical mutants, find ourselves being paid enormous sums of money to play children's games. Frantic to keep our credit cards under control, we find that we are not even "exploited" in the traditional sense because human labour does not "seem any more to be an essential part of the process of production" (McLellan, p. 142). Production of actual commodities evaporates (or is shipped overseas) as the virtual economy heats up or cools down according to the velocity with which currency, credit, "futures" in finances and pixelized precious metals zap their way through cyberspace.

What once seemed to spell the destruction of capitalism, the "crisis of overproduction" in a time of proletarian immiseration has been altered; if there is a threat to the dominant structure it is the other side of the coin—the crisis of underconsumption which is currently being staved off mainly by accelerating the pace of entertainment, keeping prices low at Wal-mart (and wages lower in south-east Asia and Latin America), and ensuring the maintenance of a political system that distracts attention, diverts energy and defeats any genuine effort to redress grievances formally through the electoral process or informally through extra-parliamentary and increasingly criminalized dissent.

The conclusion is expressed by Marx in these terms: "Productive forces and social relations—the two different sides of the development of the social individual—appear to be and are, only a means for capital, to be able to produce from its own cramped base. But in fact they are the material conditions that will shatter this foundation" McLellan, p. 143).

What Is To Be Done?

The physical transformation of techno-industrialism, the postmodern economy in its virtual glory will take place according to its own evolutionary processes. Machinery and human labour have already been rearranged in keeping with material and mental innovation. What needs to be addressed now is the matter of social consciousness. Small "c" cynicism now dominates the mass media and the systems of formal instruction where vocational training trumps critical-emancipatory education every time. The contest for ideological hegemony is so one-sided that, in Ontario, the "general education" program in colleges is now being revised to ensure the exclusion of any discussion of "the economy and work," while preserving chitchat about personal growth, schoolyard bullying, on-the-job teamwork and art appreciation. Vocational training—whether in a school for artisans or mechanics or for accountants and dentists—seeks to ensure that liberal studies and the arts remain an amusing diversion for those who are history "buffs," who delight in mucking about in their kitchens with exotic recipes, or enjoy "bull sessions" about politics and philosophy.

As for art itself, the "new sensibility" now mainly "immerses itself in the pleasures of form and style, privileging an 'erotics' of art over a hermeneutics of meaning" (Best and Kellner, p. 10). Postmodern artists, enchanted with simulacra, nonetheless retain a desire to maintain their balance, to remain lucid and composed even as they forego chronology and causation in the technological maelström. Given the acceptance of the corporate agenda as educational mandate, it is outside the academy that we must look for means to permit the development of a critical, emancipatory sensibility with more to contribute to social change than the striking of an ironic pose before the full-scale triumph of cynical commodities and cynical commerce.

Here the application of a Marxist aesthetics opens up the possibility of Cynical art as an interim strategy for maintaining the possibility of social understanding and potential enlarging the energy for potential change. In a famous passage from the Grundrisse that eerily anticipates Marshall McLuhan, Marx writes that "all mythology overcomes and dominates and shapes the forces of nature in the imagination and by the imagination: it therefore vanishes with the advent of real mastery over them … From another side: Is Achilles possible with powder and lead? Or the Iliad with the printing press? … Do not the song and the saga and the muse necessarily come to an end with the printer's bar, and hence do not the necessary conditions of poetry vanish? (Marx, 1974, pp. 110-111).

Far from the sort of economic reductionism commonly associated with "vulgar Marxism," this excerpt gives considerable weight to the imagination, albeit as a victim of technology. Elsewhere, however, Marx imagines what might happen when technology itself is mastered. In the meantime, Marx and his more progressive progeny proved to be anything but rigid old poops in the thrall of modernism, especially when the going got tough and the contest for the definition of art came into play. Marcuse, for example, floated the notion that "art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature and things [artefacts] no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society (Marcuse, 1979, p. 72)."

Thus stated, art could be interpreted as an emancipatory activity. Of course, Marcuse still wants to worry about "why Greek tragedy and the medieval epic, for example, can still be experienced today as 'great,' 'authentic' literature," or "whether a particular work is good, beautiful, and true …" He wants, in short, to deliver art from the "easy relativism which is contradicted clearly enough by the permanence of certain qualities of art through all changes of style and historical periods (transcendence, estrangement, aesthetic order, manifestations of the beautiful (Marcuse, 1972, pp. 15-16)." This is what Terry Eagleton means by "mystified Marcusean idealism (Eagleton, 1978, p. 179)." Indeed, Marx himself was not beyond talking about "the notion that aesthetic enjoyment involved contemplative disinterest, unmotivated by concerns of practical utility." Writes William Adams (1991, p. 253), "Marx's distaste for bourgeois society, the society of withered sensibilities, the society incapable of great art, was a view he shared with, indeed gathered from Hegel and Schiller." Moreover, it appears, despite his praise for the English novelists of his day ("the splendid brotherhood of fiction-writers … whose graphic and eloquent pages have issued in more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together (Marx 980, p. 664)" whom he seems to have admired more as ersatz ethnologists than as "artists," that the "old boy" was not so much a poop as a snob.

Nonetheless, he also understood human creativity as fundamental to our individual and collective (species) being. An Aristotelian at heart, Marx sought to democratize the Aristotelian goal and, instead of liberating a small elite from labour, to liberate labour itself from its alienation under capitalism

As Eagleton simplifies it: "The human subject creates an object, which then becomes a pseudo-subject able to reduce its own creator to a manipulated thing (Eagleton, 1999, p. 32).

As Marx himself expressed it: "The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become the treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume—your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life (Marx, 1975, p. 361)."

As the Cynic said: "Marx came that we might have life, and live it more abundantly." (Cf. The Gospel According to St. John, 10: 10).

As Paul Thomas states: "A Marxian unmasking of various Marxist as well as non-Marxist ideologies is by no means a contradiction in terms and may well be what the times demand (Thomas, 1991, p. 43)."

Art and, more broadly, culture "is politics in another sphere," says Robert D'Amico, "since it is the manner in which the members of the society, including those who are being oppressed, become self-conscious and therefore critical of the conditions of life" (D'Amico, 1981, p. 76).

Applying basic marxian principles to the analysis of current social life, exposing hypocrisies and outright lies associated with the corporate project can, through Cynical satire, lead to some liberating revelations about what Gary Teeple nicely summed up as a program to let "the threat of terror veil the lack of democracy, obscure class war, and conceal the coercive subordination of nations, peoples, classes, strata, and individuals to the demands of capital." He adds the optimistic notion that "government can violate its purported principles only until the majority of people understand the transgressions and their rationale for what they are. It is, he concludes, difficult to perform a charade when the audience can no longer suspend disbelief" (Teeple, 2004, p. 211).

Marx, then, has laid out the basic historical plan, though the specifics are hard to describe with precision. How long the technological transformation will take (and what forms it may take in the future) are impossible to divine. The capacities of biotechnologies, invasive communications technologies and information technologies organize social arrangements and to assist in the process of social control cannot be prophesied. This much is certain, however, just as the agricultural revolution supplanted hunting and gathering and the mercantile system replaced land ownership as the prime wealth generator, and the industrial revolution enhanced an inchoate capitalism, so the technological and associated changes in the labour process will supplant political economy as we know it. Marx was clear on one point; revolution, he once said, was the kicking in of a rotten door. We cannot know how long it will take the currently standing door to rot, nor what we will find on the other side.

Marx said very little about what social system would follow capitalism, but he made one possibility sound very attractive indeed: "[When] production based on exchange value … falls apart, and the immediate process of material production finds itself stripped of its impoverished, antagonistic form, [i]ndividuals are then in a position to develop freely. It is," he continued, "no longer a question of reducing the necessary labour time in order to create surplus labour, but of reducing necessary labour time to a minimum. The counterpart of this reduction is that all members of society can develop their education in the arts, sciences, etc., thanks to the free time and means available to all (McLellan, p. 142)."

We could, of course, do something very close to this now. Yet, dual income, multi-job families are common. The previous (Conservative) government of Ontario raised the legal workweek to sixty hours and the current (Liberal) government shows no interest in revoking the measure. Leisure time, once the plausible promise of a high tech society is arguably in less supply now than when we actually worked for a living. Even allowing that most of our labour is socially useless, it is essential to maintain the illusion of productivity in order to justify the pay cheques necessary to consume non-necessities. Cover this with a thick cloud of false consciousness and any invitation to prepare for the "revolution" is apt to be (and be seen to be) premature.

This is where Cynicism gains salience.

Nietzsche wanted to philosophize with a hammer. Zen masters whack their novices with a staff. Cynicism can at least make an appearance on the Daily Show. There, marking time, insistent that ancient traditions which spoke of the good society and individual virtue and uttered lamentations of deprival not be forgotten, awaiting the global technological transformation that will lead to … something else, Cynicism can maintain itself only if it understands better the material basis of bad behaviour and Marxism can be restored only if it sharpens its edge.

A Program for Political Action

"If fascism comes to America," warned Knight (1959, p. 96), "the intellectuals will have failed for the last time." Within the confines of the silicon cage, the crucial task is to open up possibilities for creativity, play and politics. This cannot seriously be done if we accept the illusions of liberal politics or allow political life to be subsumed within corporate practices of production and consumption. Instead, we must self-consciously engage in testing the elasticity of our social arrangements. We must do so in the absence of any expectation of achievement but with a definite sense of purposelessness, but not in order to accommodate the existing order. If this sounds suspiciously like apostasy, an acceptance of Arthur Koestler's arid landscape in which we slake our thirst for justice in carefully isolated oases, it at least offers a temporary tactical alternative to death or to the "atavistic messianism of what has previously been allowed to pass for marxism (Knight, p. 112)." Grasping and expanding the moment of lucidity that Camus announced as the condition of Sisyphus' happiness (Camus, 1955, p. 91), we can contemplate an alternative future while struggling to ameliorate and arithmetically reduce human suffering in the present.

Acting almost as Darwinian self-experimenters, we can take our leave of teleology and cease to use politics as a means to an end state. To do otherwise is to fail to notice that the odds are against us; to try too hard is to court death or undertake terrorism. Preferring life—treading water in Edgar Allen Poe's poetic "Maelström"—we sound some alarms, occasionally rally troops and acknowledge contradictions both in ourselves and our society.

Our only available aim is to continue talking, occasionally to tease out of the mouths of our captors the admission that they are disingenuous, their principles shams and their purposes illusions. Our commitment is to oppose closure, whether in Parliamentary debate or in penitentiary cells.

That way, we can remain in temporary harmony with Nietzsche (1968, p. 13): "Existence has no goal or end; any comprehensive unity in the plurality of events is lacking … One simply lacks any reason for convincing oneself that there is a true world. Briefly: the categories 'aim,' 'unity,' 'being' which we used to project some value into the world look valueless."

While striving to concede nothing and to keep from going under, we likewise affirm no alternative. The time is not right and, besides, all that can be endorsed are opportunities to encourage others to take control of their speech, expand their space and maintain the tragicomic theatrical displays that remind imperial lords and demonstrate to others the poverty of their wardrobes. Linguistic philosophy, shaded by the long shadow of logical positivism, sought to persuade us that our words were meaningless. Pluralist democracy seeks to marginalize our actions and persuade us of their futility. The long road to the restoration of humanism may well begin with the reclamation of our speech and the courage to make speeches as, perhaps, a prelude to something more but at least as a defence against enforced absurdity. The power to name, mythically given by God to Adam, can be re-claimed in art in any of its forms. Its effects may be disillusioning in the very best sense of the word.


"The present situation of art is, in my view, perhaps most clearly expressed in Thomas Mann's demand that one must revoke the Ninth Symphony. One must revoke the Ninth Symphony not only because it is wrong and false (we cannot and should not sing an ode to joy, not even as promise), but also because it is there and is true in its own right. It stands in our universe as the justification of that 'illusion' which is no longer justifiable."
- Herbert Marcuse (1972, p. 66).

"Marxism as a science is dead, as an instrument of progress it is not yet even understood."
- Everett Knight (1959, p. 99)


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In February, 1967, I read a few pages that Dr. Kariel had written in a book called The Promise of Politics. I was smitten and, by the August of that year, had travelled close to half way round the world to study with him. We kept in touch sporadically for a couple over a quarter-century. Over the past decade, Henry S. Kariel lost his mind. The more or less technical term is Alzheimer's disease. For a man who strove mightily to keep the conversation going, the word "tragedy" is not amiss in describing his fate.

Thanks to Hugh Dow for his comments on this paper and for contributing solid criticisms and a few choice phrases (though remaining exempt from blame for the use to which I have put them).

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. He can be reached at


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