The publication of the Matt Hancock WhatsApp transcripts from the Tory leadership conversations has engendered an appropriate response of mockery, indignation, and incredulity (I myself thought that certain excerpts had to be from a parody site, they were so outrageously, gleefully hard-hearted). I’m not sure, however, that they have provoked an increase in cynicism, and I wanted to take a moment to speculate about why that might be.
As a starter, I should confess that I come from the naïve, earnest generation who thought that we really could make the world a better place if we voted, smiled on our brother, voted for civil rights, marched for peace, and loved one another right now. We were suspicious of IBM and Ma Bell, of oil companies and mass media (cf. ‘The Revolution Will Not be Televised’), though we watched the Watergate Hearings and the Trial of the Chicago
Eight Seven avidly. Many of us doubted that there was a way forward apart from some kind of revolution, but damned if we weren’t going to try.
As the Reagan/Thatcher era kicked into gear and brought with it swingeing deregulation, harsh cuts to social care and welfare benefits, anti-union government action, and various other favours to capital, our ’60s earnestness looked increasingly callow, and though some kept the faith in nonviolent resistance and ‘turn out the vote’ activism, many more slid into degrees of capitulation to the corporate regime; we succumbed to what Peter Sloterdijk called ‘enlightened false consciousness’, recognising the corruption attendant on participating in an economy that drove restlessly toward benefitting the wealthy and immiserating the middle class, eating away at the low end of modest prosperity, bit by bit. Enlightened false consciousness shouldn’t work — if we recognise corruption and our implication in policies against our own interest, we ought to resist and fight back — but enough of us were bought off by the promise that the face-eating leopards were going to eat other people’s faces first, and they wouldn’t get to us for a long time. Let’s call that ‘cynicism’ (not to be confused witih Sloterdijk’s ‘kynikal’ pushback).
Scroll forward past the Bush-Clinton-Blair-Clinton-Bush-Bush-Brown-Obama-Obama years to the elections of David Cameron and Donald Trump. By this point, enlightened false consciousness has become so deeply embedded in the discourses of public life that the news media treated frankly outrageous lies as ‘one side’ that had to be heard alongside ‘the other side’ (because ‘reality’ skews toward the left, and the journals — never as stalwartly liberal as liberals hoped, and far from as liberal as the right wing gleefully accused them of being). At this point, ‘cynicism’ no long functions as an accusation; it’s a survival tactic that itself works less and less well, as opiates require increasing frequency and greater dosage to provide blessed relief from the bleakness of staring into the abyss of contemporary policy ‘debates’. Scroll up to a global respiratory pandemic to which the simplest, cheapest, most effective policy entailed minimising transmission (in extreme conditions by lockdowns, in less mind-bogglingly dire circumstances by wearing a paper mask over mouth and nose). Within my lifetime, a serious political regime might have invoked the ‘moral equivalent of war’ and asked the citizenry to put up with minor discomfort as part of a society-wide effort to suppress the pandemic to the extent that its transmission and mutations were not rampant, but sporadic and perhaps seasonal. But under the conditions of enlightened false consciousness, the governments of the USA and UK (and other Western nations) trimmed their sails to the wind of the oligopolistic media’s profit-driven outrage machines.
Which brings us to the Hancock messages. At this point, cynicism is punctured, a flat tire, a placebo that used to give us a bit of pain relief but which we’ve discovered to be just another sham, another bluff. We’ve been played, and our cynicism has been turned against us by practitioners of metacynicism, the deliberate effort to live down to the lowest possible expectations of elected representatives in order to render the whole system of electoral politics moot. If all politicians are fundamentally, ipso facto, grifters, then all a pol needs to win votes is to be a more agreeable con artist than the alternatives, the ‘other sides.’ So the public face of metacycnicism splashes false equivalencies, whataboutism, both-sides journalism, and so on, while behind the scenes the jovial mountebanks LOL (literally) at the marks. Global climate catastrophe? Global pandemic of a viral infection that kills, disables, and then comes back for second and third helpings? Bogus panic about trans- ‘recruitment’/‘grooming’ that bears no relation to realities that overflow with generations of Britons revelling in pantos and broadcast cross-dressing? Government by the puppets of billionaires who rig the economy to favour them?
Better vote for the funniest puppet, so that as we cough and reel in our lifeboats, we can navigate the flooded streets of our low-lying cities with the comforting thought that at least our side is in power, and the other side would have made things much worse.
I’m disabled by earnestness. I can’t imagine what meta-metacynicism will look like, and I’m too serious to think it a relief that I may not live long enough to see its toxic fruit. I lie sleepless at night, grieving the world my grandchildren will never have the chance to see, where we actually had more than a sliver of hope that a better world was possible — assuming, of course, that the world is still habitable by the time they see what a mess the metacynics have made of it.