Compulsively Cynical? Conservative Ideologues Got You Right Where They Want You

Who really benefits from the pervasive belief in humanity’s inescapable brutality and a perceived hopelessness in escaping historical and evolutionary norms?

Cynicism is a hell of a drug. No matter how far it drags you down it makes you want more, more, more! It keeps you chasing that dragon of a feeling you first had the first time you realized, “I am pretty sure all of this isn’t even remotely close to any version of the best possible world.” That first hit of cynicism lights a fire. It triggers an existential fight or flight instinct that helps to imprint our attitudes and influences our paths forward. But the terrible truth is that it will never feel that way again, and each time you use cynicism compulsively it drags you that much further into a seemingly inescapable abyss of beliefs.

To make matters more difficult, by some heinous semiotic jiggery pokery we have somehow culturally equivocated cynicism with intelligence, providing social reward stimuli for pissing in our own future scenario Cheerios. It is no wonder that within this echo chamber of doomsaying we are seeing the pressures pouring out as bullets in public places. If there is to be a reversal of this curse, it will begin with an abandonment of cynicism that is replaced by narratives that give us something to believe in.

The status quo doesn’t want you to have hope or faith. They profit from you having fear and hate. And the oligarchs trying desperately to keep the status quo in place despite the technological and ideological innovations that have made their ways obsolete. Their lockjaw grip on power and profits makes mainstream political distinctions among them meaningless, a mere sideshow distraction they use to keep us dependent and hopeless. Cynicism is inevitably a conservative ideological tool of social conditioning.

“Pessimism is a kind of surrender to existing circumstance. You don’t think things are going to get better, and you become resigned to a bleak future. Generally the pessimist has very limited confidence that human beings can do much to alter their existing condition.

Conservatism is often pessimistic, if not necessarily about “the future” as a whole, then definitely about humankind’s capacity for self-improvement. Whether it’s Thomas Hobbes talking about the nastiness and brutishness of human nature, Thomas Sowell on the “constrained” vision that sees people as fundamentally self-interested, or Michael Oakeshott talking about the conservative preference for the “familiar” over the “unfamiliar,” conservative philosophy often runs something like this: We are flawed creatures kept from descending into barbarism through the institutions we have built, in particular Western Capitalist Democracy and the Rule Of Law. These institutions are fragile and precious, tinkering with them leads to catastrophe, and the best course we can generally take is to preserve what we have rather than try for anything radically different. Attempts to significantly change the existing order of things are doomed to either fail or make things worse, because they are based on an irrational confidence that human perfectibility is infinite. (That confidence is what Sowell calls the “unconstrained” vision of human nature.)

Albert O. Hirschman pointed out that conservative rhetoric almost always dwells on the “futility” or “jeopardy” that will come with some proposed social change, i.e., the change either won’t work or it will be actively harmful. (Hirschman also cites “perversity,” the idea that a proposed change runs contrary to the Moral Order, as a conservative trope, but that is somewhat different because it isn’t an empirical prediction.) What futility and jeopardy have in common is that they countenance keeping things as they are, and they tell people that they cannot hope for a much better world than the one they have. As practiced, then, conservatism is not just about conserving traditions, but about opposing changes. (To use a New Orleans music analogy, conservatism is Wynton Marsalis rather than the Rebirth Brass Band. Marsalis thinks jazz should be played in the traditional way, and thinks experimental developments in the genre make it worse. He sees more recent black musical forms like hip hop as literally worse than monuments to white supremacy. The Rebirth Brass Band, on the other hand, takes traditional New Orleans brass music with funk, rap, and R&B. It conserves and evolves at the same time.)

In saying that conservatism is a philosophy of pessimism about change, I am being more generous to it than many on the left. I am taking conservatives at their word. Corey Robin, in The Reactionary Mind, has a more cynical view, seeing conservatism as essentially a justification of existing power structures. The ideas are jury-rigged to defend present-day hierarchies, rather than resulting from an honest examination of the world. Slavemasters used to come up with intellectual reasons why slavery was necessary, then Jim Crow politicians insisted Jim Crow was necessary, now Charles Murray insists black social inferiority is necessary. To be honest, I share a lot of this cynicism, because the empirical claims made by conservatives about human nature can’t actually be justified. There is no proof to support Thomas Sowell’s “tragic vision” of human beings, which says that their “moral sentiments” overlie a “deep bedrock of selfishness” and we “would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it.” In fact, while we know human beings can be both selfish and altruistic, and that the fact we are biological creatures means we do have some sort of outer limits on our potential, we cannot draw any possible conclusions about how cooperative we could be under the right conditions. Civilization is very, very young and we have only just begun the process of figuring out how to live together well.”