A story is told of Diogenes, probably the best known of the ancient greek cynics: It is said that one day, as he was sunning himself in the bathtub he called home, Alexander the “great” came to speak with him. This emperor of many nations said, “ I am Alexander, prince of Macedonia and the world. I have heard you are a great philosopher. Do you have any words of wisdom for me?” Annoyed at such a petty disturbance of his calm, Diogenes answered, “Yes, you’re standing in my sun. Get out of the way.” Though this story is most likely fictional, it reflects the scorn in which cynics held all authority and their boldness in expressing this scorn. These self-proclaimed “dogs” (wild dogs, of course) rejected hierarchy, social restraints and the alleged need for laws and greeted these with sarcastic mockery.
How utterly different this ancient cynicism was from what now goes by that name. Several years ago, a radical group in England called the Pleasure Tendency published a pamphlet entitled “Theses Against Cynicism”. In this pamphlet, they criticize an attitude of hip detachment, of shallow, sarcastic despair — and particularly the penetration of this attitude into anti-authoritarian and revolutionary circles.
The proponents of this present-day “cynicism” are everywhere. The hip, sarcastic comedy of Saturday Night Live or the Comedy Channel presents no real challenge to the ruling powers. In fact, this smirking know-it-all-ism is the yuppie attitude par excellence. It has nothing to do with a real understanding of what’s going on, but is rather a justification for conformity. “Yes, we know what the politicians and corporate executives are up to. We know it’s all a dirty game. But there’s nothing we can do about it, so we’re gonna get our piece of the action”. There’s nothing we can do about it — that is the message of this modern cynicism — not disdain for authority, but disdain for those who still dare to challenge it rather than joining in its game with a knowing smirk.
This attitude has entered the circles of so-called revolutionaries and anarchists through the back-door of post-modern philosophy in which ironic hyper-conformity is presented as a viable revolutionary strategy. With a straight face (or just the trace of a smirk), the most radical of the post-modern philosophers tell us that we need only push the logic of capitalism to its own “schizophrenic” extreme and it will break down on its own. For these present-day “radical” cynics, attempts to attack and destroy this society are foolish and ineffective, and attempts to create one’s own life in opposition to this society is attachment to an out-dated individualism. Of course, these mostly french philosophers are rarely read. Like mainstream “cynicism”, post-modern “cynicism” needs it hip popularizers — and they certainly have appeared. Sarcastically tearing down every significant insurgent idea or activity of the past century while promoting pathetic liberal eclecticism and ridiculous art or mystical movements as “revolutionary” or “iconoclastic”, these alternative yuppies — who often claim to reject individuality — mainly just to promote themselves and their own pathetic projects. One needs only to notice Steward Home’s Mona Lisa smirk to realize he is just Jay Leno with a shaved head and a pair of Docs.
Perhaps the worst effect of the post-modern penetration into anarchist circles is its reinforcement of a tendency to reject theory. any attempts to understand society in its totality in order to fight it more effectively are either called dogmatic or are seen as proof that those who make such attempts are hopelessly naive with no understanding of the complexity of “post-modern” post-industrial society. Of course, the “understanding” these oh-so-wise(-ass) anti-theorists have is simply their faith in the impossibility of analysis, a faith which allows them to continue their ritual of piecemeal activism which has long since proven ineffective for anything other than occasionally pushing the social system into making changes necessary for its own continued reproduction. Those who continue to make insurgent theory are accused by the self-proclaimed activists of sitting in ivory towers, regardless of how much this insurgence is put into practice.
When one considers the original Greek cynics, one is averse to using the same term for their modern namesakes. Yet the present-day “cynics” are much more like the dogs we are familiar with — pathetic, dependent, domesticated pets. Like well-trained puppies, they rarely make it past the front yard gate before they run back cowering to the safety of their master’s house; then they learn to bark and snarl at the wild dogs who dare to live outside the fence and, in exchange for a milk-bone, lick the hands that keep them on the leash. I would rather be among the wild dogs howling out my scorn for every master, prepared to bite any hand that tries to tame. I reject the sarcastic despair that passes as cynicism today, in order to grasp as a weapon the untamed cynicism which dares to tell authority, “You’re standing in my sun. Get out of the way!”