The Rule of Cynicism

In the age of cynical reason, one of the ruling tropes is the presumed self-interest and sovereign indifference of institutions. A certain vulgar version of Foucault is the default assumption: institutions exist to reproduce themselves and their authority, and they do so by generating the very problems and conflicts that they propose to solve.

Ironically, this trope still passes for radicalism and/or critical insight among many on the Left. Less noticed is the fact that institutional authority has long been in crisis, its validity claims no longer circulating or taken as anything other than instrumental. So the Foucaultian trope is a vehicle for its inverse: when we deride institutions as self-serving, we are not really seeking escape from them but precisely the authentication of their transparently ersatz authority. And this secret desire is what binds us to the institutions we abjure, empowering them to do what we know perfectly well they are doing.

So the trope of cynicism mediates a utopian aspiration, and the mundane crisis of authority is precisely the vehicle of institutional reproduction. A Catch-22. What’s the solution? Perhaps we need to admit that we need institutions, that they are not merely an obstacle to our utopian aspiration but the only path toward it. Perhaps we should take seriously Mark Twain’s advice: “Put all your eggs in one basket—and then watch that basket.”

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