For those interested in an account of the ways in which capitalism has made our lives miserable, J. D. Taylor’s Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era will not disappoint. However, the book is not simply a tirade; it aims to spur the reader to reject current conditions of work and existence in favour of a cooperative social democracy which takes more seriously our quality of life. The author points out that whilst neoliberal ideology is built on notions of the free market and the individual, it merely reinforces existing social conditions wherein only a few have access to capital. So whilst celebrating the ideals of freedom, to which each individual can presumably agree and aspire, neoliberalism is really a form of oppression. The extent of this condition is evident in the way our lives have been transformed to fit in with on-going processes demanding our attention,consequently lowering our expectations of the quality of life and also inhibiting our capacities to reflect critically and act meaningfully. Day-to-day life thus instills a cynicism which, whilst critical, is inept.
Taylor defines negative capitalism primarily by its feature of defining humans as consumers and producers. Although this view is not original, unique to his assessment is the way in which capitalism in recent times has instituted these views/definitions. The satanic mills and poor working conditions of industrialism have been superceded by a new form of oppression. In a word, our lives have become immaterial, in the senses of both no longer being in touch with existence and lacking an overarching understanding of what it means to live well. The themes of the chapters include: how the quality of life has been deteriorated by capitalism’s creation of an overly competitive environment; how the creation of debt is a means of control; how capitalism creates structures which maintain control over us by instilling increased anxiety about work performance and the provision of necessities (real and apparent); the language of neoliberalism and its reliance on a confusion of fear and freedom; why false cynicism has resulted in apathy; and the ways in which we have become dislocated from a sense of civil participation and engagement and relocated in controversies of moral coarseness, evident mostly in our enthrallment by popular media. The book thus appears as a diagnosis of what has gone awry in order to provoke us to use this awareness for meaningful action. Indeed, the author’s proposed remedy of a cooperative social democracy is predicated on knowledge and speech, mere shadows of which exist in the current neoliberal era.
The author is clearly well read, especially in current trends in Modern European philosophy and literature. And readers looking for a political overview of what such sources contribute to our understanding of the current socio-political situation will find this book interesting. It is, however, difficult to grasp who the intended audience might be as the book draws heavily on difficult language and concepts that the author fails to clarify sufficiently. Some knowledge of Modern European philosophy is assumed; and yet, the book is not academic in its argument, relying heavily as it does on assertive claims loosely connected to empirical evidence. In this regard, the non-specialist may find him/herself overwhelmed by technical and obscure terminology, whilst the specialist may find him/herself wanting more substance and explanation of the interconnection between recent events and philosophical ideas.