The Two Faces of Disenchantment

By Ryan Matthews

Ryan Matthews is currently studying an MA in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex. His areas of interest include the direction of modern society, technological progress, and climate change.


The West is afflicted by a pervasive disenchantment with our socio-political reality. This notion has entered common parlance, the point being frequently made in articles, interviews and debates. This manifests most obviously in low voter turnouts, which plummeted to a British low of 59% in 2001 and has been only slowly edging up since then. Disenchantment also manifests in the choices people make when they do vote: UKIP cashed in on anti-establishment ambivalence and achieved almost 4 million votes in the 2015 general election.


There are a number of potential causes of this phenomenon; the chasm between representative and represented, the powerlessness of the individual in mass society, and a lack of belief in capitalism’s grand narratives following the crash of 2008. However, disillusionment with the established reality can foster radically different reactions, reactions both detrimental and essential to progress.


It is important to reiterate that scepticism is not only understandable, but absolutely vital to a dynamic and healthy democracy. It is no secret that the political process functions on industrial levels of deceit, and taking political rhetoric at face value would be incredibly naive. However, we must distinguish between cynicism and critical thinking. The recent referendum on British withdrawal from the EU indicates that the former is most prevalent.


Cynicism is an inherently negative form of disillusionment, characterised by a general and pervasive mistrust of motives. As such, this outlook actually perpetuates the status quo with which it has become disillusioned, as any attempts to make positive and qualitative change are met with suspicion and hostility. Conversely, this outlook favours campaigns that run on essentially negative platforms that focus on the removal or reduction of an already existent aspect of society, be that immigration, membership of the EU or public services.


Cynicism then, acts as a barrier to the very change required to transcend the conditions that produced the cynicism in the first place. Not only does the universal mistrust of motives militate against genuine change, the disengagement it fosters discourages a thorough understanding of the challenges we face and their potential solutions. Instead, disengagement induces a susceptibility to superficial and easily digestible slogans which lends itself to the relative simplicity of the status quo.


A more healthy manifestation of disenchantment is critical thinking. Whereas cynicism is disengaged, critical thinking actively engages with a range of ideas across the political spectrum and integrates them into a dynamic framework. Whereas cynicism entails a blanket mistrust and suspicion, critical thinking evaluates the merits of political projects based on an informed opinion of the potential consequences for society. Such an outlook provides the tools to both formulate innovative ideas to tackle the problems we face and be open to such ideas when they appear in public discourse.


The challenges we face today are unprecedented. Climate change presents a genuine threat to the continued existence of human civilization, and further crises such as wealth disparity and international tensions prevent a coordinated and rigorous response. However, the potential rewards of surmounting these threats are boundless. Given the breathing space of overcoming the threat of climate change, the interaction between technological development and new political paradigms could take humanity to uncharted territory of prosperity and wellbeing. Human civilisation is at a crossroads: we will either be engulfed by these threats or emerge from them with a renewed faith in human ability to shape the universe.


In the situation we find ourselves, apathy and pessimism are intolerable. The mass disillusionment with the political establishment is a promising development; the status quo has demonstrated it lacks the capacity and versatility to deal with these challenges. However, when disillusionment takes the form of disengaged cynicism, people yearn for quick fixes and align with reactionary parties who make false promises of restoration, based on the manipulation of fear and scape-goating of aspects of society. What are required are new, innovative and positive ideas and we cannot passively rely on the establishment to achieve this in our absence. We must become engaged in the political process and propel it forward as an active and open-minded citizenry. We already possess the capacity for human emancipation, only when our society transcends dogma and fear will we be in a position to seize the limitless opportunities open to us.