It’s been a busy few weeks for me. Aside from having to finish writing the first chapter of my PhD thesis, submit, take feedback, correct, resubmit, get more feedback, and begin to plan the next chapter, two other pretty amazing things have happened. One is the Deleuze & Guattari Quarantine Collective, which I’ve been privileged to do what I can to contribute to. It’s a discussion group organised on Discord dedicated to deinstitutionalising knowledge and to group, collaborative learning about the work of Gilles Deleuze and Fèlix Guattari. At the moment we’re reading slowly, patiently, and methodically through their masterpiece Anti-Oedipus. It’s a difficult text, but by drawing on the multiplicity of backgrounds, experience and insights of the members involved in the group, it’s proving to be an extremely fulfilling project. This evening we’re going to be focusing on Chapter 2 Section 4, The Disjunctive Synthesis of Recording, with a view to understanding what’s going on here and how it fits into the bigger picture of Deleuze and Guattari’s project. Fingers crossed, we should also have the excellent Taylor Adkins joining us to help build up that bigger picture as well as perhaps to say a bit about Gilbert Simondon’s influence on Deleuze. Taylor is currently finishing up one of the first (perhaps the first) major English translation of Simondon’s work, so it could be really fascinating. I’m going to include a public invite to the Discord server here, but if it expires then you can always hit me up on Twitter for a new invite. All of our discussions are recorded and placed on Soundcloud so that anyone can jump in or catch up. Here’s the last one:
The other project which has emerged is an off-shoot of the Deleuze & Guattari reading group: Acid Horizon Podcast. It’s a slightly different space for a few of us to discuss in a slightly more streamlined way a range of different texts of critical theory which may have more or less no bearing on Deleuze and Guattari, but always to keep things accessible and to relate theory back to praxis. The idea is to create a space for different kinds of discussions and content to emerge. For now we’re committing to five initial episodes, the first of which (an introduction) has been recorded and published; the following four will be explorations of four respective texts, picked by us. I’ve gone with the chapter “Postmodernization, or The Informatization of Production” from Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s masterpiece Empire. You can listen to the first episode below, or support us over on Patreon if you want to hear more interesting discussions of important or lesser-known theory.
This is all pretty exciting. I only hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew!
I’ve always found Sartre a better writer (novelist, playwright, and so on) than a philosopher. Certainly, Being and Nothingness is an impressive work – an intelligent, thorough, analytic tome inquiring into the roots and nature of human subjectivity. And yet this text, at least, is a mixed bag for me. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to return to this text for the first time in God knows how many years and to read it afresh. But I did, and I wanted to collect some thoughts I had reading through it. I came away with quite a mixed impression. Let’s start with some of the negatives. At times, it’s almost sloppy: For example, with one hand he rejects Kant’s moral framework for its abstract and universal nature. It cannot, as Sartre says, provide us with any reliable answers in concrete moral situations because moral situations are always unique in their specificity. Granted.
Then, with the other hand, he smuggles back in Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative as the underlying axiom of free human acts. “When I affirm that freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.” (p. 48) For Sartre, one should always ask oneself, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” (p. 25) Kant returns to take vengeance upon Sartre! Sartre also vascillates wildly on the question of whether and how we might evaluate or form a judgement about how an individual seeks to act; is it a moral judgement, an aesthetic criticism, a logical indictment? The second one is perhaps the most interesting, but I’ll say a bit more about that below.
That said, there are many moments of brilliance. There is no doubting his skill as a writer, and his discussions of the constitutive conditions of anguish and abandonment are powerful and precise. He is at his best when he draws equally on Heidegger and Nietzsche; and yet at the decisive moment he always recoils from both. Pushed to the stage where it seems as if he is about to contruct a radical existentialism around human freedom and a Nietzschian ‘aesthetic’ life (there is much to be said about what such a project might look like), he pulls back and rejects such a project as a slight against Existentialism.
I think more broadly, my concern with Existentialism – at least in the form presented here by Sartre – is the radical freedom he attributes to the human subject. Sartre writes that when an existentialist describes a coward, “he says that the coward is responsible for his own cowardice. He is not the way he is because he has a cowardly heart, lung, or brain. He is not like that as a result of his physiological makeup; he is like that because he has made himself a coward through his actions.” (p. 38) Powerful stuff, and I certainly grant Sartre that he decisively defeats the objection that Existentialism is pessimistic and powerfully demonstrates its quite radical optimism towards the subject.
Yet he seems to nevertheless overstate the case. We needn’t posit a ‘hard determinism’ on the basis of physical causality, genetic determinism etc. in order to ask difficult questions about whether man is really so free. We might, as Foucault does, inquire into the social and historical conditions which give rise to determinate social configurations and subjectivities – why do we believe x rather than y? What historical forces gave rise to contemporary images of thought? How does discourse and power inform and produce subjects under determinate conditions? Heidegger (whose work of course exercised a profound influence over Sartre) attends to these questions in detail – man is not just thrust into existence, he is always-already thrown into an existing historical situation, plunged into a web of social relations which existed and developed before his birth and will continue long after he dies. Part of our becoming-human is learning to navigate these forces. For Heidegger, we cannot choose just anything; if I am born in Paris in 1789, I cannot choose to become a Feudal lord or an astronaut. I have choice, yes, but it is always historically and socially conditioned. For Deleuze, the possibilities for how an infant brain might develop through its lifetime are not infinite, but neither are they pre-determined; they exist in a virtual field of difference, always carried forward into the future in an endless and complex process of becoming.
I’ve also never entirely accepted that Heidegger’s Being and Time is truly the anti-humanistic work that Heidegger later labelled it. In Heidegger’s discussions of anxiety, of care, embodied existence, thrown-ness, Being-towards-death, Dasein’s temporality, and so on, I think it is impossible not to discern elements of a humanistic philosophy, at least insofar as it is an attempt to provide account of the nature of Being through the lens of Dasein. Maybe this is one reason why Heidegger never finished writing the book – examining it in this way was bound to lead to such results. Sartre instead seems to reproduce the Subject-Object distinction (inevitably given his starting-point is the Cartesian subject) in almost violent terms; so radically does he resist the world of objects that he has to radically free the subject from all causal forces.
Something of the complexity of the varied forces which simultaneously structure, enable, and limit our freedom gets lost in Sartre’s thought. A fascinating debate between Sartre and Pierre Naville is documented as an appendix in the book and it is a fascinating read. Naville seems to really pin down Sartre for the way in which his account of subjectivity and radical freedom seems to return to a kind of bourgeois pre-modern liberal idealism. And yet… And yet. If Existentialism continues to exert such a profound influence over not just academic but the public imagination, it is because it touches on matters which deeply concern all of us. As Heidegger said, we are defined by care; we necessarily take an interest in how things are with Being. If you like, we are all plagued by huge, profoundly important questions: What kind of being am I? Am I free? Is there a God? I am, but how should I be? Moreover, in the absence of a God, we should ask Deleuze’s question: not ‘How should I live?’ but ‘How might one live?’ What rich and diverse possibilities exist to be experienced?
Contemporary analytic philosophy not only cannot answer such questions; it not only has no interest in answering them; it broadly says that such questions are meaningless. At best, they are questions which arise out of linguistic confusion: meaning, after all, is a predicate of a proposition; a life is not a proposition in the formal sense; so to ask after a ‘meaning’ of life is a mistaken endeavour right from the start. And where it does take the question to at least be a meaningful and valid question, all of the humanity and complexity of life inevitably gets lost in the pursuit of analytic rigour. Questions of meaning and purpose are reduced to answers to concrete questions: the conditions for a meaningful life are either subjective, objective, or a hybrid of the two. As always, all the life of philosophy is drained away in such an endeavour.
Existentialism is right to bring such questions to the fore, and in many ways it truly does capture in a stark light what is so tragic and beautiful about ‘the human conditon’. A wonderful writer and a profound thinker, Sartre is still worth reading and taking seriously, even though I think he was often mistaken. But, where he was mistaken, it was at least for the right reasons. Ultimately it mostly makes me want to plunge back into his plays and novels, and to return again to Being and Time.
Existentialism is a Humanism (2007: Yale University Press)
Now seems like as good a time as any to collate some of my overall thoughts on the enormous political developments of the last month. I want to talk about the political implications of COVID-19 in the context of British politics today as well as the direction of the Labour Party and the future of socialism in Britain. What follows are really just a collection of interrelated thoughts I wanted to put down in writing rather than keep them jumbled up in my head.
Giorgio Agamben has embroiled himself in no small degree of controversy for his article on the Coronavirus. Some of the backlash has been well-deserved, in particular for the way he entirely misunderstands the intersubjective elements of this pandemic. Agamben writes:
Other human beings, as in the plague described in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel, are now seen solely as possible spreaders of the plague whom one must avoid at all costs and from whom one needs to keep oneself at a distance of at least a meter.
This is an uncharacteristically poor analysis by Agamben. What the public’s response to Coronavirus has demonstrated more than anything is that Capitalism really has failed to totally stamp out any sense of community, mutual aid and solidarity between us all. The distance most of us are keeping from each other is by and large not for our own safety (many of us are unlikely to die even if we do contract it), but for the safety of others, of the loved ones we know and the strangers we don’t. Thousands of brave members of the public have volunteered to assist the NHS in coping with the Coronavirus pandemic, risking their own lives for the common good. People who may not have even known each other before, despite living in relatively close proximity, are now running errands for each other, delivering vital supplies to the particularly vulnerable unable to risk leaving their homes. I will talk more about this below.
But Agamben does get a few important points right, and I think it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Agamben is absolutely correct to draw our attention to the potential dangers hidden within the response of many western governments. We must remember with Foucault that “not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad.” Agamben’s work draws on two major influences: Foucault and Carl Schmitt, reworking them in profound and novel ways, and one of the lessons he draws from Schmitt is that every liberal democracy retains the ever-present possibility of dictatorship. For Schmitt, it is a priori impossible to legislate in advance for the arrival of a state of emergency (such as the Coronavirus), precisely because it is part-and-parcel of a state of emergency that it cannot be properly planned, prepared for or foreseen. The result is that there is always the possibility of an invocation of a state of emergency, in which the normal constitutional rules are suspended in the name of defending the existence of the state and the people over whom it exercises its power. Drawing on Foucault’s notion of Biopolitics, Agamben has long been interested in this character of liberalism, its bio-management of the health and security of populations and the way in which states of exception are invoked and maintained, particularly in his superb analysis of the United States government post-9/11.
Agamben is correct to point out that we must be very cautious about the extent to which we are authorising an unprecedented extension of the power of the state. One of Agamben’s central preccoupations in his historical analysis is the extent to which a government can invoke a perpetual state of emergency (9/11 leading to the ‘war on terror’, etc.) in order to legitimise a permanent state of emergency, where the state of emergency becomes the new norm. And one point he draws our attention to is that Coronavirus is dangerous in this regard precisely because it is not only invisible but in, between, and among us. It is interior. And it is therefore all the more easy for a government to invoke its absent presence, its future return, as a basis for suspending the normal order. Agamben is quite badly wrong in much of what he says, particularly the severity of the danger posed by Coronavirus, but in this he is astute.
There has been a lot written recently about Capitalist Realism, and to this I want to add only a few thoughts of my own. Matt over at Xenogothic, as usual, has provided some excellent analysis recently. We can start with perhaps two questions: What does this all mean for British politics, and for global capitalism more broadly? And by way of responding to my own question with a non-answer, I think it is probably too early to tell, and I think history shows, thinking back to the 2008 financial crash and Occupy Wall Street, how resilient and malleable capitalism really is. This is of course not a new realisation, it was in fact one of Marx’s central pieces of analysis and one of the characteristics he both despised and admired in capitalism. We find much the same in Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis. I think that proclaiming the death of capitalism is therefore premature. But I think a bit more than this can be said at this time.
The first is that in this moment, more than any other, we must hold close to the understanding that history is constituted by a series of open (virtual) possibilities. No serious leftist thinker has held to a teleological model of history, and in fact neither did Marx himself as any reader should be aware. We must not therefore conclude that this global health crisis (which as soon as it subsides will dovetail into a perhaps even more severe economic crisis) heralds the death either of capitalism or even of merely its contemporary neoliberal form. I suspect that what we are soon approaching is a once-in-a-generation moment – a genuinely open possibility – about the future of our species.
It is quite possible that the almost unprecedented levels of government intervention and spending mobilised in response to this global crisis will act as a stark moment of realisation for the west, shaking off the mental shackles imposed upon us by neoliberal hegemony which tell us not only that the government shouldn’t intervene in the economy (because it will invariably make things worse), but that it can’t, that the money and resources simply are not there. It turns out that Britain does not have to accept that there must be rising millions of homeless on our streets. Within a matter of days, we managed to find temporary housing for pretty much every homeless person in the country. It can be done. The resources are there. What is needed is the political will to commit to it. And it has also served as a wake-up call to those who have been blind to the deterioration of our National Health Service and social security infrastructure; now, those who always thought of themselves as ‘above it’, are forced to rely on a system which they either consciously or unconsciously voted to shred. We might, finally, begin to have debates about Universal Basic Income, for example, as well as the state of social housing and social care. We might.
But is is just as possible, as the health crisis subsides and the economic crisis deepens, that an even fiercer austerity mindset might return as the hegemonic ideology of our times, right at the moment at which it has begun to be most resoundingly challenged. “We spent everything we had during the emergecy, and we were right to; but now we all have to tighten our belts and get on with paying back the debt in case we need to do so again” might be the kind of thing we hear with increasing frequency. We simply don’t know which way it could go at this point. It could genuinely represent a clean break with neoliberalism, and I hope that it does, but we must remember that this is not fixed in stone. If we want to make use of this moment in order to effect far more radical change, we will have to work for it.
Even a response like the above opens opportunities for the left. Where should the money come from to pay down the debts, and how should it be raised? Should we not recognise that a consistent model of funding better prepares us for future crises in the future, and better recognises the dignity and value of the workers consistently underpaid in our health and social services? How should our welfare system operate in the future in order to better deal with not just crises like this but also the technological revolution of automation and deep AI? Put simplistically: The left needs to be the clever party here. We need to develop and articulate a coherent and comprehensible model of the future and win the argument that we are best placed to make it work for the many, not the few.
The important thing to bear in mind that what might well end up happening is simply swapping out one form of capitalism for another. And, as has been pointed out recently, there is a difference between your politics becoming hegemonic and your ideas becoming hegemonised by the dominant power. The two are very different. The latter is the true risk right now: That policy proposals from the left as part of a broader vision of overthrowing capitalism are recuperated by the right in order to stabilise and shore up support for capitalism. And we are seeing it here in Britain under the Boris Johnson government – ideas proposed by the left are being adopted by the government both as a response to the virus and on their own merit, but we should not conclude that this is a victory for the left. What it really represents is a disarming of the left in the service of an ever-malleable global capitalism. If capitalism needs to expand its welfare state or institute basic incomes in order to survive, it will do. None of this threatens its fundamentals. That makes this time, in a political context, particularly difficult and dangerous for the left. The risk is that the radical democratic socialist movement ends up being entirely hegemonised by a pragmatic and ‘loose’ right.
I wanted to finish up by offering some initial thoughts on the early direction of the Labour Party here in Britain. The truth of the matter is that I’ve long been deeply pessimistic about our future. My first political memory was of watching David Cameron and Nick Clegg walk into Downing Street. I joined the Labour Party a few months before the general election of 2015 when Ed Miliband was leader, and in the last month of the election genuinely came to believe that he could change things for the better, despite his earlier hesitancy and half-measures. We suffered an awful defeat. I voted, hesitantly, for Remain in the 2016 referendum; I have no real love for the European Union, but in my view for Leave to win at that moment would be a victory for the far-right and permanently damage our country. We lost that one too. In 2017, we came within a hair’s breadth of defeating the Conservatives, but ultimately lost. In 2019 we suffered the worst electoral defeat of my lifetime. It felt like being punched in the stomach.
And with every year which passes with Labour in opposition, the climate crisis worsens. We are now staring down the barrel of another five years of an emboldened Conservative government with no interest in pursuing radical changes to tackle climate change. This is the central political issue of our time because it fundamentally threatens the future of humanity. So despite my personal politics which would ideally go far beyond what Corbyn was proposing, I’ve been mulling over Starmer’s new leadership and where the direction the party might go next. And frankly, at this stage, I think if we can elect a progressive social democratic party with a very strong climate change plan at the centre of its political vision, with a leader who is very happy to work with socialists and to implement socialist policies in the right circumstances, I can live with that for now. I’m relatively optimistic about Starmer’s early moves: he’s appointed a mixture of highly intelligent and qualified democratic socialists and social democrats to the front bench, begun to put an end to the antisemitism crisis and professionalise the party’s operation.
But tackling climate change must be central to any policy platform in the future. We cannot back down from the policies elaborated in Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution and the left must keep the pressure on him not to renege on his commitments. Such a revolution must fundamentally challenge the assumptions and logic which underpin our capitalist system – production for profit; endless surpluses; economic instability compounded and intensified by regular internal and external crises, and so on. Nothing about what governments across the west are enacting right now fundamentally challenges capitalism. The left needs to give up its idea of capitalism’s fragility or its fixed form. What is specific about capitalism its capacity to endlessly reform itself in the face of radical critique. It is almost as if radical critique finds articulation, capitalism has ‘precuperated’ such a critique. Here Debord was perhaps not pessimistic enough: The left finds itself continually disarmed in the face of such a system almost before the critique has even been articulated. Thus Laclau’s system of articulating irreconcilable demands by a populist left appears implausible, relying as it does on the notion that a sufficient array of demands cannot be met by the dominant hegemonic force. If we have learned anything from studying the history of the last two centuries, it is that no such array of demands has yet been articulated. Perhaps that may be yet to come.
Coronavirus, global capitalism and climate change are interlinked processes forming multiple resonance machines accelerating each on further. Every major pandemic of the last few decades has its origins in animal exploitation. Animal exploitation is one of the key drivers of climate change, and the logic which underpins the exploitation of non-human animals is the same logic which underpins our exploitation of the environment and of various human groups as well. Any radical politics has to understand and confront these interlinked processes. We can now see just how fragile the global economy is to the violent emergence of any external destabilising forces, even those which were birthed by global capitalism itself. What might emerge from this chaos is difficult to discern but if the left wants a future beyond capitalism it will have to fight for it; that means engaging electorally and outside the usual institutional democratic processes. Neither in themselves are enough, but we cannot do without either.
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending and presenting a paper at a conference at the University of Huddersfield on Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism in order to discuss its ongoing relevance 10 years after its publication. It was a great experience, and the first time I’ve attended or presented at a conference, so a little nerve-wracking. As luck would have it, I developed an ear infection three days prior to the conference meaning I could not hear out of my left ear, but I went ahead anyway. Hopefully I didn’t embarrass myself too much! Here’s the abstract for my paper:
Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism provokes us to think more deeply about our relationship to the past, the slow cancellation of the future, the possibility of post-capitalism, and the ways in which ideas of nostalgia and authenticity manufacture consent for the prevailing image of thought. Capitalist Realism is the slow cancellation of the future: both the past and the future are simultaneously dead and alive; they persist, and haunt our present at every moment. My paper starts with some remarks on cultural phenomena such as vaporwave and progressive rock, as well as the relation between history, authenticity, and ’new tourism’, before using the aporia represented by the book’s conclusion as a point of departure for thinking about desire and post-capitalism, history and ideology. This will also draw on Fisher’s other work, particularly Terminator vs Avatar and Post-Capitalist Desire, as well as work by Nietzsche, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Heidegger, and the Frankfurt School. The central tension which Fisher recognises is the same as for Deleuze and Guattari: between ‘resistance’ to the prevailing forces of global capitalism and a return to a Fordist labour society, and the possibility of a vision of society after Capitalism which is increasingly ‘precuperated’ by Capitalism itself. How do we square Fisher’s call for a more libidinally-free society and a ‘designer socialism’ with a seemingly infinitely plastic system which can very well incorporate all such demands? Can we imagine a future which does not resemble the present?
Thankfully all the attendees were incredible – great people and I learned a lot. Of particular interest to me were Jorge Boehringer’s “The Enormous Festival and its Discontents”, Peter Conlin’s “Atmospheres of infrastructure and the infrastructure of atmosphere: Eerie sites and the political imagination”, and Pedro Alvarez’s “A Revolution to Dance to: The cultural dimension of the 2019 anti-neoliberal revolts in Latin America” which provided a much-needed global corrective to the anglocentrism of Capitalist Realism. It was also a pleasure to hear Matt Colquhoun (Xenogothic) speak about his book “Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy and Mark Fisher” and to have the chance to pick his brains on a number of different topics during smoke breaks and during a ‘long table’ discussion.
At some point I may turn what I wrote/presented into a post on here, though it draws on ideas I’ve explored here previously, so I worry it might be a little redundant.
I’m also in the process of writing the first chapter of my PhD thesis (or the first draft of the first chapter). The basic problematic is the work of William E. Connolly (for whom I have enormous respect and admiration), and in particular the way in which he uses Deleuze, Foucault, and Nietzsche in developing a theory of radical democratic pluralism. At this stage three questions animate the project: What does he do with these thinkers? How does he smooth over their radicalism? And what can be done to recover the radicalism of these thinkers while preserving the many important ideas developed in Connolly’s own writing? The hope is to eventually provoke a more genuinely ‘radical’ democratic theory by performing a sort of deconstructive reading, reading against the grain of his texts. This means connecting up certain ideas in New Materialist ontology with ideology/noology, and a generally left reading of Deleuze. That’s the gist of it for now anyway.
This evening I read through Capitalist Realism again and it’s still as brilliant as on my first read, and I just wanted to jot down some off-the-cuff thoughts about it. The text deftly navigates and stitches together a wide range of topics and ideas, which is one of its many merits. One of the early issues it raises, and one which I think remains incredibly important ten years on, is on the material substance of ideology and Capitalism’s overvaluation of belief. Irony or cynicism do not in any way undermine Capitalism; indeed, distancing oneself in this way allows for its smooth functioning. Capitalism doesn’t need you to ‘believe in it’ subjectively, just that your actions continue to demonstrate your belief objectively.
“The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” (pp. 12-13) I think this is definitely one of the most interesting upshots of a fundamentally Althusserian approach to ideology and its materiality. While ideology certainly operates on the symbolic and unconscious levels (though not merely as ‘false consciousness’), it also functions on the material level of our practices, rituals and habits. Irony and cynicism as a mode of ideological disavowal are definitely something I’d like to explore more in the future, here and elsewhere.
The musical genre of Vaporwave, for example, appears to represent a critique of nostalgia and commericalism under Late Capitalism; by raising to the level of consciousness and confronting us with our obsession with nostalgia (itself a result of Capitalism’s inability to deliver the future) and the ‘cancellation of the future’, it seems to represent a sort of immanent critique of that very nostalgia. But Capitalist Realism is not remotely threatened by such moves: whether you’re purchasing the music, or whether you’re only listening to it ‘ironically’ doesn’t matter. Critiquing Capitalism’s commodification of nostalgia by… commodifying nostalgia (‘ironically’) doesn’t remotely threaten the dominance of Capitalist Realism.
The conclusion of the book represents a kind of aporia in Fisher’s elaboration of Capitalist Realism, and I think it’s interesting in and of itself. The theoretical and political impasse both described in Capitalist Realism (between old forms of ‘resistance’ to Capitalism and the embracing of the ‘precuperated’ new), and demonstrated in the ambivalence of its own conclusions, is one of the reasons I’ve recently become so interested in Deleuze & Guattari, particularly de- and reterritorialization as intrinsic to Capitalism’s development, as well as so-called ‘accelerationist’ philosophy and its concern for the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the ‘new’. It isn’t desirable to return to Fordist Capitalism, and it’s not enough to simply hope to hold back the tide and maintain the current order; so where does that leave us in envisioning a new, better society, when Capitalism has not only already prefigured so much of our cultural ideas of what it looks like but is fully capable of pre-emptively incorporating and recuperating such ideas almost prior to their articulation? Fisher appeared unsure himself, hence the aporia; torn between the pessimistic finality of his own analysis and the practical necessity of pressing onwards with hope in the properly Messianic sense.
One of the earliest points in the book has stuck with me ever since I first read it: “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.” This obviously relates to ironic/cynical disavowal, but it also points to our cultural and subjective relation to history and historicality as such. I would tentatively suggest that in many ways, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘The end of history’ with the triumph of Neoliberalism was in many ways a supremely perceptive diagnosis. ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.’ It seems inherently incongruous to quote Heidegger in a post about critical theory, but here he appears to anticipate Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation:
“…when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Being of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for? — where to? — and what then?”
Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics
Consider how Fisher accurately captures one of the most important aspects of the utter meaninglessness of Late Capitalist life in his notion of ‘depressive hedonia’, characterised precisely by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that something is missing, but in Fisher’s words, “no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.” (p. 21) Late Capitalism not only represents the collapse of beliefs at the symbolic level, it represents a total flattening out of reason itself (best captured by Horkheimer in Eclipse of Reason) and with it the impossibility of conceiving of happiness on any register but the hedonic. In such a situation, what else could there be except the means-ends, Utility-maximising rationality of Homo Economicus? No wonder the proliferation of mental illness Fisher so powerfully examines in this book.
One of the less obvious areas this relates to, but one which I think speaks to these broader issues, is tourism as one of the central modes of experiencing both ‘the other’ and the past; what better description for tourism in the 21st century than “the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics”? History as an artifact, the ruin as a hyperreal simulacra, and tourism as the ideological search for the authentic: ‘I’m not like the other tourists, I’m searching for the ‘real’ Tibet’ as an example of the search for ‘authenticity’ as the ideological mystification par excellence. Authenticity is a PR tactic, and as long as you believe it’s out there somewhere there’s always going to be ways selling it to you.
And, of course, on the level of the culture industry, so much of our western cultural notions of authenticity are already intimitately bound up with nostalgia; what else is the ‘Rockist’ obsession with ‘retro’ rock bands if not a pining for the past, for the authenticity that supposedly once existed, now placed out of reach by rampant commodification? What clearer contemporary example of the utter vacuousness and superficiality of the music industry today than that simulacra called Greta Van Fleet?
A final point: One of the central phenomena Capitalist Realism attempts to capture as a concept is the widespread feeling that there is no realistic alternative to Capitalism. But there’s a certain problematic ambivalence in the concept depending on how we are supposed to read it: In one light, it doesn’t seem to add much to the more developed theories of Ideology and therefore appears redundant; and if it’s got a kind of descriptive sociological character (‘we just can’t, as a society, imagine a non-capitalist future’) then it seems to have been fairly quickly falsified in the last 5 years by the emergence of an organised Socialist mass movement in Britain (though the extent to which this really represents a break with Capitalist logic is questionable.) While much of the rest of the analysis can stand by itself, I’m unsure how to evaluate the central concept after which the book itself is named. Perhaps it is to be best understood as a more detailed elaboration on the specific form of ideology under late capitalism.
Out of all the many authors whose books and papers I have read, Mark Fisher’s have long held a place close to my heart. His book Capitalist Realism has had a profound effect on the way I see the world, and I’m certainly not alone in that. However, in this post I want to use this post to draw attention to a piece he wrote called ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ and to draw a few comparisons with other pieces of literature I’ve been interested in recently in order to make a few general points about where the left currently stands in 2019.
Fisher’s argument is this: That one of the central challenges for the left is to disarticulate desire from Capitalism. Fisher arrives at this point in a roundabout way, but particularly through an engagement with the work of Nick Land. He correctly points out that much of the left occupies an ambivalent position towards technology and the mass production of consumer goods – but it is precisely this which allows those on the right to make the (of course ridiculous) argument that it’s hypocritical for the left to enjoy using smartphones when Capitalism created them, characterising the left as either Primitivist or hypocritical. He draws on Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus to argue that “As desiring creatures, we ourselves are that which disrupts organic equilibrium.” Desire is a pandora’s box which cannot be shut.
This is precisely why we need a theory of Post-Capitalist desire.
Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic-libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.
Mark writes in his paper Terminator vs Avatar that “Capitalism has abandoned the future because it can’t deliver it. Nevertheless, the contemporary left’s tendencies towards Canutism, its rhetoric of resistance and obstruction, collude with capital’s anti/meta-narrative that it is the only story left standing. Time to leave behind the logics of failed revolts, and to think ahead again.”
The only way out of Capitalism is through it. Marx is unequivocal on this point, particularly in Capital Vol. 3. Vincent Garton provides a brilliant account of this in his blog post ‘Accelerate Marx‘. He quotes Marx’s argument that at a certain point in the development of Capitalism, “[Capital] becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power. The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable…” Garton adds,
Marx’s whole analysis on this point, in fact, is accelerationist to the core. What Marx is saying is that if there is a postcapitalism, it consists precisely in the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation. Two further conclusions result from this sequence of passages—and I admit this is a deliberately biased selection, and that it is worth reading the chapter in full—which ought to shake any ‘postcapitalist’ praxis to its foundations. Firstly, the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism are precisely its strength as a productive force: crises are a way for capitalism to overcome the declining rate of profit, and this is not a sequence of decay where with each crisis capitalism becomes weaker and weaker but quite the opposite: it is a process of exponential expansion. Secondly, the road to ‘postcapitalism’ is over the corpse of nonalienated humanity. Now this, precisely, is the root of Marx’s inhumanism…
Capital must be entirely alienated from Capitalism as a contingent economic system before the groundwork for Communism is ready. Even returning to just the Communist Manifesto, we can already find there Marx demanding that the proletariat “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 243)
I think this reading of Marx (which is one I’ve shared for a long time, and which, incidentally, Lenin also shared) poses serious questions for left-wing praxis, in particular what the role of the left ought to be. The standard rallying cry is for the need to ‘Resist’, ‘Undermine’ or ‘Defeat’ Capitalism; but this seems to render the left a fundamentally reactionary, conservative force in modern politics. What can such tactics achieve? Can socialism really be established upon anything but the corpse of Capitalism taken to its limit – or Capital completely alienated from Capitalism? Presumably the idea is that we ought to return to being simple farmers living in straw huts in a thoroughly de-alienated existence, or, for Nick Land (whom Fisher quotes), “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity.” For Fisher, attempt to suppress desire itself “would therefore involve either a massive reversal of history, or collective amnesia on a grand scale, or both.” And as he goes on to argue,
At the moment, too much anti-capitalism seems to be about the impossible pursuit of a social system oriented towards the Nirvana principle of total quiescence—precisely the return to a mythical primitivist equilibrium which the likes of Mensch mock. But any such return to primitivism would require either an apocalypse or the imposition of authoritarian measures—how else is drive to be banished? And if primitivist equilibrium is notwhat we want, then we crucially need to articulate what it is we do want—which will mean disarticulating technology and desire from capital.
If Capitalism maintains an ideological monopoly on desire, and on the expansion and multiplication of forms and expressions of desire, then the left becomes an anti-modern, conservative force. What is needed is a way for the left to challenge this monopoly, to embrace desire and its creative and emancipatory possibilities. The yearning for a return to a life of simple sustenance, ‘honest work’, producers meeting distributors face-to-face, a deeper connection with nature and so on; these seem to represent a fundamentally reactionary perspective and one which has nothing at all do with Marxism, certainly nothing to do with what Marx himself wrote, instead having more to do with Heidegger’s nostalgia for the Black Forest.
Fisher’s paper was published in 2012, and since then some work has been done by those on the left to respond to this challenge. Most notably, in my view, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who in 2013 published the Accelerationist Manifesto and then in 2015 the book Inventing the Future. One of the strongest sections of the latter is its opening critique of ‘folk politics’, a tendency amongst much of the left towards reducing politics down to ‘the human scale’ which ends up as a purely reactive political force – one hospital might be saved from closure due to an occupation in protest, for example, but nevertheless dozens will still be shuttered across the country. What the left needs is an alternative to Neoliberal Capitalism which as at least as sophisticated as the current system, if not more so. If leftists continue to be distracted by Anarchistic naivete and ‘local action’, with no room for large-scale, hierarchical organisation, then there is no hope. Anti-Capitalism is rendered as anti-modernity and fundamentally primitivist. Fisher goes on to argue that what is needed is
the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond twentieth-century-style state centralisation.
We cannot return to a pre-capitalist society. The only way out is through. We might conclude with a quote from Lyotard which Fisher quotes in Terminator vs Avatar:
in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalize desires be totally ignored, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners, our servile intensities frighten you, you have to tell yourselves: how they must suffer to endure that! And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy – for what? – does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either.
Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. l. H. Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 116.
If Capitalism is allowed to maintain a monopoly on desire – as long as the ideological commitment to the idea that only under Capitalism can we express ourselves, experiment creatively and multiply with our desires and to embrace and fulfil it, the left has no chance. The future envisioned by much of the left all too often resembles the past. It’s time to move beyond that.
Questions of praxis remain: if the goal is to ‘Accelerate Marx’ (as Garton puts it), what is it that distinguishes the radical left from the Anarcho-Capitalist right in pragmatic terms? Mark Fisher’s own programme seems to provide some options here, as his critique of Capitalism remains trenchant: critiquing Land, he writes that “The actual near future wasn’t about Capital stripping off its latex mask and revealing the machinic death’s head beneath; it was just the opposite: New Sincerity, Apple Computers advertised by kitschy-cutesy pop. This failure to foresee the extent to which pastiche, recapitulation and a hyper-oedipalised neurotic individualism would become the dominant cultural tendencies is not a contingent error; it points to a fundamental misjudgement about the dynamics of capitalism. […] The fact that capitalism tends towards stagflation, that growth is in many respects illusory, is all the more reason that accelerationism can function in a way that Alex Williams characterises as ‘terroristic.'”
We might say that much of the supposed innovation or creativity of Capitalism is in fact illusory. This is best exemplified by the music industry: total stagnation disguised beneath a cheap veneer of newness. The whole thing is carried along by sheer the sheer velocity, the pace of new songs, albums and artists. But the overwhelming reliance on nostalgia and fake authenticity (better: authenticity as a marketing tactic) belies the lack of any real movement beneath the surface. Where Land (or, perhaps, D&G) wants to argue that the future is a radical expansion of the productive process driven by an explosion of libidinal energy, we thinking along with Mark Fisher we can perhaps see through this facade to the stagnation beneath.
Fisher draws on Fredric Jameson (a brilliant writer, whom everyone should read) who argues that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx:
“proposes to see capitalism as the most productive moment of history and the most destructive at the same time, and issues the imperative to think Good and Evil simultaneously, and as inseparable and inextricable dimensions of the same present of time. This is then a more productive way of transcending Good and Evil than the cynicism and lawlessness which so many readers attribute to the Nietzschean program.”
Further questions remain. Can we really conceptualise desire in a non-ideological way, given the overwhelming influence of advertising, marketing, social conditioning etc. on our preferences and desires; or is Marcuse (drawing on Freud) right to delineate between true and false needs? How does ideology fit into this picture? And what might a post-capitalist future look like? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but I think they’re some of the key ones which arise out of this reading of Marx and Fisher’s programme for the left.
For my first post, I wanted to highlight and comment on an utterly brilliant essay by Justin E H Smith for The Point Magazine published earlier this year. I’ve been thinking about it on a fairly regular basis ever since I first read it, and it provides a useful point of departure for exploring a number of important concepts – the relationship between ideology and power, who we are and what makes us subjects, discourse and politics. Here’s the section which stood out most to me:
There are memes circulating that are known as “bingo cards,” in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Men’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all. […]
Another example: I have read that Tinder users agree that one should “swipe left’” (i.e. reject) on any prospective mate or hookup who proclaims a fondness for, among other writers, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway or William S. Burroughs. I couldn’t care less about the first two of these, but Burroughs is very important to me. He played a vital role in shaping how I see the world (Cities of the Red Night, in particular), and I would want any person with whom I spend much time communicating to know this. I believe I have good reasons for valuing him, and would be happy to talk about these reasons.
I experience my love of Burroughs as singular and irreducible, but I am given to know, when I check in on the discourse, that I only feel this way because I am running a bad algorithm. And the result is that a part of me—the weak and immature part—no longer wants the overarching “You may also like…” function that now governs and mediates our experience of culture and ideas to serve up “Adolph Reed” or “William S. Burroughs” among its suggestions, any more than I want Spotify to suggest, on the basis of my playlist history, that I might next enjoy a number by Smash Mouth. If the function pulls up something bad, it must be because what preceded it is bad. I must therefore have bad taste, stupid politics; I must only like what I like because I’m a dupe.
On a cursory reading, this seems to neatly outlines the limits of a standpoint-theory or perspectivist account of subjectivity as components of neoliberal ‘woke’ discourse. Individuals are reduced to their component identities – their race, gender, sexual orientation, job, and so on. Your opponent works in a coal mine? I wonder what he thinks about global warming? Of course, once you know someone’s identity along these vectors, you can deduce the categories, whip out the bingo card and – whenever they express their own apparently-considered opinion – smash down the stamp and proclaim ‘Bingo!’ (You said what I predicted you would say!) No counter-argument is required, the very fact that it could be anticipated in advance negates the argument a priori.
While the ‘bingo card’ has long been a favoured tactic of the Extremely Online Left, the right have their own approach to this through the ‘NPC’ meme. According to the NPC meme, ‘the left’ are essentially the equivalent of Non-Playable Characters in a video game: programmed in advance, lacking true autonomy or free will, with scripted lines which they repeat ad nauseam (“Conservatives are racists!”). As with the ‘Bingo’ meme, the arguments being made are predicted in advance and repudiated purely by virtue of the correctness of the prediction. The argument in both cases: The views you hold are predictable functions of your identity as (insert race/gender/sexuality/political leaning); that this reflects a lack of critical, autonomous thinking on your part; and that my ability to predict your argument in advance demonstrates the programmatic nature of your consciousness.
But I think there’s much more to it than that, and I’d like to engage on a more meaningful level than simply yet another critique of Neoliberal IdPol, because the problem goes much deeper. Importantly, Smith writes:
Someone who thinks about their place in the world in terms of the structural violence inflicted on them as they move through it is thinking of themselves, among other things, in structural terms, which is to say, again among other things, not as subjects.
This is perhaps where Smith goes wrong, but also why his pessimism does not go deep enough. Subjectivity is itself conditioned and determined structurally through the operations of power and ideology. The subject is who she is because of the modulating influences of power, reproduced in and through the subject. Whether we cash this out in Foucauldean or Althusserian terms, as biopolitics or interpellation, I take it that this remains the most accurate assessment of the conditioning of human subjectivity: the individual subjectivised through common-place and subconscious practices of ideological recognitions (Handshakes, calls, and so on – responses to ‘hailings’ from the church, school, family, etc, which even in rejection situate the subject in a certain relationship to the priest, family members, classmates, etc) To think of the subject is, properly speaking, to think of the relay-point of power and ideology. Althusser argues that subjectivity itself is perhaps the ideological mystification par excellence, masking the flux of power-relations and reiterating interpellation going on beneath the mask of consciousness. Althusser writes:
As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.
Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), p. 262
To put it in Žižekian terms: the point at which a subject believes they have escaped ideology is the point at which they are most deeply immersed in it. What Smith is diagnosing here is perhaps yet another manifestation of the function of ideology: the production of subjectivity itself, and the exposure (under the conditions of a transparently cynical late capitalist framework) of its regular and quite predictable structure. On one level, a commitment to the idea that it’s always the Other who is ideological remains; on another, the ironic distancing people increasingly practice (consciously and unconsciously) between themselves and their beliefs perhaps opens up a level of transparency about the functioning of ideology, while maintaining the illusion of being beyond it yourself because, unlike other people, you’re a ‘free thinker’.
And of course, on a very simple level, it’s a poor tactic: that I can predict the response of a Christian to the question of God’s existence says nothing about the person in question. But the invocation of the NPC or bingo chart betrays a suspicion that the Other is not really a subject at all (‘not like I am, anyway’) but something more like an automata (Perhaps, psychoanalysing here, a fear of the intrusion of the Other into our subjectivity). Hence its dehumanising character. Perhaps that was always the predictable outcome once the ideological workings going on beneath the surface of the subject are exposed – humanity and subjectivity are intimately interwoven; the latter exposed as a structural misidentification cannot help but undermine the former; anti-humanism at base.
Where does this leave us? Well, nowhere particularly promising. Part of the problem with the bingo and NPC memes is their general accuracy. You genuinely could take a bingo card, scroll through #Resistance or #MAGA Twitter and have filled out the whole thing within five tweets. This perhaps says something more about the collapse of mediating discourses between the two sides than anything else – lacking a moral or epistemological common-ground, the two sides take their opponent’s very identities as predictable and heteronomous, reproducing the normalising functions of ideology: each side implicitly repeats the mantra ‘Everyone is ideological except for me’. The truth is, we’re all ideological to the core and often deeply predictable as a result. Whether originality (or ‘authenticity’) is possible, or merely the mirage conjured up by ideology itself, will be considered in a later post.
Anyway, I recommend reading the article in full. It’s a truly excellent piece. I remember someone described it as “dismally pessimistic, possibly conservative” and akin to someone showing Twitter to Adorno. Brilliant.
This blog will, I hope, function as a way of exploring and experimenting with new ideas. Power, subjectivity, ideology, ontology and critical theory form my main areas of interest, but following such threads necessarily leads in multiple, unpredictable directions.
Blogging is not entirely new to me – for a few years I’ve run a blog focusing on extreme metal – but writing on philosophy/theory is a first. Having taken a full year out from academia between my LLM and PhD it seems to me that getting into the habit again of not just reading but putting pen to paper again (so to speak) would be a good habit to relearn.
A few ideas are already gestating. I will likely begin by outlining the some of the overlap between Carl Schmitt and Derrida on the problem of authority and sovereignty as a way of introducing some of the key ideas animating the research I will shortly be commencing.
I’ll leave you with a paragraph from Foucault which I have been mulling over recently and which brings together at least a few of the themes to be explored on this blog.
Power functions. Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit to and exercise this power. They are never simply the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always its relays. In other words, power passes through individuals. It is not applied to them.
Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended (London: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 29