The debate continues…
There’s no denying that Ash Sarkar declaring she was a Literal Communist on Good Morning Britain was one of the more surprising televisual events of 2018, but I think “Liz from Leeds'” concise and combative declaration of solidarity with her on the typically hellish chat show The Wright Stuff might have been even better.
It’s interesting to (continue to) see communism be discussed on the TV like this — by which I mean, discussed at all. At the moment, however, I’m intrigued by the quantity of debate rather than quality… You can see the full segment on The Wright Stuff here if you can stomach five people talking about something they obviously have no idea about (despite Sarkar’s vague efforts to inform — I’m afraid to say that the novelty of dropping references to the Grundrisse on national telly is wearing off when the expositions accompany them are obscure and lacklustre with little hope of penetrating the surrounding deaf ears).
“Liz from Leeds” definition of communism is a good one, however, and it is one that I think resonates somewhat with the ontosocial definition offered up in previous posts.
She begins somewhat generically (no prizes for any “we (want to) live in a society” jokes):
Communism is a human society. It’s where we take care of each other. We’re not divided by racism, misogyny, homophobia, the profit motive no longer rules over us, and we actually establish production on the basis of human need. It’s very, very simple…
This is a fairly standard and vague definition of communism, hinging on social equality and acquiring the means of production. It’s short, sharp and — to be honest — innocuous, failing to stick its broader provocations to the state and to politics as we know them. Trying to debate communism without this other stuff seems pointless to me, because it always ends up looking like this, but “Liz from Leeds” at least highlights what is central to a lot of communist thinking in recent decades that I’ve already expressed an interest in on the blog: a “community” that gives itself as a goal, etc.
At this point, Carole Malone mindlessly asks where in the world today communism is actually working (which is precisely why the radical nature of imagined communism needs bringing out into the open — to just stop that dumb line of questioning in its tracks as an irrelevancy) but “Liz from Leeds” complete lack of time for her is beautiful. (I think “Liz from Leeds” is referring, in her short sharp dismissal of Malone, to this really bizarre clip from Sky News in which she comes across like a tone-deaf Tyneside Bill O’Reilly and displays a remarkable propensity for reactionary cluelessness.)
Liz gives Malone the usual condensed history lesson on how real communism does not and has never existed — never mind been tried — anywhere in the world and she then lobs a final challenge into the panel’s midst before being cut off for a conveniently timed ad break. She says:
You can’t vote communism in. You build communism through our collective human struggles…
Unfortunately, the end of her sentence is spoken over by the host but the audible point is the key one.
For now, however, let’s stick a momentary pin in this…
I think it might be interesting to contrast this video with another one, with another recent guest on The Wright Stuff… Someone I’d be otherwise reluctant to bring into the fray but someone who, I must admit, I think makes a good point, even if it is subsequently badly applied… And an opportunity to twist one of his opinions towards supporting a vision of communism is actually quite delicious… So let’s talk about Jordan Peterson.
Peterson’s recent appearance on the show was not surprising in and of itself. At the time, he was all over the UK media, promoting a book or doing a tour or something like that. What he was promoting was a mystery, frankly. Perhaps it was just himself. Either way, you couldn’t get away from him, and his book’s presence in high-street bookshops began to mirror this televisual ubiquity.
Peterson was invited onto The Wright Stuff presumably to debate the validity of modern feminism — a common target of his ire as a central tenet of what he calls “Cultural Marxism”, easily understood as a kind of intellectualised euphemism for what is more commonly understood (in these parts anyway) as The Cathedral. For clarity, RationalWiki defines Cultural Marxism as a “conspiracy theory in which sinister left-wingers have infiltrated media, academia, and science and are engaged in a decades-long plot to undermine Western culture.” It’s an obvious observation to make — undermining Western cultures (read: traditions) is the raison d’être of “progressivism”, isn’t it? — but, if you dress it up negatively as an intellectual “gotcha” moment, apparently people think you’re onto something big. In that respect, The Cathedral is a more interesting analysis as it additionally highlights some of the left’s own blindspots about itself, rather than just vaguely describing their project in negative terms.
Anyway, suffice it to say that this is topical home turf for Peterson and, as such, the interview is a pretty typical exchange for him too. He comes across as calm and collected, scholarly and well-informed, but he is also firm and authoritative in his social conservatism which blatantly informs his readings of the objective gold dust he calls “data” no matter how much he may protest otherwise.
All that aside, I actually think he makes an interesting provocation here — albeit via a predictably negative reading of the data backing it up — which will be relevant for us going forwards in this series.
Peterson is joined on the show’s panel by Sophie Walker, leader of the UK’s Women’s Equality Party, who argues that equality, for her, is freedom. “Equality is better for everyone,” she says, echoing her party’s manifesto — which is to say, equality for women will improved the quality of life for everyone. Raising one demographic raises us all. (This is perhaps a point to challenge the argument sometimes made these days that increased freedoms for women means decreased freedoms for men or something, which is bad for men who want to continue to men about with impunity.) When pushed to be more specific and less vague about her definition of equality, however, Walker continues: “I’m interested in people being able to have difference choices with an equality of outcome.”
It is here that Peterson offers a — frankly — fair rebuttal: “You’re going to have choices and equality of outcome — what if people choose different things?” His examples are loaded towards his particular brand of conservatism, through which he suggests that in Scandinavian countries, where gendered politics — reproductive and employment rights, in particular — are generally seen to be more progressive, women generally choose to inhabit more socially traditional roles. He says:
Scandinavian countries have moved more towards gender equality than any other countries and the personality differences in Scandinavia have increased rather than decreased … If you let men and women make their own choices, they actually specialise in different situations. You don’t get equality of outcome … As countries get more egalitarian — which means less [gendered] programming [i.e. children being social programmed to fulfil certain expected gender roles] — the differences get larger, not smaller. The scientific data on that is clear.
Walker follows this up by somewhat ironically declaring that the difference between herself and Peterson is that he believes in a kind of “evolutionary” inherent difference between men and women, and she does not. This is certainly a view he has expressed elsewhere but is that what the report he’s quoting is saying?
Peterson does later qualify that he personally believes that “differences between men and women grow, they don’t shrink,” in more egalitarian societies, but his initial ramble feels oddly tentative and non-specific to me. His words suggest a general fragmentation rather than an emboldened split down the “gender gap”.
Unfortunately, I don’t know what report he is referring to but, by simply taking his own words at face value, I’m made suspicious of his interpretation of the data. Walker limply makes the point, in a slightly jumbled way, that this increased gap is perhaps due to the broader expectations inherent to the cultures of those Scandinavian states — culturally, they’re not radically dissimilar to their less egalitarian neighbours so it’s not really that surprising that men and women reach for the Oedipally familiar and the traditional when faced with relatively new social freedoms. Nothing about this all important cited data really seems to tell us much about the contexts and circumstances in which we should understand it. (To give a further example from my own personal experience: the notable different in gendered work dynamics in Denmark, when I was last there, was clear even for a tourist, but so was the casual racism and anti-immigration rhetoric so even Scandi progressivism obviously has its swings and roundabouts.)
By the sounds of it, Scandinavia is different enough to be cited by our pundits but it’s not different enough for it to be different in the grand scheme of things… I think we can safely extrapolate from this that the underlying reason is: “Because capitalism”.
To return to Peterson’s little spiel: to my ears, he spoke generally of difference and specialisation… Equality promotes difference, not similarity, he seemed to be suggesting, without any real qualifiers. And that’s fine. (“Solidarity without similarity” remains a mantra for this blog.) But my suspicion is that Peterson is reading this gender binary into a more general analysis. What I interpreted him as saying here, before his personal clarification, was that the more egalitarian a society is, the more socially fragmented and diverse it is. Again, that’s fine too. Because equality of choice obviously does not mean the same as equality of outcome, and attempting to ensure both of those things seems like a terrible idea on a larger scale.
In trying to understand what this means, I have ended up trying to form analogies for myself and, by extension, for you too. At first I thought, well, what if I’m faced with a level billiard table, or something — going for that Humean cause and effect analogy… Equality of outcome is dependent on everyone having the opportunity to hit the billiard ball in the same place in order to ensure the same result. Not easy but, you know, theoretically, sounds good — Humean critiques of that scenario aside.
But what if I want to hit a different billiard ball to someone else? And, in continuing to move my perspective outwards, I wonder, what if I want to play a different game altogether? Isn’t equality of choice and outcome dependent on the rules of the game itself being standardised? Isn’t it dependent on the consolidation (and, therefore, reduction) of the plane of experience and agency? In that sense, how equal can this call to equality hope to be when it doesn’t account for inherent and fundamental differences of experience?
I think this is where current popular leftist theorising falls apart for me. To return to “Liz from Leeds”, she notes how we must “build communism through our collective human struggles” — and I think this is correct — but, in my view, this must be predicated on a politics of difference that is in itself radically different to the politics that most use to give buoyancy to their left-leaning ideologies.
More simply put: isn’t the issue with all this, in discussing communism as an antecedent to another world or as an outright alternative to the one we have, that we need to stop thinking about notions of equality and difference within our already blinkered context? How are we supposed to liberate action when we haven’t yet liberated thinking? If what we really want is a Novara Media-branded “fully automated luxury communism”, then why are we discussing it on a platform of subjective austerity and vague utopian ideals?
This billiard analogy is obviously not that rigorous and I’m no social scientist — I’m whacking this rambling post out as fast as I can on my lunch break because I’m just desperate to finish it and move onto other things and I’m painfully aware of its lack of rigour — but, suffice it to say, as attractive as total equality is as an ideal, it seems like most don’t really understand how to marry up the desire for communism with the nature of the world in its current fragmentary state.
If we want to change the very nature of our world, the only way we’ll be able to do that is if we recognise some of these hard truths — “hard” in the sense that our current understanding of the infrastructure and makeup of the world — note that I don’t mean that infrastructure and makeup in itself — does not lend itself to a meaningful sense of equality based on consolidation. If you want equality of choice to actually make a difference to outcomes, choices need to be proliferated outwards, beyond the false choices of capitalism, at every level: from subjectivity and geopolitics. (Blah blah blah patchwork from the left, you should know the drill by now.)
I think this might be part of a further response to the “marketplace of ideas” critiques that I’ve previously addressed on this blog (see: here and here). It seems that “equality of choice” and “marketplace of ideas” are potentially interchangeable phrases and so “equality of outcome” affirms the former as being the leftist option. But if “equality of outcome” cannot account for the fundamentality of human difference — at the level of subjectivity, at the very least — then what use is it?
This is the challenge ahead, I think.
The practical implications of this challenge have already been introduced by “Liz from Leeds”, albeit very briefly. How exactly are we supposed to build communism if we are basing our understanding of it on difference rather than shared struggle?
Where things become tricky here is in our imagining of how this shared struggle will be politically formulated without us all falling into the hyper-totalitarian trap of a one-world state-government, as “Liz from Leeds” initial definition risks falling into in its genericism.
We can’t vote communism in because communism is antithetical to the status quo of neoliberal democracy, so how exactly are we supposed to build it through some form of consensus when consensus is already something rejected? But then how to we avoid being divided by small-minded bigotry?
This surely necessitates not just a sensitivity towards but a new and radical consciousness of difference. One that a hegemonic populist Left, despite its own view of itself, is currently and actively obstructing.
This is a nuance that is still all too often glossed over in this debate for me and the actual implications of which remain wholly superficial (and largely contradictory) thanks to the distillation of consciousness into performative virtue-signalling.
In my opinion, this has happened because the typical way that communism is imagined by utopian leftists seems to be via a one-world-without-borders in which we’re all a big homogenous civilisation that spans the globe, interconnected and wholly supportive of each other. The view of this blog, explored through readings of patchwork, is that the further consolidation of our world which this vision suggests is woefully informed by the West’s historical but nonetheless still latent imperialism and the monopolising tendencies of capitalism and all this will mean is that we will never get beyond a kind of patronising one-world socialism which won’t end well.
Communism, understood as a fundamentally anti-state ideology — because capitalism and end-goal socialism (that’s socialism as an end point rather than as a transitory moment) are, of course, wholly entwined with state apparatuses — is better served by fragmentation which can achieve the same infrastructural result but without the retention of an inflated capitalist nation-state model.
Simply put: Global consolidation removes borders but not the systems inherent to the state model. Fragmentation is a necessary attack on both.
It is, therefore, better to present communism on its most radical terms than allow any discussion of it to slip back into Red Terror stereotypes or allow its potentials to flow back into capitalist agendas as most populist leftist attempts have so far allowed.
I’ve written about how we might go about achieving this before on the blog, particularly in my various readings of Mark Fisher and his repeated call for the establishment of a “collective subject”. Considering Fisher alongside Herbert Marcuse and Jodi Dean in my “Egress” post I wrote about how
Marcuse argues [for] the establishment of a biological foundation for socialism through the mechanisms of the Great Refusal: “the rationality of negation” inherent to art which is always a “protest against that which is.” That which is is constituted for Marcuse by contemporaneous norms and standards of morality, and so his analysis is tied explicitly to social taboos. He highlights the perceived “obscenity” of sexual liberation during his time of writing and the way this apparent obscenity contrasts with the normalisation of the obscenity of state and institutional violence. Marcuse then goes on to suggest that this structure of social morality, and therefore the human drives themselves, are inherently plastic.
To the degree to which this foundation is itself historical and the malleability of “human nature” reaches into the depth of man’s instinctual structure, changes in morality may “sink down” into the “biological” dimension and modify organic behaviour. […] In this way, a society constantly re-creates, this side of consciousness and ideology, patterns of behaviour and aspiration as part of the “nature” of its people, and unless the revolt reaches into this “second” nature, into these ingrown patterns, social change will remain “incomplete”, even self-defeating.
Following this, we can say that if we can’t vote communism in, then the seeds for upheaval and revolution need to be planted much deeper, at a biological level. As insanely ambitious as this might sound, it’s not unprecedented and Fisher and Dean demonstrated this through the example of the iPhone, attaching itself to and commandeering the human need to communicate, establishing itself as an ontosocial necessity in as little as 10 years through the mechanisms of what Dean calls “communicative capitalism”.
For Fisher and Dean, late capitalist technologies have usurped morality in [Marcuse’s] equation but the processes are nonetheless the same — a process Fisher refers to as libidinal engineering, which we are subjected to via the processes related to PR, branding and advertising “which constantly cyberblitzes our brains and nervous systems.” What is needed, then, for Marcuse (and for Fisher in his timely update), is a harnessing of the plasticity of our libidinal desires for other means and ends; for other futures. If a biological foundation for communicative capitalism can be engineered in as little as ten years, as the iPhone has masterfully demonstrated, surely we can re-engineer the drives to establish new foundations for socialism and/or communism in another not-so-distant future.
It should be emphasised here that “libidinal engineering” is not just a process of changing public opinion. Mark repeatedly makes the point that, just as communism cannot be voted in, capitalism cannot be voted out and what is necessary is a deeper cultural shift which fundamentally changes how we exist in the world. In “Reaching Beyond to the Other” I wrote:
Whilst Fisher does not advocate an anti-democratic position like [Nick] Land does, his recommended practices are certainly extra-democratic. Capitalism cannot be ‘voted out’ but a big enough change to the cultural status quo could make it politically redundant.
The accelerationist feedback loop is that this can perhaps most easily achieved by using the mechanisms of capitalist itself.
Because of this, I believe there is an opportunity here for us, one which I think Fisher was aware of too: the triumph of “communicative capitalism” is perhaps not something to entirely deride. Communication and communism share the “com-” prefix for good reason and the malleability of this corner of technological society is, I think, particularly promising when considering efforts towards other goals. The internet promised this radical social fragmentation and upheaval but ultimately it failed to deliver, monopolised by the likes of Google and Facebook, consolidated like the rest of our realities. As distrust in these monopolies proliferates, however, we’re reentering a moment of great potential in which the fragmentation of tech monopolies — mirroring the current instability of our nation-states — will open up new doors to new ways of being on- and offline.
I have recently been trying to wrap my head around an essay by Maurice Blanchot, my go-to communist, in which he refers to communism, via Dionys Mascolo, as “the process of the material search for communication”. I’m left wondering, how might communism already be on the horizon? Is it already being smuggled inherently into the flows of communicative capitalism?
I was interested to find an essay by Alison Hugill, called “Communism without Heirs“, whilst researching this which addressed Blanchot’s communism and used it to critique the (Left) Accelerationism of Srnicek and Williams, further challenging Williams recently expressed distinction between aesthetics and politics. She writes:
Both ‘folk politics’ and ‘accelerationism’ commit the error, however, of hypostatizing community — whether in the form of nostalgia for an amorphous and harmonious ‘public’, or as the social body of the working class. A more nuanced understanding of unworking, and how it differs from the program laid out by Srnicek and Williams (the literal end of work/wage labour), requires that we understand the aesthetic and literary origins of Blanchot’s concept, and its subsequent adaptation by Nancy and Agamben in the form of a non-programmatic ‘coming’ political community.
I can’t say that I entirely agree with her reading of Blanchot but I do agree with the central concluding point: “Contrary to communism’s legacy, Blanchot’s communism names an event through which traditional notions of communication and community come undone and what is exposed is the rupture of incommensurability that concerns our essential-inessential being.”
Communicative capitalism, I would argue, has inadvertently pulled open this wound, but we remain clueless as to how we might make the most of it.
As a final side note, this is likewise something discussed by Justin Murphy and Nick Land in their recent mammoth chat. Land talks repeatedly about the “Facebook slump” that has made the last decade or so so mind-numbing but what we are starting to see is a reinvigoration of the potentials that originally captured his and other’s imaginations in the 1990s.
He says at one point: “Everyone could see [in the ’90s] that what the internet was going to do was produce these distributed structures which escaped the established structures of governance which would be, in some insurrectionary sense, apolitical.”
Here, I am understanding apolitical to refer to something which cannot be contained by the politics of the day, echoing Blanchot’s notion of unworking, and this is likewise the realm that communism, properly understood, should be occupying today.
It is only through communication — communication as-with difference, which is inherent to contemporary capitalism and its fault lines — that communism can possibly be built. Despite its best intentions I don’t think the left fully grasps this yet.
Apologies for the long ramble…
We’ll get properly stuck into Deleuze next time…