This year’s Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture was a beautiful occasion — like the wedding of a distant cousin, as someone put it. All sorts of new faces and estranged relatives gathering together for the first time in a long time, there for the booze mostly.
Socialising aside, Jodi Dean’s lecture ended up being pretty divisive. Personally, I really enjoyed it, and recognised much of Mark’s own thought within her expansions on her own work, but it seemed to really split the room. I don’t want to talk about any of the disagreements here. Rather, I want to talk about my main takeaway and likewise how it fed into another beautiful For K-Punk party afterwards.
Dean began by emphasising the stakes of Mark’s use of Jameson’s line: “the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism.” For Dean, this provocation rang true because, for so many, capitalism is the end of the world, in an all too literal sense. Capitalism is responsible for so much loss of life. “The ravages of capitalism — enclosure, debt, stress — are deadly and world-ending,” she said. Mark’s own absence served as a painful case in point.
Following Mark’s death and so many of the political situations we have since found ourselves in, the question becomes: how can the left deal with and counteract this world-ending nature of capitalism whilst also being entrapped within it?
This question was introduced as a major part of Mark’s work, in Capitalist Realism most famously, but also in his controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle“, with the concept of “capitalist realism” in itself continuing through both texts, constantly being developed and extended outwards in Mark’s thought.
Attempting to formulate a broader definition of capitalist realism, Dean summarised the concept as having four key features:
- Capitalist realism is a “reflective impotence”: the imagining of alternatives is taken to be an impossibility. Our sense of possibility is, in itself, lost.
- Capitalist realism is a pathology of the Left, most specifically. It is a left fatalism, a left acquiescence, a left impotence, a left giving-in. It speaks explicitly to the left’s rejection of alternatives. (This is more clear in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” than the book itself, and this emphasising of capitalist realism as a leftist problem was precisely what got Mark in so much trouble, it seems. The concept was fine as a diagnosis of a general malaise but to make the subtext so explicit was too bitter a pill for many to swallow.)
- Capitalist realism is what we do. Whilst we might all have our various theories and opinions, capitalist realism is not a matter of what we think. Or rather, what we think is not enough. Anticapitalism becomes nothing but a “hipster gesture” in this regard; “a series of hysterical demands that no one expects to be met.” Capitalist realism is not what you challenge and shout about on a march; on special political occasions. It is what you do in your daily life.
- Capitalist realism is individualism. It is the individualising of all problems. It is, as Mark most famously wrote, the association of suffering with brain chemistry, reinforcing capitalism’s own atomism. But, above all else, capitalist realism as individualism is the collapse of a collective politics.
In addition to these core points, in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, Mark extended the social affects of capitalist realism to include excessive moralism, privatisation and the disavowal of class (and, by proxy, class consciousness).
For Mark, in 2013, understandably bitter about the communicative u-bend of social media, the left seemed to become defined by the eclipsing of its own politics, wherein bourgeois modes of subjectivity dominated the movement and reduced its underlying vision of a societal transformation to little more than a need to change individual attitudes. As such, political energy was moved away from organisation towards the individualising of leftist responsibilities and precluding any form of collective action that wasn’t the virulent fervour of self-abuse.
So, with all this surrounding us, how are we supposed to join together and hold each other to account in ways that will actually allow us to move forwards rather than languish in “frenzied stasis”?
The answer for Dean is the reaffirmation of comradeship and solidarity. We have to teach and encourage each other, and be forgiving to those who are on our side. Despite (but also because of) how capitalism might alienate and isolate us, comradeship and solidarity are indispensable to any just future, and the only name for such a future, for Dean, is communism.
Many people seemed to take issue with Dean’s provocations from here on out. The Q&A that followed was an hour-long onslaught of scepticism and swerves down blind alleys. It was an enriching session but mired by people who thought they knew their leftist history — but really didn’t — and many of the questions seemed only to prove much of her talk (and Mark’s thinking) right in their antagonism and bad faith that seemed emblematic of many of the points she — and Mark himself too — had made.
Many of these questions were incisive and productively provocative but many others felt like the thinly veiled hostility Mark himself often encountered. There are very important questions to be asked but their framing so often betrayed the very root of the bad faith of a capitalist realism. There was no attempt at building, only tearing down.
This is not a blind faith or a dismissal of points raised, but tone says a lot about what exactly is being repressed below the surface and why.
It was the same response Mark himself got in his first Postcapitalist Desire lecture in late 2016. During Mark’s lecture, there was a discussion around the name of the course, specifically his use of the word “postcapitalism” — how effective and efficient it was; why it was chosen over something else — introducing the problem of the meaning of words, which Dean likewise spent a lot of time on by discussing Doris Lessing’s book The Golden Notebook.
I think this exchange is worth quoting here in full because, for me, it echoed the Q&A with Jodi in quite an affecting way. Mark was used to these questions too. The discussion unfolded like this:
Mark Fisher: So what are the advantages of the concept of postcapitalism? And just initially I think it’s worth thinking about this — why use the term “post-capitalism” rather than communism, socialism, etc. Well, first of all, it’s not tainted by association with past failed and oppressive projects. The term “postcapitalism” has a kind of neutrality which is not there with communism, socialism — although this is partly a generational thing I think, that the word “communism” has a lot of negative associations for people of my age and older.
…It implies victory — that’s the other thing, isn’t it? It implies that there’s something beyond capitalism. It also implies direction, doesn’t it? If it’s post-capitalism, it’s a victory and a victory that will come through capitalism. It’s not just a “post” to capitalism — it is what will happen when capitalism has ended. It starts from where we are. It’s not some entirely separate space — I think that’s implied, right? The concept of post-capitalism is something developed out of capitalism. It develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism. Therefore we’re not required to imagine a sheer alterity; a pure outside… We can begin with; work with the pleasures of capitalism as well as its oppressions. We’re not necessarily trapped in this Louise Mensch world where if we have iPhones we can’t want post-capitalism. Although I don’t think we’d want iPhones in post-capitalism…
STUDENT #4: But doesn’t it sound a bit more like a theory… in comparison to… a political system?
MF: It sounds more like a theory? Yeah, that’s a potential problem with it. Actually, I’ve got a few problems with it… I think you’re making a slightly different point…
STUDENT #4: Because socialism and communism has an active dimension…
MF: Yeah, it’s a positive actual project whereas postcapitalism may be too theoretical. Also it’s tied to capitalism. That’s also a problem — potentially. Gibson-Graham talk about capitalocentrism.
If we’re talking about postcapitalism, then, if the framing outcome of political, cultural, social ambitions in terms of post-capitalism is still defined in relation to capitalism… It remains in the temporality of the “post-“… So it sounds like postmodern — it’s defined by something that preceded it rather than what it actually is itself. It’s not necessarily progressive…
STUDENT #5: Yeah, I have two more…
MF: Two more?! Two more problems…?
STUDENT #5: Yeah… It’s not only that it does not name a positive project but it does not also name a negative project. For example, some negative aspects of capitalism … I have in my mind strategies of refusal of [governance] for example. It is really easy to be lost inside this prefix of “post-“… Some postmodern narrative… Not to define anything at all. Just to talk about some post-capitalism that may fall from the sky.
MF: Yeah, I think these are potential issues with the course title. We can think about these as we develop. You probably have more which we can add as we carry on. Some of you might want to write on this anyway: generally, is the concept of post-capitalism “good”? Is it worth persisting with?
I’ve alternated — I was firmly against using anything in terms to do with “communism” a few years ago, because of the tainting problem I think more than anything else. I’ve been persuaded that it’s the very antagonism; the very alterity of the term “communism” which gives it potential power.
STUDENT #4: Why should it be like communism anyway? To use an old…
MF: Yeah, yeah. I think when it’s paired with new terms — that’s what makes it interesting. The emergence of things like “Luxury Communism” as a formula… Maybe we’ll talk about Luxury Communism later on in the course… I think what’s powerful about that is it defuses — or rather its opposite: explodes — the current conceptions of things; the standard stereotypes. Exactly what we looked at with that dreary, grey imagery of the Communist Soviet system. How could that be luxury? It’s a kind of cognitive bomb — something like Luxury Communism.
I’ve also been trying to work on a concept of “Acid Communism”. That’s what Deleuze and Guattari argue, and that’s some of the things we’ll look at with the Jefferson Cowie stuff… The early ‘70s… Psychedelic consciousness plus class consciousness… That’s what capital feared in the late ‘60s, early 70s: what if the working class become hippies? Because surely key to the counterculture, for all its failings — and it had many — was an anti-work ethic; mainstreaming an anti-work ethic. The Beatles did it. “Stay in bed… Float upstream…” was anti-work. And also this question of anti-being-busy — a different existential mode — and also this question of communal living.
My current position would be, yeah, use Communism with a modifier to break out of the existing associations, which a lot of young people don’t have anyway, but you don’t seem happy with that…
STUDENT #4: Yeah, no, I think it’s super difficult… There was a socialist system… If you’re in Germany or in Austria or whatever, you still know what it was about…
MF: I think it’s partly a strategic question, isn’t it? About when these terms can be used, what context, what force they can exert…
STUDENT #4: Yeah, yeah, of course…
MF: It may be that they don’t have universal applicability… Okay, so these are the big questions but let’s turn to specifics…
I agree with Mark’s take here and it was interesting that Jodi seemed to be the person who may have changed Mark’s mind about the word “communism” in this regard — she made comments very similar to this during her talk but didn’t seem to know that Mark had later come to agree with her.
As with Mark and Jodi, I don’t agree that we need to change the word “communism” at all, not least because of its past associations. To call it something else is to desire something else, as Dean pointed out. It makes sense in the most rudimentary of ways and its structure, even at the level of its etymology, is perfect for encapsulating what is desired.
This was a big deal for me during my postgraduate studies — a new awareness of the importance of the “com-” prefix to the etymology of leftist discourses. A basic and simple point perhaps but one which, through its very simplicity, was very powerful to me. It’s everywhere. Communism, community, communication, commune, comrade, complement, complete, compassion, commemoration. It means “with”, “together”, “in association” whilst likewise denoting an intensity and a fulfilment, and an awareness of this has enriched my understanding of all of these words above. So the word “communism” doesn’t need changing one bit. It is “the communist myth” that must be challenged.
We can understand “myth” in its Barthesian sense here, perhaps: as that second-order signification that is constructed through the social which presents “an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective.” This is to say that we must remember that the negative view of communism has been constructed by capitalism. Mark discussed this himself with his demonstrative use of Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial.
Mark said of the advert in his first Postcapitalist Desire lecture:
Yeah, so Ridley Scott directed it and you can tell, can’t you? You can tell from the style it’s very similar to films that would redefine mainstream Hollywood cinematic science fiction via Alien and Blade Runner, from ‘79 and ‘82 I think, so this was two years after that. It’s really the best film he’s made since then I think. Probably the only significant film he made since then.
What this did, really, was seed the idea of many of the tropes that are now standard in our imagining. The idea of top-down, bureaucratic control systems versus the dynamism of a kind of networked individual mindset. And what is clever, I think, or certainly significant — all advertising you could say is a form of dreamwork — dreamwork, as Freud says, involves conflation, and a compressing, a condensing of different ideas together. All this does, if you look at the imagery, is it condenses Cold War imagery — which none of you are really old enough to remember except historically — associated with the Soviet Union in particular, negative imagery to do with dreariness, bureaucratic submission of individuals.
If you look at the film, these grey drones trudge around being subjected to the ultimately top-down commands coming from the talking head, clearly referencing 1984 of Orwell. It conflates that imagery, that has long been associated with the Soviet bloc, with imagery to do with big computer corporations such as IBM which then dominated the computer world. Apple is positioning itself as an upstart; as colour intervening into this grey, dreary, bureaucratic world. Apple is new. It’s female, interestingly. It’s colour intervening in this grey world of bureaucratic monoliths where IBM becomes, in the advertising dreamwork, equated with the Soviet Union. This then is the new world that is about to break out of this monolithic, dreary, grey, boring control system. And that’s what happened!… In its own way. It was prophetic… It was more than prophetic — you could say it was hyperstitional — it helped to bring about the very thing which it was describing.
From my point of view, what I think is interesting about this then is the way in which it suggests there is a problem of desire in terms of capital. The thing about the Cold War imagery — what it’s suggesting is there is only desire for capitalism. The Communist world, like IBM, and the then dominant corporate capitalist world is boring and dreary, and that’s an objection to it! The new capitalist world won’t be like that. The new capitalist world will be about desire in a way that the Communist world won’t be.
Likewise, this Levi’s advert from the same year carries a very similar message:
It is capitalism that will give you what you want. Communism is the death of joy. Give in to desire. Give in to capitalism.
The myth of communism becomes, quite vividly, the result of a successful global PR job. To this day, these are the images we see when we think of communism.
This is not to downplay or dismiss the negative points and atrocities committed in communism’s name, of course, but it is to recognise their inflation relative to the constant diminishing of capitalism’s own (and notably perpetual rather than just past) horrors and violences.
Furthermore, the spectre of communism continues to haunt precisely because we know there is something beyond this world we’ve been given, these lives we lead, the desires we can have sated with a numbing ease. For Mark, the point became: “well, we don’t just desire these things that capitalism tells us too.” We have desires for other futures and other worlds — a future without wage-labour, without enslavement, without class struggle, etc. — and capitalism has failed to deliver on these desires. It may promise liberation through the exchange of capital but these features remain its very backbone.
This is a more complex point than first appearances suggest, however, because capitalism has monopolised desire. So what is it for us to desire capitalism’s own demise within a system that it ultimately controls?
Consciousness raising — which counters capitalism’s mechanisms of consciousness razing — is a decent place to start. So let’s see if we can’t rehabilitate the image that was taken from us. Understanding how and why this vision was taken from us is far more important than changing the word, as if the suggestion is that we need to appease the system which is so threatened by it. If we are to focus on semantics then it is better that we enrich the words we have rather than swap them out for new “blank” ones.
Such questions of meaning became even more central when Dean got to the very heart of her talk, and it is this I would like to focus on here. (There were problems with her talk. The main one for me was her reliance on a party political vision despite her acknowledgement the role of the state form in capitalism’s development and continued survival. It’s Anarcho-Communism for me please and that wasn’t on the table tonight — but it’s worth noting that it wasn’t for Mark either. Either way, I’m happy to shelve that criticism in order to focus on the more resonant positives, particularly the overall message which was wonderful and the perfect thought to carry forwards to our afterparty.)
Whilst discussing Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, Dean fixated on the word “comrade” rather than “communism”. Here is a word that is nevertheless so heavily associated with communism and its party politics; a word so often ridiculed too. Today, it’s a word that brings to my mind Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell, arguably the most high-profile figure in UK politics to regularly use the word in conversation and speeches, and all you need to do is google “John McDonnell comrade” to find a dozen instances where this is picked up on by journalists who mock him for it.
But here Dean paints an entirely different picture of this word that has become, like communism itself, little more than a hollow signifier for everything wrong with the left’s pasts and futures under a global capitalism that is supposedly here to stay. It has been tarnished for the image associated with it which has overtaken any general understanding of its basic meaning. Indeed, words have “lost their meaning”, as Lessing writes repeatedly throughout her novel.
Dean explained that comradeship is being on the same side. It’s having respect for those who are fighting for our same goals — even if we disagree with how they intend to get there. It is, perhaps most importantly, something you are called but not what you are. It is not a form of self-identification. As Dean also pointed out, to say “I am a comrade” makes no sense. Rather it is “we are comrades” in an intensive togetherness. Comrades are, in this way, the collective subject that Mark and so many others have long called for, and a rehabilitation of “comrade” as a word felt like a very interesting start on a journey towards raising consciousness around communism.
In this way, the word “comrade” becomes “the zero-level of communism” for Dean. Through a single word, it begins to change the relation of ourselves to ourselves and to each other. “When we have comrades, we are freed from the voluntarist responsibility to have, be and do everything,” Dean noted. This comradely solidarity, then, is the active combatting of neoliberal decapacitation. Even just knowing that you have comrades and have that sort of support can improve our wellbeing and ways of acting in the world.
This was what the For K-Punk nights were also for. Indeed, there was one point made by an audience member during the Q&A which Dean unfortunately scoffed at but I think it would have been a wonderful moment to end on. Someone said that “one thing that Mark did so beautifully was to describe forms of collectivity that did not express themselves politically” and this person asked what Dean herself thought about these other forms of collectivity. She responded by saying that she had no interest in any forms of expression that weren’t political but Mark certainly was.
The For K-Punk party that followed was a perfect encapsulation of this. No matter who has organised the party, there is a sense that everyone who attends ends up involved. There is no hierarchy, no VIP line, no guest list, no fee for entry. (Limited capacity may have put a downer on it for some and apologies to anyone who didn’t make it in. Our scope is very limited without much funding.) The occasion and the intent creates a club experience that I have never found anywhere else — an unparalleled experience of openness, solidarity and, yes, comradeship.
I only wish it was an experience had more regularly and perhaps one day that may well happen. Like communism itself, For K-Punk is a community that gives itself as a goal.