Bourgeois-Liberal Perversions: A Response to a Criticism of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture

In my previous post, I tried to avoid getting too bogged down in people’s various problems with Jodi Dean’s edition of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths last Friday. Not to diminish what those criticisms are and/or were, but rather because I think her overarching point was a really great one, even if the finer details were — inevitably — contentious.

But that’s not to say there can be no place for a broader discussion, as if this blog only deals in polite platitudes. So I wanted to separate this off into a different post.

Helpfully, the occasion of a comment received on “Comrades” which addresses some of the problems with that lecture and those that linger as a hangover, for some, from the reaction to Mark’s very controversial exit from political Twitter in 2013, provides a good basis to build on, setting out some criticisms and problems with those criticisms in themselves. The anon commenter “Sx” writes:

as someone who’s been deeply touched by mark’s writings and thought, i have to say i was really disapointed in jodi’s lecture.

it wasn’t that i didn’t want her to talk about ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ (although i do think it’s a piece of work that i’d happily see forgotten) but that rather than explore and complicate that space of tension between those on two opposing sides of the debate, jodi seamed to re-entrench a position that has (further) alienated so many people — this idea that people who are invested in so-called ‘identity’ politics (has she not heard of intersectionality which no, is not the same as liberalism) need to step in line and fight for some wider cause as though disparate groups of people have not and are not still, working together against different forms (both institutional/structural and personal) of abuse, oppression, whatever you want to call it.

and then to talk about Labour as the most progressive party in europe i mean it sounded more like something out of ‘Acid Corbynism’ than the potentialities i felt Mark was developing and opening in his ‘Acid Communism’ introduction.

I don’t want to re-hash some of the critiques of ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ but I will say that there were some really thoughtful responses written to that piece and I think that a whole bunch of people have been writing about, discussing, working through some of the ways in which a toxic environment on the left has splintered our ability to work together, find common cause, find accountability but also kindness in the ways we work through interpersonal conflict etc.

I think it’s really telling that (and here I risk being labeled an identitarian) so many of those who reacted negatively to Mark’s article were those people (queer and trans folk, POC etc) who have been alienated from party politics and yes, Communist organizing (at least in this country). I think Jodi didn’t help herself when during the Q&A, she dismissed one person’s (a woman of colour) question for being uninformed of black radical organizing in the US rather than opening up a space to acknowledge and discuss the reasons why so many people feel disconnected and disappointed with ‘radical politics’.

To me, it sounds very similar to this alt-right/Peterson discourse of liberal snowflakes obsessed with identity politics. I dare say that what Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher do share with many on the alt right is that they are white, heterosexual and involved (largely) in the academy. As I say, Mark’s work continues to deeply effect me but I don’t think ‘The Vampire Castle’ was anywhere near his best. There’s more I could talk about visa vi Jodi’s talk and the Q&A (I think it’s dangerous to imply that those critical of her or of ‘The Vampire Castle’ are simply occupying or embodying this very thing that is wrong the left rather than actually listening to people) but i’ll leave it at that for now. oh and i super enjoy your blog x

[whoops, didn’t mean to write (largely) involved in the academy as a shared trait with the alt right. also, wrong *with* the left typo erk]

First of all, I’d say thank you for your comment! I disagree with some points but I’m with you on others. I want to try and address each of them in turn.

The easiest one to address is the claim that Jodi said Labour was the most progressive party in Europe. She didn’t. She said it was the strongest or the most powerful, something like that. I can’t remember her exact words but I thought it was obvious she was referencing the fact that it is the leftist party with the largest membership in the EU. It has (or has had) a similar rise to international fame as Syriza before it and that’s a very interesting phenomenon whether it ends up counting for anything in the long run or not.

I don’t even know how it is possible to measure “progressivity”.

Speaking to your comment more broadly, however, Dean’s style and references and whatever else aside, I do think that she did well to (re)affirm the foundations that we’ve long had at our disposal but which have been diminished by mechanisms of capitalist capture — a task similar to that taken on by Mark in the development of his Acid Communism project — so I really don’t understand the complaint that she didn’t attempt to open up a space to acknowledge certain problems.

Dean spoke precisely of the kind of entrepreneurial politics which has defined much of leftist discourse since the 1990s, especially since the diminishing of a class consciousness that has been very explicit over the last ten to fifteen years.

Intersectionality, in this regard, is a useful concept but it has notably not assisted in alleviating or raising a common consciousness. We can point to pop cultural examples but within the academy and grad student lefty circles all it seems to have done is emboldened a new atomism (as individualism). I agree that “intersectionality” is not (neo)liberalism in theory but it is often deployed as (neo)liberalism in practice and that is largely because of the main undercurrent of Mark’s text and Jodi’s talk: the lack of a decent class politics.

I should say at this point that I’m not that aware of any good critiques of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” that talk about this. (The most vocal critics were the ones who gloated about Mark’s suicide in the aftermath of his death, of course, and who were largely devoid of any reputable class politics prior to that anyway. I’d be happy to be sent some others though.) The only critiques that I’ve read have completely missed the point about class consciousness being the basis for an anticapitalist politics (which has been ejected rather than positioned horizontality beside other struggles as intersectionality claims to do). So I think, broadly speaking, the critique at the heart of the article remains an important one to consider: these identitarian politics are precisely the result of — rather than a reaction to — capitalist realism, since they eject the central capitalist critique for the sake of vague ungrounded balloons of experience that bounce off each other without consequence.

That is not an outright dismissal of “identity politics” as such but they certainly aren’t put to productive use very often anymore. I think it’s good to take a political stance on your own sense of self and how you fit within a wider world — this is a large part of the (feminist) process of consciousness raising that Mark so frequently advocated for — but the frequency with which such thinking slips into egotism and navel-gazing is regretful. No one talks about that as a perpetual risk — the reduction of a minoritarian politics down to a minority of one. That’s not the case for everyone, of course, but that is frequently how these movements are presented and it is along these lines that things so often fall apart in leftist circles in my experience. I’d be happy to be proven wrong on that though.

I think this kind of reaction is inherently linked to the original reaction to “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It has always seemed to me like everyone who read Capitalist Realism with glee, thinking they were above its criticisms, had to suddenly confront the fact that maybe they were contributing to it as well. And the timeline here is important. Mark developed and wrote Capitalist Realism in the mid 2000s and eventually published it in 2009, before all the UK political drama of 2010, a moment of impotence from which so many of these “identity politics” discussions developed outwards from and which likewise echoed a very rapid shift in who was going to university and why.

I think the failure of those early 2010s experiences showed that this “reflective impotence” went far deeper and, whilst somewhat overly embittered, I think “Exiting the Vampire Castle” expresses a disappointment and frustration held by many other leftists — a disappointment in the fact that class politics, once a common ground on which to build political projects, has fallen by the wayside and the years that followed the publication of Capitalist Realism really didn’t help alleviate that issue.

Owen Jones addressed this himself just two years after Mark published Capitalist Realism with his book Chavs and I remember reading that book very clearly, allowing it to blow a small hole open in my own (class) consciousness and change how I saw myself amongst my peers during my second year at university. If I ever parroted its arguments, however, I’d be laughed at.

That’s an experience that has persisted for many years — continuing today even — and which Mark points out himself when he notes how rough a time Jones has had — and continues to have — despite being “the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”. Owen Jones’ book was (and still is) marvellous but whilst it seemed to single-handedly force the word “chav” to fall into disrepute amongst the middle classes, it didn’t seem to change people’s behaviours more generally. In fact, the primary goal that Jones said he had (in the updated preface for a later edition) was left largely unscathed. He writes that

the book wasn’t simply about the word [“chav”]. It aimed to challenge the myth that ‘we’re all middle class now’: that most of the old working class had been ‘aspirational’ and joined ‘Middle Britain’ (whatever that was), leaving behind a feckless, problematic rump. This was often racialized and described as the ‘white working class’. ‘Chavs’ was the term — encompassing a whole range of pejorative connotations — that best summed up this caricature.”

But in tackling the caricature, it seemed to only allow the middle classes to absorb the chav image as somehow respectable and cool now. And that’s a “class drag” fashion trend that Goldsmiths remains renowned for — which leads us to the elephant in the room that Jodi was perhaps completely unaware of:

It’s been said — by some who are within the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths, I might add — that the “VC” of “Vampire Castle” echoing the “VC” of the “Visual Cultures” department is not a coincidence.

It is partly this subtext within the original essay that led to a schism that has never closed within Goldsmiths itself but it is a schism that still needs addressing despite its sensitivity: for all its self-declared progressivisms, Goldsmiths’ class politics are severely lacking, whether that is in terms of management, lecturers or students. Because of this elephant in the room, the likes of Mark Fisher — working class intellectuals who write unfetishistically about their experiences, particularly how they continue to affect their working lives as lecturers — have been removed one by one from academia. (It has likewise been suggested that “Exiting the Vampire Castle” may had something to do with Mark not getting the promotion that left him so gutted in 2016.) As someone put it in a conversation had just last night, what Mark represented was a third path between “the dichotomy of Adornian academic miserablism and Goldsmiths identitarianism” and this is what is so striking about his absence from Goldsmiths today. There remain only a few who continue to carry that torch.

What’s most apparent are the continued casualties. I know of someone who was signed off sick with depression after being attacked and harassed for daring to talk about a UK-specific working class experience in a public lecture programme last year. This rang so true with one of Mark’s primary warnings in his essay:

The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Likewise amongst students, to be from a working class background — particularly at a postgraduate level — is a rarity.

During the strikes of 2018, there was a strong and vocal group of undergrad students who were evidently devoid of any sense of solidarity with workers and that seems to be because working class people remain a minority within that institution.

I know from my own experience that I was regularly the only person from such a background in most of my classes and it had a major impact on many discussions had — the worst being when reading Mark’s text “Good For Nothing” in the aftermath of his death and having that text dismissed by one lecturer due to the fact that, apparently, “rich people get sad too”. To be the only student to object to that erasure of class consciousness, mere days after his death, became just one more way in which Mark’s apparently best-forgotten essay continued to resonate with daily experiences.

Yeah, maybe Mark was a white cishet man but Mark was a very valuable voice precisely for his working class background and his understanding and articulation of that experience. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he could sniff out that “bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation” of historic struggles very quickly. In fact, I think most can who are from such backgrounds, because the comradeship in the working class cities that I grew up in — which crossed gendered and racialised lines effortlessly because we all shared a broader socioeconomic struggle — is a world away from what I’ve discovered to be the norm here in London, and particularly in a place like Goldsmiths.

I do appreciate your point that many of those who took issue with Mark’s post were POC or queer, of course, but this chimes in with a further elephant in the room. Many people from such demographics that I know, who are additionally working class, have had no problem with Mark’s essay. Those I know who have don’t seem to share in the experience that the article is so focussed on. And so the acknowledgement that certain minoritarian political positions can nonetheless remain bourgeois in this century is an important one to emphasise here, which Jodi likewise did in her lecture. Identity politics, deployed by these people, too often lead to inverted “struggle sessions” where the working class is routinely humiliated by the bourgeoisie who has discovered their place on some great Venn diagram of suffering and chosen to misuse and abuse it, undermining the very politics they claim to represent through their blind self-interest.

None of these other identities are magically allied with class struggles and being told that is not a bad thing. It is, unfortunately, very necessary. To liken this to a Jordan Peterson “get over it, snowflakes” is incredibly ignorant. That isn’t remotely the message being expressed (quite clearly, I think), which is: stop conveniently “dis-articulating” class experiences from your newfound academy-shaped subjectivity. Mark says this himself explicitly, even addressing your concerns about his own identitarian position(s):

The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

[…] The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race  — but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.

Being made aware of our blindspots is a major part of any consciousness raising exercise, and it can likewise be a traumatic one. Goldsmiths — and many who orbit it — could do well to recognise their own class blindspots, because they are as gaping to everyone else as my own white privilege was, for example, before I moved to south east London. However, the suggestion seems to be that doing this is a violence in itself and any discussion that bourgeois minoritarians might have further unruptured blind spots is taken with the utmost offence.

Further to this point about listening to people, it becomes strange that so many of the more patronising and cynical questions asked last Friday were asked by people who evidently hadn’t read Mark or even listened to Jodi’s talk. Some questions were truly bizarre and pointless. This was the worst result of Mark’s original essay, which seemed to largely demonstrate that everyone was apparently guilty of the same thing and complained about not being listened to. It was Spiderman meme territory.

To your point about her dismissal of a black woman’s point: that point was factually incorrect. I may need to listen back to the recording but the question seemed to be “Why haven’t POC been involved in these movements?” And the answer given was: “But they have?” Maybe Dean was in a defensive flow by that point in the evening but she did well to address a lot of other historical inaccuracies that were fired at her as critiques from the crowd. (I only know about that Black communist history myself because a friend of mine wrote her dissertation on the Harlem Renaissance and Communist Russia’s financial and cultural support the various movements that grew out of that moment in the Black Radical Tradition.) Are you suggesting the question-asker would have known this if she wasn’t so disillusioned by party politics? I don’t see why that should be placed at Jodi’s feet.

(This is likewise similar to the question asked about rehabilitating rapists in communist parties — a disingenuous question asked by someone I don’t know but how was nonetheless accompanying one of the most insufferable bourgeois arseholes to regularly grace Goldsmiths’ events, who regularly thinks people are mysogynistic or racist simply because they think she’s a posh arsehole. It was a deeply unfair and antagonistic question which it would be impossible to do justice in such a forum. Dean nonetheless dodged it, as best she could, deciding to briefly address another historical example of Communist party forgiveness in the USA, but I’m not sure how she could come out of such a question unscathed. What struck me was that whilst many progressives might look to a prison system like Norway’s, for instance, with envy and admiration, the suggestion that we might take that approach socially rather than just allowing it to be implemented as part of state infrastructure, is seen as an abomination and makes Dean some kind of rape apologist. So let’s be clear: the audience that night was infrequently a fucking piece of work — if nonetheless very stereotypically Goldsmithsy.)

I still don’t understand the critique that she didn’t open up this space for discussing and addressing why people are disillusioned with radical politics. She did for me, in her talk and over the course of a marathon Q&A session the likes of which I’ve never seen or otherwise wilfully sat through. Discussing precisely the ways that neoliberal and bourgeois subjectivities have imperceptibly overwritten the foundations of our common politics is addressing the question of why so many are disillusioned. The only thing I wish she’d highlighted more was how complicit Goldsmiths itself is within that. That was noticeably missing but then how was she to know?

It’s worth emphasising further still that this was likewise to be the project of Acid Communism. Mark wanted to trace this problem of the dominance of bourgeois subjectivities back to the 1970s when governments all over the world felt threatened by the construction of various intersectional movements and discourses — “What if the working class became hippies?” being one of Mark’s central questions. And this surprised a lot of people because Mark hated hippies. Like many punks and postpunks, perhaps he saw their anti-work ethic as the somewhat attainable dream of a lackadaisical bourgeois class who had just rediscovered nature. And that’s still true today — hippie kids in class drag appropriating the knowledges of other cultures to liven up their otherwise normie and comfortable existences — but Mark decided to put his cynicism to one side and ask: “Well, what if this had gone differently and these various sides had been able to build something new together?”

This questions aren’t dissimilar to those asked in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, they’re simply less offensive, perhaps, when jettisoned back to their 20th century roots. But answering those questions and following Mark’s own trajectory tells us a lot about the politics we currently have and it shouldn’t be controversial to say they’re not all that good or pretty.

That’s not to say they haven’t improved more recently, but from what? Pre-Corbyn, leftist politics had almost become a luxury that those they were intended to help could not afford. Corbyn is interesting because he has signalled a sea change. Before Corbyn, the only leftist party many people had time for was the Green Party, and they were rife with posh cunts.

You’re right that people are fighting against other forms of abuse and injustice in other areas, and that’s great, but to suggest that that is somehow separate from class struggle is odd to me. Nevertheless, that’s how so many see it, and — personally — I think that’s dumb.

To end on a more positive and agreeable note, I will add that I do agree with you on the issues of party politics. That has often turned me off too and it’s not something I get about Mark or Jodi’s positions. I feel like this is a point that could have done with a lot more exploration, and it is a topic I’ve discussed in relation to Jodi’s work on this blog before, but none of the insight discussed here was present in her talk. Mark was obviously involved in party politics and that’s also how he met the likes of Jeremy Gilbert and Plan C. Those who he worked with have generally turned me off in this regard. Lots of egotism which I’m surprised Mark managed to stomach. But I get the impression that maybe Mark thought it was better to be on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in, until he realised that those on the inside somehow saw themselves as outsiders pissing in anyway, regardless of their material conditions.

Also, I’m glad you enjoy the blog and I do hope this doesn’t change that.

Thanks for reading.



Update: On the final point about party politics, Ed Berger adds in the comments below:

With regards to the very last point on Mark’s engagement with the party, both theoretical and in practice — knowing that he was engaging with Autonomist thought during the period he was developing acid communism (and given his rejection of bureaucracy, so often associated with the party-form itself), is it possible that his relation to the party can be viewed through those lenses? In pieces like Negri’s ‘Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage’, the party gets mutated, detached from bureaucracy and the state, pushed back into the ferment of working class organization and exists, at times, as that which is attacked by the working class out of necessity. He speaks of the party as “dead labour”, the “negation of the refusal of work”, whose historical legacy “looms over us like a nightmare.” But there’s a different party he perceives the outline of, one that makes possible the refusal of work and is subordinated to the process of proletarian self-valorization, as opposed to the reversal that the historical form has carried out.

[…]

Xenogothic Teespring

This has been a couple of months in the making, working on some photographs and designs for some Xenogothic merchandise.

There are lots of t-shirts along with posters, stickers, phone cases and beach towels… I know! Beach towels!

There are more things to come. I’ve actually been informed it might be good to spread things out and not just slap a logo on things because I think it’s really funny to have a beach towel and a phone case for a blog.

To celebrate the launch, here’s a 20% off discount code that will be valid for one week: XENO20

You can take a look at what is on offer here. Feedback and piss-taking welcomed.

New Colour Fields

This is an old project that died because life got in the way. It was going to be a book but I never had the time to put it together properly. I remembered it out of nowhere last night and someone suggested the most obvious way to give it new life: make it into a blog. So here we go.

NEW COLOUR FIELDS

I’m going to built it up gradually, posting just one new image a week. You can follow the WordPress or you can also follow it here on Twitter.

The blog also features a text by a friend of mine, Rebecca Parker, which you can read here:

The manufacture of the blank, of the void, within the realm of the real is the direct opposite of the magician’s ability to conjure something out of nothing: an act of destruction subverted to such an extent that it becomes creation. These artists do not want to create a world on canvas, nor refocus the world we have with the canvas as lens. Rather they seek to carve their canvases out of the world itself, only to leave them bare.

Comrades

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:

  1. Capitalist realism is a “reflective impotence”: the imagining of alternatives is taken to be an impossibility. Our sense of possibility is, in itself, lost.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Goth Blobby

More Twitter clippings I’d like to have saved forever. “Blob Blob Blobby” has inspired so much greatest these past few weeks.


That #10YearDifference trend thing on Twitter has been illuminating and hilarious.

I didn’t think I’d bother joining in but then I found some pictures from a Hallowe’en party I went to in 2009 and they were too good not to share.

This morning I woke up to a drawing of 2019 me with 2009 Hallowe’en makeup on, emerging from a Mr Blobby costume, drawn by @PartyPrat, officially making her my favourite person alive.