A Few More Angry Notes on Class Consciousness

For class consciousness is never a mere matter of identifying a state of affairs that already exists; the making visible of the structures that produce subordination immediately de-naturalises those structures, and changes the way in which subjugation is experienced. When that learned sense of inferiority is rejected, who knows what can happen?

K-Punk, “Going Overground”


The discussion around Jodi Dean’s memorial lecture rears its ugly head again, with the “Cautiously Pessimistic” blog (from now on “CP”) writing a longer follow-up response to Mark’s essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle“.

A few weeks back, we had a disagreement about the importance of Mark’s text in the comments of one of my posts about Dean’s lecture. Having said in my post that I’ve never read a decent critique of Mark’s essay — just a lot of hot air and bitterness — CP responded by pointing to their own post, written around the time that the article was originally published.

Unfortunately, I had already read this post before and didn’t think much of it. It is guilty of doing the very thing that Mark critiques in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — it disarticulates his class position. And, as Mark wrote, “the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.”

First of all, in this original post, CP claims that, throughout the essay, Mark’s “(lack of) understanding of class rears its confused head” — confused because Mark’s definition of class apparently has “nothing to do with your position in society or what your material interests are, or whether you work for a living or live off other people’s labour: it’s just, like, a thing, you know, it just is?”

Is this insinuating that Mark is some sort of oppressive millionaire? Or hadn’t written at length on what constitutes class and our experiences of it elsewhere?

What should be clear, for any reader of Mark’s work, is that he knew experiences of class were not so easily contained by reductively academic definitions. This is not to double down on Mark’s apparent vagueness but to acknowledge that British class politics is a very complex topic, and that is perhaps more true for people who actually are working class than those who theorise about such definitions which fail to contain lived experience.

As a result, I have very little time for people who argue that you can somehow graduate (perhaps literally) from your class position, as CP argues in their comments and new reply.

Economic situations can change, yes, but there is far more to class than this, necessarily so. Presumably CP wants to guard against the self-made men of this world, who loved to talk about starting from nothing and blowing hot air up the rear end of their own biographies. But these are the same people who disarticulate class from experience. They’re not saying “class is important”, they’re dismissing it on grounds of individualised success and personal luck. CP simply inverts the argument rather than challenging it, insisting, just as they do, on the deconstruction of platforms for solidarity.

So, personally, I agree with Mark, broadly speaking. I agree with his call for more working class voices in our media, in our culture, in our politics, in our schools and universities — and I don’t just mean “entrepreneurs”: I want better voices too — but the paradox is that, if you somehow get there, your working class identity is void — at least according to CP. If you publicly fight for working class issues, on a larger platform than most, you’re a sellout and a hypocrite… It’s a facile and reductive argument and one which Mark himself derided.

The specific suggestion made by CP is that all people from working class backgrounds who make it into academia are somehow ignorant of the positions they hold. To disavow this knowledge, which Mark shared his thoughts on repeatedly and very publicly, is incredibly disingenuous. It also demonstrates the precise function of the vampire, sucking agency and options and histories, disavowing experiences for the sake of some quasi-fascist purity of position that is, in reality, completely nonexistent.

I said all this — with far more brevity — in the original comments, dismissing the post as trash and suggesting that if CP really wants to offer up a good critique, they’ve got to try a lot harder.

Well, they’ve gone away and come back. There is less evidence of trying harder here though, just elongating the same bogus and self-righteous argument.

Inevitably, this post is an elongation as well, although I intend to back up this one with the proper references.


CP’s argument is essentially unchanged from the one posted five years ago, although this time it’s been articulated less polemically, as if written solely because they feel guilty about the fact that the person they previously criticised is dead now, not wanting to be lumped in with the other idiots who simply proved Mark right in the aftermath of his death by gloating about it.

I’m sorry to say the attempt is bullshit — the tone was never offensive, the ignorance was, and all that’s happened here is the tone has been replaced, in a weak attempt to save face, whilst the ignorance remains.

As a result, I’m not going to address a lot of the later comments in this new post. Most of them are weird, given the context. Whilst CP continues to disarticulate Mark’s writing on class, they actually end up parroting the argument he himself makes in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere, choosing a supposedly nicer way of articulating the same call for solidarity using “non-cancelled” references. It reveals many of the issues taken with Mark’s original essay to be straw men or misdirected grunges. If CP read something else by Mark other than Capitalist Realism they might realise just how pointless much of what they’re critiquing is.

The main offence persists, however, with CP demanding that Mark should have made some clear-cut definition as to what “class” exactly is. They offer up two definitions of their own but, ironically, it’s difficult to follow what exactly these definitions are. They’re ultimately vague and elastic — such is the central problematic of class today.

To agree with Mark’s essay is not to gloss over these problematics but to answer his call and acknowledge that the building of solidarity is something to be pursued despite them.

In another previous comment, critiquing Dean’s lecture, an anon proclaimed with scorn that it was as if Dean — and, perhaps, by extension, Mark himself — had never heard the term “intersectionality” before, and yet here we have another response which does far more to deflate such a concept than Mark ever did. “Intersectionality” is not a term for overdetermined and individuated identity pockets, as it’s so often deployed in the naive “identity politics” milieu: it’s a word that demands transcultural understanding as a foundation for consciousness and solidarity. It’s the opposite of an individualised politics.

When CP gets bogged down in over-defining class — insufficiently — and just ending up being cynical and bitter about the existence of academics, this is, again, the point that is missed. (At least until later, but we’ll come back to that.) They betray their main disagreements to be personal bugbears and semantic preferences. There is little understanding here. Just the griping of an individual.

At one point, for instance, CP seems to conflate the figure of the working-class academic with the likes of Sajid Javid, the current Home Secretary often tokenised by the Conservative party for the fact he’s the son of a bus driver and of Pakistani heritage. Javid may very well be those things but they do not cancel out the fact that he is a Member of Parliament for a sitting government that has enacted countless racist and classist policies since being in office, some of which he has personally presided over. The suggestion seems to be that being a “working class academic” is the careerist equivalent of saying “I’m not racist, I’ve got black friends.”

Are these things really equatable? In some respects, yes, I think they are. In fact, this is precisely the blurred line which Mark’s essay contends with. Of course there are innumerable academics who preach the gospel of Marx whilst doing nothing to alleviate class struggle. They are the gatekeepers repeatedly criticised by Mark all over K-Punk. These are precisely the people that the Vampire’s Castle attempts to skewer: the people who covet class politics as something for them and them alone; for their careers and their own self-interest.

Despite what CP seems to think, Mark was not one of these people. To suggest that he was is yet more ignorance. He was aware of the predicament of being working class and in an institutionally bourgeois position, and he wrote about these tensions on numerous occasions. This came through most vividly in his writing on culture, where his post-punk and pulp sensibilities informed a class politics that refused to relegate class consciousness to a form of academic posturing.

This is why Mark loved The Hunger Games, for instance, once writing that what author Suzanne Collins achieves is “an intersectional analysis and decoding of the way that class, gender, race and colonial power work together — not in the pious academic register of the Vampires’ Castle, but in the mythographic core of popular culture — functioning not as a delibidinizing demand for more thinking, more guilt, but as an inciting call to build new collectivities.”

Now, CP obviously prides themselves on not being an academic — and academia at large emerges as the primary straw man here, with Mark propped up as some imaginary representative of all its bourgeois functions — but they are certainly mind-numbingly pious. Worse than this, however, is the sheer ignorance behind their piety. CP isn’t only guilty of disarticulating Mark’s class position but so much of his other writing and political activity as well.

At one point, for example, CP points to Nick Cohen’s appropriation of Mark’s essay as a sign of how bad it must be but, in truth, CP is more reminiscent of Cohen than Mark is — conveniently ignoring the scorn Cohen received and the k-punk clippings sent to Cohen in the aftermath of the article’s publication that insulted him in vitriolic terms.

Mark repeatedly challenged “Cohen’s manifold fallacies of reasoning, grotesquely inapt analogies and factual errors” regarding his op-eds about the Iraq war, but these are likewise the things CP is guilty of as well.

The worst offence for me is that, in proclaiming “working-class academic” to be something of an oxymoron, they deny Mark’s inspiring and unparalleled political activity on campus, creating political groups with students and contributing to campus politics, raising more awareness about class consciousness than anyone else in his department was perhaps able to — precisely because of his background.

A more concrete example: here — starting at 15:12 — is a statement Mark prerecorded for the People’s Tribunal which saw the active building of solidarity between students, academic and non-academic staff — activity ironically cited by CP in a comment and deemed as good on-campus class-conscious worker-supporting activity, without acknowledging just how involved Mark was in this and how he directly inspired the atmosphere that allowed such activity to happen in the first place.

I think these experiences were so important to Mark because he knew what it was like on both sides of the divide. He knew what it was like to have your class experience disavowed as a student and he related to and directly supported students who expressed an affinity with him on this issue. He strove to help them channel it into activity inside and outside of the classroom. He wanted to be a good influence in this regard and to give hope to kids who were like he once was. He even writes somewhere that this was the explicit goal of Capitalist Realism: to write a politically engaged book that his 16 year old students would enjoy.

This is why he wrote so enthusiastically — because he knew the power of seeing and hearing people like yourself; how that affinity and consciousness raising is, first and foremost, validating. He wrote about the term “popular modernism” to discuss just that — the importance and sad loss of that experimental form of class-conscious expression which did not tokenise itself and understood the value of its own voice beyond the tropes of a neoliberal authenticity, just like the voices which inspired him in his youth but which were, today, something of a rarity.

Rightly or wrongly, Mark saw Russell Brand as one of these people. Maybe he was wrong there — I can’t say I’ve ever found Brand to be that inspiring — but also, in 2013, it was very slim pickings… He was overly protective of the few examples we had. There are more now, but not enough.

Regardless, I admired the way Mark openly struggled with this ideal he set for himself. In fact, the resonance of this with his writing on depression is not coincidental. In “Good For Nothing” he wrote:

Writing about one’s own depression is difficult. Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice which accuses you of self-indulgence – you aren’t depressed, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, pull yourself together — and this voice is liable to be triggered by going public about the condition. Of course, this voice isn’t an ‘inner’ voice at all — it is the internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.

This resonates with his desire to talk about class experience and Mark’s essay goes on to insinuate as much — he likewise points to this sentiment in “Vampire Castle” — noting how this internal voice would disarticulate his class position long before the outside world did. It also makes CP’s comment from their original post all the more distasteful.

… perhaps if Fisher fucked off out of academia and got a real job somewhere, preferably doing manual labour but really just any job where you have a supervisor constantly breathing down your neck to make sure you’re working and not pissing about on the internet, he might find it considerably easier to escape “the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses.

The offensiveness of this comment, expressed again in the new post (if unpolemically), is that it betrays an ignorance regarding Mark’s openly discussed job history when articulating his experiences of depression.

(CP ends their post with an acknowledgement of this bad taste and expresses regret for it, but the same ignorance is still present behind every other argument made, even if it’s not expressed so cheaply. Again, all that’s regretted is the tone, with no attempt made to educate themselves on Mark’s various positions outside of a single article.)

This, again from “Good For Nothing”, is worth quoting in full:

My depression was always tied up with the conviction that I was literally good for nothing. I spent most of my life up to the age of thirty believing that I would never work. In my twenties I drifted between postgraduate study, periods of unemployment and temporary jobs. In each of these roles, I felt that I didn’t really belong — in postgraduate study, because I was a dilettante who had somehow faked his way through, not a proper scholar; in unemployment, because I wasn’t really unemployed, like those who were honestly seeking work, but a shirker; and in temporary jobs, because I felt I was performing incompetently, and in any case I didn’t really belong in these office or factory jobs, not because I was ‘too good’ for them, but — very much to the contrary — because I was over-educated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did. Even when I was on a psychiatric ward, I felt I was not really depressed — I was only simulating the condition in order to avoid work, or in the infernally paradoxical logic of depression, I was simulating it in order to conceal the fact that I was not capable of working, and that there was no place at all for me in society.

When I eventually got a job as lecturer in a Further Education college, I was for a while elated — yet by its very nature this elation showed that I had not shaken off the feelings of worthlessness that would soon lead to further periods of depression. I lacked the calm confidence of one born to the role. At some not very submerged level, I evidently still didn’t believe that I was the kind of person who could do a job like teaching. But where did this belief come from? […] The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

In disavowing Mark’s class position, CP simply echoes the depressive voice in Mark’s own head. “That’s not the right job for you.” Well, what is?

Just as infuriating, in light of this, is CP’s passive advocation for “joyful militancy”, as if this too is alien to Mark’s own writings. (It’s not.) But similarities between these positions elsewhere does not undermine the tone of “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It’s okay — good even — to get sad; to get angry. It’s a question of why you feel that way and what you do with it. Again, Mark wrote of the goal for himself: “From anger and sadness to collective joy…

“Exiting the Vampire Castle” was just that — an exit — but Mark went on to do far more valuable things elsewhere and in other contexts. Exiting was his first step on the road to collective joy — an affect that is very rare on Twitter these days and just as rare in meatspace — but he did a great deal to try and find it. All he found on Twitter was anger and bitterness, misdirected, turned inwards, with no one to make contact with it.

Resonantly, Mark wrote about this kind of contact when reviewing Sleaford Mods’ album Divide & Exit for The Wire:

It isn’t always the role of political music to come up with solutions. But nothing could be more urgent than the questions which Sleaford Mods pose: who will make contact with the anger and frustration that Williamson articulates? Who can convert this bad affect into a new political project?

Not CP, that’s for sure.

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4 thoughts on “A Few More Angry Notes on Class Consciousness

  1. Cheers for taking the time to respond. I strongly suspect that we’re rapidly approaching the point – if we haven’t reached it already – where there’s not much more to add except a restatement of entrenched positions, but I will try and get around to writing up a response, although it’s likely to take a while before I get around to it.

    Like

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