Capitalist Realism & Cancel Culture:
How Theory Eats Itself

[Critical Theory] holds that truth in all forms is subjective, a function of power exerted by the privileged over the victimized. This power envelops not just the “marginalized” but everyday language, law, science, medicine and academic research. All these intellectual realms are mere creations of “an entrenched patriarchal ascendancy”. Only identities and emotions may be treated as “reified” or real.

Simon Jenkins’ review of Cynical Theories in the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement is a masterclass in jerking off with the hand that feeds you. He demonstrates so succinctly how the ouroboros of neoliberalism seeks to neutralise any and all opposition to itself, precisely by casting its enemies in its own image. In the case of “identity politics”, this occurs when pundits attack the egg that the golden goose of neoliberalism (as the ideology of late capitalism) has laid for us. This is most apparent in that final sentence of the quotation above — “Only identities and emotions may be treated as ‘reified’ or real.”

Surely this is a point of agreement between Marxists and today’s conservative pundits? The reification of social relations — “identities and emotions” — is a central critique of capitalism’s impact on subjectivity; one made by Marx and Marxists repeatedly for over a century. The problem with identity politics more broadly is that this process of reification is precisely how idpol ends up playing into capitalism’s hands. By making individual identities and emotions things to trade on, rather than starting points for the construction of anti-capitalist solidarity, they are reified and commodified. Enter “woke capitalism”, or, as it used to be known, “pink capitalism”. First there was the appropriation of sexual politics by corporations, now we have an appropriation of racial politics by corporations — but it’s all done in service of the same agenda: maintaining capitalist realism. Demonstrating how capitalism cares about its underclass and is doing all that it possibly can to help them (honest!) emboldens the view that radicals and critics are unreasonable and impossible to satisfy.

Today, this logic is becoming increasingly twisted. This process of alienation does not just occur in the realm of popular culture, where it can be critically compartmentalised and dealt with accordingly; now the right is taking aim at the apparent last bastion of defence — academia — exploiting an internal rot that has, again, been encouraged by the “neoliberalisation” of universities themselves. As such, those who have arguably encouraged cancel culture’s pervasiveness the most (by banging on about it for years now; it is a hyperstition if ever there was one) now attribute it to their old enemies.

In Jenkins’ review (and, supposedly, the book in question), the blame bizarrely lies at the feet of Gramsci, Derrida, and Foucault — Deleuze and Guattari’s term “micropolitics” gets a mention but seems to be lumped in with “microaggressions” as a snowflake grievance, rather than one of the more useful concepts at our disposal for explaining how we’ve ended up in this mess. Jenkins, playing the useful idiot, instead conflates this cognitive dissonance within an understanding of leftist theory to an inherent unreason within anti-capitalist theory itself, conveniently obscuring the fact that, for the last hundred years, Marxists (and plenty of others besides) have attributed this propensity for unreason — the encouragement of theory to eat itself — to the dialectic of capitalism itself.

What is notable is that this amorphous and hapless “critical theory” is not once given its proper name. Nor is the central target of its critique ever mentioned: capitalism. Instead, “critical theory” is hopelessly generalised at every turn — much like the “science” and “reason” that Jenkins claims to support in its stead. Despite the acutely political nature of the problem at hand, it is depoliticised and pathologies, and turned into an argument between madness and truth.

The generalised narrative put forward by Jenkins is that the “postmodernists” (read: “poststructuralists” et al. — postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, not its critics proper), having “seen a transformation of policy and practice on race, gender and homosexuality”, thanks to their own theories, must “shift their target from ‘material advances within social structures’ to ever more obscurantist grievances.” But what is obscured here by Jenkins and, presumably, the subjects of his review, is that progress and reform are, of course, not the aim here. It’s not about improving capitalism but removing it and surpassing it. What they obscure here instead, in very convenient and leading terms, is a consistent analysis of how capitalism adapts to its critiques whilst retaining its grasp on society.

As a result, what gets lost in Jenkins’ review is a century of consistency offered up by the theoretical left. Instead, at every opportunity, we see a preference for muddying the waters.

I do wonder how successful a sustained history of the “neoliberalisation” of subjectivity could be in our present moment. (There are arguably already a few out there but none that has broken into popular discourse and skewered the noise of the present.) Many have written on this over the decades but now more than ever we can see how this cyclone of attacks on the left’s negative praxes has its roots in neoliberalism itself — and the left has the receipts to prove it. Why not collate them? Aren’t there some opportunities left to exploit here? To watch the right attack the left for becoming what it has encouraged them to become surely leaves a few open goals for those sensitive to late-capitalism’s contradiction engine?

Then again, the left has a serious problem when attempts to retain a fidelity to its rich theoretical history start to sound like I know you are but what am I? But this too seems intentional. The right’s present obsession with “cancel culture” and “identity politics” and “leftist intolerance” begins to feel like a vicious opportunism. Finally, the left has started to succumb to capitalism’s influence; now is the time to attack this chink in their armour with everything we’ve got. The irony is that, in choosing this mode of attack, the right leaves itself open to critique in turn.

In attacking the left’s present state, it highlights the results of its own processes. Attempts to blame many of the left’s most famous theorists are always poorly researched and desperate. This is because the real source of the left’s worst habits is the very thing they hope to defend.

Jenkins reports, for instance, that Cynical theories deems cancel culture to be the biggest threat to Western democracy and reason since the Soviet Union, but our current moment isn’t the product of authoritarian state legislation from behind the Iron Curtain; it’s the result of capitalist dynamics being let loose in communication channels. This leads to an antagonistic circle jerk devoid of any substance, and least of all any class analysis and actual Marxism.

The problem for Jenkins is that the left has a solution ready and waiting. It knows exactly what to do to rectify the anemic group politics of late capitalism. More communism, please!

I was reminded of this after seeing this tweet from Ash Sarkar the other day —

— which I’d say expresses the exact same argument made by Mark Fisher seven years ago in his controversial essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” —

The issue for Fisher was that many of our elite cultural and academic institutions have erased class from their considerations for too long. The focus of Fisher’s critique was, of course, the left — partly why the essay was so controversial — but this was for good reason. The UK left’s blind spot around class in the twenty-first century — a hangover from the New Labour years — was a leak hole within which its opponents were establishing an enemy within. The left had suffered from decades of neoliberalisation and, as a result, had found itself, at least at the level of mainstream discourse, to be a mirror image of its opponents. This was only obvious to the majority in the UK following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, but that moment was arguably prefigured by the likes of Mark Fisher and Owen Jones, who repeatedly attempted to re-energise this waning class consciousness during the first decade of the new millennium.

In response, we have seen a re-treading of right-wing tactics from the 1960s and ’70s. Just as the working class had broadly been forgotten about and demonised and effectively erased from (inter)national consciousness since the 1970s, the left’s attempts to reverse this in the 2000s were met with a repeat of the right’s cajoling of a reactionary working class. This process has had a detrimental effect on the left, as it suggests that, Yes, okay, if you insist, there are working class people but they’re not leftists — all leftists are bourgeois. The right holds a mirror up to its opponents and whilst, in most circumstances, this would be a fickle and easily-sidestepped manoeuvre, as we reach the end of the long game of neoliberalism we find ourselves unfortunately confounded, because as superficial as their retorts are, there is now some truth in them. The left has indeed been infected by a kind of bourgeois subjectivity — a subject position made the default by neoliberalism’s war on class consciousness. Therein lies our chicken/egg scenario.

Fisher got taken to the cleaners for this suggestion a few years ago, and his essay has since been appropriated by those on the right as an early essay written in their reactionary favour, but in the fervour of disagreement the actual argument is buried time and again. What Fisher deemed necessary was a new drive “to identify the features of the discourses and the desires which have led us to this grim and demoralising pass, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent — and not because we are terrorised by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement.”

Any nuance is smashed out of this argument by the right themselves — and it was telling how many respondents to Sarkar’s tweet felt she was similarly talking gibberish. But the irony is that Simon Jenkins holds the same view. As he sees it, “the politics of group identity” are affected by “a bourgeois preciousness that privileges some groups to the neglect of others, such as the poor, the alienated, the disempowered and perhaps even the unconsciously racist.” (He bizarrely blames Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” for this at one point, but Crenshaw’s concept targets this same bourgeois sentiment as it manifests in institutions of law.)

This hop, skip and jump linking poverty to “unconscious” racism is the primary maneuver behind the right’s construction of a reactionary working class, but somehow it’s the left who are blamed for it. Why? For the same reason that has stalked the West for decades; as Fisher notes repeatedly in his Postcapitalist Desire lectures, this is where the problems began — the right-wing driving a wedge between the left (who are supposedly all posh) and those they claim to represent (the poor), leading to the creation of a reactionary working-class that sides with the actually posh establishment and calls it aspiration.

This has presented the right with the perfect bait-and-switch. As the left mutates under a pervasive right-wing influence, the right can attack them using the left’s own moral standards, obfuscating the fact that the present nightmare of popular political discourse is the spawn of the right’s policies and political interventions going back decades. As such, through this increasingly twisted logic, they are able to declare the left to be the epitome of 21st-century paranoia and moralisation, only to cast their own moral bankruptcy as a virtue. The distraction provided by the left’s auto-immune disease then allows the right to fall back on their familiar arguments of “leftism just doesn’t work”.

I would not be surprised if, in a decade or so, once we have (hopefully) climbed out of this impotence, the right will declare “well, you had your shot a few years ago when you took over the universities and that was a disaster” — to which the left will reply “a leftist university has never been tried.” The mind-numbing arguments that stalk state communism echo down the years, in ever more parochial contexts… And the right remains content in making sure its chicken-or-egg approach to discourse continues forever, all to the benefit of capitalism.

Because this kind of discourse is, of course, a prime foundation for capitalist realism. The right insists, time and again, that we’ve tried it the leftist way and it was a disaster. Meanwhile, all the interventions and barricades and coups are conveniently scrubbed from the history books. We see the same thing happening now. What is supposedly authoritarian about a present left-wing agenda is that it seeks to shine a light on a capitalist unconscious — and where else does capitalism really operate other than there? The left has been happy to simply shine a light on capitalist dreamwork and shout, “Look! Look at these cracks in the firmament! Look at the unconscionable things used to fill in the cracks! Look at the foundations of this world in which we live — built on atrocities hidden in plain sight!”

This isn’t enough. We have to build a consciousness around these issues in a way that doesn’t simply feed into the right’s narrative. One way of doing this — the most common, as I see it — is simply refusing to play the game. But the other option is playing the game better than they are. This is surely possible. Their tactic, so far, amounts to a chant of “stop hitting yourself, stop hitting yourself” as they throw our own theories back at us. But this is the future they always wanted. This is the end game of neoliberalism. If they hate the straw man of a reactionary left so much — a left that they themselves have summoned — they best be careful what they wish for, because the best alternative will likely be a truly leftist one. We should try demonstrating that.

1 Comment

  1. I think that you might be interested in the blog by Lou Keep, as it seems relevant here. He’s got an interesting analysis of social power and identity, and comes to the conclusion as identity politics coming from a general societal epidemic of narcissism. And in a later series of posts, he kinda derives narcissism from … well, quite a few things, including neoliberal modernity. His point is that identity politics may seem to be a great way of helping [group] but actually doesn’t, and that real improvement comes from giving power and agency.

    “Identity isn’t what “everyone political” pays, no, but I do think it’s a trend. You see the effects play out too reliably, and too disparately, for it to be confined to one single group. This is what I mean, of course, by the “feel” of modern politics. That feel is identity. “What is our equivalent of the palace?” Well, frankly, something something Hobbes. No, it wasn’t always like that. And?

    Every single article about Trump’s fascism, or the Left’s totalitarianism, should be read in this light. Sure, to an outside observer it looks crazy (do I mean the article or the thing its describing?). But that outside observer is just in a lower bracket – give them an election and they’ll be up in the top rates.

    There are obvious ways that this destroys the ability to do anything. Social capital allows for social power which allows for change. When that is squandered on identification, defense, and fortification, then nothing gets done. There is no political impasse, because neither side is proposing anything. They’re maintaining whatever rate works just to maintain that rate and pretend that they’re strong. “Pretend” is the key word there.

    So ends social power as an effective force, and along with that ends its use as a tool for analysis.”Effects of social power” can’t explain why its modern form led to this. Indeed, social power has been around for quite some time, and the recent interaction with identity is relatively new. Social power doesn’t have to lead to war, it only does so when threats to the social state are simultaneously taken as threats to one’s identity. The real question, then, is what happened to identity? Phrased differently: why did identity become the foremost concern?


    Here’s a common response to TLP: “How do we stop narcissism?” Wrong question. Narcissism is an epiphenomenon. The emphasis on it is a con. The problem is –

    “How do we stop feelings of weakness?” Closer, but what if those are justified feelings? What if people are in fact weak? They already know that they’ve failed, and now a flock of ######## want to make them like themselves anyway. Stop trying to trick people into “feeling” something. That makes them less powerful, not more.

    “How do we make people stronger?” Even closer. That is properly political, and I’ll admit it as the only important political question, which why I maintain any contact with the Left at all. But even [Powerful Dude] feels powerless, and you can tell because [Powerful Dude] is a narcissist. The rich and powerful hate themselves and desperately want to be liked, insert your least favorite example here. The issue isn’t even strength or weakness per se, it’s the inability to know that one is strong or weak. The only way to know is to have a goal. The only way to have a goal is to value something. The only way to value something is –

    “What is nihilism?”

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