Where Were You Before ’92?

Hauntology — a portmanteau and pun combining haunting and ontology — was first introduced to the world by Jacques Derrida in his 1993 book Spectres of Marx.

Is it a positive or a negative concept?

On the one hand, we might say it speaks to the strength of our ideas, that stagger on undead, despite being vanquished by capitalism. For Derrida, this applies to communism most specifically and Marxism more generally. Despite capitalism’s global success, following the fall of the Soviet Union, the “spectre of a world that could be free” lingers on. Capitalism may have “won”, monopolising our desires, but it has nonetheless failed to exorcise our desire for alternatives.

The same was true for Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher following the death of rave. The many attempts made by the political establishment to legislate it out of existence were, for all intents and purposes, successful. But the ideas that grounded that movement were not eradicated. They persist, unalive, through the music still produced, even if the scene is a shadow of its former self.

On the other hand, rather than constituting the strength of our countercultural ideals, perhaps hauntology speaks more to a fortunate weakness within capitalism. There is little glory in winning a one-horse race, and so capitalism must continue to prop up and sustain its own enemies to preserve the illusion of its own progress. The spectres that haunt us are now weaponised to keep us hopeful and, most importantly of all, compliant. (Cue accelerationism.)

The familiar and twisted shape of an ouroboros comes into view. Which is it? Is hauntology a product of capitalism or is it a critique of capitalism? If capitalism must produce its own critiques, is it both?

This tension has to remain central to any understanding of the term “hauntology”, in my view. Applied to any other context, the tension slackens. This is most obvious, I think, when things prior to 1991 are described as “hauntological”. (An increasingly frequent occurrence.)

Hauntology mourns the ascendency of capitalist universality. To transform hauntology into a term for ubiquitous spookiness defangs the critique at its heart, and simultaneously does capitalism’s work for it.

Surely this is obvious when we consider the ways that capitalism’s reification of history is achieved through a series of sociocultural retcons. Capitalism makes it known that it has always been here. It emerged, fully formed, out of feudalism and the path that led to now was inevitable. Retconning “hauntology” to refer to the cultural products of other times does something similar. But, in doing so, it forgets the concept’s specificity — that is, its signalling to a fact that things were not always like this.

The 1970s, for instance, were not hauntological as such. Those years are hauntological because their potentials and their now-novel perspectives haunt us in the here and now.

The dilution of hauntology’s temporal critique is a symptom of the process it sought to describe. It is a postmodern concept that attempts to skewer the uncanny tension of the “post-“. To infect it with the “pre-” is to misunderstand the power of its Nineties foundation, following the end of history.

It is history that haunts us, but we undo that active relation when we make “hauntology” itself historical.

As a reminder, I’ll be talking a bit about this and how it relates to accelerationism and “salvagepunk” tomorrow, in a talk to be given at the Association of the Design of History, live on YouTube at 21:00 UTC+1.

Postcapitalist Desire, Melancholy, Psychedelia and Mark Fisher:
XG on Interdependence with Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon

Shortly before Christmas, I had a really lovely evening chatting with Mat Dryhurst and Holly Herndon on their excellent podcast, Interdependence. Having been a fan for many, many years, it was a little bit terrifying but Holly and Mat are such engaged and passionate hosts, it was a real joy to chat with them. In fact, this might be my favourite public conversation I’ve yet had around Mark’s work.

It feels weird to be posting this on the anniversary of Mark’s death, but to borrow from an earlier Twitter thread

I’ve been thinking a lot, ever since Egress came out, about Mark’s adage that “all that is solid melts into PR” and I cringe under waves of discomfort when I feel my own relationship to Mark and my own engagement with his work being infected by the virus of commercialism. This is not intention but something of an occupational hazard — in becoming occupied by Mark’s legacy, the further distribution of his thought becomes entangled with capitalist modes of distribution. As such, I really cherish the moments when that structure of sharing and exchange is broken down into something more informal. That is what I love about this episode of Interdependence, even listening back myself — how quickly we fall into talking about Mark and his work as fans more than anything.

In that respect, it feels like a lovely sentiment to share today, four years on. Though Mark’s death wavers as this oddly abstract event, no longer immediate in its impact, his work still feels as present and alive as it ever did, and I’m humbled to have a part in sharing it with you — today especially.

You can listen to the entire episode for free over on interdependence.fm and, if you enjoy our chat, consider signing up to Mat and Holly’s Patreon here.

Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures of Mark Fisher
— Hardback Out Now

Mark Fisher’s final lectures, Postcapitalist Desire, edited by Matt Colquhoun (@xenogothic) is out in hardback today.

It’s a bittersweet honour to be memorialising k-punk’s writing and teaching, which defined critical writing for a generation.

Originally tweeted by Repeater Books (@RepeaterBooks) on January 12, 2021.

Repeater is very much correct about how bittersweet this is. Postcapitalist Desire is out today. Tomorrow, it is four years since we lost Mark.

The reception this collection has had so far has been fantastic. It was released as an ebook first, back in October, to much less fanfare from us. This was because publishing something by Mark for the sake of it was not our intention. My own book Egress had only come out a few months prior. We did not want to burn people out on Mark.

But, personally speaking, I would not have undertaken this editorial project in the first place if I didn’t think the material collected here was of great value. Initially, I sent a transcription of the first lecture to Tariq Goddard, which I’d first undertaken back in February 2017, as a nice little curiosity. But, on reading it, Tariq felt the same way I did — that there was something here worthy of being shared.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a Deleuze quotation online, in which he makes the case for three questions that you should ask yourself if you are about to bring a book into existence. “I believe a book,” he writes, “if it deserves to exist, can be presented in three quick aspects”: it fixes a perceived error; it re-centres something presumed forgotten; it generates a new concept.

Mark had already done these three things with tantalizing brevity in his unfinished introduction to Acid Communism — he had generated a new titular concept, returning to the forgotten potentials of the 1970s that he felt had been contemporaneously maligned in error. But there was very little else shared beyond that.

Since then, to me at least, the errors have only proliferated. What Mark hoped to explore with Acid Communism has been assumed without much evidence. The consistency of his thinking, on his blog if not in his wide-ranging books, was forgotten, and Acid Communism was seen as a do-over rather than a capstone to over twenty years of public thought. New concepts were nonetheless generated in response but none that seemed to really engaged with the stakes Mark held in his sights.

This is why Postcapitalist Desire exists — to realign our sense of Mark’s thought and see if it can be generative in the way he intended. Time will tell if this collection assists with that. I hope it will.

Four years on from Mark’s death, it remains clear that there is no substitute for his own sensibilities. But the Mark captured here, in these transcriptions that were — let’s face it — never intended to see the light of day, is Mark the teacher, and Mark was never more inspiring than when he was in a classroom.

Cutting the Knot of Incompetence

For my sins, I’ve been reading a lot of Badiou recently. In fact, I’ve been reading him for most of the pandemic.

After many years of tactical avoidance, I’ve found myself coming full circle, following a trajectory that I imagine is quite common — first, dismissing him out of hand for his unorthodox and heretical take on Deleuze, only to now appreciate the generative power of his militancy.

In reading Badiou, even (or especially) when you disagree with him, his provocations become sharpening stones for your own positions. This isn’t always the case — sometimes he is just bad — but at his best, and whether he is right or wrong, he moves thought forwards. It’s hard not to respect that.

The other night, I was reading The Adventure of French Philosophy for the first time. It might just be the perfect example of how Badiou’s thought operates in this way. Here we have his infamous essay on the “potato fascism” of Deleuze and Guattari, among other striking polemics that are unlikely to convince many readers of his value, but Bruno Bosteels’ translator’s introduction frames Badiou’s provocations in the right way. He writes of a series of what he calls “constitutive polemical knots that give Badiou’s philosophy its distinctive orientation, tonality and feel”. For Bosteels,

one of this thinker’s greatest virtues — which to others might seem to be a defect, especially in his writing on other philosophers — lies in giving thought a decisive orientation by leading readers to the point where they must take a stand in one way or another. Each of Badiou’s knots, in this sense, begs to be cut. And the task of his thought — for example, in reviewing someone else’s work — lies in facilitating these cuts and in elucidating the consequences of choosing one knot and one cut — one act — over another.

It feels like a innately post-punk maneuver — a strange way to frame Badiou, I know… It makes me think of Phil Christman’s poignant essay on the Postcapitalist Desire lectures, in which he writes — in quite Badiouan terms, come to think of it — of Fisher’s fidelity to the event of post-punk:

not the loud, colorful, simple, proudly incompetent, and often nihilistic music known then and now as punk rock, but the strange and often foreboding music that came immediately after it, made by artists who occupied the space of possibility that punk had created by saying “No” to manners, taboos, and musical skill. Such artists — Joy Division, the Mekons, the Fall, the Raincoats, Wire — turned punk’s nothing into something, or many somethings.

Badiou’s thought feels very similar. It could be described as a kind of mathematical post-punk — his assertion that being is produced ex nihilo, making the void or zero his foundation — which is not a nihilism but a challenge to turn the nothingness of being into something through the events that puncture it.

My main reason for reading Badiou has been to better understand his influence on the accelerationists of the mid-2000s — an influence perpetually obscured by the more dogmatic Deleuzo-Landians. Their disinterest is understandable — Badiou’s criticisms of Deleuze and Guattari are fierce. But Alex Williams’ maneuver, following Ray Brassier — arguably the founding accelerationist maneuver in the late-2000s — seems to me like an attempt to combine the insights of Deleuze and Badiou together.

Writing “against hauntology” and its “position of total defeat” — or, as Badiou might put it, its “aesthete’s acquiescence to the proliferating splendour of all rubbish” — Williams put forward a two-pronged alternative to the “good postmodernism” of a hauntological complicity with late capitalism. He suggests that

we might think a more nihilist aesthetic which seeks not merely to foreground the processes of postmodern audio-necromancy, but rather to accelerate the system to its ultimate demise, to speed up the rate of fashion-flux to a point of irredeemable collapse. Rather than an act of reverence, of mourning, of touching at impossible universes from a distance, this would be a deliberate and gleeful affirmation. Alternatively, we might consider Badiou’s analysis of the emergence of the new, which would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable.

This reading of Badiou is tinged by the critiques of Ray Brassier, who argues in his essay “Nihil Unbound” — not the book — that the “undecidability” innate to late capitalism in Deleuze and Guattari’s reading, which precisely produces the spectres of hauntology, folds the Deleuzian understanding of multiplicity back into Badiou’s subtractive foundation.

However, if there is such an undecidability, Badiou’s thought is, perhaps, a militant fidelity to decisions nonetheless. Capitalism will not make the decision for us; to take a step back, to try and let the market sort things out, is, predictably, to hedge our bets.

I wonder if this is a useful way of thinking about the current anemia of Twitter discourse over the last few days, following Trump’s permanent suspension from the platform, whilst still technically a sitting president.

For many, it is a mixed blessing. It’s good that he’s gone, but what does that say about society now? Are the corporations in control? Is this an intervention within — or a suspension of — politics by nonpolitical actors? Is that really okay? Doesn’t this set a terrifying precedent?

Personally, I feel like the space for making decisions has only just been produced. The Trump experiment has had its turn. We might say he emerged from the vacuum of neoliberalism and its hollow sense of progress through gradualist reformism. Centrism is a void that somehow manages to make even its most progressive decisions seem like empty and hollow gestures; mere reactions to social shifts produced in spite of them.

The alt-right, back in 2015-16, refused even this. They called themselves the new punks, and many balked at the suggestion, but they were, for all intents and purposes, correct in their self-appraisal. Following Christman, the alt-right were loud, simple and proudly incompetent, but after five years of building an agenda, their refusal has run its course. That form of negative energy only lasts for so long before a choice must be made — whether to double-down or cut the knot.

Trump’s supporters doubled down for a Hail Mary pass and found themselves suddenly clutching the void their movement was built on. They wrongly believed that Trump was only the beginning, and that there was much more to come, but the something produced from their nothing was Trump — a loud, simple and proudly incompetent president — and nothing more.

For a horrified left, there is only one viable response if we are to escape a more impotent future: cutting the Trumpian knot. And it’s about time. The rhetoric responding to the latest misadventure of Trump and his supporters has indeed been the most cutting it has ever been over the last five years. Coming from some, it all feels very opportunistic — in the UK, Lisa Nandy’s harsh words for a “Tory leadership [that] abandoned British values in a ‘nauseating’ embrace of American populism” means little coming from an opposition whose primary weapon against an emboldened right has so far been abstention.

As ever, governments are following the lead of the social. What is disturbing to some is that the social is largely entangled with social media.

But, in many ways, it is telling that social media has cracked down on Trump more than governments have — so far, at least. For much of the last half-decade, governments have attempted to hold social media to account for its part in helping spread deceit and lies from the right. Videos of Mark Zuckerberg squirming under scrutiny are iconic examples of our reckoning with the impact of these communicative technologies. We have implored those in charge of these platforms to think more carefully (and actively rather than passively) about their impact on contemporary subjectivity.

I’m not one to defend social media and our touchscreen capture. I deeply resent the hooks they have in me personally, and I resent the perpetual shitshow on display here that keeps me coming back for more, but I feel somewhat hopeful, following the blanket ban on Trump, his supporters and their platforms, that the questions long asked of social media giants are no longer hypotheticals. We’ve demanded that ethical decisions be made, rather than suspend everything in an “undecidability” — suspending Trump is, frankly, a half-decent start.

If we don’t think social media should be making these decisions, it’s time we made some decisions of our own, to choose one act over another. Any act. Trump’s supporters played their hand and it revealed how hollow it was. It is our turn to claw back some agency from these apps that have for too long fed on our own passivity — a passivity that Trump weaponised for his own aims.

The End of Trump or the End of History

I enjoyed Jehu’s blogged fragment from yesterday on Trump’s impending second impeachment. As far as Jehu is concerned, impeach him we must…

Not because he incited an insurrection, but because he is, beyond all doubt, the most popular political figure in the United States today.

Unless they impeach him, there will likely never be anyone who can beat him as nominee for President for the Republican Party. It is also likely that there will never be an uncontested presidential election again in the United States.

He must be impeached not for a crime, but because there is literally no other way to drive him out of politics.

It is as simple as that.

It is Trump as the end of history. His ultimate victory, staving off all competition, will doom us to an apparent eternity of incompetence. The argument for getting rid of Trump, then, is the same argument for getting rid of capitalism.

It makes the irony of his Capitol-storming supporters being referred to as accelerationists a tiny little bit satisfying. They were accelerationists — to the extent they were dogs chasing the speeding car of civil unrest and, to their surprise, through the constant intensification of their own rhetoric, and a free pass from a white supremacist state, they caught up with the thing they were chasing and quite literally had it within their grasp…

And then, they did nothing, only revealing their own impotence and the hollow nature of their reactionary bombast, instead taking selfies with cops and making out it was all for the lulz.

In the end, we will find that they become accelerationists in the original sense, accelerating little more than their own demise.

After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.

In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action.

Our public interest framework exists to enable the public to hear from elected officials and world leaders directly. It is built on a principle that the people have a right to hold power to account in the open.

However, we made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules and cannot use Twitter to incite violence. We will continue to be transparent around our policies and their enforcement.

Originally tweeted by Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) on January 8, 2021.

Just when no one thought Twitter wouldn’t follow through either, last night they suspended Trump permanently from the platform.

The news broke whilst many of us were tuned into the Plaguepod and the resonance of Pete Wolfendale’s comments on sovereignty and the exo-self feels very prescient.

Maybe Trump losing his exo-self is actually more damaging than him losing the Presidency.

(Tune in from the one-hour mark, later interrupted by yours truly sloshing around in what was actually a very nice bath, thank you very much… Sorry, Pete…)

一个无条件加速主义Primer I:
Chinese Translation of the U/Acc Primer

The reach of my U/Acc Primer continues to astound me but its (partial) translation into Chinese is something I never would have anticipated.

Google translate doesn’t like translating Chinese very much but, from what I can gather, the “anarcho-nihilist” blog Free Form Suite has translated the introduction to the reader here. Whether they intend to translate the rest or not, I do not know. Watch this space, I guess.

As ever, it’s very humbling to be translated into another language so I appreciate the time and effort put into this. Many thanks, FFS, whoever you are.

Update — 11/01/20: Part II is now online here.

The Philosophy of Salvagepunk:
XG at the Association for the Design of History

On 16th January at 21.00 UTC+1, I’ll be giving a talk at the Association for the Design of History.

I’ll be sharing some new research for this event, framing Evan Calder Williams and China Miéville’s concept of “salvagepunk” as the missing link between hauntology and accelerationism — two conceptual approaches to late capitalism that are often seen as opposed to one another but which can nonetheless be traversed diagonally and generatively.

You can find the Facebook event here (which will be updated with a YouTube streaming link in due course), and you can read my abstract for the talk below:

The Philosophy of Salvagepunk: On the Missing Link between Accelerationism and Hauntology

The mid-2000s were a melting pot of philosophical experimentation. New names and new positions were thrust into the open with a brash regularity. A few of these names and positions caught on, only to fall into disrepute. Hauntology — associated with Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds, and initially borrowed from Jacques Derrida — was one such name. It spoke to the lingering presence of apparently thwarted cultural trends, and the effect of this haunting on emergent new movements. It was later denounced as a pretentious byword for middle-aged nostalgia, coming to represent the very tendency he sought to critique.

Another name was accelerationism, introduced to the blogosphere by Benjamin Noys and Alex Williams. Hauntology’s hyperactive cousin, accelerationism was a “political heresy” that sought to midwife political newness by gutting a conservative belief in the “end of history”. It, too, has fallen on its own sword, now a byword for society’s most reactionary tendencies in the 21st century — again, coming to represent the very thing it sought to critique.

Between these two maligned philosophies lies another that has managed to pass under the radar, successfully synthesising their individual sensibilities whilst avoiding the cannibalistic contradictions of contemporary critical theory. Its name is salvagepunk, coined by Evan Calder Williams and China Miéville.

This talk will consider what this missing link between accelerationism and hauntology can teach us today, and what its aesthetic considerations mean for any new cultural movement that hopes to design new spaces for future politics using the untapped potentials of past radicalisms. 

Covid Libertarianism and Capitalist Realism

Following on from yesterday’s response to a criticism of my Covid libertarianism post, I’ve only just noticed that Chris has weighed in with a very nice post of his own on Covid subjectivities. I had planned to go through Chris’s post but I actually find much to agree with here. Not that that is a surprise, but in going through it I fear this post will take the form of a series of long quotations broken up by me nodding along, adding very little…

I’m curious to see what more Chris might have to say following my earlier response to Adam. He does such an excellent job of bringing in the various complexities I discuss via Foucault. In fact, the amount of resonance between my second post and Chris’s made me think he was responding to yesterday’s post, not the original one from back in December!

With that being said, go check out Chris’s post, where he draws “business ontology” into the strange bouquet of Covid subjectivities and presages the Foucauldian hydra — “a new body, a multiple body, a body with so many heads that, while they might not be infinite in number, cannot necessarily be counted” — that is produced by the libertarian dichotomy of individual and state.

I think our conclusions are largely complementary: “The viral cracking of the ground of subjectivity has opened up chasms with no clear options.” In my tendency towards the millenarian, I’m okay with a lack of clarity. “Baroque sunbursts” and all that…

Covid Libertarianism and Molecular Freedom

Adam has written a response to my previous post on Covid libertarianism on his blog. It collects together the myriad misunderstandings that have followed my post from readers on the right but it is at the very least clearly constructed, and therefore the first argument against my post I’m happy to respond to.

That being said, I’m sorry to say I found very little of value or insight here, but it does provide an opportunity to at least sharpen the argument, so let’s go through it.

To Adam, the main purpose of my previous post was to criticise the individualism that I see “underlying a lot of right-wing criticism of the lockdowns.” But I supposedly have a point: “a traditional liberal-humanist individualism is a flimsy foundation for anything”. This is because a liberal-humanist form of “individualism can pose various threats to a more molecular freedom; individualism does create new, subtler routes for state control.”

Except…Matt does not invoke molecular freedom at all in his piece (except peripherally via a Mark Fisher quotation), but focuses instead on collective freedom. He says To curtail our own individual freedoms for a common good ensures we regain our collective freedom sooner”. The phrases “common good” and “collective freedom” alone are enough to give me hives, but there’s something else being missed here: it was precisely collective freedom that the pandemic restrictions attacked.

I find this appeal to “molecular freedom” very bizarre, since my definition of collective freedom, which Adam quotes in italics, is precisely how molecular freedom functions, particularly at present… To consider the molecular is to consider individual or small parts, but precisely in their relationship to a larger whole. What Adam seems to be invoking is a far more atomistic view, focussing on the antagonisms that the right itself is perpetuating.

Let’s start with my peripherical invocation of molecular freedoms via Fisher, since that is apparently clear enough already. The molecular freedom that Fisher gets close to is Spinozist in nature, arguing that “individual liberty presupposes collective freedom”. It’s not that complicated a relation.

The molecular, philosophically speaking, is an interesting provocation in this regard because it complicates our causal understanding of any appeal to universalism. Collective freedom, understood molecularly, does not dissolve individuals into a mass to the extent they disappear from view. Rather, molecular freedom remains vigilant to the ways that individual molecules react and interact as part of a whole, whether that be biologically, ecologically, sociologically, et al. This is why the molecular is so important for Deleuze, for whom it instigates an inter-scalar philosophy of difference, from the microscopic to the cosmic, with human being produced in the fray.

Without getting too bogged down in the philosophical particulars, molecular freedom is a kind of individual freedom that understands itself in context. Any sense of individual freedom that does not understand itself in its relation to other beings is precisely the opposite of a “molecular” freedom. This is how Deleuze is able to “spiritualise dust” whilst, at the same time, pulverising the world (as he writes in The Fold). It is how he invokes the micropolitical and demonstrates its impact on a biopolitical whole; how new freedoms can be folded within new restrictions (and vice versa), making the political an innately creative endeavour always capable of producing new lines of flight. This is related to intersectionality, to molecular segmentarity, to seeing the connections between positions and perspectives — exactly the sort of considered thinking the wrecking-ball right seems to be incapable of, whether under the threat of the Covid pandemic or otherwise. Suffice it to say, with a little bit of consideration, Adam’s invocation of the molecular quickly becomes absurd.

He goes on to claim that, as far as I am concerned, “the only restriction made on our bodies was the imposition of mask-wearing”. This is not true. I simply highlighted masks as a positive example within a broader network of biopolitical failures. In fact, masks are the perfect example of how a molecular freedom is constituted. In wearing a mask, I am newly aware, under the pandemic, of having gained a new freedom — the freedom to hide my face — which I did not have previously. In this sense, it is a kind of heterotopic imposition, and the realisation it provokes pivots the world on its axis slightly, especially in a country where people who cover their faces for religious reasons have long been subject to all kinds of suspicions. It provides a new perspective on surveillance capitalism, which has had to quickly adapt to this new obstacle.

Wearing a mask, then, is a molecular freedom in the sense that this minor addition to my daily existence has reoriented by perspective on the world around me. It has meant I can move around my local town centre in ways I could not previously, but I also wear it because I understand that this new freedom is additional to the freedom it affords other people who are medically more at risk. Simply put, wearing a mask doesn’t really cost me anything — in fact, I gain a certain anonymity in a world where any semblance of it has been phased out — but it does allow more at-risk people to be reassured and to move around me more freely. Therefore, I do not see wearing a mask as a restriction — that was the point — precisely because I understand the effect that doing so has on my broader social relations.

[Update — 08/01/2020: Of course, there’s a meme perfectly encapsulating this argument now. See below.]

Nevertheless, attempting to refute an apparent claim about masks, Adam argues that “the injunction against our bodies freely coagulating into a mass was the biggest corporeal restriction.” Unfortunately, coagulating into a mass does not a molecular politics make. Adam’s choice of words here are increasingly telling. Coagulation — transforming from a liquid to a solid or semi-solid state — is an odd word to use in an apparent appeal towards freedom. It shows how the right desire reification over flux, precisely desiring their own subjugation whilst decrying that apparent tendency in others. It is contradiction all the way down, making the entire paragraph in which this line occurs ridiculous — and that’s without mentioning Adam’s invocation of “Covid-19 biopolitics”, a terrible bastardisation of what Foucault meant by that term.

This is blatantly apparent when Adam argues against the ban on groups coming together, suggesting that “it became clear quite fast that these mass gatherings did not even pose the kind of dangers that many expected”, linking to an article from Forbes illustrated by a mass gathering of Black Lives Matter protestors… all wearing masks.

The prevalence of masks at BLM protests is significant for all the same reasons listed above. They dampened the spread of the virus whilst also frustrating state surveillance. Gathering like that is still a risk, but it is a risk in numerous ways. Frankly, you’d be an idiot to go to a protest that politically sensitive and not wear a mask, virus or no virus, no matter what you’re fighting for. But even beyond the issue of masks, the BLM movement is molecular politics in action, understanding the micropolitical relations between peoples, practices and institutions. BLM understands that, yes, whilst mass gatherings are ill-advised, their anti-racist cause is synchronous with the broader biopolitical impact of the virus, which is affecting BAME working class communities more than anyone.

Far-right protestors, on the other hand, rather than develop a sensitivity to the relations between political causes, are more likely to protest the masks themselves. Because they cannot see the wood for the trees. They do not see how their actions prolong the restrictions they claim to be fighting against, because they lack any sort of functional understanding of biopolitical dynamics, despite paying lip service to them. They fail to understand how biopolitics is a contradictory set of relations and folds where individual and collective are entangled to produce contemporary (and, perhaps, a new future) subjectivity.

Their failure to comprehend these complex stakes is epitomised by Adam’s poor invocation of the molecular. In fact, the more I think about it, the harder it is to avoid the obvious irony… Keep open the prisons, hospitals and schools, the right insists. Keep open those institutions that Foucault decried for their smothering infrastructures. Don’t take away my “molecular freedom”! But traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions are breeding grounds for the virus. The right mistakes “molecular freedom” for the free movement of molecules, especially those of the coronavirus itself.

This is somewhat paradoxical, of course, but it is a paradox that Foucault baked explicitly into his understanding of biopolitics, specifically in the lectures entitled “Society Must Be Defended”. What Foucault describes here is the way that a “disciplinary” form of bodily control has been implemented because disease catastrophically disrupts productivity. In the final lecture, he goes into some detail about the transitions that have taken place regarding how societies are controlled, which were the direct result of the state’s emergent disease-consciousness. He connects an increased awareness of illness during the eighteenth century with the state development of a medical establishment, for instance, suggesting that societies are coagulated into population masses so that they can be better understood epidemiologically. He notes how, at the end of the eighteenth century, “it was not epidemics that were the issue, but something else — what might broadly be called endemics, or in other words, the form, nature, extension, duration and intensity of the illnesses prevalent in a population.” Increasingly, diseases like smallpox, cholera, measles, the plague, et al., “were not regarded as epidemics that caused more frequent deaths, but as permanent factors which … sapped the population’s strength, shortened the working week, wasted energy, and cost money, both because they led to a fall in production and because treating them was expensive.” And so disease control is developed for the sake of the economy. As with most things, medical institutions are not created in accordance with the Hippocratic oath alone but in order to service capitalist productivity.

I don’t think the right are presently arguing against disease control for the sake of anti-capitalism, however. They have bizarrely turned this logic on its head, confounded by their distrust of the state which they oppose to the extent that they smother the very world they’re desperate to get back to.

This is why I previously invoked Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control”, which no critic has engaged with and which Adam has clumsily trampled all over. The right is dogmatically refusing to kowtow to apparently new restrictions on their freedom not because they want to escape contemporary control societies but because they would rather get back to a previous form of disciplinary society that, arguably, hasn’t existed for decades. It’s the mythic oasis of national sovereignty and imperial greatness applied to contemporary biopolitics — the individual as Brexit-state in miniature. It’s moronic, plain and simple.

I’m of the opinion that this sort of thinking manifests because the epidemics Foucault describes as catalysts for control were wholly jettisoned from the first-world Western mind. Around the time that HIV/AIDs was a thing, diseases became things that other people had — subalterns in particular. Disease is what you get when you don’t conform. Now, we abide by this level of biopolitical control having forgotten the threat that implemented it in the first place, and sit back as it further erodes our freedoms in other contexts. We look over at Asia and blame them for the virus, all the while bemused that they’ve managed to contain it far better than we have. Because they are used to this kind of threat. In the West, on the other hand, when the threat of an epidemic — worse still, a pandemic — arises anew and the medical-industrial complex previously set up to deal with such issues reveals itself to be untested and ill-equipped when faced with something of this scale, the right soils itself. It fails to see the irony of how it once treated the wrong kind of nonconformist. But that’s because what the right seems to be turning away from isn’t conformity, so much as it rejects any potential retooling of society.

At the start of the pandemic, the media rippled with radical suggestions along these lines, wondering aloud about the future of work and whether the pandemic might finally disrupt our previous complacency regarding an unnecessary and ecologically-damaging drive to always be productive. As Foucault notes, biomedical control was implemented precisely to retain societal productivity but now that level of control is unfit for purpose, and so productivity takes a hit. Business as usual is interrupted. The left starts to think about new ways of organising themselves once this is all over. It is clear that, if we want to “take back control”, we have to change how we understand control to be implemented. We appear to be on the brink of a new transition. Foucault wrote at length on these transitions in the twentieth century and Deleuze produced a posthumous capstone for his thought on the societies of control. But we are likely entering a new era, and the right is ill-equipped to weather the storm. It misunderstands the Foucauldian project at hand and how, “rather than asking ideal subjects what part of themselves or their power they have surrendered in order to let themselves become subjects” — as the average Covid-libertarian loves to do — “we have to look at how relations of subjugation can manufacture subjects.”

We have already discussed this regarding how masks normalise hiding your face, undermining surveillance and thereby forcing surveillance systems to adapt. But what if we could get one step ahead, fundamentally transforming work relations? Not by relinquishing certain rights for the sake of the virus, as some have naively advocated, but using it to enforce the implementation of new rights previously maligned.

Instead, the right, as it is wont to do, starts screaming about the wrong issues. Rather than adapt and open up a previously closed system to new possibilities, they attempt to retreat to an earlier form of “disciplinary” society that hasn’t exists for decades, demonstrating their own lack of imagination. It is in this sense, as argued last time, that the right’s sense of freedom is anemic. They invert the argument, protesting new disease control measures precisely because they are keeping us from our familiar subjugations, only to have the gall to ask others why they are so willing to embrace these new impositions.

Precisely because it shows that the world they’re clinging onto is over. We should be getting ready for what comes next.

Polemics aside, I’m not wholly unsympathetic to the anxieties produced by this situation. For many, the virus has produced a very difficult situation. I lost my job at the start of the pandemic and have had to wholly reorganise my life and even move city to account for the change in financial circumstances. But as far as my working life goes, I’m better off than I was before the pandemic. In no longer being under the thumb of poor office management, I’m fully in control of my own schedule and working hours, and I look forward to being even more better-off (mentally at least) afterward this is all over. That’s not the same for everyone, of course, and things are made all the more difficult by the state’s reluctance to offer up adequate financial support. (If you’re a libertarian, I suppose that’s by-the-by.) Nevertheless, I see a better future ahead for all, but only if we learn from the lessons of the pandemic. That takes some courage, though, and plenty of imagination.

I think what terrifies so many — state and subject alike — about coronavirus is the considerable possibility that this kind of pandemic is the “new normal”. We may get Covid-19 under control, but we are already seeing new variants emerge. The response to this is obviously not to just keeping going as we have been, hiding away in our homes forever in case of any new virus. There will be a time that transmission rates are low enough that returning to a more public life makes sense. But, in the long-term, society as a whole will need to adapt to the presence of new coronaviruses, and how it adapts and in favour of what form of life remains an open question.

Rather than pondering this question with hope for a better future, the right seems to be insisting on a conservative self-harm that preserves suddenly outdated forms of social organising, despite the impact on the population and, therefore, on the economy they hold so dear. In the process, they fail to see how the exercising of their “freedoms” negatively impacts the freedoms of others. They fail to adapt. It is in that sense that my previous post still stands — and largely unscathed too, I think.

Covid libertarianism is nothing more than a conservatism unwilling to adapt to new risks. They don’t want this crisis to be over; they only wish that it never started. They are fighting for the return of old forms of control, rather than seeing how present restrictions challenge them fundamentally and open up new possibilities for change if approached in the right way. But they’re not smart enough for that.

The right looks backwards and focuses on minor impositions, whilst the left focuses on what freedoms it might gain once this is over. That’s a truly molecular politics, in more ways than one.