I’ve been invited to write a text for translation, introducing some of Mark Fisher’s later essays to readers outside the Anglosphere. In particular, I have a desire to articulate the proper context surrounding “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and how Fisher pivoted from there to his “Acid Communism”.
This is always a stressful endeavour. I’ve defended “Exiting the Vampire Castle” plenty of times in recent years but it is still an essay that angers people greatly. In trying to explain the context from which it emerged, it is routinely the case that others remember things differently. And yet, in digging back into the archives of 2013 political commentary in the UK, the standard line on the left was really bleak.
There is little space for providing the full picture of this moment in the commissioned essay, so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on one essay in particular that I unearthed during my dig, which I think epitomises the 2013 political imaginary.
I should also note that I have already written something similar to this recently, defending Fisher’s comments about his students in Capitalist Realism, and those comments remain relevant here again. Beginning the book’s fourth chapter, Fisher writes:
By contrast with their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged. While French students can still be found on the streets protesting against neoliberalism, British students, whose situation is incomparably worse, seem resigned to their fate. But this, I want to argue, is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In my previous post I argued that, whilst people continue to find Fisher’s comments about his student’s “reflexive impotence” offensive, this betrays an amnesia regarding just how bad things were back then. Yes, #NotAllStudents but, nationally, I think it’s safe to say that the political imagination of young people at the end of the 2000s was very limited. The point was to ask “why? What were the cultural conditions at that time that actively encouraged disenfranchisement amongst the young? Thankfully, things have changed a lot since then. But the general response to appraisals of that moment suggest we still don’t understand how or why things were as they were, or how or why they changed.
That was the previous pitch regarding a reappraisal of 2009. What has been interesting to me, in preparing to introduce a slightly later context to a non-British audience, is that I’m pretty certain most British people have forgotten how bad things were in 2013 also.
The main problem people had with Fisher’s “Vampire Castle” essay in 2013 was, undoubtedly, his defence of Owen Jones and Russell Brand. In his attempts to defend an active (rather than passive) British leftism, he backed the wrong horses. Brand, in particular, was deemed to be male chauvinist prone to the use of sexist epithets — a criticism that has followed him down the years. There was certainly a reckoning to be had about his use of such language, and I think many people were open to such a reckoning. Owen Jones had occasioned one himself regarding the ubiquity of the word “chav” in the national lexicon, but even he was too idealist and baby-faced to be taken seriously.
But the personalities weren’t the point. If anything, they were a distraction. Jones and Brand were put through the ringer as if they represented future leaders of some celebrity vanguard party, but it was this treatment in itself that was most telling. It revealed the lens through which the left saw its own political agency, calcified by the Blair years, as if Brand’s eloquence meant they were going to be forced to elect him to office in the present era of personality politics. The Blairite wing of the party were predictabaly asinine. (See Luke Akehurst’s recollection of a centrist Eureka! moment aged just 14.) But those far to the left of centre were no better. Less intolerant of Jones, they instead took turns attacking Brand. He wasn’t the right leader! But Brand never wanted to be a leader in the first place. Nevertheless, he became a stick for the left to beat itself with.
I think I found the perfect example of this sentiment whilst trawling back through the think-pieces of 2013: Natasha Lennard’s “I Don’t Stand with Russell Brand, and Neither Should You”, written for Salon late that year.
At first, Lennard explains how she is totally on board with (the least interesting strands of) Brand’s politics:
Like Brand, I don’t vote (I’m British, but even if I were American, I wouldn’t). Like Brand, I will not give my mandate to this festering quagmire of a corporate political system (any more than living in it already demands, that is)… And, like Brand, I refuse to say what I propose instead when badgered by staunch defenders of capitalism. Brand patiently explained to his pompous interviewer that, no, we can’t offer you a pragmatic alternative program — we’re too entrenched in the ideology of the current one. We have to live, act, think differently, dissentfully, for new politics to emerge. I’m simplifying, of course. But the point is, I’ve learned to leave conversations when the “what do you propose instead?” question is posed to me qua anti-capitalist. If you had a blood-sucking monster on your face, I wouldn’t ask you what I should put there instead. I’d vanquish the blood-sucking monster. And it seems Brand is committed to do the same.
So far, so very agreeable. (Although the tendency to abstain from proposals rather exercise the imagination is something thankfully left on the scrap heap of apolitical praxis.) But the issue, as it turns out, isn’t with Brand’s politics but rather with his success. If we’re going to think differently, it seems we must start with the cult of celebrity that gives people like Brand a platform in the first place. Lennard argues:
… if we want to challenge an inherently hierarchical political framework, we probably don’t want to start by jumping on the (likely purple velvet) coattails of a mega-celeb with fountains of charisma and something all too messianic in his swagger. “No gods, No masters,” after all. Brand is navigating the well-worn conflict facing those with a public platform in the current epoch (myself among them): We have to be willing to obliterate our own elevated platforms, our own spaces of celebrity; this grotesque politico-socio-economic situation that vagariously elevates a few voices and silences many millions is what Brand is posturing against. Would he be willing to destroy himself — as celebrity, as leader, as “Russell Brand”? I think he’d struggle, but I don’t really know the guy.
We are suddenly in very different territory. Brand’s calls for a popular radicalism are denounced outright and used to prop up a vanguardist strawman about capitalist complicity:
If we’re so damn excited to hear these ideas in (in their slightly haphazard form) from a boisterous celebrity, then clearly we have some idolatry and “Great Man” hangups to address (lest we reinstate a monarchy with Brand as sovereign, Kanye as chief advisor).
There’s considerable irony here, which primarily comes from the fact that “Messiah Complex” — Brand’s stand-up show, which his media appearances were in aid of at that time — was a show that played up to this hypocrisy for laughs. In the show, which is still on Netflix, Brand consistently and self-deprecatingly jokes about the vacuity of a popular culture that precisely allows someone like him to rise to the top. But he also recognises that the potential benefits of his speaking out outweigh the potential hangups. What Brand advocates for is, in essence, what Fisher had long been advocating for — a popular modernism.
The second issue for Lennard is Brand’s sexism. Such critiques are valid, as already mentionede, although this does not soften the blow of hindsight when chief TERF Sarah Ditum is cited as a leading critic of Brand in this regard. (I can think of a few people, since outed as TERFs, who first slammed the Vampire Castle essay, come to think of it.) But such is hindsight. It is all too easy to pick apart an eight-year-old essay for its blind spots. Nevertheless, I think it’s central argument is something that we should remain aware of. In part because, whilst Fisher’s legacy is continually denounced, thanks to the nuclear fallout of “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, it is notable that the left later changed its tune to fall in line with his argument.
Contrary to this position, Lennard writes:
As has often been pointed out, there is a constant conflict at play when radical or militant ideas or images enter the popular imaginary under capitalism… At the same time radical ideas might spread and resonate across mainstream and pop media platforms (and thus provide the potential for rupture), these ideas and images are recuperated immediately into capital. Brand calls for revolution, and online media traffic bounces, magazines sell, bloggers like me respond, advertisers smile, Brand’s popularity/notoriety surges, the rich, as ever, get richer.
But Fisher was steadfast in his argument that this catch-22 was not going to be solved by such “reflexive impotence”. There is no space “outside” capitalism that we can appeal to. But to respond to that by righteously sitting out, or rather using your own popular platform to attack someone else with a bigger one, achieves nothing. The only way out is through. For that, we need to work with what we’ve got. We need leaders and we need parties and we need politics. The purity of “neo-anarchism” will not help us. (Fisher’s pun on the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK” is fitting — their cries of “no future” were an affirmation of working-class fury against Thatcher’s invention of the middle class. “No future” is a lot less powerful rallying cry when the cry from the other side of the political divide is that all too harmonic “no alternative”.) As Fisher wrote in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, “Purism shades into fatalism”. For the average leftist in 2013, it was “better not to be in any way tainted by the corruption of the mainstream, better to uselessly ‘resist’ than to risk getting your hands dirty.”
If we’ve course-corrected in this regard — although Twitter remains home to various shades of impotent and reactionary leftists — it is down to the likes of Fisher. In this sense, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” wasn’t an ur-text for the present culture war; it wasn’t a prefiguration of our sorry “cancel culture”. It was a central text within a leftist battle that we have conveniently forgotten — a battle between Blairite centrists, who saw anything left of centre as a pipedream, and post-Occupy “neo-anarchists”, who had witnessed the emergence of a newly emboldened undercommons around the financial crash of 2008, but who nonetheless rejected the corrupting potential of any sort of political or cultural influence whatsoever. The Corbyn era proved that the left’s shying away from mainstream politics was a mistake. We’ve learnt our lesson since, but it was Fisher, amongst others, who taught it to us. He deserves to be remembered for that.