Mark Fisher’s final essay, “Cybergothic vs. Steampunk”, published shortly before his dead, is a short commentary on Alain Badiou’s Our Wound is Not So Recent. What Fisher takes from Badiou’s short text, which reflects on terrorist attacks perpetrated by ISIS in France and the West in general, as well as the West’s role in ISIS’s formation, is an almost comic-book (or science-fictional, hence the title) re-staging of the War on Terror. To aid its efforts, the West frames ISIS as its ultimate enemy — a feeling clearly reciprocated — but to an extent that is so Hollywood, on both sides, that ISIS become a supervillainous inversion of capitalist realism itself.
It is this reciprocity that is of interest to Fisher, in that ISIS and the West are informed by the same logics of capitalist realism. They are two sides of the same coin, spinning frenetically in place without a future. This is to say that the supervillainy of ISIS is framed in such a way that they become invaders of this radically other world, but nonetheless propagate their own propaganda with a surreally capitalistic valency. ISIS, like any capitalist entity that wishes to violently assert its own sovereignty, has a media arm. It has an aesthetic, a set of production values; it has cybergothic methods of representation (“beheadings on the web”), which remain oddly capitalist in their spectacularity, even as ISIS asserts its own sense of othering to this global order of the spectacle. In a sense, it asserts and translates its demands in a visual language it knows its enemy is already familiar with. As Fisher writes: “If nothing else, ISIS is a slick brand — a brand that is far more effective than anything capital can come up with at the moment in any case.”
“ISIS holds up a mirror to twenty-first-century capitalist nihilism”, Fisher continues. As a terroristic response to “a new form of (post)colonialism, in which states of conflict open up a temporary autonomous zone for capital accumulation, and plunder can continue without the irksome duties involved in setting up and running a state”, ISIS becomes a potent crystallisation of capitalist-realist excess.
This mustn’t be mistaken for a kind of sardonic admiration for ISIS, however; though Fisher is advancing the sort of nuanced approach easily dismissed by bad-faith actors as “terrorist sympathising”, its existence nonetheless “points to the very serious problem that capital now faces.” ISIS isn’t simply an army baying at the gates, after all. Many of the terrorist attacks it claimed responsibility for were perpetrated within Western countries by disenfranchised youths who found themselves socially displaced, with one foot in and one foot outside of Western social norms, making them vulnerable to radicalisation. ISIS were certainly opportunistic, in this regard, but this vulnerability is nonetheless a problem of capitalism’s own making. Faced with the limitations of a violently racist and dispiriting system, it is up to capitalism itself “to offer some other cause, some other purpose” to those most at risk. If the West’s own citizens defect, we must ask ourselves what could possibly make ISIS more attractive than the nations in which they were often born and raised.
Fisher thus asks:
What happens when you demoralise people, destroy their capacity to commit to any purpose in life beyond capital accumulation, and don’t even pay them? What if you don’t even offer them the possibility of being exploited, and classify them as a surplus population?
Capital doesn’t have much of an answer, but ISIS does. A disputed poll ‘suggested that more than one in four French youth between the ages of 18 and 24 have a favourable or very favourable opinion of Isis, although only 7–8% of France is Muslim.’ Whatever the truth of this survey, the willingness to believe it indicates that there is a growing suspicion that societies dominated by capital are now encountering mass disaffection and defection. ‘More than three of every four who join Isis from abroad do so with friends and family. Most are young, in transitional stages in life: immigrants, students, between jobs and mates, having just left their native family. They join a “band of brothers (and sisters)” ready to sacrifice for significance.’ The motivation is belonging and fellowship, not hatred.
This makes ISIS a kind of “identitarian” development born of postmodern capitalism itself, as Badiou himself argues in his essay. But Fisher then adds in a bracketed aside: “In calling Islamism identitarian, Badiou doesn’t credit the extent to which ISIS offers at least a partial escape from the dismal identities that capitalism has assigned to so many young muslims, and to so many others too.”
Fisher, expressing that late optimism still ignored by so many of his readers today, sees a moment of opportunity here for progressive politics. If we recognise that this is a problem that capital has no answer for, it is no less true that ISIS are an equally (if not more) horrifying alternative. They are but a further symptom of neoliberalism’s broader global failure. It is necessary, then, that we encourage and develop other forms of solidarity and kinship than those offered by either warmongering side.
In 2016, it was clear that this was already happening, albeit on two familiar fronts. Just as “neoliberalism was designed to eliminate the various strains of democratic socialism and libertarian communism that bubbled up in so many places during in the sixties and seventies”, neoliberalism’s subsequent failure has fallen back on the battlelines that defined its emergence: a radical (often feminist) rethinking of kinship on the one hand, and a return to “traditional family values” on the other. Both proved attractive, with the left and the right both gaining ground at that time, precisely through offers of belonging and fellowship that were severely lacking for all, no matter your political persuasion. As Fisher concludes:
the rising tide of experimental political forms in so many areas of the world at the moment shows that people are rediscovering group consciousness and the potency of the collective. It is now clear that molecular practices of consciousness-raising are not opposed to the indirect action needed to bring about lasting ideological shifts — they are two aspects of a process that is happening on many different time tracks at once. The growing clamour of groups seeking to take control of their own lives portends a long overdue return to a modernity that capital just can’t deliver. New forms of belonging are being discovered and invented, which will in the end show that both steampunk capital and cybergothic ISIS are archaisms, obstructions to a future that is already assembling itself.
Six years later, this future feels both more proximal and more threatened than ever, as it now seems to hinge on the desperately needed and long-overdue liberation of the Palestinian people. But 2016 is hardly that far back in the rear-view mirror. That year’s political tragedies return as this year’s media farce.
Following Hamas’ attack on an Israeli music festival on October 7th, much of the West has joined the Israeli government in denouncing this massacre of civilians as a terrorist attack. But Israel has also gone a great many steps further. In a heavy-handed attempt at consent-manufacture, Israel has attempted to legitimise its retaliatory (and far more egregious and genocidal) war crimes by repeating ad nauseum the flimsy equivocation “Hamas = ISIS”. Plenty of people have ridiculed this claim, pointing out that Hamas and ISIS are not remotely allies and share nothing in common beyond the vast umbrella of the Islamic faith. Their intentions in putting this equivalence forward hardly need much explanation. It is a marketing ploy, more than anything, to rally people to their imperialist cause.
But reflecting on Fisher’s essay above, perhaps these purposes are pulled into sharper focus. In fact, the present ideological (as well as literal) assault on the Palestinian people starts to look like an attempt to further the mechanisms illuminated by Fisher’s argument. The global solidarity expressed towards the Palestinian people is precisely a process of consciousness-raising, hoping to assemble a future for Palestine in particular. But this is not the only consciousness-raising process at work. Or rather, to make an important distinction, it is not the only process of solidarity-building at work.
We are finding all kinds of kinship are being radically redefined, and these are as capable of producing false consciousness and negative solidarity as they are their truer and more positive variants. But what has changed, perhaps, is that we do not have a group akin to ISIS to effectively represent some “other side”. Rather than capitalist realism on the one hand and a more violent nihilism on the other, we have something that are far less suicidal than both of them. (Faced with an worsening climate catastrophe, both are clearly “death cults” in their own right.) The resurgence of Palestinian struggle in popular conscious instead strives to establish a form of kinship that is radically other in another way. But Israel doesn’t know what to do with this raised consciousness other than force it unconvincingly back into a West-ISIS dichotomy.
Israel is, in fact, more fascistic than Hamas is, and this places Israel closer to ISIS than it is willing to admit, with its violent attempts to establish a pure ethno-state for the Jewish people being the most obvious point of comparison. But this works in much subtler ways too, such that Israel, through its zionist realism, strives to reform Jewishness itself, as an identitarian category, through the logics of capitalist realism more broadly — something it has been quite successful in doing.
In a recent clip shared on Twitter by Moya Lothian-McLean, Barnaby Raine illustrates this point by telling an anecdote from canvassing on doorsteps prior to the last UK general election, when Jeremy Corbyn faced off against Boris Johnson. He describes a meeting with man who symbolically identified himself with the right (even far-right), adorns with all the accoutrements of a classic English nationalist. But whereas the far-right has itself long been identified with antisemitism, this man exclaims that antisemitism is the primary reason he won’t be voting for Corbyn.
What this man — and the media at large — had done was “[redefine] what Jews were”, Raine explains.
Jews had come to him to be in an era of the state of Israel… Jews had come to him to be not the Semitic outsiders that they were in the antisemitic imaginary of most of the twentieth century, but a symbol of whiteness, hated by … the wretched of the earth; hated by black and brown people with Palestinians in the lead and Arabs … and all the anti-imperialist, anticolonial nations of the world behind them. Jews are also a symbol of wealth. We had a Labour MP telling us — Siobhan McDonagh, I think it was — […] that to be anti-capitalist was necessarily antisemitic…
Jewishness, then, in its populist recoding, no longer refers to a persecuted minority position so much as antisemitism is weaponised as a obfuscatory stand-in for a wokeness that attempts to imagine non-capitalist forms of fellowship and kinship. It is of no surprise, with this in mind, that so many TERFs are also supporters of Israel, for instance. (As @adornofthagn so succinctly summarised their shared interests on Twitter recently, both task themselves with “maintaining the exclusivity of a ‘safe space’ through escalating brutality, framing it as an existential necessity”.) It is a fear of other forms of life and social production that drives each fascist project.
As such, the problems identified by Fisher in 2016 remain much the same. As Raine continues:
So what you see there is both conditions for a real rise in antisemitism and a moral panic which claims to be about the antisemitism which is really rising. Synagogues are really under attack, Jews are really feeling threatened, but [the weaponisation of this rising antiseminitism] in fact is about constructing Jews in such a way that you can imagine, in this case, the antisemities as these folk devils who are the black and brown people threatening your Western hegemony and workers and the poor threatening capitalist power… So I think that’s important, right? Moral panics aren’t just lies, they’re not just inventions. They respond to real social crises.
Palestinian solidarity becomes a potent expression of another form of kinship that humiliates both capital and its zombified nemesis in ISIS. Because “Hamas” (as a useful by-word for a dehumanised Palestinian diaspora in general) are not like ISIS at all. Theirs in instead “a future that is already assembling itself”, and has been since 1948. Then and now, it is this future that capitalist realism fears most of all.