Kill the Bill:
More on the Thoughts of the Police

No surprises that things have gotten worse with the recent UK protests. After protestors trashed property and set fire to a police van on Sunday night, the current response from the media and politicians has been particularly telling. The violence was disproportionate, counter-productive, inflammatory, unnecessary, etc. There has been no mention of initial police escalation as the source of the unrest in the press.

None of these denouncements (or convenient omissions) are new, of course. The establishment response to protests and riots has been the same for decades. As soon as property gets damaged, the same patronising tone rings out from every soap box. This was a step too far. Any protest that is not a peaceful protest must be condemned. But we have already seen, time and again, how the police brutalise peaceful protestors. Bristol, to its undying credit, doesn’t take state bullshit lying down.

Riots are an inevitability at this point. In the 2000s and 2010s, after going on protests against the Iraq War, the bankers’ bail-out, austerity, the trebling of student tuition fees, NHS cuts, et al., there was little change. I distinctly remember my own early-2010s dejection, having engaged with politics in every way I had been advised to — at the ballot box, on peaceful marches — only to see injustice and inequality escalate unimpeded. Still, people kept protesting, until the police began brutalising young people for no reason whatsoever. (I’m still haunted by the video from that Warwick student sit-in from 2014.)

This kind of violence has become the norm. With protests reduced to a kind of palliative for the nation to let off steam, the state has now given up on its own weak sense of resolve and is now attempting to undermine your average citizen’s right to express dissent. But this has already been curtailed for some time, if not through bills than through a tactical war of attrition.

Anyone who has been to any protest ever will have seen countless incidents where police exercise violence, whether briefly or in a sustained manner. They will assault a member of the public with impunity as friends of the aggrieved corral around to try and defuse tensions and make sure no one does anything stupid. This video from just last week shows a situation I’ve seen play out countless times online and in person.

Why is anyone surprised that certain communities no longer want to put up with this sense of entitlement to a stagnant and rotten status quo? Already last year Bristol protested the pointlessness of the proper channels in tearing down a statue that had been disliked for decades. This latest protest is a blatant extension of those frustrations.

The state already gets away with so much, and with little to no consequences whatsoever. It isn’t just that this new bill will impinge on our right to protest — it will worsen an already deplorable state of affairs, extending police impunity and shoring up the state’s callous indifference to its own ineptitude.

“Giving Up the Ghost”:
Postcapitalist Desire in the LA Review of Books

Few are mourned by the post-millennial left like Mark Fisher. If you know anything about us, then it makes perfect sense. We are a weird bunch, displaced on every level, living in a world terrifyingly different from the one we were prepared for. Between climate change and a rising far-right, our future diminishes daily. Fisher’s work speaks to us through this lens, this alien language of existential displacement.

A nice write-up on Mark Fisher, his legacy, and the recent Postcapitalist Desire collection I edited in the Los Angeles Review of Books, written by Alexander Billet. Check it out here.

The Post-Vampire Castle Generation:
Notes on Neo-Anarchy in the UK

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.

A Brief History of the New:
Guest Lecture with Ctrl Network

I’m very excited to be returning to Ctrl Network in April to give another guest lecture on “the new”. Last time I spoke at Ctrl Network, I presented new research, which later turned into the introduction to Postcapitalist Desire. This lecture might end up being something similar. A prologue of sorts to a book on accelerationism I started last year.

Read the abstract below, and book a place on Eventbrite to come listen live and join the Q&A on 21st April 2021, 13.00-15.00 GMT.

A Brief History of the New

How do we free ourselves from the tyranny of the “post-“? Jumping off from Fisher’s unfinished lecture series, which ends with post-structuralism’s moment of absolute negation, this lecture will return to the philosophy’s beginnings, tracing a wandering line of abstraction from Heraclitus to the Ccru, considering how “the new” has been thought and we might begin to think “the new” anew again.

Concluding the Ctrl Network reading group series exploring the lecture transcripts of Matt Colquhoun’s Postcapitalist Desire: Mark Fisher the Final Lectures, we are very excited to host a special guest lecture from Matt on Wednesday 21st April 2021, 1-3pm, with a chance for attendees to ask questions.

This event will take place online via Zoom. A link will be supplied nearer the time. There are limited places at this event so register early to avoid disappointment!

Please note, Matt’s lecture will be recorded and made available at a future date on our website.

In the meantime, our reading group will be exploring the final lecture transcripts as well as Matt’s introduction to the book in our monthly online sessions. All are welcome to join. To find out more, see our website.

What is an Institution?:
On the Thoughts of Police

What is an institution? It’s more than just a building or a name or a person. An institution is a “body”.

We talk about government bodies or educational bodies. We talk about institutional “bodies” because institutions are sets of relations that both think and act. They are not just one thing. An institution is, in this sense, an established practice or way of doing things more than it is anything as physical and inert as bricks and mortar.

When we talk about the Metropolitan Police Service as being “institutionally racist”, this is what we mean. The Met thinks and acts in racist ways. It is also often sexist and classist. Why? Isn’t its very purpose to be just, to maintain law and order? Yes, but for whom? We can look in almost any corner of the law and see how it disproportionately affects or mistreats one demographic of people over another — poor over rich, women over men, black over white.

We already know this. Of course we do. We see how the police act and how they think, and it disgusts many of us. There have been mass protests over these issues, and with increasing frequency, for years now. We already understand the police as an institution — how it thinks.

Cressida Dick, however, thinks we do not.

When discussing the jobs that her officers undertake, in light of considerable recent criticism, Dick explained: “They have to make these really difficult calls and I don’t think anybody should be sitting back in an armchair and saying, ‘Well, that was done badly’ or ‘I would’ve done it differently’ without actually understanding what was going through their minds.”

But the very point of recent protests — whether for Black Lives Matter or, as was the case this past weekend, for those women mourning the murder of Sarah Everend — is that we do understand what is going through their minds. That is precisely the problem at hand. When we say the Met or the government or the media is institutionally racist or sexist or classist or transphobic, it is because we know exactly how they think.

My friend Natasha Eves was at the protest in Parliament Square last night. She sent over these pictures of the police choosing to better protect a statue of Winston Churchill — which no one present remotely gave a shit about — than the women of Clapham Common from the night before. This morning, we have seen that the thought process behind such a decision is being newly emboldened in law.

We see in very precise ways how the police think, where their priorities lie, and what influences them. We see how tactics and enforcement strategies brutalised and dehumanise, to the point that property is more worthy of respect than human life. We see how police officers are taught to think, if not by their handbooks then by the very culture they are immersed in. We watch very carefully and see what goes through their minds. It is what goes through their minds that is precisely the problem.

Then again, maybe Dick has a point. But is that any better? There is nothing more terrifying than an unpredictable copper. When a population doesn’t understand the way its police force thinks, then we have another problem. How is any institution supposed to be held to account, or maintain good relations with the public it serves, if that public does not understand how it operates? The actions of the police are frequently met with disbelief in this regard, but only because their thought processes are counter to any humane way of working. Either way, something has got to change. But what? And how?

When we talk about reforming the police, we are essentially suggesting that we should change how the police think. But how do you do that? How do you change learned behaviour at an institutional level? Do we give the police force mass CBT? Do we sit them down and have a chat? Make our case and appeal to their better nature? I’m not sure it works like that.

What do the police do when they want to reform the actions of the people they serve? Are we supposed to follow their example? Do we fine them and send them on a Police Awareness Course? Do we instead punish the police the ways they punish us? Punished police officers are treated as failed police officers. Individuals are denounced. The institution as a whole remains a problem.

This is because the police force is not an institution that understands reform. The law in this country is punitative at every level. How are we expected to reform an institution that generally doesn’t believe in reform for the rest of society? Little is done to address reoffending rates in the population. Why should we expect more from the institution that enforces punishment on those same people? We can expect adequate police reform when they provide adequate criminal reform. Which comes first?

In lieu of a stalemate, abolish the police. We know how they think. How they think is the problem. We need something new that thinks differently.

The Spectre of Acid Communism

There’s a nice interview out with Adam Curtis for Jacobin in which he briefly talks about ghosts, Mark Fisher, and his latest series I Can’t Get You Out of My Head:

I’d like to ask you about ghosts. There’s a story by M. R. James called “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” which you’re influenced by.

The inscription on the whistle that the protagonist of that story finds on the beach — “What is this that is coming?” — was actually going to be the title of this series. But it’s not a silly thing. M. R. James was writing those stories in the 1890s, which I would argue is a similar time to now. The British Empire was collapsing, and there was this feeling of fear and guilt, that something was coming back to haunt you. I would argue that America has had that same feeling since the end of the Vietnam War.

That’s a bit like what Mark Fisher wrote about — the ghosts of the past returning to blot out the future.

I knew Mark. We used to meet regularly in a café by Liverpool Street station and have long conversations about all this. We appeared on stage together in Berlin, I think. But going back to this idea about ghosts, I use characters like Jiang Qing because they had this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society. But the vital thing they forgot is the ghosts inside their own heads.

It’s the same with the Brexit people, who are haunted by a fictitious, idealized vision of Britain’s past. Dominic Cummings [Boris Johnson’s former adviser, who is credited as the Brexit campaign mastermind] accessed it through nationalism, which is something liberals are very scared of.

Already tweeted, this is a point that bears repeating on the blog: “this idea that you could force the ghosts out of people’s heads to produce a new kind of society” is, I think, the most succinct encapsulation of what Mark was aiming for in Acid Communism. It’s perfect, not least because it demonstrates the continuity with his previous writings that is so often erased, but also affirms that psychedelic gesture of manifesting what is in the mind.

I’m not sure Curtis’s new series makes good on that, as explored previously, but you can guarantee I’ll end up referring back to this indirect definition in the future.