One-Dimensional Moralism and the Scales of Class Consciousness

A few quick comments on a very slow-burning blogospheric disagreement had in the aftermath of Jodi Dean’s use of Mark’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” essay in her memorial lecture back in January.

The Cautiously Pessimistic blog and I don’t agree on Mark’s approach to class. (A valuable lesson contained within this whole debacle: if you provoke an argument by saying someone has a terrible reading of someone else, don’t expect their reading of what you have to say to be any better.)

I’ve addressed their posts on this a few times already now and I’m loathe to keep repeating myself so I don’t intend to say too much more on it. Suffice it to say that this lengthy new post is more of the same. They take my previous post to task point by point by point but still don’t seem to grasp the underlying argument. Because of this, I will respond to only one remark made in their latest response — a comment which epitomises the circular argument of all the previous posts. They write:

… the Fisher/Xenogothic approach to class also stresses individualism over collective analysis and action, because the effect of this whole line of argument about “working-class academics/media professionals/millionaires” is to make a claim about individual identity and to tell us that we shouldn’t consider academics, millionaires or whoever as a collective social category.

Mark’s (nor my) argument has nothing to do with individualism at all. That’s the persistent mistake being made here. It is precisely about class consciousness as something that is held collectively, yes, but also the roles that this “other” social category plays within that. It was Mark’s Marcusian view that we must acknowledge how such a consciousness is raised at various scales. In this regard, Cautiously Pessimistic has no sense of perspective. The ability to work across scales, as Mark did, remains a foreign concept to them.

To reduce Mark’s position on class to “collective versus individual” (still) betrays a woeful ignorant of his work and, worse still, does nothing to account for scale as an all-important factor in how we must addresses the issues at hand. Their reducing of the point to one of “individualism” is effectively equating the remarks of one celebrity and the remarks of that one bloke down the pub. Regardless of whether either person is insane or not, these are obviously not the same thing and the audience which each individual has must be taken into context, because it informs the affective nature of the content.

With this in mind, we can acknowledge that we must raise (class) consciousness through collective practice — whether that be one-on-ones or group discussions — but it is also important to note how consciousness is raised and deflated at the levels of the cultural activities that surrounds us — locally, nationally, globally. Raising consciousness locally is one thing — a necessary thing — but it’s dumb to ignore these other scales, as Cautiously Pessimistic does in their dismissal of those who have supposedly risen above their station by finding themselves within the public eye.

As such, academics and millionaires — like Russell Brand, who is the main subject of disagreement here, due to his prevalence in Mark’s original essay — may not be economically working class anymore but culturally they can remain so, and it is the elevation of that class position to a more visible position that Mark saw as inherently valuable.

Brand is an interesting figure because, whilst he might be a global megastar, he is someone who persistently recalls his working class roots, playing up to but also challenging the media stereotypes of what a person from his background should be able to do, wear, look like, think and achieve. He persistently ruptures class consciousness — in his own way — shifting its goal posts, and he does so in a way that is far more nuanced than the affective dismissal of his social mobility allows for.

Personally, I’m not much a fan of Brand, but I can see the benefit of an unruly voice like his in our media landscape, especially when all the other “working class” voices we hear are limited to the likes of Alan Sugar, for example, who never misses an opportunity to talk about how he started from nothing, etc., etc., mouthing off on his now-enormous petite-bourgeous-turned-full-bourgeois soap box. It is important to have other voices that occupy those media spaces, making visible something other than the stereotypes deemed to be acceptable by a select few.

That’s what Mark wanted for himself too, as I understand it. He wanted to be read. Brand gave Capitalist Realism a huge visibility boost by recommending it publicly and, by proxy, he gave Mark’s capital-sceptic ideas a boost too. I think Mark respected this. He respected someone like Brand giving a shit about his little book and choosing to signal-boost it despite the unpopularity of the ideas within the sphere of the tax-dodging media class he was working with which, according to Mark’s analysis, are largely complicit in his findings.

In this way, to champion Brand is not to dismiss his millionaire status but to acknowledge the particular strength of his viewpoint in spite of that.

And so, Brand was just one way in which Mark overcame the gatekeepers he decries in Exiting… who will also only allow the right kind of voices through. What Brand shows us — or has to potential to show us, if we can let ourselves let him — is the importance of working across scales and acknowledging the gatekeepers common to all of them. And in a way this is the central critique at the heart of Mark’s essay: scale is important.

Cautiously Pessimistic doesn’t get this because they’re stuck in a bubble of localism. My overarching point remains the same as it has always been. Cautiously Pessimistic‘s persistent error is that they think not allowing their ideas to be scalable allows them to retain some sense of authenticity, but all they advocate for, in the end, is a reactive “folk politics“.

In discussing Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Brand on Newsnight, Mark writes in Exiting the Vampire Castle that he “couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason”, but he then mourns the ways in which the “moralising left quickly ensured that the story was not about Brand’s extraordinary breach of the bland conventions of mainstream media ‘debate’, nor about his claim that revolution was going to happen” but instead about his “personal conduct — specifically his sexism.”

Watching the interview here again, Brand’s first responses to Paxman, right out of the gate, are spot on and worth drawing further attention to.

Paxman questions Brand’s suitability to be the guest editor of a political magazine and Brand’s response is, yes, at first, a bit sexist, but then he gets a jibe in about being about as qualified for the job as any actual politician — he mentioned Boris Johnson but George Osbourne comes to mind today — and then he says:

I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people. I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity. Alternate means; alternate political systems.

As distant as Brand and Fisher might be from each other in the grand scheme of things, by this comment alone it seems they shared the exact same raison d’être. Brand drags Mark’s work into his bizarre media world just as Mark would drag sci-fi and jungle into his bizarre academic world. Neither take the edges of the worlds in which they are situated as providing them with a blinkered authority through which to gaze at the world around them. They let the outside in as a vector for the inflation of consciousness across scales.

Mark’s essay took a huge risk in picking up Brand’s point, aimed at Paxman as the momentary representative of an Oxbridge media class and instead pointing its sharp end squarely at the Left. He effectively equates the moralising Left with Paxman in this interview and in many instances they do look similar. However, it is far more embarrassing for the Left because their persistent moralising and gatekeeping is little more than an exercise in cutting off their nose despite their face.

When Brand’s individual misconduct overrides the good he does for a broader movement, then we’re doing nothing but wasting opportunities. That is not to say that his sexism should go unchallenged but by making that the main story you do nothing but score an own goal. That’s what the left is so good at: own goals. And as any supporter should feel free to do, when your team keeps scoring own goal after own goal, it shouldn’t be remiss to tell them you think they’re fucking morons because they make us all look stupid.

The issue people always raise is that Brand is a bad role model for Mark to pick but that’s precisely why he resonates. He isn’t perfect, but nor is any other spokesperson in the public eye, just as no buzzword or theory is wholly pure either — we’ve seen a lot of that around these parts recently (here and here). The point, repeated ad nauseum, echoes down the years: it should be possible to critique individual wrongdoing whilst not having to scrap that which is otherwise valuable to collective struggle. (Julian Assange is the perfect example of this this week — we can critique his individual behaviour whilst decrying the broader significance of his arrest for future state whistleblowers.)

Mark’s essay makes this same point explicitly, I think, when we writes:

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree — on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.

In that spirit of things, I’m glad to be able to have a back and forth with Cautiously Pessimistic but that’s not to say that this debate is remotely productive anymore. That’s obvious by the fact that they end on the same point they’ve made previously: if Mark wrote so much other good stuff, why keep focusing on Exiting…?

The answer is simple: because this moralising hasn’t stopped and it remains a major obstacle to any sort of movement building we might desire going forwards. Left bullying and McCarthyism is still endemic, six years on from the essay’s original publication, and whilst many have lionised Fisher since his death, focussing on what they liked about his work, the questions he raised which people didn’t like are even more deserving of decent responses.

For me personally, what Mark skewers so succinctly remains far more damaging than what is supposedly being guarded against. I made the same point on Twitter just last night, in fact:

A Few More Angry Notes on Class Consciousness

For class consciousness is never a mere matter of identifying a state of affairs that already exists; the making visible of the structures that produce subordination immediately de-naturalises those structures, and changes the way in which subjugation is experienced. When that learned sense of inferiority is rejected, who knows what can happen?

K-Punk, “Going Overground”

The discussion around Jodi Dean’s memorial lecture rears its ugly head again, with the “Cautiously Pessimistic” blog (from now on “CP”) writing a longer follow-up response to Mark’s essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle“.

A few weeks back, we had a disagreement about the importance of Mark’s text in the comments of one of my posts about Dean’s lecture. Having said in my post that I’ve never read a decent critique of Mark’s essay — just a lot of hot air and bitterness — CP responded by pointing to their own post, written around the time that the article was originally published.

Unfortunately, I had already read this post before and didn’t think much of it. It is guilty of doing the very thing that Mark critiques in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” — it disarticulates his class position. And, as Mark wrote, “the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.”

First of all, in this original post, CP claims that, throughout the essay, Mark’s “(lack of) understanding of class rears its confused head” — confused because Mark’s definition of class apparently has “nothing to do with your position in society or what your material interests are, or whether you work for a living or live off other people’s labour: it’s just, like, a thing, you know, it just is?”

Is this insinuating that Mark is some sort of oppressive millionaire? Or hadn’t written at length on what constitutes class and our experiences of it elsewhere?

What should be clear, for any reader of Mark’s work, is that he knew experiences of class were not so easily contained by reductively academic definitions. This is not to double down on Mark’s apparent vagueness but to acknowledge that British class politics is a very complex topic, and that is perhaps more true for people who actually are working class than those who theorise about such definitions which fail to contain lived experience.

As a result, I have very little time for people who argue that you can somehow graduate (perhaps literally) from your class position, as CP argues in their comments and new reply.

Economic situations can change, yes, but there is far more to class than this, necessarily so. Presumably CP wants to guard against the self-made men of this world, who loved to talk about starting from nothing and blowing hot air up the rear end of their own biographies. But these are the same people who disarticulate class from experience. They’re not saying “class is important”, they’re dismissing it on grounds of individualised success and personal luck. CP simply inverts the argument rather than challenging it, insisting, just as they do, on the deconstruction of platforms for solidarity.

So, personally, I agree with Mark, broadly speaking. I agree with his call for more working class voices in our media, in our culture, in our politics, in our schools and universities — and I don’t just mean “entrepreneurs”: I want better voices too — but the paradox is that, if you somehow get there, your working class identity is void — at least according to CP. If you publicly fight for working class issues, on a larger platform than most, you’re a sellout and a hypocrite… It’s a facile and reductive argument and one which Mark himself derided.

The specific suggestion made by CP is that all people from working class backgrounds who make it into academia are somehow ignorant of the positions they hold. To disavow this knowledge, which Mark shared his thoughts on repeatedly and very publicly, is incredibly disingenuous. It also demonstrates the precise function of the vampire, sucking agency and options and histories, disavowing experiences for the sake of some quasi-fascist purity of position that is, in reality, completely nonexistent.

I said all this — with far more brevity — in the original comments, dismissing the post as trash and suggesting that if CP really wants to offer up a good critique, they’ve got to try a lot harder.

Well, they’ve gone away and come back. There is less evidence of trying harder here though, just elongating the same bogus and self-righteous argument.

Inevitably, this post is an elongation as well, although I intend to back up this one with the proper references.

CP’s argument is essentially unchanged from the one posted five years ago, although this time it’s been articulated less polemically, as if written solely because they feel guilty about the fact that the person they previously criticised is dead now, not wanting to be lumped in with the other idiots who simply proved Mark right in the aftermath of his death by gloating about it.

I’m sorry to say the attempt is bullshit — the tone was never offensive, the ignorance was, and all that’s happened here is the tone has been replaced, in a weak attempt to save face, whilst the ignorance remains.

As a result, I’m not going to address a lot of the later comments in this new post. Most of them are weird, given the context. Whilst CP continues to disarticulate Mark’s writing on class, they actually end up parroting the argument he himself makes in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere, choosing a supposedly nicer way of articulating the same call for solidarity using “non-cancelled” references. It reveals many of the issues taken with Mark’s original essay to be straw men or misdirected grunges. If CP read something else by Mark other than Capitalist Realism they might realise just how pointless much of what they’re critiquing is.

The main offence persists, however, with CP demanding that Mark should have made some clear-cut definition as to what “class” exactly is. They offer up two definitions of their own but, ironically, it’s difficult to follow what exactly these definitions are. They’re ultimately vague and elastic — such is the central problematic of class today.

To agree with Mark’s essay is not to gloss over these problematics but to answer his call and acknowledge that the building of solidarity is something to be pursued despite them.

In another previous comment, critiquing Dean’s lecture, an anon proclaimed with scorn that it was as if Dean — and, perhaps, by extension, Mark himself — had never heard the term “intersectionality” before, and yet here we have another response which does far more to deflate such a concept than Mark ever did. “Intersectionality” is not a term for overdetermined and individuated identity pockets, as it’s so often deployed in the naive “identity politics” milieu: it’s a word that demands transcultural understanding as a foundation for consciousness and solidarity. It’s the opposite of an individualised politics.

When CP gets bogged down in over-defining class — insufficiently — and just ending up being cynical and bitter about the existence of academics, this is, again, the point that is missed. (At least until later, but we’ll come back to that.) They betray their main disagreements to be personal bugbears and semantic preferences. There is little understanding here. Just the griping of an individual.

At one point, for instance, CP seems to conflate the figure of the working-class academic with the likes of Sajid Javid, the current Home Secretary often tokenised by the Conservative party for the fact he’s the son of a bus driver and of Pakistani heritage. Javid may very well be those things but they do not cancel out the fact that he is a Member of Parliament for a sitting government that has enacted countless racist and classist policies since being in office, some of which he has personally presided over. The suggestion seems to be that being a “working class academic” is the careerist equivalent of saying “I’m not racist, I’ve got black friends.”

Are these things really equatable? In some respects, yes, I think they are. In fact, this is precisely the blurred line which Mark’s essay contends with. Of course there are innumerable academics who preach the gospel of Marx whilst doing nothing to alleviate class struggle. They are the gatekeepers repeatedly criticised by Mark all over K-Punk. These are precisely the people that the Vampire’s Castle attempts to skewer: the people who covet class politics as something for them and them alone; for their careers and their own self-interest.

Despite what CP seems to think, Mark was not one of these people. To suggest that he was is yet more ignorance. He was aware of the predicament of being working class and in an institutionally bourgeois position, and he wrote about these tensions on numerous occasions. This came through most vividly in his writing on culture, where his post-punk and pulp sensibilities informed a class politics that refused to relegate class consciousness to a form of academic posturing.

This is why Mark loved The Hunger Games, for instance, once writing that what author Suzanne Collins achieves is “an intersectional analysis and decoding of the way that class, gender, race and colonial power work together — not in the pious academic register of the Vampires’ Castle, but in the mythographic core of popular culture — functioning not as a delibidinizing demand for more thinking, more guilt, but as an inciting call to build new collectivities.”

Now, CP obviously prides themselves on not being an academic — and academia at large emerges as the primary straw man here, with Mark propped up as some imaginary representative of all its bourgeois functions — but they are certainly mind-numbingly pious. Worse than this, however, is the sheer ignorance behind their piety. CP isn’t only guilty of disarticulating Mark’s class position but so much of his other writing and political activity as well.

At one point, for example, CP points to Nick Cohen’s appropriation of Mark’s essay as a sign of how bad it must be but, in truth, CP is more reminiscent of Cohen than Mark is — conveniently ignoring the scorn Cohen received and the k-punk clippings sent to Cohen in the aftermath of the article’s publication that insulted him in vitriolic terms.

Mark repeatedly challenged “Cohen’s manifold fallacies of reasoning, grotesquely inapt analogies and factual errors” regarding his op-eds about the Iraq war, but these are likewise the things CP is guilty of as well.

The worst offence for me is that, in proclaiming “working-class academic” to be something of an oxymoron, they deny Mark’s inspiring and unparalleled political activity on campus, creating political groups with students and contributing to campus politics, raising more awareness about class consciousness than anyone else in his department was perhaps able to — precisely because of his background.

A more concrete example: here — starting at 15:12 — is a statement Mark prerecorded for the People’s Tribunal which saw the active building of solidarity between students, academic and non-academic staff — activity ironically cited by CP in a comment and deemed as good on-campus class-conscious worker-supporting activity, without acknowledging just how involved Mark was in this and how he directly inspired the atmosphere that allowed such activity to happen in the first place.

I think these experiences were so important to Mark because he knew what it was like on both sides of the divide. He knew what it was like to have your class experience disavowed as a student and he related to and directly supported students who expressed an affinity with him on this issue. He strove to help them channel it into activity inside and outside of the classroom. He wanted to be a good influence in this regard and to give hope to kids who were like he once was. He even writes somewhere that this was the explicit goal of Capitalist Realism: to write a politically engaged book that his 16 year old students would enjoy.

This is why he wrote so enthusiastically — because he knew the power of seeing and hearing people like yourself; how that affinity and consciousness raising is, first and foremost, validating. He wrote about the term “popular modernism” to discuss just that — the importance and sad loss of that experimental form of class-conscious expression which did not tokenise itself and understood the value of its own voice beyond the tropes of a neoliberal authenticity, just like the voices which inspired him in his youth but which were, today, something of a rarity.

Rightly or wrongly, Mark saw Russell Brand as one of these people. Maybe he was wrong there — I can’t say I’ve ever found Brand to be that inspiring — but also, in 2013, it was very slim pickings… He was overly protective of the few examples we had. There are more now, but not enough.

Regardless, I admired the way Mark openly struggled with this ideal he set for himself. In fact, the resonance of this with his writing on depression is not coincidental. In “Good For Nothing” he wrote:

Writing about one’s own depression is difficult. Depression is partly constituted by a sneering ‘inner’ voice which accuses you of self-indulgence – you aren’t depressed, you’re just feeling sorry for yourself, pull yourself together — and this voice is liable to be triggered by going public about the condition. Of course, this voice isn’t an ‘inner’ voice at all — it is the internalised expression of actual social forces, some of which have a vested interest in denying any connection between depression and politics.

This resonates with his desire to talk about class experience and Mark’s essay goes on to insinuate as much — he likewise points to this sentiment in “Vampire Castle” — noting how this internal voice would disarticulate his class position long before the outside world did. It also makes CP’s comment from their original post all the more distasteful.

… perhaps if Fisher fucked off out of academia and got a real job somewhere, preferably doing manual labour but really just any job where you have a supervisor constantly breathing down your neck to make sure you’re working and not pissing about on the internet, he might find it considerably easier to escape “the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses.

The offensiveness of this comment, expressed again in the new post (if unpolemically), is that it betrays an ignorance regarding Mark’s openly discussed job history when articulating his experiences of depression.

(CP ends their post with an acknowledgement of this bad taste and expresses regret for it, but the same ignorance is still present behind every other argument made, even if it’s not expressed so cheaply. Again, all that’s regretted is the tone, with no attempt made to educate themselves on Mark’s various positions outside of a single article.)

This, again from “Good For Nothing”, is worth quoting in full:

My depression was always tied up with the conviction that I was literally good for nothing. I spent most of my life up to the age of thirty believing that I would never work. In my twenties I drifted between postgraduate study, periods of unemployment and temporary jobs. In each of these roles, I felt that I didn’t really belong — in postgraduate study, because I was a dilettante who had somehow faked his way through, not a proper scholar; in unemployment, because I wasn’t really unemployed, like those who were honestly seeking work, but a shirker; and in temporary jobs, because I felt I was performing incompetently, and in any case I didn’t really belong in these office or factory jobs, not because I was ‘too good’ for them, but — very much to the contrary — because I was over-educated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did. Even when I was on a psychiatric ward, I felt I was not really depressed — I was only simulating the condition in order to avoid work, or in the infernally paradoxical logic of depression, I was simulating it in order to conceal the fact that I was not capable of working, and that there was no place at all for me in society.

When I eventually got a job as lecturer in a Further Education college, I was for a while elated — yet by its very nature this elation showed that I had not shaken off the feelings of worthlessness that would soon lead to further periods of depression. I lacked the calm confidence of one born to the role. At some not very submerged level, I evidently still didn’t believe that I was the kind of person who could do a job like teaching. But where did this belief come from? […] The form of social power that had most effect on me was class power, although of course gender, race and other forms of oppression work by producing the same sense of ontological inferiority, which is best expressed in exactly the thought I articulated above: that one is not the kind of person who can fulfill roles which are earmarked for the dominant group.

In disavowing Mark’s class position, CP simply echoes the depressive voice in Mark’s own head. “That’s not the right job for you.” Well, what is?

Just as infuriating, in light of this, is CP’s passive advocation for “joyful militancy”, as if this too is alien to Mark’s own writings. (It’s not.) But similarities between these positions elsewhere does not undermine the tone of “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It’s okay — good even — to get sad; to get angry. It’s a question of why you feel that way and what you do with it. Again, Mark wrote of the goal for himself: “From anger and sadness to collective joy…

“Exiting the Vampire Castle” was just that — an exit — but Mark went on to do far more valuable things elsewhere and in other contexts. Exiting was his first step on the road to collective joy — an affect that is very rare on Twitter these days and just as rare in meatspace — but he did a great deal to try and find it. All he found on Twitter was anger and bitterness, misdirected, turned inwards, with no one to make contact with it.

Resonantly, Mark wrote about this kind of contact when reviewing Sleaford Mods’ album Divide & Exit for The Wire:

It isn’t always the role of political music to come up with solutions. But nothing could be more urgent than the questions which Sleaford Mods pose: who will make contact with the anger and frustration that Williamson articulates? Who can convert this bad affect into a new political project?

Not CP, that’s for sure.

Bourgeois-Liberal Perversions: A Response to a Criticism of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture

In my previous post, I tried to avoid getting too bogged down in people’s various problems with Jodi Dean’s edition of the Mark Fisher Memorial Lecture at Goldsmiths last Friday. Not to diminish what those criticisms are and/or were, but rather because I think her overarching point was a really great one, even if the finer details were — inevitably — contentious.

But that’s not to say there can be no place for a broader discussion, as if this blog only deals in polite platitudes. So I wanted to separate this off into a different post.

Helpfully, the occasion of a comment received on “Comrades” which addresses some of the problems with that lecture and those that linger as a hangover, for some, from the reaction to Mark’s very controversial exit from political Twitter in 2013, provides a good basis to build on, setting out some criticisms and problems with those criticisms in themselves. The anon commenter “Sx” writes:

as someone who’s been deeply touched by mark’s writings and thought, i have to say i was really disapointed in jodi’s lecture.

it wasn’t that i didn’t want her to talk about ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ (although i do think it’s a piece of work that i’d happily see forgotten) but that rather than explore and complicate that space of tension between those on two opposing sides of the debate, jodi seamed to re-entrench a position that has (further) alienated so many people — this idea that people who are invested in so-called ‘identity’ politics (has she not heard of intersectionality which no, is not the same as liberalism) need to step in line and fight for some wider cause as though disparate groups of people have not and are not still, working together against different forms (both institutional/structural and personal) of abuse, oppression, whatever you want to call it.

and then to talk about Labour as the most progressive party in europe i mean it sounded more like something out of ‘Acid Corbynism’ than the potentialities i felt Mark was developing and opening in his ‘Acid Communism’ introduction.

I don’t want to re-hash some of the critiques of ‘Exiting The Vampire Castle’ but I will say that there were some really thoughtful responses written to that piece and I think that a whole bunch of people have been writing about, discussing, working through some of the ways in which a toxic environment on the left has splintered our ability to work together, find common cause, find accountability but also kindness in the ways we work through interpersonal conflict etc.

I think it’s really telling that (and here I risk being labeled an identitarian) so many of those who reacted negatively to Mark’s article were those people (queer and trans folk, POC etc) who have been alienated from party politics and yes, Communist organizing (at least in this country). I think Jodi didn’t help herself when during the Q&A, she dismissed one person’s (a woman of colour) question for being uninformed of black radical organizing in the US rather than opening up a space to acknowledge and discuss the reasons why so many people feel disconnected and disappointed with ‘radical politics’.

To me, it sounds very similar to this alt-right/Peterson discourse of liberal snowflakes obsessed with identity politics. I dare say that what Jodi Dean and Mark Fisher do share with many on the alt right is that they are white, heterosexual and involved (largely) in the academy. As I say, Mark’s work continues to deeply effect me but I don’t think ‘The Vampire Castle’ was anywhere near his best. There’s more I could talk about visa vi Jodi’s talk and the Q&A (I think it’s dangerous to imply that those critical of her or of ‘The Vampire Castle’ are simply occupying or embodying this very thing that is wrong the left rather than actually listening to people) but i’ll leave it at that for now. oh and i super enjoy your blog x

[whoops, didn’t mean to write (largely) involved in the academy as a shared trait with the alt right. also, wrong *with* the left typo erk]

First of all, I’d say thank you for your comment! I disagree with some points but I’m with you on others. I want to try and address each of them in turn.

The easiest one to address is the claim that Jodi said Labour was the most progressive party in Europe. She didn’t. She said it was the strongest or the most powerful, something like that. I can’t remember her exact words but I thought it was obvious she was referencing the fact that it is the leftist party with the largest membership in the EU. It has (or has had) a similar rise to international fame as Syriza before it and that’s a very interesting phenomenon whether it ends up counting for anything in the long run or not.

I don’t even know how it is possible to measure “progressivity”.

Speaking to your comment more broadly, however, Dean’s style and references and whatever else aside, I do think that she did well to (re)affirm the foundations that we’ve long had at our disposal but which have been diminished by mechanisms of capitalist capture — a task similar to that taken on by Mark in the development of his Acid Communism project — so I really don’t understand the complaint that she didn’t attempt to open up a space to acknowledge certain problems.

Dean spoke precisely of the kind of entrepreneurial politics which has defined much of leftist discourse since the 1990s, especially since the diminishing of a class consciousness that has been very explicit over the last ten to fifteen years.

Intersectionality, in this regard, is a useful concept but it has notably not assisted in alleviating or raising a common consciousness. We can point to pop cultural examples but within the academy and grad student lefty circles all it seems to have done is emboldened a new atomism (as individualism). I agree that “intersectionality” is not (neo)liberalism in theory but it is often deployed as (neo)liberalism in practice and that is largely because of the main undercurrent of Mark’s text and Jodi’s talk: the lack of a decent class politics.

I should say at this point that I’m not that aware of any good critiques of “Exiting the Vampire Castle” that talk about this. (The most vocal critics were the ones who gloated about Mark’s suicide in the aftermath of his death, of course, and who were largely devoid of any reputable class politics prior to that anyway. I’d be happy to be sent some others though.) The only critiques that I’ve read have completely missed the point about class consciousness being the basis for an anticapitalist politics (which has been ejected rather than positioned horizontality beside other struggles as intersectionality claims to do). So I think, broadly speaking, the critique at the heart of the article remains an important one to consider: these identitarian politics are precisely the result of — rather than a reaction to — capitalist realism, since they eject the central capitalist critique for the sake of vague ungrounded balloons of experience that bounce off each other without consequence.

That is not an outright dismissal of “identity politics” as such but they certainly aren’t put to productive use very often anymore. I think it’s good to take a political stance on your own sense of self and how you fit within a wider world — this is a large part of the (feminist) process of consciousness raising that Mark so frequently advocated for — but the frequency with which such thinking slips into egotism and navel-gazing is regretful. No one talks about that as a perpetual risk — the reduction of a minoritarian politics down to a minority of one. That’s not the case for everyone, of course, but that is frequently how these movements are presented and it is along these lines that things so often fall apart in leftist circles in my experience. I’d be happy to be proven wrong on that though.

I think this kind of reaction is inherently linked to the original reaction to “Exiting the Vampire Castle”. It has always seemed to me like everyone who read Capitalist Realism with glee, thinking they were above its criticisms, had to suddenly confront the fact that maybe they were contributing to it as well. And the timeline here is important. Mark developed and wrote Capitalist Realism in the mid 2000s and eventually published it in 2009, before all the UK political drama of 2010, a moment of impotence from which so many of these “identity politics” discussions developed outwards from and which likewise echoed a very rapid shift in who was going to university and why.

I think the failure of those early 2010s experiences showed that this “reflective impotence” went far deeper and, whilst somewhat overly embittered, I think “Exiting the Vampire Castle” expresses a disappointment and frustration held by many other leftists — a disappointment in the fact that class politics, once a common ground on which to build political projects, has fallen by the wayside and the years that followed the publication of Capitalist Realism really didn’t help alleviate that issue.

Owen Jones addressed this himself just two years after Mark published Capitalist Realism with his book Chavs and I remember reading that book very clearly, allowing it to blow a small hole open in my own (class) consciousness and change how I saw myself amongst my peers during my second year at university. If I ever parroted its arguments, however, I’d be laughed at.

That’s an experience that has persisted for many years — continuing today even — and which Mark points out himself when he notes how rough a time Jones has had — and continues to have — despite being “the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”. Owen Jones’ book was (and still is) marvellous but whilst it seemed to single-handedly force the word “chav” to fall into disrepute amongst the middle classes, it didn’t seem to change people’s behaviours more generally. In fact, the primary goal that Jones said he had (in the updated preface for a later edition) was left largely unscathed. He writes that

the book wasn’t simply about the word [“chav”]. It aimed to challenge the myth that ‘we’re all middle class now’: that most of the old working class had been ‘aspirational’ and joined ‘Middle Britain’ (whatever that was), leaving behind a feckless, problematic rump. This was often racialized and described as the ‘white working class’. ‘Chavs’ was the term — encompassing a whole range of pejorative connotations — that best summed up this caricature.”

But in tackling the caricature, it seemed to only allow the middle classes to absorb the chav image as somehow respectable and cool now. And that’s a “class drag” fashion trend that Goldsmiths remains renowned for — which leads us to the elephant in the room that Jodi was perhaps completely unaware of:

It’s been said — by some who are within the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths, I might add — that the “VC” of “Vampire Castle” echoing the “VC” of the “Visual Cultures” department is not a coincidence.

It is partly this subtext within the original essay that led to a schism that has never closed within Goldsmiths itself but it is a schism that still needs addressing despite its sensitivity: for all its self-declared progressivisms, Goldsmiths’ class politics are severely lacking, whether that is in terms of management, lecturers or students. Because of this elephant in the room, the likes of Mark Fisher — working class intellectuals who write unfetishistically about their experiences, particularly how they continue to affect their working lives as lecturers — have been removed one by one from academia. (It has likewise been suggested that “Exiting the Vampire Castle” may had something to do with Mark not getting the promotion that left him so gutted in 2016.) As someone put it in a conversation had just last night, what Mark represented was a third path between “the dichotomy of Adornian academic miserablism and Goldsmiths identitarianism” and this is what is so striking about his absence from Goldsmiths today. There remain only a few who continue to carry that torch.

What’s most apparent are the continued casualties. I know of someone who was signed off sick with depression after being attacked and harassed for daring to talk about a UK-specific working class experience in a public lecture programme last year. This rang so true with one of Mark’s primary warnings in his essay:

The danger in attacking the Vampires’ Castle is that it can look as if — and it will do everything it can to reinforce this thought — that one is also attacking the struggles against racism, sexism, heterosexism. But, far from being the only legitimate expression of such struggles, the Vampires’ Castle is best understood as a bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation of the energy of these movements. The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.

Likewise amongst students, to be from a working class background — particularly at a postgraduate level — is a rarity.

During the strikes of 2018, there was a strong and vocal group of undergrad students who were evidently devoid of any sense of solidarity with workers and that seems to be because working class people remain a minority within that institution.

I know from my own experience that I was regularly the only person from such a background in most of my classes and it had a major impact on many discussions had — the worst being when reading Mark’s text “Good For Nothing” in the aftermath of his death and having that text dismissed by one lecturer due to the fact that, apparently, “rich people get sad too”. To be the only student to object to that erasure of class consciousness, mere days after his death, became just one more way in which Mark’s apparently best-forgotten essay continued to resonate with daily experiences.

Yeah, maybe Mark was a white cishet man but Mark was a very valuable voice precisely for his working class background and his understanding and articulation of that experience. He didn’t suffer fools gladly and he could sniff out that “bourgeois-liberal perversion and appropriation” of historic struggles very quickly. In fact, I think most can who are from such backgrounds, because the comradeship in the working class cities that I grew up in — which crossed gendered and racialised lines effortlessly because we all shared a broader socioeconomic struggle — is a world away from what I’ve discovered to be the norm here in London, and particularly in a place like Goldsmiths.

I do appreciate your point that many of those who took issue with Mark’s post were POC or queer, of course, but this chimes in with a further elephant in the room. Many people from such demographics that I know, who are additionally working class, have had no problem with Mark’s essay. Those I know who have don’t seem to share in the experience that the article is so focussed on. And so the acknowledgement that certain minoritarian political positions can nonetheless remain bourgeois in this century is an important one to emphasise here, which Jodi likewise did in her lecture. Identity politics, deployed by these people, too often lead to inverted “struggle sessions” where the working class is routinely humiliated by the bourgeoisie who has discovered their place on some great Venn diagram of suffering and chosen to misuse and abuse it, undermining the very politics they claim to represent through their blind self-interest.

None of these other identities are magically allied with class struggles and being told that is not a bad thing. It is, unfortunately, very necessary. To liken this to a Jordan Peterson “get over it, snowflakes” is incredibly ignorant. That isn’t remotely the message being expressed (quite clearly, I think), which is: stop conveniently “dis-articulating” class experiences from your newfound academy-shaped subjectivity. Mark says this himself explicitly, even addressing your concerns about his own identitarian position(s):

The privilege I certainly enjoy as a white male consists in part in my not being aware of my ethnicity and my gender, and it is a sobering and revelatory experience to occasionally be made aware of these blind-spots. But, rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

[…] The task, as ever, remains the articulation of class, gender and race  — but the founding move of the Vampires’ Castle is the dis-articulation of class from other categories.

Being made aware of our blindspots is a major part of any consciousness raising exercise, and it can likewise be a traumatic one. Goldsmiths — and many who orbit it — could do well to recognise their own class blindspots, because they are as gaping to everyone else as my own white privilege was, for example, before I moved to south east London. However, the suggestion seems to be that doing this is a violence in itself and any discussion that bourgeois minoritarians might have further unruptured blind spots is taken with the utmost offence.

Further to this point about listening to people, it becomes strange that so many of the more patronising and cynical questions asked last Friday were asked by people who evidently hadn’t read Mark or even listened to Jodi’s talk. Some questions were truly bizarre and pointless. This was the worst result of Mark’s original essay, which seemed to largely demonstrate that everyone was apparently guilty of the same thing and complained about not being listened to. It was Spiderman meme territory.

To your point about her dismissal of a black woman’s point: that point was factually incorrect. I may need to listen back to the recording but the question seemed to be “Why haven’t POC been involved in these movements?” And the answer given was: “But they have?” Maybe Dean was in a defensive flow by that point in the evening but she did well to address a lot of other historical inaccuracies that were fired at her as critiques from the crowd. (I only know about that Black communist history myself because a friend of mine wrote her dissertation on the Harlem Renaissance and Communist Russia’s financial and cultural support the various movements that grew out of that moment in the Black Radical Tradition.) Are you suggesting the question-asker would have known this if she wasn’t so disillusioned by party politics? I don’t see why that should be placed at Jodi’s feet.

(This is likewise similar to the question asked about rehabilitating rapists in communist parties — a disingenuous question asked by someone I don’t know but how was nonetheless accompanying one of the most insufferable bourgeois arseholes to regularly grace Goldsmiths’ events, who regularly thinks people are mysogynistic or racist simply because they think she’s a posh arsehole. It was a deeply unfair and antagonistic question which it would be impossible to do justice in such a forum. Dean nonetheless dodged it, as best she could, deciding to briefly address another historical example of Communist party forgiveness in the USA, but I’m not sure how she could come out of such a question unscathed. What struck me was that whilst many progressives might look to a prison system like Norway’s, for instance, with envy and admiration, the suggestion that we might take that approach socially rather than just allowing it to be implemented as part of state infrastructure, is seen as an abomination and makes Dean some kind of rape apologist. So let’s be clear: the audience that night was infrequently a fucking piece of work — if nonetheless very stereotypically Goldsmithsy.)

I still don’t understand the critique that she didn’t open up this space for discussing and addressing why people are disillusioned with radical politics. She did for me, in her talk and over the course of a marathon Q&A session the likes of which I’ve never seen or otherwise wilfully sat through. Discussing precisely the ways that neoliberal and bourgeois subjectivities have imperceptibly overwritten the foundations of our common politics is addressing the question of why so many are disillusioned. The only thing I wish she’d highlighted more was how complicit Goldsmiths itself is within that. That was noticeably missing but then how was she to know?

It’s worth emphasising further still that this was likewise to be the project of Acid Communism. Mark wanted to trace this problem of the dominance of bourgeois subjectivities back to the 1970s when governments all over the world felt threatened by the construction of various intersectional movements and discourses — “What if the working class became hippies?” being one of Mark’s central questions. And this surprised a lot of people because Mark hated hippies. Like many punks and postpunks, perhaps he saw their anti-work ethic as the somewhat attainable dream of a lackadaisical bourgeois class who had just rediscovered nature. And that’s still true today — hippie kids in class drag appropriating the knowledges of other cultures to liven up their otherwise normie and comfortable existences — but Mark decided to put his cynicism to one side and ask: “Well, what if this had gone differently and these various sides had been able to build something new together?”

This questions aren’t dissimilar to those asked in “Exiting the Vampire Castle”, they’re simply less offensive, perhaps, when jettisoned back to their 20th century roots. But answering those questions and following Mark’s own trajectory tells us a lot about the politics we currently have and it shouldn’t be controversial to say they’re not all that good or pretty.

That’s not to say they haven’t improved more recently, but from what? Pre-Corbyn, leftist politics had almost become a luxury that those they were intended to help could not afford. Corbyn is interesting because he has signalled a sea change. Before Corbyn, the only leftist party many people had time for was the Green Party, and they were rife with posh cunts.

You’re right that people are fighting against other forms of abuse and injustice in other areas, and that’s great, but to suggest that that is somehow separate from class struggle is odd to me. Nevertheless, that’s how so many see it, and — personally — I think that’s dumb.

To end on a more positive and agreeable note, I will add that I do agree with you on the issues of party politics. That has often turned me off too and it’s not something I get about Mark or Jodi’s positions. I feel like this is a point that could have done with a lot more exploration, and it is a topic I’ve discussed in relation to Jodi’s work on this blog before, but none of the insight discussed here was present in her talk. Mark was obviously involved in party politics and that’s also how he met the likes of Jeremy Gilbert and Plan C. Those who he worked with have generally turned me off in this regard. Lots of egotism which I’m surprised Mark managed to stomach. But I get the impression that maybe Mark thought it was better to be on the inside pissing out than on the outside pissing in, until he realised that those on the inside somehow saw themselves as outsiders pissing in anyway, regardless of their material conditions.

Also, I’m glad you enjoy the blog and I do hope this doesn’t change that.

Thanks for reading.

Update: On the final point about party politics, Ed Berger adds in the comments below:

With regards to the very last point on Mark’s engagement with the party, both theoretical and in practice — knowing that he was engaging with Autonomist thought during the period he was developing acid communism (and given his rejection of bureaucracy, so often associated with the party-form itself), is it possible that his relation to the party can be viewed through those lenses? In pieces like Negri’s ‘Capitalist Domination and Working Class Sabotage’, the party gets mutated, detached from bureaucracy and the state, pushed back into the ferment of working class organization and exists, at times, as that which is attacked by the working class out of necessity. He speaks of the party as “dead labour”, the “negation of the refusal of work”, whose historical legacy “looms over us like a nightmare.” But there’s a different party he perceives the outline of, one that makes possible the refusal of work and is subordinated to the process of proletarian self-valorization, as opposed to the reversal that the historical form has carried out.


The Continual Violence of Newport City Council

Riot police, arson, looting and general dissent were the defining images of the summer of 2011. It started in London and spread like a rash to other major cities in the UK. At the time I was in Hull and, despite expectations, nothing happened. At first I was almost surprised. Hull does not have the greatest reputation as a nice place to live. I found myself in my usual haunts almost defending the rioters with a classical leftist stance along the lines of “they have a great deal to be angry about: I don’t condone their actions but their actions don’t surprise me either.”

The Guardian undertook a large-scale investigation of the events that summer, resulting in Reading the Riots, which outlined poverty, anger at the police over the death of Mark Duggan (essentially the straw that broke a community’s back), and general disenfranchisement as the catalysts. David Cameron, in the immediate aftermath, said that it was “completely wrong to say there is any justifiable causal link.” The blame, in Cameron’s eyes, lay squarely at the feet of the rioters. Addressing those involved he said, “You are not only wrecking the lives of others, you’re not only wrecking your own communities – you are potentially wrecking your own life too.” By their actions being so unjustifiable, the supposed reasons for their actions were not even worth investigating. “Serves them right,” he might as well have said.

This was not an uncommon opinion in the UK at the time. The sheer spectacle of what the rioters did allowed for the reasons they were angry to be brushed aside. Images of gutted building and detritus in the streets are much more shocking when you can also see images of the explosive events that caused them only a few nights previously.

I looked around me as I walked through Hull one day soon after to see that there were some areas that looked very similar to those affected by the riots. When I moved back to Newport in South Wales a few weeks later I saw even more of the same thing. How could David Cameron say that rioters were wrecking communities when, in many respects, their communities were already wrecked?

I presented a half-baked idea at a pub in Newport once I returned to university and a lecturer in the audience mentioned a book by Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, that he thought might be of use to me. In the book, Nixon argues that so much activism and charity is driven by spectacle – the violence of natural disasters, deforestation, oil spills, war – that the more attritional types of violence that occur every day are often ignored.

Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.

We urgently need to rethink – politically, imaginatively, and theoretically – what I call ‘slow violence’: a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.

Nixon’s concern is on a global scale, but I decided to take his idea and focus it onto more local issues.

The street was just a short walk from where I was living in Newport at the time. The more time I spent on the street, the more interactions I had with those living there. Initially I just had to stand and video until eventually someone would approach me and ask what I was doing. Some were threatening, obviously ashamed of the state their street was in and angry that I was stood there gawping at it. Others came and told me how much they hated Newport City Council over their refusal to do anything about it on a technicality. The comment that stuck with me most was one man’s admittance to the fact that having to wake up to such a sight every day had led him to develop clinical depression. Legally, no one was responsible for the fire that wrecked this community, but it is Newport City Council’s fault that it remains in such a state. 

The accompanying text to the video ends as follows:

Newport – and Maindee in particular – has a large working-class population and, as is shown by the case of Marlborough Road, they have been abandoned to their fate; disenfranchised and ignored. Their situation is specific, but by no means unique. There are communities in similar situations throughout the UK.

Areas like this that are left to deteriorate out of control start to reflect the attitudes towards these communities, and through no fault of their own. As a result of “working-class” stereotypes, we expect these areas to be decrepit and so we choose to ignore them. Living in these environments provokes resentment and anger within communities to the point of residents lashing out. 

The Marlborough Road fire and its aftermath have been out of the news since 2009, but problems on the street continue to progress and worsen. 

This is “slow violence” as neglect.

The residents of Newport haven’t lashed out yet, but I remember thinking back in 2011, perhaps cynically, that is was only a matter of time. That time might very well be now. Two days ago Newport City Council’s attritional destruction of a community’s spirit lurched into a new gear when they destroyed a much-loved mural depicting the Chartist uprising in the city in 1839 to make way for a new shopping centre. This was not the first attack on culture in Newport. The closing of the city’s only art gallery and public library led to public outrage also, but not on this scale. This was an act of violence “immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility.”

The video below causes me genuine upset. The anger and sadness that it provokes in me is also palpable, I can only imagine how those who have lived in Newport their entire lives must feel. The video also makes me proud, as I recognise so many of the faces and voices in it, and I wish those people all the best. I am not a Newport local, but I am a local to a city very much like it. Hull did not have a Chartist uprising, but we did apparently have a “radical bookshop“. Yorkshire owes a great deal to the Chartists as well, but it is not a very well known part of our history. It is in Newport and that is something that the city is, rightly so, very proud of.

There is a sickening irony to all of these events in Newport considering its history. Chartism, for those who don’t know, was a movement in the early 19th century that fought for political reform and equal rights and governmental representation for the working classes. The Chartist’s dedication to the cause and the government’s subsequent lack of action led to many violent clashes. John Frost (the man who is the namesake for the square where Newport’s Chartist mural used to be) was on trial for treason for his role in the movement when he led thousands of people through the streets of Newport in protest. They stormed the Westgate Hotel which was occupied by the many of the area’s upper classes and landed gentry, as well as a number of soldiers. A battle broke out leaving 35 dead and injured.

In comparison to the Chartists the London rioters did not have had such an ardent political agenda, but they undeniably show that the disenfranchisement of the working classes is still very much an issue in this country, so much so that it can lead to violence. The Chartists changed the laws, but over 150 years later more is needed to change attitudes. Newport feels like the spiritual home of working class political dissent in the UK in many respects. Sadly, we do not seem so perceptive to the changes that warrant it. So much damage has already been done to this community and it is sad that it has taken the spectacular violence of the Chartist mural’s destruction to provoke widespread action and protest. It feels that for years Newport City Council have been seeing just how much they can get away with. Now they have gone a step too far and the entire city knows it. They are a disgrace to the Chartist movement and they have been so long before they chose to destroy its commemorative mural. If there was ever a council that was guilty of ignoring and neglecting its working class citizens, it was Newport City Council. In a city so proud of its history to the contrary, this is inherently unacceptable.

Today, at noon, a demonstration that was initially planned to protest the proposed destruction of the mural (before the council did it anyway without warning and ahead of schedule) has still gone ahead. According to a Facebook page set up for the event, there will be a march through the town to the civic centre at 16.30 where the protesters will hand in a signed petition “with dignity and pride.” They should have just left John Frost Square as I write this.

There will be no disenfranchised riots in Newport today: too much unnecessary destruction has already occurred this week. After the London riots, there were countless arrests and some of those arrested were made examples of, receiving harsher sentences than perhaps they deserved. Such wanton destruction at the hands of the people is totally unnecessary. So what about destruction at the hands of a governing body like Newport City Council? What will their punishment be?

There have been a number of blogs written on the destruction of the mural in the past few days, some even appearing on international news websites. This is an extended and proud community making an example of its council. Hopefully it will result in some sort of action on the council’s behalf, but they cannot put the mural back now. The hole where it once was is hard to ignore as are the still-circulating images of its destruction but to those protesting today and to those like me who are there in spirit, it might be worth taking the time to look around and beyond the mural. The residents of Marlborough Road need not look too far – I’m sure they wish the council would rebuild their street instead of a shopping centre in a city with so many already-empty shops. Newport City Council has a lot more to answer for, and perhaps now is the right time for them to do so.