Journey back into the vampires’ castle: Mark Fisher remembered, 1968-2017

I nev­er met Mark Fish­er, but we cor­res­pon­ded of­ten via e-mail. And he was al­ways very en­cour­aging. Right after I wrote a scath­ing re­view of “con­fer­ence com­mun­ism” in early 2014, “The Ghost of Com­mun­ism Past,” Mark sent me the fol­low­ing: “Your piece on con­fer­ence com­mun­ism, sent to me by a fel­low ed­it­or, fairly well nails down what we hope Zer0 isn’t. We en­joyed it, happy new year.” Fish­er would of course de­part from Zer0, along with many of his peers, to found Re­peat­er Books later that same year. Nev­er­the­less, his com­mit­ment to an ac­cess­ible, non-aca­dem­ic but soph­ist­ic­ated Marx­ism was un­flag­ging.

Cap­it­al­ist Real­ism was his prin­cip­al achieve­ment in the realm of the­ory, the fruit of a long series of re­flec­tions and in­tro­spec­tion con­duc­ted largely on­line. In it he railed against “the slow can­cel­la­tion of the fu­ture” en­acted by post-com­mun­ist cap­it­al­ism. Tak­ing its cue from Jameson’s in­sight — no less true for hav­ing been quoted ad nauseam — that “it is easi­er to ima­gine the end of the world than it is to ima­gine the end of cap­it­al­ism,” Mark asked if there was “really no al­tern­at­ive” to the neo­lib­er­al re­gime of Re­agan and Thatch­er. Some of his mus­ings about men­tal health, which reg­u­larly fea­tured on his K-Punk blog, also ap­peared with cas­u­al bril­liance in this text:

The cur­rent rul­ing on­to­logy denies any pos­sib­il­ity of a so­cial caus­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness. The chemico-bio­lo­giz­a­tion of men­tal ill­ness is of course strictly com­men­sur­ate with its de­pol­it­i­ciz­a­tion. Con­sid­er­ing men­tal ill­ness an in­di­vidu­al chemico-bio­lo­gic­al prob­lem has enorm­ous be­ne­fits for cap­it­al­ism. First, it re­in­forces cap­it­al’s drive to­wards atom­ist­ic in­di­vidu­al­iz­a­tion (you are sick be­cause of your brain chem­istry). Second, it provides an enorm­ously luc­rat­ive mar­ket in which mul­tina­tion­al phar­ma­ceut­ic­al com­pan­ies can peddle their phar­ma­ceut­ic­als (we can cure you with our SS­RIs). It goes without say­ing that all men­tal ill­nesses are neur­o­lo­gic­ally in­stan­ti­ated, but this says noth­ing about their caus­a­tion. If it is true, for in­stance, that de­pres­sion is con­sti­tuted by low sero­ton­in levels, what still needs to be ex­plained is why par­tic­u­lar in­di­vidu­als have low levels of sero­ton­in. This re­quires a so­cial and polit­ic­al ex­plan­a­tion; and the task of re­pol­it­i­ciz­ing men­tal ill­ness is an ur­gent one if the left wants to chal­lenge cap­it­al­ist real­ism.

How much sad­der it all seems, read­ing these words now, in light of his sui­cide. Mark con­fessed in an art­icle for The Oc­cu­pied Times that he “suffered from de­pres­sion in­ter­mit­tently since [he] was a teen­ager.” Ob­vi­ously it would be pre­sump­tu­ous to con­clude that the miser­able state of left­ist dis­course had any­thing to do with his de­cision to end his life; too many oth­er factors might have been more im­me­di­ate or prox­im­ate. But it would be just as mis­guided to main­tain that this had noth­ing to do with Mark’s over­whelm­ing sense of des­pair in re­cent years, es­pe­cially since he so fre­quently lamen­ted the sorry place at which we’ve all ar­rived.

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Paul Mattick, revolutionary Marxist (1904-1981)

I’m not a coun­cil­ist. Of the two ma­jor streams of left-wing com­mun­ism with­in the Third In­ter­na­tion­al, the Ger­man-Dutch cur­rent formed around spon­tan­eous work­ers’ coun­cils and the Itali­an cur­rent formed around or­gan­ic party cent­ral­ism, my pref­er­ence is def­in­itely for the lat­ter. Though most mod­ern left com­mun­ist groups syn­thes­ize ele­ments from each, I con­sider Bor­di­gism far more com­pat­ible with or­tho­dox Trot­sky­ism than coun­cil­ism after 1930. Even more so than Bor­di­gism and Trot­sky­ism, I find Bor­diga and Trot­sky to be closer to one an­oth­er than to any of the ma­jor rep­res­ent­at­ives of coun­cil com­mun­ism.

Nev­er­the­less, I di­gress: By the end of the 1920s, the coun­cil com­mun­ist move­ment led by Ant­on Pan­nekoek, Her­man Gort­er, and Otto Rühle had taken its cri­tique of Bolshev­ism so far that it re­jec­ted the party-form of or­gan­iz­a­tion. Paul Mat­tick only emerged as a prom­in­ent fig­ure with­in this move­ment after this point, dur­ing his ca­reer in the United States. Al­though I do not find his polit­ic­al po­s­i­tions all that com­pel­ling, par­tic­u­larly his anti-Len­in­ism, I find his the­or­et­ic­al work to be of ex­cep­tion­al qual­ity. His short 1959 art­icle on “Na­tion­al­ism and So­cial­ism” de­serves spe­cial men­tion for in­sights like the fol­low­ing:

The second World War and its af­ter­math brought in­de­pend­ence to In­dia and Pakistan, the Chinese Re­volu­tion, the lib­er­a­tion of South­east Asia, and self-de­term­in­a­tion for some na­tions in Africa and the Middle East. Prima facie, this “renais­sance” of na­tion­al­ism con­tra­dicts both Rosa Lux­em­burg’s and Len­in’s po­s­i­tions on the “na­tion­al ques­tion.” Ap­par­ently, the time for na­tion­al eman­cip­a­tion has not come to an end, and ob­vi­ously, the rising tide of anti-im­per­i­al­ism does not serve world-re­volu­tion­ary so­cial­ist ends.

However, what this new na­tion­al­ism ac­tu­ally in­dic­ates are struc­tur­al changes in the cap­it­al­ist world eco­nomy and the end of nine­teenth-cen­tury co­lo­ni­al­ism. The “white man’s bur­den” has be­come an ac­tu­al bur­den in­stead of a bless­ing. The re­turns from co­lo­ni­al rule are dwind­ling while the costs of em­pire are rising. In­di­vidu­als, cor­por­a­tions, and even gov­ern­ments still cer­tainly en­rich them­selves by co­lo­ni­al ex­ploit­a­tion. But this is now primar­ily due to spe­cial con­di­tions — con­cen­trated con­trol of oil-re­sources, the dis­cov­ery of large urani­um de­pos­its, etc. — rather than the gen­er­al abil­ity to op­er­ate prof­it­ably in colon­ies and oth­er de­pend­ent coun­tries. What were once ex­cep­tion­al profit-rates now drop back to the “nor­mal” rate, and where they re­main ex­cep­tion­al, it is in most cases due to a hid­den form of gov­ern­ment sub­sidy. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, co­lo­ni­al­ism no longer pays, so that it is in part the prin­ciple of prof­it­ab­il­ity it­self which calls forth a new ap­proach to im­per­i­al­ist rule.

Mat­tick’s book-length es­say on Marx and Keynes: Lim­its of the Mixed Eco­nomy is also a clas­sic. Whatever their tend­ency, Marx­ists stand to learn a great deal from Mat­tick’s ideas and work. You can down­load some of his books, art­icles, and re­views be­low. Fe­lix Baum’s re­view of Gary Roth’s Marx­ism in a Lost Cen­tury ap­pears un­der­neath. Roth’s bio­graphy of Mat­tick can be down­loaded via Lib­Com.

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L’affaire Ciccariello-Maher: “White genocide” and beyond

George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s “off-col­or” joke about gen­o­cide over the hol­i­days has eli­cited a range of re­ac­tions on so­cial me­dia. In the week or so that’s elapsed since he sent out those con­tro­ver­sial tweets, sev­er­al cycles of pub­lic opin­ion have already run their course. Fol­low­ing the ini­tial op­pro­bri­um, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er was even re­buked by his em­ploy­ers at Drexel Uni­versity. This in turn led his sup­port­ers to gath­er sig­na­tures, ur­ging the ad­min­is­tra­tion not to rep­rim­and him fur­ther. Some be­grudgingly offered their solid­ar­ity, more as a mat­ter of prin­ciple than out of ap­prov­al for what he said. While they did not en­dorse his mes­sage, they be­lieved that ex­tra­mur­al polit­ic­al speech should be pro­tec­ted. Oth­ers en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally leapt to de­fend the ori­gin­al “white gen­o­cide” re­mark, al­though Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er in­sists he it made in jest, “not only on grounds of aca­dem­ic free­dom and free speech, but even more strongly on the basis of its polit­ic­al con­tent.” A few re­fused to provide him with any back­ing what­so­ever, cit­ing his fail­ure to do like­wise after the Charlie Hebdo murders in Par­is two years earli­er. Luck­ily, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er later re­vealed that he’d re­cently re­ceived ten­ure, so the whole af­fair proved rather a tem­pest in a tea­cup. His job was nev­er in ser­i­ous danger to be­gin with.

Nev­er­the­less, now that it’s over, it might be worth tak­ing a look at the vari­ous re­sponses to this im­broglio. Be­fore sur­vey­ing all these, however, I might as well lay my cards out on the ta­ble: I’m not a “free speech ab­so­lut­ist.” Un­der ex­traordin­ary con­di­tions — say, of re­volu­tion­ary civil war — some demo­crat­ic rights will likely have to be sus­pen­ded. Even un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, there are lim­its re­lated to li­bel, slander, and in­cit­ing a pan­ic. Gen­er­ally speak­ing, though, people should be able to say or write whatever the fuck they want. Trot­sky had it more or less right in his tract on “Free­dom of Press and the Work­ing Class” (1938). “Once at the helm [of the state],” wrote Dav­idovich, “the pro­let­ari­at may find it­self forced, for a cer­tain time, to take spe­cial meas­ures against the bour­geois­ie, if the bour­geois­ie as­sumes an at­ti­tude of open re­bel­lion against the work­ers’ state. In that case, re­strict­ing free­dom of the press goes hand in hand with all the oth­er meas­ures em­ployed in wa­ging a civil war: if you are forced to use ar­til­lery and planes against the en­emy, you can­not per­mit this same en­emy to main­tain his own cen­ters of news and pro­pa­ganda with­in the armed camp of the pro­let­ari­at… Yet in this in­stance, too, if the spe­cial meas­ures are ex­ten­ded un­til they be­come an en­dur­ing pat­tern, they in them­selves carry the danger of get­ting out of hand and of the work­ers’ bur­eau­cracy gain­ing a polit­ic­al mono­poly that would be one of the sources of its de­gen­er­a­tion.”

Colin Beckett, Corey Robin, and Richard Seymour

Verso Books published a con­cise sum­mary of the or­deal by Colin Beck­ett, which went over the timeline of events. Beck­ett con­cluded that “Drexel’s ini­tial re­sponse to com­plaints about Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er il­lus­trates that un­prin­cipled, PR-con­scious ad­min­is­trat­ors are eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by the slight­est hint of con­tro­versy,” and im­plored his read­ers to “re­main vi­gil­ant and make it more dif­fi­cult for uni­versit­ies… to cater to right-wing out­rage, real or fake, than po­lice the speech of its em­ploy­ees.” Jac­obin re­pos­ted Corey Robin’s call to “De­fend George Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er” from his per­son­al blog, a reas­on­able enough piece, des­pite its praise for the as­so­ciate pro­fess­or’s “ex­cel­lent work on Venezuela and polit­ic­al the­ory.” With all due re­spect to Robin, Cic­car­i­ello-Ma­h­er’s stuff on Venezuela is lazy tripe. It amounts to little more than re­hash­ing the crudest talk­ing points pre­pared by the Bolivari­an re­gime. He once gran­ted an in­ter­view to Amy Good­man of Demo­cracy Now! in which jus­ti­fy Ma­duro’s jail­ing of Leo­poldo López, the mod­er­ate op­pos­i­tion lead­er, back in 2015. López was sen­tenced to four­teen years for fo­ment­ing un­rest and al­legedly plot­ting to over­throw the gov­ern­ment. Guess what evid­ence was presen­ted as proof of his crime? Yup, that’s right: prob­lem­at­ic tweets.

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