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.
The insistence on “a social and political explanation” of depression necessarily encompasses leftist discourse, as well. “Left-wing melancholy” has of course been decried by Marxist critics since Walter Benjamin as a luxury of the well-off, “people in the higher income bracket… melancholy dummies who trample anything and anyone in their path… Constipation and melancholy have always gone hand in hand.” Enzo Traverso has dedicated an entire book to the exploration of this theme of “haunting pasts without utopias.” Yet nothing could have been further from Mark’s mind, since his entire project was to rekindle hope in some alternative to the status quo.
Discourse is an irreducibly social phenomenon, as Mark realized. And even those discourses that aim to challenge society as it presently exists can succumb to its influence. They are hardly immune from that which they seek to overcome. “It is necessary to identify the features of the discourses and desires that have led us to this grim and demoralizing impasse: where class has disappeared but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible but guilt and fear are omnipresent. Not because we are terrorized by the Right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement.”
Lots of people turned their backs on Mark after his 2013 article, “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” from which these last words are excerpted. He appreciated that I stuck up for him. But it remains bitterly ironic that he would be pilloried for writing an article which began by deploring the game of “name and shame.” As Mark himself maintained, this was in turn the legacy of Stalinist denunciation. Even this had been stripped of its meager emancipatory promise, however, as he quipped that “[l]iberal identity politics and its grip on the student left is like Stalinism without utopia.” From the introduction to his piece:
This summer, I seriously considered withdrawing from any involvement in politics. Exhausted through overwork, incapable of productive activity, I found myself drifting through social networks, feeling my depression and exhaustion increasing.
“Left-wing” Twitter can often be a dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were “called out” and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism. The reason I didn’t speak out on any of these incidents, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. The bullies were in another part of the playground. I didn’t want to attract their attention to me.
Any hope Mark had for avoiding these bullies’ gaze went out the window with the publication of this essay. Prominent bloggers like Angela Mitropoulos found him guilty of “B-Grade Politics and Reaction,” writing that “the desires [Mark] gives expression to are pretty unpleasant, an enjoyment predicated on a structural negativity and an othering so obvious that no one is actually cited except in the most phantasmatic, and B-grade, terms. They are, very clearly, just ‘Others’ for him, and presumably a threat to his enjoyment, presented as the cause of his sinking into depression, et cetera.” Mitropoulos’ nonchalant skepticism about the way this affected Mark’s mental health appear chilling in retrospect.
Rereading his piece on the Vampire Castle today, though, Amber Frost pointed out how “it’s strange not to detect even an ounce of malice, or the hint of a sneer. He seemed like such a sweet and gentle person — so unlike me and my friends — and he was just crucified for it. I wonder how anyone can stand to be brave at all without that gleeful taste for hostility that keeps me going.” Crucified he most certainly was, moreover, accused of harboring a “crypto-fascist mentality” by Matthijs Krul (who nonetheless appreciated his Gothic motif). Another self-identified vampire condemned Mark’s “neoconservative leftism.” Yet another impugned him as a brocialist: “White leftist men [like Fisher] love referencing Marx. “
Some of the tributes and commemorations that have recently poured in have been more heartening, however. Laudable, even, considering they’ve come from those with whom he’d publicly disagreed. When on January 3rd I mentioned his passing remarks about another blogger, Richard Seymour — whom he’d dubbed “excommunicator-in-chief” of the Left — Mark was still alive, so there was no malicious motive for doing so. Richard has since then posted a fond remembrance of Fisher which I thought quite good. Owen Hatherley’s post on Nasty, Brutalist, and Short was also moving, his first update on that blog in nearly five years.
In any case, I was looking forward to reading Mark’s new collection of essays even before I learned of his passing. Now that he’s gone I’ll probably read it more slowly, savor each piece, since no more will be forthcoming. Very sad to have lost you, Mark.
Class consciousness is fragile and fleeting. The petite bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry has all kinds of subtle deflections and pre-emptions which prevent the topic even coming up, and then, if it does come up, they make one think it is a terrible impertinence, a breach of etiquette, to raise it. I’ve been speaking now at left-wing, anti-capitalist events for years, but I’ve rarely talked — or been asked to talk — about class in public.
Where to go from here? It is first of all necessary to identify the features of the discourses and the desires which have led us to this grim and demoralizing impasse, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt and fear are omnipresent. Not because we are terrorized by the right, but because we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate our movement. I think there are two libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about. They call themselves left wing, but they are many ways a sign that the left — defined as an agent in a class struggle — has all but disappeared.
Inside the Vampires’ Castle
The first configuration is what I came to call the Vampires’ Castle. The Vampires’ Castle specializes in propagating guilt. It is driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd. 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” recognized by a bourgeois big Other.
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.
I’ve noticed a fascinating magical inversion projection-disavowal mechanism whereby the sheer mention of class is now automatically treated as if that means one is trying to downgrade the importance of race and gender. In fact, the exact opposite is the case, as the Vampires’ Castle uses an ultimately liberal understanding of race and gender to obfuscate class. In all of the absurd and traumatic twitterstorms about privilege earlier this year it was noticeable that the discussion of class privilege was entirely absent. 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.
The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there — in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies, and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is…
The Vampires’ Castle feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups — the more “marginal” the better — into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampires’ Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering — those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.
The first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: Individualize and privatize everything. While in theory it claims to be in favor of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behavior. Some of these working class types are not terribly well brought up, and can be very rude at times. Remember: condemning individuals is always more important than paying attention to impersonal structures. The actual ruling class propagates ideologies of individualism, while tending to act as a class. (Many of what we call “conspiracies” are the ruling class showing class solidarity.) The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to “solidarity” and “collectivity,” while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold. Because they are petit-bourgeois to the core, the members of the Vampires’ Castle are intensely competitive, but this is repressed in the passive aggressive manner typical of the bourgeoisie. What holds them together is not solidarity, but mutual fear — the fear that they will be the next one to be outed, exposed, condemned.
The second law of the Vampires’ Castle is: Make thought and action appear very, very difficult. There must be no lightness, and certainly no humor. Humor isn’t serious, by definition, right? Thought is hard work, for people with posh voices and furrowed brows. Where there is confidence, introduce skepticism. Say: don’t be hasty, we have to think more deeply about this. Remember: having convictions is oppressive, and might lead to GULags.
The third law of the Vampires’ Castle is: Propagate as much guilt as you can. The more guilt the better. People must feel bad: it is a sign that they understand the gravity of things. It’s OK to be class-privileged if you feel guilty about privilege and make others in a subordinate class position to you feel guilty too. You do some good works for the poor, too, right?
The fourth law of the Vampires’ Castle is: Essentialize. While fluidity of identity, plurality, and multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the VC members — partly to cover up their own invariably wealthy, privileged, or bourgeois-assimilationist background — the enemy is always to be essentialized. Since the desires animating the VC are in large part priests’ desires to excommunicate and condemn, there has to be a strong distinction between Good and Evil, with the latter essentialized. Notice the tactics. X has made a remark/has behaved in a particular way — these remarks/ this behavior might be construed as transphobic/sexist etc. So far, okay. But it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/sexist etc. Their whole identity becomes defined by one ill-judged remark or behavioral slip. Once the VC has mustered its witch-hunt, the victim (often from a working class background, and not schooled in the passive-aggressive etiquette of the bourgeoisie) can reliably be goaded into losing their temper, further securing their position as pariah/latest to be consumed in feeding frenzy.
The fifth law of the Vampires’ Castle: Think like a liberal (because you are one). The VC’s work of constantly stoking up reactive outrage consists of endlessly pointing out the screamingly obvious: capital behaves like capital (it’s not very nice!), repressive state apparatuses are repressive. We must protest!
Neo-anarchy in the UK
The second libidinal formation is neo-anarchism. By neo-anarchists I definitely do not mean anarchists or syndicalists involved in actual workplace organization, such as the Solidarity Federation. I mean, rather, those who identify as anarchists but whose involvement in politics extends little beyond student protests and occupations, and commenting on Twitter. Like the denizens of the Vampires’ Castle, neo-anarchists usually come from a petit-bourgeois background, if not from somewhere even more class-privileged.
They are also overwhelmingly young: in their twenties or at most their early thirties, and what informs the neo-anarchist position is a narrow historical horizon. Neo-anarchists have experienced nothing but capitalist realism. By the time the neo-anarchists had come to political consciousness — and many of them have come to political consciousness remarkably recently, given the level of bullish swagger they sometimes display — the Labour Party had become a Blairite shell, implementing neo-liberalism with a small dose of social justice on the side. But the problem with neo-anarchism is that it unthinkingly reflects this historical moment rather than offering any escape from it. It forgets, or perhaps is genuinely unaware of, the Labour Party’s role in nationalizing major industries and utilities or founding the National Health Service. Neo-anarchists will assert that “parliamentary politics never changed anything,” or the “Labour Party was always useless” while attending protests about the NHS, or retweeting complaints about the dismantling of what remains of the welfare state. There’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there. Mainstream media is to be disdained, but BBC Question Time is to be watched and moaned about on Twitter. Purism shades into fatalism; 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.
It’s not surprising, then, that so many neo-anarchists come across as depressed. This depression is no doubt reinforced by the anxieties of postgraduate life, since, like the Vampires’ Castle, neo-anarchism has its natural home in universities, and is usually propagated by those studying for postgraduate qualifications, or those who have recently graduated from such study.
What is to be done?
Why have these two configurations come to the fore? The first reason is that they have been allowed to prosper by capital because they serve its interests. Capital subdued the organised working class by decomposing class consciousness, viciously subjugating trade unions while seducing ‘hard working families’ into identifying with their own narrowly defined interests instead of the interests of the wider class; but why would capital be concerned about a ‘left’ that replaces class politics with a moralizing individualism, and that, far from building solidarity, spreads fear and insecurity?
The second reason is what Jodi Dean has called communicative capitalism. It might have been possible to ignore the Vampires’ Castle and the neo-anarchists if it weren’t for capitalist cyberspace. The VC’s pious moralizing has been a feature of a certain “left” for many years — but, if one wasn’t a member of this particular church, its sermons could be avoided. Social media means that this is no longer the case, and there is little protection from the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses.
So what can we do now? First of all, it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognize that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications. Part of the importance of the British Cultural Studies project — as revealed so powerfully and so movingly in John Akomfrah’s installation The Unfinished Conversation (currently in Tate Britain) and his film The Stuart Hall Project — was to have resisted identitarian essentialism. Instead of freezing people into chains of already-existing equivalences, the point was to treat any articulation as provisional and plastic. New articulations can always be created. No one is essentially anything. Sadly, the right act on this insight more effectively than the left does. The bourgeois-identitarian left knows how to propagate guilt and conduct a witch hunt, but it doesn’t know how to make converts. But that, after all, is not the point. The aim is not to popularise a leftist position, or to win people over to it, but to remain in a position of elite superiority, but now with class superiority redoubled by moral superiority too. “How dare you talk — it’s we who speak for those who suffer!”
But the rejection of identitarianism can only be achieved by the reassertion of class. A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure — a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it — that must be destroyed. The interests of the working class are the interests of all; the interests of the bourgeoisie are the interests of capital, which are the interests of no one. Our struggle must be towards the construction of a new and surprising world, not the preservation of identities shaped and distorted by capital.
If this seems like a forbidding and daunting task, it is. But we can start to engage in many prefigurative activities right now. Actually, such activities would go beyond prefiguration — they could start a virtuous cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy in which bourgeois modes of subjectivity are dismantled and a new universality starts to build itself. 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. We need to think very strategically about how to use social media — always remembering that, despite the egalitarianism claimed for social media by capital’s libidinal engineers, that this is currently an enemy territory, dedicated to the reproduction of capital. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t occupy the terrain and start to use it for the purposes of producing class consciousness. We must break out of the “debate” that communicative capitalism in which capital is endlessly cajoling us to participate in, and remember that we are involved in a class struggle. The goal is not to “be” an activist, but to aid the working class to activate — and transform — itself. Outside the Vampires’ Castle, anything is possible.