Capitalism Theory/Praxis

Dial P for Philosophy: Notes on “The Blogosphere” and Blogging

Now that the dust has settled, solidified and developed into its own geographic strata, what to make of that mythical construct we like to call the blogosphere, wherever we might identify it. What is its supposed influence? Does it still exist? Did it ever exist? What lessons can be learnt from it? Was it even important? Did it succeed? Did it fail? If so, why? All of these questions are beyond my specific knowledge to answer, so in an act of knowing disappointment to anyone who might have started reading this and expected answers, I’m about to utterly fail to deliver any of them, speaking as I do from a position outside any kind of identifiable “blogosphere” if it did or does exist. The only reason it arises for me at all is as influence, a something I discovered or unearthed as a retrospective echo among the still present archives of K-Punk. The blogosphere everyone refers to is largely only evident in that vast hall of dead hyperlinks, in hundreds of severed references, mentions whose referents are long forgotten, perhaps buried on someones hard drive but likely never to see the light of day again.

And perhaps its better that way, as a ghost. It’s quite likely, given its ongoing, unfinished nature, that a lot of that material was “better when you were there”, that much of it has dated, faded like the hopes and fears that drove it, like the neoliberal consensus it responded to. Its important not to hypostasize our wishes in the failures of the dead, and therein lies the risk of a million hagiographies and gleaming platitudes regarding the excitement of a faded institution or moment. To keep, preserved in formaldehyde, some idealised vision of the early internet era belies our current moment, one in which any “blogosphere” cannot really exist in that form again; in fact, the promise of the net, that counter-cultural excitement swirling around cyberpunk imagery and tech-futurism has, like countercultures before it, become largely and seamlessly subsumed into the silicon valley sprawl, a vast network of information harvesting and management prefigured by the famous essay by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron on the Californian Ideology.

This tendency of countercultures to become re-incorporated into hegemonic structures can be felt throughout the 20th century, exemplified in the “capitalist hippy” archetype of the Californian Ideology. In some sense, it strikes at the heart of the critical apparatus of sub-cultural politics or aesthetics, reflecting the libertarian critique of the state back in the form of endless cybernetic flows and free market teleology. It is this movement, from underground opposition to newly adapted forms of hegemonic social control, that above all may lead us to question what value cultural politics by itself can have. It might not be a stretch to say that there was something absent from the hope of these movements, from the faith in aesthetic and culturalist change they exhibited. There is a tendency for some to place an inordinate degree of faith/hope in cultural politics, usually in a transparently self-engorging manoeuvre, placing their own discipline of interests at the centre of change. “Art can change the world” sounds good, as does “art changes how we think”, and both may be true in one way or another, but they remain problematic in some key ways. My skepticism of both statements emerges not in their underlying truth, but their implications, what might be missing from these statements and what may lead us to uncritically support them.

The problem with these approaches is, to risk repeating some Marxist slogans, but necessarily so, that they will tend to remain locked into, at the mercy, of the current social order, the mechanisms of production and exchange which foreclose and stifle the change they hope to enable. If we are to tentatively return to the subject of the phantasmic blogosphere, this issue arises, we could say, in the ubiquity of the internet itself, and the problem facing theory/philosophy at all in the age of the very online. If it existed anywhere, the “sphere” as such is to be found in the comments and hyperlinks, the tethers and conversations extending beyond the blog posts themselves, and which have mostly become either inaccessible or eerie remnants. Whereas its conceivable that at one stage this engagement was an exciting back and forth, where sparks flew and ideas were exchanged, such conversation has long since dissipated, moved into the perpetual hellscape of twitter or calcified into the odd response here and there. Where it does exist [twitter, for example] the problem I’m getting at asserts itself, whatever one says, whichever carefully worded, lengthy provocation, statement or revelation you unleash into the world, the internet as a perpetual, ubiquitous parasitic supplicant is there to swiftly bury it under a heap of clout-chasing generic content. In the days of always-online totally wired total anxiety, the idea of using the internet seems relatively quaint, such is its presence as a kind of second unconscious nagging at the back of your brain.

Of course, every social media application has arranged itself around such compulsive feedback loops, and is designed to become relied upon. Over the last decade at least its become commonly accepted knowledge [though increasingly perhaps an imaginary salve] that success or popularity comes with riding the algorithm, and countless how-to guides have been vomited out of the self-help industry regarding social media branding, on how to optimise your presence, gain followers, become insta-famous, and so on. This reminds me most prominently of some thinkers connected to Operaismo, specifically Paolo Virno regarding the prominence of virtuosity in the workplace, roughly speaking labour without product, where the performance inherent in the work itself is tantamount to the product we might expect of it. It may not be overstepping the mark too much today to say that in comprising a kind of 21st century virtuoso, the social media entrepeneur takes Virno’s formulation of Poiesis and Praxis on board and then some. Their labour is the presentation of life, the sustained simulation of behaviour seen in profiles, updates and curated posts, geared carefully towards gaming the system, repeated and practiced to the extent to which lives are lived around it in a wholly predictable inversion of the supposed supplementary nature of the online. What’s more, none of this, in the name of furthering their brand and product, makes an iota of sense without the public reach afforded it by the internet, while at the same time this same public reach serves as a constant barrier, an insurmountable distance to the kind of “presence” once pined for; we inevitably find that even given a certain degree of reach or success, the sheer amount of available material online is the very thing swamping the spotlight.

The emergent nature of this new, parasitic entity of information and communication, whether we call it communicative capitalism, semio-capitalism, not capitalism at all, or just, quite simply the internet [though this does admittedly seem wholly insufficient given the kind of social stratification and sheer level of functionality that is afforded it beyond the merely online components], is something that arguably inevitably swamped the hope of an online intellectual counter-hegemony in an avalanche of information and “content”. And all this content, for what, to what end, to what benefit? It’s inevitable to bring him up in this context, but Baudrillard offers us the best prefiguring of this situation when in The Ecstacy of Communication he emphasises the loss of both private and public space, “The one is no longer a spectacle, the other no longer a secret.” What this text perhaps emphasises is something of the futility of our attempts to escape all this, to retreat to “real life” when real life itself exists in thrall to this supposedly immaterial online space. Baudrillard, in his retreat from Marxism, somewhat abandoned himself any kind of hope of radical change, and there is little of this to be found in his texts, which tend to function more as diagnostics or provocations.

And here is where I step back from fully accepting the thesis of Baudrillard’s work, and the problem common to many of the outer reaches of post-structuralism presents itself, precisely that of immaterialism, and the way this move towards an all-consuming open-ended-ness itself begins to preclude any hope of shifting reality, of building something anew. The problem with much of our attempts to grapple with the issue of the virtual is perhaps simply the assumption of its virtuality, the shearing of it from the body, from visceral being, and even from the technics and commodity production that made it possible. Could it be that buried within all our texts and expositions on the virtual is an unspoken, unaddressed privileging, or assumption of the real? What is, ultimately, so unreal about the virtual. In which way can we so readily separate our “real” and “online” existence beyond an enacted mythology? Indeed this is the primary feature of Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, precisely this confusion of reality and unreality. But perhaps he didn’t go far enough, was there every any distinction between the two?

This is the problem we face if we wish to undertake any analysis and prescription of cultural politics today, that of materiality/digitality, the inevitable inadequacy of any approach which attempts to fallaciously extract the tendrils of economy, production, flesh and bone, from the lake of information and knowledge. The importance of Baudrillard was precisely in noting the extent to which the two were connected and could not be unconnected, to which the influence on our behaviour and thought by machines could not be undone. This was the fear of Adorno when he spoke of the fascistic mirror of the machine in Minima Moralia, the authoritarian movements of technology exerting its malign influence on human bodies, and the problem of the technological cannot be sidestepped if we wish to change a world already driven by it. A critique of the seeping influence of the californian ideology and the undoubtedly reactionary tentacles of its largely unnoticed ideological aims surely must be accompanied increasingly by a plan of action, a new form of engagement with the technological.

Blogging at least partially failed as some meaningful underground through a failure to really achieve this. The onward march and current domination of web 2.0, the ubiquitous social media twitch, smartphone at the side of every good citizen of the Californian republic, every denizen of Apple Google, Microsoft, likely all of the above, has centralised communication and data in a way that might have seemed like Sci-Fi imagining twenty years ago, and ultimately we all answer to those who sit in the drivers seats of these corporations. McKenzie Wark has identified from this what she calls the “Vectoralist” class, an attempt notably to reimagine the terms in which we describe the current moment that, even if it doesn’t catch on, should be taken more seriously than some have done. Because, in all our time advocating some kind of cultural alternative, a kind of digital Gramscian-ism of counter-hegemonic strategy, it could be that our failure to, in Wark’s terms, be more “Vulgar” in our Marxism, our forgetting of how important the underlying structures of production and exchange are, may have allowed something nastier to creep in through the back door.

Capitalism Space

The City is a War Zone

London, the capital, is always for me a fleeting place. Like the rushed, sour-faced businessmen pushing you out of the way, it’s there and then its gone, a blast of sickly wind to the face.. but whenever I’m there these days I always try and take the opportunity to wander, rather than just visit; not because I want to position myself as some kind of contemporary flaneur, but just exist somewhere else for a short time without having to go anywhere.

Regardless, when you find yourself rammed into the centre of the business towers, the immense slabs of glass threatening to bear down on you, the romantic ideal of the ego positioning itself as the observer seems to dissipate into so much asset management and ostentatious bars for well paid employees. Even if you wanted to, there’s not much society to observe here amongst the throngs of similitude, the empty shells of finance capital closing off the sky above you. It is ostensibly a teeming centre but winding in between its “phallic verticality” as Lefebvre put it, it feels more like a ghost city, the people becoming nothing but units, photons, atoms firing between the immensity of the capital syphons, asset strippers, resonators of dead labour. Indeed the unbound absurdity of the gigantic monuments to capital such as the Shard seems to overshadow the lives of all who surround it, a sharp, cutting manifestation of the teleology of capital, the hideous and predictable accuracy of its dehumanising impulse.

The expression non-place doesn’t seem to do it justice, here you find anti-places, erasure and decay beneath a propagation of gleaming battlements prepared for war, these wonders of the capital are built on dashed brains, these expensive developments on mangled limbs.. the reflective surfaces in their purity reek of blood. The architecture of central London is psychological warfare, a vertiginous fall into the abyss from the ground up. It strains every muscle to ensure that the social unconscious, that dirty, repressed underside, remains hidden to you, the visitor, but it can’t..

Eventually, if you allow for some drift, you are bound to emerge into the ruins, those parts that it can’t, or more likely has not yet erased and replaced in its constant cut-and-paste sprawl, and here you invariably find traces and leftovers, what the slick inner-city beast has spewed out and what it has abandoned mingles in with what it has yet to touch and what it so desperately wants to ignore. It is here that the gigantic, gleaming emerald city of London finance begins to feel like a cruel joke at the expense of the lives of the people here, an ostentatious display seemingly designed to provoke envy and resentment. The city is a building site, a shifting tableau, but only in one direction..

In fact, when you scan the horizon, you’d sometimes be forgiven for thinking an entirely new city was being built amidst the patchwork. Each new development and project comes with its own mediocre utopia, a little vision of an updated, “modernised” neighbourhood, an architectural model with miniature residents strolling in front of it. The problem of course as that these aren’t architectural models and these people aren’t blank plastic clones. The city-as-playground-for-investors planning approach is nothing less than a tactic of war where the lives and bodies of the marginalised and the poor are subjected to emotional and psychological violence and displacement in the name of the UK’s “place on the world stage”. To keep up this gigantic facade, those parts of society it doesn’t want you to see, that might turn off the money-taps, must be obscured between the folds and the cracks, still seen sometimes in flashes and glimpses, the reflection in the glass from the window of a bus.

And the ideal can be seen right there, in the centre, the living graveyards of investment and entrepreneurial capital. At one point you imagine people may have seen this as exciting, a new horizon, a symbol of prosperity, but it seems now like these impossibly solid bastions of industry are little but cold glass and steel staring back at you, employees faces a blank picture of banal misery as they check out for lunch break or a cigarette. The people here often seem like empty shells, they could be anyone but they try to be no one; as they gather around for an evening drink each face blends into another, everyone dresses the same way, everyone talks about the same things, where is the famed plasticity of capital here? The answer of course is that this plasticity exists only in order to maintain just this kind of simulation of socialisation. Even off-hours people rehearse their lines, practice a kind of set routine that they simply improvise in varying orders from day to day. This is the world where talking to people becomes networking, where nothing exists if not subordinated to a business and finance based logic, Mark Fisher’s “business ontology”, a wasteland of imaginary capital.

The wastelands of business flow, or rather shudder into the limelight of a consumer tourist wonderland, coffee chains lining the streets and the push and pull of crowds swelling the pavements. But again, the people fade into insignificance, the slick wet pavements in the rain hold more interest than a thousand faces. Here again life seems to play second fiddle to the mechanised operations of production and consumption playing out under the rubric of colourful branding and smiling, welcoming faces. I’ll revise what I said earlier, the spit and grime of the city is hidden, repressed, but it lies in plain sight at all times. The exasperated employee selling the five hundredth latte of the day, the homeless man sitting beneath the famous landmark, meters away from groups of tourists, the simple dirt on the streets.. a facade relies upon displaying its own inadequacies, in emphasising the cracks, to work, and here it is not that the marginalised and displaced are completely out of sight in a literal sense, it is simply that the space around us draws away from what’s in front of our own noses, the violence all around us.

Just as historically the city works by excreting layers on top of its crumbling past, it simultaneously canonises and elevates to an ideal certain monuments and mythologies, the impossibly fragile spires and gleaming domes, the remnants of the neoclassical, the Victorian morality play, all reactionary paeans to the past, solid pillars and defined perspective. In fact isn’t this somewhere at the heart of the London facade, and in the most literal sense of its most damning economic effects. On the one hand we have the dystopian shadow of finance capital, and on the other the similarly threatening Dickensian imaginary, each playing its part in a war machine, a disappearing engine, erasing hearts and minds by the day…

The city is a war zone, but we can’t see the combatants.

Capitalism Politics

We Should Not Wish for Normality, but for Socialism

I, and others like me who were born after a certain point in the late 20th century, have never known anything but the long dark night of neoliberalism. The first time I ever became aware of politics it was Tony Blair’s innocuous grin in the newspaper, perhaps 9/11, the Iraq war.. New Labour, for many now, has been the limitations of our horizons, the extent of what “left” has ever meant. Shorn from the long experience of defeat altogether, is it hardly any wonder that, setting forth on the task of rebuilding leftism practically from the ground up, we struggle and falter?

What is “electability”? Those who often throw it around talk as if it were some kind of impartial judgement delivered from somewhere above, perhaps by some political demigod, but beyond that what can it really designate besides an ideal, a mould against which all politicians are measured? Of course what brings this into much clearer focus is the assembly lines of immaculately coiffured replicants pioneered under the New Labour brand of politics, wherein your average politician was a shiny, branded white male android programmed on demand to deliver a series of relatively believable platitudes to the public and perhaps emote to specifications. Politics appeared as, and was expected to be a branding exercise, a slick, well produced sheen akin to an apple commercial wherein the future was contained in the perfectly ironed folds of a suit and the “relatable” grin of a young prime minister. Tony Blair’s administration very much pioneered this more-human-than-human approach and you can see its innovations all over the off-putting smarm of David Cameron.

What this has done is nothing less than building the image of the ideal politician that now we either wish to escape or return to. It seems reasonable to think that this is a huge reason why Ed Miliband was given such a hard time both as Labour leader and in the 2015 election for reasons often beside his politics. Many references were made to the “wrong brother” being put in that position, and this speaks to a particular expression of the political hegemony. What was it that made David Miliband a supposed preferable option to his brother? Simply put, he looked and seemed correct. David fit perfectly into the model of the New Labour politician, the cloned appearance, free of blemishes or hiccups, the look of a car salesman with a healthy salary. “Red Ed” was simply a faulty model, and deviated from what we were supposed to be looking for in a politician, the effortless PR gloss that reeked of finance capital.

This really seems to lie behind the idea of electability; it is an idea of what we are supposed to expect, a baseline. Tony Blair became a kind of original from which all must be cloned, each time with just enough differences that we mistake them for another person… this vision of the default, the baseline test to ensure we don’t stray too far from our purpose, is something familiar to all of us in the form of the everyday etiquette of work, of interaction, the conformity of ritual that defines the rhythms of postmodern capitalism. It is the ideological hegemony, contained in a million repetitions; kneel and clasp your hands as if in prayer, and you shall believe, to paraphrase Pascal, and once we know nothing but the action of prayer, any deviance from this motion is an unacceptable break in rank..

This model of the politician may no longer hold the sway it did, but it plays into a certain hankering for the times of old, the supposed glory days of the 2000s from which we have been so violently torn. How else could we explain that some in fact think this era was some kind of golden age than that we have no direct experience of anything better than its profound mediocrity?

I disagree with Paul Mason on a lot of things [and will proceed to do so here], but I think his reference to Eric Fromm here is worth picking up on. I think it’s very true that the ruling classes are now very much relying on a deep despair and frustration to consolidate their position. They are gambling on the assumption that we will all be too fed up with the situation surrounding Brexit to do anything to stop them. But then, should our aim here be “the road back to normality”? Bluntly put, no, and I think this is a misstep if we are intending to move forward. The wish to restore normality has been the driving force behind political hegemony for decades now, the pull to the centre. If we have any commitment to the socialist project we must if anything resist the pull of the normal. This return is surely the most reliable gesture of the reactionary?

“Normality” like “Electability” in politics are values we should move away from entirely at this juncture. If there is something the populist right have picked up on and steamrollered ahead with, it is the realisation that these paradigms no longer hold the all-encompassing sway they did. We on the left should not oppose them by countering this realisation, as surely the situation of normality here is, if we are to understand it in terms of power dynamics, hugely damaging. We may look back to the pre-crash era of the 2000s with fondness, when there was the illusion of prosperity [for some], but surely in the long term we must take into account that such recessions are a regular an inherent feature of Capitalism, never mind the bloated debt fuelled economies of today. All we’ve been doing is living on borrowed time, as borrowed time is the only time capital can offer; the time of work, frittered away worrying about whether you can make the next payment, until the next time your landlord decides to up the rate of blood extraction.

Any point of normality we might hanker towards is defined by this, it was never going to last, and was simply the moment of decadence before the fall. What Blair and his cohorts may have sold to us as a time of plenty, what some who still stand by their politics seem to hold as a golden age, was a time, if we look under its surface, thick with the viscous sludge of ruling class excess, an edifice at the brink of collapse. I’m sure some of us would love to simply undo the crash and all its particulars, but this belies its place in the historical continuity of capital, the events that led up to it, ignores the sheer economic despondency, the depressive impotence of the left New Labour represented in all its pomp and hubris. Indeed, we now stand upon the edge of what might, by some accounts, be a global recession many times more serious than that 11 years ago, demonstrating that in all this time we simply pushed forward the inevitable, that all this pretence that underpinned the brutal program of austerity and the “Fiscal responsibility” of successive Tory governments is nothing but a pathetic sham.

9 years. That’s how long we’ve now been under conservative rule, and taking into account the broken promise of new labour, we can reach back through the millennium into the 20th century and find that it may have been at least 4 decades since the left was a meaningful political force in Britain. Given this context, it is indeed understandable why many now believe that New Labour is simply the best we can expect.. what else have we to go on? But it is imperative that we create something new, and glimmers of this already exist today. Of course the surges in leftism among younger people have been imperfect, the organisations and parties they underpin have made mistakes and will continue to do so, but given that we are trying to build something that has lain shattered on the ground in a million pieces for decades, this is understandable and to be expected. Right now we must avoid condemning what little we have to go on for its imperfections and try collectively to move politics to the left. The socialist project today remains fragile and ready to fall apart, but if we ensure its further success into the future we may in fact be able to see something beyond the vapid, empty forms of normality.

Capitalism Theory/Praxis

Industrial Pastoral

There is a staple of BBC daytime television I remember filtering into my brain as a child called “Escape to the Country”, an example of the property/lifestyle programme in which prospective buyers are shown round a series of houses in a particular rural location. The very premise of the series, contained in the title, lies in the idea that the countryside is where one escapes. Usually in this context this means well-off city couples looking for somewhere they might be able to “get away from it all”, live out their days in idyllic peace and quiet, they’ve has too much of the hustle and bustle of city streets and want to find a nice cottage in a picturesque heartland, the good life.

Of course having grown up in a country village, this didn’t quite square with me, this clear-cut duality.. why would I want to escape to the country when I was already there? On top of this, it was far from the pastoral idyll these city-dwellers seemed to envision; sure, you might relish the idea of having a view over the fields, but just wait until that breaks down into a sea of industrial agriculture. Sartre pointed out the ways in which city people often see in the countryside an untrammelled natural world that belies the carefully managed ways in which the landscape is effected by human activity, how a hedgerow or a field, entirely man made, are interpellated as the sublime beauty of mother nature, undisturbed. What happens when someone else’s outside is your inside? What for many represents this mysterious other becomes for another a deeply familiar, even banal reality. The “escape from modernity” implied in its twisting branches fades into a pile of discarded kebabs and coke bottles, the terrifying sublime into a half completed building project.

This is of course the issue of familiarity that inevitably follows such distinctions. Home, where we come from or where we live, inevitably carries with it a certain familiar tinge that disavows us from the illusions and mythologies others stretch on top of it. For me, the Norfolk landscape I grew up with is as much a site of blasted industry as folk tales and crooked trees, as much the place that framed my awkward adolescence as a place of nostalgia and yearning. Of course such phenomenological inconsistency is ironed out completely in escape to the country, devoted as it is to selling a dreamlike vision, it is practically a textbook example of a capital-driven fetishization of an other, the ideal other free of blemishes and faults. Of course while this example is a clear, explicit move to sell, hawk wares in the most base sense, another way we encounter the same issue is in the attempt to escape such banalities. The problem here becomes an overall equation of “outside” with a particular subject, a particular place.

To us, of course, the inside/outside division will always re-orient itself along the lines of familiarity. Home=familiar, inside, Away=unfamiliar, outside. Someone who grew up in the city might indeed view the countryside with a kind of rapt fascination, or idealism, but then of course from the other side of the mirror the city begins to look just as exciting, a hive of modernity and hedonism, of the new, the future.. both an interlinked burrow of contradiction and negation. Familiarity on both counts becomes a moderating influence, what in psycho-analytic terms we could call a reality principle. From the unbroken mask, we begin to see the cracks, the guano on the pavements, and are disavowed of our previous excitement. The search for the outside as Lacanian objet petit a, always frustrated whenever we think we have reached it.

Mark Fisher, in Weird and the Eerie, as well as elsewhere referred to the “inside as a folding of the outside”. This is indeed an apt observation, but by itself incomplete. What this seems to point towards at various points in his writing is if anything the collapsing of an inside/outside distinction as ontological truth, akin with both a Spinozist collapsing of Cartesian dualism and the post-structuralist death of the subject. And so just as much as the inside may be a folding in of outside influences, it is equally true that the outside is a projection of the inside. The point, as ever, is not the search for the green grass on the other side, but the collapsing of the boundary itself. Here we find the alien contained within the human and the human in the alien, nature in civilisation and civilisation in nature, the country in the city and the city in the country, each clear distinction muddied, questioned and broken down. It is here that the subject becomes an extension in contravention of experience which might hold each of us to be a walled off entity in our own right.

From this then, it becomes a matter of de-familiarisation. If it is the familiar that generates reality, to generate another reality, what Alenka Zupančič would attribute to a process of sublimation, requires a de-mystification of the banal, the reality principle itself. It is of course this process, this “revealing” of the ideological mediation that is experience, that opens the door to new worlds within the familiar; it is not the projection of some ego ideal but the very unfolding of what we perceive as natural and real. The conception of nature is a prime example of such a reality, a nice comfortably sectioned-away, bottled and labelled thing that must stand in opposition to the human subject, in a kind of pre-copernican anthropocentric universe. To de-familiarise, to unfold our surroundings is then to place the outside within the inside, the inhuman within the human as it were. But just so I don’t fall into a particular trap here, this unfolding is not any kind of revealing, not the mechanism hidden behind the magicians illusion; indeed don’t we have to assume that within this action of unfolding is contained the inherent precedent to a “re”folding, wherein the act of sublimation not only unveils the contingency of reality but transforms it, creating new possibilities.

Isn’t there a problem then, with our assumption of the “otherness” of the country? Should we be staring at the mirror hoping to reach the reflection on the other side? It is true, and I value these experiences very much, that we can stand in the middle of the woods and experience a remarkable and refreshing emptiness, feel somehow that we have “escaped”, but today what’s the likelihood we can do this without both coming across some clear evidence of manmade intervention or being interrupted by a holidaying family? More to the point, doesn’t this simply leave one familiar for another? The urban industrial for the pastoral industrial, we move from one to the other side of the river in the hope that the other we so desperately seek is contained there, and neglect the vital work of re-orienting the perception of the ground beneath our feet.

Capitalism Current Affairs

Careering; The Hangover

I will admit I recently fell into a bit of a political slump. Usually I’ve maintained, despite volatility, an optimism and a confidence in the left’s capacity to win, and the potential to build a future, but the labyrinthine collapse into personal grievances and polarized trench warfare that the issue of Brexit provokes has really tested that optimism with a choking, persistent aura of dread. Now that positions have calcified around an all or nothing scenario it’s difficult to see past the pissing contest that ensues, and attempting to do so has practically left me with a migraine… this, coupled with my creeping thoughts regarding the catastrophic consequences should the left be defeated again, has led me also to an exasperation; at the Remain camp as much as the leavers, if not more. Despite this, I’ll attempt to unravel my thoughts somewhat, if only to get this crushing feeling out of my head.

I oppose Brexit. I think it is, as it stands, something borne out of reactionary fantasy and mired in impossible promises, a conjured chimera presented as a kind of backward-looking medicine for our troubled times. This said, it didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; we have to understand our politics in terms of structures and networks of affect, not simply a series of events that happen out of the blue yonder, and Brexit is no different. It emerged due to a number of factors, promises made and campaign lines run on, but the core libidinal attractor of the Brexit vote was a distinct disaffection and sense of impotence. The lesson we can pull more broadly from the rise of the far right, of styled eccentric populism, of reactionary sentiment both here and across the atlantic, is a desire for change, and as it happens what precise form that change takes becomes of little importance. This is why Farage and others have found it so easy to appeal to their followers on the most simple terms, they have an understanding of what people are looking for, that being a way out of their predicament, and they have at their disposal a cabinet full of nice easy solutions for a cheap price.

In this regard, the fundamental error of the remain campaign, one that aligns with the error of the Clinton campaign, contradicts the initial surge of Corbynism, and one that has been made again and again, that we show no clear signs of learning from, is the lack of positive solutions. What Farage is increasingly pushing now is not only pulling on the disaffection soaking the very ground we stand on, but an optimistic vision and promise of how to escape it. Now from this position we can tell he’s selling snake oil, but that doesn’t belie precisely how well he’s selling the stuff, shifting boatloads not because “people are idiots” but because he knows, like any good capitalist, how to take hold of people’s desire, to fashion it into profit. This has been the major impasse of the left for some time now, the failure to deliver a positive vision. If we continue to campaign on the back of “we’re not those guys” or “not that”, we will fail, fail, and fail again, as this simply misunderstands where we’re at, through appealing instead of to a desire for change, to the desire of the bourgeoisie for things to stay the same.

This of course feeds into a widespread fantasy, one where we can speak magic, consign Brexit to some crazy episode of history and everything will revert back to a pre-brexit state where things definitely seemed more stable. Did they? We seem to have lost our memory. Surely this is the only explanation as to why we are so quick to reconcile none other than Alistair Campbell, key figure of the left’s neoliberal capitulation and architect of Blairite limbo, speaking as if he is some noble, beset upon figure. What of the Liberal Democrats. They have become no more convincing in their utter lack of conviction, refusal to stand for anything and readiness to say anything if it might lead to election success.. have we forgotten the part they played in ushering in the best part of a decade of Conservative rule? That despite their current opportunistic anti-Brexit platform they had been pushing for an EU referendum since about 2008? What do they represent more than some petit-bourgeois protest party? We claim to vote for them based on their lack of fence-sitting over Brexit while they are a party of fence-sitters. They do practically nothing but sit on fences all day and only announce a position if it might garner them more votes, making sure they can nimbly hop back onto the fence again at the first sign of difficulty, the Lib Dems are an answer to nothing and a home to nobody. They offer nothing but more of the same, turgid, grey dystopia, a melancholic attachment to the neoliberal boom of the 2000s.

And so this is the root of my fear, that due to the total dominance of Brexit as an issue we have completely lost sight of any kind of slightly large picture, that we will happily jump behind anyone, no matter how dubious their political aims if they support a remain position. It seems, based on recent outcomes, that we will happily risk scuppering the left’s chances of victory and opening the floodgates for the far right if we get our personal wishes on Brexit validated. The famous Rosa Luxemburg quote has repeatedly come back to me at this moment; “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” It strikes me that we stand at just such a crossroads, and that the left simply cannot afford to fail, lest instead of collectively building the future we regress through individual fragmentation into a fascist resurgence. The centre has died, and it will not wake up again no matter how many times we try to resuscitate it.

This all seems to represent nothing less than one giant hangover from Thatcherism, the neoliberal doctrine that languishes now in a state of terminal decline economically and yet still maintains a spectral hold on our consciousness. We still think in terms of individual preference, of voter as consumer, of the nicely packaged individual psychology wherein our subconscious musings stem from us and us alone, where the political can sit in comfortable distance separate from the personal. This is how we justifiably expect a political movement, instead of moving us towards a broader aim, towards changing society, to simply give us what we want. The consumer logic that drives an ostensibly free market applies here to the ways in which, rather than think in terms of collective transformation, politics resembles instead the segmented, individualised and yet notably formulaic factories of social media, where the illusion of that mythical beast, individual autonomy, takes hold of our psyches in the darkness of cyberspace.

I still maintain confidence. It is definitely true that anti-capitalism is inching its way into mainstream discourse, and that there is a general sense that things cannot proceed as they are for much longer, especially set against the looming threat of ecological collapse. What is essential now, if we are to progress, and to move towards an imagined collective future in earnest, is a psychological re-orientation, nothing less than to change what Thatcher addressed as the “heart and soul”. What is needed is a reconstitution of solidarity, abstract political belonging and ultimately comradeship as Jodi Dean outlines it, for unless we can meaningfully unite as a political entity this left future is but an individual fantasy, consigned to the scrapheap to be ground up into paste under the ironclad boots of the future war machine. We must on top of this realise precisely what is at stake, the serious polarity of the situation and the cost of failure, to pull from this crushing negativity a reason to continue.

Capitalism Current Affairs

The Sadness of Theresa May

Yesterday, Theresa May, despite holding on by her fingertips for months, finally let go of her position as Prime Minister, delivering a resignation speech in front of number 10 that picked apart was a truly offensive display, at every turn giving an opposite account to the political consequences of her government. In what was an interesting and jarring echo of history May, like Thatcher, broke into tears on her way out, giving credence to those who hold that these times stand in parallel with the 80s, with the hopeful Corbyn Labour party representing here the failure of Michael Foot and the wider, bitter failure of the left during that decade. Of course, the comparison holds about as much water as a sieve, falling apart as soon as one bares in mind the stark contrast between what both Thatcher and May were leaving behind.

Thatcher, despite her eventual fall, had succeeded. Unlike May’s government in the very first instance, she had set out to wage ideological warfare with an uncompromising goal, and over the course of the decade, had fought tooth and nail to achieve the complete demoralisation of the left, the dominance of neoliberal economic doctrine. Her iron-clad war-machine had run rough-shod over all opposition. Amid the bodies, the spoils of war, she had been victorious, and as such her tearful exit holds an air of the army general ousted before his time. She had more war to wage … if only she’d been given the chance to wage it. She didn’t have to, however. Her victory proved total, to the extent where in the following decade the Labour party rode in through acquiescing to the war machine, surrendering to the neoliberal terminator and ultimately turning it onto us, leading into a time dominated by the underlying assumptions of Capitalist Realism. We now enacted our own domination, the march of post-fordism ensured our inability to see past it, in time dividing not only resources but time, time to act, time to think, time to change.

May came in, the result of a sudden leadership contest in the aftermath of the EU membership referendum, amidst the dying embers of the established order. The total ideological victory of Thatcher, neoliberalism, had grown lazy, arrogant, and decadent. During the 2000s the assumption was that it would last forever, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of the “End of History” was all too real, an endless limbo from which we could not escape. First the financial crash of 2008, then years later the surprise result of the EU referendum and the election of Donald Trump in the US, alongside a number of sudden resurgent fascist interests and imitators, were ugly impositions on the assumed comfortable reality of Post-Fordist capital, of course representing the repressed knowledge that it was never that comfortable at all.

The time of Theresa May’s PMship can be recognised as the desperate scrambling attempts of the conservative party to restore some semblance of order, against the backdrop of a gradually more apparent descent into squabbles and infighting. The Tories, having put into practice their idea of being the natural party of government for so long now, can’t now reconcile their insistence on maintaining the limbo of yesterday with the collapse of today. May exits on a pile of unspoken misery, of the onward march of a ruined respectability. Increasingly she struck the figure of the aristocrat holing themselves up in castle Gormenghast, away from the destitution below and amidst the crumbling, overgrown parapets of a dead or dying order.

It is against all this that her sadness must be measured. In a blustering, sputtering response to Owen Jones yesterday upon his statement that he felt “less than no sympathy” for May, we heard a plea for a “human response”. What is a human response if not to point out the absurdity of presenting a “woe is me” narrative in relation to someone who in tandem with their allies furthered a wave of misery and destitution, who refused to acknowledge their part in the deaths of hundreds of working class people in fear of weakening their ideological hegemony. There should be no more sympathy here than she and her government ever displayed to the people they plunged into precarity, poverty and homelessness, the people they have systematically shamed for finding themselves at the bottom of society.

Theresa May’s sadness cannot be seen as a mere individual reaction, it is a sadness undeniably loaded with the delusions of the ruling classes. The fact that so many right wing politicians and commentators will jump onto this to moralise at the left … show some empathy … demonstrates precisely how rich her tears are with symbolic leverage. For years we’ve seen the unspoken insistence reign that more empathy is to be shown for the respectable bourgeoisie than the feckless scroungers at the bottom, and this is why; so that when it comes to facing up to the human consequences of their actions the leverage of sympathy lies with them, so that we all feel sorry for the fallen politician who was dealt a rough hand and was only trying to do their best, rather than tackle the real violence they perpetrated in the role and the ideological underpinnings of their policies. So by all means, show some sympathy, but not for May, for all the people who’s lives she and her government helped ruin and take. Indeed is it sympathy as much as anger that should be driving us in this moment, an anger that can be effectively channelled into something to replace this crumbling edifice for good.

Capitalism Music

The Positivity Injunction

I lose count of the times I’ve heard someone claim they don’t like a piece of music or a film because it’s “too depressing”. What this means I have yet to find out, but I’ve become aware over the years that it seems to apply overwhelmingly to a lot of my own cultural library, and so tend to be somewhat irritated upon hearing it, even if directed at something that I myself am not terribly keen on. The implication here is clear, all that is not positive begone, we have no need for your emiserating antics.

This attitude is something that has taken its place at the opposite end from the apparent doom-mongers and naysayers, the party-poopers and orgy-ruiners of the world who just want to ruin everyone elses good time. You must be fun at parties goes the line as if being fun at parties was some kind of marker of good humour, as if so many of us were plunging ourselves into a hedonic haze and careening through muddy fields on amphetamines because we’re just so fun to be around. Put away that book it might make you depressed… copious levels of alcohol on the other hand…

To be clear I’m not anti-pleasure and I don’t want to come across as some puritan finger-wagging priest delivering a moral sermon, in fact quite the opposite.. what I want to point out is that it is this positivity injunction which itself functions in this way, denouncing any of us who dare criticize what we are supposed to enjoy. Picture a scene where a group are discussing a fast food outlet. Going around the room they can’t get over how amazing these burgers are, and the superlatives are flowing. Then it gets to you. You… don’t really think much of the place and you have a few words to say on it, so you say so. Silence. Everyone kind of looks at you strangely before someone says “yeahhh but it’s really good isn’t it” the conversation continues as if you had not spoken. Say on top of this your reason had to do primarily with the way the fast food outlet functioned, marketed its food, or produced it. Here, the injunction to be positive becomes an injunction to stay silent and conform. All the keep-calm-carry-on mugs and tea-towels in the world seem to be saying “Pipe down and let us have our fun”.

This all seems to point towards a refusal to think beyond the pleasure principle. Mark Fisher describes something in Capitalist Realism he terms as “Depressive Hedonia”; where depression is generally held as the inability to find pleasure in anything, what we find in Depressive Hedonia is the inability to do anything besides the pursuit of pleasure. Specifically given the breakdown of certain structures within education, the lack of resources or content, students will often find themselves sitting in their rooms getting high consuming entertainment because there’s nothing of interest to do… anything that is not connected to pleasure strikes us as worthless, something we’d have to really force ourselves into. This is connected in my mind to the positivity injunction, something that can be found just as much in the anxious and depressed communities of students as it can people “climbing the job ladder” and in the world of business. Among people my own age and younger however, there seems increasingly to be this attitude that if you are critical of something that provides us FUN then you are de facto ANTI-FUN. You’re slapped with a sticker that announces to everyone that you’re some miserable stick-in-the-mud, you have no time for the good life.

In my own experience this has emerged through my disdain for festivals. I was somewhat excited by the idea of the festival when I was younger for the novelty aspect, but gradually it becomes increasingly evident that festivals are where punk comes to die, events of staggering cultural emptiness predicated on the idea that nobody who goes to them actually cares, or will be too off their face to care, about what’s actually going on there. Even essential or exciting acts are drained of potency in the open fields, the whole sorry affair being a muddy slice of flabby carnivalesque bourgeois boredom alleviation designed not as a cultural event but a way to forget. Just camp out in a muddy field, take some drugs, forget about everything and enjoy Foster the People won’t you? The headline acts are often non-acts, non-culture, Marc Auge’s non-places in the form of bands, an airport waiting area on a musical stage, going through the motions of performance but having given up any attempt to carve out anything beyond a flat, meaningless success in a continuum of similitude. At it’s worst the festival is in fact a cavalcade of awkward nostalgia, the geriatric rolling stones still desperately pulling the same old shit despite the valorisation of youth suiting them now like… well like leather trousers on an elderly Mick Jagger. When did anything of any import really happen at a festival?

Well, suffice to say I don’t really think much of the festival environment, predicated as it us on the reduction of culture to museum, even worse, to a kind of repeating wallpaper design in front of which we drool over the settee in a ketamine haze. I’ve found this however a notably unpopular thing to say, the enjoyment of festivals being taken as something of a necessary, why WOULDN’T you enjoy this, you puritan.. the expectation here is that we just draw our mouths into a grotesque smile and just get down with everyone else. Hedonism here can be taken as some kind of Bataillean limit experience, the thing that provides the rest of our mundane lives with some exit, an outside where we don’t have to worry about paying the rent. As soon as we take those amphetamines or drink those beers, we enter a headspace away from all that miserable shit, all that politics, the boring stuff. It is like some kind of transcendental move, a heavenly experience … is it any surprise that festivals have become intertwined often with a kind of typical new age mysticism, the kind of religion where we can engage in its practices while simultaneously feeling above them.

And so the positivity injunction is a call to accept this state, to simple go ahead and dope yourself up, become numb to the world for a few days, accept mediocrity, accept the state of affairs as long as you can purge it temporarily, accept the endless waiting room, the repetition, the cultural logic of late capitalism, it’s all worth it for this moment of transcendent bliss, knocking down a few pints in a miserable field of desperate people on a cocktail of drugs and believing wholeheartedly that this is the best life will offer us. In this way the festival, and the positivity injunction itself, becomes a stagnant river, heaving with waste. It is the place where culture comes to a standstill, repeats itself due to the lack of will to accept anything could be better. Judgement, negativity is the ultimate sin, surely you can accept that all eras have their bad parts, nothing is inherently worse about now … except it is, there is an air of deprivation, and as much as we may hope against all hopes that really this is just how things are and it’s just different, no worse or better, there are concrete political reasons for this negativity.

The consistent dismantling of social security, the demonization of the unemployed & the working classes, the lack of cultural urgency [brought on non insignificantly by our subsistence on a diet of cyberculture and connectivity, the strange temporal effects of having access to a seemingly endless and overwhelming stream of data, described by Franco “Bifo” Berardi as Overload]. We have more than sufficient reason to be pissed off, and it’s about time to draw a line under this kind of forced positive attitude. Culture is more than entertainment, and as long as we insist that the only recourse we have is to a hedonistic escape from this earthly domain, we continue to reinforce the hegemony of Capitalist Realism and neoliberal theology. What we need is not some kind of neo-spiritual affirmative love-solves-all positive oppressive injunction, but a renewed sense that this is not all we can muster. We have a lot to care about, and if we didn’t care we wouldn’t spend all this time trying to suppress it; dare to think beyond the pleasure principle, and maybe we can build new forms of collectivity.


The Dead Hand; Altruism and Capitalism

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot floating around the internetosphere about altruism. More to the point, I noticed recently that Bill Gates, everyone’s favourite ruthless businessman turned cuddly nerd, had been delivering a variation on his favourite theme, found expounded by the likes of Steven Pinker, supplanted by his insistence that nothing need majorly change, all we need to do is be a bit more altruistic. He even, with staggering gall, wheeled out the claim that, on the whole, poverty is decreasing, the world is improving, etc. His accompanying words “This is one of my favourite infographics” ringing out like the desperate pleas of the aristocracy as the world below them plunges into chaos.

I say this because of course, he is completely wrong, as Jason Hickel points out in the Guardian;

” What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.”

It doesn’t take a level of genius to work out why it might be in the interest of someone like Bill Gates to gloss over the exploitation inherent to capitalist production, but that doesn’t prevent the smiling and assured performance he gives feeling particularly stomach churning, the purported values of altruism and the meat grinder of Gates’ own business concerns making a horrific screeching sound upon contact. “There’s nothing wrong with the way things are done, you all need to be nicer” is the line, seeping from the mouths of the Davos set like poisoned honey. What’s more, it’s not hard to see how this is a tempting vision for anyone feeling the weight of world events on their shoulders, collapse and decay they seem to be entirely helpless to prevent. All that we require is that you do your bit. If we buy the correct, sufficiently ethical products, our daily act of charity, and sink enough money into the worlds problems, nothing more will be required of us.

Of course I’m not arguing that altruism itself is a problem, or purely self-motivated, but it is important to bear in mind the impossibility of any kind of “Pure” altruism. The mechanisms of desire are driven by interest in a spinozist sense, the gaining of satisfaction. As Frederic Lordon outlines in Willing Slaves of Capital;

Here we could paraphrase Spinoza: interesse sive appetitus. Some do not like this identity, however. Or rather, they do not like its consequences. For if human essence is desiring, it follows from this identity that all actions must be considered interested”

In this way, we can understand the impossibility of any action without an element of self-satisfaction. As Lordon goes on to demonstrate, this is not some nihilist statement against human action, as in this sense interest is far more than the negative associations we might associate with accusing someone of being self-interested, but the object of desire itself. Any action we take must necessarily be interested as it is invested in the satisfaction of some desire. Taking this into account, folded into the libidinal excesses of capitalism’s upper echelons, it is the least outrageous statement possible to claim that gestures of charity are not devoid of self-interest. While this does not inherently wipe it of any value, when this self interest is that of capital altruism becomes an empty hand

Charity in this context is giving with one hand while taking with the other, where the taking outstrips the giving by at least several magnitudes. It is the pretence of progressive ambition while tightening a grip on personal fortune as nobody is looking. The philanthropy of the billionaire is a PR move, integral to the running order of capital and so predicated on its inefficacy. It effectively generates the idea that charity will save us, which contains within it the assumption that the system as it exists is not fundamentally flawed. All you need to do is do your daily penance, your daily act of kindness, and we can right the wrongs we have perpetrated. It makes little sense to expect the very same systems of proletarianisation and exploitation to solve the very same problems that are their lifeblood, yet many of us nonetheless hold to this, seeing within this impossible solution a source of comfort, a fuzzy, warm land of safe solutions away from the rather tricky business of enacting social change.

Bill Gates is wrong not just because he is bad at reading data, he is wrong because he and many like him are where they are as a result of the very processes which lead to poverty elsewhere in the world, that they continue to perpetuate and show no signs of alleviating. He is wrong because wilfully or not his sermons of philanthropy and progress contain within them the necessary kernel of neoliberal capitalism, the idea that change is enacted from the pockets of the individual, that the problems of the world are simply caused by our own bad decisions. To present the altruism he preaches as some kind of selfless gesture of common good belies the clear interests that lie behind it, going beyond the usual alleviating of guilt that follows acts of charity. If it becomes apparent that rich people can’t save the world with money, then where do we stand? We appear to arrive at a point where change requires something much more radical.