Corrosive Dreams: Aspects of Acid Communism

Acid Communism. Probably one of Mark Fishers most evocative coinages, and yet the one that we have the least material on. Immediately it begs questions regarding what exactly the term Acid implies, the use of Communism as opposed to post-capitalism or other alternatives often strangely falling behind due to the manifold interpretations of the modifier. Ostensibly we only have a single unfinished introduction to a planned book and a few mentions here and there, and yet… while this doesn’t seem a whole lot to go on, from the material that’s there, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to trace the lines of Acid Communism through the rest of his work. Of course as a project in and of itself, it remained unfinished on Fishers death, but like every other project Fisher undertook, it can’t really be considered a walled off singular set of ideas, and it isn’t hard to sense the spectre of acid communism hanging over the rest of Fishers oeuvre. Here I want to attempt to sketch out this spectre, and to attempt, in the words of Jameson, and in the spirit of Fisher, to “read the imperceptible tremors of an unimaginable future”.

Anti-Anti-Capitalism

The first, and core point, that I want to arrive at, is at the very beginning of the introduction, that being the reversal of political perspective;

“We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops , its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this red plenty.”

The red plenty he refers to here being “the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy”. This reversal I think is hugely important to excavating what Fisher meant by Acid Communism, and his indentifying within the opening lines of a historical space and time, “the spectre of a world which could be free” from Marcuse pinpoints the use of “Acid” immediately in relation to a history, more specifically to the 60s counterculture.

Does this mean, as I’ve heard floating around in some quarters, that Acid Communism means a return to the 60s? I’m going to get this out of the way up front, no. Fishers approach to the 60s is no more an exercise in empty nostalgia than the 70s; something he wasn’t arguing for, in other words, was a wholesale turning back of the clock to some utopian past. Instead, we can turn to his observation that the past has not yet occurred, meaning that it hinges on re-telling and framing, to understand better what he meant through his evocations of the past. The reference point here would be Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the twentieth century, a book that excavates the cultural history of the twentieth century to draw the link between Dada Situationism and Punk, demonstrating how echoes of the past can re-emerge in new forms years or decades later, the proposals of the situationists somehow bursting through the walls and into the heart of Popular culture in the form of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols. The point here is that the past is not a dead entity, but something that re-emerges; the point of Fisher taking Derrida’s coinage “Hauntology” was to effectively illustrate how the past hangs over and suffuses the present. the 60s and the 70s now re-emerge in the 21st century as spectral potentialities, the futures that they promised having receded under the pall of capitalist realism.

Now I’ve addressed that, I will turn to the other common fixation with regard to Acid Communism, and that is on LSD. Now don’t get me wrong, psychedelic culture and experiences are not absent from what Fisher wrote, but it would be remiss to channel that into an Acid Communism that centres on such practices, simply because Fisher appeared to have no interest in psychedelics as such and this is to miss the points he makes regarding such experiences. It is not that Acid is as such some emancipatory, freeing substance, a magical consciousness-machine, even if that was a latent promise in hippy culture, but that Acid is representative of the de-naturalizing Fisher pinpointed as a necessary precedent to emancipatory politics, something that one can find at the heart of the Xenofeminist manifesto for instance;

“Freedom is not a given–and it’s certainly not given by anything ‘natural’. The construction of freedom involves not less but more alienation; alienation is the labour of freedom’s construction.”

A left politics, if it is to be anything at all must be the politics of un-nature, of the alien, the weird. This is the context in which Fisher addresses the psychedelic experience in Acid Communism and its centrality to the 60s counter-culture.

If we’re really going to delve into what Fisher defined under the Acid Communist heading, this strikes me as an unavoidable passage;

“Acid Communism is the name I have given to this spectre. The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life. “

So, to Fisher what AC represented was nothing less than a historical confluence, a cultural-aesthetic-political-space that once promised to emerge and yet was stifled at birth. It is the cross-contamination of movements, the intersection for instance of a counter-cultural bohemia with a socialist politics and subordinate group consciousness. In truth, this is very much in line with his trajectory until that point, but took on a new dimension with greater incorporation of the 60s as a reference point, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization becoming an important text in its affinity with the countercultural current of the time. The point I raised at the beginning comes to form more fully now in relation to the promise this period put forward, that of freedom, and not the freedom that Neoliberalism eventually claimed to deliver, but a freedom from drudgery. Something that Fisher mentioned a lot regarding this was the consistent worry of capitalism during this time “what if the working classes become hippies”. This worry, to some degree was the battleground of the 70s, during which the great questions in politics and culture revolved around the relation of each to the other, the promise made in the 60s, of the meeting point between these nodes fighting to make itself known.

Capitalist Desire?

For a long time, this promise seemed entirely impossible, the seemingly total political acquiescence of the 80s leading a widespread equation of the left/socialism with the old, with stuffy tweed wearing old men who want to return to the 70s, the socialist left itself struggling to disavow itself of a nostalgia for Fordism which still follows it to this day in some respects. This leads us to what I think is another key axis in AC, and that is Desire, what is desire under, and after, capitalism? Another later piece by Fisher, and one that I think works incredibly in tandem with AC, is his essay titled Post-Capitalist Desire. Fisher here question’s the long-standing equation of Desire with Capitalism presented most openly in Louise Mensch’s appearance on Have I Got News For You in 2011, in which she mocked anti-capitalist protesters for buying coffee at Starbucks and using iphones. The implication here is clearly that, to be a successful anti-capitalist, one has to revoke the desirable, become an ascetic, an anarcho-primitivist living off the land and refusing any and all aspects of modern life.

Later in Post-Capitalist Desire Fisher importantly, and a little provocatively calls for the left to reconcile with terms such as “Designer Socialism” and “Radical Chic”;

Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.

This, I think, it is reasonable to link to what Fisher in AC calls the “unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”, namely, that an element of AC is most definitely the reclamation of the “new” on the side of the left, a retreat from left wing melancholia, the attachment to and repetition of aged aesthetics and strategies and instead the plotting of vectors into the future. What does this mean with regard to culture and aesthetics?

I would hold that partially at least an answer can be found in the Freudian dreamwork, and it’s importance that Fisher recognised in analysing the operations of power. This blog post contains I think some important material on the matter;

“How could it ever be possible for us to believe successive or even co-extensive stories that so obviously contradict one another? Yet we know from Kant, Nietzsche and psychoanalysis that waking, as much as dreaming, experience, depends upon just such screening narratives. If the Real is unbearable, any reality we construct must be a tissue of inconsistencies.

What differentiates Kant, Nietzsche and Freud from the tiresome cliche that ‘life is but a dream’ is precisely the sense that the confabulations we live are consensual. The idea that the world we experience is a solipsistic delusion projected from the interior of our mind consoles rather than disturbs us, since it conforms with our infantile fantasies of omnipotence; but the thought that our so-called interiority owe its existence to a fictionalized consensus will always carry an uncanny charge.

This, as well as the observations on the Wendy Brown lecture, furnish us with an idea of how capitalism employs the Dreamwork to conflate contradictions, to present a fiction to paper over the cracks. And this I think begins to get at why the Dreamwork has relevance to AC. The realisation that the world we perceive, the way we perceive it, is not so much a vision projected from our minds but a consensual dream, that we are, for all intents and purposes, dreaming the dreams of capital, links in with the problem of post-capitalist desire. Fisher talked in one of his seminars on the topic of how advertising operates via Dreamwork, giving the example for instance of the famous, Ridley Scott directed 1984 apple advert, wherein apple is presented as the new, forward thinking, colourful, exciting alternative to the old technologies, presented as a 1984, soviet bloc style oppressive grey world. Here we see the desirable, the new, unambiguously conflated with capital.

Here we get a sense of why Fisher called for the reconciliation of radical chic. AC sets itself around the idea that there is no real desire for capitalism, that capitalism is itself the suppression of desire for emancipation. What then, that apple advert did, was to conceal that fact through conflating capital with emancipation, a reversal of intention. Fisher, in the same blog quoted above, and speaking about the Wendy Brown lecture American Nightmare: Neoconservatism, Neoliberalism, and De-democratization;

“What the dreamwork does, Brown recognized, like Le Guin before her, is to produce an – always retrospective – narrative consistency which covers over anomalies and contradictions . Brown’s analysis had the literally stunning effect of rousing us from the trance in which we blithely accept that neoliberalism and neoconservatism are in some way logically consistent”

Something that has long cemented the dominance of capitalism is the genuinely impressive extent to which these principles have been used to erode collective consciousness. Desire has, despite the contradiction in terms, been repeatedly conflated with capitalism, anti-capitalism, as for Mensch, with regression, primitivism, stuffy old miserable societies in which nobody wants to live. What Acid Commmunism promises on some level is the re-alignment of the left with desire, a Left that can again lay claim to the new, to innovation, to creativity and freedom, such terms as have been adopted almost wholesale under the umbrella of neoliberal dogma.

The Past is So Much Safer”

” “The past is so much safer”, observes one of the narrators of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian satire, The Heart Goes Last , “because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed: so, in a way there’s nothing to dread”. 8 Despite what Atwood’s narrator thinks, the past hasn’t “already happened”. The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments.”

Here we come in more detail to the historical element of AC, that is, the focus of Fisher on historical narrative. This always seems to arise in his work in the form of opposition to canonization. That is, within culture there tends to be story, a series of works, groups or individuals considered to be part of a classical “canon”. This usually also pertains to how they are perceived, there are accepted interpretations, they are taught in a certain way. Something Fisher often did was upend these canons, taking aim at the comfortable talk-show reels and mythology of genius that is abound in most contemporary cultural broadcasting. A similar attack on the stagnant, platitudinous, calcified remains of the dance music press can be found at the beginning of Kodwo Eshun’s More Brilliant Than the Sun, leading onto what Eshun calls the “Futurhythmachine” effectively an afrofuturist synthetic collage in which the past marks out the vector towards the future. The historicism of AC then, can I think be understood as drawing upon similar ideas running through Fishers own work, the past not only as future, but a future in progress. Hereby I wouldn’t suggest as much that its a return to a singular historical moment but the cutting and pasting of an unfinished project, an synthetically re-written history to set out future co-ordinates. To re-iterate, the past has not yet happened. It must always be re-told.

So what does this mean for desire? The most obvious consequence is that post-capitalist desire already resides within capitalism. For Fisher, what becomes apparent is not that we must generate a new form of desire from scratch, but that, in the manner of such provocations that might be included under the heading of accelerationism, or Jameson’s Utopia as Replication, wherein the forms, spaces, desires of a post-capitalist future, of communism, are found within the very structures of capitalism. This is why Fisher begins by reversing the age old anti-capitalist formulation; he evokes the question, is there any desire for capitalism? And the answer is a resounding no. To say otherwise immediately equates, with problematic consequences, the desire of modernity with that of capital. Of course, the modernity we currently exist within, subsist from, has been largely generated via capitalism, but that doesn’t mean the desire for it is the same as the desire for the system that drives it. In fact, I may point towards Fisher’s piece on the 2012 London Olympic games here;

It’s clear that what people are already enjoying in the Games is everything for which Capital is not responsible: the efforts of the athletes, the experience of a shared publicness. Insofar as the torch relay was a success, this, too, was not due to the parade itself – a dreary countrywide corporate carnival, consisting of Samsung, Coca Cola and Lloyds TSB floats – but because it allowed people to experience their own sociality.

It doesn’t seem far fetched to suggest that if enjoyment is even what’s at stake here, what people enjoy about modernity is often that for which capital is not responsible, inasmuch as people don’t seem to display any notable desire for soaring costs of living, ecological devastation, corporate sponsorship or business jargon.

The Counter-Exorcism

So in a way AC IS a return, but it is less returning us to the 60s/70s than it returns those decades to the present. More specifically, it is the unforgetting as Fisher put it, of a confluence of consciousness, of culture, politics, aesthetics that mapped out a future beyond the grey drudgery of capitalist work. It is not that these things have ceased to exist, it is, to refer to Jameson’s postmodernism, there has been a collective dehistoricizing of culture, a grand forgetting, wherein all that begins to exist is a present moment, shorn of narrative continuum or discontinuum. This all feeds into the consciousness deflation that allowed capitalist realism to take hold. As long as we remain captured within the dreamwork, dreaming the dreams of capital, not only this but as we retain the illusory notion that this is real [Fisher of course mentioned that “capitalist realism is not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself. For what is the triumphalism of capitalism based on if not the claim that it has dissolved all illusions?”] , then the historical processes of emancipation become lost to us. Something that remains locked in a kind of museum, a hall containing a succession of past artefacts with no meaningful attachment to the present.

In looking back to the counter-cultural potentials of the past, AC evokes a cultural space of experimentation, wherein politics and aesthetics in some sense converge towards emancipatory goals; it is important to note here that this is meant not in content necessarily, but in form. The aesthetics spoken of here are not just some uninspired decent into psychedelic fractals and mind-bending imagery, it is the capacity of culture to denaturalize. In this sense, the “Acid” simply cannot be divorced from its paring “Communism”. Fishers formulation appears to refer if anything to the intersection of both, of the dream of psychedelic culture, of a life freed from work and daily concerns, with that of radical left politics.

What the spectre of Acid Communism presents us with is a call to unforget this intersection, it describes a latent space within which counter-culture and politics dialectically interact, intertwining and playing off one another as they are thought as one. Acid Communism is image, it is Glam, it is the Dreamwork set to new tasks, it is the autonomy of collective consciousness within cultural forms; within Acid Communism seems to lie everything Fisher wrote about the power of counter-cultural expression in post-punk. What changes here is the introduction of the 60s not merely as the dream that go co-opted by neoliberalism, but the desires that were suppressed, the utopian promise that was crushed. What was thought as possible then decades later would be dismissed as a child’s fantasy. Acid Communism is that dream, that spectre, and the counter-exorcism thereof.

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