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Books post-capitalism

Scanning the Horizon

After the Mark Fisher memorial lecture from Jodi Dean, considering I’d recently picked up a copy of her book the Communist Horizon I decided to promptly give it a full read. Within it, while I found some points she had reiterated within the lecture, I found a wonderfully fleshed out analysis of the problems faced by the left, the loss of the communist horizon, as Dean puts it, to the static repetitions of drive.

In some ways it fits in quite nicely next to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism as an instalment in an ongoing push to revitalise left politics and pull it out of the stupor of the past few decades, if one with a greater focus on action and strategy. Much of the book is devoted to defining a collective subject, a focus on the we necessary to enact political change, navigating the impasses of fragmentation and individualism so characteristic to what Dean calls “Communicative capitalism” in tandem with its close ally neoliberalism. While she advocates throughout a unified collective effort, it would be amiss to define this as some call for people to simply converge into a like-minded singularity. Something she brings us back to around every corner is the constant presence of rupture and antagonism within groups, and eventually even within the individual subject themselves.

This is a point I think rings out all the more as left movements are fragmenting everywhere, unable to tackle their own differences. Antagonism, between the lack of the subject and the lack of capital, between subjects, are everywhere we look, and yet people are capable of acting with unified purpose. The key observation to maintain is this, one that Dean reiterates from Lukacs, that a collective common desire distracts from, but does not erase antagonisms, that the form remains incomplete rather than a perfect whole. There is no “united” collective in a true sense, but while this tempts us to move towards Hardt & Negri’s approach, the ever-changing multitude, Dean is correct in her criticisms that this forms a collective that is too disparate and ill-defined to really enact the change it seeks. The multitude might sound lovely and inclusive, and yet it doesn’t really have the pointed gaze towards a common horizon that is needed.

A good example in a sense, whether it exactly lines up or not, are the recent riots in France, and the “yellow vests” movements that originated from them. They are a clear case against the collective as multitude, as after a certain point nobody could work out what was being fought for and everybody appeared to be angry about their own pet issue. There was no abstract horizon to tie it all together besides an outpouring of anger. This lines up somewhat with Hardt & Negri’s conception of communism as an imminence within society, and yet it does not. All that happened was anger without a point, a goal. What’s more, the fact that this was a “movement” so open that anyone with a chip on their shoulder could claim it as their own eventually led it to dissipate and become equally appropriated by right wing and left wing groups with entirely different aims. In its founding around the precepts of individual concern the yellow vest phenomenon was a miserable failure even as it made clear the amount of resentment bubbling away beneath the surface of society.

What was painfully evident from these riots is that people were angry and wanted to change things but from this point had no clear idea of what they were angry at or how to change it. What Dean points out was present in the occupy movement, a clear antagonism based in class struggle; the 99% vs the 1%, and a tactic in order to amplify this antagonism, was nowhere to be seen on the streets of France last year. The communist horizon as something to direct our desire towards on the left is in some respects works past this by ensuring that whatever each individuals grievance, a common direction and foundation for strategy is in place.

Something that is confronted consistently, and that Dean is highly critical of, is the lapse of left wing desire into drive, a banal repetitious approach mired in aestheticism [politics as commodity, as a t shirt, an instagram bio, a fashion] and inaction. Protest becomes something people do not out of genuine wish for change, but as a limp, ineffectual gesture designed to prolong the protest itself. All the symbols of political resistance are reduced to pictures on a mood board, shorn of power and rendered mere commodity like everything else, subsumed into capital. Political action then has little to do with politics, merely becoming communication, PR, eventually lapsing into melancholy.

So to rediscover the communist horizon … it is a matter not of devising a specific state formulation as many automatically assume as soon as the term communist is invoked [During the first part of the book Dean addresses the many issues with conflating communism with the specific historical configuration of the USSR, or even Stalinism], but re-asserting a collective desire for collectivity and drawing out the means to enact that desire. In the throes of neoliberalism and communicative capitalism we are repeatedly told of our autonomy as individuals, that each of us is responsible for ourselves and that, in Thatcher’s words “There is no such thing as society” and it is difficult not to argue that we are now waist deep in the quicksand of that ideology. What is required is the organised collective, not just because everything we are told pushes against it, but because by ourselves it will be impossible to pull ourselves out again.

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How Many Have we Lost Due to Our Failure to Treat them as Comrades?

“The thing that men and women need to do is stick together 
Progressions can’t be made if we’re separate forever”

A Tribe Called Quest – Verses from the abstract

This line, delivered by A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip on their most remarkable work the Low End Theory, came to me over the weekend as encapsulating something of the energy and the thrust of solidarity behind Jodi Dean’s insightful and provocative instalment of the Mark Fisher memorial lecture this year. This seemingly simple observation; that unless we put our heads together despite differences, engage with each other in tandem, working towards a future becomes impossible. Mark Fisher recognised that such sentiment must be expressed anew in a contemporary left climate where we are all at each others throats, where we seem incapable of formulating a coherent movement through a haze of individualist moralising and comfortable aestheticism.

It is this observation that got Fisher into a good deal of hot water with his piece Exiting the Vampire Castle, one of those “controversial” pieces of writing that managed to demonstrate through its reactions exactly the problems it outlined; namely the devolution of left politics into fractured, knee-jerk, individualist identities and the undermining of class and comradeship as abstractions that cut across subjective differences and backgrounds. This is precisely why I was glad that Jodi Dean used this piece as a central reference for her lecture, a quote from its finishing lines projected behind her as she spoke, and also potentially why the lecture attracted its fair share of bad faith questions from the room, the Q&As in part seeming to resemble an attack on Dean as well as the usual trumpeting of Ego.

That the call for a rediscovery of Comradeship [the word “comrade” taking pride of place here, and forming the backbone of an exploration of the decline of the symbolic through Doris Lessing’s novel the Golden Notebook] provokes such a backlash from certain elements of left wing politics appears precisely to demonstrate the disparate mess that it becomes, exacerbated by the rampant individualist circus of social media, revolving around “me”, “I”, a pre-copernican system of people all convinced that I don’t need anyone else, that know better, that it is the individual action and moral character that in all essences precedes the collective purpose.

Throughout Dean’s lecture, titled “Capitalism is the End of the World” I made connections in the back of my mind to my recent piecing together, gradually, of Spinoza and his relevance to politics, something I came to via Fisher himself. The importance of collective solidarity to political action rang out loud and clear throughout as she moved from discussing capitalist realism towards the breakdown of meaning in lieu of the aftermath of communism. The connecting tissue to Spinoza here was the generating of joy, that being the ways in which we increase our power of knowing and acting within the world, and how this is increasingly difficult if not impossible the more we isolate ourselves from others, the more we regress into a Hermit-like existence, eschewing interaction with others for the solace of our own pod-like brains.

This is in essence the individualised atomization of social life we see under Neoliberalism seen as the “eclipse of class consciousness” on the modern left. Indeed this is where contentions lie, when Capitalist Realism moves from being a general attitude to what Dean here made sure to emphasise, as Fisher did in Vampire Castle, as a pathology and a fatalism of the left. I have no doubt that this focus on the acquiescence to anti-communism, to neoliberal dogmas of the individual, to the idea that there is no alternative, as a problem so specifically encountered on the left ruffled more than a few feathers. The ultimate discomfort is when you read a critique of an attitude and a voice at the back of your head starts saying “shit, that’s me”. The criticisms Fisher presented then and Dean reframed here seemed to hit a bit too close to home for many, but this only makes them all the more prevalent at a time when the very-online left is intent on tearing itself to shreds at every turn. As Dean phrased it; “If we see enemies everywhere there is no side”.

I haven’t yet moved on to discuss the positive vision of communism Dean presented, one that I will admit has nearly won me over to the term Communism itself, more than its admittedly rather hum-drum alternative post-capitalism, a term that it always struck me was used more due to a concession to re-definition without really alighting upon anything satisfactory. Dean throughout much of the lecture vehemently stood by her own position that to try and invent some new terminology gave in to the PR game of capital, and everything that we envision is already there in communism, that to invent some other term is ultimately to abandon that vision. Indeed “post-capitalism” seems so unsatisfactory because of the lack of implied vision, the prefix “post” merely implying “after”, thus never really giving us a solid idea of what we are aiming at. Communism is a word that immediately encapsulates a communal future, and it is a mistake to simply leave it in the dust and let its image be permanently damned by a few men.

The lecture was an example, like Marks work, of everything left politics needs, and though extremely well attended, not enough people can lend their ears to what Jodi Dean has to say. To envision a better world may be something that in the eyes of many, cynics, pessimists and liberals alike, becomes this silly, petty thing; “pah, you silly little fool, daring to think you could actually improve the situation”, the communist, acting as a comrade to others becomes an aesthetic, a meaningless picture on a flag, a patch of red cloth. As Dean explored in Lessing’s work, poltical work dissolves and a shared language is lost. Everything devolves into the trilogy of individualism, aestheticism, and moralism. the mind and the collective disintegrate, the parts less than the whole, the whole now a distant fantasy.

This depressing reality is that also described by Fisher in Capitalist Realism, where the dream of communism, of something beyond what we have becomes routinely dismissed in a dull ritualistic everyday descent into the quotidian, political action merely something people laugh, sigh, or twitch at after the dopamine hit of a notification on a smartphone. It is now, where we see the cracks in the facade and the collapse of the boring dystopia, where we see a potential resurgence of belief in something more.

The main takeaway from the lecture was an emphasis on the importance of comradeship. How many have have we lost due to our failure to treat them as comrades? This does not mean, as Dean emphatically said during the Q&A, that justice for wrongdoing goes out of the window, merely that it is important for us to acknowledge that people change, and that we should be more willing to allow people a path back to the movement, not to simple “cancel” individuals for good once they say something slightly out of line, the credo of the twitter call-out, the social media whirlpool of knee jerk and absolutist moral judgements which forms the heart of so much modern politicizing.

It was stirring stuff, despite her concession that her deeply apocalyptic framing of capitalism may not have made anyone feel good about themselves, and the lecture left off on distinctly positive sentiments. It may have been divisive to some, but the message of comradeship, of abstract political belonging, is one that feels apt to any emancipatory desire, for how can we hope to get anything done if we hole up inside our cocoons, so assured of our importance as individuals? To create we must act, to act we must think we act, and to act and think effectively we must think and act relationally. We must in Spinozist terms generate encounters of joy, and to do this we must work together, as Comrades, not as the mythic hero acting alone to save the planet. For the collective is the embodiment of action, the action of embodiment. It seems like a painfully obvious point, but it is when we act for and with others that may reach for the communist horizon and find our way out of the murk of Capitalism.