April 6, 2014
It’s easy to be against austerity and neoliberalism; it is less easy to say something meaningful about it, and to take stock of the Western situation in a sober and critical way. To do this is the purpose of Against Austerity, the most recent work of the hand of Richard Seymour, blogger at Lenin’s Tomb and (ex-)member of various radical groups in the UK. Although the cover blurbs present it as a strategy for defeating austerity and reviving the left, most of the book by far is actually concerned with analyzing what austerity is, how it relates to neoliberalism, state and class strategies, ideology, and economics. While these topics are by now fairly well-trodden ground in left analysis, there is perhaps a need for a popular synthesis of the various theories and interpretations offered in the literature, and this book helps fill that gap. Combining — as is Seymour’s wont — Poulantzian/Gramscian state and class theory with the economic interpretations of the crisis offered by the school of Panitch & Gindin and Duménil & Levy, this work offers a (brief) political economic reading of the crisis that is fully integrated with a strategic and political conception: neoliberalism as a class offensive of financial capital and its state integration to recompose the state-economy relationship and indeed the very structure of ‘the market’ and its society itself. As Seymour puts it: “what we are witnessing, under the auspices of austerity, is not just spending cuts. It is a shift in the entire civilisational edifice of capitalism, deepening an equivalent shift that began in the 1970s” (3-4).
What does this shift consist of, according to him? The author discusses a fairly broad range of phenomena, and the discussion of the crisis and its strategic meaning ranges from economics to class, to state, and to ideology. Let’s take the economics first. The general thesis of the crisis interpretation may be summed up as the Panitch-Gindin-Duménil-Levy school. That is to say, the view that neoliberalism entails an intensification of existing trends towards ‘financialisation’, seen as the dominance of finance capital over other capitals and its stranglehold on the state; an attendant rise in inequality and more open class warfare, as opposed to the welfarist compromises of the boom period when manufacturing capital was in charge; and a shift from consumption to an investment orientation. When it comes to the state analysis of neoliberal economics, however, Seymour (in my view rightly) takes his cue from Philip Mirowski: the neoliberal state presents itself as a ‘small government, free market, individual responsibility’ type liberal regime of familiar sort, but in reality neoliberalism means an enormous increase in the state’s repressive authority and even in its reach over all aspects of life. The difference is that the state is now used to create markets and market dependence where none existed before, or where it was attenuated by welfarist ‘obstacles’. The neoliberal state is a regime of (re)imposing market relations into the fabric of everyday life wherever possible, and it is in this context only that the combination of increasing authoritarianism (at least compared to the 60s-70s) with the new conservatism and the drive to (anew) outsource and commodify all labour can be understood.
Financialization also comes into the class analysis. After all, one of the characteristics of neoliberalism (all agree) has been the increasing indebtedness and financial ‘enmeshing’ of Western workers. Also, the centrality of finance and the finance-state alliance in the United States to the workings of the international economic system since the end of Bretton Woods, as documented by Gindin and Panitch in The Making of Global Capitalism (London/NY 2013: Verso) has generated (or imposed) similar alliances elsewhere in the Western world. The upshot of this is that, on this interpretation, finance has become the central nervous system of capitalism and that financial capital has become the leading sub-class (hegemon) within the ruling class alliance. Unpacking Seymour’s Gramscian-Poulantzian jargon, the social relation that is the state is always in some sense a reflection of the struggle of different classes and class forces. In this particular case the alliance between corporations, banks, political parties, civil servants and so forth that dominates the UK is led by finance capital and its direct or indirect representatives in politics: the often-observed City-Westminster nexus.
Yet in the state analysis, Seymour rightly emphasizes that the neoliberal austerity alliance is not an impregnable unity. On the contrary, neoliberalism is as any movement an alliance of different ideas and forces and has a fragmentary nature. If cohesion is created by the dominance of the particular interest of finance over the whole, even other sectors of capital, the strategies pursued on this basis also entail risks and potentials for division. The wholesale attack on the conditions of social reproduction as they have grown in the postwar era more aggressive and sweeping than even in the Reagan-Thatcher years, and this means that either Marx’s ‘moral’ historical element in the reproduction of labor will be pushed down to a systematically lower living standard for the Western working class; or it could mean sufficient disruption and resistance that this social reproduction itself is threatened and the attack has to be called off. The former appears to be happening now, but the latter was the picture of the earliest wave of neoliberalism in the 1970s, and this shows the importance of organized labor resistance to raising the risks of an austerity strategy for the ruling class.
Similarly, the pursuit of debt reduction, cutting government expenditure, public employment and so forth makes sense from the viewpoint of financial capital — as it strengthens credibility and therefore creditors — but it threatens through the ensuing conflict and contraction the position of weaker elements of capital, such as manufacturers and those dependent on international trade. Such state intervention as exists in the economy is explicitly to defend finance capital at all costs, hence the bailouts, but there are also other elements of the ruling class alliance and global stability to keep in mind, not least politically. Hence Seymour rightly notes that “the divisions among elites over whether to proceed with austerity reflects both the risks of the project and divergences of short-term interests” (94). This solves the riddle of whether austerity is ideological madness or whether we should adopt the ‘rational choice’ view that this ruling class must be right about its own interests: it depends on what segment of the alliance we are talking about.
This brings us to the question of ideology, which perhaps more than anything else (unless it is the decline of unionism) defines our current era. Here, Seymour is perhaps at his best. As is obvious to all, but often handwaved away in the wishful thinking that passes for much left analysis, the situation ideologically is very grim. In the UK, fewer people now support the old ‘welfare’ set of views than even at the height of the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s that inaugurated Thatcher’s rule. The new ‘common sense’ imposed by decades of virtually unchallenged neoliberalism and the demise of the Soviet Union — the latter a factor Seymour barely mentions — has quite successfully imbued the current generation of young people with an ethos of individual careerism, of identifying with the discipline of the market. While this generation is much more progressive than the previous on questions of gender, sexuality, race and so forth, it is also much more neoliberal in terms of the relationship of individuals to society and its political economy — a trend visible throughout the Western world. In addition, Richard Seymour gives due attention to the counterpart of this common sense: the increasing violence and authoritarianism against those who resist or transgress the new discipline of the market and its inequalities and exploitation. From forced labor to obtain benefits to the escalation of police tactics, it is especially the women and people of colour of the Western world who make up much of the working class that bear the brunt of this offensive. The rhetoric of ‘scroungers’ and benefit dependence only legitimizes this new ‘liberalism without a human face’, and the more the state and its remaining welfare system present themselves as modes of exercising neoliberal authority, the less they are seen as universal achievements of citizenship in a high-wealth society. Seymour brings out this vicious cycle of our current times quite well.
There is much to like about this book. It is a clear and well-structured read: it starts off rather blocky and posturing in the beginning (for which I am just not the right audience) but improves over time with an at times fairly detailed analysis of the relationship between the rule of finance capital within the neoliberal state and the concrete strategies, alliances, and ideological ‘strong redescriptions’ this entails. Refreshing especially are two important things about this work: firstly, Seymour’s resistance to wishful thinking and hand-waving optimism. He describes the utter weakness of the left’s resistance, the decline in unionism and the small likelihood of its recovery, and the increasing neoliberalization of the Western common sense in no uncertain terms. Secondly, he rightly points out how identifying neoliberalism simply with ‘free marketeers’ and seeking a restoration of the old welfare capitalism and union alliances to combat it is an illegitimate and impossible exercise in old union worker nostalgia and doomed to collapse before it ever gets off the ground. He emphasizes how much unions have now come to rely on public service workers for their base, the last relatively privileged and secure bastion against the labour market, and how the neoliberal offensive on this point is destroying even that base as we speak — without any clear counter-strategy to be seen. The spirit of ’45 is an obscene display of delusional nostalgia, and should be rejected wherever it appears, and Richard Seymour does not indulge it — which is rare among the left in the UK, although such politics of nostalgia is much less evident in the United States. On the whole, this book does what should be the starting point of any Marxist analysis: it describes with sober senses how bad the radical left’s strategic position is, unhindered by the shibboleths or blinders of sect strategy.
Admittedly, I have some disagreements with the analysis as well, both larger and smaller in nature. Although these are all points on which people can reasonably disagree, I’ll mention a few points of difference here. One is that I think Seymour still concedes too much to the existing union structure, despite his justified emphasis on the need for a ‘new unionism’. The Owen Jones argument that unions are still the ‘biggest democratic institutions in the UK’ and the like simply does not convince, and masks the real issues of organized workers in the West. Firstly, if we criticize liberal democracy for being a sham democracy in some respects, being structurally set up to favour the elites and by demobilization and abstention excluding much of the working class, then this goes a fortiori for the unions. Even in the United States general elections will reach a 50% turnout or so, whereas union leadership elections are often decided on a turnout of about 15%. That does not bode well for an argument about their democratic content. Moreover, the dependence of Western unions on public sector workers. While the conditions and makeup of the public sector workforce is increasingly like that of private sector work, the strategic position is different. Public sector workers are more subject to the neoliberal ideological resistance to the state apparatus, making them seem ideal examples of wasteful obstacles and parasites to be cut; they’re often, as state representatives, in ambiguous relationships to workers (think of teachers or social workers); and they depend way more than private sector workers do on a general reserve of public support and solidarity. In Chicago, the CTU managed to triumph on this basis, but in most cases the long-term trend is not good for public sector-heavy unions.
Finally, there is also a certain analogy between the ‘Labour is defined by its members, therefore should be supported’ and the ‘unions are run by workers, therefore democratic’ arguments: both ignore the way the structure of membership is set up to prevent the use of that instrument for any anti-capitalist purpose under current conditions. A new unionism would mean a radical reformation of the existing union structure just as it would require a doing away with Labourism (something Seymour does agree on). It is worth noting that in various polls, from the US to Australia, people systematically indicate that unions are among the least trusted and liked institutions in the West — comparable to big business and parliaments, in fact.
Another point concerns the economic analysis. While I do not want to go into too much technical detail that will likely bore or confuse a general left audience, it is at least worth noting that some of the economic reasoning that underpins the book is disputable. While I readily agree with Seymour’s analysis of neoliberalism in the Mirowskian style, i.e. as the imposition of markets by a stronger (and even sometimes bigger) state rather than a classic free market offensive, I am less enamoured than he is of the Gindin-Panitch-Duménil-Levy approach to the crisis. Everyone can agree that the proximate cause of the crisis lay in the financial system and its particular overexposure to bad debt, and that this bad debt in turn has its roots in the stagnation (though not necessarily decline) of worker compensation. But it does not follow from this that long-term financial trends are the dominant ones in explaining global capitalism since the neoliberal turn of the 1970s. The argument that opponents of this school do not take finance to be a ‘real’ part of capitalism is misplaced; while indeed the populist narrative sometimes leans towards seeing finance as merely parasitical on capitalism, none of the Marxist economic literature on the crisis does this. It is clear that the credit system and finance are central to capitalism, as one can find in Capital volumes 2 and 3. But it is also clear that if finance is essential to capitalism, it is equally incapable of generating new value in the system, and this — rather than its circulation or the imposition of competition and productivity increases for their own sake — is the lifeblood of capitalism at a global level. This does not make finance irrelevant, fictitious, or parasitical, but it means that a purely financial explanation of longer term trends in capitalism is less plausible within a Marxist economic analysis, because less ‘microfounded’ (as the neoclassical economists would put it). Perhaps, of course, such Marxist analysis is wrong — post-Keynesian theory, for example, does indeed give good reasons to support a wholly financial explanation of long-term crisis tendencies, relying on the interaction of expectations and demand, and this is something we find repeatedly in Seymour’s book next to the Marxist literature.
This points to some of the inconsistency of the economic analysis proposed by some of Seymour’s narrative. He attacks those who see declining rates of profit (identified by Marx himself as one of capitalism’s most important crisis tendencies) as central to the long-term analysis of crisis trends in capitalism by using two arguments: 1) that profits have been at a record high before and after the crisis; and 2) that such an argument is teleological and implies there is a ‘final crisis of capitalism’. Neither of these is convincing. The first is a common reply to the ‘rate of profit’ literature on the crisis, as in Andrew Kliman and Michael Roberts, but it rests on a conceptual misunderstanding. The historically high profit rates Seymour cites are, besides being uncorrected for inflation (!), stocks of profit. What determines investment in Marx’s theory, however, are rates of profit — returns on investment. Not absolute amounts, but returns as a percentage of a capital invested. If capitalist A invests $1000 and gets $100 back, and capitalist B invests $100 and gets $50 back, then it is A who will be outcompeted, not B. A should have invested in B’s production process (or finance, or trade, or whatever) and made $500 instead of $100 on his capital, and it is precisely the role of finance to make such distributions of investments happen, and thereby to equalize (and maximize) the rate of profit. It is precisely these rates of return that are advertised in all the financial literature and that play the same role for capital as the ’200 or 500 a year’ in rents (or interest) did for the Mister Darcy types in the Austen and Brontë novels. In fact, Seymour himself notes that “what matters to capital is the rate of profit on investment” (69)!
Why does this matter? Because whether or not Kliman and Roberts are right in their statistical analysis, it seems evident that a rate of profit analysis can explain why despite all the neoliberal offensives and despite 500 billion bailouts and the governments more or less begging capital to invest (as Seymour notes in his book), no investment is forthcoming. The left is no serious opposition; the unions are moribund; the government gives capital all it wants; and it does not invest. This baffles the Obamas and the Osbornes, who have only neoclassical economics to go by. The high-profit view also has no explanation of this, but the low rate of profit view does. There lies the relevance of this debate among Marxists.
The second counterargument should also be addressed, because it applies to the broadly SYRIZA-type strategies proposed by Seymour. While I think he is probably right that this kind of Eurocommunist ‘broad alliances’ and ideological offensives are about the best we can achieve at the moment, I think we should recognize that this is a position of weakness. The liberals are winning, and while a long-term offensive of ideology may hit the neoliberals where they are weakest, it is not likely to reverse the arrangement of forces in the short or even medium term. It is therefore very nefarious when nostalgic analysis substitutes for sober senses in this regard, as Seymour observes. But this applies also to the strategic implications of the inconsistency mentioned above, between emphasizing the need for investment and accumulation on capital’s part on the one hand, and simultaneously insisting this requires more consumer demand on the other. This is a fundamental mistake. Contrary to the Keynesian analysis underpinning this argument, according to Marx’s economics it is not the case that capital accumulation requires high worker consumer demand, nor therefore does it require the state to intervene on this basis to guarantee it.
The state does indeed often, since the Great Depression, intervene to prop up — in various ways, according to the class configurations in charge — the consumption levels of the working class. But this is for political reasons, and defended as such: Roosevelt and LBJ alike were worried about riots, uprisings, and revolutions, not about ‘multipliers’ (in fact Roosevelt famously campaigned on an austerity agenda). If this seems implausible, remember that capitalism accumulated quite fine in the Victorian age, even if regularly wracked by crises, despite the subsistence level (or lower) consumption of the workers, and the same thing is true for capital outside the West — a dimension Seymour barely mentions at all in his discussion of the political economy of the crisis. (I could here go into the relevance of the global dimension for the strategic problem of whether we should prioritize the living standards of Western workers in the face of globalized value flows, and also the absence of a discussion of the transnational capitalist class in this work. But arguably that would go too far for a review of a popular book mainly concerned with domestic strategy.) The importance of this argument rests in this: 1) that it would be wrong to think that the liberal state cannot go beyond a small bandwidth of austerity and repression; 2) that it would be wrong to think that any form of ‘demand side’ politics would do better than austerity at overcoming the crisis from the standpoint of capital.
The mistake here is a common one, and by no means limited to Seymour, but it entails confusing the needs of capital accumulation with the needs of the working class. It is precisely Marx’s point that the two are disjoined under capitalism. The conditions of capital accumulation are determined by the rate of profit and the variables that constitute it; whereas Marx pointed out that saying a crisis consists of insufficient demand is a tautology. (It must be noted this is recognized by some post-Keynesian literature as well.) The upshot then is that we must resist the urge to promote Keynesian solutions as an alternative to austerity ones for growth, i.e. capitalist accumulation, although of course we can and should defend the welfare state, good public services etc. on other grounds. It also means that we should not think that austerity is irrational or a mistake on the part of the ruling class compared to the possibility of a Keynesian alternative, as most of the center-left suggests. Not to suggest Seymour is one of them, but there is perhaps an unexamined tension between his interpretation of the economics and the most important observation in the book: that “if we attempt to ground our criteria in terms of the dominant criteria of what is good for capitalism, we cannot win” (159, emphasis omitted).
If I seem to spend exaggerated attention to the economic discussion in this book — which is only a part of the whole — I apologize; this just happens to be my main subject of interest at the moment. But the relevance of economic analysis of the crisis remains important to any strategy as well, as I’ve hopefully shown, and that is a major concern of this book. That said, I think on the whole this is a readable and useful guide to the interrelationship between austerity, neoliberalism, and the state at the level of strategy and ideology, and these are perhaps the book’s main foci in any case. It will disappoint the more ‘left communist’ skeptics, in its Eurocommunist-Gramscian approach, but this is itself a product of the limitations of our times. Aside from the usual minor errors — Alex Andreou is not called ‘Alex Alexandreou’ (102n56); Krugman is not ‘marginal within his profession’ (126) — the book has much to offer in terms of a sober and nuanced analysis. This goes especially in the UK where the trend towards nostalgia, wishful thinking, and resisting empirical and strategic reconsideration is so strong. As Richard Seymour puts it in the conclusion: “if this book has been intended to do anything, it has been to find a way to drop those fetishes… assimilate the reality of our present situation, and soberly assess the challenge posed by austerity, without losing sight of the objective — which is to navigate our way out of this impasse” (152). To that aim this book is certainly a worthwhile contribution.
December 9, 2013
The passing of Nelson Mandela, undoubtedly one of the greatest national liberation figures of the 20th century and one of the world’s great inspirations in the struggle against white supremacy and other forms of oppression, has naturally led to an outpouring of commentary and analysis. It is hardly necessary to add to this yet another overview of his life and accomplishments: his forging of the alliance between the ANC and the SACP – of which he was a Central Committee member when he was imprisoned for treason – is well known, as are his roles in the founding of the militant anti-apartheid organization Umkhonto we Sizwe and his heroic resistance against all attempts to bribe or suborn him during his long imprisonment. These accomplishments have nothing to do with the image of Mandela as a hero only of pacifism and reconciliation. While Mandela and his comrades rightly did not choose lightly to engage in violence, they did not spurn it when the needs of the day required it either.
That Mandela has undergone a process of modification akin to that long ago achieved with Martin Luther King, that is to make both seem as much more friendly, conciliatory, and moderate than they really were, is precisely a testament to the strength and effect of their actual militant efforts: these have been so powerful that even their very enemies are unable to simply oppose them, but must pretend that their own aims and those of Mandela or King were always reconcilable. As Bob Herbert writes in Jacobin, “the primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.” Read the rest of this entry »
November 27, 2013
This is an article of mine published on The North Star.
There is a certain depressing circularity about certain arguments on the left. Those having to do with what is often termed ‘identity politics’, more particularly when expressed in the language of privilege (or lack thereof), tend to divide into two mutually hostile camps. For the one, privilege is the bread and butter of critical analysis, and what could be called traditional Marxism has been replaced, or at least complemented, by a perspective based in the body of critical theory on identity, discourse, and the concept of privilege. These arose out of a certain meeting between attempts to theorize the intersectionality of oppression – initially mainly race and gender, but later extended to many other subjects – on the one hand, and on the other the political critique of discourse and discourse analysis of French poststructuralism. Here, privilege often becomes the key concept binding together the experience of individuals and the discourses and structural forces that determine these experiences. Building on some feminist critiques of Marxism, this ‘privilegetalk’ could be read as an attempt to overcome the dichotomy between exploitation and oppression in the traditional Marxist approach and to integrate this with the tools and mentality of ‘critical theory’ and discourse analysis (including those of largely anti-Marxist thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida).
In the other camp are those for whom the above is anathema, and who insist on the clear separation between class and all other identities, or even reject reading class as an identity at all. Here, exploitation and oppression are either systematically distinguished – as in more classic Marxist views – or are seen as varieties of working class experience. In the latter case, the class relationship is nonetheless still seen as central. What distinguishes this camp is its dislike of any talk of identity, privilege, or similar terms at all. Where the first decry the economism of the second, the latter fire back with equal vehemence against the idealism or liberal individualism of their opponents. For the former, identities; for the latter, the working class – this is how the distinction is often presented by the partisans of this view. And never the twain shall meet.
Of course, this is a crude caricature, and in reality there are a great number of diverse positions on both sides, making the camps as I have portrayed them more akin to a family resemblance or ideal type than a true description. Nonetheless, the crude arguments it produces are sadly all too frequent. One problem here is a sense of essentialism pervasive to both: either essentializing identity and experience into tokenism and purely psychological struggle, or essentializing the ‘true working class’ as an undifferentiated agent whose exploitation is more ‘real’ than any mere oppressions of the marginal could ever be. To my mind this is completely unnecessary, given that both views can perhaps be bypassed by creative application of the insights of the Marxist feminism associated with the ‘social reproduction perspective’. But perhaps at least as importantly it seems fruitless because the relevant insights both of the Marxist theory of exploitation and of its ‘critical critics’ should be carefully unpacked, not lumped together in these great opposing forces that they have increasingly become. As I have argued in other contexts, to distinguish analysis and strategy is essential here. Within what is crudely called ‘identity politics’, there are many different views and positions, and so there are within the actual social groups in question, whether within the working class or among certain genders or races or what have you. It is exactly the unwillingness to engage the arguments in their own right, rather than the mutual fight against straw opponents, that is so annoying about this whole discussion.
Entering the Vampires’ Castle
It is here that I want to focus on a critical reading of Mark Fisher’s article in The North Star entitled “Exiting the Vampire Castle“. Though written in a UK context – where those who criticized celebrity comedian Russell Brand for his sexism after he called for revolution in a political interview with Jeremy Paxman drew Fisher’s ire – it is clearly intended for more general consumption. The argument of the article is depressingly familiar: Fisher illustrates all the errors of the second camp, which is precisely why it is worth examining. Though it is too long for a complete close reading, some important elements stand out. Firstly, Fisher accuses the British left, especially on Twitter, of a certain miserablism: “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, in which the calling out of individuals is more important than establishing some popularity for left-wing ideas. Here, he calls on the frequent left criticisms of Owen Jones, as well as the tendency for the radical left (outside Counterfire c.s. at least) to dismiss the People’s Assemblies as yet another top-down adventure in entryism from a Trot sect. Then, Fisher goes on to defend Russell Brand, whom he insists is precisely so worth defending because he defended leftism on public television while being working class in background, and moreover did so with humor and verve, something the left profoundly lacks. This all forms the leadin: the main section of the article is to describe the two “libidinal-discursive configurations which have brought this situation about”. Those are, in order, the Vampires’ Castle (plural this time) and the anarchist tendencies of the UK left.
The latter is easily described: for Brand this is simply the rejection of united or popular fronts, those shibboleths of Trotskyist organizing, and the equal rejection of Labour Party support or attempts at ‘reclaiming Labour’ through one or another form of entryism (we can put Jones in this category). For Fisher, “there’s a strange implicit rule here: it’s OK to protest against what parliament has done, but it’s not alright to enter into parliament or the mass media to attempt to engineer change from there.” This he decries as an anarchism that will render the left irrelevant. But more important is the analogy of the Vampires’ Castle. This occult phenomenon is his favored phrase for a series of sweeping generalizations about what is clearly identifiable as the first camp of the polarization of the left described above. The Vampires’ Castle, Fisher tells us, “individualize and privatize everything”. They make humour impossible, seek to create guilt everywhere, and most of all essentialize the enemy, which is to say their opponents on the left. And here’s the kicker: they do all this as a strategy to pass themselves of as left-wing, when they are in reality liberals, and of an “invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background” at that. Sounds terrible, no? Time someone went in with a stake!
Des Pudels Kern
Unfortunately, not a single one of these arguments is persuasive, and quite a few are downright unfair or absurd. Let us therefore enter Fisher’s Vampire Castle, stake and garlic in hand, and see what monsters we encounter there. Some may be oddly familiar to us – especially those who look at the castle from the viewpoint of the introduction above. In the entrance hall, things are still going well. It is certainly true that – both online and offline – the radical left has long been characterized by a venomous atmosphere, in particular a refusal of any charity of reading or interpretation to those deemed oppositional or those that have previously caused offense, and good faith efforts are not much rewarded and therefore rarely in evidence. Sometimes, this leads to incredibly vindictive, personalized, and emotional disputation that does little good to solving any problems or advancing any cause, but does cause much more hurt and isolation than was already present at the start.
Nonetheless, this observation is somewhat covered in cobwebs, like an old suit of mail opposite the central staircase. It must be treated with charity in its own right. The internet, which combines a very direct and personal means of communication with a very limited possibility of nuance, body language, and context, contributes much to this problem. But even offline, the often hostile atmosphere is at least in part caused by the very importance of the politics themselves to those involved in them. One of the classic arguments of the privilege-talkers is precisely that it is much harder to abstract or disengage from arguments when your wellbeing, your sense of dignity, or your very life may be at stake in the outcome of a particular political dispute. Under such conditions, it is very difficult (though not impossible) to not take it personally. Here, the personal is indeed political. If this attitude is to be criticized, it can’t be for stating this obvious reality – at most that it sometimes overlooks that if the personal is political, that is not necessarily a good thing, and making the political as personal as possible is not necessarily the right response.
When we press onward, however, we soon start running into the occult obstacles Fisher’s castle presents to us. The hagiographical treatment of the likes of Owen Jones and Russell Brand looms at us, like the remarkably large shadow cast over the balustrade by a remarkably small cat. Why should we think that Jones is “most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”? I am not as hostile to him as some of the UK radical left perhaps is, but I doubt even Owen himself would recognize himself in this description. Class consciousness is, after all, by definition a collective and a political process of self-awareness and self-mobilization – not something brought about by a well-meaning individual with a column in the Independent. Indeed, Owen may have helped some to raise morale, by making the hegemony of neoliberal ideas seem less complete, but that is not the same thing as the political becoming of a class.
The same can be said for Russell Brand. Perhaps his interview with Paxman was an unusually left-wing discourse for the staid political television of Britain. But there is no reason why this should mean his gratuitous sexism should be accepted, nor does the working class of the UK really need Russell Brand to tell them that they exist, or to provide them with left-Labour banalities that inequality is too large or that revolution would be a nice idea, in the abstract. If Fisher thinks that this is both necessary and sufficient for class consciousness, so “fragile and fleeting” it needs comedians on Jeremy Paxman’s show to sustain it, he has a much lower idea of the working class’ intellectual capacities than do his vampiric opponents. (The People’s Assembly I won’t even bother dealing with – it is in our terms like the papier-mâché skeleton made by a primary schooler menacing in the wardrobe: irrelevant, incapable of frightening anyone, and easily disposed of.)
Let us ignore such small scares and proceed into the very inner chambers, where Fisher’s ‘laws of the Vampires’ Castle’ await us. Fisher’s first claim is that the politics of privilege, which is clearly the vampires’ life-blood (or unlife-blood?), is not a legitimate expression of the struggles of the oppressed, but a bourgeois-liberal perversion of them. Indeed, the theme of perversion can never be far off where vampires are present, and if this is so, then the Twitter left appears as a veritable Boris Karloff of repressed gothic sensuality. The argument nonetheless follows some lines as ancient as the castle itself: “rather than seeking a world in which everyone achieves freedom from identitarian classification, the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.” Now here I think Fisher does have one point: I have long been skeptical of the assumption of some (not all) writers on privilege that it is impossible to relate to others unless one shares their same identity and experiences. If this were true, then indeed nobody would be able to ‘speak to’ the issues of anyone else at all, to use this jargon; the reality would be that, due to the irreducability of human diversity, all political solidarity and indeed all communication would be impossible. This is perhaps a reductio ad absurdum, but some of the stronger versions of this argument are not far off, and I share with Fisher a hostility both to the implicit misanthropy and the political implications of this argument.
Some of Fisher’s points are not uninteresting, and could lead to some more exciting directions: less explored wings of the building. One thing he points to is the conflation on the part of some privilege-talkers of the act of (say) homophobia and being a homophobe. Now this is a double-edged sword, to remain in the sphere of the gothic, as it is often used as an excuse by those who both are and do to avoid the consequences of their attitude. But among radical activists it has also been remarked that this conflation can be quite unhelpful, precisely because it is an example of a false essentialism that the politics of identity was – at least in some versions – intended to undermine. If you call someone a homophobe, they are in a sense forever branded, and yet no alternative is concretely offered. Whereas calling an act or a statement homophobic allows for correction and change, and it is therefore at the least more strategically constructive in those cases where there is no need to move from the one to the other. Indeed, some would abuse the charity and good faith offered to them in this case, and there are many who lack the self-reflection to merit it. But it is a good policy, in my opinion, to err towards giving someone you criticize a way to correct themselves. The cultural repertoire of shame, dignity, and standing can so effectively be mobilized positively, rather than – as is now often the case – being a one-way street in a direction against the oppressed. This is something that calls for a case-by-case examination, and people’s character and circumstances will differ sufficiently that attempting any general rule would be unwise. At most, here one could invoke once more the benefits as well as moral discipline of charity of interpretation, and to give people a certain leeway (but hardly an unlimited one) in phrasing things the way they see it.
But that is not to say that the argument as Fisher poses it is much better. It is simply not true that the ‘identitarians’ try to keep people in their identities. There is always a risk of essentializing, and indeed tokenism is not unusual, strongly reinforced by this notion that you can only talk on topic X if previously approved by the representatives of topic X, those who share a politically mobilized identity on that basis. But even in such cases the purpose is to overcome oppression, not to maintain it, and the voicing through identity and the policing of its boundaries comes from a need to protect the humans that are ‘carriers’ of these identities in the post-structuralist sense. However flawed in individual cases the strategy and assumptions about human communication may be (and more on those below), protect the humans from oppression is not at all the same intent as to protect the identities themselves from emancipation or change, and Fisher’s conflation of the two does a great injustice to – and is in fact very uncharitable towards – those he aims his barbs at.
The same thing is true when we encounter the first vampiric lackeys of the master vampire, the lord of the castle. This lord, it turns out halfway our adventure, is in reality academia and the bourgeoisie in general. Fisher suggests his privilege-talking opponents are either wilfully accumulating ‘academic capital’, or are simply deluded by those that are doing so. But here he reveals one major mistake in his thought, when he writes: “The VC, as dupe-servants of the ruling class, does the opposite: it pays lip service to ‘solidarity’ and ‘collectivity’, while always acting as if the individualist categories imposed by power really hold.” But this is precisely the fundamental insight that the first camp has and the second camp lacks – namely that however much one may wish it otherwise, these individualist categories imposed by power do really hold. If Fisher at all understood the subject he was talking about, he would realize that those identities are not like a cloak that one dons at will, but like the very skin branded black or white, male or female, gay or straight and so forth.
This is why, ad nauseam, so much of the writing of poststructural and feminist theory has been about the body, its sufferings, and its agencies: because the adscription of identity is as much something one undergoes as it is something one does to oneself. Fisher in fact has already implicitly acknowledged this when he points out he is prone to forgetting he is male and white as ‘identities’: it is precisely this forgetting that the oppressed identities can never do, and that is what makes these identities salient in a political sense. If indeed the discourse of identity is the lackey of the bourgeoisie, it is not because of its self-awareness, but rather because it is simply a consequence of the reality of capitalist society. Its self-awareness, even when wrongly expressed, is a potent weapon against the invisibility of some forms of the reproduction and rule of this society – and thereby a weapon, however blunt at times, against the true lord of the castle.
The Vampire Is In Another Castle
What remains so curious about Fisher’s whole gothic structure is nonetheless how inadequate it is to its subject. He accuses his opponents, without otherwise naming or identifying them, of being bourgeois, academic, posh, and privileged – yet he is by his own acknowledgement a white male academic and a commissioning editor at a left-wing vanity press. If he therefore does not recognize himself in this image, it must be because, like the vampire, he has no reflection… Similarly, his chatter about ‘witch-hunts’ maintains his sense of victimhood. But aside from being a rather inappropriate historical analogy, given the witch-hunts were systematic cases of the reassertion of patriarchy and religious order and mostly against women, it is difficult to sustain this reasoning when Fisher can’t give any real examples of the power of his opponents or of his own suffering at their hands. It seems he certainly has major disagreements with their interpretation of social structure and discourse, and also with the political strategies some on the left draw out of these. This is legitimate, and should remain legitimate: nothing is free from criticism, and that includes the language and politics of privilege.
But sadly, while an interesting argument could be had about these (and has been had many times before, not least among the ‘identitarians’), Fisher does not engage in this. Rather, he throws the whole of M.R. James at his opponents in an attempt to depict them as terrors of the night. The effect is akin to the puppeteer holding the bogeyman doll in front of us. It assumes we are children, both in thinking we cannot see that he is really moving the bogeyman about, and in assuming we would be scared of it. This is a shame, because it is perhaps overdue that the various camps of the left talk to each other seriously and productively about the problems of communication that must be overcome if solidarity is to work practically between its various sections.
Finally, before we exit the castle in despondence at the lack of action – the villagers so promised us we would find monsters! – something must be said about the gothic imagery itself. It is striking how badly Fisher’s vampiric metaphor fails. But what is interesting is not that it does so, but how it does so. Fisher’s image of the Vampires’ Castle fails in two ways. Firstly, because he wishes to ascribe laws to this castle. But laws of a castle are laws that hold within the castle, or insofar as the inhabitants of the castle can enforce them beyond the walls. Fisher has no desire to go into the castle, that much he makes clear, but he does not tell us what powers of enforcement it has, beyond criticizing celebrities and creating a bad atmosphere on Twitter. Now I say this not quite jokingly – I have personally witnessed various occasions in which both online and offline the use of privilege-talk played a major role in causing enormous personalized conflicts between participants and activists who had otherwise (and also afterwards) been able to communicate productively even where disagreement could be considerable. This question of atmosphere is a practical one, not just a matter of whining about how mean it is to say bad things to a university professor. But if the exact dynamics cannot be clarified, and if it cannot be explained what in talking about oppression in a particular way causes unnecessary strife – as opposed to justified oppositions to bigotry – then the problem is not addressed. Fisher’s blanket dismissals and empty workerism do not solve this problem at all, as a rudimentary knowledge of social reproduction theory or writing on intersectionality could have made obvious.
This is compounded by the second way Fisher’s metaphor fails: namely, in the vampiric. Vampires presuppose that vampirism is going on, in other words, that one feeds off another’s life-blood in some way. But Fisher’s vampires are posh, they accumulate academic capital, they are lackeys, they produce guilt, they do all sorts of things; but suck blood they do not. And this is not a simple flawed analogy. What it reveals is that underlying Fisher’s argument is a deeper sense in which he implies that there exists a kind of hidden establishment that leeches off the real or legitimate left by ‘perverting’ or perhaps diverting its processes of class activism and class consciousness. Precisely by ascribing to his opponents all sorts of bad identities, he engages in identity politics in his own right – such as calling them posh, or their views alternately bourgeois and petty-bourgeois. His workerism, too, is essentially identitarian. So the talk of identity itself cannot be the problem. Rather, it is this sense of a hidden parasitic establishment that pervades his writing, and gives it its creepy atmosphere. Fisher refuses to tell us who They are, rather producing his gothic imagery as a way of cloaking the They in a convenient manner. But this is both dishonest and sinister. If one were as inclined to guilt by association as Fisher, one need but look at the similarities between this style of caricature and those of the ‘neo-reactionaries’ and their Cathedral, or the mysterious all-swallowing dark Other in the racial/orientalist tropes of Conrad or Lovecraft – both of which in turn owe much to simple anti-semitism.
If one may use one gothic novel against another, where Fisher thinks he is writing Dracula, he is actually writing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr. Jekyll of our story is Mark Fisher who wants to protect the left from the anarcho-bourgeois individualism, misanthropy, and strategic self-destruction. I have many disagreements with him, and some minor points of agreement. More generally, there is an argument there that is worth engaging with, although it needs serious reformulation on the basis of a more serious inquiry into the theory underlying the narratives of privilege and identity, something that far too many critics (again, rather uncharitably) neglect to do. However, there is also a Mr. Hyde in this story. This Fisher is a disturbing figure, one who inhabits a castle of his own and sallies forth against all who rebel by branding them vampires and traitors – indeed shades of witch-hunting, but with himself as the knight inquisitor. As in Stevenson’s story, this is probably not how Jekyll-Fisher intends it; it is rather that the Mr. Hydes both inside and outside the left find this more amenable – being able to depict all those who talk about identity, privilege and so forth as merely bourgeois saboteurs attempting to divide the left, when quite the opposite is the case. Here, Jekyll-Fisher should restrain the Hyde within him.
What I would recommend Fisher is to do some reading. Firstly, to read some of the writings on intersectionality, privilege, social reproduction Marxism, and so forth, much of which rightly or wrongly serves as the main inspirations for those people he so stridently dismisses, and of whose arguments he understands little. Secondly, he should read David McNally’s excellent Monsters of the Market. From that, he can learn how a gothic Marxism is properly employed, free from the crypto-fascist undertones of his current moral imagination. The vampire, he will learn from McNally, are not the ‘identitarians’, but it is capital itself, and if the working class has a gothic referent, it is in the figure of the zombie, labouring without will or direction at the behest of others. The zombie, which must be brought back to a state of real life or be destroyed, confronts us with the real choices involved in class consciousness: much as I dislike that phrase, the consciousness of a class always already constituted by race, gender, sexuality, and so forth. Without this awareness, any cure for the problems Fisher poses will be worse than the disease.
And the same applies not just to Fisher, but to many who would criticize without the burden of due care to understand their opponents. Indeed, it is telling that neither of the two camps involved can grant the other understanding or charity in the least, while both are always ready to demand it for themselves. I suspect this is the result of both positing a false universality: either a negative universality, a rejection of the universal based on irreconcilable difference of lived discourse and identity, or a false positive universality based on the super-emergence of the subjectivity of the working class above all forms of life. I will not elaborate further on that here, as that requires its own treatment. But if we are to overcome the hostilities and the circular firing squads of the left, online or offline, a good starting point is in our common desire to acquire a real knowledge of the other – where this desire exists, misanthropy cannot. That is the first law of gothic politics. De te fabula narratur!