📙 Postcapitalist Desire

Author: Mark Fisher and Matt Colquhoun

Full Title: Postcapitalist Desire

Highlights from March 9th, 2021.

What I called “capitalist realism”, you could say, which is the shadow of this course — it’s called “Postcapitalist Desire” but it’s also about capitalist realism and the rise of capitalist realism. As capitalist realism rises, as the idea that there’s no alternative to capitalism becomes the ambient political assumption — in order for that to be the case, consciousness has to recede. Consciousness in the sense of — initially as theorised by Lukács in terms of “class consciousness” — but Nancy Hartsock’s invaluable work on consciousness from a socialist feminist angle broadens this out not just from class consciousness but from what I would call a subordinate “group consciousness”, and the importance of this.
There’s something problematic about the hierarchical structures of political organisation. When they are instantiated, they are already oppressive. So if we want to prefigure a postcapitalist world, we must be horizontalist. We must work to always eliminate hierarchies wherever they appear. A lot of the left-accelerationist stuff came out of a dissatisfaction of this.
So, what are the advantages of the concept of postcapitalism?— and just initially I think it’s worth thinking about this — why use the term “postcapitalism” rather than “communism”, “socialism”, etc.? Well, first of all, it’s not tainted by association with past failed and oppressive projects. The term “postcapitalism” has a kind of neutrality that is not there with “communism”, “socialism”. Although this is partly generational, I think: the word “communism” has lots of negative associations for people of my age and older.
It implies victory — that’s the other thing, isn’t it? If you’re talking about postcapitalism, it implies that there’s something beyond capitalism. It also implies direction, doesn’t it? If it’s postcapitalism, it’s a victory and a victory that will come through capitalism. It’s not just opposed to capitalism — it is what will happen when capitalism has ended.
The concept of postcapitalism is something developed out of capitalism. It develops from capitalism and moves beyond capitalism.
I was firmly against using anything in terms to do with “communism” a few years ago, because of the tainting problem, I think, more than anything else. But I’ve been persuaded that it’s the very antagonism, the very alterity of the term “communism” that gives it its potential power.
I’ve also been trying to work on a concept of “Acid Communism”. That’s what Deleuze and Guattari argue, and that’s some of what we’ll look at with the Jefferson Cowie stuff… The early Seventies… Psychedelic consciousness plus class consciousness… That’s what capital feared in the late Sixties, early Seventies: what if the working class become hippies?
Certainly, the left has experienced monumental losses, and perhaps ultimately a loss of confidence — in the viability of state socialism, the resiliency of social democracy, the credibility of Marxism, the buoyancy and efficacy of solidarity movements. Rather than grieving and letting go, the melancholic subject identifies with lost ideals, experiencing their absence as feelings of desolation and dejection… ‘We come to love our left passions and reasons, our left analyses and convictions, more than we love the existing world that we presumably seek to alter’.
The harsh Leninist superego is out in force with Jeremy Corbyn of the Labour Party — “oh, this isn’t going to work, this kind of thing doesn’t work…” Well, what would work? Only a complete transformation of everything, which is not really imaginable.
“Wounded Attachments” is highly prophetic of aspects of today’s left-wing world, really. What Brown does in “Wounded Attachments” is draw upon Nietzsche to show that the ways in which certain kinds of left-wing desire have been mobilised, such that identities are defined in relation to a kind of wounding.
So, the idea there is, then: that power itself is pathological. To hold power is to inherently be oppressive, therefore it’s better to be wounded; it’s better to be the wounded, the abject, because you’re not actually holding power, which is oppressive.
So, in a way, in the place of a positive political project, we have a moralistic project of condemnation.
the most important division in today’s left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology. The former remains content with establishing small and temporary spaces of non-capitalist social relations, eschewing the real problems entailed in facing foes which are intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure. The failure of such politics has been built-in from the very beginning. By contrast, an accelerationist politics seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.
In developing it, she develops this idea of standpoints, which she and others then contribute to something called “standpoint epistemology”, which is mind-blowing, I think. It is mind-blowing. It did blow my mind when I first heard this theory.
I think it’s highly important because it’s a really explosive theory, which breaks with a lot of the key dualisms which still operate in what we still have to call “postmodern thought”, where you either have objective truth — which is defined in some naive way — or you have relativism: nothing is really true; nothing is true at all. So you have po-faced Anglo-Saxon empiricists, saying things are what they are, roast beef, that sort of thing — or you have, in the other stereotype, Continentalists who have to complicate everything and say that nothing is fixed or stable and you can’t assign determinate meaning to anything… Standpoint epistemology really breaks with both of those positions. It’s saying, there are different points of view, but some are better than others.
With that emphasis on the primacy of the practice and the material, it might seem that consciousness lies on the side of the idea. Consciousness surely must be a mental conception, must be an idea, and Marx thought the materialist revolution was to bang things on the head, and put matter and praxis first, and ideas second. But what is meant by consciousness, in this sense? What is meant by class consciousness? It is not the same as ordinary phenomenological consciousness.
The standpoint is not a point of view. We can all have points of view. And we all do have them. They’re already there. But a standpoint has to be constructed by practice. And the easy way to see this, I think, is by the concept of consciousness raising. This was, in a way, what Nancy Hartsock was trying to codify in her theory of standpoint epistemology: the practice of consciousness raising.
It was developed by feminists — I don’t know when it started, to be honest — but it was certainly very prevalent by the time of the Seventies as a strategy. And the power of it is the simplicity of it, partly. All you need is the members of the group together, and when they talk together, honestly and openly, they’ll start to see that they have common problems and common interests, and also that the cause of those problems is not them but is something else.
Ideology turns what is always a process of becoming — which is open-ended and therefore changeable — into something that is fixed and permanent. That’s what reification is. And, of course, that’s crucial. That’s the very purpose of ideology. The very purpose of ideology is to close off the possibility that anything could be different.
Ideology doesn’t arrive and say, “I am ideology”. Ideology says: “I am nature, and this is how things are”.
Part of the problem of the old idea of objective truth, you could say, was its idea that consciousness has no effect on the truth. That might well be true of the state of a black hole or something like that, but it can’t possibly be true of social relations. I’m in those social relations! I’m already in those social relations.
Because in being lifted out of experience, you’re broken out of ideology. You — and I’m using this as a second-person plural — you can then achieve agency! You can’t achieve it before.
Even before you do anything, something has happened, which is the production of this new consciousness.
Something has shifted in the set of social relations by the sheer fact that your consciousness has shifted anyway. That’s the first thing. It’s already changed things. Secondly, then, once a group recognises its common interests, then it can act together. Once workers realise the problem is capital, not them — once they stop competing against one another and realise they have a common enemy — capital — this is when they’re going to have agency. Similarly, when women realise the problem is patriarchy, not them as individuals, then their consciousness has immediately shifted.
You feel better! That’s the first thing. You’ll feel relief from the guilt and misery of having to take responsibility for your own life, which you shouldn’t have to — despite everything neoliberal propaganda tells us. It is not you! It’s a direct inversion of Thatcher! “There’s no such thing as society. There are only individuals and their families”. It’s the other way round! There’s no such thing as the individual. But the individual is immediately given. And that’s part of the problem of immediacy.
Of course, I can’t understand it… But you’re not supposed to understand it, any more than we were supposed to understand the Roman Catholic church in the time of the Middle Ages. You’re not supposed to understand it! Economy is theology!
Read CEOs when they talk about what they do. It’s not like the old vision of exploitation, where the fat ogres with cigars and top hats sit with their feet on the skulls of workers. It’s not really like that — if it ever was! They lead by example, the capitalist class. They’re just this weird form of addict — a work addict. (Mark puts on a pompous voice.) Yeah, yeah, I get up at 4:30am, check 200 emails before going to the gym for half an hour, see my kid for fifteen minutes, go to work, work there until about 8:00pm, grab a quick dinner, work some more, go to bed, repeat. That’s not even a caricature, really! That’s more or less what they say!
Capital has agency. Mark Zuckerberg has a kind of idiotic compulsion to like, errghh I wanna make loads of money and, like, impress some girls.
So, he has those motives but that doesn’t mean that capital doesn’t have its own ends and designs inside, without there being any conscious agent that’s sitting behind it all. Otherwise it’s just a conspiracy, isn’t it? The thing is, it’s a systemic tendency. It’s a systemic tendency. Now, of course, at a certain point, there are humans who make self-conscious decisions at crucial points, but there are also people like Zuckerberg who are puppets of capital without any kind of reflection.
Libido is not only what we want but why we want it. The object causes it, in that sense. And what is raised by this? These struggles are articulated through the counterculture as the production of new forms of Desire. We talked about this when we started off [in the first lecture]. I talked about the co-option of those forms of Desire, via Apple, etc., which precisely individualises, which transforms all Desire into a Desire to be a more successful individual, etc. What is also raised here, then, is the spectre of a different kind of Desire, a different kind of libido, a Desire for a transformed world.
There is a tension — a potentially productive tension — between desire and Marxism. “The desire named Marx”. What is the desire within Marxism? What is the role of libido, what is the role of desire, within the working class? What Lyotard suggests, scandalously, is that there was a desire for capital[ism] among the working class. And this is surely the key thing. To what extent do people want capitalism? Conversely, to what extent do people want postcapitalism? If desire is monopolised by capital, as we suggested at the start, then… that’s it then, isn’t it? The changes we need are never going to happen. Or rather, we have this vision of a kind of political project, on the one hand, and desire on the other, so that, in order to achieve this political project, we’ll have to subdue our own desires. And that is highly problematic, I would suggest.
the English unemployed did not become workers to survive, they — hang on tight and spit on me — enjoyed the hysterical, masochistic, whatever exhaustion it was of hanging on in the mines, in the foundries, in the factories, in hell, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and evening.
The young innocent Little Girl Marx says: you see, I am in love with love, this must stop, this industrial and industrious crap, this is what makes me anxious, I want to return to the (in)organic body; and it has been taken over by the great bearded scholar so that he may establish the thesis that it cannot stop, and so that he may testify, as the counsel to the poor (amongst which is the Little Girl Marx), to his revolutionary conclusions; so that he may give, to her, this total body he requires, this child, at least this child of words which would be the anticipated double (the younger child born first) of the child of flesh: of the proletariat, of socialism. But alas, he does not give her this child. She will never have this ‘artistic whole’ before her, these writings ‘in their entirety’. She will have suffering growing before her and in her, because her prosecutor will discover in the course of his research, insofar as it is endless, a strange jouissance: the same jouissance that results from the instantiation of the pulsions and their discharge in postponement.
The Little Girl Marx is kind of naive. The Little Girl Marx just doesn’t like capitalism and wants it to be over with. Whereas the Old Man Marx is making the case against capitalism, and together they should have this child which should be the revolutionary subject of the proletariat. But this child never comes, because the Old Man Marx is never done with the prosecution of the case against capital.
Why, political intellectuals, do you incline towards the proletariat? In commiseration for what? I realize that a proletarian would hate you, you have no hatred because you are bourgeois, privileged smooth-skinned types, but also because you dare not say the only important thing there is to say, that one can enjoy swallowing the shit of capital, its materials, its metal bars, its polystyrene, its books, its sausage pâtés, swallowing tonnes of it till you burst — and because instead of saying this, which is also what happens in the Desire of those who work with their hands, arses and heads, ah, you become a leader of men, what a leader of pimps, you lean forward and divulge: ah, but that’s alienation, it isn’t pretty, hang on, we’ll save you from it, we will work to liberate you from this wicked affection for servitude, we will give you dignity. And in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you Desire that our capitalized’s Desire be totally ignored, forbidden, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners, our servile intensities frighten you, you have to tell yourselves: how they must suffer to endure that! And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy — for what? — does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its Vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either.
These [left-wing projects] are all inadequate and all for the same reason, over and over again, in that they don’t take the Desire of the capitalized seriously. They reject it and are therefore keep re-inscribing moralism.