Mark Fisher has done radicals a service by writing this thoughtful piece: Exiting the Vampire Castle.
He begins with a blunt statement and fuses the personal with the political in a way that is honest and engaging. Recounting a horrifying experience with twitter and a cheerful one at a rally headlined by a mainstream leftist political figure, we are introduced to his thought process in an emotional-affective way that is bound to evoke memories of events and heated conversations the reader has more than likely had themselves. The visceral reaction to his main enemy in the piece is fear: the “moralizing left” labels and dismisses its selected opponents in an outrage that he sees as counterproductive to the left’s own goals. Before getting into the analysis and appraisal of ‘the left’, morality, identity politics, and class, I’d first like to note the importance of mixing affects with the greater political game of positioning, aligning, and advising from an academic. He does a good job of making the reader feel the affect permeating the social field – the desperation, disdain, and dejection afflicting anti-capitalists searching for a way to combat this beast. More importantly than tightly argued essay is the proactive or inactive feeling that comes off of it upon reading (when the value of taking action is considered above guiding one on a given path) and is all-too-often ignored in political writing. Being sincere about how another’s words and deeds affect oneself produces an air of openness that is only challenging to negative attitudes. It is easy to get lost in a web of criticisms and forget the more important task of radical organizing and alliance building. This kind of criticism aimed at other anti-capitalists can get sour fast and is probably the least “critical” action one can engage in if done in the spirit of resentment (snide moralizing vs. constructive dialogue).
What Fisher gets right is the harmful and de-spiriting sentiments that comes from the aptly termed ‘moral left’. The twitterstorms that railed against certain figures on the left came off on him as a crowd-sourced-bullying that kept him from participating. I don’t even know what the content of these twitterstorms were about but I believe him when he says the effects were silencing and depressing. An angry outburst can be uplifting and even empowering – when the right target is picked out. And there ain’t nothing wrong with catharsis. It is when the expression reeks of resentiment that the alarm bells should go off. When internalized hatred festers and grows without a means to overcome the obstacle in its way or create something new, we get resentiment. At its worst, resentiment fetishizes its weak position and drags everything around down in a spiral of self-destruction. This is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from reading Nietzsche.
Though a reclusive philosopher relentlessly attacking every facet of European culture and not strictly a revolutionary anti-capitalist himself, Nietzsche’s emphasis on health, vitality, strength of will has enraptured rebels since his death. His confrontational stance towards morality and all that hinders the growth of the body – its ability to act and achieve ever greater feats – has spurred scholars, youths, artists, and free-thinkers to dig deeper into the forces at work beyond symbolic attachments and fixed identities. One could say he went much farther than the revolutionaries of his time in uprooting the foundational values of colonial empire, remaining a source to draw one’s theoretical arsenal from. Emma Goldman found much to like about Nietzsche, despite his crude misogyny.
In present political games, positionings, and movements, the affective/vital is far too neglected. The general tone and comportment of individuals is not only telling of their own state but a larger collective sentiment based on the limits of their ability to act (as artificial or illusory as those limits may be). As a body not of individuals but masses, forces – ‘the movement’, however defined – the expressions that pop up in large part reflect the environment that conditions it. The ruthless bickering that often passes for legitimate critique is little more a distressed outcry of impotence. It is when this distress loops backward into the body that we get the resentment Nietzsche so despised. The church perfected these techniques of internal repression like the confessional and in so doing created new values that ensnared whole peoples under their control. Good and bad becomes good and evil, whole worlds of pure goodness and pure evil were created that “infinitized” our affections and locked people inside their minds. As Foucault has elucidated in his history of sexuality series, practices, techniques, disciplines, and regiments ingrained in social rearing all accompanied these ideas. The question now becomes: “what are the techniques that instill a biting negativity in us?”
Fisher gives us an image to play with here that sticks out: the Vampires’ Castle. Sucking the life out of its subjects and enslaving them apathetic dejection, the Vampire stalls an active body and weighs it down with imperatives to “break free”, “be yourself”, and “go forth.” The rebelious individual, who believes in freedom and maintains a supposedly self-styled edginess, is the real victim of the Vampire. While never so easily identifiable, Vampires trap bodies inside a soul with purportedly profound critiques meant to help but stifle directed action. Vampires could be media advertisers, reactive critics merely latching onto a project to foreclose on its potential for emancipation, or any other nay-sayers draining the force from a movement. An amalgam of the “priest”, the “academic-pedant”, and the “hipster”, the vampire latches onto what is politically new and intriguing only to tie it up nicely, put a stamp on it, then toss it away. They discourage curiosity infused excitement. Now it seems they have a castle.
The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is …
One can imagine a gothic cathedral towering like a mountain over surrounding neighborhoods… only covered with brightly lit billboards urging subjects to consume. That last bit is a projection of my own gripes (for a funny take on the media parasites blocking collective action that is definitely not resentful, check out Lee Camp’s rant).
Criticism has a very pointed power behind it that can be used positively or negatively. Constructive critique comes off as strategic, whereas negative critique condemns makes people feel awful for even giving it a go. A collaboration of the kind Fisher desires in a Left, based on class unity and solidarity, demands analysis/commentary that carries an affect of provocation *in the right direction*. This positive/negative qualification of critique is a fine line to straddle, but when anti-capitalists are putting each other down from their computer chairs and no current projects are suggested, something is wrong. Of course, there are irresolvable differences of the kind typified in the Communist/Anarchist debate about state power and the ethics of resistance. But these ideological differences are exasperated when rebels handle their dismay over being weak compared to the Neoliberal apologists for Capital by saving their vicious attacks for each other. This anger without a place to go, circling its way back from where it came, prevents alliances against a more powerful foe. One can learn from Foucault’s practice of not engaging in polemics: Polemics, Politics, and Problematization.
How does all of this affective-based criticism vs. the Vampires’ Castle relate to identity politics? The worry is that focusing on identity, establishing a safe ground in one’s identity from which to launch criticism, feeds right into the logic employed by the Vampires’ Castle and we are left with disparate camps clearly marked by race, gender, or privilege fighting with each other (passive-aggressively) instead of taking on the Capitalists in a joint collaboration. Many would argue that the left needs a clear-cut identity and everyone needs to get on board to actually overthrow Capitalism and save us from the terror that is neoliberalism. Much of leftist discourse is relegated to this question of “who are we?” plus “look how awful conservatives are!”. Fisher argues for class as being the rallying cry which will unite and challenge the capitalist system most effectively, but (as I will eventually argue) class can fall into similar problems of identification. Also, the top-down hierarchy of unions, which the working class people traditionally look to for organization, fails to tap into the potential energy of the social field. I understand the benefits that can come from a mix of horizontal and vertical like the kind Fisher found in the assembly kicked off by Owen Jones: this is perhaps an example of the rhizomatic alliance making that would be constructive. Unions, however, for the longest time have subverted popular rage to the benefit of only their membership. Such exclusivity occurs when groups crystallize and encode subjects – again, not necessarily a negative thing. This is the larger issue of identity based organizing and even, simply, discourse.
A black person in America does not have to demonstrate to anyone the effects of living in a racist society and the oppression that they feel on their body. That it is lived and felt is enough to warrant outrage and action. Organizing around this common experience of being harassed, over-policed, under-payed and excluded is of an immediate necessity and a matter of empowerment. The positive benefits of organizing based on race are clear. The same goes for gender and anyone else feeling the effects of the most comprehensive imperial force the planet has yet seen. The only problem as I see it is when identities and the organizations representing those identities get in the way of an even further empowerment in-between these assemblages. Not knowing when to welcome and share resources and strategies is a hindrance. Organization only based on common affects excludes a great swath of people that would like to chip in. Those without that shared feeling still have something to offer. When these people arrive, one slip can tip the delicate scales of a conversation on identity slightly in the wrong direction and have disastrous consequences for personal and collective relationships.
The interaction between identities would ideally pivot around the kinds of help individuals and collectives could offer each other. The principal of mutual aid can be a guiding light here. When a preexisting organization cannot accommodate a different identity than its own, help can still be offered and support can still be given. It is a matter of what we can do for each other. This is diametrically opposed to using one’s status as an assault on another’s. The degree of oppression, the amount of privilege, should be a way to inform each other on what each other can do in the greater struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Checking one’s status (and another’s) is undoubtedly useful in gathering the best from each identity and swiftly casting off the Vampires sucking out our capabilities with the bite of guilt. One can retain their identity in whatever amount of privilege it has or oppression it faces so long as a common enemy (to come along side-by-side with the common affect) to connect with others: the Capitalist, the Imperialist. We now have a shared feeling, the common affect, on one hand, and the mutual support, the common enemy, on the other.
The big problem is not so much the ground-up organizing around identity, but the entrapments of continual privilege discourse.
For more on these issues and some of the dead ends of privilege politics, see The Problem with Privilege by Andrea Smith.
Here the problem is put very well: announcing one’s privilege just doesn’t help. A person reflecting on their status as privileged performs the same logic of the colonist they seek to be rid of. It turns the white person into a confessing subject in front of the brown (in this case) people, encasing them in their identities. To be sure, acknowledging one’s privilege has led to greater and more considerate engagement; then it is time to get on with the project together, or else wander off in reflections of “who am I really?” The privilege discourse helps set the scene and should stop there before it gets into elaborate confessionals. The confessional is the technique that helped Christian empires conquer the Earth and it will continue to conquer-by-division if it is all we have to talk about.
A perfect example of pluralism of identity in politics is found in this study done by James Owens Occupy Wall St.’s Precarious Pluralism. He found that there has been a divide between predominantly white and affluent (that is, secure) activists and poorer people of color in the focus organization. It is the white affluent activists that attempt to build mass protests and build large-scale actions while poorer people organize around single-issue campaigns. Clearly there are narrower issues that affect poor communities much more directly, making it easier to come together around a shared experience of anger. The affluent turn to their more established organizations and networking capabilities to build something big. These are differences observed for the sake of bringing to light the powers and abilities of separate groups rather than set one against the other in combative opposition.
The study was not done randomly and only selected a few groups and projects from New York City, so the results can hardly be universal. But the gist of the report is proactive: with a plurality of identities out there in the observed world, who is doing what? And, how can each compliment the other? Differences in identity can be respected if identity based organizing is a necessity and our contrasting powers can be mutually exchanged. This is something like the spirit of mutual aid and pluralism wedded together.
Another case in point is the Stuart Brand interview that went viral: http://youtu.be/3YR4CseY9pk.
Mark Fisher again nails the ridiculousness of the responses on the left to Brand’s exciting call for a revolution on a mainstream television program. He was passionate, articulate, and matched his suited host word for word beautifully. Yet, what kind of a reaction do we get from leftists? Brand’s “branding” as a misogynist or a power-grabbing leader of a revolution – like he was Lenin or something. A call for a revolution that makes its way into a mainstream audience is something to cherish – but anti-capitalists sure do love to replay old historical narratives. A leak in the spectacle allows people from outside the milieu an opportunity to speak about a politics beyond the canned, lose-lose party politics that is force-fed down our throats by the corporate media. Yeah, he works for MTV. Yeah, he’s a celebrity. Yeah, he’s talking about a revolution. Is this an opportunity to speak openly about radical alternatives to politics-as-usual or drown ourselves in the same old ironical half-critiques? This is an opportunity, so use it wisely. The “not-my-leader” and “rich-white-man privilege” refrains have their time and place and are not catch-alls.
But things get even more interesting. Further on down the piece, Mark Fisher goes after what he terms the “neo-anarchist position”. With some quick psychologizing, neo-anarchists are pegged as “depressed” and “overwhelmingly young”. They do little more than online commenting, protesting, and occupying instead of the tough labor organizing work that “real anarchists” do. Neo-anarchists are without the grit that labor organizers have to get their hands dirty in the mainstream and prefer to be dismissive and ironic. But the weakness of this characterization is obvious: if neo-anarchists aren’t doing the proper work for the coming revolution, it is because they are young and inexperienced. Nobody has taught them how to “organize the prols” like the great figures of the past – “kids these days… Am I right?” As my old anarcho-hippie friend always tells me, there is no institutional memory with radicals and it hurts. Every generation needs to relearn street politics and basic organizing skills while the cops are ten steps ahead each time. Perhaps if unions and other labor organizations had found a way to pass on their wisdom, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with. I suspect that Fisher is fishing for help from a young and energized audience to breath some life into labor organizations that have done little more than contract after the Reagan/Thatcher assault. He could just only have access to this new anarchist milieu via the internet himself… But I also suspect that the centralized union structure prevents such adaptability. If more community outreach had been sought out instead of clutching to what waning power the unions had, there could at least be a thin network to link generations of activists together.
The problem does not lie with the recently politicized, online youth. In America, the left has done very little to combat neoliberalism in recent history and now is fully consumed by it. Anyone who does not tow the party line is “left” aside if they aren’t going to garner any votes. Outside of party politics, radical labor organizations have done even worse at recruiting young people and staying up on the latest cultural shifts. It is those with knowledge and experience who have the onus to pass that on to the bright-eyed “fuck the system” youngsters. This lack of networks and meshworks has got radicals wondering why they are even identifying with the left at all anymore. I just pulled this essay from an online search and it is at the least tight and coherent: Post-Left Anarchy. I’ve never even read Bob Black, but if alliances are going to be salvaged between these divergences, we’re going to have to do better than just telling kids to read Marx.
My concern and critique of Fisher and Brand is the adherence to a politics that squarely places class in the center of the struggle, and ‘the left’ as the explicit milieu from which to build that class unity upon (moving towards the center, in a strictly visual sense). Instead of looking to rebuild that good-old proletarian army, I think the greater emphasis should be on milieus and a more diffuse blending of the many, diverse identities already in existence. The more interesting and empowering theoretical work comes from going over and beyond class as the standard of analysis. Something new emerges when the right place is taken and the willing players enter. The kind of enjoyment and indisputable positivity of gathering in the pleasure of each other’s company is the common affect that occupy channeled into a potent force. It was spontaneous (with do respect to the early organizers’ choices), had revolutionary potential, and was both local and global. Hell, if you didn’t like the name just call it something else in your city (Occupy Oakland almost switched to ‘Decolonize Oakland’). The greater point I’m trying to make here is the act of commoning in public is what must be fought for rather than who is going to be the revolutionary agent.
Fisher writes: “The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.” What better example of the former do we have recently than the people who came out and occupied their city centers and refused to make demands or take a single message? What stronger force can we reasonably expect in the present/near future than when we retook public space for a short time, and built something so big and so fast that the White House ordered they all be cleared at once out of fear of their own people? Every mayor of an occupied city (that’s all the big ones) was summoned by the Capitol to conference call, and all of the camps were cleared in less than a week. [link]
Unity has never really been my thing. Gathering the masses into a single force inevitably means there will be a representation of the mass to an other. It comes from above rather than as an event. The argument always seems to pivot around who will ‘represent the working class’ and gets consumed by squabbling. Or worse, allegiances solidify and back-stabbing occurs. Even if we got beyond that stage, the NSA would be so quickly on top of this grand union it would be over before it started. The power imbalances are so staggering now and the American military so ruthless in pursuing any dissent that any working class organization seeking a revolution would be rendered impotent or broken up immediately. Neither of these option is the obvious favorite, but nothing else is either.
Fisher gave a great critique of the traps of identity politics but then reintroduces his own familiar one: class. Am I missing something here, or is this not an identity itself? Why make a fuss over identity politics only to harken back to times “when the working class was the working class” and the lines were clearly drawn between proletariat, bourgeoisie, and capitalist?
The thing about milieus is that they are malleable, adaptable, and will not go away – so long as there is any shred of human sociability left in culture. Sure, they aren’t all radical nor impervious to infiltration, but a careful attunement towards milieus accounts for the ebb and flow of social movements. Together with existing networks and alliance making, a powerful machine can be built in the likes of the occupy movement without the central bureaucracy and the threat of corruption. Occupy might not reemerge step for step with how it occurred in late 2011/early 2012, but I believe that the blueprint is there. A bigger, tighter activist network plus a growing population of the poor won’t lay dormant for long.
The performance of gathering in public, of assembling in public space and occupying the commons can happen in a powerful way while simultaneously remaining diffuse. This is an instance of a Deleuzian multiplicity: to be a force of destratification while not losing consistency. Everything linguistic about the Occupy movement can be reworked: the important thing is the common affect of a public assembly, what the spirit (minimally) of the 1st Amendment is all about. It’s all about the Common Notion.