Lines of Flight: Possibilities and Organisation

As many readers who follow me on Twitter may be aware, over the past few days I’ve been doing some reading, some thinking, and making wildly provocative and bold claims about how we should understand Marxist theory today. Twitter can be a great website, and I find it particularly helpful in being able to take a hunch or an idea and plunge head-first into throwing out ideas, taking on feedback and suggestions, and reworking them into better and more consistent proposals. It breaks down the barrier imposed by lengthier forms of online communication which necessitates both better planning and a more careful attention to the nuances of what is being communicated. But it’s also limited, partly because of the lack of an edit button (Give the people what they want, Twitter!), and because of the character-limit. I wanted here to take some of the ideas I’ve been playing with and articulating on Twitter and to try to flesh them out a bit more, to give them some greater substance and to speak to more concrete issues. This may in fact require several articles, but here I want to focus on a question which has been bugging me – like an itch I can’t get rid of – for years now. And it has to do with the way I so frequently see “debates” about leftist ‘ideologies’ played out across the internet. The problem might provisionally be stated as something like this: What has gone wrong such that questions of political organisation and mobilisation has been displaced (reduced) to debates over abstract notions of ‘Socialism’? We might have to clarify this question below. I should add, finally, that this is far from an attempt to ‘have the final say’, it is an attempt to push us towards a better discussion.


“There are two ways of rejecting the revolution. The first is to refuse to see it where it exists; the second is to see it where it manifestly will not occur.”

Félix Guattari, “Molecular revolutions” in Chaosophy

In the spirit of my recent tweets, I want to start with a provocation: Neither Socialism nor Communism are abstract propositions to be evaluated from one’s desk, to be argued in debating societies, contested on social media, or constantly fractured into ever-more identitarian internet ideologies. The Communist Hypothesis (to borrow a phrase from Badiou) is not a proposition to be evaluated, to be weighed up in order to consider, in turn, its merits and defects. We must recall the forcefulness with which Marx and Engels state in the German Ideology: “We call Communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”1 Both of these claims must be grasped in order to see how far removed so many of our discussions are from the heart of the matter. First, Communism must be grasped in all its negativity and in all of the possibilities that this negation affirms. But we must run this backwards, again: What we have to grasp is how the affirmation of what could be must take concrete form as the abolition of the present stage of things. Second, these possibilities are determined by “the premises now in existence.” Communism arises out of present conditions in order to abolish them.

We now have at least the start of an answer for how we got here, why it is that the left is riven not just with factionalism (there is perhaps nothing which defines the left so consistently as factionalism!), but with that dreadful odour of something which has begin to rot. So much of what is today clearly visible is political ideology as fan-fiction, violently forced through the neoliberal axiom which constructs a reciprocal relationship between identity and the commodity. We should examine this a little, examining each part of this in turn. Participants draw up their own unique utopian society, implicitly predicting their own position (or, sometimes on Twitter, explicitly) in that structure, and argue with each other about the merits and defects of certain models. “You’re an authoritarian!”, “You prioritise individualism over collectivism!”, “Fuck off, tankie!” On and on it goes; endless, dreary, utterly rudderless discourse. We will examine this more below. But perhaps much of the stench of this discourse is to be located in its enframing by neoliberal subjectivity. These ‘ideologies’ are really just so many products on shelves, each trying to outdo the other in their marketing: this one is less authoritarian, this one more pragmatic, yet another promises to liberate the individual or the collective or vice versa, and so on. There is nothing ‘living’ left in so many of these debates; they are historical relics, occasionally examined, prodded and considered. But they were products of particular circumstances which are no longer our own. Here we are seeing revolution where it manifestly will not occur.

I mean to be quite clear here: the problem is not that of privileging theory over praxis, and I’m not trying to dunk on teenagers engaging with important theoretical ideas with their global peers. Especially during times in which almost all of us are essentially stuck at home for months on end, the possibilities of political action are highly constrained, particularly for marginalised groups most at risk of both the virus and police discrimination. When Žižek says “Don’t act. Just think”, we must in fact be bolder and move beyond such a false binary. The question is not whether to theorise or whether to act; under our conditions, the question is ‘What kind of theory is required?’ I hope this article is some small contribution in this regard. We cannot provide, a priori, our ideal model of society in advance; at best, we can begin to put into practice our ideals through our political action. My point is, instead, that if there is to be a revolutionary theory it must be attentive to the real conditions of society (and societies, given combined and uneven development) and proceed from there, tracing the lines of flight, the new openings of capital’s delirious oscillations. The communicative and co-operative possibilities opened up by the internet are unprecedented and to a great extent unrealised in their total promise – but there is an enormous amount of highly worthwhile and productive discourse, even on social media.

Moreover: What Communism is, or might be, or could be, is not determined by our ideas. History is neither moved nor mediated by the concept but by the material conditions of life: by the multiplicity of forms of life which exist in any given region or structure, the endlessly morphing productive processes at work, the flows and investments of desire and interest. Capitalism is never just Capitalism, it’s always mediated by combined and uneven development: flows and cuts distributed across a shifting topology, always and everywhere. Deleuze and Guattari write in A Thousand Plateaus that “We have often seen capitalism maintain and organize inviable states, according to its needs, and for the precise purpose of crushing minorities. The minorities issue is instead that of smashing capitalism, of redefining socialism, of constituting a war machine capable of counter the world war machine by other means.” Their commitment is clear. They continue: “the deepest law of capitalism: it continually sets and then repels its own limits, but in so doing gives rise to numerous flows in all directions that escape its axiomatic.” These ‘numerous flows’ tend to enter into connection with each other to delineate “a new Land”, “without their constituting a war machine whose aim is neither the war of extermination nor the peace of generalized terror, but revolutionary movement”.2

The question must always be: what, today, resists, breaks through and escapes capital’s neurotic recoding? What lines of flight can we trace in the movements of desire and interest today? It is worth quoting Deleuze and Guattari at length here:

There is in each case a constructivism, a “diagrammatism,” operating by the determination of the conditions of the problem and by transversal links between problems: it opposes both the automation of the capitalist axioms and bureaucratic programming. From this standpoint, when we talk about “undecidable propositions,” we are not referring to the uncertainty of the results, which is necessarily a part of every system. We are referring, on the contrary, to the coexistence and inseparability of that which the system conjugates, and that which never ceases to escape it following lines of flight that are themselves connectable. The undecidable is the germ and locus par excellence of revolutionary decisions. Some people invoke the high technology of the world system of enslavement; but even, and especially, this machinic enslavement abounds in undecidable propositions and movements that, far from belonging to a domain of knowledge reserved for sworn specialists, provides so many weapons for the becoming of everybody/everything, becoming-radio, becoming-electronic, becoming-molecular… Every struggle is a function of all of these undecidable propositions and constructs revolutionary connections in opposition to the conjugations of the axiomatic.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 550. Emphasis mine

Here is not the place for an analysis of what continues to escape capital’s axiomatic and obsessive recoding of codes. I have thoughts on this, and I would like to expand on this in relation to Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Assembly (2017) which engages directly with not just this question but many of those raised in this article. For now, I want to draw out a few threads from this, before returning to some provocative claims about concrete revolutionary movements, finally pulling this all back together again at the end.

First, I take it from Anti-Oedipus that Capitalism is never just the decoding of flows. Firstly because Deleuze-Guattari insist upon capital’s tendency towards reterritorialization as a kind of security measure against the instability produced by its own chaotic movements. But equally, the work of capital “presupposes codes or axioms which are not the products of chance, but which are not intrinsically rational either.”3 What capital decodes with one hand – territories, nations, religions, traditions – it recodes with the other in line with the axiomatic of money. Traditions, for example, are not recoded onto money – as if money could be anything other than alienated and alienating – money is recoded onto traditions, sold back to us as corporate mindfulness courses. “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”4 Capital abhors that which it cannot measure, what it cannot abstract away into an endlessly exchangeable and interchangeable series of items, to ‘linearize’ (as Guattari puts it). And as Deleuze-Guattari point out, capital “never stops crossing its own limits which keep reappearing further away. It puts itself in alarming situations with respect to its own production, its social life, its demographics, its borders with the third world, its internal regions, etc. Its gaps are everywhere, forever giving rise to the displaced limits of capitalism. […] it is the problem of the marginalized: to plug all these lines of flight into a revolutionary plateau. In capitalism, then, these lines of flight take on a new character, a new type of revolutionary potential.”5

To bugger Marx, these lines of flight “result from the premises now in existence.” The lesson Althusser draws from Machiavelli is that we must take a view of things and of people as they are, not as we might wish they were. And if we take just two historical examples of revolutionary political action, we can perhaps get a clearer picture of how things stand. We can start with the Spanish anarchist militias during the civil war of 1936-39. And let me be provocative again here: the Spanish syndicalists did not spend years debating the details, merits, and defects of various models of utopian society, before deciding – in their moment of glorious reflective equilibrium – that on balance they ought to pursue a loose and horizontalist federation of largely autonomous unions. Their political practice was directly born out of their actual engagements with their conditions of life at the time: the complexities of the conflicts between the Fascists, Soviets, Republicans, and all their diverse micro-factions; the development and organisational resilience of their unions; the nation’s class-composition and level of technical development; their country’s own historical and cultural factors in the subjectivities in play. The organisational structure they developed was a response to their conditions of life. Mao’s reformulation of Marxist theory and development of a peasant-centered political praxis; Lenin’s relentless drive to industrialisation and proletarianisation against the backdrop of serfdom. The Zapatistas did not invent a theory from on high, articulating in advance the society to be endorsed; they did not seek to ‘persuade’ the people of the Chiapas region that their alternative was better. Their movement and organisational structure was a direct response to their conditions of life: lack of food, housing, security, and a state which lurched wildly between being unresponsive and brutally repressive. This should not be read as a historical determinism; quite the opposite. As Sonali Gupta and H. Bolin recently argue in e-Flux, ” there is no algorithm that prescribes the specific conditions that produce social rupture; there is no such thing as an engineered riot.” History can only be understood backwards.

The standard analysis not only puts the cart before the horse by continuing to privilege the role of the ‘revolutionary intellectual’ over the masses, it also passes over the ways in which each revolutionary movement is also always a response to their own conditions of life. We must stop refusing to see revolution where it is. If there is to be a communism for the west (and this is far from guaranteed!), it will not be born out of an abstract clash of ideas or this interminable proliferation of internet ideologies utterly cut off from reality; it will be born from the real conditions in which we live. And we can hopefully jettison the concept of the ‘intellectual’ entirely – is there anything more pretentious, so openly advertising a desire for power and authority? “Representation no longer exists; there’s only action: theoretical action and practical action which serve as relays and form networks.”6 The task, then, seems to be the same that Deleuze and Guattari articulated so many years ago: To trace the lines of flight in capital’s contemporary conditions, to understand the ways in which capital not only pushes up against its own limits but also what escapes it; and to draw these together on a plane of consistency, to “plug all these lines of flight into a revolutionary plateau” in such a way as to construct “a war machine capable of countering the world war machine by other means.” What kind of revolutionary structures and modes of organisation are made possible under contemporary conditions? And how can they brought together on a plane of consistency such that they can constitute a war-machine adequate to the situation we face? This remains the question of organisation, and I hope to explore them in later posts.

  1. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, available here: The German Ideology (marxists.org)
  2. “7,000 BC: Apparatuses of Capture” in Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 549
  3. “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium” in Félix Guattari, Chaosophy (South Pasadena: Semiotexte, 2009), p. 35
  4. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Classics, 2002), p. 223
  5. “Capitalism: A Very Special Delirium”, p. 35
  6. Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, “Intellectuals and power”, available here: Intellectuals and power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze (libcom.org)

Cover image: ‘boypoolrhuzome’ by Dr Mark Ingham

The Molecular Subject(s) of Revolution

Just a short post here today. I wanted to highlight a few really interesting sections of Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s excellent book ‘Specters of Revolt‘ and to expand on them with some further thoughts, particularly about the revolutionary subject(s), molecularity, and joyful rebellion. It’s been a bit of a revelation reading it, I have to say, though its exact ideological tenor I found a little ambiguous for whatever that’s worth. On the one hand, there are frequent (cheap) pot-shots at anarchists; on the other, he criticises Hardt and Negri’s return to the ‘Marxian revolutionary subject.’ I wonder what Marxism is without that notion, some minimal subject antagonistic to the interest of capital. I think maybe this is why Hardt and Negri’s attempt to theorise the Multitude in the way they do, and why I find it so interests insofar as it pushes, perhaps to the extreme, how Marxism can conceptualise contemporary movements and revolts. Certainly his interest remains in autonomy. But perhaps I’m playing the wrong game by worrying about this at all. What really matters is what the book says, and what it does! And it says and does a lot! Here’s some of the passages that stood out to me from his chapter on ‘Beyond Struggle.’


Guattari and Negri’s molecular point of view rejects any attempt to take distinct molecular revolutions as part of some unified revolutionary program. That is, their position reflects an honest acceptance of the smallness of certain revolts and a total rejection of the effort to make every movement appear as a self-conscious part of some ideological whole. For example, it would be an ideological sleight of hand to say that the revolution in Egypt in 2011 is orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood, or by a Google marketing manager, or by anarchists, or by communists disaffected with capitalism. Guattari and Negri point out that desire, on a social terrain, does not express a cohesive ideological consensus. It can only be made to look ‘communist’ on the level of appearance, and this serves as a critical reminder to Hardt and Negri, who have retrieved the Marxian revolutionary subject position and refigured it in the multitude. I am afraid that the molecular point of view – more honest, less ideological – gets lost in the aggregate points of view of the multitude.

Specters of Revolt, p. 83

It’s interesting to me that in seeking to develop a molecular politics, Gilman-Opalsky returns not to Hardt-Negri but instead to that strange but fascinating assemblage Guattari-Negri (though he is at pains to not by any means lay the blame for this on Hardt!) This is of course drawn from their collaborative work, more a series of mutually-conducted interviews, in New Lines of Alliance, New Spaces of Liberty originally published in 1985. It isn’t actually entirely clear to me how far apart these two assemblages are, and that there are not clear and important connections branching out between them. But I’m sure Gilman-Opalsky would grant that if it were put to him, but there’s something he sees in Guattari-Negri which he finds missing in Hardt-Negri, which is an interesting notion by itself – I may end up reading a bit more by both to try and see where they come apart. But in particular, the notion that the desires which traverse the social space of a revolt lack an inherently political character at the level of desire seems common between both approaches; what perhaps changes in the 15 intervening years preceding the publication of Empire, is to ask ‘What can be done to articulate these desires in the shape of Communism? How can these desires be, perhaps, mediated via democratic and egalitarian means in order to amplify their force?’

But more importantly, the point here is a very legitimate and important one for contemporary radical elements. For those who still hold out hope for revolution and revolt, it is surely necessary to enter into a relationship of receptivity towards the actually-existing movements of our age. One of the most distasteful tendencies of many Marxist-Leninist groups in Britain is their opportunism, simply waiting around for some group or another to ‘kick off’, then to infiltrate and try to sway, pressure, recruit, organise on their behalf. And as Hardt and Negri point out in Assembly (2017), it is not a coincidence that so many of these movements are ‘leaderless’. It is not a mistake, a strategic misrecognition, a failure of organisational effectivity: it is a deliberate and strategic choice on their part to make democratic and egalitarian ethics and praxis immanent to their very movements, to their practical signification, their goals, and their procedural tools. I take a message of something like this: Attend to these movements, do not speak for them, do not lecture them, co-opt them, or exploit them: take part, demonstrate your solidarity, and listen.

In 1985, Guattari and Negri theorized the revolutionary subject from its singular characteristics instead of from generalizations, arguing that “[e]ach molecular movement, each autonomy, each minoritarian movement will coalesce with an aspect of the real in order to exalt its particular liberatory dimensions.” Thus, rather than prescribing or predicting how a cohesive revolutionary class may act as a critical mass, various subsets of the exploited, oppressed, neglected, and despised will show us directly how they act in their actual and diverse modes of revolt. This helps us to understand the conditions of each movement, and their respect proclivities for action. This perspective is critical to the theory of revolt developed in this book, because it does not seek to subordinate every uprising to an ideological format of class conflict, and rather, actively guards against such reductions.

Specters of Revolt, p. 89

These questions are of central importance today. Who is, today, the revolutionary subject? Is there one? Has there ever been? Are there still revolutionary subjects, pluralising elements of the body politic whose existence agitates against the constraints of liberal-democratic capitalism? Is it still a question of these subjects coming to a conscious awareness of their historical role, or is it now a matter of recalibrating our understandings? Mapping out the new flows of desire across these social terrains, watching where they reach certain intensities, resonating beyond and across multiple lines, cutting through and dissolving them. In other words: how can we understand the desires which come before any ideological expression, which traverse any movement, and the potentiality they may possess to stretch out across so many boundaries and lines to form something much larger?

Gilman-Opalsky takes us at least part way there, and certainly further than anyone else I’ve read so far. By returning to Guattari-Negri’s much-overlooked work together, he seems to try to recapture these elements of both singularity and molecularity in one and the same movement. Moreover, he also returns us to the question of theory and praxis. And I am in full agreement with him on this one: we theorists have very little to teach but perhaps a great deal to learn from actually-existing radical movements and uprisings. We must not assume an ideological conformity amongst revolutionary elements, nor can this be understood simply in terms of ‘false consciousness’ on their part. The flows of desire have never conformed to rigid ideological identifications, always escaping, breaking out from pre-determined and fixed frameworks of understanding. We must be attentive to the singularity of any revolutionary moment, not in order to isolate it, but in order to understand it and to see how these intensities may spiral outwards in a chain-reaction of sparks meeting powder-kegs. And when this happens, we should perhaps recall Deleuze’s formulation (in conversation with Foucault, who is in agreement) that “Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.”1

Autonomous action within the limits of capital – self-directed, micropolitical, and joyful – is the scream’s complement. We cannot simply choose between the screams of struggle, on the one hand, and pleasure, on the other, nor should we assert a hard separation between the two. The majority of the world’s people, living on the losing end of capital, are stuck with struggle as a kind of modus operandi. They do not need to commit to the struggle, since the struggle is inevitably always with them. However, for a sustainable and ongoing contestation of capital and its culture, we must oppose the total negation of our desires and talents in the here and now. Struggle may be necessary, but it is never enough. As long as the fight for a better future places our desires and talents in abeyance, the fight will tire too quickly, and power has the patience to wait it out. Some of the most inspiring saturnalias of social upheaval rise up and subside over the course of a long weekend. Struggle must be decentered. If struggle remains the centrality modality of revolution, then only the most ‘selfless’ and/or miserable among us will participate in revolution, and one wonders about the possibility, sustainability, and psychic health of such ‘selfless’ and miserable individuals, of such a sad and horrible politics.

Specters of Revolt, p. 96 (Emphasis mine)

This struck me as a really interesting, and quite moving, call for a more joyful and less self-valorising radical politics. Not only because it calls for a politics more open to the diversity of talents, skills, desires and loves of this mobile assemblage of discontents, but because it calls for us to reconsider whether – in our commitment to ‘the struggle’, to ‘struggling for/against …’ – we are in fact endlessly immiserating ourselves, and, purely tactically, putting others off from desiring in a similar way. What is perhaps calls for is a politics of affirmation, but in this case, then precisely what is required is a reconceptualisation of the relationship between affirmation and negation. What is necessary is to be capable of a double-movement of negation-affirmation; a first volley of destructive-negativity, an abolition of all that is, in order to be capable of affirming what could be; or perhaps, the affirmation of what could be over and against what is.

If we want a better society, we have to desire not just that better society but also to do the things that are necessary in order to achieve it. Desire has to enter into, to invest, our actual practices and join up that productive connection of desire-interest. The relation between means and ends, for Gilman-Opalsky, has to be understood in this way. In this respect, he stands much closer to the ‘naive anarchists’ he so frequently criticises in this book. For this is a central tenet of anarchist theory: that the means employed necessarily alter into a relation of transformation with the ends, distorting both until neither are any longer recognisable. It remains to us to consider whether history has vindicated such a formulation.


I am sure I will write more about this really excellent book in the very near future. I have not even touched upon perhaps the central claim of his book – that the revolt is itself a kind of intellect, an approach or form of philosophy. But I wanted to leave you with those three excerpts from the third chapter on ‘Beyond Struggle.’ I think there’s a lot of food for thought even within these relatively short passages.


  1. Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault, “Intellectuals and Power: A conversation between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze’ (1972), URL: https://libcom.org/library/intellectuals-power-a-conversation-between-michel-foucault-and-gilles-deleuze

Ranciere, Democracy and Insurrection

This post might read in a slightly jumbled way, but I needed to get some thoughts down and out there in order to try and make sense of them in my own head. I’ve been struggling the last few weeks to resolve a number of difficult conceptual issues the first chapter of my thesis resulted in. In particular, while I want to argue that radical democracy is best understood as a form of insurrectionary anarchism, I needed a more thoroughgoing conceptualisation of democracy in order to tie things together. But I think I’ve found a way to harmonise the various elements.

Carl Schmitt and Chantal Mouffe seem to largely agree on the definition of democracy as the identity of the ruler and the ruled. This identity consists in some form of substantive homogeneity or equality. But what Ranciere seems to add to this definition is precisely the inability to demonstrate the legitimacy of any ‘ruler’ over the ‘ruled’ which grounds democracy as a practice of becoming-equal, demonstrating equality as a practical political act of dissent. The previous definition – politics as an art of governing, of government – presupposes both ‘a mass to be managed and those who have the capacity to do it.’ Democracy, for Ranciere, “signals the radical absence of a common corporeality and of legitimate authority.” (Source) Part of the problem with any representative system (or ‘police order’), for Ranciere, is its inability to truly represent the social whole; there is always a ‘part which has no-part’, and which will (ideally) demonstrate its equality through acts of dissent.

Taking this on board, the argument I want to run can actually proceed quite smoothly. We can return to Deleuze and William E. Connolly with his emphasis on pluralism-as-process (not a static state of affairs), and instead think towards becoming-democratic-becoming-equal as an inherently insurrectionary act. If any ‘police order’ will necessarily fail to deliver on the promise of equality, then destroy police orders. In a certain sense, to engage in this radical political praxis is already to undergo a certain process of subjectivation as part of a collective political agency; it’s a veritable becoming-democratic-becoming-equal, coextensive and overlapping in the process itself.

And then the argument carries towards its natural conclusion in the central role of revolt and insurrection in an ongoing practice of becoming-democratic-becoming-equal (yes I need to find a more concise way of condensing these concepts!), through the concept of destitutive power (drawn from Tiqqun and Agamben) forming a natural conceptual link here.

Still much more to work on and iron out but I’m feeling a bit better now about where this project is going. Deleuze and Guattari will still play an important role here, but I think I need them to take a slight step back for this project to really cohere. Still rather daunting. Writing the first chapter wasn’t nearly as challenging as this is! Just got to buckle in I suppose.

Antagonism, Class, and the Real Movement

I’ve recently been considering where my politics now stand, in light of studying a range of theorists and schools of thought beyond what I had previously had the time or opportunity to consider. In particular, I’ve been fascinated by the work — on the one hand — of groups like Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee, and — on the other hand — Antonio Negri and his collaborative work with Michael Hardt. Despite Tiqqun’s clear distaste for Negri (to put it mildly), it’s illustrative that much of their work nevertheless functions only in and through the concepts which Negri provides us, particularly that of Empire and its relation to the biopolitical, the police state, civil war, etc. I don’t think their positions are as irreconcilable as might appear on the surface, particularly given that — their many analytical and rhetorical strengths aside — Tiqqun’s understanding of Marxism is disappointingly shallow.

At the core of what I’ve been trying to think through, and I think this is understood as an important problem by most of the contemporary left, is the relation between class and politics. There are also other issues which we will consider below. On the orthodox Marxist analysis, one’s class is a function of one’s position within the objective economic system, and can be reduced down to a relatively simple question: Must you sell your labour for a wage in order to survive? Of course, my characterisation is necessarily somewhat simplistic, even the most orthodox of Marxists recognise that difficulties endure in the petit-bourgeois, lumpenproletariat, etc. This is the question I have been rethinking.

One of the great virtues of Marxist theory is its central conviction that theory must be guided both by praxis and the world we really see before us. It’s the reflexivity of Marxist theory which marks it out as such a powerful tool of analysis; if the thesis is disconfirmed by empirical observation, the thesis must be eliminated or revised. This procedure was exemplified by Marx himself, both in the writing of Capital and, for example, in his analysis of the Paris Commune. Lukacs was correct therefore to consider orthodox Marxism a commitment to the method, rather than the specific conclusions, provided us by Marx. And it is in this sense that I think we — and by we, I mean Communists — need to take a rethinking of class quite seriously. This is far from a new assertion, of course, and I think we’re all quite tired of the unending stream of theoretical texts denouncing the inadequacy of Marxism in interpreting some radical new development in the development of Capitalism. And this is where Tiqqun, The Invisible Committee, Hardt and Negri enter the picture.

What Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee show, I think, is the inadequacy of a ‘class analysis’ reliant upon the orthodox Marxist conceptualisation of class; it brings back to the forefront the now somewhat unfashionable diagnoses of the havoc capitalism is wreaking upon human society and the individual; and that contemporary Communists need to shake off the last remnants of the notion that emancipation awaits only after the revolution which up-ends the class conflict by transforming the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie into the dictatorship of the proletariat. Beyond this, they are also — as anarchists — highly skeptical of the very notion of ‘seizing state power’, and distrustful of the insistence that ‘this time it will be different.’ I think we can also take from them a lesson to be attendant to the real, existing movements out there on the streets today and learning from them, not legislating in advance how they must act, how their praxis must conform to our ideas, etc. Let me rephrase one of the central points here: if we are to conceptualise antagonism within contemporary capitalist societies, a reliance upon the notion of ‘the working class’ will not get us very far. In their words,

Historical conflict no longer opposes two massive molar heaps, two classes — the exploited and the exploiters, the dominant and dominated, managers and workers — between which, in each individual case, it would be possible to differentiate. The front line no longer cuts through the middle of society; it now runs through each one of us…

In a sense, this is to overstate the case. Certainly they are right in diagnosing the way in which capital has penetrated to the very core of our subjectivities — the role of any political-economic regime in subjectivisation having been long understood already, of course. But their analysis in the text poses almost existential questions about the character of late-capitalist subjectivities – the profusion of anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions; the rugged individualism and endless incitement to self-improvement, efficiency, productivity, optimising your ‘free time’, and so on. Further, it does not seem that the antagonism between the dominant and the dominated has been in any meaningful sense weakened; if anything, it has continued to grow in intensity over the preceding decades. What has changed is the composition of the classes involved in this antagonism. And this is perhaps where I find Negri and Hardt most useful.

Class remains the determining factor at work in the antagonism which plays out across the social field today. But Hardt & Negri provide a reconceptualisation of what class has to be understood as today. The Multitude (their concept) is an irreducible multiplicity in the properly Deleuzian sense; it is the molar mass of all those exploited and dominated by capital and who, in multiple forms, push back against it. Where there is power, there is resistance. It is a multiplicity – it is composed not just of the traditional working class but feminists, people of colour, activists fighting against anti-immigrant violence, sexual violence, exploitation of workers, racism, anti-ableism, etc. And it is in the nature of an irreducible multiplicity that these ‘axes’ cannot be reduced to each other. We cannot understand capitalism without understanding how it’s supported by, and reinforces, patriarchy, white supremacy, white supremacy without seeing how capitalism requires it, etc. And this needn’t be resolved into the usual liberal identity politics in which criticism of programmes for universal healthcare are lambasted as ‘insufficiently intersectional.’ It is a problem, as Hardt points out, the diagnosis of which goes back to Rosa Luxemburg and even further back still; as Luxemburg, Iris Young and pointed out, what is needed is not an external solidarity between Communists and Feminists, and so on; but an internal solidarity which fully recognises the necessary co-constitution of their struggles. This is still, unfortunately, an insufficient characterisation of their long and arduous work filling out the notion of the multitude, but it must do for now.

There are a number of points across these thinkers which strike me as persuasive and important. The first is the mutual refusal to lecture actual social movements on how they ought to organise their struggles, the proper objectives, methodological frameworks, tactics in pursuit of the ends, etc. We should learn from these movements, not lecture them. Doubtless they were and are flawed, but so is any movement. It should not be forgotten that, for all of the horrors which later ensued, the Russian Revolution was – as China Mieville points out – in many ways sparked by Russian feminists marching in the streets on International Women’s Day. The test of your theory is its practical results – for Marxists, or anyone indebted to it, this must be central. There can be no clear separation between theory and practice. And in a world, today, where Leninists sit on the sidelines, in ever-dwindling numbers, filled with nostalgia for the past, jaded and bitter at the clear indifference in which they are regarded by ‘the working class’, this must be the decisive test for the question of whether the Leninist analysis still holds purchase on, is still adequate to, contemporary capitalism.

If you’re wondering where the resistance to capitalism is, you’ve got your eyes closed. It’s already there, out on the streets. The Real Movement is visible, out in force, denouncing racism, police violence, sexual violence, exploitation of workers, anti-migrant violence, authoritarianism, inequality, ecological collapse. You just have to open your eyes and see it. They don’t need lecturing about the proper role of the vanguard, or how – if they just saw clearly – they’d realise not just that class is the overdetermining factor but that the working class is the only possible agent of true change. What we need to do is take a step back and learn from them. One of the critiques levelled against the so-called ‘New Social Movements’ is the lack of meaningful, lasting change, what Srnicek and Williams deride as a ‘folk politics’ obsessed with nostalgia, petit-bourgeois values and an almost neurotic obsession with the relation between means and ends. We can meaningfully ask two questions in response to this, however: First, to what extent Marxist-Leninism has been able to meaningfully and lastingly overturn the global development of capitalism and its destructive consequences; Second, whether the technocratic social democracy proposed by Left Accelerationists represents any meaningful departure from what we’ve already seen over the hegemonic neoliberal consensus of the past few decades.

The Real Movement is not simply protesting, in a futile demonstration of its own political impotence. This is to misunderstand the entire character of revolt. Aside from the assumption that protest itself is meaningless and unimportant, it relies upon a near-deliberate ignorance of the ways in which non-electoral strategies operate. These movements which we see today – against everything from police violence and racism to anti-immigrant rhetoric, sexual violence and the changing role of education – are setting up communities, support networks, reading groups, sit-ins and takeovers, redistributing resources, providing legal aid and healthcare, protecting public and common spaces. And what has to be understood is the transformative elements contained within these forms of dissent.If there is to be the possibility of any Communism worthy of its name, it must embody, protect and further what it is that we hold in common, against the forces of a Neoliberal Capitalism which increasingly emphasises precisely what is “unique” to each of we entrepreneurial individuals, but which is really nothing “unique” at all. And if we are to form any meaningful praxis which takes us closer to that goal, we first need to stop seeing it as a goal to be achieved in the sense that before the revolution we had capitalism, after the revolution we have Communism. What is needed is the intensive multiplication and proliferation of non-capitalist, of Communist, social relations between individuals and groups; perhaps what we could call groupuscules. And it precisely in the commons and in the public spaces which so many of these movements champion, defend, and weaponise that these relations can be nurtured, developed and broadened. The process of engaging in these kinds of processes – of staging an occupation, or joining a picket line, volunteering at street kitchens, and so on – is always already to act against the prevailing capitalist social relations. If Capitalist domination cuts across us, then it is through acts such as these that an anti-capitalist collective subjectivity can be formed.

Existentialism Is a Humanism: Some Thoughts

I’ve always found Sartre a better writer (novelist, playwright, and so on) than a philosopher. Certainly, Being and Nothingness is an impressive work – an intelligent, thorough, analytic tome inquiring into the roots and nature of human subjectivity. And yet this text, at least, is a mixed bag for me. I’m not entirely sure why I decided to return to this text for the first time in God knows how many years and to read it afresh. But I did, and I wanted to collect some thoughts I had reading through it. I came away with quite a mixed impression. Let’s start with some of the negatives. At times, it’s almost sloppy: For example, with one hand he rejects Kant’s moral framework for its abstract and universal nature. It cannot, as Sartre says, provide us with any reliable answers in concrete moral situations because moral situations are always unique in their specificity. Granted.

Then, with the other hand, he smuggles back in Kant’s three formulations of the categorical imperative as the underlying axiom of free human acts. “When I affirm that freedom, under any concrete circumstance, can have no other aim than itself, and once a man realizes, in his state of abandonment, that it is he who imposes values, he can will but one thing: freedom as the foundation of all values.” (p. 48) For Sartre, one should always ask oneself, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” (p. 25) Kant returns to take vengeance upon Sartre! Sartre also vascillates wildly on the question of whether and how we might evaluate or form a judgement about how an individual seeks to act; is it a moral judgement, an aesthetic criticism, a logical indictment? The second one is perhaps the most interesting, but I’ll say a bit more about that below.

That said, there are many moments of brilliance. There is no doubting his skill as a writer, and his discussions of the constitutive conditions of anguish and abandonment are powerful and precise. He is at his best when he draws equally on Heidegger and Nietzsche; and yet at the decisive moment he always recoils from both. Pushed to the stage where it seems as if he is about to contruct a radical existentialism around human freedom and a Nietzschian ‘aesthetic’ life (there is much to be said about what such a project might look like), he pulls back and rejects such a project as a slight against Existentialism.

I think more broadly, my concern with Existentialism – at least in the form presented here by Sartre – is the radical freedom he attributes to the human subject. Sartre writes that when an existentialist describes a coward, “he says that the coward is responsible for his own cowardice. He is not the way he is because he has a cowardly heart, lung, or brain. He is not like that as a result of his physiological makeup; he is like that because he has made himself a coward through his actions.” (p. 38) Powerful stuff, and I certainly grant Sartre that he decisively defeats the objection that Existentialism is pessimistic and powerfully demonstrates its quite radical optimism towards the subject.

Yet he seems to nevertheless overstate the case. We needn’t posit a ‘hard determinism’ on the basis of physical causality, genetic determinism etc. in order to ask difficult questions about whether man is really so free. We might, as Foucault does, inquire into the social and historical conditions which give rise to determinate social configurations and subjectivities – why do we believe x rather than y? What historical forces gave rise to contemporary images of thought? How does discourse and power inform and produce subjects under determinate conditions? Heidegger (whose work of course exercised a profound influence over Sartre) attends to these questions in detail – man is not just thrust into existence, he is always-already thrown into an existing historical situation, plunged into a web of social relations which existed and developed before his birth and will continue long after he dies. Part of our becoming-human is learning to navigate these forces. For Heidegger, we cannot choose just anything; if I am born in Paris in 1789, I cannot choose to become a Feudal lord or an astronaut. I have choice, yes, but it is always historically and socially conditioned. For Deleuze, the possibilities for how an infant brain might develop through its lifetime are not infinite, but neither are they pre-determined; they exist in a virtual field of difference, always carried forward into the future in an endless and complex process of becoming.

I’ve also never entirely accepted that Heidegger’s Being and Time is truly the anti-humanistic work that Heidegger later labelled it. In Heidegger’s discussions of anxiety, of care, embodied existence, thrown-ness, Being-towards-death, Dasein’s temporality, and so on, I think it is impossible not to discern elements of a humanistic philosophy, at least insofar as it is an attempt to provide account of the nature of Being through the lens of Dasein. Maybe this is one reason why Heidegger never finished writing the book – examining it in this way was bound to lead to such results. Sartre instead seems to reproduce the Subject-Object distinction (inevitably given his starting-point is the Cartesian subject) in almost violent terms; so radically does he resist the world of objects that he has to radically free the subject from all causal forces.

Something of the complexity of the varied forces which simultaneously structure, enable, and limit our freedom gets lost in Sartre’s thought. A fascinating debate between Sartre and Pierre Naville is documented as an appendix in the book and it is a fascinating read. Naville seems to really pin down Sartre for the way in which his account of subjectivity and radical freedom seems to return to a kind of bourgeois pre-modern liberal idealism. And yet… And yet. If Existentialism continues to exert such a profound influence over not just academic but the public imagination, it is because it touches on matters which deeply concern all of us. As Heidegger said, we are defined by care; we necessarily take an interest in how things are with Being. If you like, we are all plagued by huge, profoundly important questions: What kind of being am I? Am I free? Is there a God? I am, but how should I be? Moreover, in the absence of a God, we should ask Deleuze’s question: not ‘How should I live?’ but ‘How might one live?’ What rich and diverse possibilities exist to be experienced?

Contemporary analytic philosophy not only cannot answer such questions; it not only has no interest in answering them; it broadly says that such questions are meaningless. At best, they are questions which arise out of linguistic confusion: meaning, after all, is a predicate of a proposition; a life is not a proposition in the formal sense; so to ask after a ‘meaning’ of life is a mistaken endeavour right from the start. And where it does take the question to at least be a meaningful and valid question, all of the humanity and complexity of life inevitably gets lost in the pursuit of analytic rigour. Questions of meaning and purpose are reduced to answers to concrete questions: the conditions for a meaningful life are either subjective, objective, or a hybrid of the two. As always, all the life of philosophy is drained away in such an endeavour.

Existentialism is right to bring such questions to the fore, and in many ways it truly does capture in a stark light what is so tragic and beautiful about ‘the human conditon’. A wonderful writer and a profound thinker, Sartre is still worth reading and taking seriously, even though I think he was often mistaken. But, where he was mistaken, it was at least for the right reasons. Ultimately it mostly makes me want to plunge back into his plays and novels, and to return again to Being and Time.

Existentialism is a Humanism (2007: Yale University Press)

Post-Capitalist Desire

Out of all the many authors whose books and papers I have read, Mark Fisher’s have long held a place close to my heart. His book Capitalist Realism has had a profound effect on the way I see the world, and I’m certainly not alone in that. However, in this post I want to use this post to draw attention to a piece he wrote called ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ and to draw a few comparisons with other pieces of literature I’ve been interested in recently in order to make a few general points about where the left currently stands in 2019.

Fisher’s argument is this: That one of the central challenges for the left is to disarticulate desire from Capitalism. Fisher arrives at this point in a roundabout way, but particularly through an engagement with the work of Nick Land. He correctly points out that much of the left occupies an ambivalent position towards technology and the mass production of consumer goods – but it is precisely this which allows those on the right to make the (of course ridiculous) argument that it’s hypocritical for the left to enjoy using smartphones when Capitalism created them, characterising the left as either Primitivist or hypocritical. He draws on Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus to argue that “As desiring creatures, we ourselves are that which disrupts organic equilibrium.” Desire is a pandora’s box which cannot be shut.

This is precisely why we need a theory of Post-Capitalist desire.

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

https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE

Mark writes in his paper Terminator vs Avatar that “Capitalism has abandoned the future because it can’t deliver it. Nevertheless, the contemporary left’s tendencies towards Canutism, its rhetoric of resistance and obstruction, collude with capital’s anti/meta-narrative that it is the only story left standing. Time to leave behind the logics of failed revolts, and to think ahead again.”

The only way out of Capitalism is through it. Marx is unequivocal on this point, particularly in Capital Vol. 3. Vincent Garton provides a brilliant account of this in his blog post ‘Accelerate Marx‘. He quotes Marx’s argument that at a certain point in the development of Capitalism, “[Capital] becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power. The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable…” Garton adds,

Marx’s whole analysis on this point, in fact, is accelerationist to the core. What Marx is saying is that if there is a postcapitalism, it consists precisely in the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation. Two further conclusions result from this sequence of passages—and I admit this is a deliberately biased selection, and that it is worth reading the chapter in full—which ought to shake any ‘postcapitalist’ praxis to its foundations.
Firstly, the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism are precisely its strength as a productive force: crises are a way for capitalism to overcome the declining rate of profit, and this is not a sequence of decay where with each crisis capitalism becomes weaker and weaker but quite the opposite: it is a process of exponential expansion.
Secondly, the road to ‘postcapitalism’ is over the corpse of nonalienated humanity. Now this, precisely, is the root of Marx’s inhumanism…

https://cyclonotrope.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/accelerate-marx/

Capital must be entirely alienated from Capitalism as a contingent economic system before the groundwork for Communism is ready. Even returning to just the Communist Manifesto, we can already find there Marx demanding that the proletariat “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 243)

I think this reading of Marx (which is one I’ve shared for a long time, and which, incidentally, Lenin also shared) poses serious questions for left-wing praxis, in particular what the role of the left ought to be. The standard rallying cry is for the need to ‘Resist’, ‘Undermine’ or ‘Defeat’ Capitalism; but this seems to render the left a fundamentally reactionary, conservative force in modern politics. What can such tactics achieve? Can socialism really be established upon anything but the corpse of Capitalism taken to its limit – or Capital completely alienated from Capitalism? Presumably the idea is that we ought to return to being simple farmers living in straw huts in a thoroughly de-alienated existence, or, for Nick Land (whom Fisher quotes), “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity.” For Fisher, attempt to suppress desire itself “would therefore involve either a massive reversal of history, or collective amnesia on a grand scale, or both.” And as he goes on to argue,

At the moment, too much anti-capitalism seems to be about the impossible pursuit of a social system oriented towards the Nirvana principle of total quiescence—precisely the return to a mythical primitivist equilibrium which the likes of Mensch mock. But any such return to primitivism would require either an apocalypse or the imposition of authoritarian measures—how else is drive to be banished? And if primitivist equilibrium is notwhat we want, then we crucially need to articulate what it is we do want—which will mean disarticulating technology and desire from capital.

https://fisherfunction.persona.co/WEEK-ONE

If Capitalism maintains an ideological monopoly on desire, and on the expansion and multiplication of forms and expressions of desire, then the left becomes an anti-modern, conservative force. What is needed is a way for the left to challenge this monopoly, to embrace desire and its creative and emancipatory possibilities. The yearning for a return to a life of simple sustenance, ‘honest work’, producers meeting distributors face-to-face, a deeper connection with nature and so on; these seem to represent a fundamentally reactionary perspective and one which has nothing at all do with Marxism, certainly nothing to do with what Marx himself wrote, instead having more to do with Heidegger’s nostalgia for the Black Forest.

Fisher’s paper was published in 2012, and since then some work has been done by those on the left to respond to this challenge. Most notably, in my view, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who in 2013 published the Accelerationist Manifesto and then in 2015 the book Inventing the Future. One of the strongest sections of the latter is its opening critique of ‘folk politics’, a tendency amongst much of the left towards reducing politics down to ‘the human scale’ which ends up as a purely reactive political force – one hospital might be saved from closure due to an occupation in protest, for example, but nevertheless dozens will still be shuttered across the country. What the left needs is an alternative to Neoliberal Capitalism which as at least as sophisticated as the current system, if not more so. If leftists continue to be distracted by Anarchistic naivete and ‘local action’, with no room for large-scale, hierarchical organisation, then there is no hope. Anti-Capitalism is rendered as anti-modernity and fundamentally primitivist. Fisher goes on to argue that what is needed is

the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond twentieth-century-style state centralisation.

We cannot return to a pre-capitalist society. The only way out is through. We might conclude with a quote from Lyotard which Fisher quotes in Terminator vs Avatar:

in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalize desires be totally ignored, 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.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. l. H. Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 116.

If Capitalism is allowed to maintain a monopoly on desire – as long as the ideological commitment to the idea that only under Capitalism can we express ourselves, experiment creatively and multiply with our desires and to embrace and fulfil it, the left has no chance. The future envisioned by much of the left all too often resembles the past. It’s time to move beyond that.

Questions of praxis remain: if the goal is to ‘Accelerate Marx’ (as Garton puts it), what is it that distinguishes the radical left from the Anarcho-Capitalist right in pragmatic terms? Mark Fisher’s own programme seems to provide some options here, as his critique of Capitalism remains trenchant: critiquing Land, he writes that “The actual near future wasn’t about Capital stripping off its latex mask and revealing the machinic death’s head beneath; it was just the opposite: New Sincerity, Apple Computers advertised by kitschy-cutesy pop. This failure to foresee the extent to which pastiche, recapitulation and a hyper-oedipalised neurotic individualism would become the dominant cultural tendencies is not a contingent error; it points to a fundamental misjudgement about the dynamics of capitalism. […] The fact that capitalism tends towards stagflation, that growth is in many respects illusory, is all the more reason that accelerationism can function in a way that Alex Williams characterises as ‘terroristic.'”

We might say that much of the supposed innovation or creativity of Capitalism is in fact illusory. This is best exemplified by the music industry: total stagnation disguised beneath a cheap veneer of newness. The whole thing is carried along by sheer the sheer velocity, the pace of new songs, albums and artists. But the overwhelming reliance on nostalgia and fake authenticity (better: authenticity as a marketing tactic) belies the lack of any real movement beneath the surface. Where Land (or, perhaps, D&G) wants to argue that the future is a radical expansion of the productive process driven by an explosion of libidinal energy, we thinking along with Mark Fisher we can perhaps see through this facade to the stagnation beneath.

Fisher draws on Fredric Jameson (a brilliant writer, whom everyone should read) who argues that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx:

“proposes to see capitalism as the most productive moment of history and the most destructive at the same time, and issues the imperative to think Good and Evil simultaneously, and as inseparable and inextricable dimensions of the same present of time. This is then a more productive way of transcending Good and Evil than the cynicism and lawlessness which so many readers attribute to the Nietzschean program.”

https://markfisherreblog.tumblr.com/post/32522465887/terminator-vs-avatar-notes-on-accelerationism

Further questions remain. Can we really conceptualise desire in a non-ideological way, given the overwhelming influence of advertising, marketing, social conditioning etc. on our preferences and desires; or is Marcuse (drawing on Freud) right to delineate between true and false needs? How does ideology fit into this picture? And what might a post-capitalist future look like? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but I think they’re some of the key ones which arise out of this reading of Marx and Fisher’s programme for the left.

NPCs Play Bingo

For my first post, I wanted to highlight and comment on an utterly brilliant essay by Justin E H Smith for The Point Magazine published earlier this year. I’ve been thinking about it on a fairly regular basis ever since I first read it, and it provides a useful point of departure for exploring a number of important concepts – the relationship between ideology and power, who we are and what makes us subjects, discourse and politics. Here’s the section which stood out most to me:

There are memes circulating that are known as “bingo cards,” in which each square is filled with a typical statement or trait of a person who belongs to a given constituency, a mouth-breathing mom’s-basement-dwelling Reddit-using Men’s Rights Activist, for example, or, say, an unctuous white male ally of POC feminism. The idea is that within this grid there is an exhaustive and as it were a priori tabulation, deduced like Kant’s categories of the understanding, of all the possible moves a member of one of these groups might make, and whenever the poor sap tries to state his considered view, his opponent need only pull out the table and point to the corresponding box, thus revealing to him that it is not actually a considered view at all, but only an algorithmically predictable bit of output from the particular program he is running. The sap is sapped of his subjectivity, of his belief that he, properly speaking, has views at all. […]

Another example: I have read that Tinder users agree that one should “swipe left’” (i.e. reject) on any prospective mate or hookup who proclaims a fondness for, among other writers, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway or William S. Burroughs. I couldn’t care less about the first two of these, but Burroughs is very important to me. He played a vital role in shaping how I see the world (Cities of the Red Night, in particular), and I would want any person with whom I spend much time communicating to know this. I believe I have good reasons for valuing him, and would be happy to talk about these reasons.

I experience my love of Burroughs as singular and irreducible, but I am given to know, when I check in on the discourse, that I only feel this way because I am running a bad algorithm. And the result is that a part of me—the weak and immature part—no longer wants the overarching “You may also like…” function that now governs and mediates our experience of culture and ideas to serve up “Adolph Reed” or “William S. Burroughs” among its suggestions, any more than I want Spotify to suggest, on the basis of my playlist history, that I might next enjoy a number by Smash Mouth. If the function pulls up something bad, it must be because what preceded it is bad. I must therefore have bad taste, stupid politics; I must only like what I like because I’m a dupe.

https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/its-all-over

On a cursory reading, this seems to neatly outlines the limits of a standpoint-theory or perspectivist account of subjectivity as components of neoliberal ‘woke’ discourse. Individuals are reduced to their component identities – their race, gender, sexual orientation, job, and so on. Your opponent works in a coal mine? I wonder what he thinks about global warming? Of course, once you know someone’s identity along these vectors, you can deduce the categories, whip out the bingo card and – whenever they express their own apparently-considered opinion – smash down the stamp and proclaim ‘Bingo!’ (You said what I predicted you would say!) No counter-argument is required, the very fact that it could be anticipated in advance negates the argument a priori.

While the ‘bingo card’ has long been a favoured tactic of the Extremely Online Left, the right have their own approach to this through the ‘NPC’ meme. According to the NPC meme, ‘the left’ are essentially the equivalent of Non-Playable Characters in a video game: programmed in advance, lacking true autonomy or free will, with scripted lines which they repeat ad nauseam (“Conservatives are racists!”). As with the ‘Bingo’ meme, the arguments being made are predicted in advance and repudiated purely by virtue of the correctness of the prediction. The argument in both cases: The views you hold are predictable functions of your identity as (insert race/gender/sexuality/political leaning); that this reflects a lack of critical, autonomous thinking on your part; and that my ability to predict your argument in advance demonstrates the programmatic nature of your consciousness.

But I think there’s much more to it than that, and I’d like to engage on a more meaningful level than simply yet another critique of Neoliberal IdPol, because the problem goes much deeper. Importantly, Smith writes:

Someone who thinks about their place in the world in terms of the structural violence inflicted on them as they move through it is thinking of themselves, among other things, in structural terms, which is to say, again among other things, not as subjects.

https://thepointmag.com/2019/examined-life/its-all-over

This is perhaps where Smith goes wrong, but also why his pessimism does not go deep enough. Subjectivity is itself conditioned and determined structurally through the operations of power and ideology. The subject is who she is because of the modulating influences of power, reproduced in and through the subject. Whether we cash this out in Foucauldean or Althusserian terms, as biopolitics or interpellation, I take it that this remains the most accurate assessment of the conditioning of human subjectivity: the individual subjectivised through common-place and subconscious practices of ideological recognitions (Handshakes, calls, and so on – responses to ‘hailings’ from the church, school, family, etc, which even in rejection situate the subject in a certain relationship to the priest, family members, classmates, etc) To think of the subject is, properly speaking, to think of the relay-point of power and ideology. Althusser argues that subjectivity itself is perhaps the ideological mystification par excellence, masking the flux of power-relations and reiterating interpellation going on beneath the mask of consciousness. Althusser writes:

As St Paul admirably put it, it is in the ‘Logos’, meaning in ideology, that we ‘live, move and have our being’. It follows that, for you and for me, the category of the subject is a primary ‘obviousness’ (obviousnesses are always primary): it is clear that you and I are subjects (free, ethical, etc….). Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’ (therefore including the obviousness of the ‘transparency’ of language), the ‘obviousness’ that you and I are subjects – and that that does not cause any problems – is an ideological effect, the elementary ideological effect.

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” in On the Reproduction of Capitalism (London: Verso, 2014), p. 262

To put it in Žižekian terms: the point at which a subject believes they have escaped ideology is the point at which they are most deeply immersed in it. What Smith is diagnosing here is perhaps yet another manifestation of the function of ideology: the production of subjectivity itself, and the exposure (under the conditions of a transparently cynical late capitalist framework) of its regular and quite predictable structure. On one level, a commitment to the idea that it’s always the Other who is ideological remains; on another, the ironic distancing people increasingly practice (consciously and unconsciously) between themselves and their beliefs perhaps opens up a level of transparency about the functioning of ideology, while maintaining the illusion of being beyond it yourself because, unlike other people, you’re a ‘free thinker’.

And of course, on a very simple level, it’s a poor tactic: that I can predict the response of a Christian to the question of God’s existence says nothing about the person in question. But the invocation of the NPC or bingo chart betrays a suspicion that the Other is not really a subject at all (‘not like I am, anyway’) but something more like an automata (Perhaps, psychoanalysing here, a fear of the intrusion of the Other into our subjectivity). Hence its dehumanising character. Perhaps that was always the predictable outcome once the ideological workings going on beneath the surface of the subject are exposed – humanity and subjectivity are intimately interwoven; the latter exposed as a structural misidentification cannot help but undermine the former; anti-humanism at base.

Where does this leave us? Well, nowhere particularly promising. Part of the problem with the bingo and NPC memes is their general accuracy. You genuinely could take a bingo card, scroll through #Resistance or #MAGA Twitter and have filled out the whole thing within five tweets. This perhaps says something more about the collapse of mediating discourses between the two sides than anything else – lacking a moral or epistemological common-ground, the two sides take their opponent’s very identities as predictable and heteronomous, reproducing the normalising functions of ideology: each side implicitly repeats the mantra ‘Everyone is ideological except for me’. The truth is, we’re all ideological to the core and often deeply predictable as a result. Whether originality (or ‘authenticity’) is possible, or merely the mirage conjured up by ideology itself, will be considered in a later post.

Anyway, I recommend reading the article in full. It’s a truly excellent piece. I remember someone described it as “dismally pessimistic, possibly conservative” and akin to someone showing Twitter to Adorno. Brilliant.