MARCH 19, 2021
FEW ARE MOURNED by the post-millennial left like Mark Fisher. If you know anything about us, then it makes perfect sense. We are a weird bunch, displaced on every level, living in a world terrifyingly different from the one we were prepared for. Between climate change and a rising far-right, our future diminishes daily. Fisher’s work speaks to us through this lens, this alien language of existential displacement.
His short first book, Capitalist Realism (2009), was surprisingly grand in scope. To argue that neoliberalism hadn’t just privatized public life but encircled our very imaginations felt earth-shattering, particularly because underneath that argument was the passionate belief that there was still a collective way out. His subsequent works — Ghosts of My Life (2014), The Weird and the Eerie (2016), and the posthumously published, mammoth collection k-punk (2018) — all attempted to map this exit, to jump-start a mass radical imaginary that had been tamed and confined. That he left his Acid Communism unfinished at the time of his suicide in early 2017 was — in a darkly perverse way, and at the risk of making him into a martyr — his way of telling us that it is now our project to complete.
Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures is likely as close as we will come to a complete outline of Acid Communism’s arguments. It is a cobbled-together work, based almost entirely around the content surviving from the course Fisher was teaching at Goldsmiths College when he died. We’re given a rough schematic: transcriptions of the lectures (including conversations with and interruptions from students), and a course syllabus. The material is contextualized by former student Matt Colquhoun, whose own book Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy, and Mark Fisher (2020) and Xenogothic blog have marked him as one of Fisher’s many heirs apparent.
Fisher’s aim in these lectures was to map a path from the chaos and deprivations of neoliberalism toward something approaching liberation. Whether we call it socialism, communism, anarchism, or postcapitalism (as he insists on doing), the core features of this liberation are the same. Taking a cue in the first lecture from the works of Paul Mason, Alex Williams, Nick Srnicek, and others, Fisher and his students see postcapitalism as defined by the automation, amelioration, and elimination of work. Rather than viewing technology and egalitarianism as antagonistic (as so many Mister Gotchas do), they envision a world of radical-democratic abundance, in which all humans are free to pursue their ontological vocations and become truly free.
In terms of how this can be achieved, Fisher considers important works of 20th-century Marxist critical theory alongside left-feminist post-mortems of the 1960s: Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955) next to Ellen Willis’s “The Family: Love It or Leave It” (1979), György Lukács’s “The Standpoint of the Proletariat” (1923) next to Nancy Hartsock’s “The Feminist Standpoint” (1983). The apparent aim here is to establish not just a theoretical lineage but an intellectual praxis. The 1960s are, of course, widely known as a time of radical reimagining that touched both the grand-historical and the everyday-quotidian; Willis and Hartsock both say as much. Fisher’s intention here isn’t merely to remind us of that, but to look at these utopian experiments as attempts to awaken participants to the ways in which they had been subjugated by capitalism, as well as by sexism, racial imperialism, and all the other myriad ills in the crosshairs of the New Left and the counterculture.
Fisher is, in these lectures, synthesizing his own version of what Marcuse, in his 1969 “An Essay on Liberation,” called “psychedelic reason.” For those who remember Fisher’s previous, scathing rebukes of the ’60s counterculture, this volte face is disorienting. But, as both Fisher and Colquhoun elaborate, Fisher’s problem wasn’t with the drugs or the hippies or even the counterculture writ large. Rather, he was concerned about the way the whole notion of “psychedelia” could be woefully misinterpreted, both then and now. To strive for the psychedelic, the “more lucidly existential parts of human subjectivity” as Colquhoun aptly puts it, was a necessary component of human liberation. Fisher’s aim therefore is to reclaim the psychedelic from the juvenile narrowness that had been imposed upon it. He calls Lukács’s famously difficult text “trippy,” comparing it to Hartsock’s effort at consciousness-raising. This discussion strongly implies that a true, fully formed proletarian consciousness must embrace the abolition not only of exploitation, but of work itself. Fisher’s provocative view is that the American establishment was profoundly anxious about working-class people becoming hippies, mostly out of fear that such an embrace of countercultural, anti-work attitudes would strengthen the New Left. Which, of course, it did, for a time anyway.
But, as Ellen Willis writes in her essay, this rising consciousness, and the cultural-political projects informed by it, were all but extinct 10 years later. Here, Fisher and company turn to Jefferson Cowie’s 2010 sociological study Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. The segregation of the US labor movement from the New Left and the counterculture was, in many ways, a deliberately undertaken political project. Despite a rank-and-file rebellion among letter carriers, auto workers, miners, and others concerning their lack of control on the job, union officials cleaved to an innate conservatism. Many supported the war in Vietnam; most sneered at unwashed hippies. None embraced a radical abolition of work itself, in large part because this would have made their own position as mediators between labor and capital irrelevant. Add in a deep recession, increasing automation, factory closures, and the spread of neoliberalism to the reasons why a social compact between workers and bohemians was never fully consummated. It’s here that Fisher poses his big “what if”:
What if this hadn’t happened? What if these countervailing forces hadn’t managed to assert themselves in the Seventies? What if, instead, this new alliance of workers, the counterculture, etc., had come together in a sustained way? What if the demands about the quality of work had ultimately turned into demands for the abolition of work? These, for me, are some of the key questions posed by this insurgency, this moment, this breakout.
So far, it is a relatively straightforward narrative. And it might remain so were it not for a giant poststructuralist wrench Fisher now throws into the gears: Jean-François Lyotard’s thoroughly discombobulating 1974 opus Libidinal Economy. It is reassuring to see Fisher’s students — and Fisher himself — struggling with this opaque and confusing book, riven as it is with uncomfortable genderings of Marxist thought and nihilistic suggestions that workers actually enjoy being alienated and exploited. Lyotard himself called it his “evil book.”
For Fisher, the main takeaway of Libidinal Economy builds on the Freudian-Marxist insight of Marcuse that capitalism has the capacity to create, accommodate, and neutralize all manner of new desires. There is, therefore, particularly in the postwar era, no “outside” of capitalism, no space apart from it, in which we can build resistance. And, after all, aren’t there some aspects of capitalism we want to keep? Is it possible, or even desirable, to oppose it tout court?
These questions are neither answered nor refuted here, not just because of how difficult Lyotard’s text is but because there are no more lectures to read. The class on Libidinal Economy was held on December 5, 2016, the last session before winter break at Goldsmiths. Five weeks later, Fisher was dead. Ten lectures — two-thirds of the total — were never given.
Thanks to the syllabus, we have some clues as to the course’s trajectory. The ongoing line of inquiry falls into three broad categories. First comes a further anatomy of the ways in which the political-countercultural ideas of the ’60s were thoroughly uprooted (with a particular emphasis on the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratic-socialist government in Chile). Next comes an analysis (via the works of Stuart Hall, Jodi Dean, and others) of the transformation of work itself — the end of Fordism and the emergence of information economies. Finally, there is a deeper investigation of post-work politics as they manifested in the 1970s (e.g., Italian autonomism), with an eye toward what they might look like today (e.g., left accelerationism, Xenofeminism).
We can only speculate as to how these various ideas and movements might have been discussed, which themes and through-lines would have been emphasized by Fisher and his students. And, in fact, we should. Fisher’s syllabus dedicates an entire class to discussing the Chilean experience. One of the readings is from Eden Medina’s book Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile (2011) on Project CyberSyn, the decentralized proto-internet developed by Allende’s government to help keep industry flowing. Like everything else smacking of democratic control, it was smashed in Pinochet’s coup.
On the other side of the world, in a heady era of strikes and unrest, the Italian autonomists developed a strain of libertarian communism that recentered the demand for workers’ control of the workplace. Their calls found echoes in the theories and actions of Detroit car workers, French Situationists, homeless activists in Brazil. Both autonomia and CyberSyn insist that, if technology can be used to create, accommodate, and block desires, to eliminate the human being from life, then the solution is to reassert collective human control over technology. This would not be an act of primitivist destruction, a Luddite rebellion against the machine, but rather a democratic reconception of the entire relationship between human beings and technology, in the workplace and in public and domestic life (as Xenofeminist writers like Helen Hester and the Laboria Cuboniks collective currently argue).
What would this mean in the context of post-Fordism, when the relatively predictable rhythms of production, and life itself, have been replaced by an anarchic hyper-speed, and where everything from our car to our bedroom has been transformed into sites of capital accumulation? Can we retool these technologies into democratic extensions of our dreams? What if, instead of retreating into Lyotard’s contradictions, we leaned into them? What if, instead of fearing the ghost in the machine, we became it?
Then all of capital’s bets would be off: the divisions between work and life, reality and art, would begin to dissolve. Perhaps there might even be a revival of leftist counterculture, a new popular modernism, along the lines of Fisher’s understanding of the instinctively socialist or social-democratic British music and arts scenes in the latter half of the 20th century. In its closing pages, Postcapitalist Desire offers a “No More Miserable Monday Mornings” playlist featuring Sleaford Mods, Kanye West, Spandau Ballet, Sister Sledge, and others, thus demonstrating where we might pick up. “From anger and sadness to collective joy,” Fisher’s parting words read, “from work that never ends to endless free time. […] Universal Basic Income now!”
Leaving us with this joy is a poignant palliative to bitter irony. Here is a writer who dedicated so much of his work to the concept of hauntology, who attempted to (re-)animate past visions and experiments (including those of the 1960s) while leaving his own work eerily unfinished.
Our frustration is underlined by how easily even Fisher’s ideas can be reified. Spend enough time trawling through Leftbook and you are sure to find countless pages and groups dedicated to Fisher’s memory and thought. The timbre and content can vary greatly, from genuine attempts to engage with Fisher’s work, to loopy psychonautical embraces of the “acid” in Acid Communism, to shitposters derailing discussions with bad memes.
There is little point bemoaning this; people need spaces to debate and inquire, particularly as public life and education privatize, atrophy, and shrink. But Fisher was always acutely aware of the ways in which the internet was enemy territory, as his frequently cited (but much misunderstood) 2013 essay “Exiting the Vampire Castle” shows. More recent work, such as Richard Seymour’s 2019 book The Twittering Machine, not to mention numerous congressional hearings and a spate of investigative journalism, have shown just how manipulative and soft-authoritarian, just how neutralizing of our desires and autonomy, a privately owned virtual megaspace like social media can be.
This may very well explain much of the online valorization of Fisher, which often looks more like recitation than exploration, secular catechisms about the cancellation of the future rather than a search for the way out. Colquhoun has deftly critiqued this theoretical freezing-in-time, defending Fisher “as less a writer of obituaries and more as a necromancer for not just lost futures but the futures we are continually losing.” To be fair, there are online projects that genuinely build and act on Fisher’s theories. But, when we turn away from our screens, we are still confronted with a world in which technologies of surveillance, including online algorithms, have colonized just about every inch and moment. Illusions of autonomy and freedom give way to impotence. Those of us who try to leave the vampire castle come to realize that it is far bigger than we had previously imagined, and that we had until now only explored its smallest antechambers. Lyotard laughs his evil laugh.
We are confronted, then, with the same quandaries as when we began. Where might we actually invent the future? How, if there is no outside, can we discover a way out? Are there any genuinely psychedelic actions to take, any paths to true human freedom available to us? Or do they all lead back to the same deflected dreams, leaving us asking “what if” again and again?
We are, after all, in a world whose specificities could never have been predicted by Fisher. Things are dire, and we can say this without any hint of drama. The prospects of a dynamic radical movement, a vibrant far-reaching counterculture, often feel very dim. Despite having grown numerically by leaps and bounds in recent years, the contemporary left can often feel more like a subculture, in thrall to elitism and doctrine rather than vying for influence. This would only be half the picture, though.
One the most intriguing snippets in Postcapitalist Desire, a section you wish were longer, occurs during the discussion of Cowie’s book, when Fisher describes the brand of populism espoused by the recently elected Donald Trump as an example of “class without class consciousness.” It’s a thought-provoking formulation. The size of Trump’s working-class support has always been overblown; at the same time, the 2020 elections saw him expand his base in communities hit hardest by de-industrialization, by the smashing of unions. Neoliberalism’s dismantling of the historic avenues of class struggle has allowed for what Fisher calls the “identitarian capture of class,” “a reified vision of what class is.”
Returning to the Lukács-Hartsock discussion, what’s missing from this new nexus is the proletarian urge for the abolition of work. (Unless we count the anti-lockdowners who demanded that others be put back to work so they could have ice cream and golf outings. Which we shouldn’t.) Today, “working class” has been reduced to a style, ultimately perpetuating the same old subjugation. The inevitable question, then, is where we might find true class consciousness, glimmers of worlds in which the present hopeless grind of everyday life is swept away. To this end, Fisher briefly mentions Black Lives Matter:
We also have to bear in mind the weirdness of the US, given the situation around race. The Civil Rights struggle had only recently succeeded [in getting] legal recognition of black people [as equal citizens within society]. […] That legal recognition, as we can see today, is not always adhered to by any means. That’s why it needs something like Black Lives Matter as a corrective. The fact is that the practice in everyday life is the non-recognition of black lives; the idea that black lives don’t matter as much as white lives.
It’s here where, despite our weariness of microdosing tech-bros, we might acknowledge our own generation’s version of psychedelic reason. The BLM uprisings of this past summer were, first and foremost, rebellions against the structural and systematic devaluing of Black life in the United States, against a constant and everyday violence. They were also where the particular became universal, a chance to glimpse a very different conception of everyday life, against the necropolitics of COVID capitalism.
Anyone who missed the crucial class component of these uprisings wasn’t paying attention. The assertion of the priority of ordinary people’s lives over private property was evident throughout the BLM rebellion: from the refrain that we “say their names” to the boldness with which young people tagged walls, smashed windows, and, in some instances, availed themselves of the consumer products that have either been forever beyond their reach or seen as more worthy of protection than their own lives and safety. Looting, as Vicky Osterweil and others have argued, should be seen in exactly this light, as a tear in the fabric of “how things should be.”
Those at the marches who witnessed groups distributing food, water, masks, and other supplies often asked why it is we “need” private interests or the cops to maintain a society. With tens of millions out of jobs, businesses deemed “essential” or “non-essential,” and all manner of bailouts promulgated, questions about the necessity of work, and other supposedly indispensable institutions, become inevitable. Cars slowly rolled alongside those marching on foot, demonstrators sitting on their roofs with signs, blasting soul and hip-hop. Boarded-up shops were covered in bright paint: graffitied slogans, memorials to Breonna Taylor or George Floyd, colorful murals offering tribute to the heroes of Black liberation.
The BLM protests were a defiance emerging from struggle and pain, to be sure, but they also expressed a potent desire for freedom that transcended the mundanity of our algorithmized and over-policed life. They were as close as many of us have ever gotten to a true freeing of our collective consciousness. It felt, at moments, like a future — not one created from the outside, but one exploded from within, reconfiguring everything around it.
It is only natural to wonder what Mark Fisher might have thought about these events, the words he might have used to describe them, the ways he might have seen them posing a threat to an increasingly zombified capitalist realism. Just as we wonder how Postcapitalist Desire or Acid Communism might have been shaped in the end, if he had lived. But as he (or his ghost) might say, these questions matter far less than how our own lives and possible futures might be shaped by us, right now, in our imaginations and actions.
Alexander Billet is a writer of prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction. He is a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective, helps edit its publication Locust Review, and co-hosts its podcast Locust Radio. He blogs at alexanderbillet.com, and can be reached on Twitter: @UbuPamplemousse.