Mark Fisher and the fading of the left

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Inevitably, on the occasion of Mark Fisher’s death, my attention has been drawn back to the seminal essay he wrote in 2013, ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’. Roundly mocked and ferociously denounced at the time it was written, what is striking now is the number of leftist commentators, like Sam Kriss, who have taken the opportunity to recant their previous opposition to Fisher’s analysis. There is little I can add directly to ‘Vampire Castle’. Fisher’s insights stand for themselves. Rather than monotonously repeating ‘I told you so’, I think it is worth investigating the reasons Fisher’s analysis is so much more acute today than it seemed in 2013.

The basic point that leftist political organisation among the middle class has proven peculiarly susceptible to authoritarianism was nothing new. With his usual pessimistic acuity, Adorno had already identified the totalitarian tendency of leftist political organisation in the West in Minima Moralia when he observed that ‘solidary itself has become sick’: ‘Solidarity is polarized into the desperate loyalty of those who have no way back, and virtual blackmail practised on those who want nothing to do with gaolers, nor to fall foul of thieves.’ As Adorno saw, this tendency expressed itself not just in the enormous hierarchies of really existing mass socialism, but in the petty authoritarianism of minor leftist parties and movements in the West. To some extent this exists in all political and social movements that find themselves excluded from the mainstream of contemporary society, whether on right or left, whether political parties or hippie communes. Fisher’s insight in ‘Vampire Castle’ was to grasp, before most others, the new and particularly pathological form that this authoritarianism had assumed in the core networks of the left today.

Mark Fisher, like many of those who graduated from the mad intensity of Warwick’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, was a man out of time. His analysis in 2013 seems bizarrely, retrochronically infected by the events of 2016. But there are, perhaps, rather worldly reasons for this. The pathological form of left-liberalism he identified in ‘Vampire Castle’ emerged from two destructive historical tendencies that have stepped into overdrive since 2015. The first of these is the constant retreat of the left—a story repeated since the advent of neoliberalism. From the 1980s on, the left has suffered such a relentless and unremitting series of defeats in the economy, in politics, and in wider society alike, that it has been forced out of necessity to transition from acting, in its bulk, as a watchfully progressive support for postwar welfarism, to becoming a forlorn rear-guard defence of the crumbling welfare state.

Secondly, with the successful universalisation of the neoliberal world order, the forces of popular democracy and technocapital have now begun seriously to erode the social and political foundations of liberalism itself. This has paradoxically forced a considerable section of middle-class liberal opinion into a ‘radical’ defensive posture that momentarily aligns it with the welfare conservatism characteristic of the left-wing mainstream—a conjuncture that became especially acute in 2016 in the opposition to Brexit and Trump, and that will no doubt intensify for the foreseeable future. Leftist politics has thus inevitably become powerfully infected by modern liberalism, with all the various individualist pathologies outlined in ‘Vampire Castle’. The intensifying awareness of this problem has triggered an escalating civil war within the left.

Neither of these historical tendencies—the left being forced into retreat, liberalism being forced towards the left—is strictly new. There are innumerable examples in modern history of liberalism and leftism being forced to cooperate, particularly against unambiguous atavisms like institutionalised sexism and racism. But the screaming urgency of the current political climate is unprecedented: liberalism finds itself under a sustained assault unseen since the 1930s at the same time that leftism teeters on the precipice of total collapse. The forcible collision this has occasioned between the two decaying forces has created new and often pathological political phenomena. In this context, the temporary success of radical figures like Corbyn and Sanders who have capitalised on the left-liberal marriage of inconvenience indicates not the advancing progress of the left but its mounting desperation. As the confusion and infighting that surrounds these two old men who represent the last great hope of Anglophone leftism amply demonstrates, they are not the rebirth of the left. They are its rigor mortis.

‘Intersectionality’ is the watchword of this coalition of the damned, designating more the absence of a theory of action than a particular type, a kind of Rousseauvian hope that a general will can constitute itself mathematically out of the conflicting interests of all the different groups who lay claim to some restitution of injustice. Ostensibly influenced by poststructuralism, as an impossible struggle against the existence of power itself it proves itself radically opposed to its theoretical progenitors. It has no successful political leaders because it is incapable of political praxis. It offers only conservative nostalgia for a now-impracticable welfare state through its leftist side and, as Fisher explained so clearly in ‘Vampire Castle’, the administration of guilt based on the exclusionary norms of bourgeois civility through its liberal side.

Solidarity itself is sick.

The future for progressive politics is darkening on every side. As the options for averting systemic crisis run out and globalisation kicks into reverse, hope recedes into the distance, becoming catastrophically remote. Divorced from any hope of political power, the ferocious internal criticism perfected by the left has combined grotesquely with an increasingly anachronistic liberal insistence on individuality, creating a monster that now runs rampant over the corpse of mainstream leftism as the iron dawn of cyberian politics shatters old forms of state organisation, kicking the ruling class into securitisation overdrive.

What, then, is left? The doomed struggle waged by leftists against neoliberalism is now fading into history, giving way to a far more symmetric, all-pervading, kaleidoscopic struggle between populists and managerial technocrats. The lightning bolts of 2016 threw disturbing flashes of light on this process that have now shocked many leftists out of their complacency, triggering, in part, the ongoing civil war now wracking the left. The sheer hysterically reactionary quality of the left-liberalism embodied in Twitterati Clintonism in the US and radical Remainism in the UK, its totalitarian view of its own allies, has now become frighteningly obvious. Now, as this left-liberal coalition works its way towards its inevitable collapse, the endlessly, monomaniacally repeated question over the shape of a world beyond capitalism must give way to a more fundamental one: what is the point of the left today?

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