Vampires aren’t actually real, though. Class is: a reply to Mark Fisher’s castle of bollocks

In recent days, Mark Fisher’s latest article, which I think is supposed to be about the left, and strategy, or something, has drawn quite a bit of attention. It starts out with a portrayal of how miserable and depressing he finds left-wing twitter, which I have some sympathy with, because I also don’t think twitter is a very good medium. That’s why I don’t use it, or pay any more attention to it than I absolutely have to, which is not very much. This solution might sound quite simple, but it seems to be absolutely beyond Mark Fisher’s imagination; I respectfully suggest that if he followed it, he might well save himself a lot of grief.

As I’ve said, I also dislike the general atmosphere in which twitter conversations are often conducted – in fact, reading Fisher’s article reminded me of this much better piece from last year about how they’re set up to ensure that Who Shouts Loudest Wins – but that doesn’t mean I agree with all of Fisher’s criticisms either. In particular, I was a bit taken aback by his casual, offhand reference to Owen Jones as “the person most responsible for raising class consciousness in the UK in the last few years”. That’s quite a big claim to make, and if I was going to make a claim that ambitious, I would at least attempt to support it – have Jones’ articles and speeches really done more to increase awareness of class antagonism than, for instance, David Cameron and his habit of sitting in gold chairs while waiting to make speeches about austerity? It seems at least worth considering. But, as we’ll see, Fisher appears to view backing his points up with evidence as being a terrible crime against style, to be avoided at all costs. A serious attempt to evaluate the claim that class consciousness in Britain is mostly dependant on Owen Jones would also probably require an attempt to establish what we actually mean when we say “class”, and Fisher isn’t very interested in that either.

The point about Owen Jones is central to one of the biggest problems in Fisher’s argument, which is worth going over again. “If this is what happens to a left-winger who is actually succeeding in taking the struggle to the centre ground of British life, why would anyone want to follow him into the mainstream? Is the only way to avoid this drip-feed of abuse to remain in a position of impotent marginality?” As it happens, the question of whether or not to follow Owen Jones by getting a prominent position in the media isn’t that relevant to my life either way, but – if we’re going to talk about class – I can see how the question might sound a lot more relevant to a well-regarded academic who sometimes gets to write in the Guardian than to most workers or claimants. What’s of more interest is the opposition he sets up between “the centre ground of British life” and “impotent marginality”. As it happens, I don’t think there is a “centre ground of British life”, I think that “British life”, like capitalism, happens everywhere, and that’s where our power to act on it is. The Scottish anti-bedroom tax campaigners who were able to move an evicted woman back into her home, the workers at Glasgow homelessness services who staged a successful wildcat strike recently, the construction workers who fought for a year at Crossrail and got Frank Morris his job back – all these people may be a long way from “the centre ground of British life”, and a lot more marginal than the likes of Jones and Fisher, but are they impotent?

After this, Fisher goes on to talk about how inspiring he found the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, and how brilliant it was. Not having been to the Ipswich People’s Assembly, I can’t really comment on this; I might find it more convincing if he then provided some examples of useful, productive activity that’s come out of Ipswich People’s Assembly beyond just having a big meeting, but I suppose that would violate Fisher’s Golden Rule of never backing his assertions up with evidence.

He then talks about Russell Brand, and how great his Newsnight interview was, and how upsetting it was that nasty people went on about him being a sexist instead of just concentrating on how great it was. As it happens, I agree that that interview was great, and that it offered up opportunities to talk about revolution that should’ve been embraced, but I’m not so sure that having concerns about Brand’s gender politics makes you a cloth-eared petit-bourgeois narcissistic moralist. In passing, it’s worth noting how he describes his enthusiasm for Brand: “Malcolm X, Che, politics as a psychedelic dismantling of existing reality: this was communism as something cool, sexy and proletarian.” When looking for ways to suggest the idea of communism as something sexy and exciting, he doesn’t pick France ’68, or the refusal of work in 1970s Italy, or the Poll Tax Riot or Millbank: he goes straight for an invocation of the names of more Great Men. I think this is quite a revealing choice.

In another telling reminder of his class position, he admits that Brand should face questions about his behaviour and language, but “probably not in public in the first instance”. Now, if I had the chance to pop round to Russell Brand’s house for lunch and quiz him on his understanding of feminism, I’d be perfectly happy to do so, but I don’t really have any connections to the rarified world of mega-celebrities, so if I’m going to raise questions about his behaviour, doing so in private isn’t really an option for me.

Here, once again, Mark Fisher’s (lack of) understanding of class rears its confused head: “But, once class had re-appeared, it was impossible not to see it everywhere in the response to the Brand affair… Others told us that Brand couldn’t really be working class, because he was a millionaire… It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’.”

Poor, poor Russell Brand, alone with his millions, being oppressed by people who aren’t millionaires saying that he’s not really working class because he’s a millionaire. Apparently, Mark Fisher shares Julie Burchill’s understanding of class, where it’s nothing to do with your position in society or what your material interests are, or whether you work for a living or live off other people’s labour: it’s just, like, a thing, you know, it just is? Russell Brand, Sir Alan Sugar, David Blunkett: they’re the proper working class, and you’re not. Calling this nonsense out for the bollocks it is has nothing to do with “authenticity” or saying what people “should” do: having to work for a living is really fucking shit, and if I could trade my class position for Russell Brand’s I would do so in a heartbeat. But I can’t, and if I did become a millionaire then my material, economic interests would be different to what they are now. This isn’t moralising about authenticity, this is very basic class politics.

Next Fisher introduces us to “two libidinal-discursive configurations” that he finds problematic. If you know what one of those is when it’s at home, it’s probably safe to say that you have a level of education at least vaguely comparable to Mark Fisher’s, which could be read as raising some questions about who Fisher is writing this article for and what their position in society is, questions that might be interesting for people who want to talk about class, but nevermind that for now.

The first is “the Vampire’s Castle”, which appears to be Fisher’s spectacularly pompous way of saying “feminists on twitter”. Since I try not to pay that much attention to twitter, I find it hard to evaluate Fisher’s claims: perhaps it genuinely is the case that all vampires/internet feminists do “hold immense wealth and power”, and that they not only use “all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented” but are actually “worse than Christianity”. If he provided some evidence to back up his claims, perhaps I’d be won over to the perspective that people being rude on the internet is genuinely worse than the Spanish Inquisition; as it is, though, and this is a recurring theme, no actual examples are ever given, so it’s quite hard to get over the suspicion that perhaps he is talking a terrible load of old shite.

He bangs on about the Vampire’s Castle for an impressively long amount of time without ever citing one example of it at work, so rather than go through every one of his claims and append a note saying “perhaps this is true, perhaps it isn’t, it would be nice if there was an example provided so I can make up my own mind about how convincing your analysis is here”, I’ll skip on to his next “libidinal-discursive configuration”, “neo-anarchism”.

“Neo-anarchism” is an old bugbear of Fisher’s, so it’s nice that this time round he at least makes an attempt to define what it is, even if it’s mostly negative: “I definitely do not mean anarchists or syndicalists involved in actual workplace organisation.” I would be quite interested to know what he thinks of anarchists or syndicalists involved in actual workplace organisation, but Fisher doesn’t bother to tell us; I suspect that, since anarchists and syndicalists involved in actual organising have very little relationship, positive or negative, to famous lefty men with platforms in the media, he just doesn’t find the subject that interesting.

Neo-anarchists are apparently defined by not remembering anything other than capitalist realism, with their political horizons fatally limited by not being able to remember a time when the Labour Party wasn’t shit. This is where his refusal to talk about anarchists of the non-neo-variety becomes most frustrating, because Fisher’s writing on neo-anarchism amounts to a strange, covert, and deeply disingenuous defence of the Labour Party and parliamentary politics, not by engaging with any actual critiques of Labour but by the following device:  “Some people don’t like parliamentary politics/They’re daft – I’m not talking about the proper grown-up ones like SolFed, I mean the daft ones/They’re just young and foolish and they don’t remember when parliamentary politics was good and not shit”. By pulling this manoeuvre of disassociating the “neo-anarchism” he dislikes from proper real anarchism, and then refusing to talk about the latter, he ducks the question of whether there are any serious critiques of the Labour Party that don’t just come from historical amnesia. A serious, intellectually honest defence of parliamentarianism would require engaging with the actual history of Labour, and the criticisms that have been made of that entire history; much easier to just say that the reason people are anarchists is because they don’t like Ed Miliband and don’t know enough about Tony Benn or Nye Bevan.

For Fisher, with his Great Man theory of history, effective resistance comes only from within parliament or the mainstream media; attempts to make a difference outside those arenas are “uselessly resisting”. No wonder he’s not keen to talk about workplace organisation.

Following these two big piles of libidinal-discursive bullshit, he explains why he felt the need to devote so many words to tackling the urgent, pressing problems of vampires/feminists on the internet and anarchists doing PhDs: firstly, because they have been “been allowed to prosper by capital because they serve its interests”; nevermind the actions of the Labour Party over the 20th century, from entering a coalition government with the Tories in the 1930s to enforce austerity to using the Social Contract to keep wages down in the 1970s, or from backing World War I to doing the same with the Falklands War: it’s twitter feminists and anarchists doing PhDs who really serve the interests of capital.

Secondly, because of “communicative capitalism” or “capitalist cyberspace”. You can tell he thinks facebook and twitter must be really bad because he calls them capitalist twice in a row, a term he never feels the need to apply to the mainstream media, the Labour Party or parliament in general. Apparently the rise of social media makes it impossible to ignore people having ideas you don’t like. This is a bit of a low blow, but I’ll go for it anyway: perhaps if Fisher fucked off out of academia and got a real job somewhere, preferably doing manual labour but really just any job where you have a supervisor constantly breathing down your neck to make sure you’re working and not pissing about on the internet, he might find it considerably easier to escape “the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses.”

Next, he comes to propose a solution: “it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications”. In so far as I can work out what he means – and I’ll admit that I’m a bit shaky about the difference between an identity and an identification – this reads like another load of old bollocks to me: desires and interests are real, but they aren’t all there is. Experience exists as well, and it matters. For instance, the question of whether or not we should downplay Russell Brand’s sexism because he says important things looks very different if we look at it from a perspective informed by the experience of Respect, the Scottish Socialist Party, Wikileaks, the Socialist Workers Party, and all the other political projects that have been wrecked by powerful sexist lefty men and their egos. I don’t know why Mark Fisher is so reluctant to talk about experience, but since he’s so keen to talk about class, here’s a suggestion: perhaps it has something to do with the massive gap between the day-to-day experiences you have when you’re an acclaimed academic and published author and the day-to-day experiences of most other working-class people?

There’s not much to say about the rest of the article, apart from a telling note at the end, where he calls for us to occupy the enemy terrain of Capitalist Twitter and “start to use it for the purposes of producing class consciousness”. We’re right back to the Second International-influenced views of Lenin and What Is To Be Done? here. For Lenin, “Class political consciousness can be brought to the workers only from without, that is, only from outside the economic struggle, from outside the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships of all classes and strata to the state and the government, the sphere of the interrelations between all classes.” Likewise, for Fisher, class consciousness is not something that arises from our day-to-day experiences (there’s that word again!) of life under capitalism; it is something that has to be produced by clever, famous men like Owen Jones and Russell Brand.

Lenin wasn’t just wrong; it depends what perspective you look at him from. From the perspective of an emerging Soviet bureaucracy needing an ideology to justify their rule over the workers, Lenin’s ideas were correct, vital and necessary. Likewise, if I was a very slightly famous academic with aspirations to a big career in the media, I can’t think of anything better than Mark Fisher’s ideas to justify my aspirations to myself. But, for the rest of us – those of us who aren’t faced with the dilemma of whether or not we want to become the new Owen Jones – there’s nothing particularly useful or relevant there.

Post-script:

As I make fairly clear in this article, I think that being an academic and then slagging off other people for being academics without ever acknowledging your own position is ridiculously hypocritical. I’m not an academic, but I also really don’t want to be a ridiculous hypocrite, so I will take the space here to acknowledge that I have had the privilege of going through higher education, and although I’ve never done a PhD myself, a fair few people I know are doing them, and the experience of speaking to some of these people has helped me to develop and clarify my own ideas in all sorts of ways. I don’t think that doing postgraduate study makes them bad people, although if they claimed that they were only doing PhDs so they could “move towards the centre of British life” in order to wage the class struggle more effectively I would mercilessly rip the piss out of them. The question of education and how it affects our class position is an interesting one, and one that should be explored properly in a serious and honest discussion about class, which I really don’t think is what Mark Fisher was trying to do. For what it’s worth, earlier this year I had an attempt at formulating some of my views on the subject here.

About nothingiseverlost

I'm going to carry on trying to fuck with capitalism for as long as it carries on trying to fuck with me.
This entry was posted in debate, labour, students, stuff that I don't think is very useful, the media and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Vampires aren’t actually real, though. Class is: a reply to Mark Fisher’s castle of bollocks

  1. Ollie S says:

    Thanks so much for writing this, this is an excellent take-down. Very thorough. His article is almost like a joke, and ‘Capitalist Realism’ is shit (I go to university and could barely understand it, so his pretensions of being working-class and his hating on PhD students are hilarious).

    • For what it’s worth, I really liked Capitalist Realism. It’s been a while since I read it, but I’m pretty sure the politics were considerably better than his more recent stuff (apart from anything else, pretty sure he was much more critical of Old Labour nostalgia). But yeah, if you’re going to massively ad hominem people for being academics, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you’re not an academic first.

    • i found your article a lot harder to read in compersion to his, even though i did find his method to be also in a bad way… however yours came came off as way to fractious and petty more like a pssing contents.. even though i would agree with some of your points, and his lack of clarity and nitpicking at some issue., you don’t at all respond or seem to understand the purpose or concept of the primary thesis of his argument. get to the MAIN POINT OF HIS ARTICLE. instead like most of your cohorts and the very thing he is trying to point at, your launch a kind of falslicative, formal structural critique of some of his policy or prescriptive judgments and use them to try and discarded the actual thrust of the concepts..

      sure, it is always good to have better arguments, and examples and refine your perspective elements. you also NEVER address is strong points proving you only try to cherry pick weaknesses which i will give you are there, and sure, you’re right, however it does not at all come to the the POINT of the article (also known as a “thesis”comes from the Greek θέσις, meaning “something put forth”, and refers to an intellectual proposition)

      SUCH AS:
      most the left is nothing more than, pho-liberalist bourgeoisie apologies and champagne socialist… and worse they seem to slip harley into cult of morals. among other things… concepts about, gettosation of departments, and the collapse of meaning discourse outside of confused micro-departmentals of chitral, or “identity” fracturing is completely and utterly accurate.. the prove is just a glance out your window. asfor is points of the “good guys”. i don’t buy his side ither. but does not mean he’s not identify a problem where there is one, his proscriptive elements can certainly be up for debate.. god. maybe YOU SHOULD apply some academica concepts. he is not attack that all “academica” is bad, just that ACADEMICS CURRENT MANIFESTATIONS and applications are a problem.

      it would help you sound less like an blogo-jargon slang. and more able to fully express your concepts or critiques and focus on the actual issues, and not get into petty issues of formal criticism, which is rather dated and good for high school english class, not a discourse of concepts…

  2. angelica says:

    Aye, this is good, thanks.

    Some quick afterthoughts on Fisher’s praise for Brand: how do those opinions tie together, anyhow? He denounces people for not understanding the value of parliamentary politics, while declaring Brand a godsend, he who was telling people not to vote on the news? And he professes his respect for some kind of “real” anarchists who do workplace organising… like Brand? Surely if yr going to construct some category of “neo-anarchism” divorced from any meaningful class politics, the Anon/Occupy-style libertarian-friendly politics of people like Brand must be about the most coherent claim you could make? So if you note that Brand has none of the qualities Fisher professes to value, what does he like about him? All that seems to be left is that he’s a popular misogynist. Which it increasingly seems is indeed something Fisher respects in and of itself

    • Good point, his categorisation of “neo-anarchists” is very strange indeed (they don’t even do anything, they just complain on the internet! And you know what else, they do all this protesting about the NHS as well, the idiots!) The more I think about it, the more relevant that citation of Che seems – of course Brand’s actual ideas don’t resemble Che’s armed Stalinism, any more than they resemble Malcolm X’s black nationalism, or even Owen Jones’ Labourism for that matter. What’s important is that Che is an exciting Big Man, and Fisher seems desperate to find someone to cast in his image.

  3. Northern Working Class Scum says:

    shit reponse. Fisher’s article needs an intelliegnt critical response and the best we can do is this childish bollocks.

    • Sorry you feel that way. If you feel a better response is needed, perhaps you should write it?

      • Good article. I disagree with Northern Working Class Scum, I thought what Fisher’s article required was an extended raspberry. I struggled through it and skipped bits, the style itself signed to me that he was confused; he uses words and phrases that I didn’t believe he understood the significance of, because he didn’t convey a clear meaning to me. Never a good sign when you think to yourself “I don’t understand what you are saying, and you don’t either.” Yours was lucid and drew me it to its conclusions; with his I frankly gave up partway through. You don’t actually need to eat all of a shit sandwich to know it isn’t any good.

  4. cruth01 says:

    Malcolm X was a communist?

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