Electoral realism – a reply to Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher is one of the most prominent anti-capitalist thinkers around in the UK at the moment, and his book Capitalist Realism is a well-respected and widely-cited text. Personally, I have to admit that I’ve not got around to reading it yet, but I’m definitely interested in his ideas, and so I was particularly interested to see his recent article which claims to offer a critique of “neo-anarchism”.
Like Pierce Penniless, who’s also written a reply to Fisher’s article, I don’t really object to most of his article, which is a fairly solid depiction of what capitalist realism is and how neoliberalism’s closed down possibilities for resistance. However, I do take serious objection to the part of his article devoted to strategy, which begins “What then can we do? Well, it is first necessary to defeat the anarchists.” His justification for this “half-joking” position is that “although anarchist tactics are the most ineffective in attempting to defeat capital, capital has destroyed all the tactics that were effective” – a claim that’s not backed up or argued in any way, just badly asserted before he moves on. Of course this move is nothing new, as literally all Marxists ever use the device of stating their opinions as fact without evidence to distract attention from the holes in their argument.* It might be the case that “neo-anarchist” tactics are ineffective – since Fisher doesn’t provide a definition of what neo-anarchism is, it’s hard to judge. But I think anarchist tactics in general are quite effective – from the heavy anarchist involvement in the militant student strike that defeated a tuition fee hike in Quebec this year to the anarchist-organised campaign that forced Holland & Barrett to withdraw from workfare to the victories won for tenants by anarchist-organised solidarity networks to the impressive concessions won by the anarchist-backed Free Hetherington occupation at Glasgow university, I think that anarchist tactics have a really strong record of being effective. Much more so than, for instance, mainstream trade unionism or left electioneering.
I also think that the claim “capital has destroyed all the tactics that were effective” requires a bit more unpacking – how is it that these unspecified effective tactics were so ineffective at defending themselves, while the unspecified ineffective anarchist tactics manage to survive and prosper? I don’t want to rely too heavily on this point, because I’m aware that, to an outsider, we’re all more or less equally marginal. But I think it is reasonable to say that “these things worked and so they’re not around anymore, whereas these other things don’t work are so they’re still around” is quite an odd statement and one that requires a bit of justification.
When it comes to his actual strategic suggestions as to what a better, non-neo-anarchist left should be doing, one of the big ones he suggests is more engagement with the media. To a certain extent, I sympathise with him here – I definitely agree that many anarchists have an excessively one-sided view of the mainstream media, and that refusing to talk to the media will mean that they’ll just interview brand-building trots or irrelevant loud-mouthed egomaniacs instead. It is, of course, also the case that not all anarchists are totally disengaged from the mainstream media, and some are quite capable of using the platforms the media will sometimes offer. But Mark Fisher appears to go beyond that, and actually seems to suggest engaging in a struggle for control of the media, an idea that I have three objections to:
1) As with political and economic representation, I’m skeptical of the idea that media/cultural representation can actually consistently reflect our interests. Ultimately, no matter how good your ideas are or what your background is, once you’ve got a prominent position in the media, that means you’re no longer having to deal with the day-to-day realities of working-class life. It’s much easier to be reasonable and see the landlord’s point of view when it’s not you who’s worrying about paying your rent or getting repairs done. This isn’t to say that no-one with a comfortable life and a platform in the media will ever speak sense; but, ultimately, the people who control the media are always going to be the bosses of the media industry, and hoping for a boss who’s going to be on our side is a very dangerous idea.
2) To go back to a point Mark Fisher makes earlier in his article, there is a problem in seeing the situation in the media as being just the result of internal struggles within the media. To steal and mangle a Fisher quote: “The discussion needed is one that interrogates where those beliefs and attitudes come from, for what we are actually dealing with is the social decomposition that gives rise to them… [The current state of the media] then is also a reflection of the recomposition of various forces in society. It is not just that people are persuaded of certain beliefs [by what appears in the media], but rather that the beliefs [the media portrays] reflect the way that forces in society are composed in contemporary capitalism.”
What I’m trying to say here is that the media will put out any product that they think there’s a market for, and successful struggles in the rest of society will produce changes within the media. The very limited upsurge in struggle since 2010 or so has already created the space for Laurie Penny, Owen Jones, Owen Hatherley, and a few others to carve out their careers; more struggle outside the media will inevitably create more space in the media, as broadcasters compete to gain the loyalty of an emerging market.
3) I’m slightly reluctant to make this point, because I’m aware that it can easily be misinterpreted as “neo-anarchist withdrawal”: if not saying that we can influence people by inviting them to crust gigs in squatted social centres, then at least the more modern version of saying we can influence them by retweeting pictures of cats with captions saying “#fullcommunism”. But still, it needs to be said: the mainstream media is not what it used to be. Mark Fisher manages to talk about the changes that have happened in Channel 4 since the 80s without mentioning the most important bit: the rise of Big Brother and Location, Location, Location are small fry compared to the fact that, in the 1980s, Channel 4 was one of the four available channels. Clearly, that isn’t the case any more. I don’t want to sound like some cyber-utopian who thinks that facebook and twitter are perfect, but to spend all that time talking about changes in the media, and not even consider the rise of the internet and the crisis this is causing in print media seems pretty odd.
Next, onto the really sharp point of disagreement: electoral politics. Defending involvement in elections, Fisher suggests “if it was pointless then you have to ask why the business class expends so many resources in subjugating parliament to its own interests.” Again, there are three obvious replies to this: firstly, it’s wrong to assume that the business class always acts rationally: you could equally well ask, if climate change is real, then why is the business class investing so little in renewable energy? Secondly, what’s rational for our enemies is not always rational for us: for instance, it may or may not make sense for corporations to use certain top-down management techniques, but if you try and apply these models in the context of socialist organising you’re just going to end up with a horrible mess. And thirdly, to turn Fisher’s question around: you have to ask why the business class expends so many resources in promoting engagement with parliamentary politics.
The argument he deploys in favour of parliamentary participation is quite densely loaded, so it’s worth reproducing it in full:
“Again, the neo-anarchist idea that the state is finished, that we do not need to participate in it at all, is deeply pernicious. It is not that parliamentary politics will achieve much on its own – the object lesson of what happens if you believe that to be the case was New Labour. Power without hegemony – that is effectively what New Labour was. But that is pointless. You cannot hope to achieve anything through an electoral machine alone. But it is hard to see how struggles can succeed without being part of an ensemble. We have to win back the idea that it is about winning the hegemonic struggle in society on different fronts at the same time.”
First off, to say that we do not need to participate in the state is not to say that it’s finished. I don’t advocate trying to bring about change by gaining senior positions in corporate management, but that doesn’t mean I think that large corporations are finished, just that I recognise those structures themselves are part of the problem, not part of the solution. To conflate the idea of not participating in elections with the idea that the state is somehow “finished” seems like a fairly disingenuous way to discredit a defensible position by associating it with an obviously untrue one.
Next, the question is not whether or not “parliamentary politics will achieve much on its own”, but whether any successful political party will be faced with the task of managing the national capitalist economy, and whether that will bring their interests into conflict with ours. This is not just a narrow point about parties that focus on parliamentary politics alone, it’s a universal contradiction that faces all left-wing parties. It’s as true of the Old Labour of Ramsey MacDonald as it is of New Labour, of the KKE activists defending the Greek Parliament as it is of the PASOK politicians voting for austerity inside, it’s the common thread linking the Barcelona May Days in 1937 with Chavez’s attacks on striking steel workers. That argument is quite different to just saying that “parliamentary politics will not achieve much on its own”.
And the claim that New Labour was “power without hegemony” is a strange one. The implied logic was that if only New Labour had a bit more of that precious hegemony, it could really have got somewhere. This is especially confusing, since, as Fisher has already correctly pointed out, New Labour was the embodiment of capitalist realism. Since capitalist realism is also the hegemonic ideology of our society, it’d be far more correct to say that New Labour had both formal power and hegemony, but it had no interest in using that power to challenge capitalism.
Finally, he falls back on an argument that is essentially a rephrasing of the very “neo-anarchist” idea of a diversity of tactics. No-one wants to be seen as dogmatic, and of course it’s important to fight on different fronts, but it’s a leap to get from there to saying that any particular form of “struggle” is automatically justified. To say that we want to “[win] the hegemonic struggle in society on different fronts at the same time” is an argument that can be used to justify “struggle” on any “front”: it could equally well be used to justify urban guerrilla activity, which most anti-capitalists would reject, and I don’t think that electioneering is any different. Saying that there’s more than one way to fight does not mean that every possible thing you can describe as being a way to fight is valid in itself, and it’s perfectly possible to support workplace organising, tenants organising, feminist organising, anti-racist organising, and so on, without that necessarily having to mean running for the local council.
Of all the far-left electoral projects that have emerged in Britain in recent years, by far the best is the Independent Working-Class Association, which, unlike purely electoral formations like TUSC, actually did engage in useful and ongoing organising work all year round; their last remaining councillor quit earlier this year, saying “I couldn’t stand on people’s doorsteps any more, telling them we were going to change things when that wasn’t going to happen… All the hours I spend in the chambers would be much better spent on the estate doing something valuable for people living there.” This fact should give serious pause to anyone who still think that elections are a worthwhile terrain to fight on.
Fisher’s fondness for parliamentary politics becomes even stranger when he accuses anti-capitalist movements of “ignoring the politics of the workplace and of the everyday. And that feels remote to ordinary working people, because at least with the unions, for all their flaws, there was a direct connection between everyday lives and politics.” It’s an argument I’m familiar with, since it’s been made many times by “neo-anarchists” within the movements he criticises, and it’s certainly one I have a lot of sympathy for, but it’s baffling to see how anyone could criticise things like summit protests for being divorced from everyday life without recognising that electoral politics – especially unsuccessful electoral campaigns by marginal lefty groups – are the original and best form of totally alienated, irrelevant political activity that feels completely divorced from everyday life, compared to which all other forms of alienated political activity are just pale imitations.
Finally, he just moves onto a plea for more organisation, which is pretty unproblematic, since anarchists really don’t have any objection to organisations. The only bit in this that I feel is worth commenting on is his claim that “If you do not have something like a party structure then you do not have institutional memory, and you just end up repeating the same mistakes over and over.” Until quite recently, I accepted this claim fairly uncritically, but now I think it cuts both ways: sure, historical memory is important, since it’s necessary to remember how “workers’ parties” in power have always behaved to understand why they’re such a bad idea, but I don’t think it’s an unqualified good; after all, one of Mark Fisher’s strengths is his examination of how the social context we live in shapes our beliefs, and taking this idea seriously, combined with an understanding of organisations as providing a kind of “institutional memory” means that we have to accept that organisations that exist now will be shaped in important ways by capitalist realism, and will continue to cling onto the memory of those limitations even when capitalist realism itself may in fact be collapsing. As I say, this isn’t an argument against organisation or memory, but it is something that’s worth being aware of.

Postscript: In the past when I’ve had disagreements with things written by the Commune, the AWL or the Anti-Capitalist Initiative, I’ve written up similar replies and then left a comment on the original article linking to my reply, and that’s always been fairly unproblematic. This time I can’t do that because Mark Fisher’s original article appeared on the Communist Party of Great Britain’s website, and, like the Socialist Party and SWP, the CPGB’s site is less interactive than, for instance, the Northamptonshire Telegraph, or the website of just about any other mainstream, non-revolutionary paper you might care to mention. How they square this with their much-publicised commitment to debate is anyone’s guess.

* in case it’s not obvious: I don’t actually think this, I’m just employing the same rhetorical device of making a broad generalisation without justifying it in any way. See how frustrating and unhelpful it is?

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About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
This entry was posted in Anarchists, Bit more thinky, Debate, Stuff that I don't think is very useful, The left, The media and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Electoral realism – a reply to Mark Fisher

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

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