In the beginning was the word, and the word was some people arguing on the internet.
In 2013, someone wrote an article which made the true and valid point that, when people say unkind things (on the internet or elsewhere, really), it can be a hurtful and upsetting experience, as well as making a number of other claims about class, representation, anarchism, parliament, strategy and so on, which I found a good deal less convincing. As the author of the article was feeling hurt and upset, he phrased his article in a way that a number of people – myself included – found to be unkind and hurtful, and so some of us – myself included – were provoked into responding in unkind ways ourselves.
In the years following the publication of that article, we lost the author to suicide.
In the years since then, the article’s reputation has only grown. People are still reading it, and sometimes people still read my original reply as well – not that many, but certainly more than are reading most things I wrote in 2013.
When we lost the article’s author to suicide, some people who hadn’t liked the article responded in very unsympathetic and cruel ways; some other people who had liked the article responded by rushing to associate themselves with the article’s legacy, and seizing the opportunity to remind everyone that the author disliked some of the same people they disliked, a move that seems not much less distasteful to me.
I don’t want to dwell too much on the contemporary uses to which the article is put, because I’m trying to write this piece without saying anything unkind, and many of the contemporary promoters of “the vampire myth” are people I can’t find much nice to say about; I’ll just note as one example that Nick Cohen, a media commentator utterly opposed to the kind of communist political project that the author promoted when he was alive, recently cited the article as if it somehow made an important insight that supported his own centrism, and that, more recently, the American academic Jodi Dean gave a memorial lecture that took the article as a central starting point, which (in combination with some related discussions) is what prompted me to go back and revisit the whole thing, and also inspired the title of this piece.*
It’s been a few weeks now since that lecture, but I’ve been quite stressed with work and not had anywhere near as much time as I’d like to read, think and write. I don’t think that’s wholly irrelevant to the points being discussed here.
So, five years later, I find myself returning to the vampire’s castle: hopefully, not in the spirit of a mindless cash-in sequel, and still less as a pointless exercise in beating up the dead, but as an engagement with ideas that people are still promoting as relevant and important today.
Working-class academics and vegetarian vampires
One of my central points of disagreement with the Vampire’s Castle essay is that it’s a piece about class and class consciousness which never defines what it means by class. As I see it, there are two main ways of defining class, and both have their merits, but I don’t think the argument made in Vampire’s Castle can fit with either.
To pose the big question: are academics, media commentators like journalists, and entertainers like Hollywood actors working-class?
In a sense, they can be: if we define the question in economic terms, and use the classic Marxist division of those who control capital and buy the labour of others, versus those who sell their own labour, then yes, these people are mostly workers rather than bosses. This isn’t just a theoretical point, it can be seen in terms of the actual class struggle: academics, journalists and entertainers have formed unions like UCU, NUJ and BECTU to defend their collective interests as workers, taken strike action and so on.
If we choose to define class in this way, then the argument made in Vampire’s Castle is wrong: the “vampires” who say unkind things on the internet are repeatedly portrayed as not part of the working class, as “the cloth-eared petit-bourgeois narcissistic ‘left’”, “the PoshLeft moralisers”, “the petit bourgeoisie which dominates the academy and the culture industry”, “petit-bourgeois to the core” and so on. If we’re defining class in economic terms, as a relationship to the means of production, then the petit bourgeoisie are those small capitalists who own independent business, and the vast majority of those who work in the academy and the culture industry are in fact proletarians – annoying proletarians, perhaps, ones with bad habits like saying unkind things, but proletarians all the same.
Of course, this is not the only possible way to understand class. We can also look at class in what I’d call more sociological terms, understanding it as a system with a range of different strata; when looked at in these terms, people like academics, media commentators and Hollywood stars obviously enjoy higher rates of pay and other privileges associated with a “professional” role, and so can be understood to be outside of the main body of the working class.
If we choose to define class in this way, then the argument made in Vampire’s Castle is wrong; if the “vampires” can be accurately described as petit-bourgeois on the grounds of having some relative privileges associated with their professional roles, then the whole argument about success and marginality doesn’t stand up. Memorably, Fisher objected to those who “told us that Brand couldn’t really be working class, because he was a millionaire… they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’.
But surely this is, in essence, the case that’s being made against the vampires themselves – after all, if they’re poshleft petit-bourgeois moralists, then surely they are indeed lacking in working-class authenticity, an authenticity that must still be possessed by those who are more impoverished and oppressed than them? If professionals and celebrities are to be cast out of the working class, which is necessary for the denouncement of vampires to work, then there’s no (class) grounds to defend the likes of Jones and Brand. If we use a definition of class where academics are counted as bourgeois, then there can be no working-class academics any more than there can be vegetarian vampires.
Of course, there is a way around this, which is to assert that some professionals are not really professionals, that by virtue of their backgrounds they can enter into Castle Academia and remain untainted; I find this unconvincing. Sajid Javid is really, truly a government minister, and being the son of a bus driver does not make him any less of a government minister; similarly, the daily life of an academic who once worked in a call center resembles the daily life of an academic who’s never worked in a call center far more than it resembles the daily life of someone who works in a call center and has never become an academic, and the daily life of a millionaire who has a regional accent resembles the daily life of a millionaire who doesn’t have a regional accent far more than it resembles the daily life of someone who has the same accent but isn’t a millionaire.
I’m not saying this as an attack on academics, either academics in general or any academic in particular. As I’ve said, there are good grounds for considering academics as part of the working class, and if the UCU go out on strike again tomorrow then I’ll get up early in the morning so I can get the bus down to the uni to stand with them for as long as I can before I need to go to work; but if that happens, I’ll extend my support to all the strikers equally, not just those of them who can pass some prole credentials check. All I’m saying is that I don’t think that “millionaires I like are in, PhD students I dislike are out” is a coherent enough definition of class to serve as a starting point for any useful analysis, and I find it surprising that an article resting on such shaky foundations is still regularly offered up as having something insightful to say about class.
To return to another key question of the VC essay: are we faced with a choice between having to “remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence” or entering into the mainstream – that is to say, marginality and obscurity, or professional success as an isolated individual, on capital’s terms? One of Fisher’s key insights, one of the big reasons why his thought is still worth returning to and engaging with, was the concept of “capitalist realism”, coined to describe the way capital closes down our sense of possibilities and alternatives; it’s a shame that, on this point, he seems to have accepted the choices offered by capital as a given, without giving much consideration to the possibility of other kinds of success and influence, outside of the highly competitive, individualised professional success offered by capital.
Following Fisher, we can call this “representational realism”, or perhaps “spectacular realism”: it’s probably true that, as individuals, if we want to escape from poverty and impotence, the best we can hope for is the gilded misery of achieving success in the role of academic, media commentator, celebrity or politician, but that doesn’t mean we need to resign ourselves to such sorry dreams. This is precisely why we need collective organisation, because it’s only through acting together that we can escape the false choice of failure or else individual success measured in capitalist professional terms. Perhaps the For K-Punk project is one example of what that kind of collective project can look like, in which case good luck to it.
Kindness, rigidity and joy
But these aspects – the wonky definition of class and the spectacular realism – are only two parts of the Vampire’s Castle argument; another, as I mentioned at the start, is the point that when people say unkind things it can be a hurtful and upsetting experience. I think this aspect is crucial to this piece’s ongoing appeal; in my original reply, I simply acknowledged the truth of this and then moved on, but here I want to examine it in a bit more detail.
Here, I’d like to acknowledge the influence of – and advise everyone else to engage with – carla bergman and Nick Montgomery, whose work on rigid radicalism and joyful militancy was crucial for my thinking on this topic, as well of Cindy Milstein, who I think is generally just a good model of how to engage in kind, generous and thoughtful ways.
Bergman and Montgomery’s work critiques some of the same problems the Vampire’s Castle essay was aimed at, but in my view it does so in a far more helpful and consistent way, and by doing so it helps to show up both the limitations of the VC piece and of my original response. Someone smarter than me (I can’t find the source, but I’m guessing probably Debord, but maybe just someone who’d read Debord?) once defined Trotskyism as the bureaucratic critique of bureaucracy; following on from this, approaching the Vampire’s Castle piece through the lens of Joyful Militancy, we can define it variously as a rigid critique of rigidity, an unkind critique of unkindness, a joyless critique of joylessness, a very heavy article with no jokes in complaining about other people showing no lightness and humour, and so on.
That is to say, I’m not generally keen on that quote about the master’s tools and so on, but prefiguration is often important, and when it comes to questions about how we behave towards each other, I think that it’s vital to model different ways of doing things. That line people quote about how “[w]e need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other” is true, vitally true, but the only way we can do it is by actually building comradeship and solidarity; the moment we point fingers at an Other and say “them, that lot over there, they’re the ones who go about condemning people”, we’ve already lost.
The vital thing about the bergman/Montgomery argument is the way they stress that these problems are processes, not bad things that bad people do but structures that we all help reproduce one way or another, and so they never fall into the trap of blaming it all on the Other; in contrast, the pseudo-class framework used in the Vampire’s Castle piece, and its imitators, means that it can never live up to the task it sets itself. If the problem is cast in terms of PoshLeft bourgeois vampires, then why should we wish to build comradeship and solidarity with them? You don’t show compassion to a vampire, you stake it through the heart; similarly, you don’t build comradeship with the bourgeoisie, you struggle against them, and ideally end up by overthrowing them.
In saying all this, while the Vampire’s Castle piece certainly didn’t do much to show what a different, kinder and more generous way of relating would be like, my 2013 response didn’t do it either, which is part of the reason why I feel motivated to return to all this again, rather than just letting my five-year-old response stand by itself. For the most part, there’s not much I’d actually apologise for in the older piece, with the exception of one bit you can tell I was a bit uncertain about at the time, the swipe about how those of us in more closely monitored work environments tend to have less ability to spend all day on social media than academics do. In some ways, I still stand by that sense of hostility I still feel whenever academics lecture the rest of us on why anarchists (or whoever) are all academics, and therefore privileged and wrong; but still, if you offered me the chance to swap my pay and conditions, let alone the pay and conditions I was on in 2013, for an academic’s, I’d happily do it, and so it was fundamentally bad faith of me to suggest that Fisher should do the opposite.
Perhaps writing this second response is a self-indulgent waste of time, but if the only way to break out of the destructive habits that Fisher talked about is to model better, kinder ways of relating to each other, and my original response failed to live up to that standard, it feels worth revisiting the question to try and respond in a more charitable way.
So, if people want to hang on to that line about how “[w]e need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other”, then by all means they should do so, it’s a good and important one; but there are far better examples of what that can actually look like, so I think it’s best if we leave the rest of that particular essay in the past.
For Mark Fisher, with thanks to carla bergman and Nick Montgomery
*on reflection, that title would probably work better if this piece actually engaged with Jodi Dean more, but whatever, if it wasn’t this it’d be some other daft vampire pun.