Does anyone really think, for instance, that things would improve if we replaced the whole managerial and banking class with a whole new set of (‘better’) people? Surely, on the contrary, it is evident that the vices are engendered by the structure, and that while the structure remains, the vices will reproduce themselves.
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
About two months ago, I re-visited Mark Fisher’s essay on “Exiting the Vampire’s Castle”, trying to set out my disagreements with it in a calmer and more constructive way than I’d been able to at the time. This is something I’d been thinking of doing for a while, but the specific prompt had come from encountering some posts on a “Fisherist” blog called Xenogothic; Xenogothic then subjected my own writings to some fairly scathing critique, which I’m just now getting around to replying to. I had intended to do this a few weeks ago, but I’ve been going through something of a speed-up at work, which means that I’ve not been getting to do anywhere near as much reading, writing and thinking as I’d like; as ever, the reader can make up their own mind as to whether that has any relevance or not.
Xenogothic objects to a line where I referred to Fisher as having a definition of class that seemed to have “nothing to do with your position in society or what your material interests are”, asking whether I was “insinuating that Mark is some sort of oppressive millionaire?”
I would have thought this was obvious from the original context, but the only thing I was trying to insinuate was that Fisher seemed to have a definition of class where there was nothing contradictory about being a working-class millionaire, which seems a reasonable enough conclusion to draw from the fact that he listed people saying “that Brand couldn’t really be working class, because he was a millionaire” as an example of the sorts of wrongheaded and objectionable things that vampires say.
Does the fact of being a millionaire affect one’s class position at all, or doesn’t it? And if it does, then why this attachment to defending a piece of writing that claims it doesn’t?
Xenogothic insists that they “have very little time for people who argue that you can somehow graduate (perhaps literally) from your class position”, which I think neatly sums up the argument about class implicit in VC, and also leads to some totally incoherent conclusions – either insisting that we live in a totally feudal caste society where no individuals ever experience any social mobility, or else admitting that they do but it doesn’t really matter, because “class” is some kind of inherent internal identity that can’t be changed, like genetics or one’s immortal soul.
Xenogothic does admit that it is worth being wary of “the self-made men of this world, who loved to talk about starting from nothing” and who try to dismiss talk of class as a structure “on grounds of individualised success”. But that’s the thing: the Fisher/Xenogothic approach to class also stresses individualism over collective analysis and action, because the effect of this whole line of argument about “working-class academics/media professionals/millionaires” is to make a claim about individual identity and to tell us that we shouldn’t consider academics, millionaires or whoever as a collective social category.
The annoying thing about this is that, as I’ve said, it is absolutely possible for academics to act as part of the working class, and indeed, around this time last year, supporting the UCU dispute was one of my main priorities. But you can’t take collective action in your workplace if you’ve convinced yourself that you’re the only working-class person there and everyone else is on the wrong side, which is where this idea of “being working class and in an institutionally bourgeois position” seems to lead. It feels a bit strange to be accused of “insisting… on the deconstruction of platforms for solidarity” by someone who also slags everyone at their workplace off for being bourgeois.
I’m reminded here of that Kickstarter memo about “privileged workers appropriating unions”; we all laughed at it, but if we accept the Fisher/Xenogothic position that the UCU’s membership is made up of the bourgeoisie, then maybe it has a point?
Xenogothic adds that another point where they agree with Fisher is with regards to “his call for more working class voices in our media, in our culture, in our politics, in our schools and universities”. They add that “I don’t just mean “entrepreneurs”: I want better voices too”, but this is still far too vague for me. What roles are we talking about here? What structures are those roles a part of? At his worst, Fisher was prone to writing as though just inserting individuals into structures could transform those structures rather than vice versa; this is an illusion that Xenogothic seems to share.
If the call for more working-class voices in media and culture means constructing alternative platforms and institutions, run on different values and collectively controlled by everyone who works in/contributes to them, and re/creating genuinely participatory cultural movements that break down the old star/passive fan binary, then great, that sounds grand; but if this means “more Guardian commentators, but make them not posh”, or “someone with a regional accent getting a job as director-general of the BBC or commissioning editor on Channel 4”, then like… that’s fine as far as it goes, I guess, but I can’t say it’s anything I’m particularly excited about.
Similarly with the idea of more working-class voices in politics; some Labour politicians are poshos, but certainly not all of them, there’s a fair sprinkling of Blunketts, Prescotts and so on. More importantly, every single Labour councillor in the country, no matter what they score on the oppression-o-meter, has to perform the role of governing within the confines of an austerity budget handed down from central government, a central government that is in turn under pressure from the kinds of international institutions that battered the principles out of Syriza. Until that changes – and my suspicion is that the only way it’ll change is when councillors are more scared of the potential disruption caused by their own constituents than of the orders handed down by central government and the law – the only consequence of getting more principled, dedicated socialists with regional accents onto the council will be that they sound a lot more convincing when they tell us how sorry they are to be closing our libraries and nurseries.
On the other hand, while texts like Vampire’s Castle show Fisher’s worst side, he was also capable of being far more insightful at times, as in the section from Capitalist Realism quoted above: “Does anyone really think, for instance, that things would improve if we replaced the whole managerial and banking class with a whole new set of (‘better’) people? Surely, on the contrary, it is evident that the vices are engendered by the structure, and that while the structure remains, the vices will reproduce themselves.”
That, I think, gets to the heart of it; and I’m not convinced that the politics and culture industries are that fundamentally different to finance and banking.
Xenogothic complains that “if you somehow get there, your working class identity is void — at least according to CP. If you publicly fight for working class issues, on a larger platform than most, you’re a sellout and a hypocrite… It’s a facile and reductive argument and one which Mark himself derided.”
There’s a few important points to note here. The first is that, once again, Xenogothic clearly sees class as being about individual identity, not about collective social struggle and material interests. I suspect that the problem here is that they’re also conceiving of class as a moral category, rather than a social/economic one, which is why making an observation about someone’s class position is treated as though it was a personal attack.
On hypocrisy: I’ve never called anyone a hypocrite for “fighting for working-class issues on a large platform”. What I do have an issue with is when academics have a swipe at people who they see as possessing “an academic-pedant’s desire”, as living off the creation of “academic capital”, as having their “natural home in universities”, when academics speak out against ideologies that they say are “usually propagated by those studying for postgraduate qualifications, or those who have recently graduated from such study”. I think there is at least a potential danger of hypocrisy there.
And, for that matter, I still think it’s a bit hypocritical to use “There must be no lightness, and certainly no humour. Humour isn’t serious, by definition, right? Thought is hard work, for people with posh voices and furrowed brows.” as a criticism in a giant article that doesn’t even have so much as a knock-knock joke in.
Commenting on my attempt at a reworked and reworded critique, they dismiss it with “the tone was never offensive, the ignorance was, and all that’s happened here is the tone has been replaced, in a weak attempt to save face, whilst the ignorance remains.” I suppose it’s not really my place to tell other people that they should be (retrospectively) offended by my tone if they don’t have any objections to it, but it does feel odd that Xenogothic wants to dismiss tone as irrelevant while also championing a piece of writing that essentially functioned as an extended plea for civility.
If Fisher was right to champion Brand’s “good-humoured humility” against the “stony faces” of those who promote “sour-faced identitarian piety”, and to call for “conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication”, then considering the tone in which things are expressed seems pretty reasonable; or, of course, Fisher might have been wrong, in which case why this urge to defend his every word against any kind of criticism?
Xenogothic says that I “actually end up parroting the argument he himself makes in “Exiting the Vampire Castle” and elsewhere, choosing a supposedly nicer way of articulating the same call for solidarity using “non-cancelled” references”. Not how I’d phrase it, but yeah, there’s something to that; I wasn’t trying to claim that everything Fisher ever did or said was wrong, more that, if your aim is to promote solidarity and kindness, maybe there’s better ways of expressing that than just going “oi, all youse petit-bourgeois vampire dickheads need to stop being so sour-faced or I’ll disarticulate your fuckin’ heids in”. There’s plenty of times and places where it’s necessary and appropriate to be polarising, but I’m still not convinced that when you’re telling people to get along better is one of those times.
Next, they raise the issue of me not being enough of an expert Fisherologist, saying that I need to “read something else by Mark other than Capitalist Realism”. Which I think is missing the point somewhat; saying “this person wrote lots of other things, many of which were good” is a perfectly fine rebuttal if the point being made is that “this person was bad and never said anything worthwhile”, but it doesn’t really work as a reply to “this particular article is a bad piece of writing and it’d be nice if people could stop talking about it.”
Which raises the other problem with “read something else by Mark”: the only reason I’m still thinking about VC in 2019, more than most of his other writings, is because people are still talking about it in 2019, so surely if anyone needs to be told to “read something else”, then it should be Jodi Dean, since she’s the person who just gave a lecture about it.
Xenogothic also accuses me of deflating intersectionality, because ““Intersectionality” is not a term for overdetermined and individuated identity pockets, as it’s so often deployed in the naive “identity politics” milieu… It’s the opposite of an individualised politics.” Well, OK, but surely “individualised identity pockets” works as a fair description of this “working-class millionaire” thing, with its insistence that we can’t count certain millionaires as being millionaires, or academics as being academics, in case we imply that their “working class identity is void”?*
Xenogothic takes great exception to my mention of Sajid son-of-a-bus-driver Javid, pointing out that his background doesn’t “cancel out the fact that he is a Member of Parliament for a sitting government that has enacted countless racist and classist policies since being in office, some of which he has personally presided over”. And yeah, I agree that mentioning someone’s class background doesn’t cancel out their current social position, but that’s the whole point. The question isn’t that Javid is nasty and Fisher, or that nice Owen Jones or whoever, is nice, but whether we can talk about a class distinction between them. After all, Xenogothic, in their own words, doesn’t believe that “you can somehow graduate (perhaps literally) from your class position”, so following their logic we must understand Javid as being working class. Or, if we admit Javid’s class position has actually changed, then that line of argument totally falls apart.
Xenogothic characterises my argument as “academia at large emerges as the primary straw man here, with Mark propped up as some imaginary representative of all its bourgeois functions”, but it’s not me who brought academia into the discussion around VC, it was there from the start. Again, just to repeat, it was VC that set up an image of an enemy who are described as possessing “an academic-pedant’s desire”, as living off the creation of “academic capital”, as having their “natural home in universities”, and so on. All I’ve done is to suggest that, if you’re going to have a critique of academia, then you can’t just decide to rope off some academics as being different and not relevant to the topic. Or we could just collectively agree that “not-an-academic top trumps” is a pretty boring game to play and that there’s many more interesting things to do, which I’d be happy to agree with, but again that’s one more reason why that particular academic-baiting article should have been left behind in 2013.
They accuse me of not only “disarticulating Mark’s class position but so much of his other writing and political activity as well”. At this point, since I’ve probably read the word “disarticulating” more in that one blogpost than I’d encountered it in the last few years put together, I do have to raise my hand and ask what the precise difference between disarticulating and separating is – does “disarticulate” convey some nuance of meaning that “separate” doesn’t, or is it just that the more academic-jargon term is seen as inherently preferable to the more standard-English one?
More to the point, is it really me who’s disarticulated/separated out that one article from the rest of Fisher’s life and work? When Jodi Dean decided that, out of everything Fisher had ever said and written, she wanted to make that one particular article a focal point of her memorial lecture, wasn’t that also an act of disarticulation/separation? The actual separation took place years ago, when that one text was elevated to a status of prominence that the rest of his work doesn’t enjoy, but that was the work of Fisher’s supposed fans and boosters more than of his supposed critics. And yet, even though this is the one article people are still choosing to give lectures about in 2019, Xenogothic complains about me responding to that one text, rather than any of the various writings that people aren’t giving lectures about.
In my previous piece, I mentioned 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… supported his own centrism”. Xenogothic describes this as me pointing “to Nick Cohen’s appropriation of Mark’s essay as a sign of how bad it must be… conveniently ignoring the scorn Cohen received and the k-punk clippings sent to Cohen in the aftermath of the article’s publication that insulted him in vitriolic terms.”
As an awkward git, there is a part of me that wonders if these kinds of vitriolic insults being sent to a media commentator could be described as, say, “What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism”, or “an atmosphere of snarky resentment”, or something similar; but to be honest I can’t really say that I’m that bothered by people being mean to Nick Cohen.
We can certainly agree that the substance of Fisher’s thought has nothing in common with the centrist waffle of someone like Cohen; but the question is, then, what is it about VC that seemed attractive to Cohen, so that he would try to associate himself with it?
At the risk of being grandiose, any attempt to use Marx’s thought for emancipatory purposes must grapple with, and actively fight against, the image of Marx as guiding ideologue of the Russian/Chinese/North Korean/etc states; similarly, if not on quite the same scale, if we want to claim Fisher’s legacy as a guide to liberatory anti-capitalist action, then we need to combat the image of Fisher as the visionary genius whose central insight was that “well, people who criticise media commentators are actually bad”. And this image, the Fisher that can appeal to someone like Cohen, is based around VC, not Fisher’s work as a whole. Just as no-one has done more to tarnish Marx’s name than so-called Marxists, considering the example of Cohen shows that some self-proclaimed Fisher fans are far more of a threat to his legacy than any of his critics. Cohen may be the most glaring example here, but he’s far from the only one.
The crucial point is that the “disarticulation” Xenogothic objects to has already taken place, through the work of people like Angela Nagle, who claim to be Fisher’s disciples while boosting up and promoting that one particular piece of writing; and, when someone like Jodi Dean chooses to deliver a memorial lecture focused on that one particular piece of writing, they reinforce that disarticulation, further contributing to the image of Fisher as being first and foremost “the vampire guy”. And yet, if I critically comment on that image, then according to Xenogothic it’s as if the whole situation was my fault.
They object to me “proclaiming “working-class academic” to be something of an oxymoron”, missing the actual argument I was making, which is that it’s only an oxymoron if you’ve already chosen to define academics as being bourgeois. I never said that definition was correct, just that it was one Fisher and Xenogothic seemed to have chosen to use, in which case they should probably accept the full implications of that.
And again, from this I stand accused of trying to “deny Mark’s inspiring and unparalleled political activity on campus”, because I wrote about the VC article and not about Fisher’s statement for the Goldsmiths People’s Tribunal. I’m happy to agree that Fisher did, said, and wrote many things that were more interesting and inspiring than the VC article; but again, Angela Nagle didn’t get a book deal and a whole career out of re-hashing How the World got Turned the Right Way Up Again, Nick Cohen doesn’t go around trying to make himself sound clever by citing Memorex for the Krakens, and Jodi Dean did not, as far as I can tell, fly over to London to give a memorial lecture based around Fisher’s statement to the Goldsmith’s People’s Tribunal. So if I find myself provoked to revisit that one text more than some of his other, better, ones, I don’t think that’s because of an individual pathology on my part.
Xenogothic also brings up Fisher’s 2014 article, Good For Nothing, and berates me for a line in my 2013 article that “betray[ed] an ignorance regarding Mark’s openly discussed job history when articulating his experiences of depression.” To which I can only put my hands up and admit that, in November 2013, I was indeed totally ignorant of the contents of an article that would be published in March 2014. Perhaps it was irresponsible of me to respond to a piece of writing without first waiting for a year or so to see if anything else would be published that I should take into account.
Because I suggested that academic is not a great career choice for someone who wants to have a go at people for being academics, Xenogothic accuses me of “simply echo[ing] the depressive voice in Mark’s own head. “That’s not the right job for you.” Well, what is?””
Unfortunately, there isn’t one, that’s the whole point. I thought that the “do what you love” line of neoliberal ideology had been pretty thoroughly debunked by this point, but perhaps not in some circles. I don’t really believe in finding “the right job” in capitalism – freedom can only come from refusing the roles we’re offered, not picking the right one. Again, I would have thought this might be 101 stuff.
I wouldn’t particularly recommend that Fisher, or anyone else, choose my job instead, because it’s pretty miserable in its own way and leaves me stressed and/or tired a lot of the time; the main positive advantage it has going for it, and I don’t think it’s an insignificant one, is that it’s so obviously inane and pointless that no-one could positively identify with it, there’s no ideology that says getting to be really good at the kind of drudgework I do is a path to liberation. That, and if I really want to rip on people for being academics I can do it without being a hypocrite.
In closing, Xenogothic stresses that ““Exiting the Vampire Castle” was just that — an exit — but Mark went on to do far more valuable things elsewhere and in other contexts. Exiting was his first step on the road to collective joy”. I’m happy to agree on that point, but once again I have to ask, why this insistence on returning to that first step again and again? If you’re going to get mad at someone for focusing on that one step rather than the more valuable things he did elsewhere in other contexts, then why me and not Jodi Dean? I’m happy to agree to leave that “first step” behind if everyone else does, but as long as other commentators insist on holding it up as a vital reference point, I think critiques of it will continue to have some relevance.
*to avoid any confusion, I don’t actually think that “millionaire” and “academic” are equivalent positions, but the Fisher/Xenogothic position, with its stress on individual identity rather than social/economic position, doesn’t really seem to be able to distinguish between them.