Dreams from a Networked Scriptorium
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. This essay is about crises, Covid-19 and what shows through the cracks. It was first published June 19 2020.
Over the last few weeks, as well as my usual run of manuscripts (novels, memoirs, etc.) I have worked daily on editing pieces (interviews, essays, reports, statements) for Mutiny, the socialist organisation to which I proudly belong. I have also put together videos; live-tweeted protests comrades attended, and even applied my decrepit millennial brain to the art of gifs and memes, with little success, it must be admitted.
The experience of coronavirus lockdown has been that of a kind of networked scriptorium. A collaborative if largely virtual effort at theorising and informing as the sweep of events constantly threatens to overtake all understanding. Prose against history, history against prose; the need to witness challenging all capacity to see and take in and mentally organise.
It is not remotely surprising that in this heady context the moribund old left is so far behind. Trying to flog Lexit papers to BLM activists as they still dream of twentieth century failures or sell the importance of Momentum to exhausted activists as they watch the leader of the Labour Party betray groups of the oppressed with a mania that threatens to catch up with the creeping fascists in the Tory Party.
The conflict of emotions these times produce is certainly further distorted by the absence of pub drinks with comrades, occasional visits to green spaces, or even just the opportunity to casually potter to the local Indian takeaway or cafes. Not only is there no anchoring out there, but in life indoors existence feels as if it takes place without its vital textures. Routines calcify, days seamlessly flow; the abandonment of modern calendar time does not mean a return to some premodern cyclical time, but merely the death of any coherent orientation to the endless sequence of events.
So as the information that I receive, always from the same monitor (from the pieces I edit, the Zoom meetings I attend, the tweets and blogs and emails), alternatingly conveys enthusiasm or horror or bitterness, it is against the backdrop of a single, continuous, dull and sterile atmosphere. So much has happened since Covid-19 first irreparably altered life (irreparable since it has so fatally exposed the fragility of the capitalist economy in which we live), but yet it remains, menacing everything, refashioning and distorting other struggles.
The glorious resistance that spun out of the horrifying daylight lynching of George Floyd is unlike anything in my lifetime. More experienced comrades, with a note of hope and regret, make comparisons to ’68. The closest frame of reference I have is the tragic failure of Occupy and Zuccotti Park. Have lessons been learned from Occupy, let alone ’68? Can forms of lasting organisation take shape in this moment to press the vital (and now terrifyingly urgent) demand for a new world? One where black humanity is not daily sacrificed? One where ecological suicide is not more ‘reasonable’ than alternative social forms?
My hope remains my own epistemic limits. Nothing I see in the current situation could make me an optimist (working class organisation remains tragically weak, the capitalist class increasingly pushes rightward, liberals everywhere promise only cosmetic changes), but so much that is nonetheless good about the current situation was fundamentally outside the scope of my understanding merely weeks ago. Absolutist claims about the struggles of the oppressed require a stifling arrogance or myopic ignorance when set against recent events.
If you had told me when I penned a piece on the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign and then sat back in full anticipation of the inevitable defeat of Sanders, that there would be a Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) I would have questioned your all-round soundness. It becomes clearer that events both good (the fast spread of protests from as far about as Japan and France) and bad (the almost ubiquitous attack on trans people, continuous violence against black people), nothing seems within the remit of past expectations.
From the assumptions of a linear, gradualist Whiggish history to neoliberalism’s TINA induced death of history, no version of the future offered by a decaying hegemony appears more realistic than the competing utopias and dystopias offered by the left and right respectively. It would be going too far to say that capitalist realism has shattered, but the web of cracks are more substantive than at any prior point.
What remains certain is that certainties are themselves a distraction. In this period the creeping fascists might dress themselves up as conservatives to court some level of respectability, but the true conservatives are their establishment opposites (the Keir Starmers and Joe Bidens of the world) who believe that the placid inertia and hollow promises of the 90s will spontaneously return, and that their managerialism will be welcomed to usher in a new time of corporate backed clichés and tokenistic gestures to the downtrodden.
Every new crisis punctures a little bit into the strange cell of Covid-19 isolation. Every new crisis is a bit of reality showing through the aforementioned cracks. I do not know what happens afterwards (apocalypse or salvation, both?), but I know the structures that once appeared timeless look set to shatter utterly, and soon.
I know we live in an age when it is again clearly worthwhile to imagine the impossible, to dream of utopia.
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