What’s Real After COVID-19?
This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The essay, written in COVID-19's earlier days, explores the calamity and looks back to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and Jacques Camatte's Against Domestication. It was first published April 3 2020.
OVERCOMING THE SICK SOCIETY In Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘Ambiguous Utopia’, The Dispossessed, the utopian Shevek visits a world closer to ours — contemporaneously —than the paradise from which he comes. He reflects during ‘his stay on Urras, that the Urrasti lived among mountains of excrement, but never mentioned shit.’ The conditions in which we exist can be so all-encompassing, that they are simply invisible.
I have thought about this line a fair bit lately, as I self-isolate in London during the COVID-19 Pandemic; as I reread Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and discuss it with comrades over a Zoom meeting I set up for my local book group; while I read a pamphlet, Against Domestication, which I picked up at a Time to Mutiny event held at Housemans Bookshop, published a year before Le Guin’s utopia, in 1973.
The apocalypse is fashionable because our world is nearing its end, a world in which human beings, in spite of all the evidence of their weakness and degradation, had always remained the norm, the reference point of the world. But having been presented with the fact that God is dead, we now hear the proclamation of the death of the human being. Both God and humans yield in turn to science, which is at once the goddess and servant of capital: science presents itself in today’s world as the study of mechanisms of adaption which will assimilate human beings and nature into the structure of capital’s productive activity. All the signs indicate that it is those who are least destroyed as people, and particularly young people, who now find themselves unable to accept this onslaught of adaptation and domestication; hence they are impelled to refuse the system.
Nearly half a century ago, Jacques Camatte wrote that his time was ‘without doubt the most critical period capitalist society has ever known.’ He was talking about what he took to be a permanent crisis, made possible by the fact that while normal ’relations and traditional consciousness are decomposing all around us[…] each institution in society proceeds to ensure its survival by recuperating the movement which opposes it.’ That recuperation is what Camatte means by domestication, against which revolutionaries are merely ‘playing roles which are a part of the old world.’ Moreover, it is a condition that just as easily explains that so common ‘flight into the past, as with the fashionable preoccupation with mysticism’ as it does those who hold ‘to the proposition that each problem presupposes its own particular scientific solution.’ Exemplifying the science-led utopians, Camatte mentions early feminist experiments in transhumanist reproduction, an approach he accuses of passivity, taking ‘the view that the human being is a simple object to be manipulated.’ We can see in these groupings the anticapitalists of today: those seek a radical traditionalist (Perennialist) solution, a Marxist one or accelerationists of whatever variety.
The passivity of the majority, stresses Camatte, is the commonest response; that is, those who abandon politics and accept capital’s domestication. And while all alike are ‘robbed of their ability to think in a theoretical way and to perceive reality as part of the outcome of an historical process’, still the ‘leftright dichotomy lives on, however, among the old regroupments’, and ‘functionally the same in as much as they all participate in a larger, more general movement towards the destruction of the human species.’ Worse, insists Camatte, whatever individual merits and insights are retained on the left, ‘even this understanding is deformed by the jack-of-all-trades mentality which is the spiritual complement of coming together in a groupscule.’ This is the bleak pessimism of Camatte’s variety of post-Marxist philosophy.
The thesis being made here assumes a prior agreement with Marx’s characterisation of capitalism, but also proposes that capitalism has overcome the contradictions Marx suggested would be its undoing; ‘having interiroized the social base on which it is built,’ capitalism thereby has ‘become autonomous, from which point it has then been able to make its escape.’ Elsewhere, he puts this differently, ‘the proletariat as producer of surplus value has been denied even this function by the generalization of wage labour and the destruction of any possible distinction between productive and unproductive work.’ Thus Camatte mocks what he calls the fetish or myth of the proletariat, and those who ‘can’t conceive of revolution unless it appears dressed in overalls.’ He argues that at that now distant point, the early 70s, ‘capitalist production has long since accepted rises in wages, and as for working conditions, capital is well qualified to improve them.’ That is, capital can just absorb all demands, and ‘has no fear of utopias, since it even tends to produce them.’
Camatte also takes the left to task for its belief that a consciousness based on capitalist society, a dehumanising violence in particular, can succeed in transforming such society: ‘Repressive consciousness forces me to be inhuman under the pretext that on a day decreed by some theoretical destiny, I will at last metamorphisize into a human being.’ He falls just short of insisting on non-violence, but does emphasise a commitment to seeing the humanity in everyone and the domestication within the revolutionary. So that in any struggle with ‘the “capitalists” and the police in all their forms, each individual must be violent with him/herself in order to reject, as outside themselves the domestication of capital and all its comfortable self-validating “explanations”.’
Conversely, the revolution Camatte wants is ‘a return to community, though not in any form which has existed previously’ and a ‘destruction of all that is most “modern” and “progressive” (because science is capital).’ This manages to be somehow vaguer than the most poetic Marxism, as well as lacking even a clear sense of historical agency to bring it about, but what it does capture is the pathos that accompanies the defeats the left has had, and would go on to still experience. The defeats that take us to our moment.
Having given up on workers forming a revolutionary class, Camatte looks in two other directions—both equally desperate. First, to the young: ‘Youth remains a serious problem for capital because it is a part of society which is still undomesticated.’ Second, to people — especially, again, young people — in ‘countries where the capitalist mode of production has failed to establish itself.’ The dichotomy between workers and youth, as well as a reductive view of the global situation that excludes workers in imperialist countries, is less the problem with Camatte than it is a symptom of a deeper malaise. It might be true that capitalism has subjugated its gravediggers only to trigger a crisis without any class formation capable of overcoming it, so that we must now answer in the affirmative to the question, ‘could it be that humanity is too lost and sunk in its infernal wandering to save itself?’
However, even then the contradictions within capitalism are class based, and the idea of a capitalist mode of production not based in Marx’s value theory requires a more extensive theoretical justification than Camatte even tries to provide. If we remain in a mode of production that requires Labour’s exploitation, that necessitates real limits to said system’s ability to meet worker’s demands and fulfil the abortive utopianism of early liberal thought — a utopianism that seems more distant in 2020 than it clearly did in ’73! Those limits were explained by Marx, and to overlook them requires a serious set of criticisms, not the despair of a failed revolutionary.
There are insights in Camatte’s writing. For example, on education he writes eloquently . He argues that, ‘Schools and universities are structures that are too rigid for the global process of capital’. This seems to trace out that familiar transition from a Foucaultian disciplinary society to a Deleuzeian control society, a periodisation I will revisit when I examine Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. And in that context, one might wryly if carefully agree that ‘the liberation of the school would be the liberation of oppression.’ I.e. that a return to control societies (to Fordism, the New Deal, postwar social democracy) is a false emancipation.
Indeed, it is more than prescient for Camatte to then observe that, ‘Teachers and professors are, from the point of view of capital, useless beings who will tend to be eliminated in favour of programmed lessons and teaching machines.’ David Blacker’s book, Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, makes precisely this claim with extensive theoretical and empirical evidence. But none of those insights require letting go of the centrality of workers to any possible revolution, especially in favour of a fantasy about revolutionary youth—one might still ask of such youth, of which class do they hail?
Nor is this renunciation justified by another, even stronger claim made by Camatte, however also true; that is, that ‘staying within the old forms of struggle inevitably leads to certain defeat.’ And that, in consequence of such defeats, ‘most revolutionaries doubt that revolution will ever come about, but in order to convince themselves that it will, they have to justify it to themselves in some way.’ This vicious circle is an enormous problem for the left, that at this point in history, a point of cataclysmic crisis, the left is indeed still struggling to find a form of organisation that works, and often imagines that such a form can be found at a remove from the struggles of the always overlapping and bound-up workers and the oppressed.
How bitter it is to read a then-socialist valorising generational politics in ’73, and about the very generation that in 2020 is now blamed by much of the left for our impasse! We need, clearly, not to dismiss such generational factors, nor resort to the tired and meaningless trope of a left-to-right direction of travel that is somehow baked into human nature, but to go back to class, to material conditions and to history. Why would the Labour aristocracy of the US, France or Britain come to have a different politics than their increasingly proletarianised children? The question is answered as soon as asked, and resolved only be reasserting the shared class interests of young and old, while not discounting those antagonisms and how reactionaries can successfully manipulate them.
Still, Camatte might have been wrong, but his impasse was real. My whole life has been lived under the shadow of TINA. Right as the postwar consensus was breaking apart, more perceptive socialists such as Camatte saw a titanic shift taking place, even if they could not perceive or theorise it properly. We now face a pandemic, and that shift remains relevant to this moment of deeper and deeper catastrophe.
‘Capitalist realism’ is not an original coinage. It was used as far back as the 1960s by a group of German Pop artists and by Michael Shudson in his 1984 book Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion, both of whom were making parodic references to socialist realism. What is new about my use of the term is the more expansive — even exorbitant — meaning that I ascribe to it. Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.
Fisher’s Capitalist Realism attempts to get to grips with something summed up by a ‘phrase attributed to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.’ And how can we not, now, think immediately, also, of Camatte’s apocalypse? Taking his cues from Deleuze and Guattari, who ‘describe capitalism as a kind of dark potentiality which haunts all previous social systems’, Fisher seeks to understand why capitalism no longer admits anything outside of itself, and has become historically stagnant, in a dynamic (or atmosphere) he gives the titular label.
Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.
This notion of capitalist realism, Fisher admits, ‘can be subsumed under the rubric of postmodernism as theorised by Jameson.’ However, the rephrasing is preferred to postmodernism for various reasons: postmodernism is contested as an idea, making it often vague; it came about when really existing socialism was still only dying; it retained a relationship to modernism that has since been severed, and therefore, unlike capitalist realism, still existed in opposition to alternatives, however weakened. Fisher’s atmosphere, however, admits no rivals, so that: ‘Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.’
Given such an impasse, what can be done? Fisher, echoing Marx, has no time for moralism as a solution, since evils such as ‘famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality,’ reinforcing capitalist realism. Moreover, that is compounded when ‘the model of individual responsibility assumed by most versions of ethics have little purchase on the behaviour of Capital’. Nonetheless, he seeks to show that this realism can still ‘be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible “realism” turns out to be nothing of the sort.’ Borrowing from Lacan’s notion of the Real as ‘a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality’, Fisher stresses that we must denaturalise capitalism through such fractures (what he dubs aporias) such as climate change, the mental illness crisis, and the persistence of bureaucracy under neoliberalism.
The idea of the persistence of bureaucracy was more recently taken up in David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs — a thinker who shares many of Camatte’s claims about a fundamental shift in capitalism after the breakdown in the 70s and 80s. COVID-19 (and the threat of future pandemics) could perhaps be added to Fisher’s list of aporias too. Fisher, however elects to focus on bureaucracy and mental health, as these converge on education, an area in which he has personal experience, and again, in a curious overlap with Camatte’s analysis.
However, unlike Camatte, Fisher has less faith in replacing workers with youth. Indeed, he describes the widespread youth affliction of depressive hedonism (wherein the subject is limited to pursuing pleasure) as a consequence of a shift from the aforementioned Foucaultian disciplinary society to a Deleuzeian control society, anticipated—according to Deleuze—by the fiction of Franz Kafka. Changes in educational settings are exemplary: ‘The carceral regime of discipline is being eroded by the technologies of control, with their systems of perpetual consumption and continuous development.’
For Fisher, this is tied to the development of post-Fordism and what he calls market Stalinism; that is, to a society defined by economic precariousness, surveillance and a focus on PR. Fisher stresses the intolerable tensions such conditions give rise to, and argues that society must necessarily be in denial about the costs: ‘The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness.’ The nightmare logic of Kafka is illustrative because, as Kafka’s protagonists discover, when ‘the Real is unbearable, any reality we construct must be a tissue of inconsistencies.’ An example is what Fisher regards as the bad faith scapegoating of the impotent Nanny State, ‘a sign, perhaps, that, at the level of political consciousness, it is impossible to accept that there aren’t overall controllers, that the closest thing we have to ruling powers are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility.’
In conclusion, then, Fisher returns to a theme of his first chapter, i.e. of sterility, which he illustrates through the film adaptation of the dystopia Children of Men. ‘The effect of permanent structural instability, the “cancellation of the long term”,’ he writes, ‘is invariably stagnation and conservativism, not innovation.’ He highlights Spinoza as a philosopher who best offers a needed ‘paternalism without the father’, a freedom that overcomes the instability and addictions of capitalist realism, and therefore of depressive hedonism: ‘Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can only be achieved when we can apprehend the causes of our actions, when we can set aside the “sad passions” that intoxicate and entrance us.’ For Fisher, taking on this Spinozaian freedom, means that ‘the goal of a genuinely new left should be not to take over the state’, which would ultimately be a return to a Fordist, disciplinary society (‘the liberation of oppression’ as Camatte put it) ‘but to subordinate the state to the general will.’ And that implies ‘reviving — and modernising — the idea of public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests.’
Capitalist Realism is in every sense superior to Against Domestication, even if it is more concerned with the impasse itself than — as Camatte rather ambitiously attempts — a potential resolution outside of class terms. With the COVID-19 crisis, there is again an expectation that capitalism might have arrived at its limits. Fisher, however, reminds us that while capitalist realism cannot always produce robust societies, capitalism is itself historically robust.
We should look back on the crashes of the late 70s, when neoliberalism (and capitalist realism, arguably) emerged, or the 00s, for example, when ‘far from constituting the end of capitalism, the bank bail-outs were a massive re-assertion of the capitalist realist insistence that there is no alternative’. Conversely, Fisher ends by acknowledging that ‘the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism.’ Who can now deny that we are trapped between this failure to propose an alternative to capitalism, and the seemingly contradictory sense that its continuation is impossible?
Whether we call it shit, capitalist realism or domestication, where do these radically different and yet strangely similar texts take us? Where are we now, facing COVID-19, a crisis that has seen all our defences and convictions falter, but a crisis still small compared to the economic depression and climate catastrophe looming large on the horizon?
Mark Fisher regrettably took his life in 2017, Jacques Camatte went from someone in-line with the left communist beliefs of Amadeo Bordiga to being a key influence on anarcho-primitivism. I am reminded of the once great Marxist thinker, now Catholic ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre — who even in his Marxist days was tortured over how to regard the working class. This seems to be the key to our hope as well as our despair, on the left; can we still look to workers for revolutionary change, and are we still up to the task ourselves?
Camatte is right to have a certain disdain for those who put all their hopes in the ritualised politics of yesterday’s left — electoralist or revolutionary — as well as those, like MacIntyre or arguably Camatte himself, who flee to a pure mysticism, and finally those, for example Fisher’s former peer and now reactionary Nick Land, who imagine some great technological future with capital in the driving seat and humanity (whatever of it remains) its mere plaything. These are the paths of despair, but equally they cannot be simply mocked.
The crisis we face is real, the solutions are not forthcoming, and even in the context of COVID-19, we are dangerously tied to the horrorshow of capitalism, one itself increasingly bent on our species’s very destruction. There is clearly no time to surrender to pessimism’s siren call, and we must again learn how to start talking about the shit.
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