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This is a response to the piece Exiting the Vampire Castleby Mark Fisher.

I don’t know anything about Mark Fisher. He wrote a book, called Capitalist Realism that a lot of people seem to like, but I have no idea what’s in it or if I should care. But I do know Mark is afraid of me. He is afraid of me, because I am an anarchist, because I engage with “identity politics”, because I think the Labour Party is a load of bourgeois shit, because I believe that influential figures should be held to account for oppressive speech-acts, and because I (occasionally) go to university. Moreover, he is afraid of me because I am destroying something precious to him, something to which he has attributed meaning and invested desire – the Left; a figure, an image and a real assemblage, which produces intense affects in those who believe in its necessity and potential, and whose evident failure to intervene decisively at this moment of capitalist crisis has induced flows of despondancy across the entire social body.

How does one deal with such intense negative affect, with frustrated desire, with a pronounced, emasculating political impotence, which threaten to overwhelm the subject? What happens to the revolutionary breaks and flows of the communist machine when there seems to be precisely no way to productively intervene in the political situation? One possible line of flight is to retreat into nostalgia, pining for a workers movement of yesteryear, which was powerful and decisive and unified, while conveniently forgetting that it was this same workers movement whose failure allowed neoliberalism to claw its way into every last nook and cranny of social existence. Another is to project one’s negativity onto a scapegoat, a monstrous vampiric Other, which can be blamed for sucking the vitality and hope out of the Left.

It is, I think, no coincidence that Mark Fisher chose this historic moment of deficit (the opposite of a “moment of excess”) to dust off an old and conservative discourse, give it a new psychoanalytical gloss, and to use it to rhetorically storm the “Vampire’s Castle” he’s built in his head. Its resonances, both positive and negative, across the left seem to me to be symptomatic of the current (de)composition of the Left as a social force, where old antagonisms along identarian lines have been invested with a new urgency by the collapse of organised resistance to the present capitalist assault. It is the confluence, I think, of a number of affects specific to this period of crisis, some, perhaps, understandable and forgivable, others thoroughly unpleasant and reactionary, which produce the libidinal underpinnings of this discourse, which, following Judith Butler, I shall call “neoconservative Marxism”, namely:

  1. feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness, and directionlessness, that result from witnessing one’s organising efforts come to nothing

  2. a sense of an urgent need for unity to compensate for the evident weakness of the Left as it stands

  3. a sense of the urgency of class struggle at this particular moment, combined with a sense of competition with non-class struggles for increasingly scarce resources

  4. a felt need for robust, “no bullshit” discourse, which also has the side effect of producing a masculine affect

  5. a need to participate in the psychodrama of conflict at a time when there seems to be no way to hit your enemies where it hurts

  6. concomitant feelings of discomfort around the difficult and patient work of rebuilding, rethinking and re-orienting left resistance, and

  7. a jealousy towards the relative vitality and vibrancy displayed by intersectional/feminist discourses

One might recognise oneself in this characterisation, or one might strongly resist such psychological speculation. My purpose here was to demonstrate that the neoconservatism evinced by Fisher could also be analysed as a “libidinal-discursive formation”. But it also, I think, demonstrates why Fisher’s decision to position himself as analyst and to interpellate numerous comrades, as analysand, is both rather presumptuous, and a piss poor form of argumentation. It allows the author to negate the subjectivity of his opponent, and whatever arguments they might marshall in support of their position, and instead indulge in a patronising performance of “I understand why you think the way you do” faux-insight.

Perhaps it would be better to interrogate the substance of the argument.

The Worker and the Vampire as Gothic horror

Exiting the Vampire Castle is ostensibly an attack on the essentialising tendencies of something called “identity politics”, a style of argument that has been rehearsed often enough to constitute a genre in and of itself. This time, however, the usual genre tropes are given a distinct Gothic twist. The hero, as usual, is the ordinary British (i.e. white) working class man, this time played, somewhat incongrously by Russell Brand. The worker, trapped in a castle made out of political correctness gone mad, is stalked and preyed upon by vampires: bourgeois liberal academics posing as leftists, who hide in the shadows waiting for the worker to say something mildly sexist so they can sink their fangs of guilt and shame into the worker’s lovely neck. Once bitten, the worker is subjected to a horrific fate: he is essentialised as a sexist. The vampires may claim that they are interested in things like liberation, justice, solidarity and collectivity, but their bloodlust, it is revealed to our horror, is motivated by something much darker: petty bourgeois class interest. It is only by re-asserting the primacy of class that the vampires can be slayed and the worker can finally escape the castle and carry out his historic mission of abolishing capitalist society.

As is often the case, poorly-conceived horror morphs into camp comedy. Russell Brand, with his millions of pounds and his habit of subjecting women to public and sexualised humiliation, is hardly convincing as the hapless victim. Indeed, what else is there to do but laugh at a class analysis in which a working class person can be a multimillionaire comedian and film star and retain their working class identity, but a worker who becomes an academic and pursues an interest in Cultural Studies is inevitably possessed by a petty bourgeois essence which structures their discourse according to a subconscious desire to own a prosperous corner shop. One might also wonder in passing whether a worker might be a woman, or queer, or not white, which might recast our tragic male hero in a more ethically ambiguous light, spoiling the dramatic effect.

Neoconservative Marxism as identity politics

There are rather obvious contradictions at the heart of Fisher’s argument: How can one rail against essentialism, while essentialising (and therefore dismissing) a whole family of left discourses as petty bourgeois, and academic? How can one oppose identity politics by valourising a working class identity that is apparently independent of one’s material situation? How can one oppose the supposed suppression of class struggle on the left, while putting forward a view of class as essentially a cultural attitude abstracted from actual material struggle?

These contradictions resolve themselves if one considers Fisher’s intervention not as an opposition to identity politics per se, but as a territorial dispute over which identity politics should have primary status on the Left. For Neoconservative Marxists, the real problem with ‘intersectionality’ and such ‘identity-politics’ discourses is that they are seen as introducing division into the left, fracturing the a priori unity of the working class. Political struggle is seen as a zero-sum game: there can only be one historical Subject, and it must be the worker. Since the worker is now positioned as the sole political subject, aspects of feminism, anti-racism, and queer struggles which cannot be assimilated into an analysis of economic struggles must be something else: ethics, not politics. Therefore, those women, people of colour and queers who refuse to play their allotted role in the class struggle are infecting the workers movement with a debilitating moralism, rather than participating in a (sometimes tense and difficult) negotiation towards a recomposition of “the real movement that abolishes the present state of things”.

Perhaps the most useful lesson to take from Fisher’s piece is that, while it’s relatively easy to produce a critique of identity politics, it is far harder to transcend in practice. It might be accurate to say that intersectional discourses work with reified identity categories (although that too would be an oversimplification), but to understand that reification as merely an illusory effect of intersectionality or identity politics, rather than a material reality, is idealist in the extreme. One does not transcend identity categories by performative critique. Unity pursued through the repression of difference, is only ever purchased through the exclusion, marginalisation and domestication of gendered and racialised minorities within the left. Truly democratic unity, which in any case is never perfect and is always merely a productive conjuncture of difference, is always the effect of a successful prior coming-together on the basis of respect and mutual recognition. The revolutionary force that finally sweeps away this oppressive system is only going to be materialised in a tense coalition of heterogenous political subjectivities: workers, environmentalists, feminists, queers, people of colour, punks, anarchists, socialists, communists, liberals (even). The most prudent form of intervention on this question, then, is not to insist on collective identities that flatten out differences, but to work to build coalitions that honour and respect difference, which become unified through a collective project or vision for social transformation. Interventions like Fisher’s only serve to accentuate divisions. It doesn’t actually advance any kind of project of recomposition.

This is the first draft of a piece I wrote that eventually became this piece on the New Statesman blog. They asked me to focus on one issue in more depth rather than the two separate but related issues of pinkwashing and queer assimilation (which I was happy to do). However, I think it’s also important to understand that the two processes reinforce one another, so I’m presenting the original piece here.

In the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, something perfectly ordinary happened: a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, New York, was raided by the cops. At the time, gay bars were illegal, Mafia-run, and frequently the subject of police violence.

What made this particular night extraordinary was that the patrons fought back. First bottles and beer cans were thrown at the police, then bricks and cobblestones. Burning rubbish was thrown into the Inn and police responded by turning a firehose on the crowd. 13 people were arrested, 4 police officers were injured, and at least two patrons were severely beaten by the police.

Several days of sporadic and spontaneous protest erupted, including two more nights of rioting, with police struggling to regain control.

The first Pride marches, in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, took place on June 28, 1970, in commemoration of the riots.

Today, as queer Londoners take to the streets for the parade which forms the centrepiece of London’s WorldPride festival, Pride is an unrecognisably different affair: a 3-week consumer-fest replete with corporate sponsors (including, incongruously, the TUC side-by-side with viciously anti-union companies like Coca Cola). [http://www.pridelondon.org/]

It’s a spectacle indicative of an LGBT movement that is increasingly being assimilated into the mainstream, but at the cost of our radicalism and transformative potential.

We are becoming just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, pinkwashing the exploitation at the heart of their operation. But hey, at least we can be “Out @ Tesco” [http://home.outattesco.com/] while earning a pittance on workfare.

Worse still, we have lost our understanding of solidarity. While the Gay Liberation Front – who emerged from the Stonewall Rebellion as the movement of organised queer militancy – actively sought to build links with groups such as the Black Panthers, now we are allowing our struggles to be co-opted by racist agendas, with everyone from the English Defence League to apartheid Israel feigning concern for LGBT rights in order to portray Muslims as a pre-modern barbarian threat to the status of LGBT people in the enlightened West. [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/opinion/pinkwashing-and-israels-use-of-gays-as-a-messaging-tool.html]

Perhaps most offensively, Pride London will host a £250-a-plate gala dinner, at which US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be presented with an award, while US troops continue to destroy lives in Afghanistan (including those of LGBT Afghans) and Bradley Manning (who is commonly described as gay, but is actually a trans woman who identifies as Breanna [http://globalcomment.com/2011/why-does-the-media-still-refer-to-%E2%80%9Cbradley%E2%80%9D-manning-the-curious-silence-around-a-transgender-hero/]) Chelsea Manning rots in prison for revealing details of US atrocities in Iraq.

At present, the LGBT movement is organised around a set of fairly narrow demands for equality, understood as assimilation within already-existing conservative institutions: marriage, the nuclear family, the military, the police, the boardroom.

But equality is not liberation. Take marriage, for example. Whether the definition of civil marriage is expanded to include same-sex couples or not, the State retains the power to define what constitutes a “normal” relationship, to write the relationship script for the vast majority of society, to bludgeon our sexualities into its preferred shape, while those who don’t or won’t fit the script are pushed to the margins.

However marriage is redefined, it will never be ours. However much it changes, we will always have to change more in order to assuage the fears of “family values” conservatives that we pose a threat to their vision of sexual morality. Within the community, there is political pressure, particularly on those who are the most visibly queer, to reshape our sexualities into forms that are more palatable to conservative moralists and legislators, or to ditch the concerns of trans* people altogether because they make us look bad.

Of course, we should fight for a society that’s inclusive of LGBT people, but genuine liberation means changing society so that it’s worth being included in. That won’t happen as long as we continue to dance the tune of capitalists, racists and conservatives in exchange for incremental changes.

As it’s presently constructed, the LGBT movement is probably less than a decade away from achieving all of it’s major aims in most Western societies: centrally, same-sex couples having the right to marry and raise children, and, more broadly, equality, understood as assimilation within already-existing conservative institutions such as the military, the police, or the boardroom. Inevitably, this will mean a massive demobilization and depoliticisation among LGBT people and the collapse of much of whatever activist networks currently exist, as, demonstrably, we will have achieved pretty much everything we are currently demanding.

But equality is not liberation. Paradoxically, even as gay concerns become increasingly mainstream and everyone from major corporations, to the English Defence League, to apartheid Israel scramble to feel the benefits of positive pink PR, we are hardly closer to liberating our sexualities from the bridle of conservative/religious moralism.

Instead, we have sought, and are beginning to be granted, inclusion within heteronormative structures, namely marriage, but only on the understanding that the basic form and logic of marriage is to remain unchanged. In fact, this very concession is at the core of much of the smug liberal advocacy for “marriage equality”: of course conservative concerns are irrational, we have no intention of threatening their family values ideology, we just want in.

Marriage as an institution is the antithesis of free love, the mechanism by which the state bludgeons our sexualities into the most useful shape for reproducing the next generation of labour, and the word-made-flesh of anti-sex theology.

However marriage is redefined, it will never be ours. The State retains the power to define what constitutes a “normal” relationship, to write the relationship script for the vast majority of society, while those who don’t or won’t fit the script are pushed to the margins. This doesn’t just affect people at the point where they “choose” to get married, but in fact all relationships are expected to be proto-marriages: monogamous, and aiming at permanence, with a series of predefined stages (which vary according to culture) on the way to marriage. Romantic narratives about “finding your soulmate” (i.e. expectation that you will only legitimately love one person in your entire life) are bound up with the institution of marriage, and shape people’s expectations around sex and relationships in an often damaging way.

Marriage is the institution of an ideology that sees human sexuality as a threat, and seeks to constrain it. Ideally, sex should only happen for the purposes of procreation, but failing that, only within the bounds of stable monogamy, and not in any way that might be considered kinky or weird. There is no room for fluidity, or polyamoury, or promiscuity, which are at best tolerated among young people with the expectation that they will “settle down”.

It’s an institution borne out of sexual repression and patriarchy, and inseparable from its history as male ownership of women – a history which still shapes the lived realities of married people.

Generally speaking, within the structure of marriage, women are still expected to do the work of child-rearing for no money, and their work isn’t even considered work. Often this is on top of having a full time job, so women work a double-shift, usually for less pay than a man on a single-shift. While same-sex marriage may begin to decouple this expectation from gender somewhat, the child-rearing-as-unpaid-labour problem remains embedded into the very construction of the nuclear family.

Necessarily then, we can only participate in marriage on their terms. However much it changes, we will always have to change more in order to assuage the fears of conservatives that we pose a threat to their vision of sexual morality. Within the LGBT community, there is political pressure, particularly on those who are the most visibly queer, to reshape our sexualities into forms that are more palatable to conservative moralists and legislators, to have a binary-identified sexuality that was fixed at birth, or to ditch the concerns of trans* people altogether because they make us look bad. In other words, gay marriage takes a certain section of the queer community and makes them just like straight people, casting the rest aside.

This process of recuperation has happened over a relatively short historical period. Within decades, we have gone from being a radical sexual liberation movement which challenged and threatened the foundations of conservative sexuality morality, of which marriage is a keystone, to being little more than a movement beating at the door of family values ideology begging to be let in. In order to claim the right to be included within marriage, we place ourselves in the position of defending marriage, or cementing its position in the centre of society – we become it’s biggest cheerleaders, pushing out endless stories about happy gay couples who just want to get married because marriage is such an awesome institution – the fullest and most natural expression of love between two human beings – or of gay couples who raise perfect children (according to conservative standards) because we’re such awesome parents.

In short, as long as we continue to aim for equality-through-assimilation, we concede that we will never win the struggle to free love from the grip of bourgeois morality, and to experience love as we see fit, with whoever we see fit. In fact, we strengthen the institutions that keep our bodies and our hearts in chains.

EDIT: It has been pointed out to me that the usage of LGBT here for what is essentially an LGB movement focused on LGB concerns erases trans* people. I use LGBT in a referential rather than descriptive sense because that is how the majority of the movement self-describes.