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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.

While compulsively checking my WordPress stats (as I often do) I came across a piece titled ‘Is hetronormativity the problem ?’, which is a response to my piece ‘Can heteronormativity be smashed?’ (Spoiler: It can.) The piece is interesting not because it brings anything particularly new or insightful to the discussion, but because I think it’s reflective of the prevailing attitude to queer and gender politics among the leftist milieu.

The central claim of the piece, which might more accurately have been titled ‘In Defense of Hegemonic Masculinity’, is that

[t]he phenomena (sic) of people considering heterosexuality the norm does not cause heterosexuality to become a privileged identity… rather homophobia diminishes the general value of gay (sic) identities in relation to heterosexuality – thus establishing heterosexuality as privileged… it’s the activity of homophobia that’s problematic… not homophobic/sexist attitudes being seen as the norm retrospectively.

Hetronomrativity (sic) is less of a value statement (or collective set of statements) about the way things should be, and more of an assessment concerning the way things are.

The inability to understand this distinction, and the cause of gender/sexual oppression tends to result in misplaced attacks on manifestations of homosociality/heterosexuality (which are assumed oppressive on account of their privileged status within hetronormative (sic) society)… [such as] isolationist proclamations on the need to smash an ambiguous ‘’lad culture’’ ect.

The ‘distinction’ drawn here is an abstract one, which separates homophobia as a concrete activity from the material and cultural conditions that produce it: homophobia is metaphysically prior to heteronormativity and the relationship between the two is one of simple linear causation (X causes Y, stop X and there’s no more Y). In reality, this distinction is about as useful as arguing for a separation of classist activity from capitalism, and asserting that if we can put a stop to the activity of classism, the lower classes will be able to live harmoniously within the system (the liberal position).

This ‘Red Rant’ is breathtakingly un-Marxist in it’s approach, which is probably a reflection of the privileging of economics (and by implication of the white heterosexual male worker) among Marxists, and a resultant failure to apply a Marxist methodology to gender. Gender is not understood as forming a system in it’s own right (in practice “patriarchy theory” is treated with derision within the organised Left) and is only relevant insofar as it relates to the class struggle, which is where real politics happens. Gender issues are reduced to sexism and homophobia – discriminatory attitudes and practices which divide the working class against itself – and are treated more or less as liberal issues.

In ‘Marxism, Method & State’ (which is excellent and deserves to be read in full) Catherine McKinnon frames the relationship between Marxism and feminism as follows:

Sexuality is to feminism what work is to marxism: that which is most one’s own, yet most taken away. Marxist theory argues that society is fundamentally constructed of the relations people form as they do and make things needed to survive humanly. Work is the social process of shaping and transforming the material and social worlds, creating people as social beings as they create value. It is that activity by which people become who they are. Class is its structure, production its consequence, capital its congealed form, and control its issue.

Implicit in feminist theory is a parallel argument: the molding, direction, and expression of sexuality organizes society into two sexes – women and men – which division underlies the totality of social relations. Sexuality is that social process which creates, organizes, expresses, and directs desire, creating the social beings we know as women and men, as their relations create society. As work is to marxism, sexuality to feminism is socially constructed yet constructing, universal as activity yet historically specific, jointly comprised of matter and mind. As the organized expropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class – workers – the organized expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, woman. Heterosexuality is its structure, gender and family its congealed forms, sex roles its qualities generalized to social persona, reproduction a consequence, and control its issue.

What McKinnon calls ‘heterosexuality’ might be more accurately be described by the neologism ‘heteronormativity’, which refers to cultural and institutional practices which establish, reproduce and enforce heterosexuality as the norm (and indeed also limit the forms which sexual activity between men and women can take). In this analysis, the issue is clearly far deeper that mere homophobia: homophobia can be seen as a policing mechanism aimed at those who deviate from the norm, but the problem is the compulsory nature of the norm, the forms of cultural participation and belonging that are contingent on compliance with the norm, and the forms of power that are accessible differentially based on the extent to which individuals or groups comply with the norm.

Heteronormativity is not an historical accident. Neither is it simply a hangover from pre-modern religious ideologies. Rather, as Foucault points out, it is intimately linked with the emergence and practice of biopolitics (that is, a governmental practice concerned with the rationalisation and control of phenomena of populations of living beings) by political powers. The regulation of sexuality is an important biopolitical concern because on the one hand, powers are concerned with the regulation and discipline of bodies, on the other with the regulation of populations. (‘Regulation’ here should not be confused with ‘repression’: the exercise of control over sexuality may involve ‘refusal, blockage and invalidation, but also incitement and intensification’.) (Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction.)

Effective resistance, then, is not simply a matter of opposing explicitly discriminatory practices either by individuals or institutions, but in contesting the terms on which masculine and feminine identity and sexuality are constructed. This makes things like ‘lad culture’ – which is defended as “a male working class identity” as if this were all that need be said on the matter, implicitly privileging working class heterosexual men, with any critique dismissed on the basis that it is ‘alienating’ (this is liberalism of the 6th type, incidentally) – which at it’s heart is the celebration of a hegemonic masculinity which is implicitly heteronormative, into sites of political contestation. Who gets to participate in masculine cultures, who is included and who is excluded, who gets to decide on what basis, and why certain forms of activity considered to be homosocial by default, are all important political concerns, which leftists should afford the same level of rigorous and radical criticism as the do to class issues.

  

I wrote the other day about how “gay marriage takes a certain section of the queer community and makes them just like straight people” and creates internal 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”.

Sadly, real life (well Facebook) almost immediately provided a (fairly nasty) example.

On a Facebook friend’s discussion about whether we need Pride marches anymore (cos like, we’ve won already or something, haven’t we?) a couple of people posted comments like this:

Personally as a gay man, I dont see the need for gay men to walk around the streets of Dublin wearing things and leather straps. Thats not something anyone should be subjected to! Straight men don’t do it? SO why do gay men need to! I dont believe in gay pride at all and would certainly never go to one!

The only thing that really bothers me about the pride parade is the whole tight clothes/scantily clad aspect of it. Encouraging acceptance of other sexual orientations should not be used to promote a specific fetish which a small minority of people (gay or straight) have, and pushes a stereotype of limp-wristed, sex-obsessed screamers which isn’t representative of gay people at all. To me that’s just exhibitionists having the time of their lives. And that’s fine, but get your own fucking parade, lads.

I used to be this guy. I’m not particularly obviously queer, and unless I tell people, they don’t realise, which is handy because I can avoid a lot of situations where my sexuality would put my life/safety in danger. I used to have a huge problem with visibly queer people and blamed them for being stereotyped by straight homophobes.

But all this is just homonormativity. It’s people whose sexuality and gender expression is similar to straight people trying to disassociate themselves from the rest of the queer community in order to access straight privilege, and in the process indulging in the same shaming and homophobic abuse as the straight oppressor.

Don’t do this. Ever.

Oh and also: “limp-wristed, sex-obsessed screamers” fought the cops at Stonewall, so it is their parade.