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This article was written for the forthcoming edition of the Irish Anarchist Review. It is much too long for the space available, but I wanted to publish the full version here before beginning the solemn butchery of editing it down.

Futurism or the Future: Review of the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politicsi

The proliferation of computerised surveillance and security systems across workplaces has had the effect that now, in offices across the world, workers’ toilet usage is continuously monitored. You swipe your ID card to get in and out, producing a data event with a time and duration, which is quietly recorded by some computer. Upstairs, some horrendous bureaucrat ponders over all this data: How long does a shit take? How many shits is too many? Does she have a medical condition, or is she just slacking? Copropolitics: a new technology of discipline and a fresh form of indignity that was inconceivable as anything other than a cyberpunk nightmare (and a dull one at that) a couple of decades ago; the kind of technological revolution that no-one wanted, and nobody is particularly excited about, but which nonetheless happens. Of course this is easily explained entirely in terms of capitalist imperatives: remove a potential for unauthorised respite, produce a panopticon so total that it watches you shit, greater discipline, greater exploitation, more profit. If we don’t design/implement these technologies someone else will, and then we’ll be at a competitive disadvantage – the basic mechanism of capitalist technological development. Freud once told us that an obsession with excrement is a pathological manifestation of extreme greed. Today, at the highest stage of capitalist development, it is a mundane expression of bourgeois values, made possible by technological advances, or “progress”, as it is often called.

The Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politicsii (MAP from here on) appeared to considerable interest and excitement last year (with some apparent resonance beyond the too-cool-for-school, anti-academic academics who normally consume this kind of thing) to announce an “accelerationist politics” as a programmatic remedy for a Left mired in crisis and depression. Contextualising itself within a historical moment charaterised by a set of existential threats to humanity (“the breakdown of the planetary climatic system… [t]erminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves” etc.), by the stagnation of contemporary capitalism, which has embraced a “death spiral” of austerity policies, privatisation and wage stagnation, and by the retreat of the political imaginary, which is no longer capable of conceiving of a future other than more of the same, the MAP calls for a kind of ambivalent alliance with capital, as an alternative and more realistic revolutionary path to the “neo-primitivist localism” and “folk politics” of contemporary social movements, and the doomed fantasies of a return to Keynsianism clung to by various leftist parties.

Accelerationism argues that “the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt or critique… but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies”iii, that “liberation must occur within the evolution of capital; that labour power must move against the blockage caused by capitalism; that a complete reversal of the class relation must be accomplished by the pursuit of constant economic growth and technological evolution”iv in order to produce “an alternative modernity that neoliberalism is inherently unable to generate”. Explicitly presenting itself as simultaneously a “political heresy”v and as recovering some suppressed true progressive core of leftism, accelerationism effectively asks us to stake the future of the human species on an uneasy and ultimately treacherous alliance with capital: we must navigate our way through the blockages and crises of capital, liberating its potential, but only so that, ultimately, it can be transformed into something that is not-capital.vi

The thesis is certainly seductive, not least due to the rhetorical bombast (one might say machismo) of its presentation, but also in its capacity to speak to the frustrations of contemporary leftists, and its insistence on resurfacing futurist and utopian themes of space exploration and the transcendence of the limitations of the human body. But is this the seduction of a liberatory politics or of a suicidal impulse?

My contention, for reasons that I hope to make clear, is that the MAP is the presentation of the latter as the former, and therefore is not to be taken seriously as a programmatic document. It is more useful, I think, to read it as a kind of provocation to an ecologically-minded left. The question is not “should we embrace accelerationism?” (to which I think the answer is a fairly obvious “no”) but rather “why not embrace accelerationism?” Why not throw your lot in with the massive abstract machinery and torrential flows of capital? If the revolutionary path is not to act within the evolution of capital, then what is it? What is it that we, the non-accelerationists, think can (1) actually effect the kind of transformations necessary to confront the existential threats and political-economic formations we face, and (2) recover the idea of a communist horizon designating the possibility of a world that is not only less oppressive than this one, but which is actually exciting in the experiences and possibilities it entails?

Cyborg-Lenin against the hippies

One of the strongest points of the MAP (or in any case, one which goes a long way towards purchasing credibility for its argument) is its withering critique of the Left, which speaks readily to the frustrations of a generation of leftists who had pinned their hopes to a set of anti-austerity movements and strategies which came, spectacularly, to nothing. The various Parties, both of the social democratic and Lenin-necromancing variety, are, rightly, castigated for their failure to think of any alternative to the neoliberal death-drive beyond an unlikely return to Keynsianism. The social conditions that enabled Keynsian social-democracy simply no longer exist and cannot be recovered: “We cannot return to mass industrial-Fordist labour by fiat, if at all.” And in any case, who would want to, given that the system relied on “an international hierarchy of colonies, empires, and an underdeveloped periphery; a national hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation” and condemned workers to “a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression” in return for security and a basic standard of living? I would only add that the Keynsian class-compromise didn’t work too well for us the first time round, leading, as it did, to the destruction of the trade union movement and the advent of neoliberalism, and we are unlikely to fare better a second time round given the present balance-of-forces between organised labour and capital.

“New social movements” and, implicitly, anarchists, are also singled out for critique by the MAP. Lacking transformative political vision, these movements fetishise “internal direct-democratic process and affective self-valorisation over strategic efficacy” and cling to “a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism” which is utterly insufficient against an enemy that is “intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure.” No one who has been through a process like the Occupy movement could fail to recognise some truth in this characterisation, and the notion of process-as-politics (and its corollary insistence on radical openness to the point of paralyzing incoherence) certainly needs to go the way of flower power into history’s dustbin of nice ideas that don’t work, but it is certainly possible for similar movements to sharpen their understanding of the relationship between means and ends without embracing the crypto-vanguardism of the MAP’s attempted rehabilitation of “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion”.vii

Indeed, the MAP’s rather troubling solution to this problem is to dispense with the consideration of means altogether and define democracy entirely in terms of its end: “collective self-mastery… which must align politics with the legacy of the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is only through harnessing our ability to understand ourselves and our world better (our social, technical, economic, psychological world) that we can come to rule ourselves… [through] a collectively controlled legitimate vertical authority in addition to distributed horizontal forms of sociality” in which “[t]he command of The Plan [is] married to the improvised order of The Network” – a kind of Leninism via Facebook, in other words. Abstracted from all considerations of process, what sort of theory of sovereignty grounds this “legitimate vertical authority”? No answer is given, but one suspects, given that for the MAP “collective self-mastery” means to align politics with the goal of understanding ourselves and the world, and given the emphasis on the decisive role of cognitive labour (which the manifesto itself acknowledges consists of “a vanishingly small cognitariat of elite intellectual workers”) in the process of acceleration, this amounts to rule by a scientific-technical elite counterbalanced by some system of cybersoviets. (The flaws with this are obvious and I have neither the desire nor space here to rehearse debates over the Russian Revolution through speculative fiction.)viii Moreover, democratic concerns aside, what the MAP proposes in terms of strategy essentially amounts to a Gramscian long march through the institutionsix a process surely far more tedious and self-defeating than the worst Occupy assembly.

More interesting and important is the anti-localism of the MAP. This is a significant and serious challenge to ecologically-minded leftists, many of whom are unfortunately trapped in an idealism which “oppose[s] the abstract violence of globalised capital with the flimsy and ephemeral ‘authenticity’ of communal immediacy.” If capitalism is global so too must be our resistances and our efforts at social transformation.x History is not reversible, and globalisation means there is no longer any solution at the level of the nation-state, much less at the level of the locality, the “transition town”, the bioregion, or any other territorial conception of space; all localisms entail the disappearance of the complex webs of relations that constitute the spaces of a globalised world, and consequently lack a plausible path from this world to theirs. To take one example: modern food production and distribution relies on complex global networks, without which we would all starve within a matter of weeks. The practice of growing your own vegetables and building local distribution networks, which is commonplace in green milieus, and is often treated as if it were a radical ecological praxis, fails utterly to confront the complex logistical problems of producing enough food to feed everyone, and does not offer a scalable solution to the ecologically destructive effects of industrial food production. The accelerationists are right on this point: the material, social, biological, cultural, technological world around us is the only one we have to transform, and we either embrace the messy and contradictory task of making a livable world from it, or we perish.

Techno-Oedipalism

Perhaps the central contradiction of the MAP is that their pursuit of a radical orientation to the future requires the dusting off of an extremely old set of ideas. Marx’s historical materialism – the theory that capitalism, which begins as the great liberator of the productive forces, sooner or later becomes an impediment to further development as the relations of production become too narrow and constrainingxi – is reproduced without any significant alteration. Indeed, the manifesto’s basic diagnosis of the present social/political situation is precisely that capitalism, in its neoliberal form, has already become such a fetter on the forces of production:

Capitalism has begun to constrain the productive forces of technology, or at least, direct them towards needlessly narrow ends. Patent wars and idea monopolisation are contemporary phenomena that point to both capital’s need to move beyond competition, and capital’s increasingly retrograde approach to technology… rather than a world of space travel, future shock, and revolutionary technological potential, we exist in a time where the only thing which develops is marginally better consumer gadgetry.”

In 1848, Marx made a similar diagnosisxii:

Modern bourgeois society… is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule… The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property. The conditions of bourgeois society are too narrow to comprise the wealth created by them.”

Spot the difference! Needless to say, bourgeois society has spent the intervening 166 years continually revolutionising the forces of production without too much difficulty. One might assume that the boy has cried terminal crisis too many times at this stage for anyone to seriously make such pronouncements anymore (particularly in a context that’s many orders of magnitude less revolutionary than that of 1848), but here we are. The MAP translates the argument from the language of Marxist dialectics to that of Deleuze & Guattari’s anti-dialectical focus on potentials, assemblages and multiplicities – we no longer have the forces of production straining at their fetters, but rather the latent potential of technosocial bodies that is blocked by neoliberalism – but the argument remains substantially the same. There’s a distinction between “acceleration” and “speed” – acceleration includes the concept of direction, and so accelerationism entails navigation and experimentation rather than blindly pursuing an already-determined direction – but this is simply a fudge to pre-empt obvious critiques. The physical concept of acceleration can have either a positive or negative value (i.e. can be an increase or decrease in speed), but this possibility is explicitly discounted as reactionary by the MAP – there is to be no slowing down of capitalist acceleration – the argument is every bit as teleological (i.e. the idea that history has an inbuilt tendency towards a goal, that of liberation through development of the productive forces) as the worst Hegelian moments of Marx. Worse, this translation into trendy Deleuzo-Guattarian terms totally ignores one of the major insights of their thought: that crises, far from sounding the death knell of the capitalist mode of production, are part of the dynamism of capital that allows it to continually revolutionise production, without any natural (i.e. inbuilt or automatic) terminal point: the more the machine breaks down, the better it works.xiii

Central to the MAP’s enterprise is the reconnection of the Left “to is its roots in the Enlightenment, in a rationalist and universal vision of collective human self-construction”.xiv To this end, 19th and early 20th Century modernist themes of Man’s mastery over nature are uncritically regurgitated, as if an entire century of critique had never happened.xv The MAP insists “that only a Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment is capable of either dealing with global problems or achieving victory over capital.” This Prometheanism is to be distinguised from classic Enlightenment chauvanism only in the sophistication of its science: “[t]he clockwork universe of Laplace” is replaced by complex systems theory, but the basic conception of the Man-nature relationship remains utterly unchanged. Nature is a stage for Man’s triumphs, a problem to be overcome, and a thing to be dominated by Man’s will. Such arguments made a degree of sense in the 19th Century when capitalism still retained a vast outside waiting to be incorporated (although this incorporation involved rather a lot of genocide, and required the invention of race and racism as its ideological complement) and the resources of the Earth were still for all practical purposes infinite, but become rather more problematic in the context of a society whose very existence is called into question by the unsustainability of its relationship with the world it inhabits.

One might expect, at a minimum, some argumentation as to how the accelerated pursuit of economic growth and technological development is compatible with an ecologically sustainable civilisation. The MAP has nothing to say on this point. Instead, the various imminent ecological crises are raised at the beginning, only to be immediately brushed aside to talk about technology. The implication, made explicit in Negri’s “reflections” on the manifesto, is that the question of ecology can be “wholly subordinated to industrial politics”,xvi or really to the politics of technology, since it is technology which is the central concern of the MAP, and not class struggle. This has two immediate implications, both disastrous. The first is the splitting of the human-nature relation from the relations of production, which ignores the “fundamental identity [of industry] with nature as production of man and by man.”xvii There can be no industrial politics that is not immediately also a politics of nature, since all production presupposes and produces a particular way of relating to nature. All forms of capitalism necessarily require the objectification of nature – its production as commodity and as property – which produces its unchecked exploitation as a necessary feature. The metabolic relationshipxviii of humans to nature is fractured through the subordination of both humans and nature to capital. It is with this process that the MAP insists we ally ourselves.

Second, in subordinating the question of ecology to that of technology, ecology is transformed from a political to a scientific-technical question. Rather than being a question of how to transform society to allow for a sustainable relationship with nature, we are asked simply to trust that liberating the productive forces can produce a technological fix. This is, at best, a massive gamble in the short to medium-term, in which the stake is the survival of human civilisation, and in any case, it fails to resolve the crises produced by our antagonistic relationship to nature, but merely displaces them in time, while deepening our entanglement with destructive forms of production in the meantime. Moreover, the manifesto fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the relationship of technology to society. Technology is neither to be rejected nor embraced as such: it is neither a route to liberation (as the accelerationists contend) nor a bringer of doom (as the primitivists contend), but must be understood in a way that fully subordinates it to social relations (i.e. what kind of society produces and utilises it). This is not the same thing as arguing that technology is neutral and can merely slot unproblematically into whatever social relations it encounters. Technology is produced under particular social conditions and is designed for those social conditions. As an objectification of the intellect of a particular form of society, its tendency is to objectify the social relations of that society as the facticity of the non-human environment, and thus to reproduce those social relations. This means that any communist movement is inevitably confronted with the problem of repurposing a technological infrastructure built for a capitalist world to communist ends – a task with no simple solution. The accelerationist response to this challenge, for all their out-of-context appropriation of Anti-Oedipus, is decidedly oedipal in form: the major work of producing a communist and ecologically sustainable future is displaced onto “the tendency” – capital-daddy and techno-mommy.

Back to the Future

Ultimately, all this talk of politics is simply a means to an end from the point of view of the MAP’s central concern: the recovery of the vector of the Future, and the sense of hope and excitement that entails. For the MAP, this entails the resurfacing of modernist dreams of extra-terrestrial travel, and the transcendence of the biological limitations of the human body (and specifically of the contingency and vulnerability of the human condition as a species within nature), and of sci-fi and cyberpunk concerns with cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and with the production of new an alien terrains of virtual and post-human experience. It is easy to mock dreams – this is probably the ugliest and most hollow of all intellectual activities – and there will be none of that here. In the context of a planetary deficit of imagination and hope that is the corollary of the contemplation of coming disasters that threaten our annihilation, and of a pervasive sneering postmodern sensibility that retains always a protective ironic distance from all belief, we urgently need to recover the capacity and courage to dream. The accelerationist reminder that within living memory generations of humans really believed that a better tomorrow awaited them (whether through the social democratic state, the inventive powers of the free market, or the coming communist revolution) is hugely important. Even a thoroughly bourgeois thinker like Keynes believed that one day automation would liberate the masses from drudgery. Now, after decades being bludgeoned with neoliberal ideology, There Is No Alternative is the new common sense, and our dreams have been quietly smothered one-by-one. To dream today is a radical act, and one crucial to our hopes of survival. But what are we to make of the particular dreams of the accelerationists?

Throughout the MAP, there is an unstable tension between the future as open and experimental space of as-yet-unrealised potential and the Future as a particular and historically-specific set of dreams to which we must return, that is, basically, between a future that is yet to be imagined and constructed, and futurism as a particular aesthetic and cultural mode of imagining the future, which by now amounts to a set of warmed-up Hollywood sci-fi clichés. “Remembering the future”xix is the unfortunate theme of acelerationism, and, through its conflation of futurism with futurity, it ends up producing an imaginary that, rhetorical packaging aside, is much too narrow and conservative. Other futures are possible beyond the endless accumulation of new technologies. Even the primitvist milieu (or “post-civ” as they now call themselves, having realised that a bunch of trendy white kids fetishising the ways of life of indigenous peoples is rather colonialist), for all their nihilism, have an idea of a future: instead of the safe and controlled virtuality of cyber-alterity, what about the actuality of wilderness as a space of excitement, exploration and danger?xx I’m not endorsing this – certainly better dreams are possible – my point, merely, is that technological acceleration is not the only vector to the future, that techno-utopians do not have a monopoly on libido, and that constraining our imaginings in advance to what is achievable through technological development does humanity a disservice.

In any case, there is something strikingly hollow in all this technological speculation. All this brushed aluminum cyborg novelty is all well and good, but its a rather mono-dimensional image of the future. What happens to the ordinary – that dimension of mundane everyday experience that, no matter how far we push the horizons of technology, persists, reconfigures itself, and insinuates itself constantly into our lived-experience?xxi In its rush to escape the ordinary and pursue the alien, the MAP neglects this vital dimension of human experience, and de facto abandons a crucial concern of the Left (particularly the post-68 Left): the liberation of everyday life. There is little discussion of, or concern with human relationships, in the manifesto; social relations are understood as essentially a problem to be overcome, a blockage to technological potential, and the task of their re-arrangement is basically subordinated to the project of neo-Enlightenment mastery. Never are social relations considered in themselves, in their meaning or importance for the human subjects that enter into them. This is crucial. One of the most commonly occurring themes in science fiction is that of a technological utopia that, on the surface, offers all sorts of fascinating and novel experiences, but whose obscene underbelly is that, in the sphere of everyday human relations, the same old repressions, the same violence and exploitation, the same misery, remains. (Indeed, from a certain historical point of view, that is precisely the world we already live in.) What the MAP misses, above all else, is that what is oppressive and experientially miserable about capitalism is not its frustration of technological progress (that all that develops “is marginally better consumer gadgetry”, say), but that, because we are determined to relate to one-another another always through the abstract machinery of capital, we have so little real experience of one-another. We spend our entire lives living and working together in utterly alienated ways and even the new communications technologies which supposedly bring the world together only function to trap us more totally in the prisons of our selves. What unexplored potential lies blocked by the alienated ways of working together that capital requires for its reproduction? What might we experience and achieve together if we were free to explore new ways of relating? These questions are left unexplored by the MAP, but, to paraphrase the manifesto’s rather cringey nod to Deleuze, surely we don’t yet know what a social body can do?

i Some of the arguments in this review were developed through a discussion with WSM members and supporters. The audio of that discussion is available at: http://www.mixcloud.com/workerssolidarity/a-chat-about-the-manifesto-for-for-an-accelerationist-politics-wsm-dublin/listeners/

ii Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #ACCELERATE: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, available at: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/ (All quotations are from the Manifesto unless otherwise stated.)

iii Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, ‘Introduction’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p.4

iv Antonio Negri, Some Reflections on the #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/26/reflections-accelerate-manifesto/

v Mackay & Avanessian, op. cit.

vi The authors noticably shun the word ‘communism’ in favour of ‘post-capitalism’. This is hardly incidental, given that MAP is concerned with the transformation of social relations for the purpose of unleashing supressed productive and technological potential, rather than instrumentalising technology to the production of an egalitarian society. This distiction is significant.

vii The main problem with vanguards, from the point of view of social movements – and this is hardly a moralising critique – is that their tendency is to fuck things up far more often than they steer their troops with uncanny insight and prescience, and to leave a wasteland of bitterness and division in their wake. “Relentless horizontalism”, exhausting though it may be, is generally preferable to being steered or manipulated by the blunderings of some tinpot Lenin.

viii One of the recurring ironies of the MAP is that amidst all its supposed novelty, some very old and worn-out ideas keep popping up. They even manage to reproduce the absurd practice of sticking in a tenuously relevant Lenin quote to authorise their argument.

ix Patricia Reed, ‘Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism’ in #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, p.523

x Of course, everything remains localised to the extent that it happens somewhere and not elsewhere – even cyberspace is still a space, albeit one with a weird rhizomatic geometry – it is not a question of producing One Big Movement that unites the whole world, but of building linkages between geographical localities based on an understanding of the increasingly non-geographical nature of social space. This, I think, is the only useful interpretation of the slogan “think global, act local”.

xi “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” Karl Marx, Preface to ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, 1859

xii Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

xiii “The death of a social machine has never been heralded by a disharmony or a dysfunction; on the contrary, social machines make a habit of feeding on the contradictions they give rise to, on the crises they provoke, on the anxieties they engender, and on the infernal operations they regenerate. Capitalism has learned this, and has ceased doubting itself, while even socialists have abandoned belief in the possibility of capitalism’s natural death by attrition. No one has ever died from contradictions. And the more it breaks down, the more it schizophrenizes, the better it works, the American way.” Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, p.181

xiv Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams and Armen Avanessian, #Accelerationism: Remembering the Future, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2014/02/10/accelerationism-remembering-future/

xv There is a truly vast body of critique on this theme, spanning the Frankfurt School, ecofeminism, postcolonial theory, virtually all ecological thought, postmodernism, post-structuralism, and doubtless many more radical critical traditions. I’ve used the term “Man” deliberately to emphasise the strongly gendered nature of the opposition between humans and nature, and of the notion of mastery over nature.

xvi Negri, op. cit.

xvii Deleuze & Guattari, op. cit., p.4

xviii “Man [sic] lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” Karl Marx, Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts. See John Holloway, Crack Capitalism, pp.125-9 for more depth on this point.

xix Srnicek, Williams & Avanessian, op. cit.

xx This point on danger could do with further elaboration, if space permitted. For now, let me simply ask: what if the end result of mastery over the conditions of human existence, and the transcendence of all contingency and vulnerability, is not liberation, but a new and intolerable kind of boredom that comes from being the kept pet of a benevolent and omnipotent machine intelligence? What if the abolition of all that keeps us weak is also the abolition of the danger and uncertainty that makes life interesting?

xxi Robert Jackson’s Ordinaryism: An Alternative to Accelerationism is an inspiration for this point, albeit a rather dull and turgid kind of inspiration. Available at: http://furtherfield.org/features/articles/ordinaryism-alternative-accelerationism-part-1-thanks-nothing

Marketing itself is a practice based on differences, and the more differences that are given, the more marketing strategies can develop. Ever more hybrid and differentiated populations present a proliferating number of “target markets” that can each be addressed by specific marketing strategies—one for gay Latino males between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, another for Chinese-American teenage girls, and so forth. Postmodern marketing recognizes the difference of each commodity and each segment of the population, fashioning its strategies accordingly. Every difference is an opportunity…

When one looks closely at U.S. corporate ideology (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, at U.S. corporate practice), it is clear that corporations do not operate simply by excluding the gendered and/or racialized Other. In fact, the old modernist forms of racist and sexist theory are the explicit enemies of this new corporate culture. The corporations seek to include difference within their realm and thus aim to maximize creativity, free play, and diversity in the corporate workplace. People of all different races, sexes, and sexual orientations should potentially be included in the corporation; the daily routine of the workplace should be rejuvenated with unexpected changes and an atmosphere of fun. Break down the old boundaries and let one hundred flowers bloom! The task of the boss, subsequently, is to organize these energies and differences in the interests of profit. This project is aptly called ‘‘diversity management.’’ In this light, the corporations appear not only ‘‘progressive’’ but also ‘‘postmodernist,’’ as leaders in a very real politics of difference.

Hardt & Negri, Empire, pp. 152-3

I

In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse develops the concept of “repressive desublimation” as a critique of the consumerist politics of desire: In its consumerist phase, capital no longer operates primarily through the denial and repression of desire, but through the satisfaction of desires that it itself produces, thus preventing rebellion and ensuring the reproduction of the capitalist system with a fully closed circuit of desire and consumption. There is a disciplinary machinery at work within the supposed free play of desire: one’s desire must always lead back to capital. One must want only what capitalism offers, and increasingly one must not refuse to want it. As Zizek claims, increasingly “the permissive ‘You May!’ [turns] into the prescriptive ‘You Must!’… permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment” (The Superego and the Act) but this enjoyment is strictly regulated: “you can enjoy everything, BUT deprived of its substance which makes it dangerous.” (Passion In The Era of Decaffeinated Belief) There is, therefore, an unsatisfying banality to consumerist gratification:

“Behind the glitter of spectacular distractions, a tendency toward banalization dominates modern society the world over, even where the more advanced forms of commodity consumption have seemingly multiplied the variety of roles and objects to choose from… life in this particular world remains repressive and offers nothing but pseudo-gratifications.” (Debord, The Society of the Spectacle)

* I have substantial disagreements, however with Marcuse’s historical thesis and his account of desire: there was never a purely libidinally repressive capitalism with which to compare modern permissive capitalism, while at the same time the immiseration of previous “phases” continues to coexist with consumerist abundance which confounds any notion of historical rupture in this regard.

Thus is the ambivalence of capitalist “freedom”. Who, after all, would want to return from “repressive desublimation” to repression simpliciter?* And yet there is, if anything, a more profound alienation associated with the capitalism that gives us what we want: alienation at the point of production – that is, the alien presence of capital within us, appropriating our will and intent – is generalised to the whole of social life – capital lives within us as desire – the desiring-production of capital

II

I wish to propose a similar (and somewhat related) concept in relation to the (postmodern) capitalist politics of difference: that of “homogenising differentiation”.

In its postmodern phase, capital encourages – indeed in certain senses relies upon – the free proliferation of difference across the social world, both as a necessary correlate of the deconstruction of national boundaries, as a field of opportunity for marketing and consumption, and as a source of productive creativity.† But capital also must impose certain limits on the emergence of new subjectivities to ensure they continue to feed into the production and consumption of commodities, and must continually reterritorialise all escapes. “Let a hundred flowers bloom!” capital says, but in blooming one must remain a flower: you can have whatever identity you like, as long as it is capable of functioning as a marketplace and a workshop for commodity consumption/production. The immanent logic of capitalist pluralism is thus to homogenise the very difference it pursues, to circumscribe and constrain the field of possibilities it simultaneously opens, to reterritorialise with one hand what it deterritorialises with the other.

† Of course, as Hardt & Negri point out, this “global politics of difference established by the world market is defined not by free play and equality, but by the imposition of new hierarchies, or really by a constant process of hierarchization” (Empire, p.154) Capital, even at its most utopian, retains and develops an alliance with patriarchal, heteronormative and racist biopolitical regimes, but this is not our primary insterest here.

This is not at all a matter of opposing a virtual or superficial difference to a real underlying sameness, as if gender, race etc. are merely the surface phenomena of a universal worker-consumer, nor is it a matter of opposing (universal) form to (particular) content. Rather it is the operation of a material process of subjection, universal in scope but particular in application, that organises the subject to produce a certain set of functions, potentials, imperatives, without reducing it to merely another copy of the same. Many different machines can plug into the universal machine of capital, so long as they can manifest certain features: i.e. can speak the universal language of money, submit to work-discipline, produce value, desire commodities, gaze upon the spectacle. In other words, we do not discover a universal figure of the worker-consumer beneath particular articulations of race, gender etc., and thus reassert the political/ontological primacy of class; there is no sub- or super- structure here, but a multiplicity of processes of interpellation that structure a common material.

Put simply: capitalist diversity is internally contradictory, not simply because it relies on the perpetuation of structural racism, sexism, homophobia and the like for its reproduction, but because the logic of (even, or perhaps especially) those capitalist processes that Hardt & Negri claim “have long been postmodernist, avant la lettre” (Empire, p.151) requires that it must continually ward off the emergence of a truly radical otherness that it cannot recuperate.

III

Official (state and corporate) multiculturalism takes this form. The racial/cultural other is officially embraced so long as that otherness never exceeds the implicit bounds set by the state and the market. “We love your exotic foods and dances, your spiritualism, your ecologically sound approach to nature,” multiculturalism says, but in the same breath this incitement to diversity is also a proscription: “this is to be the content of your difference”, which must never exceed the bounds of good citizenship and of enthusiastic neoliberal subjectivity. The celebration and incorporation of “good diversity” is in the same moment the abjection and suppression of “bad diversity”: “Muslims yes! Political Islam no!”

Similarly, the “progressive” corporations are pro-gay but virulently anti-queer. Increasingly, capital heroically champions the rights and inclusion of same-sex couples but on its terms. It is interested precisely and only in those wishing to opt-in to heteronormative kinship structures and associated consumer practices, and thus “[t]he sphere of legitimate intimate alliance is established through producing and intensifying regions of illegitimacy” (Judith Butler, Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?). Pride is gradually stripped of its political content and instead becomes just another celebration of consumer culture, and the movement began with a demand for liberation – that is, to open new spaces of livability, to push the horizons of experience, and to resist the disciplinary violence of society – becomes “just another interest group, another demographic, another corporate social responsibility box-ticking excercise allowing big business to claim progressive credentials, obscuring the exploitation at the heart of their operation.”

IV

According to many on the Left, this is precisely the sort of thing that postmodernism, identity politics, and intersectionality are incapable of seeing. Focusing myopically on a set of disconnected particulars, so the argument goes, those who pursue a radical politics of difference fail to see the trap that is identity. Capital has outflanked us by incorporating the very politics of difference we seek to deploy against it within its marketing strategies, management practices, modes of biopolitical governance, etc., leaving the postmodern left chasing the ghost of a modernist capitalism that no longer exists. What is needed, therefore, is a return to macro theories with global applicability, and the recomposition of a universal historical (class) subject.

What this perspective is missing is an understanding of the immanent tension of a bourgeois politics of difference, the inescabable insufficiency of capitalist inclusiveness, and thus the tendency of a radical politics of difference to exceed what capital is able to deliver. After all, the space of consumer flavours does not exhaust the potential of human life, and capital must continually frustrate our becomings, blocking paths, recoding and redirecting renegade desires. We should not abandon the postmodern pursuit of difference to the capitalist apparatus of capture, but rather relentlessly push at the boundaries of experiential possibility to pursue a radical difference that capitalism is inherently incapable of realising: “Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process'” (Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, pp.239-40) – an accelerationist identity politics, not technological and productivist, but experiential, subjective. A transversal politics continually shifting focus between structure and intersection to discover possibilities for insurrection – a revolutionary intersectionality that exceeds the individuating and identitarian bureacracy of liberal thought.

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.

This is the text of a review I wrote for Irish Anarchist Review No. 5, which is available from the WSM (PDF should be up soon). I’ll hopefully write about some of this stuff in less wordy faux-academic language soon.

Title: The Crises of Multiculturalism: Racism in a Neoliberal Age
Authors: Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley
ISBN: 978-1-84813-581-9
Publisher: Zed Books
Available online from: zedbooks.co.uk
Cost: £15.99

In November 2011, the Fine Gael mayor of Naas, Darren Scully sparked controversy when he announced on national radio that he would no longer represent “Black Africans”, due to their “aggressiveness and bad manners” and their tendency to “play the race card”. Ultimately, the controversy caused by Scully’s blatant and unambiguous racism forced his resignation as mayor.

1. It Ain’t Easy Being Blue.

However, as Crises… co-author Gavan Titley pointed out, the mistake, from Scully’s point of view, was not in being racist per se, but rather that he “played the wrong race card”. [1] While overt racism is still experienced by people of colour both on the streets and within institutions, in public discourse the language and tactics of racism have become more subtle (to some extent, in response to significant victories by anti-racist, anti-apartheid and post-colonial movements worldwide, and the demise of scientific racism as an ideology). Racist speech is no longer concerned (explicitly at least) with racial superiority and inferiority, or even with race per se, but rather with the supposed impossibility of the harmonious co-existence of different cultures within a single society. Scully’s blunder was his lack of political sophistication, not his racist intent.

Multiculturalism in crisis

In Crises…, Lentin and Titley discuss similar themes, exploring the dynamics of racism in contemporary public discourse in the era of neoliberalism. Specifically, they discuss various narratives around ‘the failed experiment of multiculturalism’, which function as a means of ‘laundering’ racist ideas and policies. These narratives have a fairly familiar form: For the past number of years we have been living in the era of multiculturalism, whose noble aspirations were pursued by state institutions across the Western world. However, despite the good intentions of it’s left and liberal proponents, multiculturalism has proved to be an utter failure and must be abandoned.

These narratives, while often presented by their narrators as someone finally speaking up on behalf of the silent majority in the face of repressive political correctness, in fact crop up regularly in public discourse, with everyone from newspaper columnists to mainstream political figures such as David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, to far-right figures such as Nick Griffin or Geert Wilders clamouring to sound the death knell for multiculturalism.

Crises… challenges those narratives, by questioning whether a coherent multicultural era ever existed. They argue that multiculturalism was never seriously embraced by the establishment beyond the rhetorical, nor by left anti-racists, who saw it as a liberal retreat into culture (but who have been forced somewhat reluctantly into the position of defending multiculturalism against attacks from the right). Instead, the spectre of multiculturalism is erected as a target for the racial anxieties of everyone from liberals to the far-right.

This thesis is elucidated by combining theoretical analysis with discussion of various recent controversies: moves to ban or regulate the wearing of Islamic headscarves or burkas by Muslim women, the Swiss ban on minarets, the ‘free speech’ controversy around the Jyllands Posten cartoons, the 2004 Citizenship Referendum in Ireland, and others.

Free speech and white privilege

2. This is discussed explicitly by Titley in relation to the recent invites of Nick Griffin to speak at UCC and Trinity College here.

Of particular practical significance for the Irish left, specifically those involved in anti-fascist organising, is the discussion of the Jyllands Posten cartoon controversy, which has a number of parallels with the free speech debates that regularly result when fascist leaders are invited to speak on university campuses. [2]

In such controversies, the substantive issue at stake (in this case the racist content of cartoons of Muhammed in a newspaper with a right-wing anti-Islamic agenda and historical links to fascism) is subsumed into a meta-debate about the principle of free-speech and its limits. This reflexive reframing of the issue serves a particular political function: to apparently invert the power structures of a white-privileged society so that the white racist becomes the victim of oppressive multiculturalism – an ontological inversion that functions to delegitimate the complaints of the oppressed and cast the oppressor as a symbol of Western liberal values.

“Organised around this abstraction is a ‘threefold cast of characters’ beginning with the protagonist who breaks a taboo in pursuit of freedom, who is subsequently supported by principled defenders of the open society, and both of whom triangulate with the subject who has taken offence… Muslims are cast as this intolerant apex, and thus positioned, ‘end up being treated as deficient in comparison with the evident open-mindedness of those who tolerate transgression’”. (pp. 138)

A similar dynamic exists in the case of fascist speakers on university campuses, with anti-fascists being drawn into a liberal-idealist discussion about what rights exist, how far they extend, and which rights take precedence when they conflict – a discussion which ultimately benefits fascists and racists. The more materialist analysis found here of how such events and the controversy surrounding them actually impacts the subjects of racism is perhaps a more useful way to frame discussions around applying a No Platform For Fascists policy.

Liberal racism, feminism vs. Islam, homonationalism

Also of interest is the authors’ exposition of the various forms of racism embedded in liberal approaches to understanding race and to governance, which are significantly more subtle than those of the right and far-right. Multiculturalism itself is exposed as an effort to depoliticise racism, rendering invisible structures of racialised power through constructing an imagined post-racial landscape, and in doing so functioning both as an adjunct to the post-politicism of neoliberalism generally and as a liberal mirror to the far-right’s shift in focus from race to culture. This post-racialism deprives racialised groups of the right to challenge discrimination as they experience it. Multicultural diversity is exposed as a coded language for certain acceptable ways of performing minority cultures – good diversity – which is counterposed with kinds of cultural performance less palatable to the white majority – bad diversity.

The co-optation of feminist and queer struggles by racist agendas is also discussed in-depth. Contemporary racism often employs the language and concerns of feminist and queer struggles in order to position Muslims and other racialised groups as a threat to the gains made by these movements, even though many of these gains are recent and heavily contested within even the most progressive of Western societies. This was a particularly significant dynamic in debates about Islamic headscarves and veils across Europe, where veiled Muslim women were presented as a threat to the position of all women with European societies. The actual views and experiences of veiled women were in practice excluded from these debates, which were more concerned with white people’s particular racialised vision of what a free woman looks like.

The authors draw from Jasbir Puar’s work on ‘homonationalism’ in discussing the use of queer issues towards racist agendas. Queers, particularly those who fall into the category of ‘homonormative’ (those that closely mirror heteronormative sexuality and heterosexual identity: upholding monogamy, binary gender etc.), are able to “enact [previously barred] forms of national, racial or other belongings by contributing to a collective vilification of Muslims”. (Puar, Jasbir (2007) Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Durham, NC: Duke University Press  pp 21) This dynamic is particularly significant in relation to the struggle for Palestinian national liberation, as Israel uses its relatively progressive position on LGBT rights to project itself as the ally of Western queer people in a region dominated by homophobic Muslim states and thus help to justify (pinkwash) it’s continued oppression of Palestine.

Conclusion

As an academic text, rather than an anti-racist handbook for activists, Crises… is somewhat lacking in direct practical insights for anti-racist activists, and often requires significant effort to parse the analyses presented into a useful form (a problem that is compounded by the dense writing style of the authors). However, a sophisticated understanding of how racism works under neoliberal governance is key if we are to win the ‘battle of ideas’ against those who would use racism to divide and control us in the interests of the ruling class. As such, the depth and incisiveness of analysis in Crises… make it an important text both for those seeking a better theoretical understanding of race, and those who work to combat racism in society.

This post was written for the Workers Solidarity Movement site in October 2011 when the Occupy movement was just kicking off. It attracted quite a lot of attention at the time, because I think it echoed a lot of the frustrations leftists were feeling towards the movement. It was even picked up and republished by the IWW in the Industrial Worker newspaper.

I’m mainly reposting this because I want to copy some of the better stuff I’ve written for activist publications over to this blog, but it is interesting to read over this in retrospect and see how some of these dynamics played out in different contexts around the world.

Occupy Dame Street

What are we to make of the global ‘Occupy X’ movement which has exploded onto the streets of cities across the world, turning public spaces into campsites of opposition? Certain things are obvious: Firstly, the fact that there are thousands of people across the world taking over public spaces to express their anger at the financial system is undeniably a good thing. Having camped out outside the Central Bank on Dame Street on Saturday night, I can also say that these protests exude a positivity and hopefulness that is so often lacking from the ritualistic parades of anger that make up most protest marches. But there are also, in my view, serious political problems that prevent the movement from moving beyond a ‘radical sleepover’ and becoming a genuine anti-austerity grassroots resistance movement.

The analysis below is based in my own particular experience of the Dame St. protest on the ground and of the US protests as a media event. Obviously any attempt to discuss a diverse and fluid movement like this as a whole can only ever be approximate and reductive. This account is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather to sketch what I see as the major trends and tendencies emerging within the movement, and should be read with that in mind.

Non-politics, incoherence, (neo)liberalism

The ‘Occupy X’ movement has since its inception shown an extreme aversion to being seen as political. Some aspects of this, such as banning political party banners, are an understandable pragmatic reaction to the tendency of various Leninist parties to hijack these kinds of events by swamping them with flags, banners and paper-sellers. But the anti-politics of the movement, at least on the part of the organising core and the Adbusters collective who issued the call for the original Wall St. protest, is also ideological: an odd synthesis of post-leftist anti-organisationalism (which sees formal political organisations, trade unions, etc. as being necessarily oppressive) and neoliberal post-politicism (which sees a Left vs. Right contest of ideas as being largely irrelevant after the fall of the Berlin Wall). After decades of neoliberal governance and media spin attempting to drive ideology and politics out of public discourse in order to enshrine the liberal-capitalist consensus as being ‘above politics’ and to reduce political questions to technical ones best dealt with by ‘experts’, it is perhaps unsurprising, but nonetheless disheartening, to see this depoliticisation reflected in contemporary forms of resistance.

Most obviously, this has been expressed in the movement’s unwillingness to attempt to agree on a coherent set of positions beyond some very basic points of unity with no underlying analysis of society. Instead, the occupied space is used by individuals to express a range of incoherent and often mutually contradictory ideas which are related only by being in some sense opposed to the status quo and the political and financial elites. On Saturday, I spoke to individuals who believe in everything from Rawlsian social democracy, to anarchism, to paranoid crypto-anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (the New World Order, etc.), to Stalinism. Of course, the advantage of this is that it’s extremely inclusive – the only requirement to participate is a sense that things are not as they should be and that the financial sector and the state are in some way to blame – but this also means that reactionary ideas are treated the same as progressive ones rather than being robustly challenged. In practice, this means that the ideas that come to the fore tend to be those that are already dominant in society: the ideas of the ruling class. In the US context, the dominant messages from Occupy Wall Street have been liberal, reformist and nationalistic: those that posed the least threat to the establishment. For example, a call to “make Wall Street work for America” amounts to little more than a call for increased exploitation of the Third World as an alternative to imposing austerity. A call to reform banking practice to constrain “corporate greed” is merely a call to stabilise capitalism so that the course of exploitation runs more smoothly. The problem is capitalism, not regulatory failure, or corporate greed or a lack of economic patriotism, and the inadequacies of these analyses need to be exposed rather than uncritically welcomed. The Irish protest seems to be following a similar pattern, with a particular anti-IMF/EU flavour.

The theory underlying this anti-politics, so far as I can gather, is this: no two people experience oppression in the same way, and thus any attempt to unite people under a political programme inevitably ends up erasing some people’s perspectives. This is superficially quite a pleasing analysis, since it creates a framework under which all ideas can be understood as equally valid, since they all derive from lived-experience, but it’s extremely problematic. Implicitly, it denies the possibility of coming to an inter-subjective understanding (i.e. one based in mutual recognition of shared experiences and understanding of differing ones) of oppression through collective discussion and compromise, and instead collapses into a naive relativism that produces a vague and weak politics, which plays into the hands of those who wish to dismiss the protesters as ‘hippies’ who don’t understand the complexities of capitalism. In any case, it’s easy to overstate the case for subjective perspectives and ignore the objective factors that shape experiences: the processes and structures of capitalist domination.

Bring back the working-class!

One of the major victories of neoliberalism is the eradication of the working-class from the popular consciousness. One of the results of this is the prevalence of the idea among certain sections of the left that the working-class is no longer relevant to understanding power in the modern world – an outdated idea clung to by old-left dinosaurs. This is reflected in the idea of ‘the 99%’ which has become the slogan of the ‘Occupy X’ movement, which expresses a very crude understanding of class, where the ruling class are an arbitrarily defined proportion of the wealthiest people in society. This makes for some great chanting – “we are the 99%!” – but is a poor criterion for membership of an anti-capitalist or anti-austerity movement. Put bluntly: there are an awful lot of capitalists, bosses, managers, bankers, CEOs, politicians, police, prison wardens, pimps, heroin dealers, etc. in the 99%.

Properly understood, class is not a classification system of individuals based on how much money they have, it’s a social relation between people that derives from the organisation of labour under capitalism. In other words, it’s the way people are forced to relate to one another in order to participate in capitalist society. Class oppression is not a small cabal of the ultra-rich in Wall Street or Washington or Leinster House, it’s in every workplace, every police station, every dole queue, every courtroom, every prison and every territory occupied by Western militaries, and can only be sensibly understood as such.

Conclusion

The radically democratic nature of the occupations creates the potential for the movement to evolve in any number of possible directions. Whether or not they become genuine resistance movements depends largely on how much the radical left are willing to engage with them, and re-assert the importance of class politics in understanding and countering oppression, by participating in the actions, discussions, and assemblies. A key hurdle has already been overcome: people are on the streets, expressing their dissent, reclaiming public spaces; it remains to be seen what comes of it.