Report from Prague
“As a flood spreads wider & wider, the water becomes shallower & dirtier. So the Revolution evaporates & leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”Franz Kafka, Conversations with Gustav Janouch
THE BRIDE OF DRACULA, OR: WHY I AM NOT A COMMUNIST
Karel Čapek’s lesser-known text, “Why I am Not a Communist,” written in December 1924, still merits re-reading today, ninety-five years later. Not so much for its prophecy of the economic unfeasibility of Really Existing Socialism, but as warning against the totalitarian rule of the neoliberal order. For what it has to say re communism is uncannily applicable to the contemporary capitalist realism with its identity politics and, more paradoxically but no less fittingly, to the new-leftist opposition thereto that we’re experiencing today. For Čapek, the question is a burning one, not so much for the sake of starting polemics with an ideology he resents, but in fact for the opposite reason: “to defend myself in my own eyes for not being a communist & why I cannot be one” although “it would be easier for me if I were one – I would live thinking that I contribute in a most intrepid way to the redemption of the world.”Some of the more resonant points of Čapek’s critique of communism are aimed at its:
1. CLASS/MASS ESSENTIALISATION: “Poor people are not a mass. A thousand workers can help one worker in his struggle for existence; but a thousand poor people cannot help one poor to get even a piece of bread. […] Turn the society whichever side up, the poor will fall to the bottom again, most often joined by others.”
2. CONFUSION OF EMPOWERMENT & AID: “The hungry ones do not want to rule but to eat; with regard to poverty it is indifferent who rules; the only thing that matters is how we, human beings, feel. Poverty is neither institution nor a class, it is a disaster. […] The final word of Communism is to rule, not to save; its gigantic slogan is power [moc], not help [pomoc].”
3. USE OF LANGUAGE AS TOOL OF POLARISING EXTREMISM: “The climate of communism is ghastly & inhuman; there is no middle temperature between the freezing bourgeoisie & the revolutionary fire; there is nothing to which a proletarian could dedicate himself with pleasure & undisturbed. […] There is no love, for there is either the perversity of the rich or the proletarian conceiving of children. The bourgeois inhales his own rottenness, the worker his consumption; thus, somehow, the air has disappeared.”
4. ABOLITION OF NON-PROFITABLE VALUES: “The language of communism is hard; it does not talk of the values of sympathy, willingness, help & human solidarity; it says with self-confidence that it is not sentimental“ – & yet “apart from sentimental reasons you will not hand a glass of water to your neighbour; rational motives will not even bring you to help & raise a person who has slipped.”
5. Finally, following from the previous, ITS PROGRAMMATIC DENIAL OF ANY HETERODOXY: “It is as if [communism] spoke a strange language & its thought was subjected to different laws […] if communism believes that to hang & shoot people is no more of a serious matter than to kill cockroaches, it is something that I cannot understand though I am being told it in Czech; I have a terrible feeling of chaos & a real anxiety that this way we will never agree.”
COMBING THE CATACOMBS
“We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship & solidarity […]. We must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion & excommunication.” Thus spake Mark Fisher, writing 90 years after Čapek, in his “Exiting the Vampire Castle,” published symbolically, or perhaps entirely by coincidence, on 22 November 2013, the 50thanniversary of the making of Abraham Zapruder’s iconic blockbuster.
By “VC” Fisher meant a libidinal/discursive configuration of power in the public space of the social media, “driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate & condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, & a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd.” This configuration is, at its unstaked-through heart, “a bourgeois-liberal perversion & appropriation of the energy of movements” struggling against racism, sexism, transphobia, etc. (hence its vampiric work), born the moment “when the struggle not to be defined by ‘identitarian’ categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois Big Other.”
Today, six years after Fisher’s prescient diagnosis—written three years before his own voluntary exile into the Great Beyond—we are still far from finding an exit path out of Vampire Castle. If anything, we seem to have strayed even deeper into its catacombs, the venom of public “discussion” achieving whole new levels of toxicity.
THEY SHALL BE KNOWN BY THEIR DEEDS
The five laws of “Vampire Castle” bear an uncanny resemblance to Čapek’s critique of sectarian communism sub specie1924:
“1. INDIVIDUALISE & PRIVATISE EVERYTHING: While in theory [the VC] claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour. Remember: condemning individuals is always more important than paying attention to impersonal structures. […]
“2. MAKE THOUGHT & ACTION APPEAR DIFFICULT: There must be no lightness, & certainly no humour. Humour isn’t serious, by definition, right? Thought is hard work, for people with posh voices & furrowed brows. […]
“3. PROPAGATE AS MUCH GUILT AS YOU CAN: The more guilt the better. People must feel bad: it is a sign that they understand the gravity of things. It’s OK to be class-privileged if you feel guilty about privilege & make others in a subordinate class position to you feel guilty too. […]
“4. ESSENTIALISE: While fluidity of identity, plurality & multiplicity are always claimed on behalf of the VC members – partly to cover up their own invariably wealthy, privileged or bourgeois-assimilationist background – the enemy is to be essentialised. […]
“5. THINK LIKE A LIBERAL: The VC’s work of constantly stoking up reactive outrage consists of endlessly pointing out the screamingly obvious: capital behaves like capital (it’s not very nice!), repressive state apparatuses are repressive. We must protest!”
MOULDY BREAD OF THE POOR & GORGING OF THE OVERLORDS
Though writing 90 years apart and from decidedly opposite political camps, both Čapek & Fisher devote a good portion of their polemics to criticising how a particular discourse polarises, victimises, & essentialises, turning groups of individuals, whether friend or enemy, into a mass so as to be used, all the more easily, as a political tools rather than treated as recipients of help. Communism, for Čapek, doesn’t seek to abolish poverty & hunger, it just seeks to turn these into instruments of political struggle. It seeks to classify & organise the poor people who are, insists Čapek, no class but precisely those who are “declassed, excluded & unorganised”.
Communicative capitalism, for Fisher, has allowed the VC in tandem with the moralising neo-anarchism to govern the public space of social medial exchange and shape it so that the forces supposedly resisting it are doing capital’s work for it by condemning & abusing each other. Notes Fisher, “there is little protection from the psychic pathologies propagated by these discourses.” Last but not least, in both regimes, the world is systematically stripped of any meaning, & deprived of any pleasure, that it can gain outside of its one all-pervasive ideology: in Čapek’s metaphor, the world thus “contains no lunch or dinner; it is either the mouldy bread of the poor or the gorging of the overlords.”
IDENTITY POLITICS: ATOMISE & DISTRACT
It has been one of the worse-kept secrets that the recent rise of the new leftist identity politics has not at all run counter the spread of neoliberal economics & their inherent inequality, but instead actively contributed to them. Robert Pfaller has identified two powerful reasons for how this might be. First, the stronger the individuals’ concerns about their identity, the more widespread their atomisation & distraction of isolated people lacking solidarity from central questions. “To precisely the same degree as neoliberalism has robbed people of the prospect of a better future, the propaganda of the identity politics movement has come to the fore & turned attention from the future back towards the past,” observes Pfaller, & contends: “After all, someone who no longer has anywhere to go needs at least to know from where they come; & anyone who has lost all hope of be-coming something interesting has no choice but to insist on being something important, precious, vulnerable.” Second, the fact that previously emancipatory intellectual movements such as neo-Marxism, feminism, & anti-racism moved into the cultural sphere, this has led them to lose relevance to wider society as they gained in theoretical sophistication, complexity, & (most importantly) social distinction. Pfaller: “All of these issues which derived from the suffering of those exploited could now be used to show social distinction. In short, identity politics has redistributed social plights & their acknowledgement up the social scale towards the elites.“The Kafkaesque consequence of all this is this: now that identitarian revolution has evaporated, all it has left behind is the slime of a new bureaucracy, standardisation, inter-passivity.
SURFACEBOOK AS THE BIG OTHER
It is by no means coincidental that the weapon of choice in VC’s spread of censorship, “propriety” & shaming is social media. Fisher is spot-on when identifying the foundations of VC with the “quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois Big Other.” In Slavoj Žižek’s rewriting of Lacan, the big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be confronted in itself—instead, we only ever encounter its stand-ins—& one important dimension of the big Other is its non-omniscience. It is the constitutive ignorance of the big Other that allows public relations to function. In a famous anecdote of Žižek’s, one which exemplifies the key role of the Other’s knowledge:
a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man. When he is cured & allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back trembling. There is a chicken outside the door & he is afraid that it will eat him. “Dear fellow,” says his doctor, “you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man.” “Of course, I know that,” replies the patient, “but does the chicken know it?”
This is where psychoanalytic treatment also meets the logic of commodity fetishism: just as it is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms, for the unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth, the big Other could be defined as the consumer of PR & propaganda, the virtual figure which is required to believe even when no individual can.
Neither Fisher nor Žižek quite deal with the question of what exactly takes place in a space where personal identity is commodity, factuality is fabrication, the self iswish-fulfilment, & imaginary méconnaissancebecomes equipped with catchy text, pushy emojis, high-res images, & is here to stay, fixed forever. What catastrophic consequences then come into effect when Facebook, Twitter, & Instagram become the channels by which a culture speaks to itself, disseminates its messages, & wages its wars. Of course, the medium is the massage: The eye with which one beholds Facebook is the same eye by which one is beholden to Facebook, propelled to interconnect, search, act, engage, & “opinionate” (in the direly reductive binary code of likes/dislikes) in an interpassive simulation of participation, in which media become subsumed into PR.
THOUGHT POLICING & NO PLATFORMING
Last March, Richard Marshall conducted one of the many of his excellent interviews, this time with philosopher Holly Lawford Smith, on “Climate Change, Global Justice & Trans.” In this interview, Marshall raised the completely sensible, and yet apparently scandalous, question of why it is that “transgender has become a rather toxic issue” and how “we should think about all its complexities,” and specifically “why is it becoming something where feminists and trans people are falling out?” To which Lawford-Smith answers the following:
It really has become toxic! I’ve been surprised by the levels of vitriol that have been directed at me and other radical and gender critical feminists within the profession. My stance is that a person can’t change sex (not even with sex reassignment surgery), that ‘gender identity’ has no bearing on sex, and that with very few exceptions gender identity should have no bearing on a person’s sex-based rights.
Trans- is an issue that has the entire cultural left (feminist or otherwise) divided & paralysed, having ushered in a whole labyrinth of new vocabulary (15 gender neutral pronouns?) & subcategories for the initiated only. It’s also already accrued enough cultural capital to stake out the limits of “propriety,” to define what and how is sayable in the public domain.
Marshall & Lawford-Smith’s by all accounts sensitive, if controversial—& yet, how can one be otherwise?—treatment of this indeed toxic issue has caused a shitstorm on social media of such a magnitude as to cause 3AMmagazine to withdraw Marshall’s interview from the website. Marshall & Lawford-Smith have been lambasted as “transphobes,” “right-wing contrarians,” there publication of the interview was dubbed “an act of violence” & hue & cry were raised for it to be “deleted.” A call which 3AM magazine decided to heed. In response to that Marshall resigned from 3AM, discontinuing his series of nearly 400 interviews conducted over many years with philosophers in accessible terms & freely available on the Internet. As noted by Brian Leitner, this besides a loss for philosophy, is also the best proof that the trans- issue indeedistoxic in the UK, so much so that apparently an observation as commonsensical as “transwomen are transwomen, they should be treated as women in most contexts, with exceptions possible”is now enough to have a work of a lifetime discredited & destroyed in a matter of weeks. Deleting, of course, always preferable to debating.
JE NE REGRETTE RIEN
Then of course there’s the fate of Mark Fisher himself, & DC Miller & Nina Power, too convoluted & too painfully well-known to be rehashed here. The buckets of venom shied at Miller & Power in 2019 only, borders on a McCarthyite witch-hunt. Its outlines have been expressed in Miller’s recent “I Regret Nothing” – here, worthy of mention is his diagnosis of “Antifascist activist identity performed on corporate social media” as “hyperlie inside a paranoiac structure of reality hyperlinked as Antifascism” and the kind of mirroring logic of social-media hatemongering:
The more time spent online, the heavier the mask becomes, & the more the relationship between reality & fantasy, & the other & the self, decays into hypocrisy, which is also why the activists attach to me the things they’ve done, or want to do, themselves, e.g. a man who calls for violence accuses me of violence, or a shameless self-promoter assumes that these must be my motives too, & criticizes me for things I never said.
Thus, for Miller, the crowds calling for (& on at least two occasions, performing) violence against his person are “just symptoms of the internet, cynically manipulating Antifascist discourse to camouflage their sadism & malice,” with “the political dimension nothing but a vehicle for will to power & resentment, aligned to extant ideological conformism.”
We invited Power & Miller to address these issues at the “Experiment & Resistance” colloquium last April. In turn, we were publicly slandered as “fascist sympathisers” & subjected to hysterical mob denunciation on social media. The massage of the medium. We were accused of promoting fascists, or at best of ignorance & failing to understand their “camouflage tactics.” Self-appointed representatives of society’s most vulnerable repeatedly called upon us to no-platform Miller & Power, predetermining that this could be “the only reasonable outcome” of the exchange. These “voices off” rose to high volume then vanished the moment their hectoring failed to produce the desired result, re-materialising elsewhere on the web to pester their next targets: a Green Party candidate, University College London, Women in Art, a gallery in Berlin. Their names hardly matter: or rather, it is only be their rabid denunciations that they hope to make a name for themselves. They aren’t anonymous faces behind a Guy Fawkes mask, but massified fake Draculas with plastic vampire teeth.
ON SURFACEBOOK, WE’RE ALL ON THE SAME NO-PLATFORM
Fisher’s VC has got onefoolprooflogic of online hatemongering: “X has made a remark / has behaved in a particular way – these remarks / this behaviour might be construed as transphobic/ sexist etc. […] it’s the next move which is the kicker. X then becomes defined as a transphobe/ sexist etc.” What Nina Power & DC Miller have been “guilty” of is interrogating, performing, & impersonating themes, figures & ideas that can be construed, or rather misconstrued, to serve as scapegoat targets of a particular group’s narcissistic pseudo-politics. In addition, they once counter-protested the thought police’s bust & shutdown of a semi-controversial institution.
Čapek: “If I were a Communist, I would think that I stand on the side of the poor against the rich, on the side of those in hunger against bags of money; I would know what to think about this & that, what to hate, what to ignore.”Which goes to show how infinitely better it is not to be told what to think & hate, and to find out for oneself. Such might be a way out of Fisher’s VC, where class has disappeared, but moralism is everywhere, where solidarity is impossible, but guilt & fear are omnipresent – not because, insists Fisher, “we are terrorised by the right,” but because “we have allowed bourgeois modes of subjectivity to contaminate” us.
The point of all the above is that in an age where so-called social media (neither much social nor much medial) take on the role of surrogate fora for critical inquiry and open dialogue, there’s no such thing as no-platforming. We’re all no-platformed, as long as we play the game communicative capitalism wants us to play. Since social media are no platforms on which to conduct rigorous, unbiassed, attack-free discussion ad rem not ad hominem. They are capital’s tools in furthering alienation, confusing our language, distracting our attention, trivialising our means of expression. If it’s a minor & obvious point, so be it. Like Kafka’s Red Peter, “I don’t want any man’s judgment. I only want to expand knowledge. I simply report. Even to you […] I’ve only made a report.”
Karel Čapek, “Why I am Not a Communist” (orig. 1924), trans. Martin Pokorný. Online: http://czechfolks.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/karel-capek-communist.doc
Čapek, “Why I am Not a Communist.”
Mark Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle” (orig. The North Star, 22 Nov 2013). Online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/exiting-vampire-castle/
Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle.”
Robert Pfaller, “The End of Solidarity,” International Politics & Society. Online: https://www.ips-journal.eu/regions/europe/article/show/the-end-of-solidarity-2991/
Pfaller, “The End of Solidarity.”
“Thinking About Climate Change, Global Justice and Trans – Holly Lawford Smith Interviewed by Richard Marshall.” Online:
For an intelligent account by a transgender philosopher, read Sophie Grace Chappell’s “Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy.” Online: https://conscienceandconsciousness.com/2018/07/11/transwomen-and-adoptive-parents-an-analogy/
Brian Leiter, “3AM Magazine’s radical chic motto—’whatever it is, we’re against it’—turns out to be bollocks.” Online: https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2019/03/3am-magazines-radical-chic-motto-whatever-it-is-were-agianst-it-turns-out-to-be-bullocks.html
DC Miller, “I Regret Nothing.” Online: https://medium.com/@dctvbot/i-regret-nothing-c05401636032
Čapek, “Why I am Not a Communist.”
Fisher, “Exiting the Vampire Castle.”