Acid and other psychedelics showed Baby Boomers the world in all its glory. The truth of their experiences were subjective, but for the first time in American history, they had collective experiences, mediated through something new called television, but with a common denominator. They had a consensus.
The stripping of an American consensus at the height of our century was a political project that begot modern conservativism. Messy as it is, there is a line from 1931 and the New Deal Era to the election of Joe Biden that shows how we saw the effects of state power to curtail corporations and chose means-testing. Hell, Rick Perlstein wrote a whole series of books about it. The end of capitalism and the beginning of neoliberalism are a history of material political events that find color and place in cultural signifiers. A psychic energy underlies both the movement of material and its cultural output.
The late Mark Fisher wrote and taught through the contradictions and ideologies of these cultural signifiers up until his suicide in 2017.
My own love affair with Mark Fisher’s work began when he died around the time I was leaving college. I was Fisher’s target audience, disaffected, “on the left,” soon to be in a world vastly different from the one I was promised. In a word, depressed. I found solace in his essays. “Exiting the Vampires Castle” codified something I had been feeling on campus, but unable to express without rage. “Good for Nothing” described why bartending and then night-managing a restaurant in my college town felt so bad despite the money I made, more cash than I ever knew. Capitalist Realism, his first proper book, helped name the politics of 2016 and also the artistic and cultural world I saw on my many screens: “lowering our expectations, we are told, is a small price to pay for being protected from terror and totalitarianism.”
My copy of The Weird and The Eerie is tattered and worn, while Ghosts of My Life was lost somewhere on the streets of Belgrade when I lived there in a drunken, caffeinated delirium. I even applied to a graduate program at Goldsmith’s, bought a ticket to London and walked to the campus, far off from the other tourists, so I could see a quote of his emblazoned under a bridge. I was accepted to the program and decided my future lie back in the United States waiting tables again. I don’t regret it; imagining other worlds for myself, projecting futures on a night bus listening to Burial, what more would Fisher want me to do?
I then anxiously awaited his final works and promptly forgot about Fisher as life plodded on. I moved on to other interests, things grounded in the material world, others not, I stopped waiting tables right before Covid lockdowns and then this past year, his final lectures came collected as Postcapitalist Desire edited by Matt Colquhoun, a former student.
Colquhoun, author previously of Egress: On Mourning, Melancholy, and Mark Fisher, whether by happenstance or ambition declares himself Fisher’s progeny with both works. He organizes Fisher’s final lectures, with student interaction, as well as pens an introduction. The book contains recordings of the lectures from Fisher’s class “Postcapitalist Desire.” The goal of the class from Fisher’s words is to suggest “there is a problem of desire in terms of capital.”
The book is intimate. Listening in on a class recording, reading Fisher teach his students, one sees the delicate and often casual care he had for his work as a professor. He sounds neither pompous nor pretentious, as he laughs and laments with students, takes joy in their confusion because he’s been there too. He is Virgil guiding Dante through their Capitalist Realist Purgatory.
The lectures, five in total, cover a definition of accelerationism, Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, Lukács’ definition of consciousness, a history of unions in 1970s America, and Lyotard’s “evil” Libidinal Economy. Each one feels like a practicing ground for his unfinished book Acid Communism, which in the extant notes suggests instead of trying to “overcome” capitalism, we should seek to understand capitalism’s obstructions, its desire to obstruct our ability to collectively “produce, care and enjoy.” Fisher lays his unfinished projects out as ones of observing and codifying a left accelerationism that pushes through capitalism, using the metaphor of acid and psychedelics to suggest a different spiritual economy. Or so I thought.
According to Colquhoun’s introduction Fisher “surprised friends and fans alike” in the notes for Acid Communism by writing positively “about the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.” Similarly, in the LA Review of Books, Alexander Billet calls Fisher’s supposed stance in this unfinished work a disorienting “volte face.” Oh no, I cried, the horror, could sweet late-Mark Fisher’s entire body of work before his death be made null by twenty pages of notes and unfinished lectures? Could the specter of Fisher be dead too, replaced by this New Left hippie?
In reading Fisher’s words, my terror calmed. Colquhoun and Billet overstate this supposed heel turn of his. Their dual desire to see an eerie Fisher that isn’t there in the texts comes from their own ideological positions. Billet suggests Fisher’s name for this liberation “postcapitalism” contains the same “core features” of liberation of “socialism, communism, [and] anarchism.” Without niggling too much about intra-left politics, the three -isms mentioned contain similar features but their tenants, the question of how we arrive at those politics and modes of production are living questions for Fisher. They are not questions to be taken lightly.
From Capitalist Realism: “since [an authentic anti-capitalist movement] was unable to posit a coherent alternative political-economic model to capitalism…protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism.” And from this book, postcapitalsm suggests “victory” it also “implies direction.” We are not called to imagine a “pure outside” but can begin to address its contradictions: why do so many socialists have iPhones? is his introductory example. The term postcapitalism demands not only serious psychic consideration but also programmatic answers. How do we make it through capitalism? How do we close this dialectic? Fisher asks his students rhetorically “what is a political project that doesn’t aim at capturing power or building power in some way?”
Similarly, Colquhoun writes if questions about postcapitalism exist in culture they will “inevitably” exist in politics. To quickly dismiss this formulation as a reactionary position similar to “politics exist downstream from culture” would be too simple. This type of thinking exists in less flashy formulations on the left as well and are often coded as “justice” issues. Who wins at the Oscars, or what new Netflix show does cringe, or what legacy magazine company is doing racism in hiring practices and salary negotiations are all issues de jure. They are issues of the cultural moment, the ever changing and often elusive gossip of water coolers and Twitter threads. Culture is responding to politics, always and forever, culture does not guide our political moment but inscribes it, renders it in literature or on screen. Fisher’s insistence on looking towards culture for new worlds and imaginaries signifies our political position. The concepts of capitalist realism and postcapitalism have cultural referents but they are certainly not without their primary political causes. Colquhoun’s basely reactionary argument suggests something like Laugh In caused the end of the Vietnam War.
But what does the text say. The lectures open with Fisher asking “Is it possible to retain some of the libidinal, technological infrastructure of capital and move beyond capital?” He wants us to think about “what would happen” if the fusion of the counterculture and leftwing politics had been more successful in May 1968. What if the New and Old Left had moved through their contradictions? He then diagnoses the current left as something akin to “folk politics” which he sees as different than counterculture, which he identifies with demands about the structuring of society. In quoting from Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics, a folk politics identifies “localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism” content with “establishing small and temporary spaces of non-capitalist social relations.”
In the second lecture, we find ourselves discussing Marcuse, who asks “Why do we repeat things that are unpleasurable?” Fisher then suggests unsatisfaction is a necessary part of society—we give up things to be in communion, but under capitalism those things are often desires determined by scarcity. Technology creates a “surplus” of repression that is meant to make a “way out” seem impossible, that is “working less and determining [our] own needs and satisfactions” sounds impossible. Working less and thus being more free is not a problem of scarcity, but politics.
Lecture three discusses consciousness, false and real. The material world causes mental conceptions. The objective level of consciousness is not always immediate but seems “Natural.” You can’t understand “any bit of a system” without seeing the totatily, but immediacy then becomes a problem. Totality is not a given. He writes “I may well know I’m a worker, or I might well know that I am a woman oppressed by patriarchy, but it’s different than being able to constantly act on that knowledge.” There are other pressures from immediacy that cloud our ability to react in ways consistent with our relational position in a system. This inability, for Fisher, is not a moral one worthy of chide, but a literal problem of capital: blaming “stupid” workers in West Virginia for voting for Trump in 2016 when the other option was Clinton is a contemporary problem enacted by this issue of consciousness. It may be against their interests, even against their consciousness, but it requires left politics to determine how well workers see immediacy or totality.
The fourth lecture renders this situation historically with Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. Nixon created a “reactionary working class” where you had counterculture versus the established working class. Fisher uses this moment to contrast with the 1930s which had similar contours to 1972 but chose reaction in the form of Nixon. He argues that class never disappears exactly, but class consciousness does to become particular cultural affects: “the way you speak, [your] comportment, [and] certain kinds of values.” He says this form of “identitarian capture” of class was necessary to eliminate class consciousness.
The final most provocative lecture uses Lyotard’s “evil” text Libidinal Marxism to ask the question how much does the working class like to be exploited? The upshot of this argument for Fisher becomes asking how much of our current desires under capitalism are necessary in imagining of postcapitalism. Lyotard reads Marx as two beings, Old Man Marx, the theorist who fiddles with exchange values and linens and coats, versus Little Girl Marx, (in a cancelable gendering for 2021), who just wishes capitalism would end. To me, Lyotard’s reading of Marx sounds like Karl is more of a Bratty Bottom, but to each their own. Either way, this reading for Fisher attempts to explain rather than prognosticate a future. It comes from a frustration with the current left in the mid-1970s at the time of Lyotard’s writing. But most importantly for our present concerns and to return to Marcuse from an earlier lecture, Fisher accepts Lyotard’s rejection of the leftist fantasy of a “non-alienated region.” He rejects this conception of the world, and particularly the word “post” as a “problematic theatre representation” (sic).
Fisher asks, towards the end of the book and the end of his final lecture, “if we stick with the fantasy of a non-alienated region, then how are we to articulate what a transformational politics might be or could be?” A call from the Left to “exit” or establish an alternative under the State, “dual-power” as it’s often called, then becomes a bizarre version of the Benedict Option—you won’t play by my rules, so I will take my ball and leave. Surely, there must be an alternative to this idea. The answer, in my reading of the totality of Fisher’s work, seems clear.
What separates right and left-wing popular feeling is consciousness. The right-wing harvests psychic energy against the meek and damned; the left organizes energy, directs it and focuses it against capital. My formulation is of course intentionally Manichean. But the changing of consciousness is insufficient to win and change modes of production, if that were possible, if all it took to be in charge and enact liberal or left-wing policies and ideas was to win an argument, Aaron Sorkin would be the President.
Fisher isn’t Sorkin. He suggests a new mode of thinking about the world but it is essentially grounded in the world. The psychic energy of “Acid Communism” comes not from only thinking differently, nor in doing small acts of kindness or charity that “signal” to different worlds. Acid Communism, an unfinished, incomplete idea as we have it, argues for a world through capitalism to communism. It demands we think through the class character of our consciousness and not rely on small actions or carnivalesque displays of our left virtues. It is a call to renew our social relations, our psychic relations, through a change in the material conditions.
Touching communism for a moment or two, like an ocean at high tide, isn’t sufficient to drown the world in worker power. An elusive feeling of euphoria often felt in collective action, peaking in acid terms, remains a wonderful feeling, something nearly indescribable, unutterable, uncanny. It is usually after the fact, in my experience, that one looks back on a trip and identifies those feelings using the limits of language. Once the teeth chattering quiets, language arrives. It is a glorious experience, one that immanentizes the word of scripture and religion and allows the user new sight for a short period after. It can also induce hysteria, a psychological position in my view the left finds itself in 2021—there is no clear and obvious direction and that breeds panic; Biden is no beachhead for socialism.
Winning and wielding power is the only way to make those feelings of acid communism an everyday reality. My reading of Fisher suggests he knew that, but how that is operatively accomplished was not his project. Fisher writes “being lifted out of experience, you’re broken from ideology” and there is “no such thing” as the individual because the individual is “immediately given.” The Left, whatever adjective it is today, New, Old, DSA’s, Bernie’s, AOC’s, Woke, loves to imagine “new worlds,” like Fisher did, or is often accused of doing. It’s fun. It is much easier and less time consuming to play SIMs than it is to raise a family.
Whenever we win a better, more just world, and we will, I have no doubt about that, there will be new contradictions and psychic feelings that arise. They will have to be confronted. No amount of automation or Warp Records releases will silence the tragedy of human existence: we are born without consent and die the same. I don’t expect to be alive for socialism in America. Mark Fisher won’t be. Perhaps, we should remember that the fight for a better world isn’t for me, my feelings, or for my desires. A better world is for us, whoever that is, whenever that is. Ah yes, I do say us.