Out of a Castle, Into a Pit? A Reply to Mark Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle”

“Identity is the Ur-form of ideology.” – Theodor Adorno

“Goddamn these vampires for what they have done to me.” – The Mountain Goat

Reading the first paragraph of Mark Fisher’s “Out of the Vampire Castle” hit home for me. I have wanted to quit writing about politics and have been turned off by the way privatized and largely subjective notions of identity can — and are used to — stop discussions of class or even other points of theoretical or practical nuance. The frustration with this sort of moralizing in “the left” is, in my mind, completely legitimate: there are few objective conclusions to be drawn from a claim of standpoint epistemology because such a standpoint considers all counter-claims derailing. The more traditional Marxist would say this very issue makes it “undialectical.” Mark Fisher’s implied critique of such an epistemology rooted in most liberal notions of privilege and identity seem to have hit a nerve and to have hit home depending on what your relationship to the left is. However, as I was sitting at my desk, reading Fisher’s analysis, I started to get antsy in my seat — and by the end of it I briefly wanted to throw my computer across the tiles of my office floor. For both good and bad reasons.  I think this is more of an endorsement of the piece than not.  If my reaction to Fisher was not bad enough, reading the comments on the article have made me want to throw my computer as well and perhaps with more force.

My concern is probably more specific than a lot of what I predict will be said about Mark Fisher’s autopsy of this so-called vampirism and its castle. Of course, the article was, is, and will be called retrograde, reactionary, privileged, etc. People will claim that Fisher calls people of color vampires despite the fact that he appears to be speaking of white liberal policing for people of color, differing sexuality, regional difference, etc. These claims may or may not be true, but an analysis of Fisher’s propositions does not need to start with this particular condemnation. The general claim will be that Fischer is making the same claim to subordinate identity issues to class struggle because identitarian concerns essentialize characteristics, but I take Fisher’s main implication is using “class consciousness” to undo the class structure which is not necessarily the same argument as claimed. I will come back to this claim later, but in so much that this is the critique of Fischer’s argument it must be grounded in something more detailed and nuanced than these simple write-offs.

Who’s Afraid of the Privileged Wolf?

What gets described as privilege does undeniably exist. The denial of that category is often a cover for a denial of recognition of human difference, and that denial almost always favors those who appear like — or benefit from — the dominant power dynamic. “Privilege” is only an issue insofar as a particular discourse around privilege, even when it claims to be systemic, does not clarify (or even obscures) the complexity of class, racial, and gender power dynamics.

I agree that one can see “post leftists,” by which I mean liberals, using race to shut down discussions of class. In the US context, one can think of people around Barack Obama, most notably Tim Wise, trying to shut down criticisms of the Obama administration from other liberals, such as Glen Greenwald, because of their white privilege. Generally, this ignores that the Obama’s policies damage non-whites more than whites, and generally these arguments is made by under middle-class auspices of “racial awareness” and “privilege pointing” by white pundits speaking for a minority group as a means of “declaiming their privilege.”  This is a defense of power masquerading as a defense of the weak because it subsumes all discussion of class into the rubric of race.  Furthermore, it consoles the moral ego because it makes the liberation still all about one’s person’s—generally white—subjective state. This tactic can be and is done with gender, sexuality, etc.

Despite some claims to the contrary, this can be done with class too. The “workerist” line used to suppress homosexuality in the USSR and PRC did do just that. The use of “class” castes in DPRK does that as well, particularly when paired with is nationalist views of normality and purity. None of these are alien to “class politics.” Then again, none of these try to achieve the abolition of class that Fisher demands either.

The problem with privilege theory is not that it forces whites, regardless of their class, to deal with the advantages they have. The problem with privilege talk is that its language is not radical enough even for dealing with identity issues. Power dynamics are what apply to such situations of cultural capital and intra-class distinctions, and the personalization of the problems “privilege” describes does not deal with these issues in the least. The recognition of privilege puts the agency in the hands of the oppressing factor and demands of them to acknowledge their failings, despite the fact that the privileged is claimed to be a systemic benefit.  What does acknowledging privilege even mean in a systemic context?  It changes very little other than attitudes.

That is not materialist enough in my view, and it’s actually too soft. Sure, it can lead to excommunication from the twitter circle for some perceived slight. This still exists in the realm of ideas and is far too personal. On this, I agree with Fisher. There is a “posh”—read “white” and “upper-middle” class—use of guilt to masquerade as politics. You can call it “drag liberalism,” “politics of cultural capital in blackface,” or “the vampire castle”—I have seen it called all of the above, but not without problems in the metaphor. It is easy to fling that accusation as a means of shutting down people of color, or ascribing all sorts of psychological motivations to the argument here.  This should be avoided.  The personal may or may not be political, but I suspect that most people really mean its inverse when they invoke it.  Regardless, someone’s motives can only be known to his or herself.

Stand Point Epistemology and Objective Class Analysis

One of the crucial problems that stems out of privilege analysis, one that I have seen erroneously attributed to Marx, is stand-point epistemology. Stand-point epistemology developed out of Dorothy Smith’s reading of Marx and relying on life-stories to contextualize the development of particular female scholars. This seems in line with solid class analysis: go and make empirical observations to justify and refine reified notions of identity and cultures of the working class. Substitute another subjectivity and the similar process emerges.

The issue here is the same as notions of “counter-hegemonic” working class culture, or total inversions of cultural capital have had. Marx warned about relying too much on current consciousness for a reason. In the feminist context, this led to a tendency to try to move to generalizations about experience from anecdotal case studies, and this tendency of generalization to reify into “essentializing” talk of things like “women’s experience” while concurrently valorizing subjectivist accounts of an individual’s experience. This is at once highly relativist and highly essentializing. The same trend was seen in the Stalinist appeal to “working class culture” in the 1930s and revisions to social products that could be easily reproduced. This tends to make concrete the current notion of identity.

It is generally people within the milieus discussed who see a problem with this. If one looks to feminism as an example, the theorist Donna Haraway’s attempt to talk about “situated knowledge” instead of simple stand-point recognition because she saw the problems I just laid out. One can think of the craggy and sometimes over-idealized Adorno’s critique of the Soviet use of Social realism as a criticism of a similar trend a generation before.

Situated knowledge, as championed by Haraway, can be helpful to us in the communist world: it acknowledges that there are objective things to know and that relativism can often lead to its inverse very quickly. It also admits that contextualization, contingency, and power-dynamics can situate our “knowledge” in such a way to reify our current position. I see Haraway’s statement as a way of understanding confirmation bias even in apparently objective models of dealing with realities. The subtly necessary for this sort of analysis was often lacking in socialist and communist politics of the early 20th century and its critique of “liberal idealism” in the past. Fisher, to my mind, mirrors Haraway’s thinking, and he is not wrong to see clearly contradictory notions of both subject position essentialization and hyper-subjectivity that such as an identity stand-point view trumps all other, even more clearly, objective concerns.

Non-essential does not mean arbitrary or imposed, or where Fischer may have jumped the shark

These distinctions bring us to the point where I find I think Fisher to may take a step too far:

So what can we do now? First of all, it is imperative to reject identitarianism, and to recognise that there are no identities, only desires, interests and identifications. Part of the importance of the British Cultural Studies project – as revealed so powerfully and so movingly in John Akomfrah’s installation The Unfinished Conversation (currently in Tate Britain) and his film The Stuart Hall Project – was to have resisted identitarian essentialism. Instead of freezing people into chains of already-existing equivalences, the point was to treat any articulation as provisional and plastic. New articulations can         always be created. No-one is essentially anything. Sadly, the right act on this insight more effectively than the left does. The bourgeois-identitarian left knows how to propagate guilt and conduct a witch hunt, but it doesn’t know how to make converts. But that, after all, is not the point. The aim is not to popularise a leftist position, or to win people over to it, but to remain in a position of elite superiority, but now with class superiority redoubled by moral superiority too. ‘How dare you talk – it’s we who speak for those who suffer!’

But the rejection of identitarianism can only be achieved by the re-assertion of class. A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed. The interests of the working class are the interests of all; the interests of the bourgeoisie are the interests of capital, which are the interests of no-one. Our struggle must be towards the construction of a new and surprising world, not the preservation of identities shaped and distorted by capital.

What I do not agree with is that these identities are simply top-down imposed by the dominant elite nor do I think that saying that acknowledges the true complexities of gender, race, and class as things that can be shrugged off despite their plastic nature.  This is not an act of will and pleading for such positions to be dropped will not make it so. While I might not like the way academics and certain liberal activists use “Intersectionality” as a means to shut down debate, this does not mean “intersectionality” is not real. In fact, such notions may help us call for a much more nuanced and complicated form of class analysis than the simple platitudes one finds at the end of this piece. This would be required not only for understanding the legitimacy of identitarian concerns at root, but also enable us to place class truly back into the driver’s seat with a more realistic notion of intra-working class relationships.

Anecdotally, I am a mildly bisexual male who is happily married, originally from a poor region of the South, lives abroad, was born to a white-identified working class family that had a mixed race secret history, and is highly educated compared to my peers. My class position and all the other dynamics are fluid, but they are not all simply imposed upon me either by “the ruling class” or by “the liberal identitarian vampires.” I benefited as a child from white power, but my benefiting was much more provisional than my “white” peers. I lived in a poor, predominately black neighbor part of my childhood. My future, while not the same as many of the NYC/Berkeley/London leftists I have encountered as an adult from a higher class background was none the less massively different from the kids who lived as my neighbors. I am not part of the “queer” movement either—although I had a boyfriend once in my life—but I do not have the right to try to suppress any activist struggles for gay men nor do I have the right to claim title to their oppression. Anymore than they have the right to claim mine as a poor man from a religious minority background growing up in the South.  Class may unite us, but our possibilities within even the framework on an individual class were quite different.  This cannot be simply ignored or subordinated to class concerns, but acknowledged and incorporated in a more expansive view of class consciousness.

To break this down further, merely wishing that such identity categories could be subordinated to class through abandoning all reifications of identity misses that class itself is much more complicated than “laborer” vs “owner” or “poor” vs “rich” (neither are the same class analyses either). The experience and power within the larger working class which is increasingly proletarianized on every level does intersect with race, gender, and sex as well as other identity categories such as region, the national language, religious heritage, etc. Some of these identity categories are apparent personal choices—although the religiosity of a person being so predictable by race, class, and region makes this claim more suspect than it initially appears—others are not. When I have beers with a black friend, the part of me that is white wants to see him as colorless because I feel colorless. This is not going to happen: his experience of the world is objectively different from mine, and I can no more relieve him of his “blackness” than I could deny that there was a power dynamic between us. This is true with female friends and comrades. This is true with all sorts of people. This is not individual: my friend may want to deny their identity-category as well. They may want that but they cannot do that. In the case of gender or sex, there is no way for them to do this anyway. This is because these identities are social, and non-arbitrary even if not essential. The definition of “white” and “black” as racial categories is nationally-contingent as well as historically-contingent, but I can no more undo that by calling for the abolition of identity than a can be merely rejecting the notion of class.

If class consciousness is fragile and so-easily wounded, it is not because posh-liberals spreading essentializing alone. It is because material conditions and human relationships make those lies palatable because they speak to real concerns. The logic of class abolition may lead to the same strategy of consciousness as related all to all identity categories in conjunction with class but not subordinate to it, but then calling for an abandonment of “identitarianism” makes about as much sense as calling for the abandonment of class acknowledgment in order to deal with class.

If anything we need a nuanced and empirical attempt an understanding of the relationships of intra-broad working class tensions and a materialist identity understanding more than a rejection of identity as such. Class is the locus of capitalism, and Fisher is absolutely correct to place it at the center of any socialist or communist movement. Let us, however, not pretend that “raising consciousness” is an out, and that our twitters and blogs will somehow raise the awareness of class to the heavens as a revolutionary subject once again.  Fisher does not necessarily say this, but his focus on the interpersonal viciousness of social networks in the context of electoral strategy leaves it as an easy implication.

The New Old Left and the Old New Left

In a way, this is a playing out a generational debate between the World War 2 generation and babyboomers being fought by the current generation in both Western Europe and North America, because the contradictions were never reconciled. Mark Fisher’s piece hit a nerve. If the statistics of the North Star’s data aggregators are correct, a deep nerve.  Some people feel that this spoke to our needs more than the theoretical concerns we have published in the past, with some other feeling this is regression to old left politics that refuses to acknowledge identity as legitimate.  The “vampire castle” is a battlefield for old ideas, and even reacting against that does not undo this fact.

The time between 1968 and Occupy remain a discourse of romantic failure and in our real world of labor and ecological crisis, the zeitgeist no longer allows for such futile obsessions. The problems with class consciousness have an origin beyond mere attitude, and the working out of the debates between the old Unions and Communist parties and the student and identity movements are unfinished. These liberal revolutions are unfinished by necessity. Fisher’s distrust of a particularly liberal use of a discourse seems rooted in that fact, but his calls for rejecting the subject of that discourse when he says we are to reject identity as such, no matter the merits of his distrust, seem unfounded and, frankly, unrealistic.  Identities are plastic—mine has changed several times in my life as has my position within the broad working class has changed—but their plasticity can only be enacted with the real circumstances that created the identity in the first place are redressed.  This has to be concurrent and addressed within any framework of action or theoretical critique.   All identities are social.

Time’s arrow is always forward. No amount of wishing that the excommunications will stop will make it so because the material impetus, such as real discrimination in housing and credit, lack of options for working women with children, criminal profiling and the higher likelihood of state intervention, and a real history of socialist movements not acknowledging legitimate concerns of minority groups within the working class and other oppressed classes, which makes those liberal claims of derailing or privilege have weight remains real. Any analysis that merely posits a vampire castle to which we have to escape—a vampire castle build on a liberal myopia—must make sure it is not running headfirst into an abyss that led us into that castle for shelter in the first place. If the working class seems divided and class-consciousness is so thusly “fragile,” it is because the class itself is subsumed in a world full of contradictions and complex mechanism of power. To understand that class division takes demographic data, case studies, statistics, local context, historical analysis, and then the means for real material change. There is, frankly, a reason why we can’t get along, a real why the “old left” call for class domination of the consciousness and the new left call for the recognition of new identities is still with the various socialist, communist, and anarchist movements after the birth and slow burning death of Occupy Wall Street. That reason is beyond the persuasive nature of those ideas. Liberals abuse of identity is made possible by more than just ill-will. In the end, if a communist movement does not deal with it, we are stuck in the same battles that have plagued us for 100 years or more.

I will take Fisher at his word, as a heuristic of personal charity must buttress any necessary systemic heuristic of suspicion. Or to say it like they would in Georgia, there is too much hating of the players, and not enough hating of the game.  I will end on a quote from Jacques Camatte’s essay, Capital and Community, which I see as both affirming and complicating Fisher’s final point about the undoing of class structure:  ”One can only speak of the victory of the proletarians to the extent that one simultaneously affirms that they will not realize it as proletarians, but in negating themselves, in posing man.” This will not be done by Russell Brand or Owen Jones, neither of whom will undo it either just by parliamentary or extra-parliamentary action. This will not be done by calls to subordinate all forms of identity to class. This will only be done by first understanding how class has changed and how all identities are related to that in a situated matter. This will only be done by slowly untying the contradictions within the working class. Only then will both the conservative and liberal use of identity to divide broader movements be even a remote possibility. This self-negation applies to more than just class as I sure Mark Fisher knows and even implies, but it will not come by merely wishing it away. If we jump out of that castle—be it vampiric or not—we must learn to fly if there is an abyss outside it.

(originally posted here)


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