Properly Materialist Reading?

Three topics that I generally avoid: Jacobin magazine, Paul Mason, and Sam Kriss.  I have criticized Jacobin magazine over and over again. For it’s strange mixture of criticizing liberalism while embracing a liberal form of social democracy while also publishing defenses of Soviet communism that are tantamount to pleading for a return to the old Stalinist popular front or basically just “Tu quo que” as a political ideology. Even it’s just of “the left” is the from those inspired by Rousseau’s populist as by any consistent socialist theoretical apparatus:  Jacobins were liberalism at it’s most bloody-minded and self-inconsistent, but sometimes it felt like one was actually reading  a paper that would be better named Girondin or Late Comintern.  I find Jacobin to be worth reading, but symptomatic.  In fact it has to be to survive as a magazine in a capitalist market: the way to succeed in a market is to give people what they want and thus Jacobin must play to the pathologies that leftists have.  Few people want their pathologies removed, but catered to.

Now, I have read Kriss for a long time, and even advocated publishing his response to Mark Fisher at the North Star when I worked there several years ago.  Kriss is a strong stylist and a very engagingly bitter writer.  These are traits I envy and respect.  He is also a very strong critic with analytic eye, but one who has a tendency towards taking the textual and metaphorical to nearly obscure conclusions. Furthermore, Kriss is a perfect writer for the left at this point because he is almost gleefully mean-spirited.  Another bitter voice critiquing disaffected leftist.  This is something that leftists seem to particularly enjoy as it speaks the the frustration that everyone seems to see.

His take-down of Paul Mason’s recent silliness on Game of Thrones is worth the read and one of Jacobin’s better pieces. In the kind of Marxism that is safe for the Guardian,  Mason concludes this,

If you apply historical materialism to Westeros, the plot of season five and six becomes possible to predict. What happened with feudalism, when kings found themselves in hock to bankers, is that – at first – they tried to sort it out with naked power. The real-life Edward III had his Italian bankers locked up in the Tower of London until they waived his debts.

But eventually the power of commerce began to squash the power of kings. Feudalism gave way to a capitalism based on merchants, bankers, colonial plunder and the slave trade. Paper money emerged, as did a complex banking system for assuaging problems like your gold mine running dry.

But for this to happen you need the rule of law. You need the power of kings to become subject to constitutional right, and a moral code imposed on business, trade and family life. But that won’t happen in Westeros, where the elite lifestyle is synonymous with rape, pillage, arbitrary killing, torture and recreational sex.

What is happening here is Mason is applying a stage-developmental model–one that has a vaguely Trotskyist or even Bernstein-esque feel–to a fictional texts in a fantasy universe, and it falls flat.   I was developing a response to this myself when I read Kriss and laughed out loud approvingly when I read Kriss’s summation:

Mason’s “Can Marxist theory predict the end of ‘Game of Thrones’?” misunderstands both fantasy and Marxism, most of all because it fails to grasp this important point. Part of its failure also has to do with its overreaching ambition — in the space of a short essay, Mason tries to forecast the future plotlines of Game of Thrones, account for the fall of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, and explain why people living under capitalist economies enjoy fantasy stories set amid medieval decay.

Any one of these could quite comfortably provide enough material for an entire book; muddled together in just over a thousand words, they end up crossing over each other into near incoherence. (Of course, given the mess he’s made of all three concepts, this response will also have to do much the same thing.)

Mason’s central argument is that the debt and ruination suffered by Westeros during the War of the Five Kings provides a fantasy analog to our own history’s late medieval crisis (also, confusingly, to the current crisis in the eurozone). The realm is ripe for a bourgeois revolution — as he puts it, “Westeros needs capitalists” — but, because of the limitations of the high fantasy genre, this can never happen. The social system in these fictions can decay, but it never actually collapses. Instead, fantasy feudalism will pant through its crisis by finding new land and resources across the Sunset Sea to the West.

Furthermore, Kriss’s reading of what Game of Thrones is actually doing far more developed than Mason’s stagism. Creditors isn’t what created capitalism–as debt and markets predate that and are consistent to non-capitalist forms of social organization.  It is the abstraction of value and its alienation from labor that is crucial, and so Mason’s stage theory seems both reductive and to miss the point. I would not call it non-Marxist exactly as the number of Marxist states and arguments that deviated on these same points is, well, the history of Marxism.  It is, however, not particularly helpful.

Kriss understands the double critique of Game of Thrones, which is itself deconstruction of the high fantasy genre.  Martin’s critique of feudal fantasy is crystalized by Kriss here:

Except Game of Thrones constantly undermines this idea: its kings aren’t just cruel and stupid but powerless, trying to bat away rapacious financiers and ghoulish monsters with both flapping, ineffectual hands. It’s a strange detour into the language of desire and latency, a kind of Žižekian maneuver that seems to indicate an argument that’s run up against its own limits.

But then Kriss says this:

It can also give us hope for the future. A properly materialist reading of Game of Thrones can only conclude that, as a matter of historical necessity, in the fifth season the White Walkers will burst through the Wall, the dragons will break free from their petulant queen and her cloying white-savior complex, strange sea monsters will turn the Braavosi banking houses into heaps of rubble with a sweep of their vast tentacles, and all will unite with the smallfolk of the land to dethrone all the bickering pretenders, melt the Iron Throne into tractor parts, and build a new and better society.

What?  This is the best “materialist” reading.?   It is a matter of necessity that this happens?  It is a proper materialist reading?   A call to turn the piece into socialist realist agitprop is the only proper materialist reading of the text.  Something that neither makes sense in the terms of the fantasy world given NOR made since when socialist realists critique it.  This is the kind of propaganda that screams that “you will be left in the dustbin of history” with its shoe on the UN table only to be have dissolved as a state within only a generation hence.

Like most of the American and British left, Jacobin is a magazine that is primarily good at commenting of the political phenomena and cultural epi-phenomenas of political economic, but very bad at actually analyzing things on their own terms or even a consistent set of political terms. Indeed, the endings of these kinds of article often end with, as a friend T’ai Chu-Richardson says, “it actually gets close to the awful commie-rag trope of ending every single article with the equivalent of ‘anyhow, capitalism delenda est.'”  Yes, we know, but how the hell is a “proper materialist reading” going to do that other than to insist blindly on yet more “hope.”  That is what Sam Kriss serves up, strong on critique and complete bullshit on the answer: Necessity will give us hope. It’s the fire we need.  The same complete bullshit the left have served up and failed with for a 150-years.

If we all believe in fairies… I mean dragons… I mean historical necessity.

Is critique all we actually have?  Because both Mason’s materialist reading and Kriss’ answer to Mason’s failing don’t get you much else outside of fantasies: either stages or volunteerism as the subject of historical necessity.  Perhaps its good that most of the left just snipes at each other or writes about politics of television shows now.  That kind of analysis of real political movements gets people killed.

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