Purple Magazine
— The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

acid communism


artwork by ROBERT LONGO

legendary k-punk futurist mark fisher provided a laser-sharp critique of today’s late-capitalist society. his text acid communism was last unfinished work before he committed suicide in 2017 

The claim of this text is that the last forty years have been about the exorcising of “the spectre of a world which could be free”. Adopting the perspective of such a world allows us to reverse the emphasis of much recent left-wing struggle. Instead of seeking to overcome capital, we should focus on what capital must always obstruct: the collective capacity to produce, care and enjoy. We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its teargas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this Red Plenty. The overcoming of capital has to be fundamentally based on the simple insight that, far from being about “wealth creation”, capital necessarily and always blocks the production of common wealth.

The principal, though by no means the sole, agent involved in the exorcism of the spectre of a world which could be free is the project that has been called neoliberalism. But neoliberalism’s real target was not its official enemies — the decadent monolith of the Soviet bloc, and the crumbling compacts of social democracy and the New Deal, which were collapsing under the weight of their own contradictions. Instead, neoliberalism is best understood as a project aimed at destroying — to the point of making them unthinkable — the experiments in democratic socialism and libertarian communism that were efflorescing at the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies.

The ultimate consequence of the elimination [of] these possibilities was the condition I have called capitalist realism — the fatalistic acquiescence in the view that there is no alternative to capitalism. If there was a founding event of capitalist realism, it would be the violent destruction of the Allende government in Chile by General Pinochet’s American-backed coup. Salvador Allende was experimenting with a form of democratic socialism which offered a real alternative both to capitalism and to Stalinism. The military destruction of the Allende regime, and the subsequent mass imprisonments and torture, are only the most violent and dramatic example of the lengths capital had to go to in order to make itself appear to be the only “realistic” mode of organising society. It wasn’t only that a new form of socialism was terminated in Chile; the country also became a lab in which the measures which would be rolled out in other hubs of neoliberalism (financial deregulation, the opening up of the economy to foreign capital, privatisation) were trialled. In countries like the US and the UK, the implementation of capitalist realism was a much more piecemeal affair, involving inducements and seductions as well as repression. The ultimate effect was the same — the extirpation of the very idea of democratic socialism or libertarian communism.

The exorcising of the “spectre of a world which could be free” was a cultural as well as a narrowly political question. For this spectre, and the possibility of a world beyond toil, was raised most potently in culture — even, or perhaps especially, in culture which didn’t necessarily think of itself as politically-orientated.

Marcuse explains why this is the case, and the declining influence of his work in recent years tells its own story. One-Dimensional Man, a book which emphasises the gloomier side of his work, has remained a reference point, but Eros and Civilisation, like many of his other works, has long been out of print. His critique of capitalism’s total administration of life and subjectivity continued to resonate; whereas … Marcuse’s conviction that art constituted a “Great Refusal, the protest against that which is” came to seem like outmoded Romanticism, quaintly irrelevant in the age of capitalist realism. Yet Marcuse had already forestalled such criticisms, and the critique in One-Dimensional Man has traction because it comes from a second space, an “aesthetic dimension” radically incompatible with everyday life under capitalism. Marcuse argued that, in actuality, the “traditional images of artistic alienation” associated with Romanticism do not belong to the past. Instead … what they “recall and preserve in memory belongs to the future: images of a gratification that would destroy the society that suppresses it.”

The Great Refusal rejected, not only capitalist realism, but “realism” as such. There is, he wrote, an “inherent conflict between art and political realism”. Art was a positive alienation, a “rational negation” of the existing order of things. His Frankfurt School predecessor, Theodor Adorno, had placed a similar value on the intrinsic alterity of experimental art. In Adorno’s work, however, we are invited to endlessly examine the wounds of a damaged life under capital; the idea of a world beyond capital is despatched into a utopian beyond. Art only marks our distance from this utopia. By contrast, Marcuse vividly evokes, as an immediate prospect, a world totally transformed. It was no doubt this quality of his work that meant Marcuse was taken up so enthusiastically by elements of the Sixties counterculture. He had anticipated the counterculture’s challenge to a world dominated by meaningless labour. The most politically significant figures in literature, he argued in One-Dimensional Man, were “those who don’t earn a living, at least not in an ordinary and normal way”. Such characters, and the forms of life with which they were associated, would come to the fore in the counterculture.

Actually, as much as Marcuse’s work was in tune with the counterculture, his analysis also forecast its ultimate failure and incorporation. A major theme of One-Dimensional Man was the neutralisation of the aesthetic challenge. Marcuse worried about the popularisation of the avant-garde, not out of elitist anxieties that the democratisation of culture would corrupt the purity of art, but because the absorption of art into the administered spaces of capitalist commerce would gloss over its incompatibility with capitalist culture. He had already seen capitalist culture convert the gangster, the beatnik and the vamp from “images [of] another way of life” into “freaks or types of the same life”. The same would happen to the counterculture, many of whom, poignantly, preferred to call themselves freaks.

In any case, Marcuse allows us to see why the Sixties continue to nag at the current moment. In recent years, the Sixties have come to seem at once like a deep past so exotic and distant that we cannot imagine living in it, and a moment more vivid than now — a time when people really lived, when things really happened. Yet the decade haunts not because of some unrecoverable and unrepeatable confluence of factors, but because the potentials it materialised and began to democratise — the prospect of a life freed from drudgery — [have] to be continually suppressed. To explain why we have not moved to a world beyond work we have to look at a vast social, political and cultural project whose aim has been the production of scarcity. Capitalism: a system that generates artificial scarcity in order to produce real scarcity; a system that produces real scarcity in order to generate artificial scarcity. Actual scarcity — scarcity of natural resources — now haunts capital, as the Real that its fantasy of infinite expansion must work overtime to repress. The artificial scarcity — which is fundamentally a scarcity of time — is necessary, as Marcuse says, in order to distract us from the immanent possibility of freedom. (Neoliberalism’s victory, of course, depended upon a cooption of the concept of freedom. Neoliberal freedom, evidently, is not a freedom from work, but freedom through work.)

Just as Marcuse predicted, the availability of more consumer goods and devices in the global North has obscured the way in which those same goods have increasingly functioned to produce a scarcity of time. But perhaps even Marcuse could not have anticipated twenty-first-century capital’s capacity to generate overwork and to administer the time outside paid work. Maybe only a mordant futurologist like Philip K. Dick could have predicted the banal ubiquity of corporate communication today, its penetration into practically all areas of consciousness and everyday life.

“The past is so much safer”, observes one of the narrators of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian satire, The Heart Goes Last, “because whatever’s in it has already happened. It can’t be changed: so, in a way there’s nothing to dread”. Despite what Atwood’s narrator thinks, the past hasn’t “already happened”. The past has to be continually re-narrated, and the political point of reactionary narratives is to suppress the potentials which still await, ready to be re-awakened, in older moments. The Sixties counterculture is now inseparable from its own simulation, and the reduction of the decade to “iconic” images, to “classic” music and to nostalgic reminiscences has neutralised the real promises that exploded then. Those aspects of the counterculture which could be appropriated have been repurposed as precursors of “the new spirit of capitalism”, while those which were incompatible with a world of overwork have been condemned as so many idle doodles, which in the contradictory logic of reaction, are simultaneously dangerous and impotent.

The subduing of the counterculture has seemed to confirm the validity of the scepticism and hostility to the kind of position Marcuse was advancing. If “the counterculture led to neoliberalism”, better that the counterculture had not happened. In fact, the opposite argument is more convincing — that the failure of the left after the Sixties had much to do with its repudiation of, or refusal to engage with, the dreamings that the counterculture unleashed. There was no inevitability about the new right’s seizure and binding of these new currents to its project of mandatory individualisation and overwork.

What if the counterculture was only a stumbling beginning, rather than the best that could be hoped for? What if the success of neoliberalism was a not an indication of the inevitability of capitalism, but a testament to the scale of the threat posed by the spectre of a society which could be free?

It is in the spirit of these questions that this book shall return to the 1960s and 1970s. The rise of capitalist realism could not [have] happened without the narraives that reactionary forces told about those decades. Returning to those moments will allow us to continue with the process of unpicking the narratives that neoliberalism has woven around them. More importantly, it will enable the construction of new narratives.

In many ways, re-thinking the 1970s is more important than revisiting the 1960s. The 1970s was the decade that neoliberalism began a rise that it would retrospectively narrate as irresistible. However, recent work on the 1970s — including Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive: The Last Days of the Working Class, Andy Beckett’s When the Lights Went Out and John Medhurst’s That Option No Longer Exists — has emphasised that the decade wasn’t only about the draining away of the possibilities that had exploded in the Sixties. The Seventies was a period of struggle and transition, in which the meaning and legacy of the previous decade was one of the crucial battlegrounds. Some of the emancipatory tendencies that had emerged during the Sixties intensified and proliferated during the Seventies. “[F]or many politicised Britons”, Andy Beckett has written, “the decade was not the hangover after the Sixties; it was the point when the great Sixties party actually started”.

The successful [UK] Miners’ Strike of 1972 saw an alliance between the striking miners and students that … echoed similar convergences in Paris 1968, with the miners using the University of Essex’s Colchester campus as their East Anglian base.

Moving far beyond the simple story that the “Sixties led to neoliberalism”, these new readings of the 1970s allow us to apprehend the bravura intelligence, ferocious energy and improvisational imagination of the neoliberal counter-revolution. The installation of capitalist realism was by no means a simple restoration of an old state of affairs: the mandatory individualism imposed by neoliberalism was a new form of individualism, an individualism defined against the different forms of collectivity that clamoured out of the Sixties. This new individualism was designed to both surpass and make us forget those collective forms. So to recall these multiple forms of collectivity is less an act of remembering than of unforgetting, a counter-exorcism of the spectre of a world which could be free.

Acid Communism is the name I have given to this spectre. The concept of acid communism is a provocation and a promise. It is a joke of sorts, but one with very serious purpose. It points to something that, at one point, seemed inevitable, but which now appears impossible: the convergence of class consciousness, socialist-feminist consciousness-raising and psychedelic consciousness, the fusion of new social movements with a communist project, an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life.

Acid communism both refers to actual historical developments and to a virtual confluence that has not yet come together in actuality. Potentials exert influence without being actualised. Actual social formations are shaped by the potential formations whose actualisation they seek to impede. The impress of “a world which could be free” can be detected in the very structures of a capitalist realist world which makes freedom impossible.

The late cultural critic Ellen Willis said that the transformations imagined by the counterculture would have required “a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude”. It’s very difficult, in our more deflated times, to recreate the counterculture’s confidence that such a “social and psychic revolution” could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. But we need now to return to a time when the prospect of universal liberation seemed imminent.


all artwork courtesy of pace gallery, copyright robert longo studio / adagp, paris, 2022 


[Table of contents]

The Future Issue #37 S/S 2022

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