“An unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life”: Acid Communism

k-punk, the new collection of the late Mark Fisher’s blog posts, interviews, and unpublished writings, arrived at my doorstep last Thursday. It’s a big beast, at over 700 pages, and I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with many of these brilliant insights (and catching up with those I previously missed) over the coming weeks. Seeing his work collected in this way brings a stark and much-needed reminder of Fisher’s singularity and diversity, the force of his personality and acerbic wit (an overused phrase, I know), and his unwillingness to conform to academic expectations, or just about any mode of theoretical or cultural critique besides his own.

But for many, the publication of k-punk last week was most anticipated for being the first opportunity we would have to read the unfinished introduction to Acid Communism.[1] This book was to be, it was suggested, the basis for a political project that would reignite the countercultural revolutionary potential of the Sixties’ psychedelic cultures within today’s jaded and disenfranchised left; a sort of constructive counterpart to the wildly dystopian (and wildly successful) Capitalist Realism. The 2009 book suggested a lot of things, among them the idea that capitalist hegemony, as a political expansion of postmodernity’s usurpation of grand narratives, presents cultural history as an array of aesthetic developments, with no real potential for social change, to be viewed at through the cynical lens of irony and never at face value.[2] Modernism, as the belief in the unyielding progress of the highest elements of Western culture, and that which was at one time rejected by the polydirectional differentiations of postmodernism, returns under capitalist realism as “a frozen aesthetic style”: defanged and subsumed to the relativism of culture’s market economy, where it can function as a puppet for “the formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes” of consumers. Instead of mutually exclusive methodologies for interpreting and subverting the dominant culture, words such as “modernism”, “postmodernism”, “alternative”, and “independent” are recapitulated under capitalism as things to wear, or to decorate the house with. Fisher’s famous evocation of Kurt Cobain is the example most cited in relation to this aspect of capitalist realism: “Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.”[3]

In response, Fisher tells us at the end of the book, we must reclaim the territory which has been overrun by neoliberalist depressive realism: that of the imagination, and of desire. This involves the creation of genuine alternative perspectives to the dominant beliefs (that Capital is ubiquitous and unassailable; that any challenge to this reality is dangerous dreaming). One suggestion touted is to revisit the point at which neoliberalism took hold of desire, to enable a remobilisation of this desire towards more universal, democratic-socialist means:

If neoliberalism triumphed by incorporating the desires of the post 68 working class, a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy.[4]

In this sense, Acid Communism seems to continue where Capitalist Realism left off. If the Sixties, with all its revolutionary countercultures and utopian political ambitions, has become merely a “frozen aesthetic style”, why does it feel so alive next to the brutalist Thatcherite greyness we seem stuck in to this day?

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 begun to democratise – the prospect of a life freed from drudgery – has to be continually suppressed.[5]

The episodic past, Fisher says in the new book, is not presupposed by any objective reality, but instead “has to be continually narrated,” as much to keep the more subversive narratives out of the cultural possibility and memory as to reaffirm the singular viability of the capitalist one. The project of acid communism therefore proposes a return to the site of the established narrative of the Sixties in order to reactivate those suppressed potentialities: the confluences of working-class consciousness, post-work ideologies, and the perception-altering capabilities of psychedelia which, we are reminded, were universally expected to shape the political landscape to come during the height of the counterculture.[6]

Fisher refers to acid communism’s time-travelling project as “an unprecedented aestheticisation of everyday life.”[7] The sense of time impressed onto us under neoliberalism is that of the work schedule, which pervades into every aspect of our public and private lives. But the emergent culture of the Sixties presented alternative conceptions of time, which by the end of the decade were finding their way into the mainstream through groundbreaking film, poetry, theatre, and music (facilitated by the availability of democratic new technologies: radio and television). We hear, for example, in the languid sprawls and deep pools of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon”, the Beatles’ “I’m Only Sleeping”, and the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday”,

worlds beyond work, where drudgery’s dreary repetitiveness gave way to drifting explorations of strange terrains. Listened to now, these tracks describe the very conditions necessary for their own production, which is to say, access to a certain mode of time, time which allows a deep absorption.[8]

Fisher roots the “dropping out” encouraged by bohemia firmly in terms of class struggle and visibility; specifically, the refusal of work suggested by “I’m Only Sleeping” et al, as a simultaneous “refusal to submit to a bourgeois gaze which measured life in terms of success in business.”[9] Here was a working class attuned to the instability of the world to come, who were more likely to look to “heroes” such as the Beatles than accept the mediocrity of a life of drudgery or the assertations of a crumbling bourgeoisie. “Everybody seems to think I’m lazy./I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy./Running everywhere at such a speed,/til they find, there’s no need.” Psychedelic culture enabled a stretching-out of time, and with it, an opening-out of space. Both movements are necessary for the mobilisation of a working-class counter-hegemony; the one to come would have been “unimaginably stranger than anything Marxist-Leninism had projected.”[10] The resultant hallucino-political space-time might have resembled the “Psychedelic Shack” sung about by the Temptations in December 1969 (a poignantly symbolic moment). Far from a hazy, impossible dream, the psychedelic shack

feels like an actual social space, one you can imagine really existing. You are as likely to come upon a crank or a huckster as a poet or musician here, and who knows if today’s crank might turn out to be tomorrow’s genius? It is also an egalitarian and democratic space, and a certain affect presides over everything. There is multiplicity, but little sign of resentment or malice. It is a space for fellowship, for meeting and talking as much for having your mind blown. If “there’s no such thing as time” – because the lighting suspends the distinction between day and night; because drugs affect time-perception – then you are not prey to the urgencies which make so much of workaday life a drudge. There is no limit to how long conversations can last, and no telling where encounters might lead. You are free to leave your street identity behind, you can transform yourself according to your desires, according to desires which you didn’t know you had.[11]

It would be naïve to think that a turn to aesthetics would be sufficient in constituting a new political project, much less in unseating an already firmly-entrenched one. But Fisher’s analysis of our current situation is most successful as an emphasis on the ideological struggles faced by the left: its aimlessness, its infighting, its lack of ambition. Besides the neoliberalist agenda itself, he identifies two archetypes from the traditional left which in the Sixties and Seventies managed to finally cause the counterculture’s dream to end: the moderate, “complacent” social democrat, and what he calls the Harsh Leninist Superego – a sort of militant extremist who demanded nothing less than total commitment from their comrades.[12] The combined effect of these figures was a complete dismantling of the aesthetic dimension of the political left, which in turn meant there was no ideological response to the dizzying promises of free market economics (besides, of course, the affectless cool and terminal suspicion of postmodernism). And so, the reason why the Sixties stands out as the last age of revolutionary ferment is because the counterculture’s promotion of “active dreaming”, and rejection of established social orders, constitute the last attempt of the revolting working-classes to gain any mainstream traction and measure of success.

Although we may never know the full scope of what Acid Communism was to be, it is clear from the unfinished introduction that Fisher wished to reintegrate the aesthetic into contemporary leftist politics. This project would have called for new modes of time, and the construction of intellectual public spaces, as the figurative They Live glasses for seeing through and beyond the illusory totalism of capitalist realism. Most likely, also, we would have seen how later cultural developments might be evoked as a continuation of some of the revolutionary themes of Sixties counterculture. Fisher draws parallels between the sonic experiments of Temptations’ producer Norman Whitfield and those of Jamaican dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, and later figures such as Larry Levan, in their mutual unfolding of a temporal “deep immersion” (a combined effort which resulted in the birth of “the [later] psychedelic genres such as house, techno and jungle”).[13] In all of these musical genres, their BPMs, their clubs and communities, we can find optimistic tendencies which often surpass the apathetic imaginings of the political left. It is possible that, were these worlds able to find ways of reinforcing one another, they may together communicate a widening of our cultural and political horizons. From this, the left might be able to reconfigure desire according to a revitalised aesthetic imaginary, and we may begin to see what a future beyond the ruins of capitalist realism could resemble in actuality.

 

Notes

[1] Mark Fisher, “Acid Communism (Unfinished Introduction)”, in k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004-2016), ed. Darren Ambrose (London: Repeater Books, 2018), pp. 753-70.

[2] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, UK/Washington, USA: Zero Books, 2009), pp. 4-5, 8-9.

[3] Ibid., pp. 9-10 (p. 9).

[4] Ibid, pp. 77-81 (p. 79).

[5] “Acid Communism”, pp. 755-6.

[6] Ibid., pp. 756-8.

[7] Ibid., p. 758.

[8] Ibid., pp. 759-60 (p. 760: emphasis added).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 762-3 (p. 763).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. 762.

[13] Ibid., p. 767.

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