Cultural theorist Mark Fisher died last week. He was just 48 years old. Ideologically committed to the ethos of Punk Rock, Mark Fisher was an influential music critic and blogger at K-Punk. Unlike liberal critics, Fisher did not engage with pop culture without recourse to critical theory and politics. And by politics, I mean radical politics.
From what we know, Fisher committed suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression. I hesitate to use the dreadful cliche ‘struggle’ together with depression. This condition requires greater nuance, and he himself wrote a lot about the politics of depression and what he called ‘depressive hedonism’, the cycle of pleasure and sadness enforced and regulated by social media and other forms of enjoyment. The inability to escape from the relentless treadmill of desires brings us to despair again and again.
He was right to see depression as a key figment of the era. It’s not just that the capitalist system has produced an alienated working class, the new threat is an all encompassing gloom – feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. This takes subtle forms. Fisher talks about ‘magical voluntarism’, which he describes as “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”.
After all, if you are a truly free individual then you have only yourself to blame for your problems. It’s not just right-wing politicians pushing this idea. It’s in Reality TV, CBT and the popular guff of self-help therapy, ‘positive thinking’ and ‘mindfulness’. We’re rendered still by ‘reflexive impotence’, Fisher argues, but it’s not an individual matter. It’s political and socio-economic in the end. It’s about the induced decline of class consciousness. And this is where it gets interesting.
There is an alternative
The politics of depression fit neatly within a broad political analysis of our predicament. This brings us to the notion of ‘capitalist realism’. In his book of the same name, Mark Fisher attempted to encapsulate the ideological field which prevents us from seeing beyond the horizon of the capitalist system. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism itself.
As a term, ‘capitalist realism’ is an obvious play on socialist realism – the stultifying aesthetic and cultural policies of the Soviet Union that snuffed the life out of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s. This is itself a wonderfully subversive tactic of appropriation. In an interview with Ceasefire Magazine, Fisher summed up his analysis:
Put simply, capitalist realism is the view that it is now impossible even to imagine an alternative to capitalism. Capitalism is the only ‘realistic’ political economic system, and, since this is the case, all we can do is accommodate ourselves to it. This leads to the imposition of what I have called ‘business ontology’ – a version of social reality in which every process is modeled on corporate practices.
‘Business ontology’ is Fisher’s name for the incapacity to see the world outside of business and corporate terms. This is probably a play on Alain Badiou’s phrase ‘market ontology’. Even leftists struggle to see the world outside of market forces and the structures of business, big and small. In this sense, capitalist ideology – in the domination of culture, not just the economy – shapes the limits of thought and discourse, not just practical action.
Fisher was adept at coining such terms. ‘Market Stalinism’ was another great invention, referring to the enforced practices of companies. He singles out examples like employees being obliged to wear items expressing their individuality. Later, Fisher would use the phrase ‘liberal Stalinism’ to refer to the increasing tendency of the left towards moralism on social media. He would use this to dissect the Twitter mob as a new puritanical force.
Far from a conservative, Fisher was concerned by the decline of left-wing political experiments as a loss to revolutionary politics. Note, this was before Occupy Wall Street broke out in 2011. He wanted the left to avoid the drift into purely theoretical discourses, but not move towards action for the sake of action. This is not a desperate call for the Black Bloc to save us. And it’s not a diversion into the obscure corners of academia.
Instead, the focus is on the system and how it ensnares us. Capitalist realism dissolves agency and politics as we know them. It leaves, in its wake, the notion of individual responsibility and guilt. If you can’t find a job, that’s your fault. It’s not down to the structural functions of the economy, and its need for cheap labour and unemployment as a pressure for keeping wages low. All the while, we’re told we can do anything and be anybody.
Much like Slavoj Zizek and other thinkers, Fisher was responding to the ‘end of history’ and its almost universal acceptance. This led Mark to question the stagnant, managerial politics of the New Labour era. His work called into the question one of the fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism, namely the idea that “there is no alternative” to a liberal market economy. Fisher was not alone in his efforts to tear down the limits being foisted upon the human imagination. But, at the same time, he was not uncritical of the contemporary left.
The retreat into identity
In Exiting the Vampire Castle, Mark Fisher attempted to diagnose the ailments of the modern left, singling out its fetish for social media and the growing trend towards so-called ‘identity politics’. The loss of a sense of organisational form, instead drifting into petty bourgeois moralism about personal conduct and individual virtue. He takes the posh left’s animosity towards Owen Jones and Russell Brand as key instances of this.
Taking issue with ‘call out culture’, Fisher sees the fixation on moral failings (whether real or imagined) as a return to a new puritanism on the left. He points us to the abusive outbursts of Twitter mobs, and he is right. Ultimately, he argues, this shift serves to paralyse us – feeding back into the hopelessness endemic to the system. In short, petit-bourgeois moralism isn’t a substitute for political theory and action, in fact, it might actually be a hindrance to it.
At the same time, Mark is careful to make clear he does not think straight white guys should be treated with reverence. Nor does Fisher dismiss the struggles of queer people, women and people of colour. Rather he takes issue with the creeping influence of petit-bourgeois moralism, which appropriates these struggles and ties them to liberal reformism. He detects this influence in university life, and suggests it deters working people from getting involved.
Of course, Fisher was not alone in his scepticism of the shift towards identitarian politics on the left. He was very critical of what he called ‘neo-anarchism’, a name for a specific breed of anarchism espoused by privileged millennials – who have never known life before neoliberalism. The neo-anarchists fall back into the ditch of neoliberal thinking, as they hold twentieth century social democracy and communism in contempt, but refuse to concede parliamentary or state politics ever achieved any good at all.
It sounds like a close cousin to what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call ‘folk politics’. They argue that the organised left has fallen by the wayside and become enamoured with spontaneous local action over organised, hegemonic projects for universal emancipation. Instead, the collective focus is on localism and the immediacy of particular struggles rather than vertical, hierarchical attempts to restructure the world and build a far-reaching alternative.
This may be why horizontalism and anarchism are in vogue. Yet Fisher doesn’t see any hope in a return to old leftist ‘economistic’ notions of class. He sees the limitations of social movements at present, but does not see salvation in past models. In this regard, Fisher sounded like most other so-called postmodern theorists, but he was not necessarily wrong in this emphasis. The post-capitalist future is in the present, and the struggle is not just to defeat the present system but to bring about that future.
This article was originally published at Souciant.
The last time Barack Obama intervened in European politics was during the Brexit referendum campaign. Coming out for the Remain camp, Obama backed the UK’s membership of the EU on the grounds of economic stability. He even appeared to dangle a sharp object over the Leave camp. The outgoing president claimed Britain would be at the “back of the queue” for a trade deal with the US. In other words, the UK is worth more in the EU than outside it.
The British right began circling Obama soon after his speech. Anti-American jibes became fashionable among conservatives again. Suddenly, you could read Boris Johnson rambling on about the president’s Kenyan ancestry and how these roots informed his anti-British prejudices in utero. It was a bizarre few days. Apparently, Obama always hated the British. That’s why he handed back the Churchill bust.
These same quarters began to see Donald Trump’s victory as an opportunity to renew the ‘special relationship’. British politicians were soon climbing over each other to kneel before the next president. It caused some fuss that Nigel Farage beat Theresa May to meeting Trump. All of this is a testament to the servility of the British political class. But they would rather dress it up as a ‘special relationship’.
Yet Obama’s relationship with Europe much broader than this. Obama’s time in office has charted key events. The EU has been shaken to its core by an economic crisis, everywhere right-wing populism seems to be on the march and Brexit poses a break with the status quo. Meanwhile the project seems to be facing new challenges on its doorstep: the refugee crisis, civil war in Ukraine and atrocities in Turkey.
A Greater Europe
The Obama administration has tried to maintain the American-European alliance. This meant support for the EU as the project for a ‘Greater Europe’. At the centre, Germany and France had come together to overcome the competition between their elites. This alliance was expanded to include the UK and other countries. It is now composed of nearly thirty member-states. But EU expansion has always been controversial.
History is full of ironies. Charles de Gaulle opposed British entry into the European Economic Community. He saw ‘perfidious Albion’ was an extension of the United States, the NATO agenda to bound Western Europe to Washington. The French right wanted to lead the European project, using the German economy as a horse for its own chariot. But this was not to be.
The whole point of the EU and NATO has been to wed the European powers to the US under German leadership. Much like in East Asia, where American governments would try to reinstate Japan as the leading economic power – the US wanted Germany as the leading power in Europe. This shows up the absurdity of the so-called ‘special relationship’. The UK is one major European state, it is not necessarily the main player in Europe.
Of course, peace in Europe really meant within the EU. Outside the EU, in places like Ukraine and the Balkans, the story has been quite different. For starters, European powers supported the breakup of Yugoslavia to expand southwards. In Ukraine, the Euromaidan uprising saw a realignment with the EU as necessary to move further away from Russian influence. Faced with this, Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea and began to destabilise the rest of Ukraine.
The cases of Ukraine and the Balkans are not isolated. The periphery is where the EU project reveals itself. Thus, the Greek debt crisis threatens the credibility of the Eurozone. If Greece can default, then Portugal and Spain will soon follow. If Portugal and Spain can do this, Italy and Ireland could follow. As in other foreign policy areas, the Obama administration has sought out stability in the EU.
The Obama administration may have preferred a more restrained austerity in Europe, just for the sake of the economic order. This may be why the IMF was more sceptical of another round of austerity being imposed on Greece. Even still, the IMF found itself outvoted by the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Though the US is still the dominant power in the world today, its power is not absolute.
Old Enemies, New Crises
Much like in East Asia, where the US aimed to reinstate Japan as the leading economy to maintain its own hold on the Pacific. This plan was first threatened by the ‘loss’ of China in 1949, then came the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Both fought to secure the post-war settlement. Likewise, the US rebuilt West Germany to secure its hold on the future of Europe. Here we find Russia is the ‘outlier’ trying to maintain its own sphere of influence.
As the Euromaidan demonstrations forced out Viktor Yanukovych, the activists pushed for closer ties with the EU and the consensus in Ukraine was still very much against joining NATO. Once Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, the support for NATO membership increased dramatically in Ukraine. The tensions with Russia served to validate US policy, and vice versa Putin used NATO as a pretext for aggression. It wasn’t always like this, though.
Many Russian liberals began to look westward in the early 1990s. They saw Russia as part of a ‘Greater West’, fit to join the EU, even suited for NATO membership. Incidentally, Boris Yeltsin tabled this idea in 1991, but the US was totally opposed to Russia joining NATO. The US feared it would lose its allies should Germany and Russia forge closer ties. The North Atlantic alliance may be rendered void in such a scenario.
However, this also shows that the Russian government is not anti-Western by nature. Every US administration has tried to ‘reset’ its relations with Russia. Obama tried to repair ties following the Georgian war. But each time the relationship is ‘soured’. Most recently, the split reopened over Ukraine and Obama sought to contain Russia economically. Now Putin is vying for another ‘reset’ once Trump is in office.
As we look back on the Obama years, we find a cautious president looking to stabilise the system amid turbulent times. And the fundamental problems remain in place: tensions with Russia may be inevitable for if NATO continues to expand, and the EU will face economic crisis as it remains wedded to the neoliberal model. This in turn has reinforced the appeals of nationalism. These flaws may be fatal in the end.
This article was originally published at Souciant.
Remember the funeral of Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama stood before the South African people to pay tribute to Madiba. “He makes me want to be a better man”, the American president confided with his audience. It felt like he had just wandered astray from the official script. But really it was very well choreographed.
By this point, Africa has become a major focus of American counter-terror efforts. At the same time, US dominance has not gone unchallenged, Chinese competition has meant African governments have more than one economic titan to do business with. In some ways this takes Africa back to the Cold War struggles, when the Soviet Union and Cuba often vied with the US and China for influence.
In the years since the Cold War ended, the politics of Africa has been dominated by the ‘war on terror’, neoliberal globalisation and Chinese state capitalism. These factors remain key for understanding US policy towards the continent today. The Obama administration has built on the existing pretexts for war in Africa and extended the Western scope of military operations.
One of the key events of the Obama era was the NATO intervention in Libya. The Libyan uprising against Colonel Gaddafi created an opening for the Western powers to intervene. Yet the Libyan rebel leaders opposed greater Western interference. The country has since slipped into a strange limbo, with no one power able to hold the state. And this laid the groundwork for new conflicts.
Africa’s War on Terror
Let’s look at Mali in 2012. Returning from the Libyan civil war, heavily armed Tuareg fighters waged a new rebellion in the West African Muslim state. The aim was to establish Azawad as an independent country for the Tuareg people. As the insurgency progressed, radical Islamist groups like Ansar Dine rushed in to take advantage of the conflict. Once Azawad declared independence, the Malian government was ousted in a coup d’etat by US-trained army officers.
With US-backing, France invaded Mali in 2013 to defeat the Islamists and secure the nation-state, however, the problem manifested by the destruction of Timbuktu was not contained to one area. The French soon found themselves expanding their operations across the region. The jihadi groups began targeting hotels in Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire – especially those frequented by Westerners – to stretch the operation further and eventually break its back.
To this day, the US is backing the French intervention in West Africa and the Sahel to stamp out the rise of jihadi groups. Of course, the less convenient story is that the French can secure their economic presence in the region by extending a ‘defensive umbrella’ through West Africa. France is heavily dependent on nuclear power, and the Sahel region is rich with uranium. It’s also the case that the French want to fend-off Chinese mining interests.
The US is happy to see France beat China for Niger’s uranium. This is where counter-terrorism meets US and Chinese competition. In the past, French Africa was in competition with Anglophone Africa, but this changed in the last couple of decades. France and Britain are now on the same side in Africa, namely the American side. Thus, the NATO bombing of Libya was a joint operation.
Today Libya has no government, while three governments claim this status real power is held by armed groups. African refugees pass through in hope of making the perilous journey from the Libyan coast to the shores of Italy. This is the situation that concerns the EU and the US. Obama has acknowledged the NATO bombing failed. He placed the blame on Britain and France for their lack of “follow-up”.
Great Power Play
Although it is sometimes claimed that the Gaddafi regime was ousted because it was opposed to AFRICOM, the Libyan regime was open with AFRICOM. This was long before the American military force established relations with almost every African state. The idea of hosting US troops on Libyan soil was anathema, as it remains for most Africans. By contrast, the rebels in Benghazi opposed AFRICOM as Louis Proyect pointed out some years ago.
Since then the Obama administration has continued to expand AFRICOM and deepen its reach on the continent. In 2015, Obama planted a new US base in Cameroon to launch drones and station 300 troops. Note Cameroon is just next door to Nigeria and faces incursions from the Boko Haram insurgency. Obviously, the US wants to contain the Islamist insurgency in northeastern Nigeria and stand behind its regional allies.
Yet the US would rather not arm Nigerian soldiers directly. Instead, the conflict in northeastern Nigeria is used as a pretext to extend the US reach in West Africa. The US and its allies provide funding for the regional task force. Economically, the US remains close to Nigeria and the Gulf of Guinea for oil, as do the other Western powers, though these interests fall out of sight through the counter-terror prism.
This is no coincidence. The Bush administration created AFRICOM after having established a major base in Djibouti as part of its ‘war on terror’. From Djibouti, 10,000 American troops can oversee world trade flows through the Bab-el-Mandeb heading up to the Suez Canal. The Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Peninsula are all within reach from this vantage point. But even here the US is not unchallenged.
China is opening a massive base in Djibouti. It will station 10,000 Chinese troops in the tiny country, rivaling the American presence at its height. The Chinese government also wants to open a base in Namibia on the over side of the continent. This would give China a great strategic advantage. Just as China is challenging the US in Africa, the Americans are encircling China in the Pacific. These may be the dark clouds coming over the horizon, as the real storm approaches.
The US in Somalia
All of this is going on as the US continues to try to create a client government in Somalia. The official pretext is, once again, fighting the terror of al-Shabaab. The AU-backed government in Mogadishu is treated as the only legitimate authority in the country. But there is a problem with this. Regions like Galmudug, Puntland and Somaliland, basically govern themselves. The Somali federal government was established by southern warlords and an Ethiopian invasion.
None of this has seen the Kenyan government to question its role in Somalia. For example, when al-Shabaab attacked a Kenyan AU base possibly killing more than 200 soldiers, the Kenyan government refused to publish the official body count. In response, US drones targeted al-Shabaab and killed over 150 people in one operation. This pattern will likely continue for years to come.
Ten years of AMISOM has not left Somalia with a stable, federal government. The US needs a reliable ally on the Horn of Africa, while Ethiopia and Kenya have an interest in keeping Somalia fragmented. Both countries have restive Muslim populations and contested borders with Somalia. In the 1960s, Somali bandits rampaged across the Kenyan border and later General Said Barre would wage war on Ethiopia laying claim to the Ogaden desert.
Fast forward to 2006, Ethiopia invades Somalia with US approval to smash the Islamic Courts Union. AMISOM is set up to foster a new government in Mogadishu, backed by warlords and composed of former Puntland rebels. Al-Shabaab emerges soon after to challenge the AU forces occupying the country. Much like Afghanistan, Obama passes Somalia on to his successor. This saga looks set to continue with no end in sight.
This article was originally published at Souciant.