Communism in recovery
by Arran James
In spite of the association of violence with political will, however, I would argue, as did Arendt, that the new glorification of violence of the late 1960s was caused by a severe frustration of the faculty of action in the modern world. That is, it expressed an underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency. In a historical situation of heightened helplessness, violence both expressed the rage of helplessness and helped suppress such feelings of helplessness. It became an act of self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation. -Moishe Postone, History and helplessness: mass mobilisation and contemporary forms of anticapitalism.
As a psychiatric worker this absolutely appeals to me intuitively and theoretically. The violence in the riots of 2011 and the violence that is fetishised by certain left factions are born out of helplessness. Indeed, one could see the current historical moment, the movement of the left from its position of despair to optimism is also analogous to the psychiatric patient dragging themselves out of a kind of learned helplessness. The rejection of electoral politics by the majority of people could be seen as a symptom of learned helplessness: do they refuse to vote because they don’t care, or because “it won’t make any difference”; whenever you hear someone saying that they wish that there could be a world without classes, without a state, without injustice, without violence against women and so but that can never be because “that’s just the way things are” they are also talking the language of learned helplessness. In a similar respect, I wonder if the Zizekian call for a Master is a symptom of such learned helpness (the need for a savior; an externalisation of the locus of agency), or if it is instead a return to being able to think in terms of heroism, and therefore evidence of a recovery of agency and imagination?
In the 1960 and 1970, American psychologist EP Seligman was carrying out research on dogs to investigate the phenomena of classical condition (Pavlov’s dogs; the formation of an association between a stimulus and a resultant that influences behaviour). In the course of his research Seligman noticed that those dogs that received unavoidable electric shocks would fail to take evasive action in situations where avoidance-escape behaviour would have removed them from an aversive stimulus. The control animals, those dogs that did not receive such electric shocks, were able to flee the threatening situation with no difficulty. Repeating the experiment with human participants (and noise rather than electricity), Seligman found his dog results were reproduced. Seligman proposed that there was a structure of expectation that expected the uncontrollability of outcomes through intervention, and therefore the belief that intervention and action would be futile. He named this expectational-behavioural feedback loop learned helplessness. Essentially, repeated failed attempts to perturb a situation and produce a change inculcate in the attempters that it is pointless to even really try. Isn’t this the structure of the experience of the left?
Since assembling the idea, learned helplessness has become positively viral, being applied to pretty much all psychiatric conditions, to prison populations, to older people in care homes and so on. The authors of the website You are not so smart have even extended the application of the theory of learned helplessness to everyday life:
Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.
This is the social psychology of capitalism. I have seen this first hand in patients of long-stay psychiatric wards and I have lived it during a period of long term unemployment (studies of both of which in relation to learned helplessness have proliferated since Seligman’s day). Isn’t this also the economy of the false choice that infects every aspect of contemporary life (coke/pepsi etc.)? You get to choose, but just enough to make sure you don’t make a real choice. This is precisely the trap that has broken apart and out of which the anti-cuts protests and the anti-Austerity movements have sprung. For Seligman, learned helplessness was to be understood as a form of depression, but it is clear that this has been a depression of what Franco Berardi calls “the social brain”. It is not that you or I have been depressed, although we might very well have been, but that we have all been subjected to depressive processes of subjectivation; the entire field of the production of subjectivity has been depressed. In discussin such a depression I want to make it clear that I reject the false dichotomy that presents itself as a political antagonism. On the one hand, depression is often portrayed a neurochemical condition, a “brain disease”. I argue that even when it is not theorised in this way the casual pharmacological treatment of it as such displays a kind of political faith (in a phrase designed to modify Santayana’s “animal faith”) that it is. The first half of Steven Soderbergh’s last film, Side Effects, does a wonderful job of exploring this faith and the complex relationship of psychiatry, the pharmaceutical industry, professional patients (people who have the knowledge about this brain disorder and the “fact” that prozac will make it better), family, and capitalism- and its affects- before losing its way. On the other side of this debate is the position that says depression is a social and political problem. The latter position is passionately argued by Mark Fisher in his excellent Capitalist Realism and in a good deal of interviews. I support Fisher’s calls for a politicisation of depression and, following psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff, I would also claim that diagnoseslike “depression” often serve to produce markets for psychiatric drugs and
allows the state to delegate a difficult area of social policy to supposed technical experts, and thus to remove it from the political and democratic arena. (Here).
I agree with this critique but I do think it is important to realise that neurobiology does play a demonstrable role in depression. There does seem to be a distinction to be made between biological dysphorias and situational dysphorias, and there is a job to be done to disentangle these phenomena from one another in specific cases. At the least, medication can and does have a role to play in the treatment of severe cases of clinical depression regardless of whether or not they are over-prescribed (the overprescription of morphine would not detract from its observable and subjectively reported ability to alleviate symptoms). Medications and other treatments should be viewed as tools rather than as totems to be revered or destroyed. Spend some time with someone who is so depressed that they are refusing to eat, to move, or to do anything but sleep. Now watch them in that state for months on end. It is unlikely that they would be capable of joining in any effort to politicise depression or to express it as what it often, but not always, is: political rage that has learned to view the situation of expressing itself as hopeless.
My general point is that it is just as ludicrous to reduce the problem of depression to the social field just as much as it reduce it to the neurochemical. The brain and the social field are not distinct from one another in some absolute way but are part of a circularity that operates via the body as korper and as leib. I don’t think Mark Fisher believes that the body and the social world are fundamentally distinct in this way, so it is strange that he should treat neurochemical and the social field in this way. If it is carried out for tactical reasons in a polemic against psychiatry, then I can’t follow him in that work. Psychiatry is neither monolithic in theory, disciplinary composition, or practices. As someone on the “inside” as it were, and with a history of close relationships with people who have undergone treatment, and having been assessed myself for panic in my adolescence (doctor: “you’re a student of philosophy? well, don’t worry…it;s not an existential crisis!” chuckle chuckle, indeed) I am aware of the problems. I have spent most of my training to enter the profession being critical of it and am a member of the Soteria Network, which offers a candidate model for a new psychiatry. The embodiment of mental disorders is striking- and is something I am writing about. The embodiment of depression is especially striking: the is an abandonment of voluntary motility-mobility, the alteration of gait (which at least one physiotherapeutic study suggests can be something that is treated with positive results), which psychiatric researchers Fuchs and Schlimme see as a result of a process whereby
the body loses the fluidity and transparency of a medium and becomes conspicuous, turning into a heavy, solid body, which puts up resistance to the individual’s intentions and impulses. (Here)
The depressive body is the body that is all korper and not enough lieb; in refusing to recede into the background it makes itself too evident and doesn’t allow for the enaction of world through meaningful comportment; it remains an heavy obstacle that must be taken into account in such a way that “intuitive attunement” to affordances in the environment through sensorimotor intentionality fails. As Fuchs and Schlimme further argue
The open horizon of possible experiences shrinks into a locked atmosphere, in which everything becomes permeated by a sense of lost possibilities.
The depressive subjectivation processes are once that operate on bodies in order to produce bodies that are exhausted and, as Deleuze put it, ‘the exhausted don’t possibilitate’. Depression is not the mood of the melancholic that introjects some lost object in order to angst over it, but it is the very real loss of the capacity of affection and to experience a world. At its excessive side, depression can take on a psychotic edge that indulges in mood-congruent delusions such as Cotard’s disorder or those of excessive guilt, the sense that one has committed some terrible crime and must/will be punished for it.
Returning to Fisher, I absolutely agree with him on the question of the ‘affective consequences of the kind of cyberspace-matrix that the yound especially are embedded in’ (Here). This is why I think that the rejection of Paul Virilio has been far too fast and that e has, at least in part (and I’d say in the useful part) been mischaracterised.
I don’t know what Virilio’s relationship to Althusser might be, but he can certainly be positioned among the post-Althusserians. It is possible to think of Virilio as a profoundly reactionary thinker- he does himself no favours here, we might attribute it to a combination of his Catholicism and his agora-phobia (his fear of the public)- yet he is not exactly alien or hostile to Marxian thinking. First of all, Virilio is consistently traced back to Benjamin; if there is any thinker that Virilio is claimed to be a disciple of it is Benjamin, with all his fragmentary thinking, his love of discontinuity and his catastrophic thinking. For my own part, it is resolutely the catastrophic thought that I am attracted to- obviously this is relatable to what I call catastrophia.
In Virilio there are a few elements worth considering: speed, information overload, “the democracy of emotions” (massification-synchronisation and the destruction of the time of deliberation”, which taken together form what I call “acceleration“. At the same time there is also his denunciation of the myth of progress, and the idea of the accident. These two elements can be called Virilio’s “catastrophism”. Taken together these two interactive moments form part of the thought of Franco Berardi and Bernard Stiegler, although it is a moment that both of these thinkers either underplay or ignore and which we don’t see many treatments of. This is undoubtedly due to Virilio’s reactionary comments but, much more likely, also his designation as a postmodernist. Heidegger’s Nazism is more deserving of forgivenness than is Virilio’s percieved sin of postmodernism, and Zizek’s adoration of Christology and the whole turn to St. Paul is worth more attention than a man who genuinely has faith. At any rate, Virilio’s alleged postmodernism is as false an allegation as is that against Marx that thinks he figures the social revolution as the end of history. In Virilio’s own words:
I believe that technical modernity, modernity taken as the outcome of technical inventions over the past two centuries, can only be stopped by an integral ecological accident, which, in a certain way, I am forecasting. Each and every invention of a technical object has also been the innovation of a particular accident. From the sum total of the technosciences does arise, and will arise a „generalized accident”. And this will be modernism’s end. (John Armitage (Ed.), Paul Virilio:from modernism to hypermodernism and beyond, Sage, 2000, p. 26)
So, only an ecological accident that is a generalised accident- here I think Virilio is talking about something like ecological collapse brought on by industrial processes that is yet to occur, but nonetheless is certainly with as a latent possibility (or if you prefer sf speculations, the nanotech paranoia surronding cancerous “grey goo”)- only this endangering of the world itself will end modernity; a planetary accident, climatological-geological, something involving extinctions. This is a dark vision, although it escapes pessimism because it is atemporal; this is a possibility right now (“does arise” and “will arise”; the future is already here). The relation of modernity to this technical modernity is interesting because Virilio is often taken as a techno-determinist, although he denies this. At any rate, or rather at full speed, for Virilio modernity as technical modernity- modernity as the ability of our hominid species to intervene technologically “for technical intervention’s sake” in its factical conditions- is far from over (shale gas drilling and the 3D printer are the latest forms of this obsessive thrust). Indeed, Virilio appears as a kind of technomoralist in the sense Ballard gave to this position; standing at the blind curve on the clifftop road with the sign reading “for god sake slow down”.
In Virilio’s hands the one form of the ‘absent causality’ that capitalism denies is the body. This actually places him closer to feminism than most of the post-Althusserians. Specifically, it puts him in proximity to the feminist theory of Silvia Federici. In Federici’s Caliban and the witch, the central claim is that the original version of primitive accumulation- the first violent expropriation- was that of the enclosure of the female body (for Federici historical accusations that feminism is a “splitter” movement or sectarian faction misses the point that capitalism is capitalist-patriarchy— this is another good reason to criticise the blindness of the SWPs central committee and Alex Callinicos). This is not the full story though. For Virilio the absent causality is also the dark side of technology. In Virilio’s eyes capitalism must always make technology as a system appear as if it was always a neutral development, when it is actually one that has catastrophic structurally integral consequences. This is the meaning of the oft-quoted phrase that the invention of the train is also the invention of the train crash and this is what Virilio terms “accident” (it is also why, back in 2008-2009, Virilio spoke of the financial collapse as “an accident”).
In a fairly crap interview with hipster central magazine Vice magazine, we find this exchange
Q.Do you mean “accident” in the same way that some say “event” in modern-day philosophy?
PV: Yes, except that for me, an accident is the event of speed. Our accidents are linked to the acceleration of history and of reality. The French were occupied by the Nazis by surprise. They didn’t react well because they didn’t understand the speed of it all. They were taken by speed. Today’s events, like the stock-market crash, are speed accidents. I call these “integral accidents” because they trigger other accidents. There is an amplification of pure events in history. Today, history is entirely accidental. Look at 9/11. It’s not an event, it’s an accident. But we consider it to be as important as yesterday’s events. It’s like a declaration of war without a war.
The outside that Virilio wants to highlight as being folded into the interiority of capitalism is the integral accident. At the same time, in this interview, we also see Virilio anticipating Timothy Morton on the burial of plutonium:
‘Imagine placing nuclear waste in a hole. How do you tell people in 200,000 years that there are dangerous substances there? It’s not science fiction anymore. How do you communicate with those people? What language will they speak? The length of the threat isn’t considered here. And it’s the same for stocking nuclear weapons. They are everywhere.)
What we see then is that in Virilio’s “accidentology”, his phenomenology of the accident, that there is precisely a diagnosis of times when ‘the structure internally cannot control its own excesses’. (Bruno Bosteels, Here).
Elsewhere Virilio speak of the need for a ‘a university founded on the disaster we’re discussing, the progress that turns to catastrophe…’ and isn’t this precisely a call for a place of thought for thinking capitalism? For Zizek, the problem is that Virilio remains a figure of
the conservative-leftist Kulturkritik (from Adorno to Virilio), which bemoans the stupidity of the manipulated masses, and the eclipse of the autonomous individual capable of critical reflection. (Here).
This is a quick rejection, with Adorno and Virilio serving as a kind of abecedarian gesture at a multiplicity of sad and, the implication is, elitist theorists. Yet if revolutionary theory is going to speak to anybody, if it is to be made applicable to people’s concerns, if it is to address itself to and allow itself to be heard by the workers then it Virilio offers a language and terrain that is familiar to so many people simply because they actually live it!
Virilio also gives a language and a function to the point of a vanguard- an intellectual vanguard that may or may not be instantiated as a party (I am making no a priori judgements in these notes): to offer a different temporality, to be able to slow down, to take time, to look things over, to understand rather than react. To continue the language of my previous post, the vanguard operates on the physiology of revolution via the activation of the conscious control on the spontaneity of the autonomic system (in Virilio’s analyses of panic, we can continue this language to speak of an overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system…indeed, at this level of analysis this language ceases to be metaphorical).
In this way Virilio isn’t at all ‘bemoan[ing] the stupidity of the manipulated masses’- it is technology that is doing the manipulation, or rather it is the user-technology relationship itself and so it is a kind of auto-manipulation, and so the insinuation that they have been foolishly tricked by some media elite is off the cards. Rather, it is that Virilio is arguing against the various forms of techno-mediatic spontaneity that appeal to the creative impulses of the working classes. Indeed, the way that capitalism subsumes the cognitive-affective capacities of the species (whatever the hell the “general intellect” is) is what Virilio discusses under the term “endocolonisation”.
As to the eclipse of the autonomous individual; actually, Virilio is critical of a what he sees a tendency towards a cocooning of the body inside of a technological shell and of a panic-stricken siege mentality that imprisons the sensuous body behind a thousand screens, with forced feedback technology displacing the erotic sensualities of masturbation and sex. This is the vision painting in Michel Houellebecq’s novel The possibility of an island and it is actually a vision of the apotheosis of the autonomous individual.
In each instance of analysis Virilio is looking at this particular situation and looking for an element that has been excluded at the level capitalist discourse but which is, nonetheless, very much an operational presence, ready to reveal itself at any moment. In this regard, Virilio isn’t so much a pessimist in the philosophic sense as he is a hyper-pessimist in Foucault’s sense, insisting not that x,y or z are good or bad but that they are dangerous.
In other words, Virilio is looking at what can be used with an awareness of the risks, and he is trying to think outside of the temporality of the present in order to properly think that present. In seeking to think the accident, to critique the pseudo-liberations of postmodernism, and to find a time for deliberative thinking that manages to detach itself from the “communism of affects” (spontaneity), Virilio is being far more Leninist than Zizek is willing to tolerate.
The real problem with Virilio as a philosopher is that he remains caught up in human exceptionalism. This is, of course, dictated by his Christianity (his “anarcho-Christianity”, as he puts it in an interview with John Armitage, and links it to anarcho-syndalicalism). Yet for all that, he is one of those thinkers who early on included an analysis of a dimension of nonhuman materiality in the shape of technology and technological objects, and, for those of us dedicated to therapeutics and politics, a degree of pragmatic humanism is essential.
In his analysis of speed and communicative technologies, Virilio is also performing an analysis of the processes that produce the depression of the social field that has produced the learned helplessness of the left (and of the workers in general) and that has compounded clinical depression in individuals. As acceleration accelerates, we get more and more sedentary, more and more (inter)passive and domesticated. The point of this side-step through Virilio hasn’t been to mount a defense or championing of his bleak vision but to note that there is a well established approach to understanding this new mediatic environment that understanding it as explicitly linked to capitalism. The task then, and this is a process already under way, but which needs to be better understood and directed, is to unlearn helplessness and thereby lift hopelessness. It might also be to engage with the new logic of the youth born fully integrated into a post-internet media landscape. This is beginning to happen but it is an unsteady course and there is always the possibility of relapse.
Mark Fisher has made calls recently to hear the end of the left’s Beckettian mantra “fail again, fail better” in favour of a kind of renewed heroism that dared to think it could win. For myself, I think that this means the embrace of a kind of communist pragmatism that is capable of recognising that as hominids adrift in the world we are a being permanently trying to cope. The question then is what allows us to cope? The Leninist question of what is to be done, to repeat myself, becomes the question “what can be done” and, to borrow from the solution-focussed therapies, we can begin by asking “what has worked for us before?” This orientation is my own reason for backing Left Unity and for keeping in contact with anarchist groups as well as keeping abreast of socialists that one wouldn’t consider radical or necessarily communist. It is born out a desire to be faithful to this moment of reinvigoration and confidence. This calls for a strategy of tactical openness, of a willingness to be truly experimental and to not foreclose possibilities while they are flourishing and while they can be made use of and put to work for a better way of coping with being alive. Therapy might well be the opium of people in the hands of the capitalists, but what would a political therapeutics look like that sought to enable resistance to capitalism? If the left is in recovery after a period of depression then let us look bear in mind what Franco Berardi that
When dealing with a depression the problem is not to bring the depressed person back to his/her normality, to reintegrate behavior in the universal standards of normal social language. The goal is to change the focus of his/her depressive attention, to re-focalize, to deterritorialize the mind and the flow of expression. Depression is based on the stiffening of existential refrain, on the obsessive repetition of the stiffened refrain. The depressed person is unable to go out, to leave the repetitive refrain and s/he goes and goes again in the labyrinth. The goal of the schizoanalyst is to give him/her the possibility to see other landscapes, and to change the focus, to open some new ways of imagination. I see a similarity between this schizoanalytic wisdom and the Kuhnian concept of paradigmatic shift when the scientific knowledge is taken inside a conundrum.(Here)
The left should not be seeking to return to its old forms or to abandon its new ones. I seek to begin with the determination of what is in our power and what is not, and acting based on that diagnosis increasing what calls under our agency and enflaming the potency of our efficacy. To speak in plain language: its by thinking and by doing what we can that we can risk building ourselves as a united front and produce a left wing movement that can defend and, why not?, even attack capitalism. But to do this, we can’t just go back to how we were, with our old refrains that we got stuck in; we can’t be statists and antistatists, anarchists and Leninists and so on. For now, at least for a little while, we should risk a degree of wilful naivety in the hope that through experimenting we might make something new. I myself am no hero, and don’t seek to be one; these comments reflect only an attempt to grapple with the situation we find ourselves in. Yet perhaps this aversion to heroism has been part of the problem…