Line of Control
(First published in CONTROL 20, London 2017, with full on graphic layout)
Brexit is like the vinyl LP which flourishes in a digital realm; or like an inner fiction of the EU or a wider EU-like entity that would have to be invented if it did not exist. It is a bit like when artists say they will "leave the art world." Britain is now more in the EU than before, as it is in Europe and it is far weaker. Once we accept that Britain still exists within a European entity of some kind, it is clear that from here a kind compromise can be made with this EU-like entity. Leaving the network of reference is just the same as re-entering it on a lower level. The right can't do what the left could never do, forcefully change part of a system without changing the whole. There is no "leave", you cannot leave, only sink deeper in.
I guess the point of all this is that "leave" may not work for the left either. The logic of using this kind of shocking break is quite questionable. It almost feels like it might not work any more. But that would be a big shift in thinking. And how the fuck would you keep the notion of a class revolution?
There would have to be another kind of break. An inner break but a total one. One that anticipates but does not define. One not dependent on consciousness alone. And this would have to work with other factors and ideological tendencies than its own programme.(1) That might mean thinking tactically, without "shock." But then surely there would need to be proof that something revolutionary is happening, a kind of mark.
I wrote in my 2015 talk The Outside Can't Go Outside that "There is nothing wrong with using false conclusions for correct purposes, as long as this is clearly marked with an indelible trace."(2) I want to briefly talk about this trace. First, what is it?
I am a bit like a member of Sonic Youth to whom, despite frenetic activity, nothing serious ever seems to happen. A typical hipster. But what if this hipster life is the meaning. Despite its permanent distance from anything interesting, this position is politically interesting as an accidental whole. The reflexive bohemian is second-order entity which could allow a view on those that "do" things. The fascinatingly diverse solutions to artistic problems are all alike. They reflect a continuous hum of the hypocrisy of the inner discourse which underlies their intention.(3) A kind of cultural flatness; for example the default tendency in all of Mike Kelley's "different" shows, what Perry Anderson called in another context "a degraded contradiction, that is cyclical in its movements and thereby immobile and eternal."(4) This "hum" greys out into stress and guilt – exciting individual events eventually add up to midcareer burn out. In percentage terms, this is 80% of each project; what links every single project together, the general working practice over time, with all its compromise and pettiness. The other 20%, the top layer positionality, is here disregarded: instead, a bourgeois "feeling for it" which reveals radical art to be traditional. The artist, like ideology and reality in general, has an outer appearance as well as an inner intention at any given time. The best way to proceed from this is to keep the outer appearance and forget the intention. The pseudo-excitement of each single event is identified and replaced by a deliberately flat, boring feeling. A kind of "minimal" trace maps the layout of the working practice. The burn out can be "traced," analysed, and excavated, if seen as overarching symptom.
One does not choose the image built up by or the unintended consequences created by the repetitive habits of one's activity. But one can probably choose that way that the image of that activity is re-composed, by permanently marking it. This can only be in a form which was not seen before, is unknown, hard to describe, and hard to erase. This "minimal difference" is all-powerful especially because no difference is visible. A second image arrives precisely because it is kept at a distance. This line traced across the second order is a real effect. A new "narrative" border line is written, not a "leave" lunge back to Outside information. The trace must not be the thing it resembles, but a narrative continuity which adds up to something else. This 80% is lazy – it is the less interesting part, has no particular alignment with anything, and as such could in fact be evil. But if totally re-encapsulated as new trace, it could be good, inasmuch as its current turning re-maps its previous failures at any given time. It needs to be constantly and entirely re-narrativised.
What this seems to imply to me is that those that work in the realm of the symbolic second order must get this kind of thing right. Even art cowards must fight, given the nature of the disaster. Perhaps in art you could still find a non-conservative kind of abstraction, a post-discursive, institutional critical abstraction; a strategy of abstraction mediated by minimal differences.
As I worked on these problems earlier this year I envisaged that I could see and make a truce with my own modus operandi and get behind it, "turn" it, move it around on its axis. But then something else happened, June 24th 2016, ideology crossed me. As I was skating across in one direction, a perverted nationalism cut across my path from the other and stabbed me in the face. I had theorised an inflection point which then happened as a victory for the far right. It seemed like the entire UK was going through the same process as me but could only deal with the traumatic void by regressing into the past.
It appears that there can be a kind of "turning of the inflection" from the opposite side. There is also a danger of my own position creating a right agenda on some small scale. The left works on ideology, on aims and means in the abstract, risking all sorts of dangerous language and vision. Neo-fascist counter-revolution is inspired by the organisation and ideological inculcation of communism.(5) Space opened by the angry fight against neoliberalism from "The Battle of Seattle" to the Occupy movement has been exploited.(6) Especially as the fascists cannot grasp what is really at stake, the contradiction between capital and labour and why this means crisis conditions of very low growth. The real problem is so unpleasant that the only way to deal with it is to find scapegoats, in a collective obsession with immigration.
Tracing the trace... but the problem is it actually does have to be traced. It has to be anchored to something. What is needed is a way to guarantee that it is turned in the other direction: a pivot.
A pivot of some sort exists in a discussion on the "composition problem" of class struggle in Endnotes 4. (7) This composition problem seems to be partly that there is no inherently conscious "working class subject," and so no automatic revolutionary movement; and also that the worker is totally separated from others in the workplace and divided by racism and nationalism. But Endnotes' more original contribution is about demands. The truly revolutionary struggle is one that demands everything with an ambition of achieving power. But this also means having no demands, as every specific demand ultimately rebuilds the problem, because it is a plea for mercy from capitalist authority. This state of total demand and demandlessness is the inward reflection of the fragmented working class itself. Endnotes asks "...what the consistency of demands, as well as their content, tells us about composition."(8) In other words the working class are an atomised force who are necessarily inconsistent in their demands, which is an expression of the ultimate demand seen from a distance. This contradictory consistency is like the 80% trace as it continuously re-traces itself. This re-trace is a kind of echo of the composition problem; it has to happen in advance within the notion of organisation, and find its echoes in Marxist value theory too: "Thinking through the new context in which struggles are taking place requires a pivot at the deepest level, in the very categories of communist theory."(9) The pivot is anchored in a re-tracing of this inconsistency. Individual washed out failures to connect up struggles make them rewriteable as stonewashed examples. This is a pivot in the nature of struggle, through which different groups can connect not by similarity but via negative affinity. Is there a way to pre-empt the possibility of ideological re-inflection? A way to draw an international class line in the face of nationalism? The symbolic break must move out of the "real," into another space more like an ongoing, self-reinforcing urge to describe it, which has been traced from a refusal to "leave," because "leave" is now co-opted by the far right.
Is there an other way which does not point to the far right or to a failed capitalist centre? To find a negotiation beyond anything Corbyn might offer it would be necessary to mark an absolute demand, allowing for tactical compromise which does not compromise in the slightest.
With the shocked defeat of the left and its seeming irrelevance, there is also a glimmer of where the solution actually might be, in Marxist value theory and its communist application. Let's say that such theory is now covertly established as the main explanation for what is going on, hinted at in the work of various mainstream economists since the last crisis. This has happened exactly when the other forms of socialist theory including previous Marxisms are stone dead, as these have nothing pertinent to say to the present situation.
So if the politics are now clearer, is there a way to extend and mediate that shift, not provoke counterproductive shocks? Could we start discussing the management of transition to communism and amelioration of the current situation according to non-bogus theoretical work? Not a New Labour management of capitalism, nor a utopian viewpoint, but a view on what might happen as we prepare for, go into transition to, and one day enter post-capitalism.
It is easy to forget that the left has always been the dominant discourse. Communists create reality and should not get scared by reality. In recent decades that has been lost because of the sheer onslaught of bullshit. When Marx talked about alienation, it has been argued that he was not just referring to alienation from present conditions, but also alienation from what the future should have been like by now.(10) To accept the pain of that failure is to see how profoundly disaffected and cynical politics have become. And let's say that we eventually get to a revolutionary transition. It would of course be a massive shock, but this can be anticipated, traced in advance. There would also be alienation and sadness produced by this transition and a process of disalienation would be needed to counteract it.(11) This could be prepared for now, so that violence and other reactionary effects can be rejected.
Merlin Carpenter, October 2016
(1) See Göran Therborn, The Ideology of Power and The Power of Ideology, Verso, London, 1980, p. 116-118.
(2) http://www.merlincarpenter.com/outside.pdf, p. 25.
(3) This in part comes from a conversation with Anthony Davies.
(4) In Components of the National Culture, New Left Review, July/August 1968, p. 3-58.
(5) See Göran Therborn, p. 123.
(7) Endnotes no. 4, October 2015, London.
(8) Endnotes no. 4, p. 213.
(9) Endnotes no. 4, p. 166.
(10) See Ernest Mandel, The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx, NLB, London, 1971, p. 182-183.
(11) Ernest Mandel, p. 199.