Pleasure & Political Despondence
About two years ago, I was sitting at a bar with a friend and realized I no longer believed in socialism. I mean: I certainly believe in the principles, but I’m not sure I think socialism is a thing that will happen, that we will ever have a radical, systemic break for the better. It was winter and snowing; the bar we wanted to go to was closed; we ducked into the bar of a restaurant in Prospect Heights and had drinks and flirted a little and talked about how bad the world was. We talked about all the dystopian technology with which Black Lives Matter protests were being repressed. I think this was sometime after a protest that had started at Union Square, and at which the cops had had speakers set up with an automated voice giving an order to disperse as soon as you’d arrived, so that the cops would be able to arrest everyone as soon as they wished.
We talked about our various mutual and respective friends who worked in tech and marketing and how those friends were much more “paranoid” than anyone else we knew, and that this was likely not paranoia. “You know,” my friend said, “there’s just no way that Marx could have predicted what would happen with technology, and the ability for the state to repress people.” And I realized that I had had this thought for a long time without ever quite articulating it. And that I did actually think that things were just going to get shittier and that there was, for the most part, nothing we could do about it. It felt like a relief to hear the thought expressed, to have the thought with another person. For good reason, most of the time when you’re involved in activism, you focus on helping to sustain the belief that you can change things. We encourage one another; we bolster the belief that what we are doing will make a difference. It’s the only way to operate if you’re, say, trying to get people to come to an action. But insisting that things can get better when it feels like they can’t also starts to wear at you.
The Marxist progress narrative is just one kind of progress narrative. I picked it up in grad school, which I think is pretty common if you’re coming from a working-class background and then find yourself in academia. It seems to explain everything; it can account for the world as you know it to be, with your working-class background, and at the same time the narrative is also recognized in your new environment. It’s a framework that allows you into conversations among academics, a discourse from your new environment that also explains the old. The narrative is useful professionally without creating cognitive dissonance; it genuinely has explanatory power and can even partially give language to why you feel the way you do within your new environment.
For those of us who have absorbed it, the Marxist narrative runs parallel to the more general sense of progress that comes out of modernity and the social movements of the 60s and the concessions made to them. In a way, it’s part of them. We expect the world to get better. Giving this expectation up seems like a loss, even if, on the Marxist side, we’ve been trying to convince everyone for years that the world isn’t, in fact, getting better.
Last year was the New Year's of everyone feeling shocked by the election; I danced all night with my closest friends in an apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. I had the same dumb drunk joke all night about this being “our last hurrah.” In the morning, I went to the Poetry Project, wildly hung over, and cried when Jonas Mekas took the stage and everyone gave him a standing ovation. Which is to say: all I seem to be able to focus on in the absence of a sense of futurity is individual moments of communing with friend, lovers, acquaintances.
I did pretty much the same things this year, though there was less of a feeling of shock in the air, and more a feeling of resignation. We made dark jokes about impending economic collapse, chatted, danced; at the Poetry Project I was sick with a cold and crankier than last year, less tolerant of readings that I didn’t like and less enthused about those I did.
Poetry has a role here, though I find it hard to articulate. The feeling of intimacy that one gets through art seems especially important. It’s compensatory without being a distraction. In one Marxist narrative, anything that helps ameliorate the pain of capitalism is bolstering the current system. At one point, I would have bought this idea; now it feels like posturing.
Mark Fisher writes about the “slow cancellation of the future” in Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, which I started reading after Fisher’s suicide last January. I’d read an earlier book of his, Capitalist Realism, from 2009, when it came out, and later came to feel like its last lines were borne out by Occupy:
The long, dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.
Occupy really did tear a hole in the “grey curtain,” I think. I experienced it as a sudden surge of collective power: it was no longer clear what was going to happen; we were determining the trajectory of the world. It felt like being in a dream that suddenly became lucid: now you had agency and your desires could manifest in the environment.
That feeling, of course, didn’t last long, and Ghosts of My Life feels correspondingly different. Fisher points out in the first essay of the book that the only cultural referent right now is the past; that futurity is unimaginable; we instead get hauntology. Fisher also writes:
…my take on the old phrase ‘the personal is political’ has been to look for the (cultural, structural, political) conditions of subjectivity. The most productive way of reading ‘the personal is political’ is to interpret it as saying: the personal is impersonal. It’s miserable for anyone at all to be themselves (still more, to be forced to sell themselves). Culture, and the analysis of culture, is valuable insofar as it allows an escape from ourselves.
That is: the personal is much better when viewed through the political; we’re less alone; we can also do more. One thing we can get from politics is less isolation in our individual lives: we’re all being produced by forces larger than us. Sometimes we can collectively shift things; other times the larger forces are just too big. I’m interested now in the kind of sustenance that I get from communication.
I personally have something of an ascetic tendency, which has sometimes carried over into political activity. For years I threw myself into activism in borderline self-destructive ways. I now have a much more maximalist mood—I want political community; I also want to sleep enough, pet my cats, be around friends pretty much all the time, read poems that make me feel connected with everyone. The disadvantage to this is that if an end to the current system is possible, it is only possible through intense, largely boring, sometimes dangerous labor by everyone on the Left. I.e., we can’t build political power through doing pleasurable things. On the other hand, though, pleasures keep in one’s mind what we’re fighting for—life can be very good; we want more of those things for everyone.
Lately I’ve been trying to do political work just with friends: small one-off actions with people I trust and whose company I enjoy, since I don’t seem to have it in me—logistically, with work, etc., or emotionally, with my relatively hopeless orientation to the larger historical trajectory—to go all in. But it’s something, at least, and I’ve also taken comfort in a sense of shared despondence, expressed in poetry and among friends, a sort of communality of staring into the abyss together and then going from there.
Marie Buck is the author of three collections of poetry: Life & Style (Patrick Lovelace Editions, 2009), Portrait of Doom (Krupskaya, 2015), and Goodnight, Marie, May God Have Mercy on Your Soul (Roof, 2017). She also recently completed a dissertation, Weird Propaganda: Texts of the Black Power and Women’s Liberation Movements. She is managing editor of...