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Utopia & Lost Futures: "For now, our desire is nameless." On the problematic of left hegemony

Updated: Oct 20, 2022

July 2022.

Perhaps more than any other intellectual on the contemporary left spectrum, Mark Fisher has provided an impressive diagnosis and at the same time perspective on left hegemony in only a few sentences:

"At the moment, our desire is nameless — but it is real. Our desire is for the future — for an escape from the impasses of the flatlands of capital’s endless repetitions — and it comes from the future — from the very future in which new perceptions, desires, cognitions are once again possible. As yet, we can grasp this future only in glimmers. But it is for us to construct this future, even as — at another level — it is already constructing us: a new kind of collective agent, a new possibility of speaking in the first person plural. At some point in this process, the name for our new desire will appear and we will recognise it."

(M. Fisher, K-Punk: 587)

These words, which can be found in the extensive collection of blog posts called K-Punk, address the heart, not despite, but precisely because the heart is devastated in capitalist realism. A piece of poetry - as in all poetry, one does not unlock the meaning of the words through an act of reason, but one divines it. And now, even at the cost of thereby encountering the prose of the world (which will be quite the case here), one must, for the purpose of the present argument, dissect Fisher's thought and situate it more theoretically.

The basic thesis of this paper follows in the footsteps of the British cultural scientist, well aware of having put a finger in an open wound. On the one hand, I start from Fisher's diagnosis that under the present circumstances in which we live and speak, our desire is nameless; that the desire for an alternative to capitalism, in which other needs, other ways of understanding and feeling would be possible, remains unarticulated and unrecognized. The insight that Fisher presents in the above quote may not satisfy everyone because of its abstractness, but it is nevertheless a good opportunity to raise the question of left politics and its (lack of) hegemony.

Hegemony (following Antonio Gramsci) belongs to those who succeed in synthesizing the diversity of interests and mobilizing them on the basis of a constructed imaginary (a general discourse). If we adhere to this principle, we can address the problem of left hegemony. The question that arises is: why is it difficult for the left today to organize hegemonic struggles, that is, struggles based on a consensus of the many? Certainly, in recent years we have seen sporadic outbreaks of civil disobedience and contentious politics in the form of the Indignados, Podemos, and the various Occupies, but these movements have died out as quickly as they emerged. According to my analysis, the problem of left hegemony can be divided into two axes that correspond to two blockades: on the one hand, an equivalence blockade and, on the other hand, an interpretation blockade. These two blockades cannot be considered separately, but are interrelated. Their difference is purely methodological, since in practice they often merge.

Let us start with the equivalence blockade. The equivalence blockade refers to the fact that the left camp fails to integrate a multiplicity of interests into a combative unity, or, in the words of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Muffe, to articulate hegemonically different discourses in a chain of equivalence. As soon as one has a large, superordinate narrative with which the claims of different interests and subject positions can be linked, the possibility is also provided to present the different forms of inequality as equally legitimate, i.e. as moments of general oppression. In this way, these different forms are made equivalent to one another and thus linked. Hence, Laclau's and Muffe's message for left-wing politics is unmistakably expressed: acting hegemonically would mean linking struggles, creating alliances. Different positions are not "necessarily" and directly linked, rather the task of (left) political action is to practically establish the entanglement of different struggles.

The reality of the political action of the left, however, appears quite different: They fail precisely where a strategy of setting back particular agendas, traditional self-assignments, nostalgias and instead a focused bundling of strength through transversal alliance would be so important. I would like to illustrate the problem with the example of the discussion about an unconditional basic income. Of course, there are differences of opinion and controversies within the left spectrum on this issue (which once again shows the fragmentation from which the left suffers). As far as the BGE is concerned, it is very interesting from an analytical point of view to look at the attitude of one of the most important actors for left politics: The trade unions. Of all things, the trade unions: ver.di, IGMetall and consorts, if we take the German context, reject the introduction of the BGE. A working paper of IG Metall from 2018 warns that the BGE is a possible engine of division in society. It says: "Instead of accepting the division of people into job holders and basic income recipients as inevitable, the goal must be: Everyone must have the chance to be gainfully employed - but on good terms." As if society were not already divided, the unions construct an apology of wage labor - mind you: wage labor as an opportunity and not as social coercion - under "fair conditions. What an antinomy! Wage labor (if one wants to remain Marxist) is by definition unfair. Obviously, by refusing, the unions defend their legitimacy and power, which would be undermined by the introduction of a basic financial security for all; they defend the privileges of skilled workers under normal working conditions. And finally, they defend the wage-labor society, whose continued existence is the vital condition of capitalism.

Their political rejection of the basic security system without any ifs and buts damages (if not prevents) above all the alliance with the lower classes, with the unemployed, with people with alternative lifestyles, with the chronically ill, with the precarious anyway. It is precisely among the precarious that different, even contradictory worlds meet: precarious hands meet precarious heads, precarious women meet precarious men. And when the relationship between home and abroad comes into play, the number of possible precarious constellations becomes truly unmanageable. Analytically, this attitude of the unions testifies to that "corporatism" which, according to Gramsci, must already be overcome in a hegemony.

And now we come to the second blockade: the interpretative blockade. This phenomenon occurs in two forms. On the one hand, it is unmistakable that the left critique is an important function for capital. The idea that the history of critique cannot be separated from the history of capitalism was elaborated by the two sociologists of labor Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiappello. Their fundamental analysis of the relationship between capitalism and its critique has become indispensable. In their book "The New Spirit of Capitalism", Boltanski and Chiappello have shown how the desire for autonomy, flexibility and self-development, which arose in the bosom of the new social movements, has been absorbed by capitalism and integrated into the new corporate organization. Capitalism is changing its skin, becoming greener. The climate movement provides the normative basis for this.

The central point here is that capitalism is omnivorous; it appropriates everything, its affirmation to its negation. This is the impressive thing about this form of society and perhaps the reason for its longevity, that it is similar to Nicholas of Cusa's God: a "Coincidentia Oppositorum" (coincidence of opposites).

The insight that capitalism has this ability to vampirically suck in not only nature, resources, human labor, but also the sayable, is relevant to me in that it allows us to understand the problem of the blockage of interpretation. It is incredibly difficult to use a vocabulary that sharply separates itself from the dominant symbolic order. "Freedom!" means everything and, precisely for that reason, nothing at all. "Social responsibility" is propagated as a formula by corporations that establish the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) model in their structures. As a particularly striking example of the inflation of a term that was originally left (how can we forget it!), we can think of the term "solidarity". It was used during the initial lockdowns of the Corona pandemic by actors of all stripes. But one shudders to realize that "solidarity" was not only used liberally by neoliberal politicians, but that the term also appears numerous times in the programs of the NPD and AfD. While the New Right outlines a horrible solidarity economy, the left camp has to suffer one of the most devastating losses in its symbolic arsenal.

The capitalist takeover of all positive signifiers is accompanied by a concealment of the sayable. This is expressed in the impossibility of interpreting the unease about capitalism. In the exhausted "post-capitalist" society, this discomfort is forcefully mystified. After all, there are billionaires who donate generously to the Third World; NGOs carry out humanitarian projects; all problems are discussed publicly and anyone can criticize anything. One can live sustainably by buying the coffee package with the happy Peruvian face on it that indicates the social and environmental sustainability with which the coffee was produced, or by riding a bicycle to work instead of driving a car. Mystifications are needed everywhere to make the intolerable more bearable, to accuse any scathing critique of unreasonable hypersensitivity, and above all: to carry on as before. But hegemony needs signifiers to interpret the world both positively and negatively. And because these signifiers are out of reach, left politics is unable to act hegemonically under current conditions.

The desire for a clear alternative in terms of content, a new generator of meaning, is definitely present among thinkers from left ranks. What is still expressed very modestly and in quiet tones is precisely the longing for - dare we say it - a grand narrative. But it is the case that large parts of the leftist intelligentsia are still happily cavorting in their postmodernist dream. The end of grand narratives (the phrase coined by the mastermind of postmodernism: Jean-François Lyotard) is a double-edged sword in this context, a contradictory principle that needs to be dialectized. On the one hand, it was the last farewell to remaining totalizing conceptions of the world and the condition for a release, an unboundness and nomadicity of all values, symbols and subjects; the last (purely intellectual) checkmate of any hierarchy. On the other hand, one notes the unintended consequences. Nomadicity must first be afforded. What takes the place of historicity and coherent projects is disorientation, the emergence of a psychosocial type characterized by cynicism, apathy and neurotic splitting; a social subject that permanently practices or has to practice an imposed ataraxia and which drowns in its freedom and flexibility.

The farewell to grand narratives finds its counterpart in Fukuyama's proclamation of the "end of history", which still weighs heavily today. This proclamation functions as a rhetorical means of depoliticization and lack of alternatives, and semantically supports the game of capitalism. History never ends, it has been politically immobilized, and the possibility of grand narratives has not evaporated, but has been thoroughly denied, so that, or because, a single monological and absolutizing narrative, that of capitalism, could prevail.

The left - and by this we mean parties, alliances, institutions, autonomous groups of all kinds - needs more than ever a grand narrative that does not abolish differences but coherently links them into a chain, into an antisynthetic synthesis of struggles for the better. That narrative, as Fisher suggests in his quote from above, is not currently at hand: "At the moment, our desire is nameless." The voice, the field of the sayable is being capped to the leftist imagination piece by piece; leftist codes are gradually being robbed and we lack a true language for our unfreedom. Against this background, Fisher makes an "immodest," and precisely for this reason admirable, claim: "the left needs to produce its own machinery of desire" (ibid.). In the face of capitalism and its libidinal engineering - here the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari is unmistakable, for capitalism, in the eyes of both, is a gigantic machine of decoding and recoding desire - left politics should compete with its own "subversive desire motor", which precisely captures, interprets, produces, forms, and also: names desire. To this end, it is indispensable for the left to have sufficient inventiveness for new concepts, new words that rename and transform the world.

The left must create its own imaginary, its own narrative that overcomes the blockade of interpretation and equivalence, even at the cost of having to abandon the old coordinate system of communism. Indeed, as Fisher rightly points out: The semantic power of communism has long since been damaged as a result of historical events. I do not believe that the new name for our desire will simply come to us and we will then suddenly recognize it. On the contrary, the project of a new narrative - together with the invention of new terms and names - must be voluntaristic. Voluntaristic because capitalism reorganizes itself and continues to gain ground, while critique is disoriented and remains in its melancholy.

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