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Social democracy, it’s a hell of a drug. The merest sniff of it has intoxicated tens of thousands of our young people. They gather in streets up and down the country chanting the name of its good-natured avatar. They flocked into marginals and canvassed with evangelical glee. Some have even tolerated the sober procedures of Labour Party conferences. But have they really been swept up in excitement at the prospect of a National Investment Bank? Or is the Corbyn moment the revelation of much more radical desires?
The debate around Acid Corbynism, a phrase coined for an event of that name at the recent The World Transformed festival, indicates that the latter might be true. The coinage was inspired by Acid Communism, a book that radical theorist Mark Fisher was writing before his tragic and untimely death – but the precise relationship between Acid Corbynism and Acid Communism is yet to be pinned down. For me, the clue to solving this problem and by doing so addressing the questions above, is the phrase ‘On Postcapitalist Desire’, the subtitle of Mark’s book. To understand what Acid Communism might mean, and therefore how Acid Corbynism might relate to it, we must start from those desires, produced within contemporary society but whose fulfilment points far beyond the limits of a capitalist world.
Pinning down such desires is no easy thing. It requires us to identify the parts of our lives that are most cramped and constrained by capital’s drive to expand itself. Capitalism is a world in which our own needs and desires are subordinated beneath the drive to add another zero to an accounting sheet. Fisher’s book was partly inspired an attempt to spark a new wave of consciousness raising groups initiated by Plan C, a political group of which Fisher was a member and I still am. Consciousness raising groups, which were the bedrock of the feminist movement of the 1970s, involve small groups of people meeting to discuss their lives and their problems. In doing so people come to realise they have similar problems and difficulties. In fact, the commonality of problems leads quite naturally to the conclusion that they must have structural causes and can’t be the result of individual failings as might previously be thought. From there we can recognize which of our desires can produce collective action to address them. Consciousness raising groups are machines for discovering post-capitalist, and post-patriarchal desires.
The example of 1970s feminist consciousness raising groups led Fisher to think about the other forms through which consciousness was being raised during that period. These include the heightened level of class consciousness derived not just from high levels of union membership and militancy but also its reflection in popular culture. In fact, the control exercised by working class and, lets be honest middle class, kids over the direction of popular culture and fashion was a powerful form of ‘psychic resistance’, as Bobby Gillespie once put it, against the indignities of class. In the 1970s, a working class hero was something to be.
It was amidst this stew of popular culture and politics that Fisher identified the impact of LSD as another form of consciousness raising, or in this case consciousness expansion. By this Fisher meant not just the direct affects that taking Acid had upon members of the New Left and the counterculture but also the more diffuse effects of psychedelia, which worked through pop culture to embed a notion that reality is plastic and changeable. The Beatles experiments with Acid, for example, led to a burst of sonic inventiveness which did as much to feed a feeling that a new world was being invented as did the change in their clothes and hair length.
From these examples, we can see how consciousness raising encompasses a series of functions. It involves identifying the structural causes of the social constraints that are placed on your life. In addition, it involves the feeling of increased confidence and capacity that comes with seeing yourself as part of a powerful collective actor rather than an isolated individual. And it also includes that expansion of social and political possibility that comes when what is presented as necessary and inevitable is revealed as merely contingent and therefore, in principle, as changeable.
Acid Communism is a politics that puts this last function first. It’s not a programme to be achieved or a final state to be reached; it’s the real movement of revealing and overcoming the premises now in existence with the aim of abolishing the present state of things. It’s an open-ended experimental communism that seeks the expansion of social and political possible beyond the limits imposed by capitalism.
So, what is Acid Corbynism in relation to this? Acid Communism must be a movement that passes through different iterations. Expanding what seems possible cannot be a one-time deal. Instead each expansion of freedom allows you to see further. Indeed, Acid Communism involves the widening and democratisation of freedom, as ever more people are given the confidence, material security and free time to explore what freedom means. The counterculture of the 1960s and 70s can be reinterpreted on this basis as a mass exploration of new ways of living. In distinction, the neoliberal era can be seen as a period of consciousness deflation or depletion. The reduction of life to a single model, Homo-Economicus. Indeed, Mark Fisher had begun to redefine his concept of Capitalist Realism along these lines, as a conscious project to undermine both the material basis and psychological resources upon which raised consciousness depends.
It’s in this light that we can see the Corbyn moment as a crack in Capitalist Realism, a crack through which a flood of pent up postcapitalist desires have burst. Yet it’s a contradictory moment. The 2017 Labour manifesto certainly pushed beyond what had seemed politically possible in recent years but looked at historically it’s not so radical. In fact, it represents a retreat from some of the measures that were being proposed in Labour circles of the 1970s. Since the election we have seen hints from the Labour leadership that Corbynism could go much further. John McDonnell has talked recently about being within and against the State. By this he appears to mean he wants to use the power of the State to undo the State’s own power, facilitating different and more diffuse forms of democratic power. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn himself has talked recently about harnessing the power of automation to reduce the working week. If these ideas are pursued they could push far beyond the post-war social democratic settlement. Meanwhile, if reports are to be believed, some branches of Momentum and the Labour Party are being used as vehicles for consciousness raising, with the intensity of discussion and political education increasing rapidly. Perhaps this is what Acid Corbynism means. Perhaps it names those aspects and potentials of the Corbyn movement which facilitates the exploration of new social and political forms, pushing against, and eventually beyond the constraints of capitalism.
Acid Corbynism could then be seen as an iteration of Acid Communism, just one of the iterations that are currently visible. We might also find an Acid Communist dynamic in the municipal administrations of Spanish cities, such as Barcelona en Comu, or the attempts to build on Bernie Sanders’ campaign against Hillary Clinton. Each of these examples has their own peculiarities, their own strengths and weaknesses, but they share certain dynamics pulling their politics in one direction or another. They all represent examples of the electoral turn under taken by Left politics following the ‘failure’ of the horizontalist movements of 2011. Spain provides the clearest example. The 15M movement that swept through Spain in 2011 was like Occupy on steroids. Not only did it garner widespread popular participation and support but it was followed by a housing movement which exercised considerable social power by acting directly to address people’s problems. By 2014 repression from the Spanish state led many in the movements to declare they needed political power to go with the social power they already had. The situation facing the UK Left is just the reverse. We have the very real prospect of political power yet we have little social power to go with it.
This is a big problem because most of the forces and institutional logics that surround electoral projects drag them back towards compromise with the pre-existing sense of what it’s possible to do. A serious confrontation awaits any project that refuses to back down. The only forces powerful enough to drag an electoral party back the other way while preparing the ground for battles to come are social movements acting to put new issues on the agenda along with countercultural projects experimenting with new ways to address them. The Acid Communist project of our time must be to tempt those inspired and newly politicised by the Corbyn moment to step beyond electoral politics not just into projects of cultural renewal but also into projects of material solidarity, such as trade unions, renters unions and social centres, which can provide the material underpinnings for renewed explorations of freedom.
Those most sympathetic to this project have produced the slogan ‘Corbynism from Below’ but it’s a debate that’s not so far addressed the tendency of electoral politics to subsume and elide other forms of political activity. The hope that this won’t prove a fatal barrier lies in the buoyant nature of the post-election movement. Not only has a renewed Left confidence been infectious but the cracking of neoliberal inevitability has produced an outpouring of postcapitalist desires. Let’s face it, we’ve all been on a high but looking at the shifting Overton window shows that we’ve been hallucinating new possibilities into existence. This suggests that the excitement generated by the prospect of political power can be used to conjure up the social power required for radical change. If not then we’re in trouble. Acid Corbynism must act as a gateway drug else it will disappear altogether.