Review – Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures

Mark Fisher’s 'Postcapitalist Desire' offers glimpses of what types of human life could exist in a world free from capital, writes James Hendrix Elsey.

January 30, 2021 · 8 min read
Postcapitalist Desire - Hardcover Art Image: Repeater Books

The work of cultural theorist, blogger and academic Mark Fisher has been all but canonised of late, and its growing influence shows no sign of abating. Much of the work of maintaining proceedings in his wake has been taken on by his friends and students, like the Fisher-Function – the extension of the curtailed Goldsmiths seminars opened out to those beyond the institution in the spring of 2017 – or the annual For k-punk memorial events (this year hosted online by the ICA).

As we mourn the absence of one of the most significant thinkers of a generation, there is also an ongoing effort to bring into circulation much of his previously unpublished material. Postcapitalist Desire collects Fisher’s final lectures, edited and introduced by Matt Colquhoun, one of his former students.

Fisher taught in the Visual Cultures department at Goldsmiths College, where his postgraduate class embarked on a 15-week seminar series he called Postcapitalist Desire. Out of the planned sessions, only five ended up taking place. These have been recorded in corresponding chapters, whose topics vary in scope but gain pace and build towards a novel configuration of the ideas Fisher had been playing with in his work thus far.

The book is reconstructed from audio transcripts and creates an immersion, a sense of liveliness as students ask questions, engage in conversation and share jokes with Fisher. Colquhoun’s handling of the material has carefully preserved the affective dimensions of the seminars – you can sense the warmth in the room at times. This makes it in some ways a hard read, as you can’t help but feel these convivialities are overshadowed by the knowledge of what’s to come: 

‘Those films: I can’t say I like ’em… (Laughter.)

I’ve sort of gone against my aesthetic preferences, I think, in including them. (Laughs.)’

Still, there is much to inspire optimism. Characteristically, the lectures are richly littered with references along a spectrum ranging from televisual popular culture to Lacanian theory. Those familiar with his blog k-punk, or books like Capitalist Realism and Ghosts of My Life, will recognise this touchstone quality that is one of Fisher’s greatest skills, in emulsifying sometimes dense and complex theory along with relatable ideas to contemporary life. What’s unique about this book is it offers a chance to see the process – the gears turning in real time as he thinks aloud with his students.

A utopian turn

While previously Fisher’s works have suggested he was unenamoured with 1960/70s era counterculture he once considered defined by “hedonic infantilism” (of hippies more preoccupied with getting high than effecting material emancipation), his thought takes a utopian turn here as he finds renewed interest in many of the offerings of this period. A case study is the technique of ‘consciousness raising’ pioneered by feminists of the 1960s, in which the standpoint of group members was purposefully communicated in a way to build a sense of shared experience and commonality among women whose daily lives did not often afford them the chance to realise their problems were not unique. In this vein, Fisher enlists the work of Nancy Hartsock, whose ideas about standpoint theory provide an escape route from tired debates on moral relativism versus universalism – proposing, in short, that some people, through their standpoint are simply better positioned to know about gender dynamics, racial dynamics, and so forth. This of course has its relevance today as the discourse around identity politics is fiercely fought around the notions of embodied experience versus theoretical ideals.

Ideas around postcapitalism are slippery, and frequently share meaningful content with communism. The term itself has found currency in the past decade in titles like Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, or Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Many of the speculative aspects of a world freed from the rule of capital are usually addressed with an emphasis on economic terms – but how labour and resources will be allocated is without a doubt only part of the picture. Fisher’s book in progress at the time of his death was to be titled Acid Communism, signalling that for him communism is synonymous with the phase following capitalism. On the face of it, this is not really a departure from the classic Marxist understanding of history.

Fisher’s late work starts to grapple with the subjectivities produced in the absence of capital’s all-encompassing influence – the psychedelic and consciousness-oriented strands of thought which the 1960s counterculture began to think through. It does this while raising questions that have, to a degree, faded from popular discourse like Ellen Willis’ questioning of the family as a fundamental unit of societal organisation.

Accelerationism and desire

There are moments of giddying breakthrough in Postcapitalist Desire – for example, the reevaluation of Herbert Marcuse’s ideas in his 1955 Eros and Civilisation as providing the route to a postwork liberation, at one point termed accelerationist by Fisher. Of late, the accelerationist project has been increasingly wrestled away from its left wing, techno-optimistic articulations, thanks in part to the media’s unquestioning reduction of the term to the kind of right wing militancy expressed in the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto. Quite distinctly, Fisher’s suggestions that radically intensifying automation can indeed lead us to a world without the drudgery of work provide an alternate version of the future, in which technological progress creates space for human flourishing.

For centrally-planned communist endeavours, desire was often regarded from a sanctimonious vantage simply as the unruly impulses of those lacking sufficient political education. The heresy that needn’t be reckoned with, that some might be enjoying capitalism, presents an affront to the more indignant and sterile traditions of leftism, that regrettably fail at substantiating a politics of joy. A more apt model takes into account that the political and economic are downstream of desire. This poses the question of how a postcapitalist economy could ever be successful without an understanding of why people want things in the first place.

Mark Fisher’s work continues to retroactively provide glimmers of the trajectory towards a utopian postcapitalism. It’s a sore temptation to wonder what his take on the events of the last four years would be, with the consolidation of Tory rule in 2019 and doomy ramifications of the pandemic unknown at the time of these lectures, when one could be sanguine about a political rupture heralded by Corbynism. But as more of his back-catalogue of ideas is brought into public discourse, his legacy continues to shape our future in a mischievously non-linear way. It would daresay be unsurprising for some idea of his, unearthed from the past, to spawn more newfangled sociopolitical species sometime in the future.

Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures is out now on Repeater Books.

James Hendrix Elsey is a researcher and artist studying Critical Philosophy at the New Centre for Research and Practice, and a member of Empower Workers

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