Ring around the rosies,
Pocket full o’ posies,
We all fall down!
Most everyone knows this nursery rhyme. Urban legend places its origin in the Great Plague of London in 1665 and 1666 – one of the last major outbreaks of bubonic plague on the European and Asian continents – the beginning of the end of a three hundred year pandemic. Most folklorists reject this account. The rhyme’s first recorded evidence is from the 19th century. But the association is nonetheless powerful, easily transfixed to the imaginary and the uncanny, because it weds a sweet and innocent tune and imagery with gruesome suffering and bile-soaked death.
Many nursery rhymes and fairy tales are gruesome and bile-soaked, filled with beheadings, noses cut from faces and whole populations ground to pulp. Pearl-clutching culture warriors – who see X-rated violence and shriek, Helen Lovejoy-style, “won’t someone think of the children?” – would be dismayed to learn that children, in response to the grotesque world, love to gross themselves out. At one point or another, this is a necessary step in the process of becoming a mature human being. The future – growth, adulthood, the persistence of society and civilization – is bound together with understanding the blood and guts of the world. This does not mean that Red Wedge accepts the cynical truism “this is how the world works.” A key problem with the world, as everything from climate devastation to imperial interventions in the Middle East tells us, is that it doesn’t work. Or, rather, the current order does not work without the suffering of the majority. Utopia for some, dystopia for more.
We have, in passing, visited this theme in past issues. For the fifth issue of Red Wedge, it is front and center, as is the dynamic between the two.
Armageddon? It’s Been In Effect…[i]
Climate change has arrived with vengeance: retreating glaciers, a weakening Gulf Stream, hurricanes and droughts increasing in strength and frequency. As the relative climatic stability of the last 10,000 years has given way, the deep connections between climate, political economy, and culture have been rawly exposed, perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the ongoing refugee crisis, in which climate alongside imperialism has played an enormous part. More than 22.5 million people have been displaced by climate-related disasters every year since 2009, but the millions more displaced by more “prosaic” causes – wars, human rights violations, economic instability – can often in some measure be described as climate refugees. The result? More people displaced now than at any time since the Second World War. The shameful response of most governments has been to close gates while simultaneously continuing to make the problem geopolitically, climatically, economically worse.
But not only are borders tightened: people within are monitored, watched and repressed. It is difficult to relate the details without coming off as a conspiracy theorist. But the interconnectedness of the world, fostered by the Internet and information technology, is absolutely being used by the rich, the powerful and bureaucratic as a means of manipulation and social control. Take the recent news from China of a new “social credit” system that comes literally out of a Black Mirror episode. Or look to the recent revelations regarding Cambridge Analytica and Facebook.
These are the actions and reactions of ruling classes still very much in power, but also blindsided by “the return of history.” They had been perfectly fine with resting on the laurels of its end. Many were complacent enough to be indifferent toward right populist movements represented by the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit. Now that everyone has been stunned by the fulsome arrival of such phenomena, most are thrown into disarray. Still, as recently as this year, Stephen Pinker could write a defense of the Enlightenment for the Wall Street Journal, listing the supposedly unprecedented achievements of our civilization.[ii] One just has to forget gathering inter-imperial conflict, catastrophic climate change, new fascist threats and growing working-class immiseration. But the working class and disgruntled petit bourgeois don’t forget so easy. They live history. Even subconsciously they map terrors and libidinal wish-fulfillment onto the world. The “end of history” is not an option for them.
There are reactionary middle-class interventions into this moment, such as a reinvigorated fascism in Europe and its mutant “alt-right” progeny in the US. And then there are emancipatory ones, the tens of thousands flocking to the Democratic Socialists of America in the United States and the revival of left-Labour Party socialism in the UK, with Jeremy Corbyn its unexpected avatar. There are more strikes in both countries, curiously enough – often oriented around the defense of education, a development that draws the very idea of the future, of the passing down of knowledge, into the open. These signs are encouraging. They are also stalked and outnumbered at every turn by their darker reflections. For “the masses,” our “combined and uneven apocalypse” (to borrow from Evan Calder Williams) produces thousands of potential utopias and dystopias every day. Every day new loves, hopes and dreams come into being. Every day countless personal and political tragedies unfold dashing loves, hopes and dreams; imaginary “New Jerusalems”[iii] and collapsing Towers of Babel.
All of this necessarily throws up a challenge. And our side is just beginning to reckon with it. What of the alternative? Not just what it might look like but whence does it emerge? How is the former informed by the latter? How does it depart from the left’s historic roots while still being shaped by them? If both past and present weigh like a nightmare, then how do we manage to give oxygen to the dreams of a better future that still manage to breathe underneath them?
What do we mean when we talk about dreams? Are we merely harping on the images and sensations that come to us when we sleep? Or are we talking about something deeper? The images and sensations represent something, after all. Something deeper. When one dreams, possibilities – jubilant, terrifying, everywhere in between – expand. Events and representations that “shouldn’t” exist next to each other manage to do so. What we are talking about here is a conception of time.
“Industrial time” was, for workers, different than the time that came before it. In industrial time exploitation was measured in hours, minutes and seconds (and milliseconds). Before the industrial revolution “time was not linear, but multiple, subjective, and specific to particular situations.”[iv] Of course capitalism brought both the linear time of the assembly line and the circular flow of the commodity (M-C-M’).[v] Both were incompatible with how time was experienced before capitalism. Many of the workers and artisans who rebelled against the cruelties of their subjugation looked to this pre-industrial time almost as a state of grace.
All the same, our own “post-Industrial” time (what Guy Debord called “pseudo-cyclical time”) can seem, unlike industrial time, to reproduce exploitation and alienation in “multiple, subjective” and “particular situations.” It almost mocks the freedom of pre-industrial time. Its linearity is attenuated – as it moves about in Fredric Jameson’s narrative “elevator” – but it is not free. Each moment of repast contains an apocalyptic kernel.
In the framework of the late cultural critic and Marxist Walter Benjamin, the proletarian subject appears to be mocked by its peculiar temporal freedom, the freedom to take “whatever job they want,” buttressed by the far more dire freedom to starve if they don’t. We can see it in the smug dismissals of Millennial poverty, insisting that those crushed by student debt and low wages might be able to buy a house if only they gave up their avocado toast and smartphones while single mothers lose food stamps after taking a third job. We also see its instinctual rejection in the multifarious meme culture that pushes back with biting humor and sarcasm, the nihilistic gallows humor of the “Tide Pod Challenge.”
As Alexander Billet writes in his essay appearing in this issue, today’s working-class experiences a distinct and acute arrhythmia, a temporal disorder which also shapes our cities and art. But this arrhythmia is not entirely new. The metabolic rift between capital and nature, described by John Bellamy Foster and many other Marxist ecologists, seems to have infected us individually.
The Anthropocene is not just happening outside of us but also inside of us. Much of our art, bound by forms shaped by modernity, and bound to its teleology and individualism, seems unable to recognize the disaster unfolding before it. As Trish Kahle writes in her review “Combustible Fictions”: “Our new epoch, defined by planetary climate change, has been ushered by dramatic and, in the narrative we now use, unpredictable events that appear disconnected, which are unprecedented, and most importantly, which are observed as improbable.”
In a Benjaminian view[vi], the messianic aspect of Revolution – as opposed to positivistic caricatures of Revolution – explodes assumptions of time. In the Parisian uprisings of 1830 the working-class took aim at the city’s clock towers. The French Revolutionaries of 1788 sought to abolish the Christian calendar altogether. In this case, it is not progress that Revolution champions. It is rupture; the proletarian negation of a bourgeois negation. The masses dream of ruptures – albeit under a blanket of night. And the liberal bourgeois cannot (yet) fathom the nightmares. (Even though these nightmares are born of their “successful” civilization).
Classes Dream, Classes Remember
Benjamin understood the cultural significance of rupture – “pulling the emergency brake” on the unfolding disaster of capitalism. In his worldview, the emergency brake is discovered in the dreams of a (would-be messianic) working-class – against the “unprincipled dilettantish optimism” of Social Democrats and official Communists (Stalinists).[vii] Benjamin’s Marxism saw the negation of millions of past apocalypses in working-class Revolution; the redemption of millions of the exploited and oppressed. Not merely the children and grand-children of the exploited and oppressed, but their ancestors too.[viii] “I am a mouth full / of empty crowns and empty houses;” Crystal Stella Becerril writes in this issue’s poetry section, “my gums bloody / shores where ancestral trauma still washes up today.”
As Michael Löwy writes in Fire Alarm, for Benjamin, “messianic/revolutionary redemption is a task assigned to us by past generations” – generations already destroyed by the slow-motion apocalypse of history.[ix] But what does it mean if our generation(s) face the possibility of apocalyptic conclusion? Our annihilation would not only preclude our own salvation – in a genuine post-capitalist democracy – but would make Benjamin’s materialist apokatastasis (the “ultimate salvation of all souls without exception”) impossible. Our defeat may not just be ours. It would be the defeat of our class; the final erasure of all rebellious mudsills and slave revolts.[x]
And, yet, the classes dream.
The dream of a socialist world is an organic product of a society divided by social classes, turned out by the conflict between relations and forces of production, inhabited by individuals who are, each and every one, no matter how reproduced and twisted, unique subjectivities. The socialist dream does not come, in the end, “from without,” but can be, at least in theory, tapped from the social subconscious. Particularly important here is our interview with Michael Löwy noting, among other things, surrealism’s long rebellion against utilitarian views of consciousness, as well as Red Wedge’s Jordy Cummings on “Utopia and Improvisation.” More romantic impulses, and the related concept of the uncanny, are unpacked in Joe Sabatini’s essay on “Romanticism, Idealism, and the Nightmares of Capitalist Modernity.” This revolutionary imaginary carries through Sarah Grey’s review of Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway: “Everyone also works to shake off the mental conditioning of the neoliberal nightmare and figure out what really works: living, as the walkaways like to say, as though they’re in the first days of a better nation.”
As the class dreams it begins to remember – processing its ongoing and historic traumas. Kate Bradley remembers “Britain’s First Professional Woman Writer” in her article on Isabella Whitney. Ramona Wadi reviews Giancarlo Ceraudo and Lewin Miriam’s Destino Final: Argentina’s Death Flights During the Dirty War. “In a blackened room, I leapt from a tall building,” David Renton writes in his short fiction piece “Truba,” “I descended past the ends of the earth and there was nothing to stop my fall.”
This dynamic – of dream, nightmare and memory – gives us “fully automated luxury gay space communism” memes vs. a continent of plastic floating in the Pacific; a slow motion civil war vs. children who demand that they simply not be shot; an old man who can’t afford his heart medicine vs. robots who make sandwiches. And more dreams and nightmares. And they all want one thing. One way or the other.
[i] Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988)
[ii] Stephen Pinker, “The Enlightenment is Working,” Wall Street Journal (February 8, 2018). The Enlightenment is contested terrain, including among various trends in the Marxist left. As evidenced by recent debates in Jacobin and Viewpoint magazines. The members of the Red Wedge editorial collective do not hold a unified position in this debate. In fact we disagree quite strongly on it at times. But none of us have any time for arguments such as Pinker’s, which hail Western society’s achievements as singularly laudable while ignoring the millions of lives mowed over in its name
[iii] Referring to the William Blake, “And did those feet in ancient time,” (1804)
[iv] Eugen Weber, Apocalypses: Prophecies, Cults and Millennial Beliefs Through the Ages (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 6
[v] Money - Commodity - Money (Changed) = M-C-M’. See Karl Marx, Capital, “Chapter 4: The General Formula for Capital.” Marx writes, “The simplest form of the circulation of commodities is C-M-C, the transformation of commodities into money, and the change of the money back again into commodities; or selling in order to buy. But alongside of this form we find another specifically different form: M-C-M, the transformation of money into commodities, and the change of commodities back again into money; or buying in order to sell. Money that circulates in the latter manner is thereby transformed into, becomes capital, and is already potentially capital.” Later Marx explains how, in this circulation, surplus value is realized: “The exact form of this process is therefore M-C-M’, where M’ = M + D M = the original sum advanced, plus an increment. This increment or excess over the original value I call ‘surplus-value.’ The value originally advanced, therefore, not only remains intact while in circulation, but adds to itself a surplus-value or expands itself. It is this movement that converts it into capital.” Online: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch04.htm.
[vi] Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History,’ (London and New York: Verso, 2016), 9
[vii] Löwy, 20. Löwy describes Benjamin’s Marxism as “theological.” See also Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), online: https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html
[viii] Löwy, 32-33
[ix] Löwy, 35
[x] Nancy Isenberg, White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Penguin, 2016), 154-170
This is the editorial for Red Wedge #5: “Bad Dreams.” Pre-ordered copies and subscriptions will be going out soon. They can also be ordered now through Amazon.com in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and across Europe.