(This part critiques Ran Prieur, Caitlin Johnstone, Mark Fisher and Dark Mountain. Part one, here, critiques David Graeber, Noam Chomsky and Media Lens. For a follow-up and some of their responses see here, and for a postscript on the coronavirus, see here)
Ran Prieur is a US blogger who became well-known after one of his essays, ‘How to Drop Out’ hit a nerve and spread through the interbrain. It’s still a very good piece. Some of the other essays and blog-posts he produced at this time were acute and glowing with lived sensitivity both to life and to the unlife of the system. Here’s a marvellous example, which I quoted in The Apocalypedia.
‘[The word mainstream] suggests that the most duplicated and distributed books, magazines, newspapers, and television transmissions are like a big river, wide and deep, into which all the shallow little streams flow. The way it really works is the reverse:
There’s a giant ocean containing all the experience in the world, and in one place, some of it is sucked up into a river, which is then divided down into smaller and smaller streams, until all that’s left is a thin trickle going up the drain of a urinal in an office building in New York City, into some guy’s dick, and out his mouth into a little bottle labeled “Ocean,” which is then duplicated one million times and delivered to people who live right next to the ocean but never go outside.’
Isn’t that wonderful?
What about this one:
One bitter cold day, a man gave his coat to an old beggar, who changed into a magnificent dragon. ‘I grant you,’ said the dragon, ‘three wishes.’ Now the young man, who knew that some wishes bring only suffering on those to whom they are granted, thought for a very long time. At last he said, ‘For my first wish, I would like the foresight to always make the best choice.’ ‘That,’ said the dragon, ‘is the cleverest wish I have ever been asked to grant. I grant it.’ The man’s face lit up with an astonishment the dragon had never seen before, and has not seen since, though many ages have passed. Immediately, he said, ‘I have two more wishes and I would like you to grant them both in the same instant. For my second wish, I would like to reverse the first wish; for my third wish, I would like this whole encounter to be wiped from my memory until the end of time.’ ‘Granted,’ said the dragon. ‘Thank you, sir,’ said the old beggar. ‘A man as wise as you will surely live a happy life.’ And he shambled away, leaving the young man wondering.
There are many others in his earlier writing. What’s thrilling about them though — and this is very important — is less the ideas, although there are certainly some very good ones (along with a great many ridiculous ones), more the brightness, the playful delight, the irrepressible sense of free abandon, which generates or expresses itself in good ideas and vivid metaphors but which, ultimately, precedes them. This is what Ran Prieur has lost.
Ran’s still a good man, and has been kind and generous in promoting my work on his blog, but about ten years ago or so, his fiery sensitivity was almost completely extinguished, for pretty much the same reason it’s extinguished in everyone who once touched the Big Rgg. Life became too materially easy. In Ran’s case he came into an inheritance, gave up the nightmarish life of temp-work he’d been forced into, bought some land and gave himself up to playing video games.
That ease fed into an essentially middle-class upbringing and, remarkably rapidly in Ran’s case, canalised his thought processes down standard system-friendly paths. He’d never been one to write very much about the need for radical politics, or the majesty of great art, but now he began to write paeans to Hillary Clinton, Über and Netflix. His blog became a link aggregator and review service for mind-numbing box-sets and he began to praise, in the limpest prose, what he once brilliantly condemned. The unspeakable iniquity of the system which now provides Ran’s techno-based pleasures, indeed a large part of his personality, no longer appeared and anyone who drew attention to the absence in his work of responsibility and brilliance was dismissed with airy relativist claims that the existence of such things is just a matter for young fools. He regularly greets criticisms with comments along the lines of ‘I no longer rigidly define words in terms of good and bad’ and the classic postmodern defence against accusations of lack of quality, ‘it’s more complicated than that’.
With the horrors of his working life out of the picture, and his youthful sensitivity exterminated by a complacent life, Ran, like everyone else who has shuffed out, became unable to see what all the fuss was about. He now thinks that readers who loved his earlier stuff were principally interested in the ideas. If you look at ‘new Ran’s’ critique of ‘old Ran’ it focuses entirely on the concepts, such as a world-wide revolution against the system, which he was once in favour of and now, quite correctly, thinks is foolish, or he looks down at his younger self’s silly interest in party-politics. Often he is right; but what he is unable to see is that what has actually changed is not his intelligence, but his awareness; a sense of the ineffable which ‘new Ran’ cannot perceive, so doesn’t miss; doesn’t even remark on.
It is astonishing, but entirely unsurprising. It’s basically a more intimate version of the Dunning-Krugor effect, which, in essence, states that the more stupid you are the more stupid your discriminatory apparatus, so you can no longer perceive anything beyond your own intelligence. This also applies, far more radically and catastrophically, to creativity, consciousness, sensitivity and intensity of feeling. If you can only feel 1% of what a human is capable of feeling, ‘intensity’ for you becomes that 1%. With a 1% hit, you’ll say ‘woah, intense,’ while some fella next to you, all fibres exploding with an actual 100% will be saying, ‘woah, intense,’ and you’ll think you feel the same. Ran’s intensity, like that of civilisation entire, rapidly decreased and then when people pointed it out, he thought, ‘yeah, but “woah, intense.”’
This observation isn’t mine — it was in a manifesto that ‘old Ran’ himself once linked to. Now he finds himself perplexed by creative decay. He wonders why artists so rarely hit the heights they once did when they get rich, settle down, protect themselves from the world. Strange, isn’t it Ran? Then he says ‘I used to be more complainy, more judgmental, and more puritanical. As a writer I was able to make those habits entertaining, but they’re bad habits, and as they’ve gone out of my personal life, they’ve gone out of my writing.’ (my emphasis, you’ll see why in a moment).
Yes, all that bad old moralising has gone. Take a look at this ‘complainy, judgemental, puritanical’ essay, The System Works, written when Ran was in his mid-thirties.1 It briefly scans several of the main themes I look at in 33 Myths of the System.2 Go on, have a read. What do you think? Does this read like a bitching ingénue keen on maintaining a cultic echo-chamber? What kind of people, do you think, would see that essay as crude moralising?
More’s the point, is this essay good just because of the ideas? Or is there also, bubbling underneath, a lovely quality to it like you are encountering the ideas of a young adventurer or, at the very least, talking with a lively friend? Obviously if you’re a 1%er that’s a hands down no.
If you are familiar with Ran’s writing now, you’ll find this sentence ‘There are people who stay radical their whole lives, or even get more and more outside the system’ particularly tragic, even creepy; as if Ran the perceptive writer, serious thinker and intense, joyous revolutionary has been replaced by a affect-blunted body snatcher. It looks like Ran, it sounds like him, but when he now says ‘I used to start with the most exciting and epic ideas and find a way to make them sound true. Gradually my practice shifted to asking interesting questions, mostly about social philosophy, and aiming for original and concise answers’ you realise, with dawning horror, that you’re talking to a clever facsimile, quite accurate about the peripheral failings of his former self, more ‘interesting’ now perhaps and ‘concise’ and ‘realistic’ and ‘mature’, but empty.
Ran no longer exists. What’s left is playing Fallout 3 and ‘raving about Picbreeder, a website where you can make art by selecting images as a computer alters them with an algorithm based on biological evolution.’ Then, a few posts later, he’s saying things like ‘My mental state for the past week could be diagnosed as depression.’ Point out to him that an essential part of his consciousness has died, and he’ll blandly shrug, good-naturedly move on, ‘oh well, that’s your opinion; I’m different now…’
Caitlin Johnstone is, in her own words, a ‘rogue journalist’, ‘guerilla poet’ and ‘anarcho-psychonaut’ who writes system-analysis on Medium. She has done some good, if limited, work on that poor sod, Julian Assange, and also on Venezuela and Syria — and if you are interested in those things, then some of her essays are worthwhile — but the core of her work, by which I mean her ‘philosophy’, which I’m going to look at here, is mind-numbingly superficial.
Johnstone continually blames ‘them’ for the horrors of the world. ‘It’s entirely the abuser’s fault’ she says. THEY are the problem here, the BADDIES. This is a popular idea amongst socialists, reformists, liberals and other leftoids. The BADDY in question might be the Tories, or Dubya, or the media, or — a hot favourite on the edgy left — ‘fascists’. ‘We have to fight the fascists!’ cries brave Owen Jones from his Guardian desk, and brave David Graeber from his office in the London School of Economics bravely agrees. Not that they don’t take to the streets occasionally, but they always somehow seem to keep their jobs.
Blaming them — fascists, centrists, oligarchs, abusive boyfriends, whoever — is like blaming flies in a house of rotting meat. The reason that it is so common, on the left and (if you swap ‘immigrants for ‘fascists’, ‘terrorists for ‘elites’) the right, is that it is impossible to look into the putrid source of social problems and keep your job, or keep your friends, or keep your tidy, righteous, personality together. Because, finally, the source is you. It is comforting and inspiring to hear someone like Caitlin Johnstone tell you that ‘You are being lied to.’ or that ‘They are manipulative, selfish, cowardly.’ It feels good. It doesn’t feel quite so good to hear that ‘you are a liar.’ / ‘you are manipulative, selfish, cowardly.’ This, more or less, is why she has 50,000 twitter followers.
Not that the terrible ‘them’ aren’t a problem — God no — that you aren’t being lied to or that elites don’t bear the lion’s share of responsibility for the world’s problems, or that you don’t find, the further up you climb on the pyramid of evil, more and more sordid, stunted gorts, or that doing something about them isn’t a good idea. Of course they are a problem. But they are nothing compared to the problem of you (and us), who is, more’s the point, the one person you can meaningfully change. Ultimately you are completely responsible for your life. Completely.
Another of Johnstone’s favourite tropes — far from original — is that we live in a world of ‘narratives’. One of her most popular essays, ‘Society is Made of Narrative,’ spells out the problem; we live in the Matrix, but instead of code, we are imprisoned with stories. ‘Identity,’ she says, ‘language, etiquette, social roles, opinions, ideology, religion, ethnicity, philosophy, agendas, rules, laws, money, economics, jobs, hierarchies, politics, government,’ are all stories. Even ‘you’ are a story — that’s all there is, an endless inner dialogue which takes out out of the real world of sight and sound.
So what’s the problem here? Obviously there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘narrative’ — we are indeed surrounded by fictional stories presented by totalitarian structures. Firstly though, conceived in this way, it’s only partially true. Let’s say you grow up in an emotional house, with irritable, insensitive people, unable to pick up on subtle cues, atmospheres, and so on. Sure as eggs, you’ll grow up insensitive and demanding. You’ll also grow up with psychological wounds and scars, buried in the unconscious. These may be integrated into the narrative mind, justified and expressed in ‘stories’, but it’s not a story which is imprisoning you, which is hurting, which is cutting you off from your conscious experience of the present moment, any more than a real wound is a ‘story’ (or a song or a painting).
Another problem is that Johnstone’s narrative narrative once again comes down to baddies! Manipulative lovers, cult-leaders, advertisers, journalists and oligarchs all control narratives and blind the poor peasants who follow them into believing the great lies of the system; that we live in a democracy and that the economy is fair. The solution? Well, there are two solutions for Johnstone. One she expresses in a recent piece, Thirty-Two Tips for Navigating a Society that is Full of Propaganda and Manipulation:
Be suspicious of people who keep telling you what they are and how they are… Be doubly suspicious of people who keep telling you what you are and how you are… Be suspicious of anyone who refuses to articulate themselves clearly… be suspicious of confident, authoritative tones… Don’t let your goodness trick you into thinking there aren’t monsters who will deceive and manipulate you… Be suspicious of those who excessively advocate civility, rules and politeness… Once you’ve spotted a manipulator, your task is to kill off all of your sympathy for them and your trust in them…
Get the idea? In essence, think of all the people who have hurt you, write down a list of their salient features, and distrust anyone who exhibits them. A confident man, for example, with self-knowledge who urges you to be courteous to your fellows — watch out for him!
A bit later she says:
Be brave enough to insist that you are right until such time as you yourself come to your own understanding that you were wrong…
How do we tell the difference between this insistence and the suspicious confidence she’s just warned us of? Or between someone who ‘refuses to articulate themselves clearly’ and someone who cannot do so? Or between the polite monster and the courteous gentleman? Obviously there are differences, but how do we tell? No doubt Johnstone has a slogan for that, but let’s move on to the other side of her solution:
Hold an image in your mind of what a perfectly healthy and harmonious world would look like…
Pretty straightforward, that! If it seems a bit of a tall-order, Johnstone has some more intimate advice. She recommends:
Sincere, humble research and introspection.
Another slogan. What she means is ‘be honest, be nice, look at yourself’… but who is being nice? Who is doing the looking? No answers there, because what Johnstone is talking about is not any genuine kind of self-knowledge or awareness, but thinking. Thinking in a different way will solve our problems. Once we change ‘the ideas, mental habits and ways of relating to the world’ we become ‘new creatures.’ Not easy, she says, because soon you come up against rage. Furious rage, at everything and everyone. Next, she says, you dismantle the narratives, battle some more against those bad-guy plutocrats, ‘shine a light’ so that others can find you and focus on the emptiness. Got it?
If you’re still a bit confused, take a look at Johnstone’s ‘Life Secrets’. Here’s a summary; 1. Nobody knows anything. 2. Consciousness is important. 3. Society is narrative (again). 4. You can be present. 5. You’re more powerful than you ever imagined (yes, she wrote that and presumably thought ‘hm, nice!’). 6. The self is an illusion. 7. Don’t search — everything you have is right here.
Great stuff, eh? Definitely not the kind of thing a fifteen year old would write. Not that a few of the statements above aren’t true and haven’t been said by great writers, but that that’s all there is. Slogans, effectively, signposting.
For a little more clarity on this, take a look at the essay, On Authentic Spirituality. Authentic mind you — she’s reaching for the stars here. Have to admire the ambition, but the reality comes down to this kind of thing:
When you are fully leaned into life and fully showing up for it, with no part of you hiding in the shadows of unconsciousness or working to keep any aspect of life from being experienced, you become capable of moving in the world in a very helpful, guided and efficient way. And it just so happens that that’s exactly what you want to do, because since you have embodied your decision to really be here, you want us all to keep being here. You want humanity to remain in this world, on this beautiful planet, in a collaborative relationship with itself and with its ecosystem, fully conscious and fully present.
Sounds great — but what does it actually mean? What does Johnstone mean by ‘life’, ‘showing up’, ‘you’ (or ‘part of you’), ‘consciousness’, ‘the world,’ ‘experience’, ‘helpful’, ‘guided’, ‘efficient’, ‘embody a decision’, ‘humanity’, ‘presence’ and ‘being here’. You might say, ‘it’s obvious!’ — but is it? Are these things obvious, or have they been made ‘obvious’ by being repeated and repeated in pseudo-spiritual literature until we think we know what they mean, but actually, when we look into them — either the abstract meanings or the reality they represent — we find at best confusion, at worst lies? I choose option b. I’m saying that in the paragraph above, and in all those like it, nothing is actually being said, that it amounts to ‘be wise because wisdom is good, and not bad, and bad is bad because it’s not good’. Not that a teaching has to rigorously define its terms to be meaningful, but simply stating them, without meaningfully presenting their referents, is a sure sign of fraudulence or, at best, vapidity.
Authentic spiritual advice doesn’t just use ‘spiritual words’ but provides some kind of original insight into them — ‘ah, so ‘love’ means that!’ It sounds fresh, somehow unheard of, it connects up ideas in new and fascinating ways, it uses surprising metaphors, or somehow reveals the life of the writer, like we are getting a glimpse into a unique person, not someone who’s read a few books. It authentically touches our experience, or it hurts, really hurts, or it makes us explode in laughter, it actually stills the reader or lastingly inspires him to raise his game with his fellows. Does Caitlin Johnstone’s writing do this? Or do you get the ongoing sense that nothing is being said here, in a kind of comforting up-beat way?
Returning to Authentic Spirituality, Johnstone goes one step further than her attack on worldly narratives and claims, or seems to claim, that all narratives are bad, that authentic spirituality…
…takes no interest in How It Is narratives about the Ultimate Nature of Absolute Reality, in giving you some story about everything being God or everything being oneness or everything being emptiness or anything being anything at all.
Really? So the parables of Jesus of Nazareth, the spiritual epics of the puranas, the stories of ancient tribes — the entire mythos of the world — is inauthentic? Is that it? Surely not, surely I’ve misunderstood. But in any case, once you’ve divested yourself of the entire narrative art of the world, and every story that anyone has ever told, what happens? You’ll never guess what! ‘Everything is possible’!
Everything? Well, at least ‘a new world’. Caitlin Johnstone’s utopia, in Society is Made of Narratives, is…
‘…one that respects the autonomy of the individual and their right to self-determination. One that respects our right to collaborate on large scales to create beautiful, healthy, helpful systems without the constant sabotage and disruption of a few power-hungry psychopaths who would rather rule than live. One that respects our right to channel human ingenuity into harmony and human thriving instead of warfare and greed. One that respects our right to take what we need, not just to survive but to thrive, and return it to the earth for renewal. One that respects the sovereign boundaries of not just ourselves and each other, but of the planet spaceship that we live in.’
‘Planet spaceship.’ Jesus.3 But notice that one word comes up a lot here. It’s very common amongst people who spend their whole lives pointing fingers. It’s right. What actually are these things, ‘rights’? To bring the meaning into focus, have a think about how these sentences sound ‘I have a right to breathe,’ ‘Being alive is a right.’ ‘Love is a right, not a privilege.’ Do these sound sort of creepy to you, perhaps revolting? If not, I suggest you’re a maniac. If so, but you can’t see quite why, the answer is that rights are either invented by experts (such as Chomsky’s fanciful ‘natural rights’) or they come from above, from states, corporations, institutions, professional fixers and so on. Rights are legal entities — fictions, basically (narratives you could say!), with about as much reality as fairies. We don’t have a right to education and health-care — there’s no such thing. We are human beings and therefore we are, or must be, free to educate each other and heal ourselves. Demanding rights is the activity of children. Children ask mummy and daddy for ‘rights’. Adults do what they must do and seek to take power away from those who prevent them without having to call on these illusions as justification.
Another telling position held by Caitlin Johnstone, shared with me during a brief twitter exchange is that the aim of dissident opposition is to ‘go mainstream’, to, presumably, find one’s way onto ABC News, or take it over perhaps? This is a variant on the official socialist position of ‘What are you complaining about? I’ve got a platform, haven’t I!?’ except — well, I’m not sure what Johnstone has in mind, whether it’s to get a job at the New York Times or to take it over by force, but in any case, we’re talking about people, all people, directly expressing the truth here, the reality of their lives. An analogy might be architecture; imagine Johnstone declaring that the aim of dissident house-building was to ‘go mainstream’ — what would that mean? It would mean taking over the world’s major construction companies, architecture firms, logistics corporations and, of course, states, and organising the world of housing fairly, making sure everyone had shelter. Can you see a problem there? I can. How about we just build our own houses?
As with Graeber though, the most telling indicator that Johnstone is not, fundamentally, saying anything worth hearing is the smell of ego coming from her words. It’s not that she writes about herself or her life — good Lord no, that would invalidate the work of half the masterworks of mankind — rather that so much of her work, and particularly her twitter feed, seems to come down to her value. They don’t understand me, they’re pretending not to understand me, they’re piling on me, I’m not here to tell people what they want to hear, I know who I am, you don’t know who I am, I wish they could read my mind and see how good I am… It’s not about the truth that she stands for, or even the life that she leads and the things she loves, but the value of her.
Returning to the media, and speaking for myself, I’ve got no objections to reaching a mass audience with my work, but only my non-literal output; my novels, cartoons and television scripts. These might one day be reasonably popular, because they speak to the non-critical part of the mind, which is why truthful story-tellers always do better in the world than truthful philosophers. If my Apocalypedia or my 33 Myths of the System was ever accepted by the mainstream or welcomed by a mass audience today I’d know that what I’d written was, at best irrelevant, and more than likely utter nonsense4. It’s because Caitlin Johnstone writes irrelevant nonsense that she aspires to going mainstream and, if or when the unofficial socialist mass replace the official socialist one, has a good chance of doing so.
Fisher’s two fundamental contributions to radical thought were the ideas of ‘capitalist realism’ and ‘hauntology’. The first one, to which he directed most of his bitter energy, produced a great many scathing observations about the nature of life in Late-Stage Capitalism (‘There are now two classes: those addicted to work, and those forced to work,’ or ‘nothing is boring, everyone is bored’, and many very nice turns of phrase. I particularly like ‘Engines of Dejection’.). Fisher unpicked some of the most vile postmodern subtleties of our boring dystopia. His analysis of emotional management and the manner in which the late-capitalist individual is coerced to expose, sell and thereby corrupt the most intimate elements of her psyche is the kind of writing that stops the world, bringing down the painted curtain of the unworld and revealing… revealing… well, and here’s the problem, for Fisher… nothing. That’s it.
In Fisher’s words ‘there is nothing which, by its very nature, resists incorporation into capital.’ Nothing. This is, for Fisher, Capitalist Realism — there is no other reality. Not surprising that he suffered depression for his entire life and then killed himself, or, to look at it from the other end, not surprising that someone who suffered from depression their whole life, would see reality in this way. Fisher had nothing to say about the incorruptible essence of human nature — obviously he was not very well acquainted with it. That’s not to blame him for his problems of course, but to point out their connection with his work, in which there is nothing light or playfully human; its just a concentrated barrage of negativity and tight cynicism. Accurate negativity, without question, and useful for it — the result, as he says, of situating his negativity on external causes — but, my point; nothing else.
The myth of ‘mental illness’ conceals the two actual causes of unhappiness and madness: society and the self. We are responsible for our problems — as a civilisation — and, primarily, I am responsible for my problems — as an individual. It is significant, and entirely dishonest, that Fisher lays the entire blame for madness, and presumably his madness, on the system. Again, that’s not to say the system isn’t responsible, but ignoring the source of individual responsibility, the power and the necessity I have to get my life right — is a distorting, crippling fiction.
Not a new one though. This has, essentially, been the foundation of socialism for a couple of centuries now. Man, for the classic socialist, is, essentially, nothing but a product of his environment, and so, in order to correct man, in order to make an atheist heaven on earth staffed by secular angels, all we need to do is to create the ‘perfect’ environment; give people the right education, the right cities, the right technology. No need here to dwell on the horror of such a view (or the abominations it promotes into positions of responsibility) except perhaps to say that it was first torn apart by Fyodor Dostoevsky, who noted that the inevitable consequence of such an attitude is violence and madness, as man (at least those with blood still pumping in their veins) instinctively values freedom above everything else, and prefers to freely destroy a perfect world than submit entirely to it. Perhaps Fisher’s own dormant sense of freedom had a hand in his suicide? Perhaps not, but it certainly does in that of many people who take their lives in the midst of material plenty. To take one’s own life, for some, is the only act of total freedom they have in a totally managed world.
Fisher’s second book for zer0 on ‘hauntology’ (picked up from Jacques Derrida) dissected the death of culture, the cultural corollary of capitalist realism. Again, in some respects, very well. His picture of the frozen now of contemporary art, music and literature — postmodernism made art-flesh — is accurate, and his horror is justified. But again, when we ask what might lay beyond this, or what is the ultimate cause of it, Fisher falters. He says that the cultural nightmare of our pre-collapse world (collapse, by the way, doesn’t seem to be a topic he was much interested in) is due to to exhaustion, overstimulation, uncertainty at not having a regular wage, and gentrification. All true of course, and important, but again, focused entirely on ponderous cause and effect objectivity. To say that, for example, the Beatles in the 1960s, or Can in the 70s, or Talking Heads in the 80s, created what they created because there were no iphones, rents were cheap and their governments handed out more money is obviously absurd.
I am being a little unfair, and reductive, but Fisher really doesn’t offer much more than this, certainly no clue as to where creativity comes from, nor some of the subtler and more powerful reasons for its disappearance; his abominable taste in music and films is a consequence of his ignorance in this respect. Instead, and as you would expect from a lecturer at Goldsmith university, Fisher disappears up his own arse, presenting a series of extraordinarily superficial ideas which amount to this; ‘ghosts are both present and not present, and so is communism, and so is the internet, and so are the 1970s, and that‘s kind of creepy, and sad.’ The whole of ‘Ghosts of My Life’ is largely a verbose trawl through the books and songs that Fisher liked, applying to them the vapid notion of hauntology. Nostalgia for Big Minds basically. If Burial, Caretaker, Tricky, ‘Jungle’ and Christopher Nolan’s sterile expositions are your thing (Fisher actually liked Inception!), and you’ve read a bit of critical theory, then it’s all very fascinating. For the rest of humanity, and particularly for those of us who consider music journalism the second-lowest form of literature, there is, once again, nothing. Just ghosts.
Fisher was a socialist. He was very unhappy about ‘neo-anarchists’, partly for the same reason as I am — taking to the streets with V-for-Vendetta masks is alright, for a larf, but it’s not going to achieve a great deal, and, far more offputting, the groupthink that underlies and binds it, is deeply exclusive. But the other reason that Fisher said things like ‘one of the things which is particularly pernicious about some of the dominant ideas within anarchism at the moment is their disengagement from the mainstream’ (yes, you read right, he really did say that) is that he put his hopes entirely in institutions (‘I think our aim today should be to produce new institutions’). He said that an effective revolution is impossible without a ‘party structure.’
Fisher’s thought was directed towards rebellion within the constraints of institutional thought and activity. Like his friend and admirer, NATO-enthusiast Paul Mason, he had no interest in genuinely radical, independent perception or experience. His utopia was communist — statist, technocratic, professionally-managed — or rather ‘luxury communist’, the most recent version of Marx’s sterile fantasy. As far as I know, Fisher didn’t get as far as the infantile ravings of Aaron Bastani (who recommends, in his latest book, ‘reforging the capitalist state’ in order to mine asteroids, siphon water from the moon, transition to solar and wind power in twenty years without using more oil, heal the world with robots, like in the film Elysium and feed the world with synthetic meat5), but his thought, where it escaped for a moment from his sharp, bitter, angry, cold, hyper-intellectualism, tended in that terrifying direction.
Mark Fisher’s work contained some interesting ideas and some excellent, cynical humour — some useful mind-grenades to fling at the big-black wall — but don’t go looking for anything else. It is a nightmare.
Dark Mountain is a ‘network of artists and thinkers’, founded by Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth, and comprising a large and growing collective of artists, musicians and writers. Its stated aim is to ‘tell new stories’, ‘re-engage with the non-human world’ and face up to the ‘unravelling’ of civilisation.
I was a peripheral part of DM for a bit, and contributed to two of their books, but left after a couple of years, unimpressed with Hine and Kingsnorth. I was then invited back to contribute to another issue of their journal (with an excerpt from The Apocalypedia) which I agreed to because I know a few DM members would enjoy my work.
The reason I joined DM is that I emphatically agreed that civilisation was unravelling. I knew that a non-nutty organisation built around that realisation would inevitably draw in a few decent folk who are honest, sensitive and prepared to face up to what that means — an interesting minority.
My beef is, firstly, with their ye-olde folksy aesthetic — all that ‘storytelling’, ‘sacred space’, ‘reawakening the moon goddess’ stuff. I dig folklore, but something’s fishy here. Most (not all, most) of the art, literature and music which this ‘community of artists’ produces is substandard to say the least. They ask for ‘new stories’, not good ones. The overall effect of reading one of their anthologies is that of spending a week in a provincial theatre.
The second problem with DM is the outlook embodied by the more prominent voices in the collective — US-army cheerleader Vinay Gupta, ‘philosopher and entrepreneur’ Andrew Taggart PH.D (who once asked me to pay for an email exchange with him), founders Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, occasional-collaborator Alastair McIntosh and guiding-light David Fleming (via his editor Shaun Chamberlin). Their overarching (although, to some extent, unspoken) philosophy is quite common in the ‘Doomer’ and ‘Green’ movement. What it amounts to is a kind of ‘cosy relativism’ or what you could call ‘bourgeois ecoshism.’ This is, as I suggest in my introduction, one of the key components of the left-wing outlook. You can be, as Kingsnorth is, against civilisation, state politics, technology — whatever — but embedded in the left6 in the most profound way. I’m going to briefly look at this philosophy here by focusing on three prominent DM voices, Hine, Kingsnorth and McIntosh, but, firstly, I’m going to put aside the problem with relativism, which I tackle more fully in my books and secondly, I’m going to ignore all the other writers in DM. I’m also well aware that the three people here don’t ‘speak for’ everyone in Dark Mountain — how could they? — I’m just using them as exemplars of this kind of thinking and writing, which is very very common on the left generally and in DM specifically. Large parts of DM, after all, were formed by people attracted by the work of Hine and Kingsnorth and many still read their work with pleasure.
Dougald Hine, ‘writer, teacher, culture-maker’, describes himself as an ‘obsessive’ follower of Ivan Illich — the most radical, perceptive and forthright critic of institutionalisation and professionalisation the world has ever seen. Yet Hine rarely cites Illich’s core texts, Deschooling Society, Medical Nemesis, Tools for Conviviality, Gender or Disabling Professions. He prefers to focus on a few elements of the later Illich. The excoriating attacks Illich made on the middle class, or on their various totems (chief amongst these ‘life’) don’t figure much in Hine’s ‘obsession’, nor does Illich’s heretical mysticism, nor his foundational sympathy with the poor, nor his iconoclastic deconstruction of the myths of gender, nor his ridiculing of the re-enshrining of nature in the kind of modern myths which DM are hoping to write; he said it was
‘foolish to found the limits of human actions on some substantive ecological ideology which would modernise the mythic sacredness of nature. The engineering of an eco-religion would be a caricature of ecological hubris.’
For some reason Hine didn’t dwell on Illich’s distaste for middle-class drop-outs creating mythic culture in their cosy caravans. Can’t think why.
Hine begins his ‘radical’ essay ‘How to Sell Anything’ with this line: ‘this was my second year at [Oxford] uni, I was feeling skint and unemployable’ (my emphasis). If this doesn’t give you a clue to the kind of life Hine has lived, try this sterling post ‘What I Learned’ (from his ‘changing the world’ blog) about his post-uni experiences which contains lines like ‘I spent a while exploring the ground floor of the British economy, taking temp jobs in warehouses and call centres. After the pressures of the newsroom, I found the lack of responsibility a relief’ and ‘Somehow, we came through the year of living on air, and in early 2008 we secured £350,000 of investment.’
After an agreeable few months doing menial jobs, he just scrapes through with a third of a mill. How’s he doing these days? Well ‘…in 2012, I was named as one of Britain’s 50 New Radicals by Nesta (the UK innovation agency), my work was profiled as one of 13 case studies in the EU’s Team Culture report on “the role of culture in a time of crisis”, and I was invited to São Paolo and Buenos Aires to speak at Google’s Think Infinite! events. I’ve worked with organisations including the BBC, the British Council, Demos, Design for London, King’s Cultural Institute, the London Borough of Lewisham, the London Borough of Lambeth, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Turning Point Network, Webb deVlam and the Young Foundation.’
You might wonder how ‘one of Britain’s 50 new radicals’ can find investment money and groovy corporate commissions so easily? Strange isn’t it? I once asked Dougald how he managed to fund a few ‘trips around Europe’ he was chatting to me about. ‘Oh, the money comes from somewhere,’ he said.
Let’s have a look at one of Hine’s more recent pieces, called After We Stop Pretending. As with much of what he — and an enormous number of writers — presents, you could pretty much distill the entire thing down to two or three banal ideas. Strip out the now obvious message, ‘we’re doomed’ and Hine’s agonising whimsically-serene descriptive prose, which goes on and on and on and on, and you’ve basically got, as far as how to respond to a collapsing world; ‘it’s really complex.’
Why does Hine say this? Some things about the world are, after all, very simple. Why does he make digs at ‘those whose ideas are born crystal clear’ and people who advance ‘pugnacious rhetoric.’ It’s not that, I’m sure, Hine doesn’t have in mind the ludicrous over-simplicity of aggressive activists, or that other aspects of the world aren’t really complex; but that he, and many people like him, refuse to speak clearly of matters of straightforward importance, for the very obvious reason that, when it comes to such matters, he doesn’t actually know what he’s on about. That sounds terribly harsh I know, but that’s how it is. Hine says nothing.
Check out this sentence from the above essay.
The subtlety is this: to insist that the space you are holding is not one from which plans can be made or action taken is not to claim that no one should be taking action or making plans.
Do you understand this ‘subtlety’? Perhaps you can ‘bring to it’ something profound, something along the lines of ‘there is a state of awareness which precedes plans, from which plans arrive, and that is what I’m talking about here’. But is he talking about that? And what does he have to say about it? Take a look — not very much. In the end sentences like the above are basically essay versions of a canvas of black and white splashes in an art gallery.
Paul Kingsnorth has also had a wonderfully exciting life, campaigning in remote villages and appearing ‘in all sorts of places, including in the Guardian, Independent, Daily Telegraph, Daily Express, Le Monde, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Big Issue, Adbusters, BBC Wildlife and the London Review of Books [and] on various TV and radio programmes…’
Kingsnorth, at one point, decided that he couldn’t stand journalism and wrote an essay turning his back on the profession for good. He then removed this essay from his site and returned to journalism, at which point he decided that the entire green movement was a gaggle of ‘Trots’, all activism is misguided and there was no hope for ‘environmentalism’ (not to mention civilisation; hence Dark Mountain) — preferring instead to live on a remote farm and write the occasional Guardian column and Booker-prize shortlisted novel.
Here’s a selection of quotes from Kingsnorth’s website:
You grow as a writer through absorbing these lessons…
As a writer, I have learned two things from Alan Garner…
As a writer, I have the licence, and the ability I guess, to move between feelings and numbers and technical stuff and, you know…
As a writer, whether of fiction or non-fiction, I have been looking for [people who belong]…
I’ve been persuaded that as a writer you have to hawk your wares…
If, as a writer, you take this perspective seriously, it will be transformational…
As a writer, I wonder what our writing would look like if we took this notion seriously…
Get the idea? Have you ever heard Dickens, Tolstoy, Miller, Lawrence, Orwell, Huxley or any other writer who actually says something use this phrase, ‘as a writer’?7 No? What about bin men? Or taxi-drivers? ever heard; ‘As a fruit-packer, I have come to understand the matt-finish of Braeburn?’ or ‘As a hod-carrier, I’ve understand the transformational benefits of being a beast of burden.’ Not that ‘as a writer’ I don’t think my metier means something. It makes me annoyed that nobody who loves movies has a clue who creates them — the screenwriters — it means that I have (in Philip K. Dick’s words) a scholarly understanding of languages (a writer who doesn’t is like a cook who doesn’t understand heat) and it means that I probably pay more attention to human nature than the next man, whose work probably doesn’t rely on having some kind of insight into it. It doesn’t mean, however, that I am filtering experience through my identity, or that I think that anyone gives a toss about that identity.8
I’ve read a lot of Kingsnorth’s writings, and writer he may be, but a writer who says something? I’m yet to find anything. Not a sausage. Like Hine he talks and talks and talks and talks… and says nothing — which is, of course, why he has been successful. The middle-class reader doesn’t want writers who say something, they want five tender paragraphs about the swing the author has built for his kids. There might be an original or really important idea somewhere in Kingsnorth work that I haven’t come across, but I’m not holding out much hope.
In a recent essay, Life versus the Machine Kingsnorth, as usual, starts off with the minutia of his life, going to the pub, playing chess (I usually lose!), but mercifully briefly here. Then he lists terminal problems with civilisation — fair enough of course — then at the end, we get to the meat of the piece, ethics, which, he says, he’s been ‘thinking a lot’ about recently. Based on a quote from Aldo Leopold he comes up with the following ‘moral signpost for the age of ecocide.’
Any action which hinders the advance of the human industrial economy is an ethical action, provided it does not harm life. Any action which knowingly and needlessly advances the human industrial economy is an unethical action.
This is one of the leading minds of the Green / Doomer movement writing here. An abstract bromide followed by ‘But what else is there?’
What is the purpose of this ‘moral signpost’? Are we to stick it on the desk of the CEO of Bayer Monsanto to point him towards the error of his ways? Are we to use it to modify our own attitude to meaningful action at the end of history? Is it supposed to guide our morally lost radical outfit towards Ethicalia? Or are we, in the midst of agonies of self-doubt and moral anguish supposed to pick up Kingsnorth’s idea and direct our lives with it? If the answer to any of these is ‘yes’ then Kingsnorth either has zero experience with the source of right and wrong-doing, or he vaaastly inflates the power of rational thought. Probably both. Applying a ‘moral signpost’ to human nature is about as effective as applying an enema syringe to a raging fire.9 Oh God I don’t know whether I should blow up that dam or not. Hold on, let me get out my ‘moral signpost’. Shall I have sex with my wife’s sister? Let’s check my moral signpost. If only there were more moral signposts in the world, eh?
I’m not ridiculing giving advice. I certainly give it. In fact I would advise, now, not listening to someone who asks ‘what else is there?’
In another recent piece, broadcast as The Language of the Master, Kingsnorth — with, I must say, the unnatural overemphasised delivery of a young politician — briefly reviews the horrors of modern life, calls on Ian McGilchrist’s marvellous discoveries and attacks ‘progress’ as a means of ‘despiritualising’ the universe. Nothing original, but fair enough. He concludes, as I would, that the abstract language-mind is unable to fix the nature of our ills or solve them, that we need to ‘embrace unbeing’ and engage in non-rational forms of experience. Yep, great. But conclusions are cheap. Take a look at what Kingsnorth actually means by all these ideas; not intellectually, rationally, etymologically, but the reality that he is presenting to us, and you find nothing, a nice-sounding journey through moral signposts.
Here’s the conclusion:
‘There is nothing to be ‘done’ about who and what we are, at least if that means identifying a problem and then fixing it. The notion of identifying problems, of using language as a tool to pin things down, define them, dissect them and then improve upon them, is fatally flawed. Life is not a problem to be solved, it’s a state to be dwelt in. To believe anything else is to walk the path towards tyranny… There is no solution to the problem of language, any more than we can solve the problem of being human.’
Sounds lovely doesn’t it? But what Kingsnorth is doing here is bundling a lie within a truth. The truth is, as he says, that there are no problems in life, not really, and that rational language, or the thinking mind perhaps, is the last place to look for a meaningful solution. All true; but when he says that ‘life is not a problem to be solved’ or that ‘we cannot solve the problem of being human’ what does he mean? Obviously there is a problem in life, a massive one, in all our individual lives and in the horrific life of the world. So does he mean that this is all an illusion? Just a nightmare? Okay, but then how to wake up? That then is a problem. Or does he mean that the mind alone cannot solve our problems? If so, what can, and how exactly are we to access it — and what might get in the way of that? More problems — good ones too, which it’s wonderful to solve. Or does he mean there are no problems in life, that our miserable relationships, boredom, anxiety, stress, poverty and so on are all nonsense that can be magicked away with the right attitude? Sounds good for the enlightened ones — which Kingsnorth is not — but for those of us still wading through the human condition, there are problems to solve. If you are ‘dwelling’ in the ‘state of life’ and there’s a child drowning in a pond, screaming and splashing about — that’s a problem, and it can be solved, or at least you have to try, even if it’s futile. What’s more language can help us solve such problems. Even literal, rational language which no great teacher has ever abandoned completely.
Paul ‘Trump’s victory was exhilarating’ Kingsnorth, underneath his mystical ideas — which, again, come down to slogans and signposts — is not really interested in identifying real problems, or striving to solve them.10 That’s a ‘path towards tyranny.’ It’s similar to Hine’s complaint that ‘subtlety… is not well served by pugnacious rhetoric.’ Let’s keep everything all serene and peaceful and nurturing in our beautiful eco-friendly homes in the Irish countryside,11 write vapid essays about sacred spaces, friendship, folk wisdom and, oh yes, pseudo-fascist screeds in the Guardian like this,12 and if anyone comes along who finds this a disgusting, hollow, middle-class sham, well then he’s one of the pugnacious ones, possibly a tyrant. Give the guy a signpost.
Moving on. A far less prominent member of Dark Mountain, but a big cheese on the green left is Alastair McIntosh. We share the same publisher, Green Books, who sent my Apocalypedia to him for his comments, which were…
Definition of empathy — just reads as shallow and silly to me… Spirituality — well, no, the antithesis of my take… Sex and Love-Making — reads in equal measure as abusive towards women and retrograde towards men. I had to ask myself, “are you really publishing this in 2016?”… School as ‘proto-prison’ — well, it can be, but it needn’t be, and seeing it only one way seemed to me to lack the intelligence of Illich’s sense of Deschooling.… If I read the book properly, I might see some wider pattern in what he’s doing, or some humour that I’m missing; but I’m really sorry, I just can’t offer that based on what I’ve read in a quick first impression.
I had an email exchange with McIntosh in which he condescended to apologise for ‘disappointing me’ and ‘bruising me’ with his review, had a little swipe at my ‘brash’ immaturity, made a few pompous allusions to how many books people send him to endorse, gave me some spiritual advice from the second-rate philosopher Ram Dass on reigning in my rampant ego, told me he felt embarrassed that one of his twitter followers had publicly criticised someone he was retweeting and finished off by reminding me how grateful I should be that he’d spent time writing to me and spending a tenner on sending me his book, Spiritual Activism.
Here is my review of that book: not a DM publication, but which fits very comfortably into the canon.
Spiritual Activism by McIntosh and Carmichael (M&C) begins by praising Jesus and then immediately claims that community ‘is central’, that our ‘ultimate fulfillment lies in our deep connections’ (my emphasis) and even that community is synonymous with being! Jesus of Nazareth didn’t nor ever would have peddled such preposterous falsehoods, but it’s a comfortable message for the community-worshiping Church (which McIntosh is proud to call himself a member of; unlike Jesus), and for someone who cannot address or understand consciousness or the absolute (beauty, love, truth, moral etc) in anything but the most superficial abstract terms (think ‘moral signpost’).
What M&C mean by ‘spiritual’ is meaningless. Their explanations, in chapter 2, amount to this kind of thing: spirituality is liberation, spirituality is not ego, spirituality is ‘centrally about life’, and so on. True enough — but what do these things mean? Closer investigation shows that underneath this list of, once again, slogans there is, in fact, a meaning, just not one explicitly stated. It is relativism; the True God of the comfortable (if despairing) bourgeois intellectual.
M&C define ‘soul’ and ‘God’ as a relationship ‘within ourselves through psychology, spirituality and what might be called “the sacred”’, something which can be measured, managed and ‘valued’. They declare that there is an ‘inner’ (subjective) spiritual reality and an ‘outer’ (objective) communal reality, both of which we have some kind of ‘relationship’ or ‘conversation’ with. They cite with approval a number of priests, monks and religionists who say the same thing (glossing over the endemic bellicosity of the Old Testament and Koran), but never quote an expression of an absolute state, which precedes both subjective thoughts, feelings and values (the inner) and objective possessions, relationships and communities (the outer) — they never quote the Jesus of Thomas, for example (or any of his morally bizarre synoptic parables) or the gnomic utterances of Meister Eckhart or Jacob Boehme, or any of the dualism-shattering paradoxes of Zen or Taoism, or Krishnamurti or any other expression of real genius. When spiritual masterpieces are alluded to, or expressions of ‘higher / peak consciousness’ quoted, it is only ever to list definitions — listing terms like ‘love’ and ‘clarity’ and so on — without any expression of what these things mean. This has been standard practice for professional writers, bourgeois intellectuals and everyone else with next to no experience of what concepts refer to for thousands of years.
The intellectual sleight-of-hand of referring deep words to other deep words is how M&C can declare that their philosophy is somehow at odds with ‘materialism’ and with the philosophy of ‘having’. ‘Subjective’ idealists, religionists — not to mention socialists and other members of the left-wing — have been making the same claim for hundreds of years, but in truth there is no fundamental difference between the philosophy of Spiritual Activism and that of corporate, materialist, science.
M&C, for example, complain about reductionism and breaking down ‘the whole into parts’, yet fill Spiritual Activism with entirely intellectually graspable ideas. Everything in Spiritual Activism is perfectly understandable by the relative mind; which is to say, exposition. Telling us what reality is, rather than expressing it; ‘The essence,’ they say, ‘is anathema to materialist thinking’ (i.e. the truth is not not truth), ‘the universe must have had a cause’ (i.e. the truth exists), ‘god is a matrix of love’ (i.e. truth is truth) and so on. The modern, ‘spiritual’, eco-activitst, or neo-green reader, nods, mm-hm, yes, oh yes. She gets it. She’s read it many times before. She doesn’t care that there is no actual content here, that it is pure sophistry.
Moving on to politics, Spiritual Activism contains a chapter on cults in which the BBC are mentioned, the Times and the Telegraph, yet, oddly, no mention that they might be cults or part of one, nor of professional cults, or the cult of civilisation — no, no, it’s the bad guy’s cults we don’t like. Our cults are fine, particularly those that invite me to write articles for them that pay me for my ‘thought of the day’.13
Later on Pussy Riot are mentioned approvingly, Putin disapprovingly — we know who the good and bad guys are there! On McIntosh and Carmichael’s Twitter feeds we find warm approval of Hillary Clinton (she who obliterated Libya, suggested nuking Iran and is funded by the Israel-lobby and climate-destroying corporations) and mockery of Donald Trump — nothing that will injure their media careers too much there either.
And so it goes on. There is no criticism in Spiritual Activism of schooling, none of property or the rule of law, of professional dominance of the commons, of the media-system, nothing meaningful on work, or on how ordinary working people can deal with the nightmare of their working lives, nothing critical about democracy of course or eco-socialism, nothing really meaningful on the roots of civilisation and ego. No insight into human nature, no interesting philosophy, nothing very creative, no wit, nothing, nothing at all. By ‘activism’ M&C mean fighting the mean old Tories and the big bad corporation men who are privatising everything, ruining our mystical walks on the fens and mucking up our jolly meetings at the village hall.
And of course, doing all this — implictly upholding the most violent institutions in the history of mankind — ‘peacefully’. He’s a pacifist, of course, is Alastair Mcintosh, and a big fan of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luthor King. He doesn’t care that both advocated violence rather than cowardice14 or that Gandhi was, effectively an anarchist; and McIntosh certainly doesn’t care that middle-class pacificism15 is a hypocritical, statist, (sometimes even racist) absurdity, which the bourgeoisie have always used to justify their domesticated and domesticating lives, keep the civilised system intact and excuse their disgusting cowardice.16
To conclude: there is neither spirituality nor activism in Spiritual Activism.
What is notable about the work of Kingsnorth, Hine and McIntosh (and David Fleming, who I criticised here) is how careful they are, while criticising society, not to bite the hand the feeds them. In this they are, of course, official eco-socialists or whimsical social-democrats, but with an apocalyptic slant. The media, the middle-class and professionalism generally get off very, very lightly in their critique of civilisation, if at all; even the state doesn’t come in for a great deal of stick. Kingsnorth actively repudiates the views of soft critics like Noam Chomsky and Medialens (which he dismisses as ‘ideological’, ‘rigid’ and ‘fundamentalist’), Hine finds nothing of interest there; although he does grok corp-friendly, police-friendly, media-friendly XR leaders Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam. Mark Curtis, Julian Assange and John Pilger are never mentioned. ‘Too rigid’ I suppose. Genuine anarchist thinkers occasionally pop up; Zerzan and Illich, but completely defanged, safe. Generally the anarchist tradition is entirely ignored, for obvious reasons.
Far worse than the political cowardice though is the vacuous spirituality and bland, empty, passionless writing. Look for anything truthful, original, funny or any really perceptive observations on the human condition, on the nature of love or on the bizarre, epic story of consciousness struggling to experience itself in an unconscious world… and you’ll find nothing whatsoever.
The value of the unofficial socialist left is based on what they have to say about capitalism, which is, very often, accurate and useful. Ask these people what their solutions are, and everything dissolves into thin air. The right understand this very well. Watch pretty much any right-wing interview with a dissident and, sooner or later, the interviewer will ask, ‘what’s your solution then? How will it work?’ to which Russell Brand, Noam Chomsky and spokesmen from XR offer the same vague and banal generalities or they start parping on the communist trumpet.
Not that anybody can give details about the future, certainly not about how a complex social system will function decades or centuries from now; but a full picture of a sane society, along with what it would take to live in it, can be confidently presented. The left either decline to do so or they present some kind of neo-marxist fantasy-land in which large, democratic, technocratic, institutions govern the world with miraculous immunity to the innate iniquities of same.
Rather than indulge in ‘speculation’, socialists tend to say, rather, that first we must ‘get the message out,’ tell people about how mad our world is, or that first we must reform the state and use it to protect ourselves against corporate power or the rise of fascism, that we must vote this way or that, or even, in the case of Dark Mountain, throw up our hands in despair, walk away to your yummy retreat in rural Sweden and give the occasional TEDX talk.
The truth is that socialists, like their capitalist enemies, cannot bear to face what needs to be done, because they cannot bear to face what the problem really is — not ‘capitalism’ but the entire civilised system (which includes every kind of socialism, even Chomsky’s anarchist variant) and, more fundamentally, the ego which creates and sustains it, about which socialists have nothing meaningful or original to say17.
All the hallmarks of truly great writers are absent from the work of the writers we’ve looked at here; surprising breadth of thought, vivid metaphors connecting far-flung experiences, penetrating psychological insight, genuine originality — something actually fresh to human ears, not merely cobbled together from other minds18 — and the sense, after reading what they have written, that something profound, not merely ideas and beliefs but the quality of consciousness, has changed; all this is almost entirely absent. Not completely — Fisher had a few splendid things to say about the invasiveness of late capitalism, Graeber makes a few excellent mind-connections (e.g. his wonderful observations on werewolves, zombies and vampyres), Chomsky has useful things to say about the media,19 David Edwards make some nice points about fame and success and old Ran Prieur, the one who writes today, very, very, very occasionally says something one-half as interesting as his former self, but it’s all very thin, a kind of intellectual gruel with the odd tasty raspberry. Compare their output to — oh, I dunno — Arthur Schopenhauer, Leo Tolstoy, Aldous Huxley (or even George Orwell; Huxley-lite), Ivan Illich, Henry Miller20 or Barry Long, all of whom inspire, after finishing their work, a thought something like; ‘Jesusfuckingchrist, I’ll have to read that again!’ It’s not a fair comparison of course — anyone would suffer alongside these colossi — but still an instructive one. Down their narrow fields of interest some independent socialist writers contribute to the human library — if history were to continue Noam Chomsky might be read a hundred years from now, but it’s very unlikely — most, like, Caitlin Johnstone and Dark Mountain, will be forgotten half an hour after they close their laptops. Most of the writers mentioned here are worth reading today — rapidly and once, as one reads all that must be quickly assimilated to be well-informed — and, needless to say, far more so than the mind-numbing pabulum excreted by corporate journalists and state-sponsored ‘thinkers’. Ultimately though, essentially, when it comes to really meaningful understanding — of reality, consciousness, human life, love, the nature of existence, human society, death and the manifold mysteries and challenges of being alive — their work is at best misleading, at worst useless.
A final note. If you’ve read all the way to the end you’ve read 20,000 words. I’ve made a lot of criticisms here. With each ‘person’ I’ve emphasised something different — anarchism and hyperrationalism with Chomsky, civilisation and professionalism with Graeber, democracy and protest with ML, relativism and psyche with Fisher, Ran Prieur, DM and Johnstone. A common criticism already has been that I am ‘declaring what socialism is, or anarchism and then trying to fit others into it or exclude them from it’. This is a cheap way to avoid all my individual points21 and to avoid the overall point. I’m not actually talking about definitions at all, but something much more elusive. I have been quite precise about what I mean by socialism and anarchism, but, firstly, I’m not rigidly decreeing how others should use these words (although of course I am making a case for a new understanding of them) and secondly, and more importantly, despite many concrete criticisms I’m gesturing towards something subtler and more terrible than semantics. If you can’t see that by now, I fear that more discussion won’t help much; but feel free to write with criticisms or responses.
(part one here)
And here is a follow-up; responses from Ran Prieur, David Graeber, Media Lens, Jonathan Cook, Caitlin Johnstone and — quite the classic (alas paraphrased) — Paul Kingsnorth. Finally, a postscript on their [not so] extraordinary non-response to the coronavirus lockdown here.
- Or have a read of his marvellous ‘zine’ Superweed, detailing his peripatetic experiences around the United States.
- Which I sent to Ran. His judgement; ’the main thing i noticed is that you really like to divide the world into good and bad. that’s something i liked to do when i was younger. now i try to avoid defining any word so that it’s always good or always bad.’ (emphasis mine).
- Jonathan Cook retweets this stuff; can you believe it? ‘So much wisdom and sanity,’ said Tim Heyward of the 32 tips piece.
- I say ‘today’ because as time moves on formal ideas apply less and less to the form of society and can be enjoyed by that society.
- Satire is unnecessary, but see my review of the very similar and equally ridiculous Inventing the Future.
- i.e. not a centrist, an anarchist or a right winger.
- Actually though, if you went through their stuff, probably you would find this phrase — you might even find that I’ve used it — but without the self-importance. More along the lines of, say, ‘as a writer who criticises everyone, I have to expect criticism in return.’
- Beautiful woman at party: ‘So, what do you do?’ Darren: ‘I’m a writer.’ Beautiful woman: ‘Oh wow, that must mean you’re really interesting! Shall we have sex?’
- The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, Arthur Schopenhauer.
- ‘He threw in the towel and now he’s saying the towel doesn’t exist’, was John Zerzan’s assessment. ‘Kingsnorth has completely given up the idea of challenging anything’.
- Put ‘Paul Kingsnorth’ into Google images. Get the idea?
- See this critique by Out of the Woods. I’m certainly not behind Out of the Woods and their Modern Standard Anarchist concerns with right-on, intersectional, monogendered nonsense; and here they don’t seem to understand how open-borders in the system harms the poor by augmenting ‘the reserve army of labour’, but their work is still worth reading, and I dig their restrained tone when laying into, for example, XR.
- I don’t think there is anything wrong wrong with appearing on the BBC, having an article in The Guardian (or appearing in its ‘top 100 radicals’ list), working for Google, or even working for the military — it’s a hard, shit, world which forces compromises upon all of us. Ken Loach directed adverts for McDonalds William Morris ‘ministered to the swinish’ elites and George Orwell had to job at the Observer; I too have taught the military and worked for an oil company. I’d appear on the BBC too for the same reason I’d visit a doctor if I needed an x-ray. But pride in these things? Defending these actions? Mocking criticism of them? Refusing to criticise the host out of — what? Why would these writers refuse to write critically of the BBC, the Guardian, TEDX and the wider middle-class institutional system?
- Gandhi: ‘When there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.’ ‘I would far rather that you died bravely dealing a blow and receiving a blow than died in abject terror.’ ‘Between violence and cowardly flight, I can only prefer violence.’
- i.e. not the inspiring pacifism of genuine mystics, like Jesus of Nazareth, and mighty revolutionaries, like Mohandas Gandhi.
- When Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon gave an uncritical leg-up to Henry Kissinger, the greatest living-mass murderer, McIntosh’s response was ‘Wow: Scotland has a First Minister who actually conserves space to think about the big issues within which the little ones are framed. Thanks for this.’ When challenged his responded ‘If I only related to folks committed to nonviolence like I am, it would be a pretty small bubble to float around in.’ Which is about as good an expression of the liberal pacifist’s position as you can find: ‘I’m a pacifist, but yay for the Scottish state and yay for an article by Genghis Khan.’
- With David Edwards of Media Lens being a tame but honorable exception.
- My thoughts on plagiarism are to come.
- Eric Zuesse, who isn’t necessarily the most trustworthy critic, claims that the ‘main author’ of Manufacturing Consent, was Ed Herman.
- Who, yes, could be utterly vile about women and sex, but who was still one of the most inspiring people ever to have put pen to paper.
- Another is to just focus on one or two criticisms, as if that’s all I’m saying. Or my tone (bitter! angry!).