“WE ARE WHAT WE DESIRE.
DESIRE NOTHING AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU SHALL NOT REALISE.” 1
DESIRE NOTHING AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU SHALL NOT REALISE.” 1
Georg Lukacs describes utopian thinking as arising from a “refusal to be content with this empirical reality” and a process of “going beyond the bounds of what is immediately given”.2 He critiques the bourgeois philosophy which, he argues, draws a hard line between the ‘ought’ and the ‘is’ and renders social constructions as naturally determined. After this, he brings attention to the necessity to indeed draw on “immanent (social) reality” in order to construct the “beyond” which is the crux of progressive political movements.3 To imagine and realise a new world out of nowhere leaves us somewhat helplessly pursuing an impossible project. Instead we can ask ourselves: what of this world could be the starting point for the “beyond” that we often talk about?
Post Great Recession, when the economic system upholding the so-called “end of history” came crashing down and revealed its finitude, thinkers have been returning to utopian thinking. But not only is there a desire to go beyond; desire itself has become central to concerns regarding the world to win.
Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again and the posthumously published final lectures of Mark Fisher, Postcapitalist Desire, are two recent examples of works that navigate desire and its relationship with utopian thinking. Angel takes up the challenge presented by the #metoo movement and what she describes as consent culture, tackling some of the presumptions that those movements have made in regards to how desire functions in the context of (in her examples, predominately hetero) sexual intimacy. She makes the case for a sexual-political project based on retaining a desire which is malleable, uncertain, and able to develop during an erotic moment. Meanwhile, Fisher’s focus is on how capitalism makes the desires of the consumer a dead weight, something to be merely fed no matter the cost either to ourselves or the world we live in — and the desire for alternative and radical forms of social relations.
At first glance, aside from both drawing on the notions (albeit divergent forms) of utopia and desire, Angel’s project and Fisher’s have little crossover. But by taking Fisher’s insistence to trace the sort of desires that capitalism promotes, we can track the ideology of domination, which McKenzie Wark lists alongside “exploitation” and “oppression” as one of capitalism’s core tendencies.4 This leads us to embracing the sort of erotic-utopian imaginings that Angel provides; in Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again we get a sense of how a beyond devoid of the urge to dominate may feel. But let’s start with Fisher, who often summarized the melancholy inherent to contemporary culture, before moving onto two writers who have interrogated the desire for domination fuelled by capitalism: Albert Camus and Silvia Federici.
Postcapitalist Desire is a glimpse into an unfinished and obscure project which Fisher was tantalisingly calling Acid Communism. Based on these lectures, that project appears to have been an attempt to think about how the imagination-expanding exploits of the more radical elements of the post war counterculture movements could work in solidarity with working class struggles. Unfortunately, we are only left with mere traces of this thinking.
These lectures, given at the end of 2016, provide us with a brief but profitable look into Fisher’s interests at the time. In the transcripts, discussing the term postcapitalism5 with his students, Fisher says it implies “that there’s something beyond capitalism.”6 Echoing Lukacs, Fisher insists that “we can begin with, work with, the pleasures of capitalism, as well as its oppressions.”7
Fisher was keen on the notion of an alternative, a beyond. Capitalist Realism, arguably his most influential work, outlines how the lack of ambition to see beyond capitalism is a collective failure of popular consciousness made possible because capitalism creates a desire for itself (through the pleasure derived from consuming, for example) even when the activities that sustain it (including the destruction of the environment and slavery) are inherently unethical and damaging to life on earth.
Melancholy punctuates Fisher’s work. One of the reasons for that affect to be so prevalent in his writing was the hegemony of third way politics and the neoliberal economic order that has dominated the UK from the late 1970s.8 Fisher often critiqued the culture that third way politics produced in the UK — one of jingoism and nostalgia — in his k-punk blog.
Capitalism will of course change and one day be replaced, but Fisher was specifically interested in the decreasing amount of agency that the British left had from the 1990s onwards as a political force in shaping the change that was/is to come. Postcapitalist Desire answers Capitalist Realism’s subtitle, “Is there no alternative?”, with a defiant “yes, there is,” by beginning to sketch the origins of a feasible alternative.9
Fisher tackles the mainstream critique of both Corbynism (the most prominent form of left wing politics in the UK at the time Fisher was giving these lectures) and radical politics more generally. He discusses the “harsh Leninist superego” which insists that a renovation of the current political system is impossible. According to this superego, the only thing that could work is “a complete transformation of everything, which is not really imaginable.”10 This leads us to think of broader questions about which social groups have the capacity to be agents of history and how social transformation takes place. The infamous “great men” theory posits that it’s genius individuals who push society forwards, while materialist inquiries look at how various forces (economic, technological, etc.) and groups (class, gender and race based, for example) converge and form new societies and cultures both in collaboration and through conflict. While the former restricts agency to a few, the latter approach allows us to conceive of societal transformation as a project we are all involved in.
Postcapitalist Desire doesn’t offer a blueprint of the utopia its title presumes we desire. That would be too much to expect of it anyway. As mentioned, one thing the published lectures succeed in doing is bringing essential and critical attention to the fact that capitalism produces an environment in which it reinforces a desire for itself. Here we find a depiction of capitalism as not only a dominant force but also a dominating one: both at the level of ‘the group’, minorities who are persecuted or made second class citizens through the law, for instance; and at the level of the individual, who can be indoctrinated to think of themselves as Homo economicus, a purely rational agent whose desire to consume not coincidentally aligns with capital’s necessity to produce profit.
Here is evidence of Wark’s insistence to see domination as a key tendency of capitalism. However (to paraphrase Fisher), is there an alternative? If we historicize the origins of the desire for domination, we may be able to sense a counter-desire, or — better yet — a desire beyond.
To understand domination in the modern age, we can first turn to The Rebel, in which Albert Camus attempts to deconstruct the ideologies that he saw as the building blocks of the twentieth century. The few pages on the Marquis de Sade are of particular interest for my current inquiry because this is the segment in which Camus deals explicitly with domination.11
Camus paints the Marquis as a figure whose primary desire is to overcome the will of another. De Sade supports an “aristocratic morality” which bolsters a “little group of initiates [who] know that they have all the rights” in society. Safe in this knowledge, they perpetrate a “terrifying scope of desire.”12 The ‘another’ can easily become the Other; we’re alerted to the way in which de Sade petitioned for his ethics to excuse genocidal horrors in Europe’s colonies.13
De Sade’s name is often invoked to describe pleasure derived from pain, but this is a misappropriation that takes his name away from the politics of total control that he indulged in. The sadomasochist can consent to pain for pleasure’s sake, but de Sade’s aim was “the total subjection of human beings, even at the price of their destruction.”14 De Sade’s pain-giving is his pleasure alone. His "logic leads him to a lawless universe where the only master is the inordinate energy of desire.”15 "What drives him on,” Camus says, “is hatred.”16 In opposition to the generalised hatred of the Other which de Sade took so much pleasure in, we will see how the desire which Katherine Angel describes as being essential to cultivate is one based around care and vulnerability, while the colectivisms and socialisms which Fisher lovingly refers to are surely reliant on emotive and ideological forces.
It is not the consenting sadomasochist who best personifies de Sade’s libertine rebellion today: capitalism itself perpetuates exploitative and destructive activity which mimics the outcomes of de Sade’s desire. Such activity may not be the initial motivation of the individual capitalist (that tends to be seen as the accumulation of wealth), but that hardly matters when slavery, ecological devastation and militarised borders are just some of the necessary practices and outcomes for that accumulation to be possible. It may be the capitalist’s alienation from the production process that keeps them ‘blind’ to the damage accumulation can cause, but that alienation only makes their domination over others bearable for them. The ones being dominated aren’t in possession of such luxury.
Further evidence of domination being a core characteristic of capitalism is provided by Silvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch, in which she focuses on the historical (and ongoing) domination of women. She does this by detailing the relationship between women and primitive accumulation17 in mediaeval and early modern Europe and the Americas.
Federici describes how the witch hunt was a way to criminalise women who had previously subsisted themselves on the commons, parcels of land that were accessible to all, which were subsequently enclosed so that landlords and proto-capitalists (assisted by a nascent police force) could profit. Once the bourgeoisie had enclosed once common land, they subsequently had to limit women’s potential to be revolutionary figures.
Due to the fact that women had largely managed to self-sustain themselves on the commons, many on the frontline of radical activity against the enclosures were women, and landlords and the emerging capitalist class sought to dominate their bodies as well as the land on which they lived. This domination took place both materially (through impoverishment and witch trials) and discursively (this was the epoch in which harsh binary gender distinctions and their supposed ‘natural traits’ were initiated). This development in how society, and the men in charge of it, understood gender helped excuse the increasingly unequal material situations that men and women found themselves in.
Federici explains: “Women’s loss of social power was also expressed through a new sexual differentiation of space. In the Mediterranean countries women were expelled not only from many waged jobs but also from the street, where an unaccompanied woman risked being subjugated to ridicule or sexual assault. In England, too [...] the presence of a woman in public began to be frowned upon.”18 From this came the expectation that women would be domestic by ‘nature’, and thus they were largely excluded from political life for centuries.
Giving working class men meagre privileges over the women in their lives was part of a conscious effort by bourgeois lawmakers to divide and conquer the emerging working class. It was a trick that restricted solidarity and its effects are still being felt today. The reinforcement of class and racial distinctions has also limited women’s potential to act in solidarity against the patriarchy.
In addition, Federici describes how capitalism exported European-aristocratic ethics abroad; upon arriving in the Americas, conquistadors committed atrocities in order to steal gold and convert indigenous people to Catholicism.19 In more contemporary times, witch hunts in Africa have coincided with the implementation of primitive accumulation schemes designed by the World Bank and IMF.20
Capitalism’s cultural milieu of domination haunts Katherine Angel’s Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again. Especially Federici’s work, which can act as an unofficial prelude to Angel’s discussion of how female sexuality is understood and portrayed in society.
Angel’s book is centred around unpacking and reforming ideas of female desire in the wake of #metoo, and her political goal is to present a universally liberating form of desire. She insists on not describing contemporary desire “as a brute fact” because it is in fact “the result of societies we have created.”21 This includes male desire, which is treated “as a biological given, rather than the socially enabled, sanctioned and enforced behaviour that it is.”22 This is much like how, under capitalist realism, our current economic system is treated as immovable. Instead, Angel insists that we recognize that desire’s form depends on “the conditions in which it is met”23 and that it (like the future, or an alternative) “is not always there to be known.”24 Just like desire, tomorrow is “uncertain and unfolding,”25 reminding us that we make it as much as it makes us.
Her prescription rhymes with Fisher’s insofar as she emphasizes the inhumanity of harsh individualism, and of capitalism’s tendency to make individuals dominant over subordinate groups. Angel stresses vulnerability as not something to be avoided but to be cared for and mindful of. She sees vulnerability, especially the unknown aspects of consensual sexual encounters, as “the power of the erotic.”26
“Part of the joys of sex might precisely be in discovering new ways to be touched,”27 she says, portraying in intimate terms what someone indebted to Fisher’s thinking may argue for in relation to collective movements as they seek to bridge the seemingly vast gap between groups set — at least within the logic of the right wing’s culture wars — in opposition. Rather than see contemporary society as an untenable attempt at multiculturalism, as the right does, we could instead imagine that the joys of living may also lie in the collective discovery of ways to relate with each other which are anti-oppositional. An erotic political project disentangled from de Sade’s sadism.
The new world will require new ways of thinking, feeling and relating to one another based on us surrendering to vulnerability. In that place we may discover our desires tailored towards, as Angel describes it, “a wondrous, universal, democratic pleasure detached from gender; a hedonism available to all'' and “for everyone.”28 And it will have to be collective because (as Angel writes) “we are all dependent on others - on those who give birth to us and those who care for us; those who sustain us, feed us, enable our growth, our survival, our work, and our flourishing.”29
It will involve a general consciousness about how those who aren’t immediately present in our lives sustain us nonetheless, and require special care for those who are. The fact that we are interdependent is self-evident, and so in the present we already have the means by which to “go beyond the bounds of what is immediately given”30 to us by capitalism’s propaganda about the primacy of the individual and the individual’s right to dominate for the sake of accumulation.
I opened this piece with an epigraph quoted from Laura Grace Ford’s Savage Messiah, a collage work in which the artist describes lives antagonistic to the slow but sure process of gentrification that London has undergone over the past four decades. It may seem odd to open a piece about the necessity to think about alternative forms of desire with an injunction to “desire nothing”, but Ford’s language game actually works as a mini instruction manual. For if today’s desires hold us from more collective or caring ones, might it not be a good idea to think about how to indeed “desire nothing” today so that we can “realise” (Ford) that which is “beyond the bounds of what is immediately given” (Lukacs)?
Such a surrendering of desire likely needs to be more than just a refusal to engage with the world, however; the hermit has characteristics that are useful to draw on, but the idea that we can truly escape society is a fiction. Engaging with Fisher and Angel’s work, we can see that rejecting elements of the contemporary world does not mean rejecting society in total. It is about working with what we have to get to a place (a utopia, perhaps?) where we live emancipated from the desires which drive capitalism’s many destructions.
1︎︎︎ Quoted in Ford, Laura Grace. Savage Messiah. Verso Books, 2019. Unpaginated.
2︎︎︎ Lukacs, Georg. “III: The Standpoint of the Proletariat.” 1923. Marxists Internet Archive, marxists.org, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1967, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm#s1. Date Accessed: 15 January 2022.
4 ︎︎︎ Wark, McKenzie. Capital Is Dead Is This Something Worse? Verso Books, 2021. p.5
5︎︎︎ Peter Drucker popularized this term in his 1993 book Post-Capitalist Society, although his was not a utopian, classless society project, but a description of how the economic system would transform over the next thirty years into a knowledge based one. Later, writers such as Paul Mason and Nick Srnicek would associate the term with more actively anti-capitalist political projects.
6︎︎︎ Fisher, Mark. Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. Edited by Matt Colquhoun, Repeater Books, 2021. p.50, emphasis my own.
7︎︎︎ Ibidem, p.51
8︎︎︎ Though 2008 was a rupture, a transformational politics is still to be realised, and, worryingly, in Europe the right wing seems to have gained more ground since.
9︎︎︎ Perhaps 2016’s relative temporal distance from the 2008 crash, and the subsequent end of popular support for the ideology that Thatcherism made hegemonic in Britain, is what allowed Fisher to move from a critique of a ‘realism’ to imagining an intriguing acid communist future. Just a year after Jeremy Corbyn’s surprising ascent to leader of the British Labour Party in 2015, left wing opinions were starting to be heard more widely and - to the horror of the British establishment - there seemed to be a desire for them.
10︎︎︎ Fisher, p.56
11︎︎︎ De Sade also appears in Fisher, who, while discussing the knotty Jean-François Lyotard, claims that “we don’t only need Marx, we need to understand Marx alongside Sade.” (205)
12︎︎︎ Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower, Penguin Books, 1971. p.37
13︎︎︎ Ibidem. p.35
14︎︎︎ Ibid. p.34
15︎︎︎ Ibid. p.34
16︎︎︎ Ibid. p.35
17︎︎︎ Primitive accumulation is a Marxist term that describes the process whereby pre-capitalist modes of society - the feudal or the nomadic, for example - are brought under the yolk of the capitalist system.
18︎︎︎ Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the With: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Penguin Classics, 2021. p.114
19︎︎︎ Ibidem. p.250
20︎︎︎ Ibidem. p.260. Aristocratic ethics also remains part of domestic politics in Europe. Let’s take the UK as en example, where British Home Secretary Priti Patel, the arch authoritarian of today’s Conservative party, plays bad cop as officers from Britain’s National Crime Agency (part of a nexus that enforces international establishment power) take a recognisably non-caucasian man from his home in handcuffs. The man himself is alleged to be involved in people smuggling, but Patel’s aim is to tie all forms of migration, and migrants themselves, to criminality, and thus reinforce the “hostile environment” that her predecessor Theresa May initiated in 2012. With a desire for power, she performs the aesthetics of domination.
21︎︎︎ Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. Verso Books, 2021. p.66
22︎︎︎ Ibidem. p.67
23︎︎︎ Ibid. p.5
24︎︎︎ Ibid. p.38
25︎︎︎ Ibid. p.39
26︎︎︎ Ibid. p.98
27︎︎︎ Ibid. p.98
28︎︎︎ Ibid. p.68
29︎︎︎ Ibid. p.107
Angel, Katherine. Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of
Consent. Verso Books, 2021.
Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Translated by Anthony Bower, Penguin Books, 1971.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the With: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. Penguin Classics, 2021.
Fisher, Mark. Postcapitalist Desire: The Final Lectures. Edited by Matt Colquhoun, Repeater Books, 2021.
Ford, Laura Grace. Savage Messiah. Verso Books, 2019.
Lukacs, Georg. “III: The Standpoint of the Proletariat.” 1923. Marxists Internet Archive,
marxists.org, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1967, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lukacs/works/history/hcc07_1.htm#s1. Date Accessed: 15 January 2022.
Wark, McKenzie. Capital Is Dead Is This Something Worse? Verso Books, 2021.
Nicholas Burman is a writer and editor, and the founder of Focus Print. He has written on arts and culture for Tribune, We Are Europe, the Quietus and The Comics Journal, amongst others.
Utopian Thinking in the dark times – Spring/Summer 2022 Research Capsule by Neo-Metabolism – Editors: Georgia Kareola, Kavya Venkatraman, Nicholas Burman – Contributors: Felix Luke, Misha Kakabadze, Oskar Johanson, Nicholas Burman, Maithri, Frédérique Albert-Bordenave – Paintings: Eric L. Chen – Wordmark: Clint Soren – Site: dolor~puritan x cargo – Published: 1 March 2022