A Carnivalesque Capitalism

Rowan Fortune responds to Neil Faulkner’s essay on Digitalised Alienation by asking, where is this new form of online alienation going next and how do we understand and describe a capitalist culture that is increasingly shaped by it?

 

Marx’s method, his Hegelian materialism, has meant that from Walter Benjamin to Henri Lefebvre, Marxist philosophers have long heeded the importance of everyday life. This philosophical grounding rejects the dualistic assumption that human consciousness and the mundane world operate in separate realms. For Marx and the best Marxists, human life and history unfold in our most average social relations, the daily reproduction of the material substance of our lives. Changes in technology and media ripple into everyday life, and therefore to be consistent Marxists we ought to be interested in these developments too, as Benjamin and others have been. Today, however, Marxist theory is woefully underdeveloped on the pivotal subject of emerging medias.

Contrary to the present lack of interest, in the twentieth century Marxists wrote extensively on changes to media. How capitalistic social relations and new communications technologies interacted and reshaped one another. Neil Faulkner, drawing on Guy Debord and Herbert Marcuse, has added to this tradition with his long-form theoretical piece, ‘Digitalised Alienation, the Politics of the Spectacle, and the Revolutionary Imperative: an essay in new Marxist thinking’. In doing so he has helped to fill a gap. I will expand on Faulkner’s arguments, provisionally projecting the communications technologies involved forwards, and outlining the shape of their cultural impact. To do so I will cite diverging theorists, not due to any proposed eclecticism, but to stress that the challenge to socialists is so grave, there is merit in throwing everything at the wall (so to speak) to see what sticks.

This essay (an essay in the truest sense, an ‘attempt’) will develop a concept I have dubbed carnivalesque capitalism, but it will only be dimly and tentatively sketched. It is my claim that the digital diffusion of the spectacle is intrinsically carnivalesque and that this is changing the nature of human consciousness in ways that are uniquely difficult for a liberatory project such as Marxism. While these developments are two-sided, they are also worrying as no Marxist organisation has the capacity, never mind the strategy, to meaningfully intervene in them. First, however, it is necessary to provide theoretical underpinnings.

Cultures, Spectacles, & Mediums

Marcuse (alongside Theodor W. Adorno) proposed the rise of commodity production that satiates what he called false needs on the back of a new mass media. The concept of false needs merits caution; as Shakespeare humorously warned in King Lear, ‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars/ Are in the poorest thing superfluous./ Allow not nature more than nature needs,/ Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.’ Needs and wants are loose folk concepts, in that what is needed and what is merely desired are historically contingent and subject to various, sometimes conflicting ideals about what constitutes the best human life. However, Marcuse’s analysis has merit, because his concept of false needs is based on a robust conception of human flourishing, on an ideal that is argued for.

To steel Marcuse’s argument, needs here should be conceived of as false not because they fail to represent some timeless requirement for all human beings (the need someone has in an affluent society for all kinds of even extravagant ‘luxuries’ can very well place them at relative advantages and disadvantages to one another, and be experienced as needs), but because the socially contingent needs generated by mass culture lessen our capacity, in Marcuse and Adorno’s terms, for a critical autonomy that is crucial to realising our full humanity. That is, our capacity to thrive according to an ideal of human potentialities. For them, mass culture’s integration of high culture and low culture creates a type of engagement that appeals to passive enjoyments, softening the exploitative nature of society while assuaging critical human drives that otherwise would find an outlet in oppositional, critical engagements with the world.

Debord’s thesis of the spectacle as ‘a social relation among people, mediated by images’ can be shown to be complementary to Marcuse’s theory. However, it is often poorly understood. As Phil Hearse clarified in ‘Guy Debord and the Spectacle’, Debord’s claim that all ‘that was directly lived has moved away into a representation’ is not a rejection of materialism. Rather, as Hearse puts it, the spectacle is ‘an integrated part of modern commodity production and consumption, a key part of the life-world of the masses, the ideological complement to the production of “real” commodities.’ The spectacle does not replace the real, but is an inseparable, pervasive feature of the real. Hearse obverses that Debord distinguished between the ‘concentrated spectacle’ of authoritarian societies and the ‘diffuse spectacle’ of postwar liberal democracies, but also suggested a new blend of these forms of spectacle in the ‘integrated spectacle’ that suffuses all aspects of life.

The carnivalesque was an idea developed by Mikhail Bakhtin in his work on the literature of Fyodor Dostoevsky and François Rabelais. In this aesthetic mode, humour and chaos are deployed through genred tropes to create an atmosphere of vertical rather than hierarchised social relations, idiosyncratic behaviours, the bringing together of contrasting things, and the profaning of the sacred. The subtleties of Bakhtin’s argument are not so relevant here, but what is crucial and will be argued is that the aesthetics of the ‘diffuse spectacle’ are pointedly carnivalesque by the nature of the online mediums that transmit them and their social situatedness.

The Marxist art critic John Berger, in his television series and accompanying book Ways of Seeing, linked the emergence of popular oil painting in Europe directly to a then new capitalist economy. ‘Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity.’ He argued that this form of painting was foremost ‘a celebration of private property’. His argument is subtle and nuanced; he interrogates art’s ideological substrates, and importantly bourgeois art’s claims to embodying realism are shown to be naïve. What is relevant here is how Berger, like Benjamin before him, was acutely sensitive to the ways mediums can shape the ideology of cultural artefacts.

Richard Seymour’s blog Leninology has looked in-depth at how a Marxist might draw on the foremost theorist of the medium, Marshall McLuhan. It was McLuhan’s argument that a medium (books, television, radio, etc.) is paramount over and operates prior to its message. The medium is the message, goes McLuhan’s famous aphorism. McLuhan distinguishes high definition/low participation media (hot) and low definition/high participation media (cold); so an immersive VR game, for example, is a hot media, whereas a pen & paper role playing game is cold.

However, according to McLuhan, new hot media is often ‘cooling’, that is made to seem more participatory, lower definition to inculcate new participants. Web 2.0 is an example of a cooling media, in both the guises Faulkner describes and the new ones emerging to replace them. It is in reality high definition and low participation, but creates forms of limited participation and interactivity that offset its hot media features and make it more palatable, disguising its incipient logics. The ideology of the aesthetics of this form of bourgeois art, its message, are not naïvely realistic, as were the oil paintings Berger analysed, but distinctly carnivalesque; they are defined chiefly by irony, irreverence, despair and the profane.

Digitalised Alienation

Hardly a day passes without news of gross digitalised privacy breaches, with stories that would have likely made Orwell blush. The revelations of Government intrusion on everyday life exposed by Edward Snowden and Wikileaks or the misuse of data by Cambridge Analytica during pivotal elections increasingly seem to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. For over half a decade companies have admitted to listening in on customers conversations to inform advertising, with Samsung ‘warning customers not to speak about personal information while near the[ir Smart] TV sets.’ (Feb 10, 2015, The Week) The state, companies and political actors shamelessly spy and manipulate. It is into this alarming context that Faulkner’s essay offers an invaluable contribution.

The Wall is the sum total of screens and monitors through which digital spheres are currently accessed, a product of the Third (digital) Industrial Revolution. The basis of Faulkner’s diagnosis of it is found in a dichotomy posited by Marx and Engels. That is, the distinction ‘between appearance and essence – how individuals experienced life in an everyday sense as opposed to how that experience was actually created by hidden forces.’ Alienation, as the rupture we experience from out species-essence, our free drive to creatively and collaboratively reshape our environments. It is the process of alienation itself that is the essence that is obscured behind the appearances generated by capitalist society. But the nature of that obscuration is constantly in flux.

For Marx, ideology was often transmitted from below, in the very forms of life established in capitalist society. The ruling ideas, having remade the world, could then largely rely on the world to constantly reinforce their legitimacy as the ‘natural’ order of things, with only periodic crises threatening that appearance. The Wall, having been created by capitalist class society, further solidifies this natural order, reflecting and confirming it not through some conscious machinations of the powerful who control these technologies, but because capitalism is a part of its very coding, its genesis, the social problems to which it responds and its architecture as a medium that proceeds the capitalist message. The Wall is never neutral, then; a capitalist Wall is necessarily capitalistic in its output.

This is where Faulkner invokes Marcuse and Debord; The Wall is an extension of the postwar consumer society these theorists were engaging with, a deepening of the spectacle that allows for greater proliferation of pacifying false needs, serving to alienate us from the very world about us by transporting us to a seemingly other world of mirrors and illusions.

Capitalism first alienated human-beings from nature, their means of production, and their means of subsistence. It then alienated them from their real needs by substituting false needs. It has now alienated them from the material world of things by creating a virtual world of spectacles.

Neil Faulkner, 2021

What Faulkner argues is that the entirety of mainstream politics is now subsumed in the spectacle, rendered a mere performance, ‘a façade of images where the representation has no referent, no relationship with anything concrete, material, practical. There is only spin.’ To evidence this point, he notes that during an ecological crisis that threatens our entire species, bourgeois politics is only capable of pretending to fix the problem. It is a point made more timely by the undeniable failure of Cop26 to generate solutions commensurate with the threat. His essay then sets out to chart:

a process of reification in which human-beings lose control over the products of their own labour and the forces unleashed by their collective creativity. It analyses the ever-more unlimited domination of a self-feeding engine of blind, anarchic, exponential growth: the process of capital accumulation encapsulated in Marx’s famous formula, M – C – M+, where M is the money capital originally invested, C is its transformation into energy, machinery, labour, and raw materials, and M+ is its return to the money form with an increment (surplus/profit). A process whose only purpose is to renew the cycle – forever and ever, until the end of time, until complete ecological and social breakdown and the extinction of human civilisation.

Neil Faulkner, 2021

By turn he assesses the multi-dimensional character of the world crisis; the nature of the spectacle; the theory of creeping fascism and the global police state (William I. Robinson’s unique contribution); capital accumulation; the retreat of the commons and the necessity of restoring it; and the rise of genuine democracy from below to contest a new status quo. I will not comment on the economic arguments made in this long essay, and I will only skim the point about creeping fascism. Foremost I wish to argue that Faulkner is correct about The Wall, but to furthermore make the case that it is itself only a brief transitionary form, and will soon become what I call the Lens with an even greater capacity to plunge us into a world of ceaseless, empty spectacles.

From Walls to the Lens

The Wall now spanned the globe. It comprised ten billion screens. Little ones, personal ones, carried in pocket or bag, to be sprung into use any spare minute, every spare minute. Big ones, able to fill a stadium with light and sound, watched by tens of thousands at a time. And all sorts of medium ones in between, laptops, X-boxes, big-screen TVs, cinema screens, and the like.

Neil Faulkner, 2021

Augmented reality and virtual reality technologies have massive potential to further reshape society. The former is now found in basic mobile games (such as Pokémon Go) where a virtual overlay ‘gamifies’ the everyday world. Here representations of the world ‘blanket’ the world on a virtual map so that the two become more easily interchangeable in the minds of users. This goes beyond the suspension of disbelief needed for novels or movies, with people known to walk into oncoming traffic to interact with virtual stimuli. VR is easier understood; using a headset and controllers, the tech here has come a long way in the last decade, with immersive action, adventure, puzzle, etc. games enjoyed more and more affordably. 

The potential future integration of augmented and virtual reality is game changing. Only just still science-fiction, it is increasingly plausible that digital glasses (which exist in a basic form, with products such as Google Glass) could one day overlay a virtual world optically, rather than via a mobile monitor, in our engagements beyond the home. Through this, all aspects of life (shopping, working, leisure and civic) can be gamified so seamlessly that the world of the virtual, of games and the internet, would blend into every aspect of our existences.

In gaming, open world is the term used for instances of the medium in which the player is given an entire world to explore without the limits of linear games, with the narrative embedded into the landscape that is explored. Such technology could transform the living world into an endlessly proliferating series of overlapping open world games. It represents a new field of potential human creativity, but combined with an alienated society, one where online architectures intrinsically give rise to new reactionary politics, and the unforeseen negative consequences are staggering. 

Workplaces could increase productivity, getting workers to ‘play’ at their jobs, intrusively monitoring their staff in every moment from the first person, establishing new levels of workplace atomisation and domination. Politicians could appeal on more personal levels than they have through social media, becoming living avatars in our lives. Manipulative gambling mechanics are already snuck into games (in the form of controversial loot boxes, micro transactions, and so on), but if shopping becomes a virtual game, such manipulations could be normalised at every level of consumption and in ways that seek to constantly step ahead of state regulations, let alone democratic oversight.

As Marxists we must theorise the two-sidedness of such technologies. While the Wall, the sum total of monitors (computers, phones, digital watches, laptops, projectors, etc.) is potentially extended to the Lens (glasses, even contact lenses), a day could come when monitor technology is altogether obsolete, and the intrusion of a (alienating) digital sphere into life becomes so pronounced that the gap between the rest of life and the digital seems to vanish completely. 

Zuckerberg’s Metaverse

In Nikolai Gogol’s novel Dead Souls the enigmatic Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov purchases dead serfs from landowners. These rich individuals gladly sell because they are still being taxed for their serfs based on previous, as yet unrevised censes. Such ‘dead souls’ are then a burden on the property owners, and Chichikov is coy about why he would even want them. In fact he plans to take out an enormous loan against the ‘souls’ and pocket the money in a get rich quick scheme. Tech billionaire Mark Zuckerberg is also, in his way, a collector of souls (or avatars), and while his company produces almost nothing, he leverages his collection in the form of rent seeking through advertising, etc. As more and more people become surplus to capital’s requirements, Zuckerberg (and other tech gurus) gathers users into a virtual domain that enables him to siphon some of the profits from an ever more diminishing and crisis ridden productive economy. 

If everything I have written on the virtual sounds outlandish, know that it is already coming about. Facebook’s new Metaverse is a basic version of the combination of virtual and augmented reality set to change the nature of the internet, turning it into a 3D world that can be entered as now only games such as VRChat and SecondLife have half managed. As well as a cross platform integration of online features designed for leisure, consumption, and work, it lays the groundwork for transforming the online sphere into an entirely non-screen based space.

The Metaverse is for now aimed at a home-based usership, facilitating socialising, gaming, purchasing, etc. through increasingly more realistic but customisable avatars and environments, all within the embrace of Zuckerberg’s expanding empire. But as it swells, nothing prevents the Metaverse from being the means by which the virtual comes to overlay all of the ‘real’ world, too. The greater and greater consolidation of control in the hands of a single company has obvious potential for abuse, particularly as national governments have already repeatedly failed to regulate such platforms effectively.

In fact, with new online economies specialising in digital purchases (virtual clothes, avatars, experiences, etc.) relying increasingly on unregulated, volatile and dangerous cryptocurrencies, governments are going to find their regulatory powers challenged directly. How they will respond, as respond they definitely will, and what will emerge from the settlement between such a platform and state power, remains unknown. But as both governments and corporations have shown little interest in the privacy and rights of online users, it is safe to guess that the resulting model will disfavour the vast majority of people to benefit the already powerful.

Electromyography is a technique that allows a computer to detect nerve signals and translate them virtually. Facebook has already pioneered the most affordable VR headset technology in the form of the Oculus Rift, which it is now planning to subsidise to get as many people on the Metaverse as possible. Newer versions will include facial tracking as a built-in feature. VR non-optical motion tracking is becoming more advanced and affordable, allowing arm and leg movements to be rendered. New vests and belts are now marketed to facilitate whole body listening, supplementing conventional headphones. Meanwhile Danny Manu, a Ghanaian-British inventor, has developed earbuds capable of instantly translating 40 languages.

My purpose here is not technophobia. These technologies can be used to enhance human capabilities, augmenting education, access and provide new outlets for artistic expression. It is not possible presently to roll back these innovations. But channeled through aggressive rent seeking within a capitalistic frame, one defined by a period of ecological, financial and political crisis, and the abuse or unintended consequences of a new virtual world internet, overseen by someone as untrustworthy as Zuckerberg rather than democratically controlled, is chilling. Even worse than the control of a mere corporate profiteer, however, would be the state and its fascist auxiliaries seizing such technology.

Data and privacy is threatened by more than conscious manipulation. Moderation of online social platforms necessitates intrusiveness, and the more immersive the platform the deeper that intrusion must of-necessity be. To prevent child pornography, hate speech and conspiracy theories (all problems Facebook has never resolved) they will increasingly need access to realms, such as private VR spaces, we are otherwise instructed to design for ourselves as intimate and personal. Moreover, the Metaverse’s verisimilitude creates the potential to manipulate our perception of reality more than even the Wall has managed, purposefully (as we saw through Cambridge Analytica) or as an inadvertent consequence of the digital architecture of this space. It is in the second of these possibilities that one of the deadliest risks is posed, the continuation in ever more potent forms of the carnival.

The Carnival

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober sense, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848

These are Marx’s words about the cultural impact of capitalism. Online spaces accelerate a process that has been ongoing for five centuries, only rather than being finally left with a sober sense of our real conditions and relations, we are now catapulted into a virtual world where the profane is just as obscuring and encompassing as the holy was to the medieval mind. Far from clarity, digitalised alienation has birthed a carnivalesque capitalism with its own beguiling obscenities and a spectacle so dispersed it is hard to identify a single space outside of its domain.

It has spawned the politics of the alt-right, consolidated the manosphere and its misogynistic sub-movements (from murderous incels to the rape apologist PUAs) and established the basis for a culture war with far reaching and negative consequences to the oppressed. From tragic mother’s spreading transphobia on MumsNet to their equally tragic GamerGate racist sons on 4Chan to their unutterably tragic power-worshiping Thin Blue Line husbands on Facebook QAnon groups, this side of the internet has created an entire nuclear family of archetypal reactionaries.

In Seymour’s book The Twittering Machine, he wrote, ‘We should begin to take seriously the possibility that something about the social industry is either incipiently fascistic, or particularly conducive to incipient fascism.’ This correct diagnosis, I would argue, is partly rooted in the fast-fixity of online spaces. The fastness of online temporality leads us to acting as if our agency is without consequences (minimising empathy), while the fixity (the seemingly eternal memory of online spaces) returns to haunt us with our online past selves (making us all victims of the endless proliferation of selves the internet also invites us to create). It becomes a site of anxiety, where the stakes are lowered to bring out our worst demons, then raised again when we are attacked, condemned and ostracised by others with whom we have only the most tenuous relationships. The mix of despair and self-pity obvious in the incel movement is the form of consciousness that emerges organically from being online.

The internet was a cornerstone for the political strategies of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson, but of these only the outright reactionaries deployed online tools with any success. Johnson and Trump most closely followed the strategies of one-time libertarian presidential hopeful Ron Paul, who pioneered the politicisation of the internet and helped coalesce many of the subcultures that would become the base of the manosphere and alt-right. Trump and Johnson did not aim to further cultivate these online spheres, but their reactionary interventions both served to embolden such groups. They represent the carnival’s consolidation of political power.

As indicated, the Corbyn movement (itself dependent on online recruitment and activism) was roundly defeated; in Greece Syriza (again, comparable) was unable to be a radical vehicle despite its limited victories; similar to Podemos in Spain. All of which is to say, the type of left politics that emerges from the internet seems remarkable only in its limitless capacity for defeat after defeat, followed by compromise and demoralisation. A mass of online activists for them, unlike for the right, translates into no serious position of power to either reform or revolutionise our political systems. This lends some evidence to the claim that an online carnivalesque culture is, as Seymour suggests, incipiently fascist.

None of this should suggest that such online platforms will have the same effect on everybody. Forms of online addiction might target certain types of people, experiencing traumas, certain life conditions or influenced by particular neurodiverse conditions. As someone with ASD, I recognise myself as potentially prone to the kinds of addictions the internet can encourage, and see in these spaces various forms of manipulation (from gambling to obsessive overuse) that knowingly target people like me. Online fascism, like fascism more broadly, especially appeals to petit bourgeois social layers whose position excludes them from the status quo politics emanating from above and the emancipatory politics erupting from below. And so on.

Equally, we can easily imagine the kind of person better guarded from the more align aspects of social media and the internet. People with robust social support, who are less cognitively prone to addictive styles of behaviour, who have strong attachments to class-based groupings grounded in solidarity. These people would have fewer reasons to turn to such spheres to meet otherwise unmet needs, or to be suckered into its worst spheres were they even to satiate a morbid curiosity about it. But as carnival capitalism encroaches further and further, it would be wrong to assume any group is wholly immune to its beguiling offers of fantasy and escape.

For example, the internet has had a profoundly strange and deleterious impact on even the anti-electoralist far left. Some old Trotskyist grouplets use it to extend the worst of their previous activities, waging endless, low stakes sectarian wars against one another, often fuelled by the same algorithms as encourage petty feuds between bourgeois celebrities. In addition, the tendency of the internet to promote the obscure, niche and the sensational has meant the return of bizarrely untimely contingents of the left, from teenage fans of Stalinism to forms of the ultra-left that do not even take the burgeoning threat of fascism seriously.

From anarchists operating in social democratic parties to highly educated comrades expending vast amounts of time ‘owning’ tween Marxist-Leninists on the contents of Capital, the internet has not produced a rich, revolutionary intellectual culture. Quite the reverse. While it is great to benefit from the international links the online world affords us, we have not yet been able to discover a substitute for meeting people face to face, for solitary reading and group discussions of theory, and for united political action offline. In short, the left (and socialists in particular) must stop imagining that we are immune to the processes that have created the alt-right and poisoned liberal society, that we exist beyond the reach of the harms of carnivalesque capitalism.

The carnival can be seen in the Trump cult when it styles itself on intentionally misread grim dark dystopian satires of its own politics, aware that these satires are mocking their own beliefs, but doing so anyway as an expression of their nihilistic despair. The carnival manifests in the online popularisation of racist IQ theories, and in the frequent use of an ‘ironic’ fascist imaginary, on anonymous chat boards that exchange intentionally badly drawn macabre images of women, trans, Arabic, Jewish, disabled, Black etc. people, drawing on prejudiced caricatures and featuring intensely, sometimes even sexually violent acts against them. Images that then spill quite unimpeded onto mainstream social media platforms. The carnival is apparent in a circus of eccentric fascist microcelebrities on YouTube and new right wing media platforms such as Breitbart News, often commanding audiences of millions as they popularise hate and division.

To reiterate, Bakhtin’s aesthetics of the carnivalesque is defined by vertical rather than hierarchised social relations, idiosyncratic behaviours, the bringing together of contrasting things, and the profaning of the sacred. These are features of the cultural forces described above. Here, mockery and irony become the primary genre of conversation and the production of memes. An anonymity that gives rise to explosions of sadistic cruelty is valorised as a great leveller. The strangeness of a belief system, by its very capacity to elicit shock and attention, is considered a merit. And oppression and prejudice are rendered countercultural currents against an allegedly politically correct liberal establishment. The carnival perfectly describes the online world of meme and trolling culture, where an attention economy rewards sensation over depth, and where a temporality of fast-fixity presides.

The upshot of all of these developments is the cooling medium of an augmented, virtual reality that embodies the ‘diffuse spectacle’ better than any historic media has been able. It takes the form of a new, more pervasive mass culture embedded into every aspect of daily life, constantly generating additional false needs and establishing a carnivalesque ethos that is incipiently fascist by the very design of the medium. This further gives rise to an ironic, sensationalist spirit that absorbs social prejudices as explanative of peoples’ increasingly unhappy states, and turns those explanation’s against the oppressed in great gluts of obscene and horrifying reaction.

To explicitly observe that this is not friendly territory for socialists of any type is to state the exceedingly obvious; without a way to take on carnival capitalism, either by locating within some seeds of emancipatory hope or overturning it through contrary social currents, socialism is doomed. That is no reason to despair; carnival capitalism does not sufficiently satisfy human drives, as even liberal commentators observe with increasing alarm as they complain about the consequences of present day alienation. The world it is creating is so perverse and so contrary to human wellbeing in many of its facets, it inevitably gives rise to dissent. But that dissent must be made meaningful, coherent and given a project and a future of its own. Against the greater background of the social crisis, that project must be socialist to succeed.

What Next?

The Frankfurt School (particularly Marcuse) and Guy Debord are good for interpreting these technologies, although both can take us to pessimistic and defeatist conclusions. The Frankfurt School gave up on workers as key historical agents and, adopting the tactic of many anarchists, looked to academic elites and vaguely defined outsiders as a substitute. To lose confidence in those who produce and reproduce capitalist society through their constant exploitation by it is, to any Marxist way of thinking, to lose confidence in the only viable agent of emancipatory social change, the only social agent not themselves invested in some part of the prevailing capitalistic order and therefore capable of creating a new society and a new humanism that is universal in its liberatory vision.

Ernst Bloch, a more liminal figure in the Frankfurt School who derived a slightly different set of Marxist psychological ideas from the rest of that tradition, might be a useful reference point for going further. As with Marcuse and Debord (and Gramsci), he emphasised the importance of the cultural sphere, but unlike them (and Marcuse in particular) sought more forthrightly emancipatory possibilities than exist in that sphere. (Bloch took issue, sometimes to too great a degree, with Freud’s more pessimistic implications, which textured much of Marcuse and Adorno’s thinking.) Bloch could be useful for understanding carnivalesque capitalism (its potential future forms) and to developing the idea of the restoration of the commons and a new form of socialist democracy. A corrective in a period characterised by hopelessness.

Bloch’s key idea was the Not-Yet-Conscious, that is, the incipient utopian imaginary that emerges organically from social dissatisfaction in our psychologically future orientated species. He rejected the idea that human beings are fundamentally constituted by traumas, by their personal or collective history, and stressed the ways in which human consciousness projects itself forward into possible, contingent futures. These futures still require a material basis, and much of that basis is located in the past, but human consciousness itself is never mired in the past. In his magisterial The Principle of Hope he plundered the past not to argue that we are anchored to it, but to find in every age and culture, in philosophy, literature, and art, examples of the utopian imaginary.

The carnival is necessarily two-sided too, even if in its current manifestation it is largely the byproduct of a blocked-up and unhappy consciousness drawn to tragically reactionary fantasies. In its irreverence and dissatisfaction there is still a striving for something different than the current social order. It manifests not just in reactionary forms, but in the online left’s increasing disdain for the false, sentimental politics of a capitalism that cannot cater to their human needs. It is the very basis of social media to rely on our desire to meaningfully and humanly connect, a desire the worst features of these platforms can only parasite and prey upon, and for that very reason can never even seek to transcend or overwrite. Nonetheless, we cannot be complacent.

The Wall has negatively shaped revolutionary and emancipatory politics, and the Lens will likely continue to do so. The internet has exasperated the already poisoned features of the separatist political legacy of the 1970s, producing new pessimistic and reactionary ideologies of the oppressed such as T4T (Trans for Trans) and reviving old ones such as Radical Feminism and Afropessimism. There is also much to be said on how the breakdown of the left into sectarian grouplets is a feature of their engagement in online spaces (as well as theoretical degeneration, interactions with neoliberal society, and the inherited problems of prejudice that remain a barrier to the full participation of many of the oppressed). Many socialist groups, inadvertently encourage the logic of separatism and pessimism amongst the oppressed by refusing to take seriously the struggles of oppressed groups, either giving into reactionary ideology (for example with left transphobia) or subordinating such struggles to an abstracted and empty notion of class struggle.

It is my contention that Faulkner’s work offers valuable points of departure for mapping the new terrain, which is fundamental to developing a strategy for overcoming carnival capitalism. It is also my suggestion that such a strategy must engage with the utopian imaginary implicit in online spaces and the people who occupy them. While I advocate individually disengaging from harmful platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and not engaging new sinister platforms such as the Metaverse, a mere rejection of new tech will be inadequate. To change the world, we must participate in it optimistically.

The carnival is here now, we can be forgotten by it, subsumed into it, or respond to and change it. Only the last option charts a viable path to the socialist transformation of society.



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Rowan Fortune is an editor and revolutionary socialist. On their weekly blog, they write on utopian literature and imagination, why grimdark is the dystopian fiction of our time and more. They wrote Writing Nowhere: A Beginner's Guide to Utopia; edited the anthology of utopian short fiction Citizens of Nowhere; and contributed to the multi-authored System Crash: An activist guide to making revolution.

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