Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left comprises short essays on fifty revolutionary keywords, each word being put to work on a contemporary political issue. With keywords ranging from academicisation to neoliberalism, from postcolonial to Zionism and with subjects including, Badiou, North Korea, sexual violence and Žižek, the book concludes with an essay mapping the development of progressive keywords before our century of revolution, which began in 1917, keywords that emerged in the fifty years of struggle between 1917 and 1967, and revolutionary keywords for the new left today.
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Academicisation turns practice into abstracted knowledge. Concepts for critique, even when they are mapped out as a series of new keywords for political practice, always risk being turned into 'academic' concepts. Configuring the world in a way that the academic will understand it not only comforts the academic, academicisation also fuels the fantasy that somewhere outside deadening and self-enclosed academic discourse there is a real world which might give it life. The fantasy of some kind of real event outside the university functions as a consolation. Much academic research wants to reassure itself that it is relevant to the world outside, and so there is often a search for real events that might challenge, mobilise and thereby provide a reason for the existence of the radical academic gazing earnestly and romantically out at the world through their office window.
This problem is one consequence of the rise of the universities over the last century as places for critique, and over that time other places for conceptual-political work and for political education have been marginalised. The Workers' Educational Association (WEA) founded in the UK in 1903, for example, was a site of learning and critique that was grounded in political practice, but bit-by-bit in many cities WEA courses have been displaced by colleges and universities which at one moment provide public lectures in line with their own 'outreach' programmes and at the next close them down again because those courses are not profitable. The Plebs' League founded in 1908 was another attempt to provide independent working-class education which directly confronted the early stages of academicisation at Ruskin College in Oxford, but that college failed to prevent the university from incorporating it, and then turning out generations of trades union bureaucrats (as well as some activists who were able to stay true to the struggle).
As knowledge becomes incorporated into the university sector, whether that sector is public or private, a bureaucratisation of teaching and learning takes place, bureaucratisation which divides 'experts' employed full time from their 'students'. Those students will either be thrown into the marketplace to sell their labour power after their course – and they might also hope to sell a bit of intellectual labour power after they have learnt something – or they might aim to become little masters themselves, to become academics. A hierarchy of knowledge is thereby mapped on to other kinds of hierarchy so that men, for example, are positioned as the ones who will explain, as a form of 'mansplaining', what they know to those who can't possibly know so well (which is a stereotypically masculine mainstream academic assumption that feminist 'standpoint' approaches then threaten).
Political economy has always, of course, entailed the accumulation of intellectual capital. Students from the universities have always built up 'cultural capital', for example, when they have done work for free in the 'community', and they have then been able to cash this capital out when they get highly-paid jobs that value their 'experience'. Just as capitalism encloses natural resources so that what we collectively produce is captured and sold back to us for profit, so it encloses intellectual resources. The move by large private companies into assessment of academic work based on the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS) which are provided free by some universities is just the latest version of this enclosure of resources. These 'open' courses are the latest feeding ground for publishers who rely on the commodification of knowledge. This knowledge can be marketed to those inside the academic world, and to those outside it who are positioned as vicarious academics.
This leads to admiration by some activists and resentment by others, to either an unthinking valorisation of academic knowledge or an understandable suspicion that it is irrelevant. It does look irrelevant when the academics spend most of their time inside the university, and when theoretical 'concepts' merely link to each other rather than to practice. And the demand that the concepts should be written down for publication increases the risk of 'abstraction', ripping ideas out of context and turning them into a shape that fits with the university curriculum.
This is a problem for the new left that is trying to take on board feminist and postcolonial arguments, for example, and that is trying to think through how those new concepts can be articulated with revolutionary Marxism and what the new concepts actually do in politics. We have an institutional problem here bound up with the academic imperative to publish in journals or books, and that institutional problem is embedded in a political-economic problem of the abstraction and commodification of ideas. Different dimensions of oppression, of class, sex and 'race' are intensified by this academicisation, even at the same moment as spaces inside the university are occasionally seized and used by activists. And there is another trap that also needs to be worked through, which is that the flip side of the problem of radical academics being disconnected from practice is that they sometimes imagine that the solution to that disconnection is to make an immediate direct link with those they romanticise as doing the real stuff outside the university.
The problem of 'academicisation' gives us a concept, a keyword through which we can now address another quite different issue. Let's shift gear for a moment and you will see some connections with the question of 'fundamentalism'. These are the terms of debate around the concept of 'critique' that has been provoked by Islamophobic anxiety about so-called 'fundamentalism' in the real world outside the university, the university which is positioned as a 'secular' space. Then the question as to whether critique is secular goes to the heart of assumptions that most political activists in the West make when they assume that language and 'discourse', including the discourse of 'critical concepts', should be analysed, explored, unpacked. One of the arguments in the 2009 exchange Is Critique Secular? between Talal Asad, Wendy Brown, Judith Butler and Saba Mahmood, for example, was that the dominant model of Western 'critique' is 'semiotic'; that is, the language we use to describe the world is treated as a system of signs that we can study as if it is something separate from the world itself.
That dominant semiotic model is part of a network of assumptions about the world, language and critique that stretches way beyond the university. They are assumptions that ground the unthinking response to complaints about representations of the prophet, for example, complaints that insist on making Islam conform to this semiotic model of language. If this semiotic model is right, then offensive cartoons should be seen as no more than representations, and so Muslims should just learn to get over it. But images of the prophet, for some believers at least, are not merely abstracted representations, and analysis of them is not an academic question. They are images that are woven into the lived reality of some religious communities. In fact, the network of assumptions that grounds much academic work obscures this problem, and makes it possible for scholars to assume that the university should be separate from the world, and here we come back to the problem of academicisation.
That debate over 'critique', that 'critique of critique' shows that the problem we face is itself a question of the operation of concepts as much as it is a question of practice. The link between concepts and practice is something that needs to be worked through and worked at, putting the concepts to work and assessing what they do (just as we do with the keywords in this book). Frederick Engels once argued against what he called 'shamefaced' materialism – he was using a term he picked up when he was in Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century – as a position that was happy with a materialist account but was then agnostic ('shamefaced') about what can be done with it; Engels commented that 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating'. We should not be 'shamefaced' about using concepts to theorise what we are doing, as long as we take care not to treat them as abstract concepts to be 'critiqued' as part of an academic exercise with no consequences for those who use them in practice; we should take care not to let the university eat us.
So, a concern with 'semiotics' – signs floating free of the real world – might be useful for ideology-critique in academic research, but we need some kind of materialist approach to grasp how language and images function in the world, in our practice. The critique of 'critique' thus returns us to materialist politics. Stepping back and thinking about the limits of academicisation and of critique is a necessary part of the process of doing better academic work and using critique with, rather than against the oppressed.
With accelerationism we have a diagnosis of the speeding up of contemporary life. Life under capitalism is getting faster, it seems, and we are supposed to be having more fun as well as working harder while that is happening. The question is whether there is a contradiction here that we can exploit so that the acceleration of life can be ratcheted up beyond what capitalism can bear so that we break the system, or whether 'accelerationism' as a keyword for this intensification of our exploitation is a diagnoses of something that is actually enabling the system to break us.
This acceleration of the pace of life is captured and represented in the media, sometimes in the very speed of media communication itself and sometimes in reflections on the intensity of experience and the problematic link with enjoyment. An example of the latter – the link between acceleration and enjoyment – was The Funfair, the first play to open the new arts centre 'HOME' in Manchester in 2015, a centre that replaced 'The Cornerhouse' as venue for non-English-language films, art exhibitions and media events. The Funfair, which follows the disintegrating relationship of 'Cash' and 'Kazza' in an evening at the fair, also provokes the audience to reflect on transformations that have happened in the last century, between 1932, when the play was first staged in Berlin as Kazimir und Karoline (set in a Munich beer garden in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash), and 2015 in post-bank crisis Manchester and in the immediate aftermath of a general election that returned a Conservative government committed to cuts in welfare spending and flanked on the right by the anti-immigrant UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party).
The producer of the updated relocated version of the play was explicit about the political focus of the original and of the Manchester version, which is a focus on poverty and despair and the goading of the poor by an apparatus of 'fun', the 'funfair' itself. This is an apparatus that also highlights the gap between the poor and the new rich, those who imagine they are part of the ruling class but who are still subject to the imperatives of capital. It is a rewriting of the original play that opens up the funfair, and capitalism itself, as something that seems so futile and unfair.
The playwright of the original, Ödön von Horváth, was schooled in Budapest and Vienna before moving to Berlin, his plays attacked by the Nazis. It presents caricatures speaking media clichés and phrases, who then hear themselves speak them in the silences that mark the play so they sometimes reflect on what they have said, and so the play is about contradiction and crisis. It is about change and time; both historical time and personal responses to time which divide the characters into men like 'Cash' (Kazimir in the original) desperate after losing his job the day before and women like 'Kazza' (Karoline in the original) who hopes for a better world, who better fits the bill of what most of the Labour Party leadership candidates in 2015 (all, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn) claimed as 'aspiration'. Above and beyond that split between stereotypical masculine despair, loss of power that leads to impotent rage, and stereotypical feminine hope – a split between the genders that is intensified as economic violence is played out as sexual violence – there is another split which 'accelerationism' has keyed into. There is a split between the idea that another world is possible, perhaps even beyond the rule of capital, and the image of the carousel, the idea that we are condemned to go round in circles, and that the speed at which we move is actually locking us in the same place.
Marx and Engels caught the logic of capitalism speeding up life in their 1848 Communist Manifesto; the phrase 'all that is solid melts into air' captured the way that the vortex of innovation and search for profit dissolves existing social relationships. The sense of exhilaration and also of uncertainty and anxiety then became the leitmotif of descriptions and critiques of so-called 'postmodern' mutations of modern society, mutations that intensified what was already there at the birth of capitalism in Europe.
The 2013 'accelerationist manifesto' (co-authored by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek) pushes at the most optimistic edge of this movement forward to the future that capital accumulation drives us into. The argument is that the 'modern' period of world history in which we now live, and in which we can locate capitalism as the political-economic apparatus, opens up a profound shift in the way we experience time itself. Our time is then the time of progress, transition and, of course, revolution. The first stage of the accelerationist argument is that, however exhausting industrial labour is, it is also enjoyable, masochistically and hysterically enjoyable, and that that enjoyment should be harnessed by revolutionary forces, intensified to break beyond the bounds set by capitalism itself. This version of Marxist analysis concerning the contradiction between the 'forces' (which must be accelerated) and the 'relations' (which hold us back) of production is to be found, for example, in the work of the exMarxist theorist of 'postmodernism' Jean-François Lyotard. The second stage is taken forward by figures like Antonio Negri, and linked to a more explicit 'goodbye' to what Negri called in the title of one of his books 'Mr Socialism'. Here we accelerate beyond our horizons of socialist revolution, but it is not really clear where we end up.
Against this glorification of speed – an argument which captures and perverts the idea of a 'permanent revolution' so that the revolution is merely something that energises capitalism rather than releases us from it – there are critiques of accelera- tionism which use the notion to diagnose something more troubling. It is something we need accelerationism itself to put a finger on, and there are two aspects of that. The first aspect is that there is, indeed, a hope for progress that is unleashed by capitalism, but that this progress is always sabotaged; the move forward turns into a roundabout, a compulsive repetition so that we spend energy getting nowhere fast, faster and faster. There is no future. In this way the acceleration of the speed of our lives under capitalism is revealed to be rather a kind of 'frenetic standstill'. And, the second aspect, that frenetic standstill of life under capitalism is intensified in academic theoretical work, in the fervid imaginations of those desperately urgent to find an escape from capitalism, and so desperate that they move too fast, and end up quickly recycling the same script as if it were a solution to the crisis.
A critique of the 'accelerationist manifesto' on the web-pages of the now-defunct AntiCapitalist Initiative (ACI) was the subject of some worried discussion among members of other more staid revolutionary groups keen to include the ACI in 'regroupment' discussions in 2013 (a hopeful time for the far left in the UK that some of us look back on now with some nostalgia); this seemed to be the eruption of too much new theory. Too fast, perhaps, but the later recriminations about opportunities lost, of the costs of hesitation in the revolutionary regroupment process, should now also be seen as symptomatic of broader processes in which everyone is expected to move fast, but, which, accelerationism shows, get us nowhere and, which, The Funfair shows, often end in miserable failure.
Excerpted from "Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left"
Copyright © 2016 Ian Parker.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, 251,
Further Reading, 283,