There’s a particular set of attitudes or postures which I’ve always known as Ultraleftism. A central element of this is the notion that the masses need to hit rock bottom in order to gain consciousness of their plight, that things will only start to get better when they get as bad as they possibly can.
This idea seems to be undergoing a revival, particularly online. I recently learnt a new word: edgelord. It designates someone who, in the words of urbandictionary.com, “uses shocking and nihilistic speech and opinions that they themselves may or may not actually believe to gain attention and come across as a more dangerous and unique person”.
The term seems to have derived from the forum 4chan, the breeding swamp of the ‘alt-right’. It’s inevitable that in the face of the various crises assailing humanity disaffected teenagers feel inclined to sound like they can tough out armageddon, and hence it’s routine to see expressed on Facebook pseudo-nihilistic sentiments like ‘the human race is a blight on the planet’ or sub-Nietzschian statements like ‘morality is for assholes’.
However, there’s also an ideological rationale for such outbursts: Accelerationism. Derived partly from Deleuze and Guattari, this is a dense and complex theory with a number of variants but in simple terms it proposes that the self-destructive processes inherent to capitalism should be accelerated in order to provoke radical social change, that (as Steven Shaviro puts it here) that “the best way to shorten capitalism’s lifespan is to push it to the extreme”.
Someone else who has written on the subject and who you can see here addressing it in a excerpt from a speech which actually accelerates in speed and incoherence towards the end, is Slavoj Žižek. Although he seems to dismiss the notion of accelerationism in that clip, an exemplary instance of it in a contemporary poltical context is his endorsement of Trump. It’s easy to dismiss this as yet another semi-serious pantomime attempt to provoke his audience. However, if we link it to his purposefully obnoxious statements about those who help refugees, we can see accelerationism (or, as I would call it, ultraleftism, and possibly more than a little edgelordism) at work. It is of course essential to remember that Žižek is cleverer than his audience, and that he wants to stay ahead of it at every turn. When he attacks ‘liberals’ and bemoans the failures of ‘the Left’ it is those who read his books, attend his lectures and share his videos that he is targetting (and blaming). For all his crypto-Maoist invocations of a divine revolutionary ‘event’, he knows that there can be no ‘True Left’ and we are no more about to try to build one than he is to command it. He is leading his (mostly young and in many cases very impressionable) audience on. He is, after all, whether he accepts the responsibility or not (and I believe that his trolling his followers in this way is a characteristically perverse way of rejecting the role), a political leader and the people he leads are, whether he or they accept the label or not, pretty much all left-liberals*.
Recently in France there has been a surge of support for a more conventional left-wing political leader: Jean-Luc Mélenchon. He has a proud history of fighting fascism, but in the wake of his failure to make the second round of the presidential election he has refused to back the centrist candidate, leaving wide open the possibility of a fascist victory on Sunday. One common argument from his followers is that there is no point voting against the far-right now as they will only grow in strength over the next five years of ‘neoliberalism’. His failure to pronounce in favour of the only candidate who can beat Le Pen has inspired a movement for absention, with only one third of his first-round voters saying they will vote against her. If the Front National wins on Sunday it will be largely thanks to the ‘Left’.
In Paris nowadays it’s common to see armed soldiers on the streets. The same is true of Rome, where I live. They’ve never bothered me, although more than once I have seen them stop random black people walking into metro stations. They’re there to prevent terrorist attacks, which are by no means a remote possibility. But if there was a sudden change in political power the mechanisms of armed repression would already be in place, and the same is true in France.
Is the French ‘Left’ in a position to resist a militarised fascist dictatorship starting in two days’ time? In the coming years, as the rising tide of racism meets the coming climate crisis, we will all need to engage in acts of bravery and sacrifice. Are we ready, powerful and united enough to do so now? Once they see a hard-right government in power, will the masses be magically compelled to rebel and bring about socialism? No, no and non. As things stand, the Left hasn’t even managed to sand off the hard edge of market fundamentalism. It has failed to cohere and communicate a specific programme, and whether in the US, the UK or France it refuses to accept any responsibility for the consequent rise of the far-right. Letting Le Pen get elected – just like allowing Trump to take power in the States – would be a hysterical response to that failure, a gesture of impotence and despair, not all that different in essence from the empty and petty words of politically frustrated teenagers on internet forums.
In the midst of this petulant quasi-adolescent posturing, it’s refreshing to see that there are still some adults on the Left. This week Yanis Varoufakis laid out clearly why failing to vote for Macron to stop Le Pen would be a catastrophe and a betrayal. He rightly finds the notion that ‘neoliberals’ and fascists are equatable is particularly egregious. The epithet ‘neoliberal’ has become synonymous with the name Macron, as a handy political insult. Up until now I’ve continued to use the term despite the widespread lack of clarity with regard to its meaning. Having read lengthy books on the subject by writers such as Philip Mirowski and David Harvey, I don’t think that its existence is by any means a myth. However, seeing the cataclysmically inane way it is being thrown around in this election (as Mirowski says, it is often used nowadays as “a brainless synonym for modern capitalism”) I’m now inclined to agree with Geoffrey Hodgson that its use should be abandoned**.
We live inside the Temple. If it collapses, we all die. That doesn’t mean we can’t dismantle it, or prepare for our eventual escape. But if we think it’s just a matter of blowing it up we may as well join Isis. Such self-destructive impulses have nothing to do with enlightened or egalitarian values. Such thinking is more a form of Nihilism than anything remotely progressive.
If you have a vote in the French election, use it. Don’t be an ultraleftist connard.
* Some are currently finding that rejecting the label ‘liberal’ and using it as a term of abuse puts them into pretty unsavoury company. Incidentally it’s now been pointed out to me that Žižek is indeed abusing his position to argue the same irresponsible nonsense as he did with Trump. Because Donald’s really been wobbling on his throne of late, hasn’t he. I’d give American cryptofascistneoliberalcapitalism a week more at the very most. In the meantime, fascist victory Sunday, communist revolution Monday, ça marche pous vous?! Don’t forget the book signing! Exit through the death camp!
** Anyone even vaguely interested in these issues should read that article. There’s also a far more articulate and evenly-tempered reponse to this whole depressingly predictable/predictably depressing Zizek-doesn’t-mind-Le Pen furore here.
*** This article didn’t go down too well on one particular Zizek fanboy forum. Oh well, if you can’t beat em, join em: