The Creative Spirit and the Horizon of the Possible
Posted by <Ryan Seffinger> on 2021-09-15
In January 2020, I moved to San Francisco to pursue what I found myself calling a “job job.” Invoking this phrase, I intended to degrade my past work in freelance theatrical design to less-than, and to imply that my newfound work specifying lighting fixtures for architectural projects was what was expected of workers under late capitalism. Pursue the salary, get on the grind mindset, and separate my personal creative spirit from my corporate creative output. At the same time, I was getting involved with the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. For the first few months of my engagement, I was caught in the primary election cycle of spring 2020, watching as the Bernie campaign sputtered out and the DSA chapter wrestled with the fallout of endorsing a Burning-Man-turned-reply-guy candidate for Congress who was subsequently accused of being a sex pest.
There was a brief moment of political possibility as the beginning of COVID coincided with the federal government printing money to bail out the industries it saw as a priority. Perhaps the left could seize the moment and make a crack in the massive dome of capitalist realism covering nearly all elements of life — perhaps we could work with our neighbors to demand a more just and equitable living for all of us. But we were immediately dragged back into the minutiae of the moment. I kept working with my local DSA chapter and tried to make efforts to clarify and streamline our work, which had increasingly become messy and ad-hoc. This was all in service of the greater and deeper political goals that I just knew existed above the layer I was on. There must have been a positive, hopeful, socialist horizon that we were all working towards, and a structured and scientific plan of how to get there. But I kept climbing up the rungs to find it — even to the DSA national convention this summer — and all I found were proposals on how to grip onto the cliff the hardest before we inevitably had to let go. It seemed that even within the largest “left” movement in the United States, we couldn’t help but find ourselves trapped in capitalist realism.
Mark Fisher wrote about how a nearly identical mindset hindered the folk politics of the early 2000s in the US:
Since [the anti-capitalist movement] was unable to posit a coherent alternative political-economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met.
Just as Fisher saw groups like Occupy doing, much of the American left now just consists of “exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.” In this way, we find ourselves working within a bedroom-sized box. The vast majority of present objections made to capital accept underlying capitalist assumptions about the world, creating further complicity with the neoliberal order. Fisher muses on Deleuze’s thoughts on societies of control, presciently noting that we find ourselves policing our own dreams and demands within the societal constraints. “Control only works if you are complicit in it,” and rarely is there a clear way to avoid complicity.
Complicity in the world of capitalist realism is blatant in a city like San Francisco. Startup culture runs amok, but the average citizen — even the average tech worker — isn’t a devotee of Peter Thiel and his contemporaries. Instead, the luxury condos get built, and we shrug. The transit system gets austeritized by a supposedly progressive mayor, and we beg for a way to get home after 9 pm without paying Uber. Our day jobs consist of vaguely unethical data collection, and we write it off because it could be worse. And the left critique isn’t much better. “We see liberal capitalism and its political system, parliamentarianism, as the only natural and acceptable solutions,” and most of our energies are spent floundering within those constraints.
So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange. According to Žižek, capitalism in general relies on this structure of disavowal. We believe that money is only a meaningless token of no intrinsic worth, yet we act as if it has a holy value. Moreover, this behavior precisely depends upon the prior disavowal – we are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads.
Even future-looking left projects fall prey to capitalist realism. In Art and Postcapitalism, Dave Beech points out that imagining post-work futures often makes presuppositions that keep us locked into the current order: of course, “if the proposal of the end of work is combined with the universal basic income, or a similar mechanism, then it presupposes the persistence of money, markets, exchange, commodities and capital.”
Especially during the increasing “politicization” of Americans throughout COVID, progressive online activism merely reinforces the structures of capital that must be broken. To this point, Liz Franczak says in a recent episode of TrueAnon that Instagram activism is widespread because “we don’t think about the reproduction of propaganda, and that’s something that’s innate to these platforms… the power of FOMO fuels a lot of the way this stuff gets reproduced, especially when you see it in the influencer sphere.” Not only do we find ourselves paralyzed within the frameworks of global capital, but we project an efficacy onto online social media activism, and Posting™ takes on a veneer of real agency. It is “teaching us to interact with a world that doesn’t exist and will never exist, but is some kind of affected ideal.” But Franczak correctly notes “there is no logging off.”
So if we can’t log off — if we can’t escape the panoptic eye of neoliberalism — what can we possibly do?
First, I find that it’s imperative to have a complex and extensive awareness of the framework itself. We can explore this through pieces like Capitalist Realism, or A Brief History of Neoliberalism, or through fiction that pulls our heads outside of the box like The Dispossessed; at the same time, theory does become essential. Even among “progressives” and “democratic socialists” Marx should be studied and understood; not as an opportunity to relitigate the disputes of leftist ghosts, but to explore every wrinkle of the sociopolitical framework of our times. Franczak seems to agree:
We are all part of this, right? We are all in this system. There is no not eating at the trash can, or looking at other people eating at the trash can. I think the biggest task is not to, like, get bummed out about that — or like somehow that means there’s no escape. It’s not nihilism, it’s 'what is this system and how do we understand it?’ How do we pull the veil back and… see how these systems of production and reproduction work?
Brace Belden is more succinct. “The most you can do — in the immediate sense — is keep all this shit in your mind and really be critical when you consume anything.”
If there was a fast and easy solution, or even any solution that was clear, we would have done it — so we must look ahead. Left futures need to be less reliant on the minutiae of the now. Doing this work is noble, and perhaps someone needs to do it, but inevitably, the week’s latest Twitter blowup is not conducive to lasting and positive views of the future. They reinforce paradigms we must try to gaze beyond. Inventing the Future attempts to address this point, but even the best of us remain too reliant on the answers immediately in front of us; technology remains a quick cheat. The manifesto shows its weaknesses especially in its embrace of cryptocurrency. In 2021, we now know that the supposed innovation and revolutionary potential in cryptocurrency was easily co-opted by capital. They are, however, right to say that “we must expand our collective imagination beyond what capitalism allows.”
“Innovation” as it exists in front of us is an arm of the capitalist death drive. Actually-existing innovation is Uber, Lyft, and Postmates redefining employment and creating a new class of worker with even fewer rights. Actually-existing innovation is making more room for tents instead of building social housing. Actually-existing innovation is, unfortunately, fighting capital exclusively on its own terrain. And actually-existing innovation is a slim downlight for your office building with built-in wifi and tunable white capabilities.
The box of possibility shrinks and expands according to personal and societal conditions, and some are content with a pretty small box. I find it might be time to switch it up myself, and get back to a situation where creative output feels exciting and the possibilities feel vast. And there are parallels to be drawn to the politics of my contemporaries and myself.
Perhaps smashing the whole framework and finding what is truly innovative lies beyond our horizons. The speed of light makes it such that we can only see so much of the universe at one time, and we will never see all of it — but at least we can look up.