Fight and Flight: Merrifield’s Magical Convulsions
by Dave Mesing
“Together, we might be able to do dangerous subversive things, mischievous things.”1 Such is Andy Merrifield’s opening promise in his recent book Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination. Merrifield situates the work between two poles of people: those who are more or less orthodox Marxists and those who are Marxists but don’t know it. Thus, despite the fact that Merrifield toys with central Marxist tenets, he avoids any notion of third-way rhetoric; Merrifield’s arguments are unapologetically Marxist, and his attempt to shake the tradition from within requires some working knowledge of Marx’s texts. This is not because Merrifield’s arguments are obscure. On the contrary, he is to be commended for how deftly he has condensed a wide range of difficult source material. Magical Marxism is a joy for the reader, and Merrifield’s broad attempt to inject some affirmation into the critical negativity of Marxism is reflected in his prose.
The book requires a slight familiarity with the tradition because Merrifield’s proposal of a “magical” Marxism is speculative. However, the point of the book is to help further social and political change, and thus Merrifield does not so much assume that all of his readers will be familiar with Marxism as that they will agree with it. As he puts it in the introduction, “Many young people have no difficulty grasping why workers get ripped off and how capital accumulates in the hands of the wealthy. They know capitalism rarely lives up to it promises, to its supposed potential.”2 To such people, Merrifield hopes to introduce a new politics with “a touch of the magical, that brews up some new radical moonshine, a new potion for stirring up our critical concepts, for making us practically intoxicated, that dreams the unimaginable, that goes beyond merely what is, beyond all accepted rules and logic, a politics that plays by its own rules, rules that have little to do with rationality or economic reason.”3 To unfold this politics, Merrifield relies on Gabriel García Márquez, and in particular, his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the book, one of the characters says that he does not understand the point of a political contest in which both parties agree on the rules. For Merrifield, moderation or capitulation to the current rules of the game ― political representation, for starters ― means losing before the battle even gets going.
It is on the basis of this proclamation that Merrifield begins to articulate his new politics. The new rules are tinged with a poetic spirit, and although Merrifield writes that Magical Marxism is “about irrationality [and] not rationality,”4 he does not veer into irrationalism, although it’s plain to the reader that he enjoys dancing near the cliff. Instead, taking his point of departure from Debord’s society of the spectacle and framing his discussion around Henri Lefebvre’s conception of the everyday, Merrifield argues that “Magical Marxism means creating another fantasy in light of the ruling fantasy; its critical power doesn’t come from criticism but from an ability to disrupt and reinvent, to create desire and inspire hope.”5
Following magical realists such as Marquez, Merrifield takes the existing world as the substance for the illusions that he attempts to conjure up. He compares the additional four decades of life in the society of the spectacle after its naming by Debord to the insomnia plague in Macondo, the village of One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the story, the expert insom-niac is one who forgets the act of dreaming altogether. The point here is that the blurring of reality and illusion in the society of the spectacle sets a different agenda for Marxism. Merrifield notes that Márquez also incorporates the specific, historical reality of a massacre of banana company work-ers in Cienaga, Columbia in 1928 into One Hundred Years of Solitude. According to Merrifield, no one knows exactly how many people were killed, and what the insomnia plague and Marquez’s version of the banana workers massacre demonstrate is “how the reality of historical truth and the reality of (possible) subjective illusion become one and the same. There is no real way to tell either apart.”6 For this reason, Merrifield asks whether it’s necessary or desirable for Marxism to play the role of unmasking illusions to get at the real truth. With Debord, Merrifield finds that a Marxism that seeks to dispel illusions “moves in exactly the opposite direction to radical politics.”7 It is retrospective, and Merrifield argues that radi-cal politics must be carried out along a different continuum, “imagining something in the present tense while struggling to realize it in the future, prospectively.”8 Much of the book is wrought with this tension between the theoretician who looks to the past with analysis and the Magical Marxist who looks forward to the dawn.
To this end, Merrifield introduces an extended discussion of automatist and communist activism in Chapter 2, “Subscribing to the Imaginary Party: Notes on a Politics of Neo-communism.” Merrifield discusses the events surrounding the publication of The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection, which in addition to Society of the Spectacle and One Hundred Years of Solitude, serves as a major touchstone for the remainder of the book. Merrifield’s central point in this chapter is that direct-action anarchism is more than simply a fellow traveller with classical Marxism, but rather that an alliance is necessary in order to become Magical Marxists. This activism is “grounded in everyday life rather than the workplace,”9 and Merrifield invokes André Gorz’s Farewell to the Working Class in order to suggest that the old argument about the dictatorship of the proletariat is moot. “Consequently, anarchists and Marxists have no real reel beef with one another, seemingly concurring with what Henri Lefebvre told us long ago: that there’s essentially no distinction between anarchism and Marxism, at least no significant difference that precludes one from practically identifying with the other.”10 As such, Merrifield boldly proposes that a unified non-class can still carry out a kind of class struggle, even in the absence of the proletariat. With the possibility of subversion beyond the workplace, society itself becomes the site of liberation, and Merrifield affirms a politics of friendship which he claims will add muscle to an affective politics that is causal for social formations. “Affinity becomes the cement that bonds people across frontiers and barriers. In desiring another reality, inventing it, dreaming it up, people find their kindred souls, perhaps nearby, perhaps faraway; and in finding one another they struggle together for the realization of their common hopes.”11 The relationship between affect and politics is something that seems to be subterranean throughout the text, and I often wished for a more explicit treatment of this theme by Merrifield.
In the next chapter, Merrfield expands somewhat on these themes by introducing mística, a concept that comes from the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement in Brazil. He compares this to the Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca’s notion of duende; both exhibit “a militant poetic and a poetics of militancy that makes things possible even when they’re impossible, even when you think that all is lost, that everybody is dead and buried.”12 These concepts are both important, rooted in particular struggles, and serve as concrete examples of the type of politics that Merrifield aims to gather under his banner of Magical Marxism. While this discussion could benefit from a more systematic account of affect, the remainder of this chapter nicely begins to tie the book together. Merrifield’s reliance on Lefebvre becomes strongest at this point, and his treatment of spontaneity is one of the highlights of the book. He argues that the spontaneous or unpredictable is essential for radical politics; without it, there is no movement. However, he also admits that not all eruptions of spontaneous political passion are progressive, pointing to several examples, including Margaret Thatcher’s “bedside read,”13 Friedrich von Hayek. Merrifield takes a tempered approach, claiming that the drive to reject spontaneity outright is dogmatic, but to take it as an ontological principle or foundation is equally dangerous and capable of degenerating into violence for the sake of violence or “impulsive nihilism.” 14 Merrifield advocates a hacker ethic approach to Marxism because “Marxism has the software as well as the hardware needed to engineer new forms of cooperation and solidarity, new forms of spontaneous activism and self-management spanning the world.”15 This comparison with the Free Software movement may well serve as an apt metaphor for Merrifield’s entire approach in Magical Marxism, and the book continually sways between some conceptual development or explication of high theory and carrion calls for new forms of affirmative engagements between Marxism and various forms of activism. The examples that he gives often illustrate that these engagements are already or nearly underway, and with the recent uprisings around the world in 2011, I assume that an updated version of the book that takes these movements into account would be well worth reading. This is perhaps a strange way to praise a book published so recently, and also a moment to recognize that Merrifield would rather have his readers continue to form new alliances and networks of subversion with these movements than wait for his analysis of them.
In the remaining chapters, Merrifield continues to spin out various examples and urgings for a more positive Marxism. The fifth chapter, “Macondos of the Mind: Imagination Seizes Power,” opens with the suggestion that one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude can be understood to have hedged his bets entirely on “speculative realism,”16 which he footnotes with some favorable comments. Merrifield is clearly familiar and enthusiastic with the debates surrounding speculative realism, and notes that “the ontological terrain… is a lot more open, a lot more floating than has hitherto been credited,”17 even though he clearly favors a more mystical and humanist realism than many speculative realist authors. In this chapter, Merrifield also clarifies precisely what he means by imagination, taken from Sartre as “a consciousness for-itself expressing itself in all its liberty.”18 With this, he also follows Sartre’s distinction and slippage between a real future and an imagined future. Merrifield then turns to an extensive discussion of the Grundrisse, which helps bring together earlier mentions of figures such as Gorz. The imagination has a task of “the most damned seriousness.”19 Arguing that the subsumption of living labor to machines has reduced the time of necessary labor, Merrifield puts a positive spin on an otherwise dismal present wherein plundering of the commons has taken place through increased capital accumulation.
The fact that many are working less or part-time becomes a fact to be embraced, and time becomes perhaps the most precious asset for the Magical Marxist. Merrifield is not glib about the potential here, as he knows that the situation of precarious work and an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor of the world is not simply a fact to be celebrated and overcome by opting out of work. Instead, the most damn serious task of the imagination becomes a responsibility to align and fight; “this responsibility is and has to be a world away from bourgeoius/neoliberal ideas about personal responsibility, about being responsible for the exploitation somebody else inflicts upon us. Communist responsibility, by contrast, means being responsible for self-assertion not for self-condemnation.”20 With Magical Marxism then, Merrifield deliberately reaches in utopian directions in order to spur on a new politics. While he reminds us that to banish negativity altogether is to do away with Marxism itself,21 his overwhelming posture is affirmative, leaning more on figures such as Bloch or Hardt and Negri than Adorno or Marx himself. For all this positivity, however, Merrifield maintains a dialectical balancing act throughout the book, and thus even when he begins to criticize various figures or concepts within Marxism, he does so in order to push them in a direction that he hopes will be more politically subversive. For this reason, Magical Marxism is an important and helpful text as we move towards new stages of the Occupy movements, among other unknown spontaneous forms of passionate activism. Merrifield argues that “subversion is the condition of human beings in their quest for liberty,”22 and with this in mind, I offer only one critique of the book, hopefully in the spirit of a Magical Marxist tarrying with the positive. I have alluded to a desire for a more thorough framework to deal with issues of affect and politics, and this is because I think that a politics that reaches out to the utopian too strongly runs the risk of being co-opted. I agree that to banish the utopian, the magical, the absurd, and the affirmative from a radical politics will render it stale and able it to be easily swept under the rug where other people looking backwards with the right analysis are found, out of sight and unable to effectively bring about a decisive change to the status quo. If we are to make an analogy with affect and reason, then the point is that we can never escape the world of the affects. As Magical Marxists, we can never escape the hope for a better society. Even Adorno, a Marxist who is so negative that Merrifield understandably doesn’t even mention him, writes at the end of Minima Moralia that “the only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the at-tempt to contemplate all things as they would be from the standpoint of redemption.”23 Our collective utopian desire to live in an emancipated time is already underway, but in order to further it, we need more than a politics of hope: we need a politics of joyful and hopeful reasoning. Spinoza handles this relationship between affect and reason expertly in the Ethics, because he understood that to banish affects only serves hierarchical power and does nothing for the advancement of our happiness. For this reason, Spinoza brings together the joyful desire to affirm our own striving with reason as our most powerful tool, giving us the material for an affective reasoning to enact our collective emancipation, wherein we operate at the highest pitch of human freedom.24
Piece originally published in Speculations |
1 Andy Merrifield, Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination (London: Pluto Press, 2011), xii.
2 Merrifield, Magical Marxism, 3.
3 Ibid., 9.
4 Ibid., 18.
5 Merrifield, Magical Marxism, 18.
6 Ibid., 35.
7 Ibid., 37
8 Ibid., 37.
9 Merrifield, Magical Marxism, 51.
10 Ibid., 62.
11 Ibid., 64.
12 Merrifield, Magical Marxism, 79.
13 Ibid., 85.
14 Ibid., 87.
15 Ibid., 101.
16 Merrifield, Magical Marxism, 139.
17 Ibid., 209.
18 Ibid., 145.
19 Ibid., 152.
20 Merrifield, Magical Marxism, 156.
21 Ibid., 183.
22 Ibid., 199.
23 Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, (Lon-don: Verso Books 2005), 247.
24 Baruch Spinoza, Political Treatise trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2000), 41.