On Anthromodernism

Anyone who, in 2019, does not feel the swirl and swell of history all around them has had their sensitivity to events and their significance amputated. Such a condition now applies, I suspect, to almost nobody; there has been a near-universal recovery of something like the feeling of historical movement that, for good or ill, characterised the ‘modernist’ period. For reasons which this blog will explore, this feeling of motion, which we are having to relearn how to speak and write about, was profoundly difficult to access in the period preceding our own, known variously as postmodernity, the end of history, neoliberalism or the unipolar moment; common names for its ideologies were TINA (There Is No Alternative), centrism/the Third Way and, in Mark Fisher’s immortal phrase, capitalist realism. The sudden restoration of contingency we are living through is both politically and emotionally polyvalent. For some, it signals a renaissance of historical possibility that should be celebrated and nurtured (full disclosure: I am one of them); for others, we are in the jaws of anarchy, populism and demagoguery, with rationality abandoned and all that is solid melting into air (again). 

I want this blog to start as it means to go on (the idea of ‘going on’ being one of its main objects of analysis): confident and assertive, oriented towards truth and truth-claims, optimistic without being naïve, desirous without being wishful – the ethos of an activist realism. While Anthromodernism will range around the headspace of modern culture and politics very widely, it will also be tightly organised around an ur-claim, a ‘big’ hypothesis for which it will be the blog’s mission to gather evidence: that the age of capitalist realism is over. Now, you could certainly protest that we are still very much ‘inside’ postmodernity and neoliberalism, and that the ‘common sense’ of most people still pays generous tribute to capitalist realism. I cannot say with certainty that this is not so, but my contention is that we are in the perfect situation to observe the truth of the Marxist notion that the seeds of any new society are planted in the soil of the old, and are nourished by the its contradictions. If capitalist realism is being superseded, and I will be providing ample evidence of this in subsequent posts, it remains to discern the situation ‘on the ground’ that is a) making capitalist realism untenable as an attitude consciously or unconsciously adopted by effective majorities of human beings and b) making new expectations and assignments of energy not just possible but likely.

Why anthromodernism? The ‘modernism’ part, the reader will have sensed, refers to the reinvigorated sense of historicity and futurity (or ‘futurition’, as Richard Seymour has recently termed it) that this blog is all about. It is not directly intended to evoke the cultural modernisms with which we are most familiar: the avant-garde art and literature of the late 19th and early 20th century, from the painterly ‘isms’ to the literary experimentations of Joyce, Proust, Woolf and Kafka. While these forms do share with my meaning the formal character of being responses to overwhelming change, to a clear and present flow of history suffusing those artists and their societies, the canon of high modernism reflected the experience of a relatively narrow (and well-heeled) group of people within a relatively narrow life-world: the major metropolitan centres of Europe, caught up in the immense industrial, political and sociological ferments of the early 20th century. In one sense, which I shall shortly caveat, my meaning is closer to what Mark Fisher described in his book Ghosts of My Life (2014) as having been lost under capitalist realism, namely, the social ecology necessary for a vibrant popular modernism:

In popular modernism, the elitist project of modernism was retrospectively vindicated. At the same time, popular culture definitively established that it did not have to be populist. Particular modernist techniques were not only disseminated but collectively reworked and extended, just as the modernist task of producing forms which were adequate to the present moment was taken up and renewed … the writing that has been collected in Ghosts of My Life is about coming to terms with the disappearance of the conditions which allowed [popular modernism] to exist.

Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014)

Popular modernism, then, was the fusion of formal experimentalism with both social critique and the greatly expanded social accessibility enabled by the growth of popular culture. What it opened up for working-class people was the possibility of expressing futurity, that is, the experience of new and often prefigurative social forms in art and culture. The idea of a widely produced and popular (but not necessarily populist) culture maps quite neatly onto what Raymond Williams described as the ‘emergent’ in culture, that portion of the wider cultural edifice which marked neither the ‘residual’ effects on the present of older ways of living, nor the enforced and regulated forms of the ‘dominant’ culture, the values and practices most readily compatible with the political economy of the present. The ‘modernism’ in anthromodernism, then, is a) the bare promise of a future, which must nevertheless be fought for tooth and nail, and b) those cultural forms which presage it but are neither as broad as ‘popular culture’ nor, though they invariable feel new, as rarefied as ‘the avant-garde’.  

It is now almost impossible to hear the prefix ‘anthro-’ and not conjure visions of a blighted earth. The idea of the ‘Anthropocene’ has fully penetrated academia, journalism and the broader cultural discourse around climate change, as well it might. The term is a salient and scientifically justifiable categorisation of our present geological/ecological predicament, but there can also be little doubt that it has contributed to an already pervasive anti-humanism in politics and culture. This blog will engage as fully as possible with contemporary writing on the Anthropocene, but it will do so from the perspective of a resolute, even a militant humanism. The basic postulate of anthromodernism is that the future is for human beings to lose or to gain. It holds that the Marxist theory of history as the development of human social relations (relations of production) in productive tension with the development of knowledge and technology (forces of production) is correct in its essentials. If that is so, then history ceases where humanity, even the idea of humanity, ceases. Post-humanism (to be distinguished from a multitude of unevenly useful reconnections of the human with the non-human, from Donna Haraway’s ‘making kin’ to the provocations of new materialist and realist philosophies) is, quite literally, a historical dead-end. Anthromodernism, then, will be a critical friend to the project announced by the subtitle of Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future (2019), namely, a ‘radical defence of the human being’. Anthromodernism rejects, at the level of political desirability but also of political-economic feasibility, all in-/anti-/non-human futures. 

If I were poetic enough to devise a word that conveyed three concepts instead of two, I would have had the title of this blog reference another vital keyword: realism. Literary debates in the 20thcentury over whether realism or modernism were the superior form have contributed to a widespread sense that these are antithetical terms, or even that they coincide with incommensurable forms of society (rural vs. urban, feudal vs. capitalist, secure vs. flexible, knowable vs. unknowable etc.). Anthromodernism asserts the necessity of realism alongside both modernism and humanism for three reasons (I will develop these in more detail in future posts): 

Firstly, human beings are the reality of history; orienting our study of history away from human beings in their relations with a) each other and b) non-human entities gets us further and further away from the reality of the process we are trying to describe. Humanism, in other words, is a form of historical realism. Contemporary writing on the Anthropocene sometimes does and sometimes does not conform to this humanistic approach to history; the dividing line is often whether the author hails from a Marxist background, since it is historical materialism which has most consistently manned the trenches (serious Marxist deviations notwithstanding) of a human-centred understanding of historical change.

Secondly, the proliferation over the last several years of innovative work in realist philosophy (the speculative realism of Graham Harman, Ray Brassier et al in particular) has signalled the severe weakening of the grip of postmodernist and post-structuralist thought over the academic humanities. Fundamentally, this is about the assertion of realist and materialist claims about the existence and nature of objective reality against the pervasive immaterialism of postmodern thought, which has coincided (non-accidentally) with the period of neoliberalism and capitalist realism. Anthromodernism argues that realism (there is a reality which exists independently of our minds) and materialism (material processes and events have causal priority over ideas) are structurally inimical to the smooth functioning of postmodern globalised capitalism, and thus also to the specific forms which capitalist realism adopted during the postmodern-neoliberal period. Realism and materialism are symptoms of the end of the end of history. There is nothing antithetical about the real and the modern.

Thirdly, radical political realism is proving to be a key driver of the recommencement of history. The socialist left, after decades in the wilderness, is re-learning a serious desire to win, and to plan for victory. Strategy has re-joined joined ideological debate as a central feature of left-wing culture, and with that the rediscovery of socialist theory of a kind which deals directly with power – gaining it, resisting its being taken away, wielding it (a renewed interest in ‘state theory’ on the Anglophone left is a telling example). The modern left is doing the kind of hard graft which was always necessary, but which, under the great ideological weight of TINA and capitalist realism, seemed futile. Thus, we have texts like Mason’s Clear Bright Future, the ‘Clear’ of which points towards the idea of a transparent road map, drawn out in advance and with care, for future transformations. Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists (2018) asserts the compatibility of imagining a radically better future with basic notions of practicality and plausibility. Radical and programmatic pamphlets have made a comeback, as in Vivek Chibber’s The ABC’s of Capitalism series from Jacobin (Chibber also edits a journal with an apt name for my argument: Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy). Meanwhile, thorny questions of socialist construction such as economic planning are once again judged suitable and timely subjects of discussion, as in Sam Gindin’s recent essay ‘Socialism for Realists’ (2018). 

Realism, in a way, is the glue that holds anthromodernism together, binding into one project its humanism and its modernism. Or to put it another way, anthromodernism is a form of the thought and practice of realism at the end of postmodernity.

My intention is to structure this blog around a few different post types, and to produce a certain number of each per month (albeit to no particularly fixed schedule). These will include:

  • Longish theoretical excursions into the meaning and practice of anthromodernism, its salience to the present and the cultural and political forms which seem to be announcing the end of the capitalist realism.
  • Book reviews (fiction and non-fiction), starting with Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: The Radical Defence of the Human Being in the post following this one.
  • Shorter commentaries on the frenetic politics of the moment as part of building a set of anthromodernist political reflexes.

I, for one, think our present is an astonishing one. I hope you’ll join me in these forays into the still opaque world beyond postmodernity, beyond the future as ‘the same but worse’, beyond the utter dead-end of left-melancholia. Ultimately, we will either enjoy excavating the future or we will leave it in the ground. I recently wrote a short article for the journal Alluvium which compared the anthropogenic visions of Cormac McCarthy, in his tour-de-force of bleakness The Road (2006) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s depiction of a half-underwater but still tenacious and human future in his New York 2140 (2017). The following quotations, one from each novel, highlight for me the essential difference between the end of history and the ‘anthromodern’:

The cold and the silence. The ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void. Carried forth and scattered and carried forth again. Everything uncoupled from its shoring. Unsupported in the ashen air. Sustained by a breath, trembling and brief. If only my heart were stone.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

There was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear.

Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140

There is nothing remotely idealistic in Robinson’s characterisation, yet it remains infinitely more useful to any movement seeking to move beyond the cultural and political paralysis of the past forty years than the depressive subjectivity which dominates McCarthy’s masterpiece. The gambit of anthromodernism is that we are ready to stop giving up. The end of history is dead.

Long live history.

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