A new Prometheus need not take the form of the ‘Modern Prince’, the party, if the latter is regarded as a commanding height and centre supervenient on any other council, association or organisational form. Collective control must involve the control and ‘recall’, to use that important slogan of delegation in communes and soviets, of its inevitable instances of centralisation. But whether the horizon be one of radical reform or revolution, a systemic challenge cannot but take on, rather than blithely ignore, the risks of Prometheanism, outside of any forgetful apologia for state power or survivalist, primitivist mirage (Toscano 2011).
So says Alberto Toscano in a paper The prejudice against prometheus. We all know the legend of Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to men enabling the opening of progress, the driving force of civilisation, there is no need to repeat it again. In Toscano’s essay he surveys the political scene in 2011- the year of the high point of the UKs student mobilisations, the year of riot- and finds that on the left and on the right everyone was decrying Prometheus. On both sides of the political divide everyone threw their hands up in despair at the thought of taking drastic action and mounting a campaign oriented to the ‘control of collective destiny’. On the right he finds calls for reform that do nothing but nourish the repressive function of the state. In the UK this has been borne out. The state has indeed become more repressive under the guise of welfare reform measures that have actively impoverished unemployed, zero-hour and part time workers, forcing them into a state of dependency on food banks, into homelessness, and sinking the mental health of the working class into abjection. On the left, he diagnoses ‘melancholy or illusion’.
I share his belief that the left itself is suffering from melancholy, although I use the less psychoanalytic term “depression”. For Toscano the melancholy is directly related to loss and to mourning: the loss of the revolutionary project and the mourning for a time when communist ends were imaginable, even possible. The illusion is even simpler than this: it is the illusion that powerlessness can triumph over the powerful, the illusion that organisation is irrelevant. Toscano decries this as the counter-revolutionary impulse that believes any attempt to design a better society is doomed to fail and fall into totalitarianism. The history of the left is one drenched in blood and disaster, it is become irredeemable, beyond salvage, a mausoleum best left sealed in the past with the past silently inside it.
Already in 2011 this was familiar ground. Toscano is writing after Zizek’s In defence of lost causes wherein the Slovenian agitator wrote against the ‘liberal blackmail’ (2009, 41) that the politics of emancipation were always the politics of terror and tyranny. Zizek has long rallied against the liberal identification of fascism and actually existing Communism as two sides of the same totalitarian phenomena. In IDLC Zizek is keen to point out that this is simply not the case: German fascism succeeded in carrying out what it promised, whereas Communism was a grotesque failure. The reasons are manifold: Stalinism was supposed to uphold an Enlightenment vision of truth and responsibility in which men could be held accountable for their crimes, Nazism on the other hand smuggled into its project only the sheen of Enlightenment, justifying the mass murder of the Jews by the fact of their biology. Communism had defectors and dissidents who saw that Stalinism was a betrayal of communist principles, whereas there could be no such disagreement with Hitler; as Führer Hitler was the Reich. There are also the points that Nazism was a response to communism as a threat and as a model, adopting its forms just as the communists were usually among the first the Nazis brutalised.
As Zizek says, even those who were brutalised under Communism, those who resisted, did so via communism itself:
Why did the GDR population resist so much more [than that of Nazi Germany]? The answer is a paradoxical one: it is not that people simply retained their ethical independence, so that the regime was alienated from the “substantial ethical life” of the majority; quite the contrary, resistance was an indication of the success of the ruling ideology. In their very resistance to the Communist regime, the people relied on the official ideology itself which often blatantly contradicted reality: actual freedom, social solidarity, true democracy… (2009, 260).
The conservative philosopher- and friend of JG Ballard- John Gray also notes a distinction. Placing the blame for the original conflation of fascism and communism into the lap of Hannah Arendt, Gray states that ‘Communism was a radical version of an ideal of equality’ but that Nazism ‘excluded most of humanity and condemned a section of it to death’ (2007, 53). He is keen to note that the USSR had no extermination camps and that therefore despite the Gulag it never entered into the industrialisation of death based on an ideology of scientific racism. Where Gray does identify the two is in their use of state power to attempt utopia, the first step to inevitable totalitarianism. Gray goes on to identify a number of special sins of he refers to as Soviet Communism that includes millenialism; the Enlightenment belief in the perfectibility of ‘unbounded human potential’ (2007, 56); the revolutionary deployment of ‘scientific knowledge’ (2007, 60); and a Jacobin attachment to terror (2007, 63). These are the specifics that Gray sees as Soviet Communisms sins and we can see in all of them, taken together, an accusation against prometheanism. Gray will go on to attacks Nazism, Islamic terrorism, as well as US neoconservatism and UK neoliberalism, identifying all of them, more or less, with that same prometheanism. On the side of the left it isn’t just Lenin and Stalin that are condemned as foolish Utopian Masters, but also Bakunin and Franz Fanon in a move that flattens out all difference and nuance. More worryingly, we see the identification of scientific knowledge, technology, a belief in human plasticity (here writ as “unbounded” for some reason), with the violence of terror.
What unites these utopians ultimately boils down to ‘their faith in the liberating power of violence’ (2007, 37). Its simple enough to ask if Gray has this the right way around in all these various instances. Are Palestinians resisting Israel believers in the liberating power of violence, or are they fighting a war of resistance? Was Fanon an advocate in the magical powers of violence, or might he have been embroiled in an anti-colonialist struggle? Are the experiences of Fanon the same as Lenin- is it a case less of Black Skin, White Mask, as Forget Skin, Forget Masks? Isn’t there a chance that Gray is- like 90% of people who talk about it- fetishing the question of violence? This isn’t the last we’ll have to say on fetishism.
In the end Gray identifies prometheanism with religion, or maybe he identifies politics as such with religion. Following the Augustinian separation of the City of Man from the City of God- in an argument that’s been made so many times before we can probably all just assume the rest of it- religion became politics. Its the old “Marx/Hitler/Whoever was a Gnostic” trick again. The old idea that whomever so puts their head above the encrusted crap of the world to suggest the possibility of creating a better world is just trying to make Heaven on Earth. Idiots, wrong-headed dreamers, grow up and get a job! Even worse, in Gray’s eyes, is the fact that- somehow, and without justification- faith operates just like the Freudian libido:
secular creeds are formed from religious concepts, and suppressing religion does not mean it ceases to control thinking and behaviour. Like repressed sexual desire, faith returns, often in grotesque forms, to govern the lives of those who deny it (2007, 269).
Promethean politics- or is it just politics in general?- are bad for us because they’re just the return of repressed religions. This is a remarkable reversal of Marx’s thought on religion. Certainly it chimes with a Stirnerite critique of the Sacred, of fixed ideas that dominate our minds, becoming weird obsessive cognitive automatisms that circle endlessly on supernatural entities. But is this really true of all politics? Is it even true of Prometheanism? This accusation seems to be based entirely on this mimetic relation of faith and desire. Maybe what Gray’s accusation finally comes down to is the idea that the Promethean’s desire governs his life, and even if she denies it.
To think of the Promethean as a bearer of a particular desire might shift the terrain a bit. Perhaps we are all Prometheans insofar as we are the sites and bearers of desire. Entering into politics, we could look to someone else to look after us. We could look to other to act on our behalf. We could renounce our concern for the world and sink into the kind of conservationism that John Gray thinks of as political realism. Looking at our political options, we despair. We do fall into melancholy. Having been defeated so many times we do sink into learned helplessness. When all you know is that its pointless to try you have two options: you throw yourself at the impossible or you sink into utter passivity, like Pavlov’s dogs being electrocuted but absolutely unable to do anything about it. Either way action is the fundamental measure: in the first case all action without thought, in the latter all thought with no action. In each instance we do nothing. In each instance we’re victims. So the revolutionary movement is depressed. And in its depression capitalism is able to do just about whatever it wants- fascism is able to get up with only minimal resistance. Once the fascists were afraid of communists; what do we think today? As the anarchist-cum-social ecologist Murray Bookchin put it in a strange point of convergence with Toscano and the accelerationists
anti-Prometheanism points to a growing tendency in liberal circles these days to demand of all of us a demeanor that is passive-receptive, quietistic, and ultimately submissive (1993).
The “realism” of Gray is precisely a conservatism, and it echoes well with the once fascist EM Cioran. After his time in the fascist Iron Guard, and seeing what fascism would do, Cioran repudiated politics as such as well. He would go on to disavow politics at every turn- even if he would occasionally write about his preference for the weak and flabby liberalism which he also hated. Of Russia during the revolution Cioran would speak of ‘the amateur of utopia’ (1960, 31), a ‘monstrous fantasy’ (1960, 31). He also states that ‘the people represent an invitation to despotism’ (1960, 46), that they desire first of all ‘to be vanquished’ (1960, 46). At his height, Cioran declares that communism ‘will be illusion decreed, imposed: a challenge to the omnipresence of evil, an obligatory optimism’ (1960, 96). Cioran’s hyperbole is all part of his pessmism and his flagrant distrust of politics as religious madness. This hyperbolic pessimism coalesces in Gray’s mawkishly denunciations of anything but life on the preservation of the 20th century. At least Cioran gives us an insight we can use: ‘communism appears as the only reality to which one might subscribe, if one harbours even a wisp of illusion into the future’ (1960, 96). Where Cioran could be called a rebel against everything, Gray’s philosophy ultimately arrives at the sadness of identifying the return of fascism as ‘suggesting a retreat into a kind of willed psychosis’ and a capitalism that is ‘changing shape’ (2013, 69)but which is not dying. Indeed, Gray seems to think that capitalism will never die, except in our species’s annihilation. This isn’t even pessimism; this is depression taken as political axiom.
Properly speaking, perhaps Prometheanism is what should be identified as the anti-depressive politics. Elsewhere I have been cautious, and I retain that caution. I believe a depressed body recovers slowly. I believe that the helplessness has to be unlearned and not just thrown off. As I keep saying, the depressed patient is most likely to kill themselves when treatment has begun and the depression is beginning to lift. Similarly, we have to be careful that the patient is making a genuine recovery and isn’t simply falling out of one symptom and into another…from the dwelling with the void right into grandiosity. So this is my note of caution; and it is caution rather than scepticism.
Prometheanism could be seen as the return of a political libido after its disappearance in melancholy and helplessness. And Prometheanism need not mean a return to Leninism, to Soviet Communism, or to Bakuninist anarchism. As the quote I opened with points out, for Toscano there is no necessity to the Party form. What we see is return to talk of councils, of associations, and an open call to imagine other forms. Are we in the game of ‘preserving the hard-won restraints of civilisation’ (2007, 271) as John Gray thinks is the task ahead? Or are we engaged in the post-nihilist praxis of seeks to use whatever tools we can use, whatever forms we can find, to salvage whatever is salvageable from history’s ruins. At moments like this I sense a dizzy kind of emancipation from ideological identification, one superficial symptom of which would be the rejection of all the old political names. The challenge ahead- lest we forget it- is the reduction and palliation of the slow crises we are caught up in. To keep to an old name, we seem to be faced with the choice communism or extinction. What use is preserving the gains of civilisation if the species won’t survive to enjoy it?
To think Prometheanism as a kind of desire is to think in terms of the disappearance of resistance. The scale of the problem is huge, but why shrink in front of it?- Is this question evidence of that grandiosity I worried about? Have the politics of resistance and the politics of withdrawal really been a kind of stalling gesture? We have demanded infinite demands and finite demands and we have demanded unity and demanded an end to calls for unity. We have demanded ceaselessly. But while we demand we address some Other: I can’t do it, you do it. And this isn’t just a critique of electoral politics but extends to those who would drop-out or disappear, as well as those who “would prefer not to” or who wish not to get their morals dirty. All of these positions amount to the same thing: the absence of a political desire. Perhaps this is how our political cartography should begin to be carved up: those with the desire for revolution; those with the demand for revolution; those whose remain within the imaginary; those who place themselves at the infrastructural. This infrastructure may be the material infrastructure of things, but it could also be considered the psychic infrastructure of illusions. Promethean desire is first and foremost the thirst for new illusions, and a turning away from the ‘withdrawals, secessions and mere interruptions’ (Tosacano) that we’ve grown used to.
Bookchin, M. 1993. Comments on the International Social Ecology network Gathering and the “Deep Social Ecology” of John Clark. Here.
Cioran, EM. 1960. History and utopia. new York: Seaver Books.
Gray, J. 2007. Black mass: Apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia. London: Penguin.
Gray, J. 2013.
Toscano, A. 2011. The prejudice against Prometheus. Here. (A longer version of this paper would be produced dealing specifically with Simon Critchley’s liberal pseudoanarchism. This will be dealt with in another post if- only because it is such a good example of the kind of crap the accelerationists seems to think anarchism is. Indeed, that will form a separate post on its own at some point).
Zizek, S. 2009. In defence of lost causes. London: Verso.