‘Fuck 2020’, Or, On the Fetishism of the Stars
There were no fireworks last year, since there were no revellers to meet them. As Sky News confirmed on the first morning of 2021, rerunning their footage from the brisk night before, London’s streets were eerily empty, no one there to celebrate escaping the ‘catastrophe that was 2020.’ Of course, 2020 per se was no catastrophe; the system responsible for the events that defined it was, is. But this peculiar expression has already sedimented, the abstraction of the year standing in for the social relations which shook it. Adjacent to our philistinic obsession with astrology, 2020 has become mythologised as a calendrical curse, the Earth’s rotations rendered the agent of catastrophe. But the wildfires; police brutality; the virus; recession — such are neither called forth nor limited by our annual rituals. They are instead articulations of deeper structural pathologies, symptoms of subterranean trends and forces, tips of multiple icebergs. We cannot make do with the illusion of unprecedentedness. ‘A far better word to describe this year would be “forecast”.’
The reason for this abstraction — in which we assign responsibility to the year itself, obfuscating the underlying mechanisms — is complex. It operates immediately as a stupefied fatalism. Stupefied, because the ‘communicative simulation-stimulus matrix’ — as Mark Fisher termed it in a wonderful denaturalisation — of smartphones and their wider assemblages (24/7 news; social media; etc) prohibits us from grasping the complexity of the events before us, situating them properly in causal relation to one another. Stories emerge as quickly as they vanish. It is true that the historic Black Lives Matter mobilisations were triggered by the mediatised death of George Floyd, social media turning the murder into an instant worldwide outrage. But it is also true that the complexities of the cultural, political, and economic forms of which that murder was an expression were neglected in the preceding weeks. Newspapers flogged fabricated ‘culture war’ stories, smothering a push to prohibit systematic racial murder under inflammatory tat about statues and TV show cancellations. The movement itself, it should be cautioned, failed to channel it’s momentum into an embedded social force; the difference between mobilisation and organisation, and the conduciveness of our communicative system to the former over the latter, weighs heavily.
Even when stories remain, they do so in a distorted form, compartmentalised and hollowed out. The pandemic provokes stories of how quickly national lockdowns should be declared — a pressing problem, no doubt, but one that exists on the surface of the ecological degradation driving the increasing incidence of zoonotic diseases, of which coronavirus is only the most recent. ‘One might regard Covid-19’, Andreas Malm writes in Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, ‘as the first boomerang from the sixth mass extinction to hit humanity in the forehead’. And despite it’s very real devastation — and the significant risk it poses to the immunocompromised — the virus itself is not apocalyptic. Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Contagion (2011) — a pandemic disaster movie thrust to the top of bestseller lists and streaming recommendations as restrictions tightened in the Spring — was paradoxically comforting in the scale of chaos it renders, our own paling in comparison. The second boomerang, however, may not be as mild.
The downward pressure on complexity evoked by the sheer speed and quantitativity of our communicative matrix is partly responsible for such fragmentation. What spreads is that which is outrageous, elementary, or often both; that which provokes those ignorant metrics of ‘engagement’ and ‘attention.’ Content is parcelised into increasingly derisory volumes: dubiously informed political content spreads on TikTok only because a scantily clad 18-year old dances out the core facts in 20 seconds, our cognitive capacities now appropriate only to a kind of libidinous Sesame Street, reciting our ABCs to algorithmically generated rhythms. And the logic of the delivery mechanisms — the exact design of the apps and operating systems — are constituted to endlessly dazzle and distract. An attention economy predicated on securing ‘eyeballs’ for as long as possible provokes a race to the bottom in which competitors vye to addict users — who are, in any case, always actually the products of the service, their data-profiles mined for any and every possible commercial application. The result is that the fertility of boredom, in which one has time to marinade in thoughts, to contemplate and orient themselves, and the associated forms of creative agency that lull produces, is displaced by what Fisher termed a ‘depressive hedonism’, our nervous systems overstimulated and our capacities dulled. ‘No one is bored, everything is boring.’
But such stupefaction is intimately linked to fatalism. To blame the abstraction of 2020 is to abdicate collective responsibility, a regression to pagan’s castigating the agency of the stars. But in our post-democratic moment, in which the mediating institutions between individual and state (mass political parties; militant unions; working men’s clubs, etc) have atrophied, this return of the fates is to be expected. The ‘hollowing out’ of Western democracy, as Peter Mair termed it, leaves only an incestous ‘governing class’, their political positions and funding streams converged, with the people rendered inert spectators. The sense that ‘they’re all the same’ is here indissociable from the sense of general impotence; the latter convergent with neoliberalisms intensification of class hierarchisation, and the transfer of crucial economic policy to unaccountable private bodies. Such policies are in turn justified by a similar providence, politicians hapless beneath the imperatives of globalised market forces, and thus admonitions of 2020 as a faceless abstraction make a warped sense in a social world governed by them. Without much exaggeration, it provides only slightly less influence than complaining about the Prime Minister does.
Indeed, the substitution of leaders atop an underlying structural continuity parallels that of the passing of years. In Petra Costa’s documentary, The Edge of Democracy (2019), she weaves the personal and the political in an expose of the coup against the Workers Party, which saw the imprisonment of President Lula and impeachment of Dilma Roussef on politically-motivated charges. ‘At a party at Binarez’ palace’, Costa’s hushed narration tells us, ‘a politician asked the owner of a company, “What are you doing here?”, and the owner answered, “I’m always here, you politicians are the ones who change.”’
Nonetheless, there is of course a profound difference between our social structures and cosmic movements: that is, ultimately, the former depend on us in a way the latter simply do not. Capitalism is a contingent set of practises and institutions, produced and reproduced by humans continually through (implicit and explicit) processes of socialisation and subjugation. Whether the Earth turns is not. The philosopher John Searle terms this state ‘ontological contingency’, in that the existence of market exchange, chattel slavery, or the nation-state are fundamentally conditional on us deciding that they do. Kindred verbal terms are ‘praxis’ or social construction, both of which suggest a capacity, a capability. We may be able to construct and reconstruct our social world in the last instance, but it is a technique which may or may not be exercised in the way we wish. In many ways, the core problem of capitalism is what the 20th-century Marxist theorist Georg Lukacs termed reification: human powers become alienated to a thing-like system, which acts in our stead. Despite the imminent catastrophe of climate breakdown, we do not possess the power to reshape our social system toward ecological ends, because we have given such powers to the abstraction of ‘the market.’ This then becomes an impenetrable object, recalcitrant to human agency; a ‘second nature’ that we have no capacity to disrupt. ‘Politicians are to obey the dictates of the market,’ Raymond Geuss explicates, ‘as if ‘the market’ were an independent dynast […] rather than simply […] the result of human action, which has no power other than that which we lend to it.’ Fetishisation of the stars, then, only reflects the fetishism of commodities which rules social life. Once we break from the latter — which requires, in essence, the concerted reconstruction of those aforementioned mediating institutions and the channelling of collective powers it instituted — the necessary comfort of the former dissipates.