Olly Haynes interviews author Peter Fleming on the problems of neoliberal capitalism and the need for ‘revolutionary pessimism’
The neoliberal optimism industry is incredibly prolific. Books by esteemed authors with pull quotes from billionaires on their blurbs sit on the shelves of airport bookshops across the world. They reassure the businessmen that read them on their business trips that what they do is not wrong, that everything is fine. If you wanted to write a book specifically to undermine the prophets of neoliberal optimism, people like Malcolm Gladwell, Stephen Pinker and Sam Harris, you would probably write something like Peter Fleming’s The Worst Is Yet To Come: A Post-Capitalist Survival Guide.
‘There are chapters on the increasing psychosis of the administrative state and why “Sh*tty robots” are enabling a new dark age’
The book is half a work of political theory, half apocalyptic self-help book with occasional vignettes from Fleming’s life interspersed to (slightly) lighten the tone and illustrate his concepts. The Worst Is Yet To Come covers a variety of topics; from neoliberalism’s ever more aggressive enforcement of the work ethic, to the bait and switch of optimism in an age of mechanised warfare. There are chapters on the increasing psychosis of the administrative state and why “Sh*tty robots” are enabling a new dark age, albeit one with great connectivity. Other subjects such as the bloodthirstiness of industrial farming and the braceleted creep of digital surveillance are also described in the same darkly ironic tone. Through the examination of these phenomena, Fleming essentially makes two main points: Capitalism is f*cked, but unfortunately so are we.
It is an incredibly pessimistic book that makes for morbid yet fascinating reading. The introduction is subtitled ‘circling the drain’, an elegant metaphor for societal ruin. I had a chat with Fleming to examine his ideas more closely and find out what prompted such a bleak analysis of the state we’re in.
“It was a difficult book to write, it wasn’t pleasant”. He chuckles adding “if it wasn’t pleasant for you to read, it certainly wasn’t pleasant for me to write”. “When you’re writing in social science it’s a creative process in the sense that you are learning and you are pushing the idea. It’s not pre-set from the start and then you’re just fleshing it out, it’s an ongoing way of thinking as you write and so it was pretty scary going through that as well because the material does not provide much room for optimism.”.
The first chapter focusses on the concept of hauntology, coined by Derrida but popularised by Mark Fisher. Fisher analyses hauntology through pop culture looking at why it’s so prone to pastiche and nostalgia. He argues that we are haunted by the lost futures of the now defunct New Left. Fleming adds a dark twist to the concept suggesting we are currently haunted by the worst possible consequences of our actions. Unlike his late friend Fisher, Fleming’s hauntology does not invoke the lost futures of the past but the potential mis-futures of the present. Various apocalypses dog our every thought and action. What does having the end of the world hanging over us like this do to the way we think?
“Fear and recklessness are the primary response, but I was also trying to avoid that third response which is prevalent on the left and the right. This kind of undue optimism and particularly techno-optimism”Peter Fleming
“I think it does a number of things. Firstly, I think it keeps us afraid, to a certain extent, and there is that kind of pervasive fear that is very difficult to put your finger on, but it’s confirmed and reinforced in the daily news and in daily life
One of Fleming’s propositions for averting this descent into hell is “revolutionary pessimism”
I interject asking if he means the tendency towards left accelerationism.
“Yeah definitely, for example ‘Uber is the harbinger of a non-work society’. That just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a leap of faith and it would be lovely if it turned out that way, but the mediating politics that would be required to turn the tendencies we see today into a positive, progressive situation in which we would no longer have to fight or criticise anything, those mediating mechanisms are so complex and so remote at the moment I just find it to be an exercise in self-comfort.”
One of Fleming’s propositions for averting this descent into hell is “revolutionary pessimism” which he says reverts the neoliberal formula of collective misery and the individual optimism that we might be one of the few that make it. He suggests we should feel good as a collective but allow ourselves to experience the violence of this system in order to forge a “radical hopelessness”. In the US where they have seen a surge in support for democratic socialism built around the Sanders’ movement and the very near success of the radical left in the UK in 2017 were achieved by mobilising people on the basis of hope. In Fleming’s native Australia where no vision of left-wing hope or modernity was put forward by their Labour party, the country descended into nihilism and re-elected the Liberal Party on the basis they weren’t going to take action on the climate. Is there a room for hope as part of radical pessimism? Or do we have to take the black pill, acknowledge the gravity of the situation and then work out what to do in the midst of despair?
“I was very supportive of the Momentum movement, but it seems like optimism is part of the script and I don’t think that script will help break things open”Peter Fleming
Fleming points to Britain as an illustration of his point; “[The UK] is a great example of what we’re talking about right? Boris Johnson is 15 points ahead in the polls. I mean how can this be? How can this be? This is just depressing. Given everything that’s happened, given the people that have lost, given the just patent mismanagement, that a viable left option is deemed to be off the table for such a large constituency. I find that very, very, very depressing… but not that necessarily surprising. I think you’re right [that people are mobilising around hope] but I worry that optimism is mis-founded and the pessimism has a bad rep now. Pessimism is seen either as fatalistic and part of nihilistic capitalism or nihiliberalism, as we could call it, or it’s seen as part of the whole Trumpian moment which certainly has a very pessimistic view of certain things as well.
“So, what I was trying to do with this book is to try and salvage the revolutionary core of a pessimistic mindset that doesn’t necessarily have to compromise with the present context that is so, so awful… With Corbyn, I definitely agree; but he’s failing, that’s the problem. I was very supportive of the Momentum movement, but it seems like optimism is part of the script, if you like, and I don’t think that script will help break things open”. He points out a hopeful narrative that is not “ontologically sound” but can mobilise people is an option but it’s not really borne fruit and has led to all sorts of “weird populist movements and is too open to corruption”.
The end of the book is the most fun part. It is still written in the same dark tone, dripping with subversive irony, but as with the bullet
“it drives me nuts when people go on and on about leadership. It’s just pathetic and you see it on the left and the right“Peter Fleming
“And so, what I thought would be interesting would be to provide a glossary that gave my take on some of the key terms that have shaped the institutional environment in a way that was hopefully amusing to a certain extent”. “I hope there was some kind of comedy in the book”. He adds seemingly unconvinced by the idea that I found it funny. “These terms are still bandied around and people still take them seriously in the dominant institutions. Weirdly enough, in the public sector just as much as the private sector. So I thought it’d be nice to give the readers a roadmap about how to navigate some of these terms which are everywhere. For example, leadership; it drives me nuts when people go on and on about leadership. It’s just pathetic and you see it on the left and the right; ‘leadership is really important’. I just think it’s time to step back and see where these ideas come from and to see what their content are and scrutinise whether we want to run with them or not”.
Fleming defines leadership as “the assumption that when humans organise they require top-down control and only special individuals are capable of doing this; the valorisation of elitism”. This certainly rings true as we head into an election with Boris Johnson as the incumbent prime minister. Rosa Luxemburg once wrote “bourgeois society stands at a crossroads transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”, but in the upcoming election which will surely prove a pivotal moment in the country’s history; if we pick barbarism, it won’t be a regression. The
[This interview was conducted prior to the December general election]