IF Capital, part 3: NOT meeting Sadie Plant

Click here to read Part 2.

Part 3: NOT meeting Sadie Plant

Reminder: it’s the mid 1990s, in England, in a city called Birmingham that, in the early days of Capital’s rule, during the 1700s, was considered the first manufacturing town in history, and the same city, a century or so later, in the 1860s, that would impress Marx with its 500 varieties of different kinds of hammers, yet another example of abstract labour abolishing parts of itself by manufacturing a multitude of concrete mechanisms. Here in 1990s Birmingham I had just not attended the CCRU-organised Virtual Futures conference in the much smaller city of Warwick, a mere thirty miles down the road. So with this brief recap, let’s continue our story that both is and is not about the CCRU and accelerationism.

The Virtual Futures conference, I was told by others who had actually got their shit together and attended, featured an eccentric pot pourri of technologists, artists, and philosophers, all wrapped-up in the radical countercultural gloss of academic postmodernism. I imagine that, if I had attended, I would have walked around, full of thoughts and reactions jumbling through my head, hesitating and ultimately failing to speak to anyone due to insistent paranoia exacerbated by a daily marijuana habit. My nonattendance was therefore almost certainly without consequence.

However, unknown to me at the time, and almost entirely by accident, I had already met a member of the CCRU: the academic Sadie Plant, who, before relocating to Warwick and co-founding the CCRU, was based in the Cultural Studies Department at Birmingham University, which was a few hundred yards away from the Computer Science department, the place where I lurked.

I can’t remember precisely when I became aware of Sadie Plant’s work. I had been intrigued by the Situationists since reading obscure and admiring references to them by Malcolm McLaren in the NME. Later I had read (more truthfully partially read) The Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life, and realised that their art was indissolubly linked to their Marxist politics. So Sadie Plant’s short book, The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a Postmodern Age, grabbed my attention. I may have been told about its existence from political friends, or perhaps I simply found it in the University library.

If I recall correctly, Plant defended the Situationists’ Marxism against postmodern relativism. But, to my mind at least, she also understated their Marxist heritage. Plant seemed to have only a textual, not direct, acquaintance with Marxism and the cultural milieu of a revolutionary party, and therefore seemed to not fully grok some aspects of Situationism. For Plant was not a Marxist — and of course she didn’t have to be.

One sunny day, perhaps in β€˜93 or β€˜94, an Asian lad, I think still a teenager, who I had met during my time on the dole in Bradford, travelled down from that northern clime — no doubt on the cheapest ticket available, and no doubt under the direction of the local party leadership — to rendezvous with me with the aim of raising the political consciousness of the unpromising revolutionary material thrown up by the historical process in the form of the student body of Birmingham University. I met him at the train station. He disembarked, heroically overburdened with a portable wooden table and a large bag crammed with Marxist literature, and wearing an unfashionably smart, Trotskyist issue suit that indicated the seriousness of the wearer’s politics. He meant business. My jeans and t-shirt seemed shabby and amateur in comparison.

He was an intelligent and earnest young man, and I admired him, although even then, with my less experienced eye, I worried that his unwavering and uncritical commitment to the cause might be unsustainable. A healthy dose of cynicism, a realistic appraisal of the balance of class forces, and humility in the face of the historical task, preserves commitment over the long term. In contrast, if you think revolution is round the corner, then, unless you’re in the lucky cohort that wins history’s lottery, you’re going to be disappointed, and burn out. The historical juncture doesn’t care about your feelings.

This was pre-Event so I cannot imagine how our rendezvous was arranged. Perhaps the telephone? Possible, but I hardly used the thing. A letter? Unlikely because that would require practical organisation and effort. Email? No, email remained mainly academic-to-academic then. It must remain a mystery. But the time and place was somehow arranged, and so we met. And therefore two young revolutionaries set-up a table on a lawn bathed in sun outside the University library ready to do their bit to awaken the masses from their slumber. 

Our literature was cheerfully (to almost no-one) and ominously (to most) emblazoned with the red hammer-and-sickle insignia of the Fourth International (I will not identify the precise offshoot). No trendy graphic design, a la Living Marxism, just old-school bold black fonts on white with blazing red mastheads. The exoteric aim was to sell papers and books and thereby engage the student body with the immortal science of Marxism-Leninism (I’ve given you the space to read this ironically but the irony only really applies to its fallible form). But the esoteric aim, I knew, was to bind us further to the party via the habit-forming bonds of collective action and sunk costs.

Birmingham University, then as now, was a stolid, red-brick, Victorian, predominantly English middle-class university with the highest proportion of privately educated students in the country. Given that rich parents invest in education to yield profitable outcomes, i.e. a place at Oxbridge, this meant that, statistically speaking, many Birmingham students were relatively well off yet not the brightest, and therefore traversed the social world with Dunning-Kruger levels of confidence. Within this epistemological framework, the world appears as it is, appearance is essence, and therefore our society is exactly what it claims to be. And quite right too. All this counter-intuitive stuff about the class struggle was obviously wrong and unnecessarily divisive.

Also, at this time, the Labour Party had been readied (once again) to step in to manage capitalism when the favourite party of the bourgeoisie had become too unpopular to win the popular vote. The student body, like much of the population, was poised to embrace Blair’s “New” Labour and its spivvy “third way” political fraud. Labour’s rightward turn, and its clear potential of winning the next election, therefore attracted political careerists that previously would have flocked to the stalls of the Lib Dems or the Tories.

I had observed the recruitment process at campus fairs. The archetypal new entrant was an ex-head boy or girl, or a bitter prefect thwarted in their ambition, who had done well at school and been praised for their articulate opinions in simulated debates, their sails puffed full of the wind of self-belief, confident in their right to lead, and fully armed with the self-serving ideology that one can be politically progressive (to have one’s cake) and aspire to join the ranks of ruling class (and eat it). Thought is frictionless and social climbing speedy when appearance is essence. Even mild reformism, in the traditional sense of policies that aim to incrementally abolish capitalism, was not on the agenda. Because capitalism was not the problem. Instead, there were simply many appearances of problems, all different, individual, and disconnected, which just needed to be solved with empirically-based and sensible state intervention. The aim of the New Labour entrists was to triangulate a career trajectory that would displace the previous servants of Capital by promising to better manage its excesses. All you need to succeed at this political game is a heavy dose of narcissism, an inability to think deeply, a willingness to observe the etiquette of progressive discourse, yet signalling all the while, to those already in power, that you are fully willing to kenotically empty yourself and become a vessel of the god Capital.

But even discounting the politicos, who are always a minority, the typical Birmingham student was entirely conventional, fully immersed in ruling class ideology (it could not be otherwise) and rather quaintly attached to the illusory community of the nation state. Such average minds, in the strictest sense of the term, have in their possession a single neuron — we should call it β€œStalin’s neuron” — that wires-up the presence of the hammer-and-sickle in the visual field, from whatever angle or lighting conditions, and even under extreme occlusion, to dictatorship and the gulags. Such is the awesome inferential power of neural networks trained on the accumulated bias of Cold War ideology. How did I know? Because I had once had one too. And so I knew, from the get go, that our practice of spending a sunny few hours standing by our table outside the University library was not going to constitute a successful demonstration of the Marxist-Leninist theory of the party.

And so it proved to be. We were generally avoided by all right thinking and respectable people. The action was in the Labour Party. We were either space cadets or dangerous authoritarians. Of the few that did engage some good political conversations were had. I think we even sold a paper or two.

And then I noticed Sadie Plant walk past our table, presumably on her way to the Cultural Studies department, which was close to the library and where she worked. How did I know it was Sadie Plant? I think I had seen a photo on a dust jacket. Her dark hair was unmistakable. A spark of hope ignited.

I had liked Sadie’s book overall. The Situationists were Marxists. I was a Marxist. So here was a connection. Also, I’d heard that she “did drugs” (indeed, later, she would go on to author the book, Writing on Drugs). As a relatively normal and adventurous youth I was also someone who “did drugs”, in fact most of them (although post-Event the number and variety seems to have considerably increased). So that was a connection too. My mind went into overdrive. The virtual machine kicked into action, processing symbols in a virtuoso display of inferential reasoning:

is_interested_in_Marxism() AND does_drugs()

This symbolic, rule-based reasoning differs in form from the subsymbolic visual processing performed by the Stalin neuron but the information content is about the same. Such is the awesome power of the human mind. Hence, I concluded, with the certainty of truth-preserving inference rules, that it would be great to talk to Sadie. And so I grabbed my chance.

β€œWould you like to buy a paper?”

Sadie (laughing): β€œThanks, no. I’m in a rush”.

I don’t have a precise recollection of what I said next. I think I mentioned something about the Fourth International and the Situationists, or said something about how Marxism isn’t just theory but also about practice, about engaging. Something to reel her in.

Sadie: β€œI know all about that.”

And then she continued walking.

Undoubtedly she had a lecture to give, or a sandwich to eat, which was objectively more important than talking to us about Marxism. And that can hardly be denied.

Of course I was a little disappointed. Who wouldn’t want to talk to a published author about the Situationists, about art and politics, and about doing drugs? You know, perhaps she would even like me? Perhaps we’d get on? Perhaps even, as only romantic youth can possibly dream, we could join forces and change the world together?

We will never know the true reason why Sadie Plant walked on. But I was reconciled to the fact that my outlier political and philosophical interests were not popular, and in fact widely distrusted if not despised. I stood by the hammer-and-sickle simultaneously understanding the deep affinity that some Marxists held for it, and the deep dislike from most everyone else. The ability to hold and understand two contradictory thoughts is of course the sign of a master dialectician.

But, if I may say so, while trying to avoid any hint of martyrdom, the role of the scientist isn’t to achieve popularity but to follow what one believes to be true and correct. That day I was definitely successful in one of these aims.

Yet, more seriously, society moves in progressive directions only if sections of the population subsist on the edges of the bell curve, in the avant garde. That’s just the way it is. So it may have appeared that I was standing behind a wooden table, branded by a discredited tradition, but in fact I was living on the edge.

The Situationists were such people. The avant garde. Ahead of their time. But, unlike Lenin and Trotsky, their insurrectionary art didn’t clearly lead to mass death. So the Situationists were OK, part of the club of coolness in the Western academic canon. And now that the history had happened, and the revolutionary moment was over, and the world was safe again, the assimilated Situationists could be safely hung in the galleries and museums, for radical contemplation. The Situationists, at that moment, were the kind of Marxist group that polite society could discuss, in the pages of the Guardian for instance, where Sadie Plant’s books, at that time, were reviewed, or briefly mentioned in passing, as a learned reference, during polite BBC radio programmes, in which she featured.

The truth was that two young blokes trying to flog Fourth International literature was not cool. Revolutionary Marxism, in the mid 90s, was thought by polite society to be on the way out, dead and buried, propped up by a few remaining hardliners. And Sadie Plant had been anointed by polite society with the elixir of coolness.

Anything insightful, exciting and true in Marxism, which doesn’t preclude or obstruct a career in respectable society, is swiftly appropriated by the liberal consensus, and its origins quickly forgotten. The Situationists, in our imaginations, live within the small Venn diagram intersection of revolutionary politics and the accepted canon of bourgeois art history. We can all, like Cloppa Castle adversaries-but-friends, sit together for tea at three, and discuss the brilliance and naughtiness of the Situationists, those revolutionary rapscallions! Another biscuit?

But not Lenin, or Trotsky or Mao. That would be like placing a dead body on the table.

Perhaps a good political conversation was to be had. But it didn’t happen. Sadie Plant, quite justifiably and without any loss to herself, walked on untrammelled … and, as I subsequently learned, continued walking all the way to Warwick University, and a new job, whereupon she founded the CCRU.

At the end of the day we packed our table and my friend bade his farewell. We felt we had done the right thing that day. We had taken our intellectual wares to the makeshift market and tried to sell them. Not to make profit. But to explain to our fellow citizens that our social system is anti human, and that we need to change it, as others had tried in the past. But no one was buying — not even the radicals. To be a Marxist on campus was to be on the wrong side of history.

This was the last time I saw my friend from Bradford. I hope he is well and thriving and still fighting the good fight.

Next, before getting to the main non event, I need to explain how I did not read the first edition of ****collapse magazine.

Click here to read part 4.

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