Virtual Consciousness: Lukács in the Modern Era

The proletariat only perfects itself by annihilating and transcending itself, by creating the classless society through the successful conclusion of its own class struggle. The struggle for this society, in which the dictatorship of the proletariat is merely a phase, is not just a battle waged against an external enemy, the bourgeoisie. It is equally the struggle of the proletariat against itself. against the devastating and degrading effects of the capitalist system upon its class consciousness. The proletariat will only have won the real victory when it has overcome these effects within itself.

Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness

We on the left have had it wrong for a while: it is not that we are anti-capitalist, it is that capitalism, with all its visored cops, its tear gas, and all the theological niceties of its economics, is set up to block the emergence of this Red Plenty. The overcoming of capital has to be fundamentally based on the simple insight that, far from being about ‘wealth creation’, capital necessarily and always blocks the production of common wealth.

– Mark Fisher, Acid Communism

In contrast to these ever-accelerating catastrophes, today’s politics is beset by an inability to generate the new ideas and modes of organisation necessary to transform our societies to confront and resolve the coming annihilations. While crisis gathers force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.

– Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics

Class consciousness is a vital, but deeply misunderstood idea for the left. Many leftists today still conceive of class consciousness as an individualist descriptor for how much a particular individual is aware of their own oppression by bourgeois society. Nothing could be further from the truth. Georg Lukács, in his 1923 book History and Class Consciousness, lays out a compelling and enduring social model of class consciousness that suggests a radical re-imagining for the left. This re-imagining is one which is vital to revitalizing the efforts of a left bogged down in an individualist and “false” class consciousness and the atomization of virtual society. In this essay we intend to explore the ways that the emergent virtual affects class consciousness, and to take aim at the popular (and incorrect) conception of class consciousness utilizing Lukács’ theory.

To begin we must, of course, lay out how we will discuss class consciousness. In History and Class Consciousness Lukács talks at length about the ways class consciousness exhibits itself, including, importantly, this brief paragraph; “This consciousness is … neither the sum nor the average of what is thought or felt by the single individuals who make up the class. And yet the historically significant actions of the class as a whole are determined in the last resort by this consciousness and not by the thought of the individual – and these actions can be understood only by reference to this consciousness.” Lukács here provides the two keys to understanding his theory of class consciousness; class consciousness is not individually measured knowledge of members of a class, and class consciousness is the socio-historical driving force behind proletarian revolutions. He goes on to describe the functions of class consciousness within society as matured class antagonism, one only reached through the collective understanding of the totality of the capitalist system. With this understanding of class consciousness close at hand we turn our attention to the system this collective has spoken most on, the virtual system.

This system has immediate bearing on the issue of consciousness, representing at once a distorting force and one which attempts to displace previously formed methods of consciousness raising in order to place itself as the only option. This distortion/displacement has helped to foster a vulgar understanding of both class consciousness and of what qualifies as consciousness raising, a dual threat which has cut the legs out from under those attempting to engage in class struggle. 

In the case of the former (distortion), the virtual has been gasoline on the already blazing bonfire of individualist conceptions of class consciousness, its framing as a holy knowledge to be attained by the individual proletarian through individual study and efforts near-omnipresent among radicals in the west. This conception is not only wrong, but it is actively dangerous, allowing for neoliberal ideology’s penetration into nominally militant leftist spaces and ideas. This penetration, as with the penetration discussed in Algorithmic Deification (Haywood), assists in reifying neoliberal ideology and in placating and de-fanging a militant left wing political movement, atomizing and individualizing the social force of class consciousness and, in essence, cutting off the proletariat from the socio-historical force that drives their revolutionary power. The latter issue (displacement) is one which requires more attention however. 

The power the virtual wields via its illusory promise of community is one with an effect on the left that cannot be overstated. This illusory offer of virtual community is a major function of the virtual’s slow collapse into the real, destabilizing community organizing in the real by offering a virtual community deeply steeped in the neoliberalism that is folded into the topology of the virtual. In addition to the neoliberal construction of virtual community, the tendency of these formations is towards intense atomization, producing both dependency upon the communities formed this way and inability to connect to them outside the constraints of the virtual. In the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics, Williams and Srnicek write that “[…] the most important division in today’s left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology. The former remains content with establishing small and temporary spaces of non-capitalist social relations, eschewing the real problems entailed in facing foes which are intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure. The failure of such politics has been built-in from the very beginning.” (emphasis added). This problem of small insular community building contra to the work of developing a socio-political counter-hegemony to the accelerating capitalist system is one which is only made worse when virtual community is centered heavily in this work (as is rapidly becoming the case).

The centering of these atomized virtual communities and the allowance for the individualization of class politics is a trend which must be shattered at all costs in order to organize an effective counter-hegemony and to realize class consciousness. But how to go about building this consciousness in a left increasingly saturated by neoliberal ideals?

In Fisher’s unfinished introduction to Acid Communism, and in his unfinished lecture series Postcapitalist Desire, he begins to lay out a path to a new proletarian consciousness linked to feminist theory, Lukács’ ideas of consciousness, Marcuse’s Marxist-Freudian analysis, and accelerationism. These sources combine to form a potential pathway for a new left to push through the encroaching boundaries of both the virtual and the continuing heavy veil of capitalist realism. His heavy emphasis in Acid Communism on the potentiality of a left centered on the building of post-scarcity plenty that is easily within our grasp but stymied by the continued production of scarcity by the capitalist system is one which opens a pathway into postcapitalism, a future of “Red Plenty”. This future, clearly heavily influenced by the accelerationist writings of Williams and Srnicek which emphasize the necessity of maintaining the technological gains achieved under capitalism, is one which is close at hand. We must, as a proletarian class, be willing to begin the work of forging our path to it through the ceaseless acceleration of the capitalist system and through the intensifying effects of a virtual hell-bent on containing and mitigating true class consciousness.

There is no way out but through.

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