There is, after all, still air to breathe in hell | Part 1

The suicidal imaginary

by Noah Brehmer |

Faced with the daunting encroachments of debt, cancelled futures, planetary crisis,  the intensification of neoliberal competition and its militarized state backing, the most plausible line of flight, for many, appears to be self-death.

According to world health statistics, anyway, in our current era there are higher rates of suicide than in any other.[1] It raises the question: why would this apparent ‘exit’ seem more enticing than, say, fidelity to an (anti-state) communist promise of a future beyond capitalism? What exactly is the allure of the suicidal imaginary? While it has always had purchase, the suicidal imaginary’s particular applicability to our present stems from its character as a solitary calling: a symptom of divided life, but, at the same time, a dramatic affirmation of the desire for something other. Suicidal practice is, whatever else it may be, after all, a recourse to the self – a self that decides – in the absence of socially manifest alternatives.

Given the current popularity of suicidal tactics, there is reason to believe a real absence of alternatives exists. And, given this situation, I am proposing to provisionally embrace the suicidal’s rationale as a point of departure for imagining a politics: a path of exit from our current course.

To begin this navigation, we must first detail the present conditions that support this collective disposition toward self-death. We will then consider how the act of suicide – as a spectacular rupture with the miseries of existence – may ignite political revolt by making itself an example of resistance to a commonly felt pain. The next section considers the limits of these individual revolts by reflecting on the political consequence and social motives for a wave of suicides in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. The limits of suicidal agency, I argue, are located in its over-centering of the individual (most often gendered in the masculine) and its tautological conception of freedom, which is only actualizable beyond the social in the metaphysical plane of dignity, the symbolic, the unworldly.

Having sketched the limit-point of self-death, the next section unfolds as an effort to preserve the basic impulse of the disposition while overcoming these contradictions. This effort hinges on the concept of suicide-ideation. As coined by Lauren Berlant and developed by myself, ‘suicideation’ refers to immanent maneuvers within the crisis-everydayness of it all: to the fact that there is, after all, still air to breathe in hell. Lacking recourse to an assumed outside, a suicideational politics directs our attention towards modes of agency and desire released within conditions of subjection. This is enacted by using the threat of one’s self-murder as a leveraging tool with which to advance demands in an adverse power relation.

Note that ideations of self-death, while overcoming the false-transcendence of the suicidal, are easily inscribed in the resigned logic of the demand mechanism, which rests on the assumption that the one making this threat has already been recognized, by society, as a life worth preserving in the first place, i.e., as a subject that has not already been marked off as socially dead.

The opening-up of real exits out of the withering social order requires a different flavor of annihilative yearning. Operating from a position of disposability, the socially dead inhabit what the afro-pessimist theorist Jared Sexton has described as a standpoint that epistemologically undoes our current social order.[2] Social death, in other words, is an immanent exteriority that effectively expresses an outside within the daunting closures of the capitalist real.

 

I

Suicide reduces the most violent share of the difficulty, the scaffold the rest.

Marx

As I page through 712 pages of obituaries in the first volume of A Complete Lexicon of Crisis Related Suicides: 2008-2013, a leitmotif of our current era’s orientation toward suicidal yearning appears. Detailing the financial crisis and its aftermath in the US context, the primary subject of the book is the middle-aged homeowner whose enjoyment of a relative degree of social security made them all the more vulnerable to maladjustment in the wake of its loss.[3] Motives for suicide are hence cultivated in a liberal market economy, where liberty is formulated as the solitary undertaking of the mortgage holder.

Mark Fisher diagnosed how market competition, the degeneration of public security, and the formation of the indebted subject all involved the offloading of enormous weight onto the individual, imagined as an entrepreneurial risk-taker. Fisher thus connected this global process of privatizing industry and public assets with the “privatization of stress”.[4] The 1980s downward spiral in standards of living led to plummeting mental stability. As one study found, between 1977 and 1985 rates of psychiatric morbidity rose from 22% to 31% of the UK population.[5] In England, not only did the neoliberal New Labour party foster this individual mental suffering but it refused help to its victims, cutting “incapacity benefits” in the midst of the so-called ‘recovery’ period after the 2008 crash.

This framing helps us to understand the particularly high rates of suicide in the former Soviet Republic of Lithuania, where the collapse of state socialism in 1991 precipitated a radical neoliberal restructuring process. For example, 98% of the housing stock was privatized within several years of Independence. Alongside this restructuring a new subject emerged  whose freedom was configured as one and the same with the freedom of the market. In the first popular Lithuanian economic textbook (released in 1992) the new ideal citizen is bluntly sketched:

“Economic man is a rational decision-maker who tries to achieve as much as possible with as little effort as possible. Moreover, he prefers to avoid taking risks, but is not unwilling to do so, if the probable reward is great enough. “Economic Man” is fully informed as to prices and technology. Furthermore, he knows what he likes and does not like. This means that he is perfectly capable of making all the choices that his economic adjustment requires.”[6]

Finally delivered to freedom, Lithuania’s economic man has only himself to blame for poor choices. Newly exposed to a wave of deregulated market risk this entrepreneurial subject faces an architecture of despair being built before them in the context of a collapsing economy and financial system: a system which would offload the real consequences of market risk onto working-class individuals. While immigration has continued as the preferred mode of flight for able-bodied labor power, suicide and other socially conflictual conduct remain popular methods of internal flight for the senile, pauperized, and otherwise maladjusted.

Further evidence is readily available of the correlation between the progressing authoritarianism of neoliberal capital flows and suicidal practices as a line of flight from them.  The infamous example of the worker suicides at Foxconn is really only the tip of the iceberg here. Other notable instances include a similar wave at the French multinational Telecom (2002–2010)[7] precipitated by a draconian restructuring policy, and the pandemic in Southern India (2004–)  sparked by the pervasive growth of predatory micro-lending, market driven land expropriations and social fragmentation.[8]

‘Is there a community that shares my misery, and desires something other?’

Complementing Fisher’s diagnosis of the privatization of stress, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi analyzes such phenomena as the collateral of “affective labor”. That is, with the affective (psychic and linguistic) incorporation of the subject in the labor process comes exploitation at the level of the soul. In other words: it is no longer simply the body that is disposed of in the valorization process, but the entirety of the self. The hegemony of the smartphone, for example, is expressive of a technological phase where there is a true zone of indistinction between spheres of work and leisure. In this context:

“…exploitation, competition, precariousness, redundancy are not perceived as the effects of a conflictual social relationship, but are internalized as deficiencies of the self, as personal inadequacies. The unceasing restructuring of the organization of work is perceived as humiliation and brutality.”[9]

Reacting to the above scenario, Fisher’s political proposition rested in the project of building a support culture in the Left which would politicize individual affect as a social issue while cultivating a common future beyond capitalism’s melancholic realism.[10] For example, he approached the British rave movement of the 90s as generative of a new collective subject within the ontological voids of a late-capitalist landscape. The rave was thought to have marked a rallying cry against the mandatory individualism and psychic privatizations of sociality secured by the new consumer electronics market, housing and education divestment, etc. As Fisher acerbically put it: “the lonely connectedness of smartphone addiction is a depressive hedonic reversal of MDMA festivity.”[11]

So, insofar as these militant, forward-looking programs and mass struggles Fisher envisioned are presently scarce, the suicidal imagination persists. Fisher himself reckoned with their absence in the taking of his own life in January 2017. While the suicide of Fisher, and too many others who shared his path, should by no means be romanticized, given our current conditions, these practices may be seen as the solitary expression of latent social antagonisms. They are not expressions of an already summoned and mobilized collective body, but, rather, injunctions for the formation of one. The suicidal individual seems to ask: ‘Is there a community beyond the communities organized by the commodity, the job and the bank?’ ‘Is there a community that shares my misery, and desires something other?’

Most of these calls into the darkness go unanswered, but every once in a while these vastly spontaneous, solitary revolts become the rallying cry of the coming insurrection. Revolutionary action doesn’t always require the slow and arduous process of building a mass organization. Still, it elicits the obvious question: why did the protest-suicide of the NYC taxi driver Doug Schifter[12] go vastly unnoticed, whereas the suicide of the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi toppled a regime?[13]

 

II

A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation, not on death, but on life.

– Spinoza, Ethics

Good politics is generally said to rest on life-affirming imperatives. Can the practice of suicide ever be considered an effective tool within the repertoire of an anti-capitalist revolutionary movement? What, in other words, could be said to qualify these acts as either effective or ineffective as methods for the overturning of oppressions?

In taking on this question, I’ll turn now to the object-study of a militant communist ‘death movement’ in the Soviet Union, which offered opposition to the burgeoning state’s oppressive governance of life.

In the post-revolutionary New Economic Policy era of the Soviet Union, experts viewed suicide a residue of bourgeois individualism’s symptomatic expression: social alienation. The symptom of suicide, it followed, would wither away with the withering-away of the human’s estranged relation to the human. But this would entail the mighty task of truly eliminating class society in its totality: the state, property, capital, the family, and all the other socially alienating abstractions.

It followed that suicide was diagnosed as a symptom of loss of faith in this program. Here we find the term Eseninism (in homage to the literary figure Sergei Yesenin) who launched a wave of suicides after taking his own life in 1925. Eseninism came to be considered a contagious disease of the mind caused by the placing of the “I” over the “we” in one’s world view, which led to various anti-social forms of behavior.[14]

As repression grew and the revolutionary horizon faded, the question of whether suicides among cadre members were the result of internal problems of the party itself or a private affair of the individual was fiercely debated. Into the late 1920s, expulsion from the party was on the official list of motives for suicide. At the height of this repression, as dozens of suicides occurred each week in Leningrad, the anarcho-communist Victor Serge came to consider them as a form of refusal and revolt:

What use is it to live if our party refuses us the right to serve it? This newborn world is calling us, we belong to it and it alone- and look! In its name someone spits in our faces. ‘You are disqualified ….’ Disqualified because we are the revolution’s racked flesh, its outraged reason? It is better to die![15]

Disqualified because we are the revolution’s racked flesh, its outraged reason? It is better to die!

In The Foundation Pit, a novel written by Andrey Platonov in the early 30s, a striking depiction of the revolutionary horizon’s betrayal is presented in a semi-allegorical form. The novel grapples with the endemic loss of faith in the socialist project that crystallizes under Stalin, as the anticipated communist society is repackaged as a distant reality that will not be lived by those in the present that labor toward it. In the novel, we follow a collection of decaying bodies working, day after day, digging out the foundation for a grand collective house that is promised to shelter humanity from hardship. These characters alternate between  dreary acceptance of the pit as their collective graves and fragile hope that comes with imagining themselves as a necessary sacrifice for future generations – as one step, of many, in socialism’s march toward the promised communist horizon. Suicidal temptation lingers heavily in the air among other forms of ‘self-serving’ passions, such as masturbation, which is said to divert the body’s energies from the project of collective building.

Given the imperative toward the systematic regimentation of the population’s vital capacities into the state’s productive forces, the individual’s pursuit of the calling of death may be understood as the robbery of a potential vital-power. The situation is expressed quite literally by a leading administrator of the Red Army in 1926: “He who is a conscious communist or a conscious worker cannot become a suicide because he does not belong to himself and is not his private property. Rather, he belongs to his party and to his class.”[16]

The suicidal’s claim of a “right to death”[17], for Banu Bargu, is an aspiration to “take into their hands the power of and over death to contest the power of and over life.”[18] In doing so, the subject reclaims a stolen future that now appears imposed over them as a sealed fate: self-death as insurgent temporality.[19] By choosing to end things in the here and now, one refuses to participate in the common building effort and thereby symbolically reasserts agency over history.

It is, hence, perhaps not surprising that the later Soviet-era dissident movement should fixate on such acts as the ultimate expression of opposition to the subject’s quasi-property status under state-capitalism. The heroic individual, generally a man, explosively affirms his uncompromising freedom against a landscape of mundane and hapless misery. (Unfortunately, as I found during graduate school in Lithuania, this fixation has had the ideological effect of obscuring and even erasing the strikes, riots, and other forms of popular revolt that were less agreeable to the Western cold war imaginary of eastern totalitarianism and its abject-subjects.)

Suicide is always a palliative for isolation and domination, never a true resistance.  

Moreover, such an embrace of suicidal agency is, in the end, contradictory. While the act may be romantically conjured as the apex of individual autonomy, it perhaps more realistically unfolds as an incomplete grasping toward a mastery over negativity: incomplete insofar as death, after all, is a state foreign to all decision-making – however plotted the delivery to this end may be. Actual death is a kind of radical passivity in that one’s life is reduced to a symbol, which becomes the commonly owned property of a collectively recognized memory. It is for this reason that Blanchot would describe the agency gleaned in suicide as “the mask of a fascinated dispossession.”[20] The mask, here, is the deliberate choice of acting, while the completed act is a passionate dispossession of this very agency.

This said, returning to the present, it is hard not to agree with Bifo’s conclusions, which focus attention on the ineffectiveness of contemporary revolts, like Schifter’s – or, worse: the ever growing atrocity of the outwardly directed suicide, e.g. the Batman massacre, which involved a man dressed as the Joker going into a screening of The Dark Knight Rises and firing at the audience. Bifo backs his argument with reference to the cases of the French Telecom where the deaths did not result in either strikes, or union building, or indeed any other collective action. Similarly, the suicides at Foxconn led to a humanitarian outcry and various transnational agreements which were then taken back after things had calmed down; the company remains, in Nao’s phrase, a “graveyard of Chinese youth.”[21] Suicide, in over-centering the individual and relying on the symbolic-other-worldly realm for the actualization of freedom and collectivity, is always a palliative for isolation and domination, never a true resistance.  

***

 

Noah Brehmer is a former student from the United States who is currently a freelance proofreader and anti-state communist living in Lithuania.

*Image credit: Laima Stasiulionytė.*

The second part of this essay will be published in one week’s time.

 

References

[1] In the last 45 years, suicide rates have increased by 60% worldwide. Suicide is now among the three leading causes of death among those aged 15-44 (male and female). Suicide attempts are up to 20 times more frequent than completed suicides. befrienders.org/suicide-statistics

[2] Jared Sexton, “On Black Negativity, or the Affirmation of Nothing,” Society & Space, 2017. Available here:  societyandspace.org/2017/09/18/on-black-negativity-or-the-affirmation-of-nothing.

[3] Richard Sluijs, The Complete Lexicon of Crisis Related Suicides: 2008-2013 Vol.1, Berlin: Uitgeverij Komma, 2014.

[4] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative? Zero Books, 2009. p.19.

[5] Ibid, p.36.

[6] Aren Jonas Isachsen and Carl Hamilton, Basic Economics: the transition from plan to market economy, Vilnius: Lalna Litera, 1992. p.55.

[7] For details of this story see: Franco Berardi, Heroes: Mass Murder and Suicide, New York: Verso, 2015. p.168.

[8] Ibid, p.175.

[9] Ibid, p.166.

[10] Mark Fisher, “Good for Nothing”, The Occupied Times, 2014. theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12841.

[11] Mark Fisher, ‘Baroque Sunbursts, in Rave: rave and its influences on art and culture (ed. Nav Haq), UK: Black Dog Publishing, 2016, p.45.

[12] Ginia Bellafante, “A Driver’s Suicide Reveals the Dark Side of the Gig Economy”, The New York Times, February 6th 2018.

[13] Banu Bargu, “Why Did Bouazizi Burn Himself? The Politics of Fate and Fatal Politics,” Constellations 23(1): 27-36, 2016.

[14] As researched by Kenneth M. Pinnow,  Lost to the Collective: Suicide and the Promise of Soviet Socialism, 1921–1929, NY:  Cornell University Press,  2010.

[15] Victor Serge, Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-194I, trans. and ed. Peter Sedgwick (London, 1963), p.194.

[16] P. Tsel’min, “O samoubiistvakh.” Sputnik politrabotnika, March 31, 1926, p.22. As cited in Pinnow 2010, Lost to the Collective, p.67.

[17] Banu Bargu develops this concept in the context of a ‘fast to the death’ movement in the Turkish prison system, which was the undertaking  of militant communists. The idea of the “right to death” is developed here in opposition to the state’s governance of  life. The discourse of life was then being used to legitimize “Operation Return to Life”: a military intervention in the prisons which ironically killed over 30 people. See: Banu Bargu, Starve and Immolate: the politics of human weapons, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

[18] Ibid, p.86.

[19] Bargu, “Why Did Bouazizi Burn Himself?”

[20] Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature (1955) Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Thomas Osborne develops Blanchot’s concept in his interesting essay on suicide as a contradictory form of aesthetic autonomy. See: Thomas Osborne, ‘Fascinated dispossession: suicide and the aesthetics of freedom.’ Economy and Society, 34(2): 280-294.

[21] Nao, “Four years later, still a graveyard of Chinese youth,” Libcom, February 5, 2015, libcom.org/blog/four-years-later-still-graveyard-chinese-youth.

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