Coldness and Cruelty in the Time of Insurrection

Introduction | Ch. 1 | Ch. 2 | Ch. 3

Introduction: A Polemical Ode to the Political Masochist

“I take responsibility. I take responsibility for every unchecked moment, for every time it was easier to ignore than to call it out for what it was. Every not-so-funny joke. Every unfair stereotype. Every blatant injustice no matter how big or small. Every time I remained silent… Black people are being slaughtered in the streets. Killed in their own homes. These are our brothers and sisters. Our friends. Our family. We are done watching them die. We are no longer bystanders; we will not be idle. Enough is enough.”

Insurrectionaries and jouisseurs find themselves confronted always by a pathological and suffocating political masochism. Such masochism seeks always to neutralise the fury of the oppressed, re-domesticate the wild anger of the insurrectionary, tranquillise the jouisseur and return them to the interminable shitting and pissing match we call “politics”. Who is the political masochist? And what are they doing? It is not a question of intent, and we refuse to join the reactionary conservative in condemning the “virtue signalling” of the liberal. Virtue signalling is a universal phenomenon, an expression and articulation of morality itself and, by all accounts, only annoying if you’re a pathetic, sickly ruminant. I am not interested in basing my argument on pointless speculation on the subjective mindset of the political masochist. We are analysing a phenomenon and its function, and where I stray into psychology, it is only ever in the spirit of play. 

In his 1967 essay, Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze analysed the masochist as he appears in the work of Sacher-Masoch. In 2020, I decontextualize several statements from this work and cite them in support of a largely unrelated thesis. “The masochist appears to be held by real chains, but in fact he is bound by his word alone. The masochistic contract implies not only the necessity of the victim’s consent, but his ability to persuade, and his pedagogical and judicial efforts to train his torturer.”1 Just wait until you have to read Lacan.

Is there a contract between the insurrectionary and the masochist? Not in the legal sense, of course. No insurrectionary consented to Aaron Paul pretending to hold back tears on camera, neither do these ungrateful miscreants give even the smallest shit about the apologies of white voice actors, renamed skin bleaching creams, ice cream company activism, renamed master bedrooms, McDonald’s Twitter feed, Apple and Amazon’s solidarity with the “Black community”, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben evolving their identity (unfortunate phrasing, I’m sure), the retailers going even further beyond to stand with “Black lives”, heads rolling off the necks of “influencers” and “content creators”—no, they would like, quite simply, the insurrectionaries and jouisseurs, to tear this world apart. The world doesn’t like the sound of that too much, but it’s happy to compromise. ‘Beat me,’ the world says, breathlessly. ‘Like you mean it.’ Only like you mean it. The masochist would like to revise the social contract, to which you consent by being part of the social, after all.2 The consent and the contract are already given. What we see in the discourse of political masochism is the pedagogical and judicial efforts to train you, as potential (if not actual) insurrectionary, as “torturer”, to accept this new arrangement, to be satisfied with a certain acceptable amount of symbolic concession, and to shut the fuck up. Let me reiterate: this need not be intentional. I have no interest in the personal motivations of the political masochist, except in so far as they’re amusing to talk about. I’m quite happy to leave theories of power which revolve around subjectivity and consciousness to critical theory paranoiacs and anti-semites, who are much better suited to that sort of thing. This is not a question of ideology. “There is no ideology, there are only organizations of power once it is admitted that the organization of power is the unity of desire and the economic infrastructure.”3 Let us, therefore, speak about power, and how political masochism functions as an immune response to preserve it. Aaron Paul, Kristen Bell, Kesha, and other assorted Very Important People may be compassionate anti-racists, cynical schemers, puppets of a PR machine—they could be out in the streets smashing up a bank right now for all I care. In so far as they act to neutralise the insurrection by expressions of pseudo-solidarity, they are political masochists. You are what you do, not what you think. And when you act, you act always as part of a machinic assemblage. I should like to speak of processes instead of people, and in fact, you could describe this phenomenon schematically.

SCHEMA 1: (1) Power-Capital Bodies (2) Systematic of Power-Capital (3) Political Masochist Body (4) Political Masochist Discourse (5) Vector of Neutralisation (6) Vector of Insurrectionary Anger (7) Systemic Barriers to Power-Capital (8) Insurrectionary-Jouisseur Bodies

As you can clearly see, the political masochist is a machine part in a schema, not a personal type or style of being. Whenever the argument becomes unclear, I will employ these lucid and enlightening diagrams.

Like Marx’s capitalist, who becomes a capitalist only when he is involved in the process of appropriating wealth4, the political masochist exists when and only when a person acts in service of political masochism. It is a skin one slips into for as long as they seek to commiserate with the oppressed, and it is a skin one slips back out of when one returns to tranquillised serenity, lies back, satisfied with a job well done, the afterglow of moral certitude, exposing the pink flesh, the sinews, the tissues, the webs of blue crisscrossing an unmoving body, the blood sticks fast to the surface like molten rock, gluey, bodhisattva in a lotus repose, until the next time one must appear “human” again. In error, such behaviour has been called “performative”. What, exactly, is being performed here? ‘They’re performing solidarity with the oppressed!’ Intentionally? ‘No, but they should know better.’ Perhaps so, and it may well be unhelpful to you, in that case, but it certainly isn’t a performance. Because you are, no offence intended, a radicalised liberal, you constantly fall back on psychological explanations for systemic phenomena (‘Capitalists are mean and greedy… Men are cruel and vulgar… Whites are duplicitous and racist…’) and you, consequently, end up chatting a load of shit. Kwame Ture: “If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem.” So then, what is the function of political masochist discourse? How does it work? What does it look like? We may even ask why someone might do it, but remember this, one always misleads when one gives explanations for one’s behaviour with certainty. Your behaviour is determined by higher-order cognitive processes which are wholly transparent to consciousness.5 I do not speak of performativity, there is no performativity and there never has been, except in so far as a person is always a performance, always an act, always a lie.

‘Well, if it’s all performance, if it’s all just an act constituted by power, then what can be done about it?’ That’s precisely the question that the insurrectionaries and jouisseurs seek to answer when they burn down the fast food joint, loot the department store, tear down your precious slave owner’s statues, graffiti your billboards and bus stop posters and construction site shields—“You Should Advertise On Buses—It’s Visually Unavoidable”—the insurrectionaries agree, but they don’t seem to agree with you civilised ones when you say the public sphere is only for those who can afford it, and they should like to spread some visually unavoidable messages of their own. Consider, civilised one, that there are millions of people who are fed up with the putrid day-in-day-out and do not bat an eyelid when a police horse, scared of the protestors its rider wished to intimidate, these protestors who should know better than to endanger their stewards so cruelly, their stewards who only want the best for us all, of course, which just so happens to be keeping things exactly as they are right now forever, a bomb ready to blow but never blowing—“We should say, however, that there is no such thing as a specifically masochist kind of waiting…”6—this scared police horse bolts and its rider almost gets her head taken off in a high-speed collision with a lamppost—the horse draws a line of flight to the sunset, the jouisseurs bounce and finger slap as the rider’s head cracks against the pavement. Tragic, certainly not a laughing matter, just doing her job, and yet—look at that crowd roar…

What does the political masochist have to say about all this? Well, they completely sympathise with the mad, sinister, cruel, furious joy of it all—all cops are bastards, yes, and surely the state must come to terms with its racism, its violence, its brutality, and we must take accountability ourselves, take responsibility ourselves, come to terms with our racism, our violence, our brutality, and we hear you, we see you, we stand with you, but not with you, we ourselves do not get any true enjoyment from the head-cracked police officer lying in hospital, probably brain damaged, and we feel quite sheepish, honestly, when we photograph the BLACK LIVES MATTER graffiti at the bus stop and share it to the Instagram story, when we share the reading list of Black Radicals, when we and our white friends apologise to the token black in the room for ‘how awful white people are’, circumscribe the Other again (but make it woke)—but let me be clear, political masochism is not something white people do to black people—there are more than enough black liberal posturers happy to set themselves up as community leaders and “voices”. There are more than enough white people who also aim at no longer being arranged, and our masochists are quite happy to chide them as “white anarchists”, “agitators”, etc. And while this writing is rooted in the discourse around the explosion of Black insurrectionary anger of the Spring of 2020 and its unfolding consequences, it is in no way limited to an analysis of the same. The political masochist understands the anger of trans people too, commits to do better, and certainly tries, but would quite like them to be better integrated into this death-trap, society, would quite like them to be better respected by the political class, would quite like everything to just be peaceful, simple, easy. Likewise, the political masochist wants handouts and investment for the withered and miserable poor, wants equity and representation for women, and, in every case, has the Correct and Compassionate view. The political masochist understands the anger of any oppressed group and stands ready to do what they can, a tortured voyeur who would like to bleed, to suffer, in the long shadow of looming salvation, Christ on the cross, but let’s not tear the whole world apart, let’s make it better, you the stigmatised, we the crucified, on the cross, for the sins of this world, so that we might establish the Heaven we all long for, and don’t we long for it?

Perhaps, though I hear longing isn’t the name of the game anymore.

Is this not all so much mindless, pointless, pseudo-intellectual anarchist babble? ‘Your issue is that there are people who want to do something, when you believe that they should really do nothing, let the whole system disintegrate, hundreds of millions swallowed up and mutilated, killed, disappeared, in massive societal insurrections, riots, upheavals, schisms, conflicts, outright civil war, pointless violence along lines of state, class, and identity, for no reason other than the fact that you don’t like compromise and you think it’s a waste of time in a system which inexorably, you claim (do not quote Marx at us, we have read him perfectly well), distributes suffering to the bottom and power to the top without the slightest possibility of meaningful structural change? Which can only be remedied (though you laugh when you use that word) by its termination, that is, its destruction by disreputable and degenerate sectors? And you claim that any attempt to prevent this by substituting a nominally (if not actually) better set of arrangements is masochistic, do you? This is simply not implementable, let alone desirable, and we can’t see any rhyme or reason in it. You are quite welcome to articulate a theoretical apparatus to make your sophistry palatable to idiots, but we have read our Lenin, our Bookchin, our wise theorists, and they have demonstrated quite clearly that a desirable social arrangement is not only possible, but in some sense, inevitable. Perhaps this notion of masochism, applied properly, could be of some use to us. But, typical of your ultra-leftist type, you view all authority as domination, all domination as unstable, and all instability as inevitable. Do you really expect us to take this seriously?’

Comrade, you and I both call communism the movement which abolishes the present state of things. We simply disagree about the nature of this abolition. Still, this argument has been going on for hundreds of years, so we’d better get a good handle on who we’re dealing with, these insurrectionaries and jouisseurs who I claim the masochist wishes to subvert. That will be a matter for Chapter One.

1. Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Masochism (Zone Books, 1991), p. 75.

2. J Locke, Two Treatises of Government: And a Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. by Ian Shapiro, Rethinking the Western Tradition (Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 169–70.

3. F Guattari, Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977, Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents (MIT Press, 2008), p. 38.

4. Karl Marx and Ben Fowkes, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1, ed. by Friedrich Engels and Ernest Mandel (Penguin UK, 1990), p. 254.

5. Richard E. Nisbett and Timothy D. Wilson, ‘Telling More than We Can Know: Verbal Reports on Mental Processes’, Psychological Review, 1977 ; T Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity, A Bradford Book (MIT Press, 2004), sec. 3.2.7.

6. Deleuze and von Sacher-Masoch, sec. 72.

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