The Postponed Communist Eschaton in Disco Elysium

This post was written with this song in mind.

The extent to which Disco Elysium occupies my thoughts tends to correlate with how optimistic I am about the ongoing political situation. A month ago, when the largest uprising in decades was ongoing, it didn’t come up at all. Now, as the movement for black liberation has been recuperated by capital as far as is possible, and the communist horizon has once again passed into the distance, its melancholic portrayal of a world strangled by history resonates once more.

Doomerism is all too common on the left, and if I were depressed enough for that worldview to accurately describe my current feelings than I wouldn’t be writing this post. However, what makes Disco Elysium’s portrayal of weary communist sympathies so effective is that it captures what most communists I know actually feel: a sort of complex merging of utter hopelessness and extreme utopianism. In Disco Elysium, set four decades after the failed revolution in the world capital of Revachol, the brutalities of capitalist society bear upon everyone, especially those living in the poor ghetto of Martinaise, but the hope of actually organized communism (not just social democracy, which is regaining its power), remains a distant fantasy. It doesn’t take a genius to connect this to our present state: as much as the concerns of the left remain unaddressed, and as much as we’re resurgent relative to our position a couple decades ago, the revolutions of yore still seem impossibly far away to all but the most optimistic of comrades.

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Excuse me for getting a bit theological here, but the early Christians, as I understand it, believed that Christ’s return was imminent, and St. Paul’s writings indicate that he thought it might well happen within his lifetime. This, of course, did not occur, which is perhaps the greatest understatement in human history. Eschatology, then, was forced to change radically, and while many throughout the ages have declared the imminence of the coming, this is a minority position. The eschaton will still arrive, to be sure, but it’s impossible to say if it’ll do so in five or five thousand years. Even if faith in its arrival is maintained, the fact that it’s been two millennia at this point paints the idea of it happening in one’s own lifetime as almost comical.

We communists have been forced to contend with this postponed eschaton as well, but unlike the return of Christ, which is guaranteed as long as Christ Himself is real, there’s no way to be sure that communism will ever come about. Capitalism’s impermanence, as a human social system, is certainly real, but the utopian transcendence of capital into a society based on free association and human emancipation seems increasingly like one of the less likely outcomes for capital’s fall, especially in our lives. Far more plausible is a climate-induced breakdown which reduces the human population to low enough levels that some new (or very old) mode of production establishes itself. Perhaps this will, in the long run, lead to communism by some route, but will it do so this century?

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Disco Elysium’s narrative is enmeshed in these same eschatological concerns. As is revealed if you’ve got specific stats and explore conversations that you don’t, strictly speaking, have to have in order to complete the game, the mysterious matter known as the Pale — caused, in some form, by human beings and our destructive behavior through history — will inevitably destroy the world at some point in the future, and before that the city of Revachol will be nuked in just over two decades. All the hopes and dreams of the millions who live and die in the city, their forlorn memories of a horizon they once glimpsed before it was immediately snatched away, are all going to come crashing down, abandoned beneath the waves just as The Deserter was, just as we eventually will be. Girl child revolution really is gone, and the material base for an uprising has been eroded. History has a stranglehold on the lives of all those forced to live through it.

But Harry doesn’t accept this, nor do the workers who, in their own limited, social democratic way are fighting against the capitalists who made Revachol such a shithole and tore down humanity’s great hope, nor does Cindy the Skull, whose art declares that one day, the girl child revolution will return to Revachol’s side. Disco Elysium understands that simply concluding that revolution is impossible is both wrong and boring. No matter how against us the material base may seem to be, no matter how far apart we are from the world-historical revolutions which seem to chain us down just as much as they inspire us, you can’t survive if you give up all hope in your eschaton. To do so is to give up home in communism and sink into nihilism altogether.

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It’d be easy to conclude that the game believes the opposite. The Deserter is an old crank who clings to his lost vision of communism while murdering a merc out of rage at his genocidal actions and jealousy at him fucking a cute girl, all of this spurred on by a literal cryptid who’s driven him crazy while preventing him from maturing past his years as a teenage partisan. His statements about rock-and-roll being degenerate and bourgeois sound like something you might here out of an aging 50s Stalinist, and it’s not very fair to portray the last known communard militant as such a hopelessly nostalgic fool.

But maybe it is. As I said in my piece on Kautsky, 20th-century communism is gone, that horizon has slipped into the night, and men like the Deserter who cling to the past without reaching out for a future aren’t representative of the immanent potential for communist transcendence which remains to this day. The truth is that the Deserter doesn’t believe in communism, not really. He believes in the specific revolution of ’08, but in losing all faith in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat, he’s only a communist in the most intellectual of senses. He’s not looking forward towards the horizon but backwards towards history, and just as for all of the world’s oppressed, history is a trap that won’t let him go. After all, no Christian who abandons all faith in the Second Coming could really be called as such, no matter how much they might wish it to be the case.

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Perhaps, following Benjamin, Disco Elysium signals the need for a new mode of thinking about communism, one that can’t be presented by either the Deserter (who yearns for the days of Stalinesque socialism without adapting to present conditions) nor the union (who presents a renewed and militant social democracy which remains within the bounds of capitalist reproduction). Maybe, just maybe, a new vision of communist will arrive, “not merely as the Redeemer, [but] also … as the vanquisher of the Anti-Christ,” those false ideologies represented both by revolutionary dead ends as well as the apathetic abandonment of liberation in the first place. The Deserter and the union are martyrs who will be redeemed by the eschaton, but in their failures and limitations they prove themselves not to be the ones who can bring it about.

So, yeah, thinking about Disco Elysium tends to indicate that I’m feeling a bit hopeless about the world. But at the same time, it provides me with the strength to believe that whatever lies ahead, whatever horrors remain in this century and further on (and the horrors, as we know, will be massive), the mere fact of this game’s existence is evidence that communist eschatology has not been disproven, merely postponed. I’m not alone in pondering the death of 20th-century communism and wondering where to go next. Just as with the Second Coming, it’s difficult to imagine a world historical revolution in our times. But if it has to come at some point, why wait?

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