Poetry Against Neoliberal Capitalism in Ali Alizadeh and Melinda Bufton

By | 1 October 2020

Against Alizadeh’s ‘The Point’, Bufton’s poem ‘Fourth Draft’ takes a much more cynical approach to the position of the writer under capitalism. This writer ironically takes pride in her ‘authorial stamp’ on impersonal ‘business documents’ (Bufton 55). She summarises the work as

That giant thing of a thing: 
          Response to a position paper
          New draft of position paper
          Referee report
          Long statement in defence of something (55)

To counterbalance the anonymous cog-in-the-machine effect of office work and the mountains of writing produced in these roles, the speaker finds pleasure in ‘my workings’ or the relief of ‘now attached’ in an email (55). The process of writing becomes grandiose as a personal mission, ‘I must create’, and a god-like feat, ‘You made it flesh’ (55—56). However, the tone belies a larger conversation at the heart of writing that Bufton hints at in the collective ‘we’ of

Impacting hard on our sense of who we are and why we do this 
That you join the throng and say, in order, those things we would be expected
To say
But better (55)

This plays directly into Alizadeh’s concern for the balance between art and livelihood in writing on a practical level but also the more philosophical positioning of the writer as individual and collective. The writer becomes more than a profession but an identity with a purpose that encompasses more than the individual. This moment of collective identity in the figure of the writer is then undermined in capitalist terms when Bufton boils the process down to a ‘service’ and ‘fee’ (55), which challenges Alizadeh’s DWYL inspired attitude, but is perhaps a more realistic conceptualisation of the writer under capitalism. The tension of this poem rests in the duality of a creative and/or productive writer and the way that capitalism and labour value bend writing from a vocation or art into a product.

In the last poem of his collection titled ‘Hope?’, Alizadeh appears to directly address the revolutionary concerns of Towards the End with a contextualising of the current capital crisis. Rhetorical questions again engage the reader in a pseudo-exchange where Alizadeh poses possible queries from the uninitiated to prompt his own logic. At the same time, his hesitant answers such as ‘Labour-time? Yes, maybe, no. Not / per se’ (Alizadeh 52) reveal the internal conflict of reconciling personal need within an oppressive system against the larger concerns of dismantling capitalism for everyone. But Alizadeh reframes the instability of the writer as an opportunity for connection or solidarity with other precarious workers:

Of course
I’m worried about losing my job. I know you are too.
                                        (And can I just mention in passing, this
                                        is the foundation of you and me
                                        becoming we.) (52)

Alizadeh’s argument through Towards the End crystallises in the recognition of this struggle between the classes, between the powerful and the oppressed, between language and capital, is a historical one that can’t be summarised easily in ‘an abstract / common noun’ (Alizadeh 54). What he’s advocating for is not rebellion but revolution, and he addresses how that word has been deflated when he says, ‘I can’t help cringing when / I hear / food revolution, IT revolution, fashion revolution, AI revolution. There’s only the Revolution’ (Alizadeh 55). He highlights the turning point for the French Revolution as the moment abstractions like ‘the progressive philosophy of the Enlightenment, human rights, free speech, religious tolerance, etc’ were trivialised by ‘the explosion / of life’s basics: ordinary civilians’ (Alizadeh 57). Here Alizadeh throws off intellectualism, abstraction, and the dilution of language’s meaning to issue a rallying cry for ‘Identities [to be] fused into universality’ (57) in the final resistance against capitalism and oppression. Most importantly, the revolution is couched in conversation, in Alizadeh’s repeated entreaties to ‘listen’ (Alizadeh 53, 54, 59, 60) and declarations ‘we gotta talk about [it]’ (Alizadeh 54, 58). This revolution will be brought about by shared communication.

Towards the End and Moxie are collections enmeshed within the systems of power underpinning global capitalism with the many complications of professionalism, patriarchy, success, and value. Both poets acknowledge and attempt to navigate these systems through the possibilities of language to manipulate, undermine, and reclaim power. While Alizadeh approaches dismantling capitalism with radical Marxist philosophy and Bufton focuses on the influence of neoliberal ideology on postfeminism as a complicated force for women in the workplace, both find a complex and powerful position in the figure of the poet as meaning-maker. With their variant approaches, Alizadeh and Bufton demonstrate the role of language in maintaining structures of power and offer strategies for disrupting capitalism with language as a tool for change.

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