The tragedy of Capitalist Realism
Mark Fisher laid down a challenge to the left it has failed to meet.
By the mid 2000s, the late Mark Fisher had turned a small corner of the internet into the site of some of the most searching cultural criticism around. Blogging under the alias k-punk, his range was expansive. Blairism, Goldie, The Hunger Games and Amy Winehouse might all fall under his critical gaze on any given day of the week. At its best, Fisher’s writing was exhilarating. His posts were like lightning strikes, capable of instantly illuminating hitherto hidden aspects of the political and cultural landscape.
Fisher was in his thirties at the time and working as an FE lecturer in Kent. As he put it in an interview in 2010, he had ‘started blogging as a way of getting back into writing after the traumatic experience of doing a PhD’. It worked. His thought certainly bears the intellectual imprint of those intense, heady postgraduate years, studying philosophy at the University of Warwick and knocking around with a collective known as the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit. It all culminated in his 1999 PhD thesis, Flatline constructs: Gothic materialism and cybernetic theory-fiction. And it’s clear that Spinoza, Kant and Nietzsche, not to mention the likes of Baudrillard, Zizek and Lacan, all continued to infuse his thought and writing. But while many of his academic contemporaries lost themselves to pedantry and career advancement, Fisher used all this ‘theory’ to actually try to make sense of the world.
This effort started to morph into something more than k-punk in 2007, when Fisher quit his teaching job and started work on a larger book-length project. And then in 2008, against the backdrop of the global financial crisis, he and several others established the publishing house Zer0 books. The stage was set for Fisher to make a more forceful political intervention. That duly arrived in November 2009 when Zer0 published Fisher’s Capitalist Realism.
Thirteen years on – and nearly six years after Fisher’s tragic death by suicide – Capitalist Realism has acquired a near hallowed status on the left. The New Statesman has called it a ‘seminal political text’. And its ideas have become staples of left-wing discourse. As one astute observer has noted, Fisher has become an authority, and the book itself has become a phrase. Zer0 itself has just published a new ‘classics’ edition, complete with a new foreword, afterword and introduction.
There’s no doubting that Capitalist Realism is a significant achievement. It addressed itself, in Fisher’s words, to the ‘widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to imagine a coherent alternative’.
And that could not help but resonate in the late 2000s. This of course was the moment when the financial crisis had exposed the profound weakness of all the advanced industrial economies. The debt-based model that had sustained the illusion of economic strength from at least the 1980s onwards lay in ruins. And the banks, sitting on piles of bad debt, went into meltdown. The creed of neoliberalism, the insistence that capitalism is the only system that works, looked in severe trouble. This could have led to a deep interrogation of political economy. It could have led to a reckoning.
But of course it didn’t. The banks, deemed too big to fail, were bailed out. And the system, though tottering, was determinedly propped up by the world’s nation states. It was as if that old dictum of Margaret Thatcher – There Is No Alternative – had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was the only course of action. No others were realistic.
This was ‘capitalist realism’ in action. The coinage is not entirely Fisher’s own. The phrase itself had been used intermittently since the 1960s as a pun on ‘socialist realism’ – the old Stalinist-era cultural orthodoxy that insisted art flatter an often less-than-magical Soviet reality. Boy meets tractor and they laboured happily ever after. That kind of thing.
Capitalist realism, as Fisher used it, is different. As he put it, ‘it is not intentional propaganda’ like socialist realism. It isn’t the conscious product of some shadowy free-market cabal, dog-eared copies of Hayek in hand. Rather, it is a ‘pervasive atmosphere’ that has come to engulf life in the 21st-century West.
Fisher meant something more forceful than that, too. Capitalist realism, he argued, is the ideology of the current stage of capitalism, whether one calls it ‘neoliberal’ or ‘late capitalist’. And at the centre of capitalist realism lies the most ideological claim of all. That it is not an ideology at all. That we are living in a post-ideological age, without illusions or deceptions. And that the way things are is the only way they can be. That’s the ‘realism’ of ‘capitalist realism’ – it can be read as an accompaniment to Fukuyama’s notorious end-of-history thesis. The only political questions that remain to be answered, according to the logic of capitalist realism, rest on which flavour of technocrat you prefer – the question, as Fisher put it, ‘of who is to administer the new consensus’.
In part, Fisher attributed the success of capitalist realism, its strangulation of all alternative futures, to the development of capitalism itself. To its ‘desacralisation of all culture’. Slowly but surely, he argued, it has reduced everything to monetary or exchange value. It has transformed religions, traditions and now political ideologies into mere myths, suitable for museums, but not for people to actually believe in. There is now only ‘one plane of reality’, and that belongs to the language of the market and business – or ‘business ontology’, as he called it. There was more than a whiff of Frankfurt School-style pessimism to this perspective. It made capitalism’s monstrous triumph – Fisher even likens it to John Carpenter’s The Thing – appear all but inevitable. Which would mean that there never could be an alternative, such is the all-consuming power of capital.
His blog posts were like lightning strikes, capable of instantly illuminating hitherto hidden aspects of the political and cultural landscape
But there is a more useful political dimension to Fisher’s analysis. The sense that there is no alternative is not just born of the logic of capital. It has also been produced by a political defeat – and there is never anything inevitable about political struggle. The key moment in this regard for Fisher, who grew up in a working-class family in Leicester, was the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. As he points out in Capitalist Realism, the state’s victory over the miners was presented precisely in terms of capitalist realism. The miners’ opponents claimed that economics dictated that the pits had to close.
This is important. It shows that political struggle, indeed political ambition, is a precondition for the sense that there is an alternative. This is borne out in Fisher’s approach to culture. The modernism that so inspired him, from the likes of Joyce to its later pop-culture post-punk or dance-music manifestations, is inseparable from a political context. The classical modernism of the 1920s and 1930s flourished amid the political and social tumult of the time. Artistic avant-gardes fellow-travelled alongside party vanguards. They drew on the energies of the moment, striving to give new form to new social content – or to give expression, as with TS Eliot, to the sense of an ending. Likewise, the popular modernism of Joy Division, and later still, jungle music, was grasped by Fisher as an attempt to give formal expression to hitherto unvoiced social desires and needs, no matter how dark. They weren’t just aesthetic styles. They were ideals for living – or not, in Joy Division’s case.
So it’s the disappearance of a political challenge to the existing order that underpins the 21st-century’s seeming ‘cultural sterility’, the sense of exhaustion, the sense of futurelessness. To illustrate this, Fisher drew attention to the retro-stylings of Amy Winehouse and, before that, to what he saw as the empty Sixties’ pastiche of Britpop. The modernist desire to ‘make it new’ had, for Fisher, all but disappeared. In the 2000s, it felt as if there was nothing new to express. All culture had been reduced to an endless ‘reiteration and re-permutation’ of what already exists.
It’s not difficult to see why Capitalist Realism struck such a nerve. Fisher gave a name to this widespread sense of futurelessness. And rooted it in a specific historical and political context
Capitalist Realism does more than give a name to the ideology that so constrains our political thought. It attempts to challenge it, too. Fisher does this in the book by attempting to draw out the reality of capitalism from behind the veil of capitalist realism. Among other things, he wanted to show how what he saw as the reality of ecological collapse and an ‘epidemic’ of mental-health problems were being produced by capitalism. ‘Capitalism is inherently dysfunctional’, he writes in the book, ‘and the cost of it appearing to work is very high’.
But this part of his analysis is even less convincing today than it was then. Environmentalism is hardly the nemesis of today’s global capitalist elites. Quite the opposite. They seem to have fully embraced the idea that our world faces catastrophe unless we change our ways. There is rarely an international gathering of note at which Greta Thunberg is not present, haranguing and whipping the ‘adults in the room’. Big capitalists and world leaders alike really seem to love it.
Moreover, Western governments have been committed to reducing CO2 emissions since before Capitalist Realism was published. Businesses are desperate to show off their green credentials. And, above all, fossil fuels are widely held to be close to ‘evil’ by virtually every politician and CEO going. If anything, green ideology is now part of today’s ruling capitalist-realist ideology. It provides the rationale to say that there is no alternative to the fall in living standards. A rationale to say to the developing world that there is no alternative to their lack of material development. A rationale to say that there is no alternative to the technocratic consensus forged at the UN, the EU and beyond. ‘Rationing of some sort is inevitable’, writes Fisher towards the end of Capitalist Realism. Remarkably, he wrote this hopefully. As it stands, it could become capitalist reality in the very near future.
The huge increase in diagnosed mental-health problems is also not quite the gotcha that Fisher clearly thought it was. The problem is not that capitalism is making people mentally ill. The problem is that too many subjective attitudes and moods are being readily pathologised as mental-health conditions. This means that those suffering from serious psychiatric disorders who do need treatment are lost amid the many millions more suffering from a label.
Fisher was right that some newly categorised disorders ‘are forms of captured discontent’. After all, it’s not a new point. Marx’s idea of alienation, which has its roots in the material condition of alienated labour, has long provided insight into the social cause of certain psychological attitudes. And the state’s tendency, from Thatcher on, to turn unemployment from a social problem into an individual condition – incapacity – does illustrate Fisher’s point about the need to ‘repoliticise mental illness’. But to claim that the increase in diagnoses of bipolar disorder or ADHD can be used against capitalist realism as ‘effective antagonisms’ seems fanciful. Not least because, like tackling climate change, addressing the ‘world-wide epidemic of mental illness’ seems to be very much part of today’s ruling ideology. It has become a rationale for the state’s management of society. A mode in which it relates to people not as citizens, but as patients. If you’re looking for an example of the new ‘control society’, that’s it, right there.
The joy of democracy
In some ways, the difficulty Fisher had in challenging what then German chancellor Angela Merkel called the ‘alternative-less’ present was understandable. His book was written in the dying days of New Labour, when political challenges to the neoliberal, technocratic consensus were thin on the ground.
Some claim that all this started to change in 2010 and 2011 when, first, UK students erupted in protest against the Conservative-Liberal coalition government, after it raised tuition fees. And then in 2011, when the Occupy movement sprung up in the citadels of neoliberalism, from London to New York. As Alex Niven, writing in the New Statesman notes, aspects of Capitalist Realism suddenly ‘began to seem truly prescient’.
Indeed, many of those who have championed Capitalist Realism over the past decade claim to have discovered and been radicalised by it during the student protests and the interminable Occupying. These were the moments, supposedly, when an alternative future was finally erupting through the cracks of capitalist realism. When young people finally were rejecting the ‘business ontology’ of the market.
In truth, neither the student protests nor Occupy were much of a challenge to capitalist realism. They are better grasped as an extension of the ‘anti-capitalist’ charade that Fisher criticises in Capitalist Realism, more concerned with the staging and performance of protesting than achieving any real change. They were famously leaderless for a reason – they had no ideas with which to lead.
But there have been real moments when the technocratic, neoliberal consensus has been truly shaken in recent years. And these shocks have come not from small groups of middle-class students and protesters, but from the masses. One came in 2015, when Greeks voted to reject the bailout plan on offer from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund (the so-called Troika). This threw the very future of the eurozone into doubt. And it gave Greece, however fleetingly, a glimpse of a different political future. Fisher was clearly excited at the time. As he wrote in ‘Democracy is joy’, a brilliant k-punk post from 2015, ‘we shouldn’t get too carried away by the Oxi [“No”] vote last week, [but] we shouldn’t underestimate its significance either’. He continued:
‘[T]he meaning of Oxi is not already guaranteed – it has to be established politically. The current struggle in Europe – currently focused on Greece, but sure to spread much wider in the near future – is an opportunity for us to reclaim democracy after its capture by neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s.’
The meaning of ‘Oxi’ was eventually established politically in Brussels, when Greece’s leaders caved into the Troika’s demands. But in many ways, the Oxi vote was a mere prelude to what was to come.
A year later, an even more crushing blow to the technocratic, neoliberal consensus was delivered by British voters, when they backed Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. Those voters defied the capitalist realism of all those, from the political class to the business elite, claiming Brexit would be economic suicide. And they voted to reclaim democracy.
Yet at the very moment when capitalist realism really was defied, too many on the left, no doubt versed in Capitalist Realism, turned away in scorn. So estranged had many left-wingers become from ordinary people, that they readily bought into the idea that the Brexit vote was driven by racism, xenophobia and ignorance. In doing so, they turned their backs on the chance to reclaim democracy and to forge an alternative.
When it really mattered, seeming opponents of capitalist realism happily gave themselves up to it. They dismissed the democratic desire of large swathes of working-class Britain. And they busied themselves instead in attempting to restore the pre-Brexit status quo.
This is why Capitalist Realism remains an intellectually explosive work – because the chance to realise its promise continues to be missed by what now passes for the left. ‘The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism’, concludes Fisher, at the end of the book. ‘From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.’ Those words continue to resonate today.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
Pictures by: Getty.