Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
In his 2009 tour de force, the late Mark Fisher delivered what can only be described as the best available diagnosis of our present crisis. At only 81 pages, capitalist realism is a short read, but it will take a lifetime to realize its content.
Fisher first takes us back to 1989 and the collapse of the USSR. This is the moment where capitalist realism takes hold. With the collapse of Real Existing Socialism (REM), the world rejected the notion of any alternative to capitalism and there was a reconfiguration of power around finance.
The rise of neoliberal politics in the form of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher withered state power in favor of boosting corporate wealth. They promised a decentralized market power that would reduce bureaucracy and give freedom to the workers by eliminating rules and regulations.
Accordingly, neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past 30 years, capitalist realism has successfully installed ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including health care and education, should be run as a business.
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
What ensued was a post-Fordist society that lives within the fog of capitalist realism. Under Fordism, workers had pensions and could rise within the company or at least expect higher wages and a retirement package. These jobs were the backbone of the old labor movement.
The new economy has new features. The demands of capital are forefront and the factory is gone. Finance has replaced results as the measuring stick of success, meaning that a company’s profits are based more on PR than on creating useful products or meaningful work.
A large part of Capitalist Realism is spent on the issues of mental health. This is no surprise as Fisher dealt with these issues in his own life. One of the defining moments of the work is Fisher’s recognition that depression is systemic and that blaming the individual is a political, and not scientific, position.
While postmodernism has been described as the ideology of late-capitalism, Fisher distinguishes it from capitalist realism by suggesting that postmodernism is simply outdated. An entire generation has passed since the collapse of the USSR and there no longer exists any real alternatives to capitalism. This has resulted in a profoundly different environment than the one described by postmodernism.
What that environment looks like is telling. Fisher describes a culture malaise brought on by the cancellation of the future. Building off Lacan, Fisher urges us to consider that what drove much of the twentieth century’s rapid development was a conception of the future, a concept which we seem to have lost under capitalist realism.
The future is a stimulating topic for Fisher. Without it, he argues, we have no understanding of the present. If our current moment is plagued by fun-house versions of capital with no workable alternative, it is because our collective imagination is focused on the immediate.
What happens when new generations are no longer capable of creating the new? Using references to pop culture, Fisher reminds us of capital’s ability to anticipate our desires and meet them, even when those desires are anti-capitalistic. Fisher argues that neoliberalism — counter to popular myth — thrives on these anti-capitalistic behaviors. He writes that “nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV.”
Proponents of Hayek, Rand, and Friedman will need to explain why deregulation has generated more bureaucracy, not less. Anyone familiar with a call center, Fisher argues, will easily recognize the Kafkaesque nature of this decentralized method of controlling the worker and customer alike. Endless links to robotic messages, peppy music, and the occasional representative who is just as clueless about the process as you are create a sense of mindless frustration that goes beyond any trip to the DMV. Websites offer endless pages of hidden settings and force you to manage your own accounts. Improved technology means that now you checkout your own groceries. The algorithms seem to be using us more than we’re using them.
Neoliberalism, says Fisher, is a control society based on passivity and impotence. Capital can sell back anti-capitalism, neutralizing the consumer’s frustration. Rebellion becomes the thriving heart of consumer advertising under late-capitalism. Anti-social behavior is exploited by technology, as is loneliness and depression.
Worse still is neoliberalism’s reliance on state power. The invisible hand proved to be much less stable than the economists had suggested and, in 2008, the state was forced to bail out capitalism in an awesome redistribution of wealth towards the top.
The contradiction has become apparent. In the cold war, capital faced the problem of how to dominate its enemies and capture global markets. Now it faces the opposite problem: how can capital function without an external force? How does it grow when there are no new territories to colonize?
The success of neoliberalism has led to a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Climate change is the logic of never-ending growth. Destroying the environment and hiding the damage is the logic of capitalist realism.
Like its namesake socialist realism, capitalist realism’s all-encompassing atmosphere of There is No Alternative (TINA) guarantees a worsening state of crisis. Without a widespread belief in political and social systems that disregard the tenants of neoliberalism’s free-market mentality, there is nothing left to do but fudge the numbers and go on pretending.
This is what our society has in common with the collapsing USSR. Adam Curtis shows this well in his 2016 film HyperNormalization. The phenomenon of hypernormalization was coined by Alexei Yurchak — a professor of anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley — who used the term to describe the paradox of living in a society where everyone knew the system was failing but could not imagine any alternative. This refusal to accept failure creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the last chapter of capitalist realism — titled Marxist Supernanny — Fisher urges the left to renew itself and abandon the shell of Fordism which still haunts it like a bad memory. Today’s workers exist in a different environment than the factory floor. Because of our information driven society, capital now relies on the digital communication of its workers as opposed to the old system where discussion and potential organization was limited to the bathroom or after hours.
What we lack now are strategies to challenge capital on its current playing field. Fisher calls for bold visions that contradict capital’s desires. We are, Fisher argues, at year-zero. Anything is possible. If the left can reinvent itself in the wake of the fallout of neoliberalism, there is nothing to challenge it. Living in the “rubble of history,” as he puts it, is a kind of opportunity.
The long dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionally great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
The famed American socialist Eugene Debs was a railroad worker in his youth, and he used to tell socialists they needed to have more sand. Sanding the railways tracks is a technique that helps the train gain traction. Debs meant that socialists needed to learn to dig in when the going gets tough. The end of history, as Fisher put it, offers an enormous opportunity for a new generation of leftists. Using Fisher’s words as the sand in our tracks, we can overcome reaction and escape the fog of capitalist realism.
Alternatives do exist.