Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by Mark Fisher – Zero Books

Following the biggest financial collapse since the 1930s, the apparent relief that astronomical government bailouts have returned us to ‘business as usual’ is surely proof that the expression ‘there is no alternative’ – once an extremist ideological battle cry – is now an accepted mainstream orthodoxy. This is a paradox, expressed in the somewhat desperate-sounding subtitle of Mark Fisher’s book: on the one hand, the neoliberal faith in markets has been spectacularly discredited before the eyes of the world, together with the notion that obscene personal wealth – exemplified by banker’s bonuses – is a sign of general economic health; on the other hand, the only available response to such a monumental failure appears to be the most cautious, ameliorative regulation to get the old system up and running again.
Fisher defines ‘capitalist realism’ as ‘a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning … the production of culture … the regulation of work and education’, something which acts as an ‘invisible barrier constraining thought and action’. The reality certainly exists – vouched for by the symptomatic analysis Fisher performs on a multitude of cultural phenomena; and yet, crucially, a ‘reality’ that always includes, and depends upon, our implicit acknowledgment of it as delineating the realms of the possible. ‘Being realistic’ is often a case of ‘reflexive impotence’: seeing as we are helpless to change anything, why bother trying? This attitude is evidently true – think of the Iraq War protest – but nevertheless self-fulfilling. With this in mind, Fisher’s book is, despite the oppressive diagnosis, a much-needed plea that the present economic crisis be seized as an opportunity; a tipping point that allows us to build an alternative to this increasingly intolerable and ultimately unsustainable mode of living.
The book both introduces (illustratively, through films, novels etc) and is grounded in postmodern theory, from which two ideas are of particular significance for the more specific analysis. First, Slavoj Zizek’s notion that we believe (eg in capitalism) through our actions, not our inner convictions. Second, the idea that we have definitively moved beyond an age of traditional authority: from a disciplinary regime to a control society, in Gilles Deleuze’s terms; from a prohibitive paternal function to one that, in Zizek’s terms, compels us to enjoy.
Fisher’s critical approach is to focus not on the exploitation or class division which capitalism is predicated upon, but on those areas where it is demonstrably dysfunctional according to its own criteria. Neoliberal apologists can hardly claim that free market capitalism promotes equality; but our consumerist economy does promise pleasure and happiness, above all else. Why, then, are we in the UK suffering from epidemic levels of depression? Fisher’s other test case is bureaucracy: it was the one thing even those on the left would expect the dynamic, ruthlessly efficient business model to have all but eliminated in those areas where it replaced the ungainly apparatus of centralised control. The reality, in our deregulated, subcontracted and globally outsourced economy, is just the opposite, as any encounter with ‘the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centres’ will testify.
These inconsistencies are examined within the field of education. In one of the most revealing sections of the book, Fisher speaks of the ‘depressive hedonia’ he encountered among his FE students, who were defined in post-disciplinary terms as consumers, brought up on instant sensation-stimulus gratification and seemingly unable to pursue anything except pleasure. Fisher also has much to say about the auditing culture which has infected education, and lead to a virtual world of data generation and manipulation where targets become ends in themselves in the race to improve not teaching and research, but public image. In what is a more widespread characteristic of capitalist realism, Fisher points to how market thinking becomes internalised – self-assessment turning workers into their own auditors.
For Fisher, the initial political task is to expose the structural causes underlying these common experiences. The competitive assessment culture that dogs education is a result of the concerted efforts to artificially turn the provision of public goods into markets. Likewise, against what Fisher aptly describes as the ‘privatisation of stress’, it is essential to link the extraordinary rise in mental health problems to the deregulated, flexible job market and its impact in terms of work insecurity, longer working hours, competition, and lack of status and respect. Cure the system, we might say, if the individual patient is to get well. (Or, as The Invisible Committee provocatively put it in its manifesto The Coming Insurrection: ‘We are not depressed; we’re on strike.’)
Attention to the prosaic seems the right approach for any anti-capitalist endeavour. Yet there is a further, ontological dimension to the book. At some fundamental level we humans need the new: experimental forms, fresh visions and ideas for living. The most upbeat prognosis for liberal democracy and market-driven technological progress cannot disguise the sense of exhaustion and sterility, of things never fundamentally changing, of conformity and ‘the end of history’. The transformation of everything into exchangeable commodities, or into purely aesthetic objects, is a form of living death.
The triumph of neoliberalism may have altered our world but, as others have insisted, it represents a massive restoration of wealth and power. For Fisher, if a left alternative is to be put forward as a rival rather than a reaction, it cannot return to the old ‘disciplinary’ structures beloved of trade unions (Fisher’s advice to them: get immanent); rather it must ‘build on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy’. After all, who wants ‘inflexibility’ and a return to fordist routine?
The most profound desire which Fisher picks up on, following comments by the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, is the desire to get beyond the self. This is something that a market-based approach, with the imperative to ‘give people what they want’, is constitutionally incapable of satisfying. Audience-focused broadcasting – and there are parallels here with ‘relational’ or ‘participatory’ approaches to art – is by nature consensual and risk-averse. In other words, suffocating. More politically, escaping the self, and the incapacitating ideology of individualism, equates to what is also the basis for any serious challenge to capitalist realism: the emergence of the collective – something Fisher emphasises at several points. Without collective action, such as refusing to participate in auditing exercises, the most illuminating critiques are doomed. Finally, if exceeding the self, in a narcissistic consumer culture built around it, implies sacrifice, then this chimes with Fisher’s all-too-brief suggestion that we embrace the ‘new austerity’ that ecological disaster compels – at a libidinal as well as practical level. The reverse of reactionary anti-modernism, it is an invitation to take the future into our own hands.


About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer.
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