Capitalist Realism


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Sunday, January 21, 2018 - 11:15am
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Review of Mark Fisher's book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (There is!)


[For the Old Mole Variety Hour June 28, 2010].      The British blogger and theorist Mark Fisher recently published a slim little volume from Zer0 books titled Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? By "Capitalist Realism" he means, roughly, the notion that, as Margaret Thatcher famously asserted, there is no alternative to capitalism. But Fisher is also interested in questioning and exploring the implications of this view that, as it is sometimes put, it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Fisher, of course, does not agree that there is no alternative to the current system. Like those involved with the US social forum, he believes that another world is both necessary and possible. But Fisher's tone is far more sober than the jaunty anthem of the alter-globalization movement. He takes quite seriously the implications of our collective failure to successfully propose a persuasive alternative to capitalism, and he explores the increasingly pervasive commodification of life and the expansion of managerial bureaucracy under neoliberalism.

Okay, maybe that's too much of a mouthful. Fisher's project, like the project of Zer0 books more generally, is in part to make high theory accessible, to promote writing that is (as the publishers put it) "intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist"; to show that (as Fisher puts it) "serious writing doesn't have to be opaque and incomprehensible, and popular writing doesn't have to be facile." Fisher's Capitalist Realism has a few lapses into opacity, and I don't think its clarity is helped by the failure to include any footnotes or citations. But for the most part, the book helps readers both to make sense of complex ideas presented by European thinkers like Slavoj Zizek and Gilles Deleuze, and, thereby, to better understand the shape and consequences of the mode of production and the dominant ideology in which we live, so that we can intervene more effectively to change it. That mode of production has been called late capitalism, consumer capitalism, post-Fordist capitalism, and neoliberalism. The accompanying ideology has been called postmodernism, cynicism, and, in Fisher's account, capitalist realism.

He has argued that if "capitalist realism is the widespread idea that capitalism is the only "realistic" political economic system[,] The response to the financial crisis only reinforced this belief - it was . . . unthinkable that the banks could be allowed to crash. The problem is imagining an alternative that anyone believes could be actually attained. Which isn't to say that an alternative can't ever come about." Fisher argues that "a moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine, and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated [can be] easily painted as naïve utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort."

He notes three areas where such a critique can emerge. One is the environmental or Green critique, which shows that "far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment." Since others have these arguments well underway, Fisher concentrates on two others, concerning mental health and bureaucracy.

As one reviewer summarizes Fisher's point about the first of these, "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 . . . suffering from epidemic levels of depression?" Here Fisher refers to the work of psychologist Oliver James, whose book The Selfish Capitalist examines the correlation between the degree of a nation's embrace of neoliberal economic policies such as privatization and workforce flexibility, and the rates at which populations are suffering chronic problems like depression, anxiety, and attention-deficit disorder. Fisher calls the tendency to frame these problems as individual rather than collective ones "the privatization of stress":

Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low serotonin. This requires social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.

Fisher thus argues against the privatization of stress and for the recognition that "instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high." While mental health has gone down, bureaucracy has gone up. Fisher points out that neoliberalism claims to offer a reduction of bureaucracy and a streamlining of the delivery of goods and services. In fact, however, it has resulted in the opposite: an enormous increase in auditing, assessment, and pseudo-accountability. While corporations have had an ever easier time being licensed to do things like, say, drill for oil in delicate environments, workers have been subjected to ever increasing scrutiny, and ever increasing responsibility for self-scrutiny.

Meanwhile, consumers face the bureaucracy of what's known as customer service, and what Fisher describes as "the crazed, Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centers, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways. . . . In this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself."

Many of Fisher's examples and illustrations are drawn not only from call centers and from popular culture movies and books, but also from his own experiences teaching in the British further education system, where depressed and distracted students are supposed to be educated by teachers who are themselves depressed and distracted by the constant requirements to demonstrate that their students are learning. But extrapolating from his examples to the situation in the US is easy enough. Consider the no-child left behind program, or the current administration's variant, the "race to the top" program, which requires that teachers be evaluated by student test scores. Consider the recent Colorado bill that revokes teacher tenure if their students don't show progress for two consecutive years. Or consider the recent news of educators variously gaming the system or outright cheating to improve student scores on high-stakes standardized tests. The organization FairTest has a number of reports on the negative consequences of such testing—its race and gender bias, its impoverishing effect on real learning, its tendency to push troubled students to drop out, and its propensity to feed the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Fisher's analysis in Capitalist Realism complements and exceeds such specific critiques, suggesting the need for new tactics of resistance—not strikes, for instance, but organized actions targeted to resist the culture of auditing or assessment.

Capitalist Realism is not (yet) available at the Multnomah County Library, but you can ask them to order it, or you can order a copy through In Other Words, Women's Books and Resources. Or, you can read Fisher's blog online at k-punk.