Capitalist Realism: is there no alternative?

Capitalist Realism, Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher, Ropley: Zero Books 2010, £7.99, ISBN 978-184694-317-1, pp.81.

Mark Fisher is a leading light at Zero Books, publishers of a growing stable of short, topical essay-books such as Richard Seymour’s The Meaning of David Cameron and Nina Power’s One Dimensional Woman, soon to be supplemented by Laurie Penny’s Meat Market, Female flesh under capitalism. Written accessibly, without references, citations or index, they discuss in cultural studies style, films and tv more than books and journals. In the virtual democracy of the internet, ‘Contemporary culture has eliminated both the concept of the public’ (turned into consumers) ‘and the figure of the intellectual.’ Instead, ‘A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by expensively educated hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their interpassive stupor… generating a bland conformity.’

‘Zero Books knows that another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist – is not only possible: it is already flourishing, in the regions beyond the striplit malls of so-called mass-media and the neurotically bureaucratic halls of the academy. Zero is committed to the idea of publishing as the making public of the intellectual. It is convinced that in the unthinking, blandly consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical reflection is more important than ever before.’

This position statement gives a flavour, though interestingly for readers of PSE, Mark Fisher’s contribution is informed, as well as by his extensive reading and viewing, by teaching A-level philosophy in FE. However, his starting point is not the end of transcendence and the death of hope implied by his title, but is another term for postmodernism, which he finds ‘appropriately but unhelpfully, unsettled and multiple’ (p.7) in meaning. No longer contesting modernism as it had developed, including in the form of actually existing socialist realism in relation to which he notes his title originated, it refers rather to the fact that ‘For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.’ (p.8) So that for Jameson and/or Zizek, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’ (p.2).

Confronted by such a reality, what is to be done? After ‘the consensual sentimentality of Live Aid replaced the antagonism of the Miners’ Strike’ (p.66), which last ‘exposed the fault lines of class antagonism’ in the UK (p.7), Thatcher’s ‘succinct slogan of capitalist realism’ became ‘a brutally self-fulfilling prophecy’ (p.8). Even protest re-enacting 1968 was carnivalised, despite conditions for youth being ‘substantially harsher than the conditions they protested against in the 60s’ (p.14), so that today’s French students, for example, demand a return to the past rather than a new future. But against this naturalization of ‘business ontology in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business’ (p.17), certain realities cannot be repressed. Fisher focuses on three of them: incipient environmental catastrophe which ‘contradicts capitalism’s constitutive imperative towards growth’ (p.80), the epidemic of mental health problems, including dyslexia (which he suspects is post-lexia, another pathology of late capitalism, like ADHD) and bureaucracy, which, instead of disappearing, as promised by free-marketeers, has changed into a new decentralised form.

This is nowhere more apparent than in FE, which since 1993 has been ‘at the vanguard of changes that would be rolled out through the rest of the education system and public services – a kind of lab in which neoliberal “reforms” of education have been trialled’ (p.20). Here Fisher was met – rather like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt teaching ‘Meat 1’ – by the self-fulfilling prophecy of students’ ‘reflexive impotence’: ‘They know that things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it.’ (p.21) In a society based on debt, you ‘Pay for your own exploitation… get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you’d left school at sixteen…’ (p.26). As a result, ‘Depression is endemic.’ (p.21) or, rather, what Fisher calls ‘depressive hedonia… not so much an inability to get pleasure so much as an ability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.’ (p.22).

‘In large part this is a consequence of students’ ambiguous structural position, stranded between their old role as subjects of disciplinary institutions and their new status as consumers of services.’
‘Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians.’ (p.26) ‘What we in the classroom are now facing is a generation born into that ahistorical, antimnemonic blip culture…’ (p.25)
‘a retreat into private “OedIpod” consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.’ (p.24)
Perhaps, describing the reactions of his students, Fisher misses some elements of realisation and resistance to running up the down-escalator of depreciating educational qualifications!

Trapped in the ubiquitous bureaucracy of the dispersed corporation, managers ‘mediate between the post-literate subjectivity of the late capitalist consumer and the demands of the disciplinary regime (to pass exams etc).’ (pp25-6) Meeting the meaningless targets of audit culture, they ‘perform self-flagellation as part of a purely formal exercise in bureaucratic compliance’ (p.52). But after the Credit Crunch, we are all the walking Undead of a Zombie Capitalism that ‘without a credible and coherent alternative… will continue to rule the political-economic unconscious.’ (p.78)

‘We need to begin, as if for the first time, to develop strategies against a Capital which presents itself as ontologically, as well as geographically, ubiquitous… the goal of a genuinely new left should not be to take over the state but to subordinate the state to the general will, revivifying – and modernizing – the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests.’ (p.77)
‘This is a struggle that can be won – but only if a new political subject coalesces.’ (p.79) It is the project of Zero Books, although it is not clear at what subject they are aiming. University students, such as those at Goldsmiths’ where Fisher now teaches, must be a large part of its constituency but their’s may prove a flash-in-the-pan resistance.

Something else that has happened since the book was written is the resistance of the medical profession to Coalition plans to privatise the NHS. Admittedly, this has ended in a compromise in which much damage continues to be done to a public service that was already thoroughly marketised under New Labour but it is a sorry contrast with education, where Gove is remorsely pushing through more marketisation that can only end in the privatisation of state schools, while Willetts is extending New Labour’s introduction of HE fees to substitute price for quality in the increasingly privatised competition of universities and colleges.

Something else too in the organised resistance of a few individuals to the corporate take over of the media that led to the exposure of Murdoch, while it is becoming clearer to more and more people that society has been taken over by the bankers, who in Greece the population at large are refusing to pay. Here, MPs seeking now to distance themselves from Blair/Cameron subservience to Murdoch, are already thoroughly discredited by their expenses scandal emulation of the bankers to whom they gave power. The story of how this all happened since 1979 is not hard to tell. As Mark Fisher concludes, ‘From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.’ (p.81)

Patrick Ainley

Forthcoming in the next issue of ‘Post-16 Educator’

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