Capitalist Realism - Mark Fisher

The only game in town, and a rigged one at that. Within what is swiftly becoming ‘living memory’, capitalism is now the only economic, social and political system deemed possible, the logic of its late incarnation permeating every aspect of life, culture, even inner thought. So absolute is its mental grip that when international finance capitalism recently imploded in its own greed, devastating the world, its victims reacted by obediently, meekly, pathetically recreating the whole shoddy system, and handing their public services the bill. Stockholm syndrome on a global scale.

Capitalist Realism looks at how the logic of this social and spiritual stranglehold manifests itself in a myriad of ways. From the meaningless market-bureaucracy which infests public services to the nihilist-materialism of gangster films and gangsta rap, from the faux-humanitarianism of Bill Gates his fellow generous oligarchs ,to the omnipresent PR of all business and government functions, now not just a tool but an end itself. All neo-liberal life is here.

Mark Fisher writes at the fascinatingly digressive cultural website k-Punk, and here as elsewhere uses contemporary cultural fiction as both reference and launchpad for his analysis. He begins with the suggestion that the film Children of Men is the apocalyptic fantasy most appropriate to the capitalist age, a sterile populace representing a sterile culture, not openly totalitarian, yet nonetheless brutal, completely atomised, all public space abandoned, and connecting with the suspicion that ‘the end has already come’. Most importantly, that there really does seem to be no alternative. As Fisher notes, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

But the nature of this murky triumphalism is such that this “post-Fordist” capitalism is a far more amorphous creature than that which appeared in the old “capitalist/worker” duality that characterised the conflicts of old. The new capitalism asserts ‘we’re all in this together’ (to quote our present regime), the system is everyone and everyone is the system, - to question its logic is to question the logic of life itself, of your own sanity. This means that the savage disparity inherent in the system have increasingly turned into internal conflicts, with mental illness spreading at an exponential rate - schizophrenia at society’s margins, bi-polar disorder at is core.

Capital is the amorphous “un-nameable thing”, tainting everything with the logic of its own transactions. The brutal logic of the market creates its own kind of cultural ‘realism’, which Fisher shows as expressing itself in the fetishisation of the rugged individual in the vogue for gansta rap and gangster films, reaching their asocial apotheosis in the Hobbesian fictional worlds of James Elroy and Frank Miller, no-one and nothing is to be trusted. Fisher uses gangster films to show the direction of travel capitalist organisation has taken. In the Godfather era of the 40s-60s, the Corleones are bound together with a ruthless and absolute loyalty, in a mirroring the big hierarchical corporations of old (where you may be exploited but you still have a job for life, ‘at least they looked after their own.’). By the time of Heat, De Niro’s character Neil McAuley shows himself a very modern gangster by his lack of any ties or loyalties whatsoever, “Don’t let yourself get too attached to anything that you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.” This in turn mirrors the atomisation of the brave new world of the “de-centred” capitalism whose lack of straightforward hierarchy only makes its exploitation more nebulous, casual labour in all areas of the economy exploited as never before while billionaires lightly toss their casual carefree faces to the world, “shirtsleeves informality and quiet authoritarianism.

In a system where everyone is co-opted then no-one can be to blame. Witness, as Fisher notes that “no-one was to blame” at Hillsborough and the Menezes shooting - literally speaking this is quite true. Capitalism claims its legitimacy in the name of the free, autonomous individual, yet this individual has long been lost in a Kafka-esque maze, his face used as a totem whilst his autonomy is secreted away, forgotten.

Socialist Realism was the official name for the ersatz art churned out by Stalin’s Soviet Union. Hackneyed, servile and trite, the art of ‘actually existing socialism’ had less in common with the liberationist project of Marxism than the plastic Virgin Marys flogged near Lourdes have to do with the Sermon on the Mount. The reality of ‘actually existing capitalism’ is similarly dislocated from its projected self-image as that of the heroic, ruggedly free isolated individual.

Using his own background in the education system as just one of many examples, Fisher shows that while modern capitalism presents itself as the enemy of bureaucracy, and in fact it has proliferated meaningless layers of white collar wastage more than any system in history. As the system only functions in so far as how its appearance can keep its hold over the populace , “all that is solid melts into PR” , and targets proliferate. A frantic scramble ensues for formless trinkets with no link to reality . Everyone knows this is meaningless, yet at an official level this cannot be admitted. When Gerald Ratner called his product ‘crap’ he sinned against this unwritten rule – we all know it but it must not be admitted. This is an omnipresent façade, from which everyone seeks escape by any means necessary. . The daydreams appropriate to this Janus-faced world are the paranoid fantasies of Paralax View or the Bourne films, or at a higher level in the nightmare schizoid dreamscapes of Burroughs, Philip K Dick and David Cronenbourg, “where agency is dissolved in a phantasmagoric haze of psychic and physical intoxicants.”

Writing with a mercurial set of cultural references, Fisher can shift gear from the ground level of reality TV shows like Supernanny to the heights of Bardrillard and Lacan without any sense of jarring incongruity. Unlike Slavoj Zizek, another social critic given to blending high and low cultural reference points, you never get the sense that they are being thrown in just to shock, or highlight the author’s brilliance.

Fisher shows the modern society as a sinister hall of mirrors, and illuminates each pained pane perfectly. So many themes throb within this tiny book (just 81 pages!) as to take your breath away, and this review has only scraped the surface. Other panes – that revolution itself has been absorbed and commodified into the neoliberal paradigm with ‘liberal communists’ such as the philanthropic elite of Gates and Soros giving out with one hand what they take away with another, that Kafka prefigured the current order better than Orwell or Huxley, (and uncannily predicted the call centre while he was at it,) and that the ostensible ‘choice’ of the market has worked its way in ever diminishing returns into a zero common dominator, 1000 channels of nothing.

Adept at sociology, politics and cultural analysis alike Fisher is probably at his weakest with his own empirical examples of students at the college where he has worked. He claims that the listless sense of time and inability to take to absorb philosophy reading mirror the blip-vert consumer mentality of modern market reality – maybe true, but this also sounds suspiciously like the moaning of the teachers at their pupils over the ages. Still, the piercing vividity of other insights more than make up for this.

While by no means a “light” read, and the odd excursion into Deleuze and other theorists did shoot slightly over my scalp, this is not a something you need a degree in philosophy or cultural theory to comprehend, its ingenuity is an open book. And while Fisher's style is more often academic in style than not, the forensic imagination and magnificently multifarious breadth of scope on display means this is anything but a dry read.

Indeed, he brings to vivid life a somewhat deadening and depressing vision. “The most gothic description of capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, and insatiable vampire and zombie-maker, but the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.”

This is a horror show in which we are all trapped. In Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher shows with terrifying insight just how completely it has enveloped us, but offers little glimpse of how we can break out. He does however disabuse us of any false hopes, in demonstrating the enormity of the hold it has on us, and shows the rank monster for what it is. Maybe that’s a start.

[First published on Spike Magazine, 2010]