by Alex Andrews
Mark Fisher’s book ‘Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?’ is a persuasive diagnosis of contemporary society, an analysis of its political impasses and a call for fresh organization and thought.
Capitalist Realism for Fisher describes the core of today’s ideological moment, particularly in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Weekend-read short and written in a highly accessible style, Fisher’s work is “intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist” (in the words of Zer0 book series programmatic statement), attempting to bring the work of high theory and political economy to an informed citizenry, carving out a public space for debate that intends to have direct political impact in an ideological stagnant age.
From Spinoza to Deleuze to Wall-E, from Supernanny to post-autonomist theory, Fisher is not afraid to clash high theory with a well-known illustration to startling effect. An insightful blogger at k-punk, outside of this book Mark has been influential in bringing Derrida’s concept of hauntology to music criticism, working through Simon Reynold’s notorious hardcore continuum thesis regarding electronic music and, more recently, providing one of the most interesting commentaries on the World Cup Finals at the group blog Minus The Shooting.
Ceasefire talked to Mark Fisher about his book, education, the internet and the prospect of moving beyond capitalist realism.
Can you define ‘capitalist realism’ for me?
Put simply, capitalist realism is the view that it is now impossible even to imagine an alternative to capitalism. Capitalism is the only ‘realistic’ political economic system, and, since this is the case, all we can do is accommodate ourselves to it. This leads to the imposition of what I have called ‘business ontology’ – a version of social reality in which every process is modeled on corporate practices.
Thus, we’ve seen the gradual incursion into public services of forms of bureaucratic self-surveillance (performance reviews, mission statements and so on) that have their origins in business. There is an aesthetic and cultural dimension to capitalist realism too. The concept of capitalist realism was meant to echo socialist realism, and, just as socialist realism was a retreat from the abstraction and experimentation of modernism into the familiar and the familial, so capitalist realism trades on a drab and reductive sense of what reality is. It’s no accident, for instance, that the most successful entertainment format over the last decade or so has been reality TV.
What would be a recent example of the phenomena of capitalist realism?
The bank bailouts are the most spectacular example of capitalist realism we’ve yet seen, and the cuts that are now being imposed come out of the same logic. The bank crisis of two years ago was a major shift from the high pomp of neoliberalism, when it was held that the so-called market would automatically provide the answer to any conceivable problem, to a new phase.
The justification for the bank bailouts was that it was unthinkable that banks should be allowed to collapse, as succinct a statement of capitalist realism as you could wish for. Capitalist realism hasn’t weakened since the bank crises; if anything it has intensified. But now that it has lost the sheath of market utopianism to protect it, capitalist realism appears in more raw and exposed form, which I expect to be massively contested over the next few months. In Britain, the new coalition government has enjoyed a period of phony peace. But I expect this to be interrupted very soon, once the anger that is simmering here finds outlets.
In your book you talk about your experience as a teacher in further education, passages which are some of the most evocative moments of the book since they describe the pervasiveness of capitalist realism in day-to-day life. How would you describe capitalist realism in education?
It’s manifested in multiple ways. What we’ve seen is the imposition of a confused consumerist model of what education is – confused, because it’s not clear whether students are the consumers or the products of the education process. We’ve also seen a creeping culture of managerialism, in the form of a proliferation of self-surveillance systems brought in to education from business – log-books, feedback surveys, various kinds of performance monitoring systems.
As I say in the book, this spreading of this kind of bureaucracy through education is a curious prospect. We’ve allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked: the official ideological story is that bureaucracy has decreased under neoliberalism, yet this doesn’t accord with our experience at all. The trick has worked partly because the bureaucracy is no longer just centralised – though there is plenty of centralised control in education. It is contracted out to workers themselves, and presented as ‘staff development’ and such-like.
Do you think that education provides the possibility of resistance to capitalist realism as has been thought traditionally?
I think that education, like all of public services, provides an obvious source of resistance to capitalist realism. Despite the intense ideological pressure, it’s still clear that there’s something more at stake in education than the reproduction of consumers and compliant workers for capitalism. The autonomy of teachers and lecturers has been under attack for thirty years now, but there is still a space of critical resistance in education.
In many ways, public service is where capitalist realism makes itself most evident. In business, capitalist realism is assumed; but what we’ve grown accustomed to over the last few years is the annexation of public service by business practices and thinking. As I said, in the UK, what we’re about to see is a major confrontation between public service and capitalist realism. The right wing media has started an intense campaign against public service workers – there’s an outrageous attempt to blame the current downturn on overspending on public service, when in reality the opposite is the case: public services are being squeezed in order to fund the biggest transfer of funds from the public sphere to private hands in history.
Perhaps the single most important factor in the rise of capitalist realism has been the decline of unions. I don’t believe there’s been a massive switch in people’s private political views and attitudes over the past thirty years. But since union power has been curbed, these attitudes have no agent to speak for them and agitate on their behalf.
The only powerful agents influencing politicians and managers in education are business interests. It’s become far too easy to ignore workers and, partly because of this, workers feel increasingly helpless and impotent. The concerted attack on unions by neoliberal interest groups, together with the shift from a Fordist to a post-Fordist organisation of the economy – the move towards casualisation, just-in-time production, globalization – has eroded the power base of unions.
However, public service employees are some of the most unionized workers in the country, so the upcoming confrontation could see a reassertion of union power. But the long-term issue for the left will concern how to organise and co-ordinate precarious workers – and many teachers in further and higher education have become precarious workers. Because they are on short-term contracts, precarious teachers and lecturers cannot use the traditional techiques organised labour formerly relied upon. They are effectively always applying for their own job, as if they are on a permanent, poorly paid work trial.
You are best know for your blog kpunk, where you have been writing for many years. What do you think about the internet as a resource for activism or resistance to capitalism you describe? Or, on the contrary, do you think that the dependence of our day to day existence, including politics, on the internet can have serious negative effects? For example, as you describe in the book, the ‘always on’ nature of internet culture makes children unable to read or concentrate and ‘interpassive’, literally and figuratively wired, a phenomena you encountered in your experience as a teacher?
The internet can’t do anything on its own; at the same time, nothing can happen without the internet. In her books Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics and Blog Theory, Jodi Dean provides a trenchant critique of the idea that just writing blogs, or commenting on websites and discussion boards, is in itself political. For Dean, certain area of the left have been too ready to set aside organisational discipline for the lure of what she calls “communicative capitalism”, and its impulse to emptily circulate communication for its own sake.
Clearly, the internet is in the process of destroying the “concentrational-punctual” tendencies of old media, with its discrete sense of time. That’s being replaced by “continous partial attention”, and the constant fragmentation of attention across different platforms and media. In the 90s, I was part of the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, which celebrated the de-hierarchizing effects of cyber-culture. But it’s now clear that the apparent removal of hierarchies at some levels of culture has provided a cover for the restoration of power and privilege. The public space projected by broadcast media has been replaced by a kind of networked solipsism.
Yet, if there is to be some kind of renewal of the left, if there is to be a new kind of co-ordination of workers, then cyberspace is crucial. To return to Jodi Dean’s arguments, the left has to instrumentalise the web in the way that the right does. It can’t expect leftist political movements to spontaneously emerge. New networks are emerging on the web – as you say, that was the place where my theories were first developed and recognised. But my own case is a good example of the way in which the internet is not in itself sufficient. The very same ideas presented in a book form still have more power and influence than they did when they circulated on the web alone.
What resources might break the spell of capitalist realism? Do you think, like Zizek, the coming apocalyptic breaks provide an opportunity?
Yes, we’re now in the midst of a kind of interregnum. The bank crises have killed off neoliberalism as a political project with forward momentum, but it still survives – and can survive indefinitely – because it is now the default setting for most of our institutions. Yet we’re in a moment of massive opportunity, because it’s clear that things can’t return to how they were.
Mainstream politics has yet to respond to the new atmosphere created by the bank crises. That’s because the major political parties had all their thinking, attitudes and strategies shaped by neoliberalism, and can’t adjust to the new situation any more than a cruise liner can quickly change direction. But I think that mainstream politics may be forced to respond, by a popular anger that has been staved off but which I believe will erupt soon. There’s a real chance to strike back against managerialism and its massively over-remunerated beneficiaries.
Then, as you say, there are Zizek’s apocalyptic crises: the crisis of private property (illustrated by the situation of recorded music, which is tending towards decommodification); environmental crisis, the crisis of massive global inequality, and the crisis posed by biogenetic engineering. These crises promise a world that is, in very fundamental respects, radically different from everything we’ve been accustomed to. Once again, however, we can’t assume that these crises will in and of themselves deliver a better world – it’s easy to envisage all kinds of horrific authoritarian scenarios. But they present us with an opening that hasn’t been there for at least the past thirty years.
We might agree we cannot imagine a system beyond capitalism, but the left has struggled, even when it has imagined a system to articulate it? What do you imagine a post-capitalist world to look like? What resources would articulate it?
I think we have to start with organisation – or thinking about organisation. Retreating into pure thought would be a failure to grasp the practical opportunities that are now available; but the idea of circumventing theoretical difficulties by just acting risks a naive voluntarism that would be indistinguishable from impotence. Alain Badiou has argued that, with the collapse of the leftist experiments of the twentieth century, we are effectiively plunged back into a situation similar to that in the nineteenth century, before the labour movements came together.
I think that is correct, and we need to develop the same boldness of thinking, ambition and courage that the founders of the labour movement possessed. But rising to that challenge means, precisely, that we shouldn’t be attached to the ideas and methods that those groups developed for different times. Instead of depressively reclining at the end of history, looking back longingly at all the failed revolts and revolutions of the past, we need to resituate ourselves in history and claim the future back for the left. What is certain is that the right now has no monopoly on the future: manifestly, it has run out of ideas.
May 68 has left a legacy of anti-institutionalism in the left theoretical currents it has influenced – a legacy that is congruent with many of the assumptions of neoliberalism. But politics is not about feel good parties in the street; it’s about developing institutions. The question is: if the old leftist institutions have declined because they were too associated with Fordism, what institutions will work in the current conditions? My friend the theorist Alex Williams has written of “post-Fordist plasticity”.
If capital is fluid, and capable of making alliances between heterogeneous groups, then anti-capital must be similarly flexible. Flexible here shouldn’t mean ‘adapting to the demands of capitalism’, as it currently does (we all know what ‘flexibility’ means when we see it on a job description); it should mean thinking ahead of capitalism, being quicker than it.
Capital isn’t literally global, but it is sufficiently global to be able to pit workers from different sides of the planet against each other. Anti-capital, similarly, needs to be globalized enough so that workers’ interests can be co-coordinated. At the same time, we need to agitate for much more autonomy and control for workers over their immediate work processes – perhaps on the model of worker-run factories in Latin America. Localism can’t tackle global capitalism, and in any case, it is regressive.
As Fredric Jameson has argued, capitalism is the most ‘collective’ society that has ever existed on earth, in the sense that even the most banal object is the product of a massive web of interdependence. At the moment, this global network is stupid and venal; but rather than abandoning it in favour of some return to agrarianism that will only be possible on the basis of a catastrophe, we need to make the planetary network an intelligent system that can act in the interests of the majority, instead of the tiny minority that profit under the current system. That’s not impossible. In fact, we’ve got an unprecedented chance to make it happen.