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Capitalist Realism All Over Again

James A. Smith

17 March 2023

Such is the whiplash of the left’s fortunes in the almost a decade and a half since Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, that many of us are already onto our second ‘reappraisal’ of the great book. At the start of my Other People’s Politics (drafted in 2018), I reflected with gratitude that the atmosphere of nightmarish compression and lack of possibility that made Capitalist Realism so resonant after the 2008 financial crash, seemed now to have been suspended. We had gone from the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ Fisher spoke of, where ‘there are no breaks, no “shocks of the new” to come’, to an abundance of such shocks. Between 2014 and 2017, British politics had served up the near-misses/probably-next-times of Scottish Independence and Corbynism and the victory of Brexit, not to mention the rise of Donald Trump and a panoply of ‘left populist’ formations across Europe and the US. Whatever one made of these projects individually, the politicians identified with them didn’t sound like the species Fisher had so recently skewered as the ‘Last Man by nature’ and the ‘Last Man by force of will’ (Blair and Brown respectively). Was it ‘capitalist realism’ speaking when – in retort to economic critiques of Brexit – Nigel Farage said ‘there’s more to life than economic growth’ or when Boris said ‘fuck business’? On the left, this new voluntarism of the right was met with a suspension of realism of our own, especially following the surprise over-performance of Corbyn in the 2017 general election. Polls were bullshit; the evidence of our senses (in the bleak mass door-knocking exercises of 2019) was bullshit; the new Jerusalem would be delivered by the omnipotence of our political libido come election night. Realism be damned.

What has occurred in the interim? A profound enclosing of the populist unpredictability of the long 2016: a ‘Restoration’, to use Fisher’s borrowed term for such demobilisations. The heterodoxy in both domestic and foreign policy – on both right and left – in those years has been smothered in the twin nightmares of COVID-19 and Ukraine. For today’s elites, there is once again ‘no alternative’ to technocratic edict and permanent inequality at home, the supremacy of NATO abroad. Our leaders have relearned arts Fisher saw them deploying at the start of the century. Then, the War on Terror was a ‘normalization of crisis […] in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable’. Such scattered resistances as existed ended up reflecting the anti-democratic state-of-emergency outlook of the powers they were protesting: ‘politics has to be suspended in the name of ethical immediacy’, as Fisher put it, in a dynamic he dated back to the original Live Aid. Today, once again, unlimited and open-ended powers are claimed by states in the name of crises that are too important to be hazarded to democratic oversight or protest.

While the Western left’s approbation for Capitalist Realism has only grown since Fisher’s death in 2017, it has struggled to apply the book’s insights to these circumstances. Virtually the only function of the post-Corbyn/post-Bernie left on COVID-19 and Ukraine has been to drench the political field in anti-political moralism, ensuring any attempts to maintain either event as politically contestable problems remains eccentric and marginal. On COVID-19, government containment measures could never be extreme enough for the left’s satisfaction. On Ukraine, the left’s figureheads have been more than willing to offer up the Tankies of the ‘pariah left’ for sacrifice, or (see the complete absence of resistance to Keir Starmer’s Atlanticism in the UK Labour Party) to defer to reactionary liberals on the acceptable parameters of debate. Attempts to provide leadership to the many otherwise unpolitical people who oppose Western escalation and intervention in the region has broadly been abandoned to the opportunist dissident right. I don’t presume to guess what stance Fisher personally might have taken on these issues had he survived (there is no reason to presume he would be different to any other leftist intellectual). The striking thing is more the paucity of critiques available today compared to what Fisher managed in 2009.

Another anachronism of the book is its comfort with targeting ‘liberal’ billionaires such as Bill Gates and George Soros (philanthropists Slavoj Žižek’s writings of the time referred to as ‘liberal communists’). For Fisher, ‘one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding father’. The dynamic was no longer – as in the Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life – the avaricious rich man versus the little guy who just wants to do good for his community, but a successful absorption of the mannerisms of the latter into the material interests of the former. As Fisher remarks, even ‘climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing’. Today we are living with the completion of the dynamic Fisher described. The leading Western states speak the language of the Green New Deal while treating a massive reduction in living standards as unavoidable. The international consensus on COVID lockdowns, surveillance, and universal compulsory vaccination was conjured by a World Health Organisation to which the Gates Foundation is the second-biggest donor (after the United States), and which – as Toby Green and Thomas Fazi have shown – reflected Gates’s personal and historically idiosyncratic opinions on global health. And yet for Fisher’s admirers today, an undue interest in Gates and Soros or the malign interests elites might have in pursuing radical climate or public health measures are markers of right-wing conspiracism. With COVID and the climate crisis, billionaires have shed their image as ‘hoarding fathers’ even in the eyes of the left itself.

Looking at Capitalist Realism from something approaching a generational distance reminds us that it is also a book about generations. At the level of the title, Fisher’s justification for speaking of ‘capitalist realism’ rather than the abundance of available near-synonyms (postmodernism/neoliberalism/end of history/late capitalism/new times etc) is a generational one. The canonical Marxist critiques of postmodern culture from the 1980s and 90s were made when the neoliberal order they argued it reflected was still being ‘fought for and established’, and were made to an audience that had grown up with the existence of what we might call the big alternative, a communist World Power, as the norm. As time has passed, first-wave ‘mass’ works of postmodernism like Alien and Blue Velvet come to seem qualitatively closer to modernist works like The Waste Land and Ulysses, than they do to today’s Marvel movies (even though the latter can easily be interpreted as postmodern too). Similarly, whereas Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodern subject of the 1970s was famously ‘incredulous’ about the possibility of redeeming metanarratives and coherent being, the Fisherian subject in 2009 didn’t even think of them at all. ‘For most people under twenty in Europe and North America’, Fisher concludes, ‘the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue’.

Perhaps reflecting the place of British ‘cultural studies’ in Fisher’s education, the under-20s of 2009 do not appear in Capitalist Realism as sociological abstractions, but as some of the most textured representations in the book. Drawing on his own teaching work in further education (in Britain, usually 16-18 year-olds), Fisher invokes a teenager who always wears headphones in class, and protests that he wasn’t even listening to anything when challenged. In another class, Fisher notices the same student’s headphones lying on the desk, quietly playing music that the student then protests that ‘he can’t even hear’. Fisher’s indispensable term for this is ‘depressive hedonia’, the nervous and pleasureless need for continual stimulation (even if it is only ‘the other’ who is being stimulated on our behalf). Fisher felt he was working with students with uniformly dreadful mental health, and very little conceptual apparatus with which to gain mastery over their predicament. Reading was ‘boring’: not so much the subject matter being taught, as the act of sustained reading itself. In many cases ‘dyslexia’ was a misleading diagnosis for a much more generalised ‘post-lexia’, unable to break through the morass of digital micro-stimulations even if it had been motivated to try.

How to read these portraits today? On the one hand, we must ask whether Fisher was unduly pessimistic. Some of the students in whom he saw such unescapable and debilitating hopelessness presumably went on to join the ‘Generation Left’ that coagulated around Corbynism. The enduring lesson of 2017 is that one should never write off the possibility of people acting – albeit momentarily – as political subjects, even in unpromising circumstances. At the same time, the situation now is still more unpromising for the younger cousins of Fisher’s students. During the post-2009 period, the relatively unregulated Internet on which Fisher made his reputation (as the blogger k-punk) has been enclosed by a cohort of monopoly platforms, sustained by maximising addictive and aggressive behaviour in their users, and gladly answerable to the American security services. It is unsurprising then, that post-lexia has spread from Fisher’s working-class kids in underfunded UK state schools, to some of the most expensively educated young people in the world. As one Harvard professor recently put it, ‘the last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences’. If depressive hedonia/post-lexia was already universal by the time of the left defeats of 2019/20, the COVID lockdowns that followed – their privatized online mediation of all social interactions and cruel misnomer of online learning – disabled and pathologized a generation yet further.

And what of the other side of the working arrangement Fisher describes? If depressive hedonia/post-lexia was the condition of the students in Capitalist Realism, ‘Market Stalinism’ was the condition of the staff. The marketisation/privatisation agenda ‘third way’ neoliberal governments promised would free entrepreneurial animal spirits from statist bureaucracy had resulted instead in a swelling of bureaucracy, as workers now had to constantly announce and affirm how efficient and competitive they were being, in a performance of massaged figures, mutual audits, and self-assessments worthy of a Stalin show trial. On the surface, it is surprising that the ‘Market Stalinism’ analysis did not have more currency for the 2015-2019 left, especially when Brexit had among its dominant tones an anti-bureaucratic, anti-red tape impulse. The left had in the pages of Capitalist Realism a ready-made and rhetorically brilliant critique of the time-consuming, counterproductive and soul-destroying performances of auditing which – as Mareile Pfannebecker and I have noted – increasingly cut across both the labour of working-class low-level administrators and bourgeois professionals. As Corbynite measures like workplace democracy, the 4-day week, and banning zero hours contracts strived to redeem the world of work, Fisher’s critique could have added a much-needed populist attack on the thing a great range of people hate most about their jobs. Capitalist Realism even ends with a promising piece of left strategy: the replacement of the tactic of blanket strikes with a ‘withdrawal of forms of labour which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance […] which managerialism could not exist without’.

Corbyn’s successor, obviously, is ‘managerialism’ embodied (as one strained panegyric in GQ Magazine put it on his election, ‘Starmer can chair a meeting. He can draft a minute. He can lead a team’). But could there be a deeper significance to the reticence about embracing Fisher’s critique or Market Stalinism within the radical left itself? The accumulation of progressive ‘reckonings’ – on sex in 2018, race in 2020, and more chaotically on transgenderism at the present time – has usually meant the empowerment of precisely the caste of managers, tsars, and administrators Fisher denounced, as a means of imposing progressivism ‘from above’ via equalities training, renaming of buildings, and policing of employee behaviour. How can the left oppose Market Stalinism when it depends on it as a tool to enable progressive employees in prestige workplaces to ‘stand up’ to their employers on issues it supports (campaigns to remove Jordan Peterson and Dave Chappelle from Penguin and Netflix for example, or to push Disney to oppose Ron DeSantis)? COVID-19 containment measures meanwhile were a triumph of Market Stalinism. Continual testing of healthy people, continual refreshing and tinkering of rules, an explosion of QR codes and other monitoring in our personal lives and a massive rewriting of policies and risk assessments in every workplace, plus – in the new emphasis on ‘working from home’ – an even greater orienting of the economy around the kind of unproductive ‘email jobs’ that can be done from home. How could a critique of Market Stalinism be sustained on the left, without slipping into the ranks of the ‘lockdown sceptics’, the leftists’ bête noire in the period?

Capitalist Realism deserves its status as the ‘patron text’ of the 21st century left. But we have to learn to read it afresh. On almost every salient issue interrogated by Fisher, the left is now either silent, under-theorized, immune to the necessary debates, or – at worst – actively malign. Then as now, the famous question of Fisher’s subtitle – ‘is there no alternative?’ should be answered in the negative. But we can only do so if we treat Capitalist Realism as a shock from an already-alien past, not as the foundation of the feeble position we find ourselves in now.


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