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The Commodity Fetishism of Mark Fisher

Mike Watson

January 23, 2023

Mark Fisher died 6 years ago this month. Like many people this fact causes me discomfort. I would like to think of a time, not too far away, when this time of year would pass without the bitter feeling of loss, not of a loved one (though this is the case for friends and family he was very close to) but of a figure who has come to represent a possibility: the possibility that we might imagine a beyond to capitalism, even despite its pervasiveness and depressive influence.

When Fisher passed, it was the rare instance of the possibility of a very specific person and thought process passing out of existence. I felt this too when William Burroughs passed, perhaps I have only felt it upon the death of writers. I certainly would have felt it when Roderick died, if I had known of him back then (in 2001). Though with Fisher, the feeling is somehow more troubling than with the death of other great professors (not academic ones, necessarily, but genuine professors of truth). The feeling is odder and more disconcerting because Fisher has become a kind philosophical commodity fetish far before his time. He has joined the ranks of very few philosophers who are able to impress an idea on the lives of a much greater number of people than have actually read their books. Like very few other theorists, Fisher’s name evokes a kind of aura that goes far beyond the actual content of his work. This creates the impression of there being an inviolable Fisherian standard and style of theorisation, as well as an attitude towards life that one is either on the right side of, or isn’t. And so in turn makes way for the Fisher gatekeepers -- people who berate others for being insufficiently adept in the understanding of Fisher’s theory.

Other philosophers and thinkers in this club are without fail much older than Fisher (or, more accurately, born much earlier than him -- they are all dead). They include Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, Lacan, Sartre, Foucault, Baudrillard, and a few others. Yet of all these people, Fisher holds a special place in the canon, because he is the first to have achieved this status, due in large part to online promotion of Fisher’s thought in the form of videos, podcasts and, crucially, memes. This is both a good and bad thing for the Fisher legacy. On the one hand, his message regarding the potential weakness of capitalism even despite its all pervasiveness benefits from the wide audience it is reaching. On the other hand, Fisher’s image has become that of a kind of philosophical Father, seized upon to delineate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (particularly good and bad forms of leftism), to ascribe status and to gatekeep supposed knowledge.

What makes the situation surrounding Fisher so particular is the sense, rightfully -- given Fisher’s own generosity on reaching out to readers -- that Fisher’s thought is anyone’s to be interpreted and applied, meeting with the reality of that same collective ownership as it manifests in a digitized neoliberal world. As Fisher argued, everything contrary to capitalism is and will be co-opted, even the thought and image of a figure radically opposed to capitalist cooptation.

This process is rarely an overt process. There is no office of co-optation, populated by civil servants or bankers whose job it is to work out how to turn a potentially incendiary leftist cultural phenomena into gaudy and kitsch commodities. That would be ideal as it would be relatively easy to counter. Rather, we have a situation in which each and every person is so dependent upon and invested in capitalism that their ontological security depends upon the unimpeded expression of their own individuality. Communal behaviour is no longer an option as the workplaces and venues where comradery grew up have been closed down. As such, the individual leftist is often responsible for stripping leftist thought of the very sense of community that it purports to want to establish, in a bid to preserve the self, which is the only possible expression of leftism open to us. So we find Marxist theory discussed in closed groups using the terms and peculiar ritualisations of higher academia. With the advent of blogging (and particularly the period of leftist theory blogging that ran from the ‘00s to the early ‘10s), this might have changed. Yet it didn’t, as leftists gathered on blog comment threads to besmirch the (mostly pseudonymous) name of one or other blogger -- a process that has carried on into the podcasting, YouTube and meme era. For the online leftist, the lack of a tangible community necessitates preservation of the fragile self via the only available means: self aggrandizement via the signaling of leftist values -- hence virtue signaling.

Virtue signaling has been rightfully disdained in theoretical circles and the mainstream media, though it does not operate alone. It is joined by other forms of credential signaling, including intelligence-signaling, reading-signaling, marxist-signaling, eco-awareness-signaling, literary-signaling, anti-fascist-signaling (with the wrong person often called out), and so on. What all this signalling demonstrates on the whole is a lack of adherence to leftist values as each comment, post or meme distracts from the basic core skill and value of reaching out to others to form community.

The problem -- as Marx rightly identified with his focus on alienation -- is that we are fundamentally emotional beings, and in societies and periods in which social alienation, caused by capitalism, is rife, people will engage in tenuous attempts to concretise their individual personas by relating them to symbols (of virtue, of intelligence, of superiority in some form). And then arguing with each other over such symbols. For the left today, Fisher is one such symbol, and one that is particularly open to emotional attachment because his free dissemination (due to his community based message and to his becoming a meme) means that a great many people associate his thought and image with their own selves. They have abdicated part of their persona to an imagined higher intellectual force, capable of adjudicating on issues as wide as philosophy, politics, fashion, football, music, the media (the wide range that Fisher wrote on). Within this, there are of course genuine material rights to Fisher’s books, though we should be careful not to imagine such things are somehow more rational or stable than the simple emotional attachment of a Zoomer who bases her or his fragile identity on Fisher memes (like a boomer who adheres absolutely to imagined Stalinist dictates). Material claims are in no sense more rational than emotional claims and often lead to a heightened emotional engagement with a given object (in this case the image and written work of Mark Fisher). Just as commodity fetishism leads people to ascribe values to an object that go far beyond its material properties (wars have been fought over holy lands, for example), a whole host of identities have been attached to Fisher’s work. Separating out the genuine theoretical interest from the self interest and the material claims is perhaps a pointless task. Somewhere in there reside the words of Fisher, urging a depressed contemporary proletariat to unite and creatively challenge capitalism. And one is either on board or not.

At this point, it is worth recalling the intentions of Fisher’s last unfinished work, written less than a decade ago, just prior to his death and the advent of the Fisher cult, for clues to the direction his project may have taken. In the introduction to the projected book, Acid Communism, Fisher made clear his aversion to the sense of absolute authority so often associated with the left and which he termed the ‘Harsh Leninist Superego’:

The Harsh Leninist Superego mandates a militant ascesis. The militant will be single-mindedly dedicated to the revolutionary event, and unflinchingly committed to the means necessary to bring it about. The Harsh Leninist Superego is as indifferent to suffering as it is hostile to pleasure Lenin’s phobic response to music is instructive here: “I can’t listen to music too often. It affects your nerves, makes you want to say stupid nice things and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell.”

While the complacent leaders of organised labour were invested in the status quo, the Harsh Leninist Superego stakes everything on a world absolutely different to this one. It was this post-revolutionary world which would redeem the Leninist, and it was from the perspective of this world that they judged themselves. In the meantime, it is legitimate and indeed necessary to cultivate an indifference towards current suffering: we can and must step over homeless people, because giving to charity only obstructs the coming of the revolution.

We would do well now to stop ourselves and check that we are not at risk of creating, or following, a Harsh Fisherian Superego, that sacrifices potential community building for the temporary and very limited gains to be made by claiming ownership over Fisher. The temporary boost to one’s confidence (a hit of dopamine, no less) by assuredly and publicly claiming Fisher for oneself might suffice to temporarily cover over the deficiencies in self brought about at the hands of capitalism. Yet we cannot imagine that harsh treatment of others in the short term is necessary to honour an anyhow bizarrely sanctified image of Fisher, when doing so impedes the path to community that Fisher favoured (not to mention Fisher's absolute disdain for online leftist infighting). The best thing we can do is take Fisher off the pedestal we have constructed, return to the texts, alongside the many others by other theorists who have also contributed to the left canon, and apply those words where useful to the task of creating a community dedicated to human potential, to socialism. In this light I would like to finish with a quote from Fisher’s Exiting the Vampire Castle:

We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication.


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