Monday, 25 January 2010

Review of 'Capitalist Realism' by Mark Fisher

This is a great little book.

The Continental tradition in philosophy is still unparalleled in the resources it has to offer theorists attempting to characterize contemporary society. The angles of vision it can provide, the theoretical models, the sentiments for the expression of which it provides concepts – in the right hands this is powerful stock, accumulated through a century of reflection.

Fisher, with skill, employs this body of Theory to open up and understand the machine, and there is enough in the way of observation and concentrated thought, that one is not left merely hanging onto a bag of untamed abstract nouns.

Capitalist Realism itself, is basically the cultural condition in which, with Marx, we stare with clear eyes at “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (4) but yet...keep calm and carry on. We are not unmoved exactly; but yet still we do nothing. The details of why and how, and the ramifications in various domains, are the object of the book.

On any of the areas he touches, abstract or concrete, Fisher is illuminating. For example, take the 3-second time-consciousness peculiar to our popular sphere. The economic necessity to reduce everything to purely quantitative relationships engenders this attitude, because future and past loose their particularity, becoming mere versions of the present, identical in quality. This becomes a general mode of relating to the world, of ‘enframing’ it, in Heidegger’s language. We are merely “going forward” into Q2, Q3, Q4... But, the future is the realm through which we imagine that things might be different, and the past is where we see how they were different. And so “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism” (2). (Incidentally, it becomes apparent, through such examples, how legion and subtle would be the alterations effected upon deep cognitive features, by the turn to Angel Economics, in which there is no such need to render everything quantitatively commensurable).

But aside from metaphysics, Fisher can cast light on many more prosaic matters. For example, he was an adult educator, and paints a portrait of British youth that is striking, arresting, and depressingly familiar. Generally, the book bristles with insights

Its slight defect is its journalistic “we”; or, in other terms, the tendency - common to Continental philosophy - to see the structures it identifies as universal, inescapable, brooking no exception. It is the over-extension of Concepts. Adorno used exaggeration as a literary-cognitive device, and that’s OK, but one has to remain in control.

Take this: “For most people under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue” (8). To some degree this is true. However, a closer look would reveal that throughout this stratum, within numerous subgroups - each in their different ways - there are explorations taking place of ways of doing things which go beyond capitalism. Most do not explicitly or self-consciously see things in those terms of course – to provide that awareness of the wider context and meaning, is the role of a movement (see below). But still. Thriving knitting groups; shared amateur photography (with a high degree of editing skill and artistic vision); open-source software; filesharing (the engine for this comes from the young, and many take this source of acquiring data simply as axiomatic); all sorts of geeky DIY, from biotechnology, pharmacology, permaculture, health analysis and augmentation, robotics; binraiding (shops throw out great stuff); swapping and ‘freecycling’ consumer goods; etc etc. There is a homebrew industrial revolution, and the young are often on its leading edge.

Consider another example, about the commodification and incorporation of opposition. Fisher coins a great word, “precorporation”: “the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.” (9) Everyone would be able to adduce their own examples of this. Fisher gives the paradigmatic case of Kurt Cobain. He knew not just that his expression of opposition was a mere commodity; the self-consciousness of this situation was also part of that product. And further iterations of the relation (self-consciousness of self-consciousness of opposition being commodified) do not change the basic situation, so there is an impasse.

Furthermore, as is its general mode of operation, capitalism does not merely appropriate but actually sets about producing cultural artifacts with pre-packed anti-capitalism in them. Taking a recent example, Fisher notes that “[a] film like Wall-E exemplifies what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity” (12).

On the other hand, there are three basic points. First, it is self-evident that music (or any other art) on its own cannot itself bring about change to the basic socioeconomic and political order (even though, listening to many individuals talk about the popular cultural scene stretching from the late ‘60’s to the early ‘80’s, it becomes apparent that they actually thought this was the case). So how serious is such incorporation, really?

Second, putting it simplistically, there is always a kind of exaggeration, as well as a certain conceptual confusion, when it is said that this-or-that artwork is incorporated. It is an exaggeration because, I submit, there is a great deal, in a great deal of art, which is not merely reducible to and compromised by capitalistic relations, but which transcends them, and can inspire those receptive to it. While, it is a confusion, because such incorporation is often inferred from the mere fact that the artwork is bought-and-sold, i.e. is a commodity in its economic form. I don’t say artworks are unaffected by their being commodities; but there is a distinction between use-value and exchange-value.

Third, and more importantly, all it would take for artistic works to become un-commodifiable in a stronger sense, would be the existence of a genuine anticapitalist political movement to which they could attach themselves. If there were such a movement which threatened capital, and it was generally known that some work expressed its aspirations, you can be sure it would become indigestible by MTV, the Wellcome Trust, or any other 400ft disembodied capitalist throat.

Putting this in other words: insofar as anti-capitalism is merely expressed or performed or displayed, it is not, truly, anti-capitalism. Fisher himself is perfectly clear and indeed very illuminating on this (indeed, it is the basic thesis of the book):

“Capitalist ideology in general, Zizeck maintains, consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief- in the sense of inner subjective attitude – at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behaviour. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange. According to Zizeck, capitalism in general relies on this structure of disavowal” (13).

(Pursuing this line, Fisher makes a telling critique of the anticapitalist movement which came to prominence in Seattle (and which still exists, in different forms): “[S]ince the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met” (14) One would bridle at this kind of comment if it came from a lesser viewpoint. As it is, it is fortifyingly perceptive.)

The other criticism you might make of the book is linked, though different. It is not so much a failure to penetrate appearances – how could you say that of a work like this, which reads society’s dreams like a novel? - but that, qua purely cultural critique, there is a natural tendency to despondency because one cannot feel or see those longer-run economic processes which might change the game. Fisher is no doubt aware of the many classical Marxist graphs detailing the falling rate of profit over the last half century, noses pointing down (Brenner’s version below. The overlay from 1980 is from Goldman Sachs). These are telling us, with all the force of natural law, that things cannot stay the same. He is probably also aware of Ray Kurzweil’s very different graphs (e.g. below), equally game-changing (and which need now to be the prime focus of attention by people concerned with justice). But if he is aware of this work, this doesn’t show, and that’s a big deal, because it’s in these under-the-surface processes where capital’s realism really lies.


A defence Fisher could legitimately make is that (as against the first criticism) he is describing the broad mainstream, and (as against the second) that saying “Things Will Change” doesn’t help much. Fair enough. So what is to be done?

The short and glib answer is that a proper political movement needs to be constituted with the basic aim of fundamentally restructuring socioeconomic relations.

Fisher – who himself refers to the need for a “new (collective) political subject” (53) – knows this. Quite a few on the Left know this (especially if one lowers the threshold and allows them to know it ‘in their heart of hearts’). A vast number in the wider society know it. The real question is not so much the ‘what’ as the ‘how’.

Fisher makes a few tentative suggestions, alongside his basic call for the abandoning of gestures and spectacles. They are not so much definite strategic proposals, as contributions to delineating a basic attitude or stance.

(This is worthwhile. The hard Left is peculiar at the moment. Popular discontent with the social status quo runs extremely deep and wide, and, in fact, is even often very clear about the identity or cause of its problems, viz. capitalism. And yet the hard Left virtually never seems able to tap into this. A major part of the difficulty is, for want of a better word, the ‘image’ of that Left. But it is not a mere matter of re-marketing and re-branding. The image the hard Left has is broadly what it deserves. For it is not nearly expansive enough; it is not ambitious enough; it is not imaginative enough; its attitude towards strategy is consequently far too narrow. Setting out a few lines in the sand, in this circumstance, supplies useful orientation).

One thing Fisher suggests – after a line of argument to which it is impossible to do justice in a short summary – is an attitude towards culture, on the part of artists, which he (semi-playfully) embodies in the figure of the Marxist Supernanny. The focus-group-led market has delivered us the basest crassness, Fisher contends, because “...even when they generate commodities that are immensely popular, [it can’t be counted as a mark of success, for the reason that] people do not know what they want... [For] the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird” (76). He gives some examples of the experimentalism and quality that the post-war BBC was capable of producing, and presenting to a mass audience. Whilst one could haggle about the details of his interpretation of what lay behind this, the fundamental point stands firm.

Another suggestion, equally solid, is that we “...must convert widespread mental health problems from medicalized conditions into effective antagonisms. Affective disorders are forms of captured discontent; this disaffection can and must be channelled outwards, directed towards its real cause, Capital” (80). This, it should be said, is the conclusion to a penetrating analysis of the precise character of widespread contemporary mental health problems, and how they originate within features of our culture. No practical vehicle for executing this channelling-outwards is specified, but one can’t have everything. In any case, there are lots of motley projects around from which one could draw inspiration.

Another suggestion is a sort of strike-strategy for white-collar workers. Some of the strongest parts of the book are the analyses of bureaucracy (Kafka is the basic reference; Lacan deepens the probe). In a wonderful characterization, Fisher conceptualizes auditing – i.e. the basic means by which today’s excuse for Social Democracy proposes to humanise the market relations it establishes everywhere – as a fusion of PR and bureaucracy. “[T]he bureaucratic data is usually intended to fulfil a promotional role... [M]uch of the so-called information has little meaning or application outside the parameters of the audit: as Eeva Berglund puts it, ‘the information that audit so shorn of local detail, so abstract, as to be misleading or meaningless – except, that is, by the aesthetic criteria of audit itself” (50-1).

People carry on with this despite knowing its ridiculousness (that kind of attitude is also superbly analysed). Fisher, simply enough, calls for a mulish foot to be put down.

Other than this, there is a more general programmatic call. “...[T]he goal of a genuinely new left should not be to take over the state but to subordinate the state to the general will. This involves, naturally, resuscitating the very concept of a general will, reviving – and modernizing – the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests” (77).

Now, if that is to mean anything, then surely we have to speak (as said, above) about a political movement - in generously wide senses of those terms (“political” and “movement”), but not so wide as to be meaningless. (This might seem a contradiction, insofar as a political movement will of necessity express a particular will. But that is a fatuous criticism, beloved of so-called liberals, who fail to see that under capitalism the vast majority of people constitute the poor, the oppressed; that this position is actively created by elites; that therefore the contradiction is merely a scholastic label).

At the centre of such a movement needs to be the vision of the society it aims to bring into being. One aspect of that is its basic economic structure - Angel Economics is a contribution to figuring out what that might look like. Of course a society is much more than an economic structure. But in general terms I suggest that real progress can be made by theorists in all domains adopting the perspective from which Angel Economics is written, a perspective different from the currently-available (analysis of what is or what has been; practical policy for the rearrangement of what is; imagining what is not, but calling that ‘fiction’); and, with straight-out-bare-faced-naivety just sketching how things might be done. Angel Economics provides a general framework for some of these domains (workplace structure, the basic nature of social interaction, etc) which can make the task easier. Other domains are best conceived completely independently (see an interesting recent Rouge’s Foam post on 21st Century music for an idea).

The point is that you can be sure that a well-articulated vision, bubbling with proposals and ideas, many-organed, diverse in its make-up, uncompromising, generous in its life and spirit – such a vision would easily pull people out of their torpor, and all the cynicism and bitterness would give way. The reeds and mud hanging from Mr Swamp Monster can be removed, and he will buff himself up.

A vision alone is not sufficient, of course.

There is an important role for analysis. In developed, post-modern hyper-capitalist societies, the socio-cultural structure is exceedingly complex, and it would require a great backbone of forensic analysis in order for a movement to successfully navigate within it. Michael Hardt relates an amusing anecdote, where in discussion about political strategy with a South American friend of his, the latter suggested: “Why don’t you just go to the hills?” Although not on the same order, the myopia which affects the contemporary hard Left – with its pathetic electoral campaigns, and a Weekly Worker newspaper-based modus operandi taken straight out of Moscow 1905 – is of the same kind. The strategic failing is the consequence of a prior analytical failing, which ignores the general lifeworld that most people occupy. Fisher’s book is exemplary of the kind of edifying analysis required.

Vision and analysis – we are still only in the head. But there is no lack of potential constituencies and social tendencies, to form the actual walking meat. (I have detailed a few that come to mind [two thirds down this review of Commonwealth], though there will be many others). And of course, conjuncturally, these layers are only going to grow as the elite attempt to fasten the crisis onto the backs of the working class.

Still, potential constituencies, and tendencies, comprise a drift rather than a movement. The latter requires some kind of structure or coherence or unity or self-consciousness. Of course, this has been a sore point on the far Left for some time now. For the organizational instantiation of this ‘unity’ has been seen as having to be something like a party, headed by a leadership; and, more broadly, the aim of such an entity has been the conquest of a larger body for that unity - state power. And the problem is – the contention has been - that any victory, in these terms, is necessarily pyrrhic.

This whole issue has probably been over-complicated. Taking control of the state in any narrow way, through something like elections in a Western country, in today’s capitalism, is clearly an impossibility for a genuinely left party. (Getting one or two MP’s elected is a different matter, and a decent contribution to strategy. Likewise, pressure to change the legal constitution, on an ad hoc basis and as part of some campaign, is also good strategy). Restructuring of basic socioeconomic relations must, rather, take place for the most part autonomously of the state, within the movement itself, as an ordering of its own organs. This is simply the strategy of hegemony, applied not just to ‘intellectual conceptions’ but also to institutions. And again, the point is that the constituencies and social tendencies are extant, today, for this to seem quite possible.

And yet one still needs an engine. Demonstrations and election-runs are often merely used today by Left parties as a focus - as something to do, to put it at its most basic. These foci create the concentration of energy expended on them. The trouble is that these foci are merely reactive, or symbolic. The movement needs an autonomous focus. If not a perpetuum mobile, this would at least give it in control of its own energy.

Why not the 5th International? The smirks are audible...but while one can go on all day about virtualities, attractors, etc, we need to get real – that is precisely the call of Capitalist Realism. This is not about more worshipping of a South American leader with a beret, that’s just a cheap slander. Rather, it simply makes sense.


  1. What on Earth is that Kurzweil graph attempting to say?

  2. Apologies. I assumed the graph would be familiar, so included it just as a 'reminder', and in fact more just as a pretty picture.

    The graph records 'key events' in history, i.e. such things as the change from single-celled organisms to the 'Cambrian explosion, or the development of language, and so on. (The graph amalgamates the 'major-event' selections of 15 different sources. There is inevitably some scattering, but overall, remarkable uniformity).

    Without getting into details, the key message of the graph is: the pace of these developments, the rate at which they are occurring, is accelerating. In fact, it is accelerating EXPONENTIALLY. So for example whereas, between the development of basic human settlements, and of, say, agriculture, x number of years passed; by contrast, between that and the next development, only HALF that time was required.

    (Both axes are logarithmic. If it were a normal graph, the line would begin almost flat on the left, curve gently for a while as it proceeded to the right, and then plunge precipitously. That graph is in fact around on the internet. It gives a good feel of the acceleration).

    The important thing is the implication. By today, 'major shifts' are occurring in a fantastically short period of time, i.e. well within the span of human lifetimes. Following the trend, Kurzweil's predictions are truly awesome. (I'm sure Wikipedia will enlighten).

    Naturally, there is great controversy about almost every aspect of the theory. Personally, I accept the basic point (exponential acceleration), and, like many, am mesmerized by the implications. However, I think that Kurzweil himself has a very PARTICULAR interpretation of how the acceleration of fundamental parameters (processing power, communicative efficiency, or whatever) is going to translate/be embodied in individual technologies. I think his interpretation is dangerous insofar as it suggests there is only ONE option, i.e. one future incorporating these. (And I think that one, for various reasons, the picture he envisions is not desirable). Further, like all current American elites, he has a complacent attitude towards the market, and indeed the whole 'Singularity' movement is disturbingly associated, in various ways, with U.S. capitalism in general, and its military in particular. I will post on all this at some point.

  3. Thanks for that. As a follower of the Spengler/Toynbee school of history I obviously totally disagree with Kurzweil's entire worldview. Spengler would probably call him the "ultimate Faustian" i.e. the whole driving force of Western (Faustian) culture is to sustain the idea of extension into the infinite. This is why westerners (and those non-westerners who adopt their values) climb mountains, build skyscrapers, fly to the moon etc.

    I've not read Mr. Fisher's book (though I may do), but again I would probably disagree with one of it's basic premises i.e. that neoliberalism is one choice among several available to Western industrial civilisation. Spengler predicted the arrival of something very much like neoliberalism in "The Decline Of The West" - he saw the inevitable ballooning of insider-dominated financialisation as one of the key stages in a culture's endtime - very much the kind of process that accelerated the fall of Rome.

    As such, I view the current economic issues that beset us as harbouring something much more profound and frightening than the mere collapse of neoliberalism.

    Still, interesting to see what other people are thinking....

  4. Is this review for real? I mean, its not some send up of irrelevant, deliberately obscure, navel-gazing Marxism is it?