These notes cannot possibly substitute for reading Fisher’s book, of course.
Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism
Fisher uses Cuaron’s Children of Men as a way of introducing what by now should be a familiar idea: that the contemporary socio-economic system has produced a distorted temporality in which the future– beyond more of the same with extra options– no longer exists. The core theme of sterility in COM is, in this sense, to be read metaphorically, begging the question: “How can a culture exist without the new?” (3).
This temporality (which Jameson terms “schizophrenic”) also dispenses with the past save as a jumble of museum pieces. “[C]apitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history [as part of] its ‘system of equivalence’” (4). Note Fisher’s invocation of the CM:
“It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in the place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom– Free Trade.”
In other words, capital creates equivalences between disparate objects, values, traditions, ideals, etc. The key here is, again, exchange value. To the capitalist-realist “it’s all relative”– which is to say every thing is the same. The world is thereby reconstituted as a spectacle which we– the passive “consumer-spectator[s]”– gaze upon rather than engage.
Interestingly, the default ideological position of the CR subject is cynicism, which posits itself as a critical perspective on social reality, but which in fact simply reconfirms the disconnected, disengaged stance of the supposedly “post-ideological” era. This CR-generated cynicism “presents itself as a shield protecting us from the perils posed by belief itself.
In the words of Zizek, the issue in this instance is not the classic Marxian formulation “they do not know it and they are doing it” but “they know very well what they’re doing and they do it anyway.”
Fisher quotes Badiou at length, who notes that the most facile defense of Actually Existing Capitalism is essentially the claim that things could be much worse. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Fisher: “The ‘realism’ here is analogous to the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state, any hope, is a dangerous illusion.”
Perhaps these remarks will resonate with you at a personal level. In essence, they gesture at the fact that cynicism (ex. “everybody’s always full of shit”) is the ideology par excellence of the futurelessness of CR.
In the past, critics of capitalism would observe that the true capitalist would willingly sell his executioners the rope they planned to use to hang him. Fisher’s critique (borrowing from Deleuze and Guattari) goes even further than this. Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, capitalism is “infinitely plastic, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact” (6).
As with the Marx quote above, capital converts all into exchange value.
Francis Fukuyama makes another appearance (we’ve read about him, very briefly, before).
His notion that we have reached the “end” of history with the rise of capitalist democracy may be rejected on one level but– Fisher argues– “it is accepted, even assumed, at the level of the cultural unconscious.”
Why Capitalist Realism instead of Postmodernism?
1. things have progressed since Jameson’s original critique. The situation we now confront is deeper, more emphatic that the one Jameson surveyed.
2. If in Jameson’s moment it was obvious Modernist values and methods were being routed into Postmodernism, these days it’s not even an issue: “the vanquishing of modernism [is taken] for granted” (8).
3. There is now no “outside” to global capitalism. Since the end of the USSR, there is no place on earth (excepting one or two pockets) that is not subject to capital’s imperatives. This absence of “externality” categorically changes capitalism’s significance and effects.
Capital has colonized all. Even our dream life. Rather than a sharp contest between subversion and incorporation, we now witness what Fisher calls precorporation.
Consider, for example, the category (which broke onto the pop culture scene in the 90s) of “Alternative” or “Underground” or “Indie.” Rather than constituting some genuine challenge to the so-called “mainstream,” these are marketing categories.
Cf. Kurt Cobain’s tragic impasse. ex. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was intended as a caustic-comic commentary on MTV “youth culture” which MTV absorbed without a hiccup.
Now we get another Jameson quote: “imitate dead styles”. What does this sound like?
Hip Hop as CR ideology: “keeping it real,” or f@ck P. Diddy anyway. Hip Hop reality touted itself as “uncompromising” which was exactly the stance the cultural industry sought.
“the circuit whereby hip hop and the late capitalist social field feed into each other is one of the means by which capitalist realism transforms itself into a kind of anti-mythical myth” (10).
Links between HH, crime films, neo-noir. Stripped of sentiment, these forms seem to do the ideological work of CR.
Anti-capitalism is a major trope of the culture of capitalism. Consider Fisher’s reading of Wall-E. He argues that the film is a prime exemplar of “interpassivity” in that it “performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to consume with impunity” (12).
Even further, “The rold of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief” (12-13).
Cynicism, again: “‘the prevailing ideology is that of cynicism…. The fundamental level of ideology… is not of an illusion masking the real state of things but that of an (unconscious) fantasy structuring our social reality itself…. Cynical distance is just one way…. to blind ourselves to the structural power of ideological fantasy: even if we do not take things seriously, even if we keep an ironical distance, we are still doing them.’” (Zizek).
See also remarks on money.
late 20th/ early 21st century anti-capitalism hasn’t been focused or potent enough. Protests simply become the backdrop. Think about what OWS represents. The dangers confronting a genuine, organic movement. Media attempts to impose a narrative on this phenomena according to the media’s CR logic. Celebrities have begun to drop by. It is rumored (not confirmed) that Christopher Nolan is planning to use OWS in shots for a new Batman film. Etc.
Protest is a form of theater which capitalism may effortlessly absorb. It is also predicated on the figure of the Father (in psychoanalytic terms). Note also Fisher’s contention that the explosion of protest in the 60s was undertaken by a generation that– in comparison with today’s youth– lived in luxury. I would absolutely agree with this assessment. The 60s generation (excepting those whose lives were deformed by Jim Crow) came of age in the last days of the Golden Age of (Keynesian) Capitalism. You guys have it much, much harder than they did (excepting the draft, which is no longer politically tenable. And, come to think of it, perhaps this is some kind of unconscious tit for tat: we will subject young people to all manner of market forces– enclosing them with debt, keeping them in a state of high economic insecurity, and in exchange we will not draft them to fight our perpetual wars).
Protest then, whether 60s style or in the Live 8 format post a kind of Father Principle to whom demands are being made (and notably OWS has not succumbed to this dynamic). The wizards of capital have painstakingly presented themselves not as “totalitarian” fathers but permissive ones. They tell us to enjoy, to immerse ourselves in all the pleasures on offer.
Against this, Fisher suggests that “to reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital.” In other words, we need to acknowledge that we are indispensable in the promulgation of capitalism and its ideology. (“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”)
Fisher: “capitalism is [both] a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and… it would be nothing without our co-operation” (15).
“Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.”
Note that here Fisher is invoking some of Marx’s intentionally more lurid passages. What, we should ask, is the import of all this occult terminology? In what way does its usage in this context make sense?
The “Red” campaign: as if the inequities of capitalism could be consumed away. “Ethical immediacy” which posits itself as somehow beyond politics. No time to think– act now! Cf. parallels with “humanitarian intervention.”
CR as “a pervasive atmosphere”– i.e., centerless, ubiquitous. Like water for fish.
Fisher argues that a moral critique of capitalism is ineffective. Instead, “CR can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable”– i.e., as NOT realism at all (16).
If ideology is that which has been naturalized, perceived as fact rather than value, then the only way to dispel it is to strip away its “facticity.”
A new key term: “business ontology.” Ontology = the study of being, reality itself. In other words, a business ontology presumes that the notion that everything ought to run like a business is simply manifest, it just is.
To clarify, compare the following passage with present “common sense”:
“In 1945 or 1950, if you had seriously proposed any of the ideas and policies in today’s standard neo-liberal toolkit, you would have been laughed off the stage at or sent off to the insane asylum. At least in the Western countries, at that time, everyone was a Keynesian, a social democrat or a social-Christian democrat or some shade of Marxist. The idea that the market should be allowed to make major social and political decisions; the idea that the State should voluntarily reduce its role in the economy, or that corporations should be given total freedom, that trade unions should be curbed and citizens given much less rather than more social protection — such ideas were utterly foreign to the spirit of the time. Even if someone actually agreed with these ideas, he or she would have hesitated to take such a position in public and would have had a hard time finding an audience” (A Short History of Neoliberalism, Susan George [http://www.globalpolicy.org/globaliz/econ/histneol.htm]).
To intervene in this situation, Fisher invokes the Lacanian distinction between the Real and reality.
What we call reality is ultimately a partial conception of what is. Our understanding of the world is ideological, a function of our limited ability to symbolize what lies outside of us.
Against this “reality principle” Lacan posits “the Real.. what any ‘reality’ must suppress…. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that con only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality” (18)
The Real trumps reality. One Real of capitalism is the finite material basis of all life. The utopian fantasy that economy can grow ceaselessly, that the exploitation of the material basis of life can continue indefinitely.
Fisher offers two other possibilities: mental health and bureaucracy. (Aporias = point at which an argument or text “unravels”).
High rates of mental illness ought to be construed not as individual pathology but as social in origin. Depression, for example, is a political category. Yet we have allowed it to become privatized as a personal failing or weakness.
NL touts itself as a solvent for bureaucratic paralysis when in fact the location of bureaucracy has simply been moved. Ex. the call center. To recognize capitalism’s enduring bureaucratic sclerosis is to de-naturalized NL’s claims for greater efficiency, to give the lie to the false claim that private enterprise is always more effective and streamlined than state operations.
The domain in which both of these possible aporias operate is education, to which Fisher turns in the next chapter.
This is the chapter that speaks most eloquently to me. I recognized much of myself and my students in what follows.
A new key term: “reflexive impotence”
nothing can be done, so nothing will be done
And another: “depressive hedonia”
low-grade pleasure seeking as a compulsory, self-medicating activity
And one more: “control society”
the dispersal of disciplinary regimes. the model here is not the penitentiary, as it was for Foucault– a rigidly bounded space with an iron-clad schedule– but the decentralization of compulsions.
Fisher cites Franz Kafka (those who aspire to cultural fluency should read Kafka. Really.)
2 types of acquittal: “ostensible acquittal” (you are acquitted but at some future time you may have to face the charges in full) and “indefinite postponement” (the legal process is so protracted that final judgement may never be made).
Control societies operate according to a principle of indefinite postponement. Life long education (job retraining); telecommuting; etc. Rather than external surveillance, internal policing. If the protagonist of the disciplinary regime is the worker-prisoner, the protagonist of the control society is the debtor-addict.
Here follows Fisher’s account of the classroom, a curious liminal space where the old disciplinary regimes no longer hold, but where certain disciplinary expectations persist. The student-as-consumer is, as a consumer, free to engage or not. Yet they will be judged according to testing mechanisms. The teacher is put in the uncomfortable position of negotiating between “post-lexic” students and bureaucratic imperatives.
“Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. Teachers want to help students to pass the exams; they want us to be authority figures who tell them what to do.”
Even worse, students themselves are often trapped in a kind of perpetual lassitude, one provoked by the “schizophrenia” of an “ahistorical, anti-mneumonic blip culture” (25).
ADHD as a pathology of late capitalism.
Post-lexia or “bad writing” (which is pervasive) as products of capitalism’s illiteracy. Every semester I am confronted by the knowledge that many of my students are not able to write grammatically or even read fluently in the language of instruction. What if this situation is a result of the “logic of late capitalism” or CR?
Another key term: “market Stalinism”
College as a form of “debt and enclosure”: penultimate paragraph on page 26.
Immobilizers and Liberal Communists
Immobilizers: put on the brakes! Keep things from changing for the (neoliberal) worse!
Liberal Communists: neoliberalism is supple, mutable, flexible– highly attractive qualities though here they are in the service of all the retrograde dysfunctions of laissez-faire capitalism.
Here Fisher is concerned with the political possibilities of anti-capitalism, and more specifically the correct and effective rhetorical-ideological stance to take in opposition to CR. He notes Harvey’s contention that NL is a “restoration” of ruling-class privilege. That NL is class war by the elite against the rest of us.
Immobilizationalism will not work in the post-Fordist nations. Who among us would choose a career pulling the trigger of a rivet gun in a dank factory if they could have a job promising intellectual engagement, perhaps even requiring creativity?
For this reason the old model of trade union activism is not likely to succeed (esp. in so-called post-industrial societies).