“It is easier to imagine Emperor Palpatine of the Sith falling than to imagine a politician effectively challenging the power of Wall Street.”
“Oh how I realized how I wanted time,
Put into perspective, tried so hard to find,
Just for one moment, thought I’d found my way.
Destiny unfolded, I watched it slip away.”
Joy Division, 24 Hours
Recently I have engaged more thoroughly with the works of Mark Fisher, a cultural theorist whose reputation has been rapidly growing over the past several years. This engagement has been prompted by a desire to better understand post-modern culture and its impact on the politics of the day. Fisher, often writing for his blog under the alias K-Punk, was a keen analyst of post-modern culture and its discontents, and his provocative work provides a bevy of intellectual riches. In this brief essay, I will provide a brief account of some of Fisher’s major ideas. My hope is that this will inspire others to look into Fisher’s thinking. He was an important and accessible critical theorist who contributed a great deal, and sadly, could have contributed much more.
Here it is necessary to provide a mordant biographical detail. At the same time as his fame and influence were growing, and shortly after the release of his last book The Weird and the Eerie for Repeater Books, Mark Fisher took his own life on January 17th, 2017. Fisher had been open about his lifetime battles with depression, often writing about them with considerable eloquence and power in works such as Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures. While he never denied that there was an individual-land psychological dimension to depression, his own experiences also made him aware of the myriad ways the post-modern culture of “capitalist realism” plays an important role in engendering a despairing society. As such, Fisher’s intimately personal approach to social programs can provide a great deal of insight into how to deal with an increasingly uncertain and angry socio-political climate.
Fisher’s thinking was often presented in fragments, small essays, and polemics. This suited his highly dialectical and engaging style. Fisher was rarely interested in merely discussing abstract philosophical or cultural topics merely for their own sake. And indeed, such a formally academic style would little suit someone as personally-invested in his work as Mark Fisher. Many of his best insights about culture as a whole, philosophy and so on are found in short writings on topics as diverse as the music of Joy Division and the films of Christopher Nolan. While admirable, this can also pose a problem for anyone interested in providing a systematic introduction to his oeuvre.
What is Capitalist Realism?
The closest thing to a Rosetta Stone for these diverse writings is Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. This slim volume unpacks his account of contemporary culture in a relatively systematic manner—albeit complete with his familiar and welcome references to pop culture, art, and the workplace.
The book’s central concern is with what Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” which he claims is deeply inspired by and related to Fredric Jameson’s earlier analyses of “post-modern culture” in his seminal Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. For Fisher, there are several senses in which capitalism has become a form of “realism.” I will discuss the two most important here. The first is the sense in which we have become increasingly unable to even conceive of a thorough alternative to capitalism, thus engendering the belief that it is the only viable political and economic system. The second is the sense in which capitalism desacralizes the world of meaning, thereby stripping things of their former mystique and transforming them into pure commodities with an “objective” monetary value.
“There Is No Alternative”
The first aspect of Fisher’s capitalist realism thesis concerns the overtly political and economic institutions which determine the overall structure of neoliberal societies. Fisher argues that increasingly there is a “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also [it is] now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” This means it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Or as Margaret Thatcher put it: “there is no alternative.”
Fisher immediately notes the bitter irony in Thatcher deploying such slogans to promote what superficially looks like a program of liberal emancipation and “free” market exchanges. Capitalist realism denotes the sense that we are no longer free to choose or develop any alternative institutions to those required by the structural imperatives of neoliberal politics and markets. Those who claim it is possible, or at least should be possible, to conceive of such alternatives are quickly dismissed for being unrealistic and utopian. For Fisher, this now applies even to moderate demands to establish a more equal distribution of wealth and capabilities.
Consider the now popular argument that the wealthiest individuals in society should pay higher income taxes to help fund social programs such as improved or even universal Medicare. These can be readily dismissed by pointing out that the rich will simply move their assets to tax-free havens offshore. Or consider demands that corporations wield too much political influence, and that in a consistent liberal democratic polity this influence should be curbed and the general population given a greater say. These arguments can be handily dismissed by pointing out that as long as politicians receive most of their financing from corporate interests, they are unlikely to want to change the system and risk losing that vital support.
These arguments and countless others engender a deep sense that, despite surface appeals to democratic legitimacy and discourse, most of us have very little control over the political and economic system which governs us. It is important to note that Fisher is not making the crude and conspiratorial claim that it is, in fact, this or that particular person or group which actually pulls the levers of society, whether one is thinking of the Koch Brothers and Donald Trump on the political right or George Soros and California tech magnates on the political left. These individuals and groups are just as much the product or symptom of the capitalist system as any others; they simply play out their ascribed role in more comfortable settings.
Instead, it is the system itself, which works to ensure its own inevitability. In this sense, capitalist realism is the acknowledgment that most of us see no choice but to submit to the structural imperatives of the political and economic system we live within. Much as in The Matrix or Terminator the institutional machinery, we will be built to control the world that has come to control us. As Fisher puts it in Chapter Three of his book:
“Needless to say, what counts as ‘realistic,’ what seems possible at any point in the social field, is defined by a series of political determinations. An ideological position can never be really successful until it is naturalized, and it cannot be naturalized while it is still thought of as a value rather than a fact. Accordingly, neoliberalism has sought to eliminate the very category of value in the ethical sense. Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.”
This “business ontology” also has consequences for how capitalism engenders a particular post-modern culture where cultures, rites, and sacred processes are gradually transformed into commodities with an “objective” commercial value. This brings us to the second sense of Fisher’s capitalist realism thesis.
Post-modern Museum Culture
At the beginning of his book, Fisher discusses Children of Men, the (excellent) 2006 film by Alfonso Cuaron. In Cuaron’s film, the human species has lost the ability to reproduce and is gradually and drearily awaiting its final extinction. There is a sequence where the main character Theo, played by Clive Owen, asks a friend of his what will happen when no one will be around to see the great works of art and culture once produced by the human race. Theo’s friend sadly responds “I try not to think of it.”
This discussion of Fisher’s cinematic anecdote brings us to the heart of his discussion of post-modern culture and its relation to capitalist realism. He observes that in many respects we, in fact, live in just such a culture of “museum pieces.” The cultural artifacts of the past are increasingly presented to us while being stripped of their formerly sacred religious and aesthetic values. Religious movies are produced by the same film studios which also produce violent and heavily sexualized blockbusters. Bibles and Holy books are shelved next to commercial entertainment. Complex geopolitical issues are reduced down to partisan infotainment, as comedians and pundits become the entrepreneurs of ever more one-dimensional worldviews, with their associated networks, books, podcasts. In this sense, capitalist realism is a very pure form of “realism” because it is increasingly indifferent to the aesthetic and religious value once associated with objects, cultures, and symbols. Instead, capitalist realism is only concerned with “objective” monetary values. They are turned into commercial “artifacts”:
“The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all of previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects, whether they are religious iconography, pornography, or Das Kapital, a monetary value. Walk around the British Museum, where you see objects torn from their lifeworlds and assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft, and you have a powerful image of this process at work. In the conversion of practices and rituals into merely aesthetic objects, the beliefs of previous cultures are objectively ironized, transformed into artifacts. Capitalist realism is therefore not a particular type of realism; it is more like realism in itself.”
Following figures like Marx, and even echoing the claims of conservative thinkers like Patrick Deneen, what Fisher is observing how capitalist realism flattens the world by stripping it of symbolic meaning and turning it into a set of commercial artifacts, each with a given price. It considers all “cultural objects,” from a Holy Cross to Internet pornography, valuable in so far as they can be monetized. This includes entertainment and art, where this sense of capitalist realism as a kind of post-modern museum culture becomes more transparent. As I discussed in a previous article for Fisher, the “end of history” and the triumph of liberal capitalism over all competing ideologies has not led to greater contentment and the flourishing of human creativity. Instead, art and entertainment reflect the reality that we are no longer capable of conceiving new ideological and philosophical ideas.
This is because we remain convinced that our future, like our past, we will be entirely oriented by the economic and political institutions of the capitalist system. So instead of innovating, we increasingly emulate the cultural objects of the past for inspiration since these were developed and conceived at a time when genuine ideological alternatives were available. The fact that we have emulated the past rather than innovating is hidden behind the shine of technological improvement.
Consider a movie like Star Wars. Few today would actually take seriously its narrative of a staunch hero who uses their connection to a mystical and all-pervasive Force to bring down a tyrannical and evil Empire. But Fisher observes that Star Wars is none the less immensely popular. He argues this is because it repackages and updates a classical narrative of the stalwart hero with a destiny, giving us a tantalizing but harmless glimpse of an earlier time period where individuals truly felt such meaningful heroism was possible. The problem is that while we desire these more meaningful efforts to improve society, we remain convinced that they cannot truly be achieved in the context of capitalist realism. So we consume these pop culture narratives as a poor substitute for the genuine meaning and change we wish to see. Luke Skywalker brings down the corrupt Empire to compensate us for the fact that the actual structural injustices of our real world are here to stay. It is easier to imagine Emperor Palpatine of the Sith falling than to imagine a politician effectively challenging the power of Wall Street.
Conclusion: The Slow Cancellation of the Future
In his second book, Ghosts of My Life, Fisher invokes the 1980s science fiction series Sapphire and Steel to discuss the “slow cancellation of the future.” In the television show, the presence of past cultural artifacts allows Time itself to break into the present in order to cancel the future. Fisher argues that this provides a useful metaphor for what has occurred under capitalist realism. As we lost our capacity to conceive of alternatives to the contemporary political and economic system, we were forced to turn to the past in order to find sources of meaning and innovation no longer available to us. So the culture becomes increasingly fixated on nostalgia and idealizations of a time gone by rather than directing energy towards conceiving and establishing the conditions for a brighter future. The future had effectively been canceled.
It seems to me that we are witnessing the first signs that Fisher’s gloomy conclusion may not bear out as expected. The rise and re-emergence of nationalist movements across the globe have signaled that many are tired of business as usual, and long to acquire greater control over their collective destinies. But they do so primarily by seeking to bring back the past, with all its myriad prejudices and vulgarities. Unfortunately, I do not think the consequences of these developments will be at all positive if the longing for meaning generated by capitalist realism is turned into resentment against the most vulnerable members of society. Nor will they even provide much satisfaction to those who wind up on top. A future committed to bringing back the past will not seal away the mausoleum culture of the present.
Matt McManus completed his Ph.D. in socio-legal studies at York University. He is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.