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Slavoj Žižek, Music, and the End of Capitalism

The basic thought is that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

There is an interesting idea which originally came from American Marxist thinker Fredric Jameson but which has been perhaps more widely popularized by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. The basic thought is that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Žižek expands on this idea in the introduction to Mapping Ideology a collection of essays by various authors that he edited. He contrasts the post-Cold War landscape with the one just a few years before when it was unclear whether communism and fascism existed as plausible alternatives to liberal capitalism.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, capitalism became the only imaginable mode of production. But in this new era, issues like ecological catastrophe became much more present in people’s imagination. This, says Žižek, is what reveals that it is easier to imagine the world’s end than a much more modest change in the mode of production, however radical it may be. But this fact is not just a mere interesting curiosity. Rather, for Žižek it showcases how ideology shapes our understanding of the world. He writes that it is, “as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe.” And he continues: “one can thus categorically assert the existence of ideology qua generative matrix that regulates the relationship between visible and non-visible, between imaginable and non-imaginable, as well as the changes in this relationship.”

This can be easily understood through his brief discussion of the 1988 film They Live. In the movie, protagonist John Nada discovers a pair of glasses that, in Žižek’s words, function like a critique of ideology. They allow him to see the ‘real’ that is hidden behind what is presented to us every day. Ideology is what makes us perceive reality the way we do, rather than seeing the ‘real’ that hides beneath. In this way, the ideology of post-Cold War capitalism is what makes this observation by Jameson and Žižek true: it makes capitalism seem pervasive and inevitable. In turn, what makes the observation relevant is the fact that it reveals the effects of this.

Now, it is certainly the case that, in the present time, we have no examples of any viable alternatives to capitalism. Even the Chinese model is rather far removed from Soviet-style communism, with several large business empires and the home to the second largest populations of millionaires and billionaires. But regardless of the lack of an empirical alternative, so to speak, how real is this lack of alternatives in terms of imagined possibilities for change?

The answer to this question is the subject of Capitalist Realism, by the late Mark Fisher. Žižek and Jameson’s turn of phrase is the starting point of Fisher’s book, and the term “capitalist realism” itself is, in a way, the mechanism by which the economic system of capitalism absorbs every aspect of life, making the mere possibility of a transition to a different system unthinkable. Throughout the book, Fisher discusses various examples of the ways in which capitalist realism makes this happen, but I want to focus on one in particular, which is popular music. This is partly because of a personal bias but also because I think it can be the clearest example for the largest number of people.

Fisher begins his discussion of popular music with Nirvana and its singer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, whom he considers the ultimate expression of the logic of capitalist realism as it applies to popular culture. Nirvana was one of the most popular and successful acts of the 1990’s. It was also music driven by angst and rage. But this angst and this rage belonged to a generation that, as Fisher notes, “had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked.” Cobain knew his anti-establishment outlook was nothing but a reinforcement of the establishment he was raging against. As Fisher remarks, “nothing plays better on MTV than protest against MTV”, and “[f]ar from undermining capitalist realism, this gestural anti-capitalism actually reinforces it.” Capitalist realism ‘precorporates’, (to use Fisher’s own term) any form of cultural expression into the capitalist logic before it is born. It is precorporated because it happens before it is created, rather being incorporated after the fact. Nirvana, says the author, was the last act with any kind of semblance of rock’s original utopian visions. After that, it was replaced by a kind of rock that simply reproduced mere past aesthetics. At the same time, rock was replaced in popularity by hip hop which has a widely different outlook: it reflects the all-against-all nature of late capitalist society and the harsh realities of everyday life for black youth in urban America. But it lacks the original ambition of rock about youth culture being able to change anything, present in Woodstock and hippie culture in general. In that sense it is perfect for precorporation.

Fisher gives several other examples of how capitalist realism is essentially omnipresent, and how it maintains that presence. Looking at further examples, I think, would be redundant. But beyond that, I believe that continuing on the topic of music can give us further insights into what can be done in the face of this all-encompassing ideology that makes the imagination of replacing capitalism with other possibilities so difficult. If, as Žižek argues, the lack of an envisioned transition to alternatives is due to the ideological filter that mediates our perception of the real, then the first necessary step is to remove this barrier. However, if we believe as Fisher does, that capitalist realism pervades everyday experience, it is not simply a matter of adopting a different ideology. It is one thing to imagine what a post-capitalist society looks like, but it is another to imagine how the transition happens. This difficulty is arguably how capitalist realism imposes itself upon us.

In many ways, post-rock feels like the soundtrack to the collapse of society due to capitalist realism: at times strident, a times melancholic, but generally filled with imagery of different possible worlds, only without the words that tell us how to get there.

How, then, can this barrier be removed? Žižek and Fisher certainly have their own thoughts on the matter, but I want to answer in a slightly different way. Instead of looking at specific actions or issues that should be taken on (Fisher focuses on mental health and bureaucracy in relation to education, for example), I want to focus on what kinds of actions should they be. Let us go back to popular music for a moment. I think that it is no coincidence that one of the more interesting, and certainly less orthodox genres to come out of the general musical landscape that can be broadly called ‘rock’ in the late 90’s and early 2000’s is post-rock. Like almost every label, it is controversial to what exactly it applies to; but generally, it refers to a kind of rock music focused mainly on ambiences, atmospheres, and textures, rather than rhythms and melodies, for example. Importantly it is almost always instrumental, which makes it unique among other subgenres of rock. Beyond those, other features that are generally shared by acts associated with the subgenre are the above average length of songs and the use of evocative titles to help reinforce the atmospheres.

This last feature, I think, is particularly relevant, because of what it is evocative of. This often seem to be based on fantastical imagery. By “fantastical,” I do not mean it in the same way The Lord of The Rings is fantasy. Instead, it deals more with abstract concepts or idealized states of the world. I mean “idealized” in a neutral rather than positive sense; that is, it could mean a perfect world but also one that has been perfectly destroyed. So post-rock songs can allude to “Fireflies and Empty Skies” (God Is An Astronaut), but also to the grimmer “Barren Lands of the Modern Dinosaur” (If These Trees Could Talk). In particular, this kind of post-apocalyptic aesthetic is common in post-rock. Another example is the whole album The Bones of a Dying World, also by If These Trees Could Talk. In many ways, post-rock feels like the soundtrack to the collapse of society due to capitalist realism: at times strident, a times melancholic, but generally filled with imagery of different possible worlds, only without the words that tell us how to get there.

Like the rock of the 60’s and 70’s, it knows there is a better world somehow, but unlike it, there is no plan to get there. And like its contemporary Hip Hop, it knows the world of capitalist realism is ugly, but instead of exposing it as such, post-rock silently acknowledges and retires to more introspective issues. Post-rock knows that the capitalist realist landscape is less than ideal, but in the face of no alternatives it simply refuses to participate. This is not even only metaphorical; most artists in the genre are far from big commercial successes, and much of the music is distributed without big labels.

Back to politics, what do all these musical comparisons mean in terms of ideology and capitalist realism? The latter is the well-oiled machine that keeps ideology going. As I see it, one does not need to know the proper operation of a machine if what one wants is to simply make it stop. One can either jam its gears until its own power makes it break down and grind to a halt, or alternately, overwork it until it can no longer withstand the pace. In that sense, it does not matter if we, like post-rock, have no idea what is the way out. A possible alternative is always to simply refuse to participate until the whole thing is forced to stop.

For Harcourt, the refusal to articulate any alternative was precisely what made the protests valuable because it refused to participate in the political system in any form. It was not a protest against a particular set of policies or faction but against the basic political framework in which everything operates.

This is not a new idea. This was the basic principle behind the protests led by the Occupy movement. As Bernard Harcourt explains in “Political Disobedience,” Occupy refused to ever articulate any demands or proposals—much to the dismay even of sympathizers in the mainstream such as Paul Krugman. For Harcourt, the refusal to articulate any alternative was precisely what made the protests valuable because it refused to participate in the political system in any form. It was not a protest against a particular set of policies or faction but against the basic political framework in which everything operates. Harcourt sees in the Occupy movement an attempt to hold on to whatever power the participants might have had. Engaging would have meant giving it up. It is a kind of Foucaultian outlook in that it recognizes that power is transformed, manipulated, and transferred in every interaction—but often in ways that we do not even realize. In that sense, only the post-rock silence of the Occupy protesters could prevent their power from being taken away.

The other possibility might then be called the hip hop route. The ‘real’ that both Žižek and Fisher talk about, Fisher explains in his book, is a reference to the distinction, originally made by Lacan, between ‘reality’ and ‘the Real.’ The latter is the ugly substrate that reality, what we perceive, hides. Admittedly the choice of words is somewhat confusing, but the distinction is easy to understand. To use the analogy of the ideology glasses again, reality is what John Nada sees before, while the Real is what the glasses reveal. Hip hop culture actually has an almost identical concept. An essay by Simon Reynolds (which Fisher cites) explains this. In hip hop, being ‘real’ means not selling out to the music industry, but it also means making music that reflects the ugly realities faced by black Americans, like institutional racism, police violence, grim economic prospects etc. In that sense, hip hop that is real, is that which exposes the Lacanian ‘Real.’ What I mean then, by following the hip hop route, is to actively make this ‘Real’ increasingly evident until it becomes unsustainable. Again, it is not necessary to have any kind of theory of change but simply to force a malfunction or even a collapse. This, again, is not new either. In a sense it is nothing more than the Marxist idea of capitalism failing because of its own contradictions. But it is not exactly that because the idea of capitalist realism is that those contradictions are circumvented by ideology, so it falls upon deliberate agents to force them to operate. In that sense it is closer to the idea of Left-Wing Accelerationsim.

The reason I wanted to look at the options from a more abstract perspective rather than at specific actions or policies is in part that I do agree with Žižek and Fisher’s thesis. Imagining exactly how change can come about is all but impossible. Certainly, things like ecological collapse appear closer. But the other reason is that I believe the two options I described can take many forms, no doubt some of them ugly. For example, the refusal to participate, can turn from political disobedience to sheer apathy. The other option can probably turn more evidently ugly. There are many tendencies of capitalism that can be accelerated, many of which include the causes of environmental issues, inequality, etc. But keeping the answer in the abstract leaves many possibilities open, some of which may work, and some that, hopefully, have the least amount of negative consequences associated.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette.

13 thoughts on “Slavoj Žižek, Music, and the End of Capitalism

  1. From a Georgist perspective the goal is to fully realise capitalism by releasing capital and labour from the burden of subsidising the feudal privileges granted by the state centuries ago. No great feat of imagination is required, just an overhaul of our tax system.

    1. Right, and there’s actually plenty I like about Georgism. But as you said yourself, it’s still capitalism. Whether we should fully replace capitalism or not is its own separate question. My only goal here is to explore how would we do it if we ought to.

        1. What I meant to say is I’m trying to explore how to go about replacing capitalism if and only if we decided that capitalism ought to be replaced. I don’t try to say why we should replace it or not. To answer your other question. Other than unearned privilege, I think there are genuine moral objections to make about the system of wage labour. Not exactly the Marxist critique, similar maybe, but anyway, that’s something that needs its own article

          1. From Piketty down, modern conventional thinking unconsciously assents to the notion that capitalism includes the feudal hangover Georgism so precisely identifies. This intellectual regression must be addressed before any decision about replacing capitalism is made. When we catch up to what 19th century thinkers like George and Mill knew we might find ourselves facing a different, much less dismal choice.
            With regards to “wage labour” the same applies.
            And the music we all need is here:
            “Land monopoly from off the earth must clear…..” :-)

        1. I can give you a few. Whites and blacks use drugs at the same rates, but blacks have much higher arrest rates for possession ( Blacks have a consistently lower rate of callbacks for job interviews with the exact same qualifications as whites ( Blacks are denied mortgages at consistently higher rates than whites ( Blacks have a much higher likelihood of being fatally shot by police even controlling for factors like being a suspect or being armed (

  2. So engage and nothing happens, refuse to engage and nothing happens. Let’s just forget that these protests aren’t a form of entertainment that are almost immediately co-opted by capitalism.

  3. Actually the idea that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism came from Weber, who expressed it differently than Jameson.

  4. Hey Nestor, very interesting perspective on the role of post rock. That role doesn’t carry over live though, unfortunately. I’ve seen Explosions, Godspeed, TWDY, and so on and they all encapsulate themselves within the music-as-entertainment complex, and of course most fans cooperate. Even Have A Nice Life was trapped in it, which really upset me. If you don’t already listen to them, I would highly recommend artists like Tim Hecker, Ben Frost, Kara-Lis Coverdale, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Holly Herndon. Fisher was a big influence on some of them. All of them transcend capitalist realism in the composition and performative context.

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