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Capitalist Realism – Is There An Alternative?

By Mark Fisher

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Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought an action.

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasising the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist reality. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naïve utopianism.  Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some ways inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

By contrast with their forbearers in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged.  While French students can still be found in the streets protesting against neoliberalism, British students, whose situation is incomparably worse, seem registered to their fate.  But this…is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can do nothing about it.  But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Depression is endemic. It is the condition most dealt with by the NHS, and is afflicting people at increasingly younger ages.  The number of students who have some variant of dyslexia is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness.  This pathologisation already forecloses any possibility of politicisation. By privatising these problems – treating them as if they were caused by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/or by their family background – any question of social systemic causation is ruled out. 

Resources are allocated to colleges on the basis of how successful they meet targets on achievements (exam results), attendance and retention of students.  This combination of market imperatives with bureaucratically defined ‘targets’ is typical of the ‘market Stalinist’ initiatives that now regulate public service. 

Work and life become inseparable. Capital follows you when you dream.  Time ceases to be linear, becomes chaotic, broken down into punctiform divisions.  As production and distribution are restructured, so are nervous systems. To function effectively as a component of just-in-time production you must develop a capacity to respond to unforeseen events, you must learn to live in conditions or total instability, or ‘precarity’, as the ugly neologism has it.  Periods of work alternate with periods of unemployment. Typically, you find yourself employed in a series of short-term jobs, unable to plan for the future.

The psychological conflict raging within individuals cannot but have casualties. Marazzi is researching the link between the increase in bi-polar disorder and post-Fordism and, if as Deleuze and Guattari argue, schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism, then bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism.  With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism is itself fundamentally bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and the depressive come-down. 

In the entrepreneurial fantasy world, the delusion is fostered that anyone can be Alan Sugar or Bill Gates…The Selfish Capitalist toxins that are most poisonous to well-being are the systematic encouragement of the ideas that material affluence is the key to fulfilment, that only the affluent are winners and that access to the top is open to anyone willing to work hard enough, regardless of their family, ethical or social background – if you don’t succeed there is only one person to blame.

Initially, it might appear to be a mystery that bureaucratic measures should have intensified under neoliberal governments that have presented themselves as anti-bureaucratic and anti-Stalinist.   Yet new kinds of bureaucracy – aims and objectives, outcomes, mission statements – have proliferated, even as neoliberal rhetoric about the end of top-down, centralised control has gained pre-eminence. 

The idealised market was supposed to deliver ‘friction free’ exchanges, in which the desires of consumers would be met directly, without the need for intervention or mediation by regulatory agencies. Yet the drive to assess the performance of workers and to measure forms of labour which, by their nature, are resistant to quantification has inevitably required additional layers of management and bureaucracy.  What we have is not a direct comparison between workers’ performance or output but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output… Indeed an anthropological study of local government in Britain argues that ‘more effort goes into ensuring that a local authority’s services are represented correctly than goes into actually improving those services’…What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over the actual achievement.

In a process that repeats itself with iron predictability everywhere that they are installed, targets quickly cease to be a way of measuring performance and become an end in themselves.  Anxiety about falling standards in school examinations is now a regular feature of the summertime in Britain.  Yet if students are less skilled and knowledgeable than their predecessors, that is due not to a decline in the quality of examinations per se, but to the fact that all of the teaching is geared towards passing exams.

Ending the inspection regime… seems more impossible than ending slavery was.   Such fatalism can only be challenged if a new (collective) political subject emerges. 

Although excoriated by both neoliberalism and neo-conservatism, the concept of the Nanny State continues to haunt capitalist realism. The spectre of big government plays an essential libidinal function for capitalist realism. It is there to be blamed precisely for its failure to act as a centralising power….

Scapegoating an impotent government (running around to clean up the mess by its business friends) arises from bad faith, from a continuing hostility to the Nanny State that nevertheless goes alongside a refusal to accept the consequences of the sidelining of government in global capitalism – a sign, perhaps, that at the level of political unconscious, it is impossible to accept that there is no overall controllers, that the closest thing we have to ruling powers now are nebulous, unaccountable interests exercising corporate irresponsibility. 

The closest that most of us come to a direct experience of the centrelessness of capitalism is an encounter with a call centre. As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two distinct realities: the one in which services are provided without hitch and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centres, a world without a memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly. What exemplifies the failure of the neoliberal world to live up to its own PR better than a call centre?

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there – it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. 

The delusion that many make who enter into management with high hopes is precisely that they, the individual, can change things, that they will not repeat what their managers had done, that things will be different this time; but watch someone step up into management and it’s not usually very long before the grey petrification of power starts to subsume them.  It is here that the structure is palpable – you can practically see it taking people over, hear its deadened/deadening judgments speaking through them.

For this reason it is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical, which…the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. But the evasion is actually a two-step procedure – since structure will often be invoked…precisely at the point when there is the possibility of individuals who belong to the corporate structure being punished.  At this point, suddenly, the causes of the abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diverse, that no individual can be held responsible.  This is what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster and the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases.

But this impasse…is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism.  What agencies are capable of regulating a corporate structure?  How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? And it is not as if corporations are the deep-level agents behind everything; they are themselves constrained by expressions of the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a-subject: Capital.

Nothing could be a clearer illustration of what Žižek has identified as the failure of the Father function, the crisis of the paternal superego in late capitalism, than a typical edition of Supernanny. The program offers what amounts to a relentless, although of course implicit, attack on postmodernity’s permissive hedonism. Supernanny is a Spinozist insofar as, like Spinoza, she takes it for granted that the children are in a state of abjection.  They are unable to recognize their own interests, unable to apprehend either the causes of their actions or their (usually deleterious) effects. But the problems that Supernanny confronts do not arise from the actions or character of the children – who can only be expected to be idiotic hedonists – but with the parents.  It is the parent’s following of the trajectory of the pleasure principal, the path of least resistance, that causes most of the misery in the families. In a pattern that quickly becomes familiar, the parents’ pursuit of the easy life leads them to accede to their children’s every demand, which become increasingly tyrannical

Rather like the many teachers or other workers in what used to be called ‘public service’, Supernanny has to sort out problems of socialization that family can no longer resolve. A Marxist Supernanny would of course turn away from the troubleshooting of individual families to look at the structural causes, which produce the same repeated effect.  

The problem is that late capitalism insists and relies upon the very equation of desire with interests that parenting used to be based on rejecting.  In a culture in which the ‘parental’ concept of duty has been subsumed into the ‘maternal’ imperative to enjoy, it can be seen that the parent is failing in their duty if they in any way impede their children’s absolute right to enjoyment.  Partly this is an effect of the increasing requirement that both parents need to work; in those conditions, when the parent sees the child very little, the tendency will be to refuse to occupy the ‘oppressive’ function of telling the child what to do. The parental disavowal of this role is doubled at the level of cultural production by the refusal of the ‘gatekeepers’ to do anything but give audiences what they already (appear to) want. 

The concrete question is this: if a return to the parental superego…is neither possible or desirable, then how are we to move beyond the culture of monotonous moribund conformity that results from a refusal to challenge and to educate?

It is well past time for the left to cease limiting its ambitions to the establishment of a big state. But being ‘at a distance from the state’ does not mean either abandoning the state or retreating into the private space of affects and diversity which…is the perfect compliment to neoliberalism’s domination of the state.  It means recognising that the gaol of a genuinely new left should not be to take over the state but to subordinate the state to the general will…The methodological individualism of the capitalist realist worldview presupposes the philosophy of Max Stirner as much as that of Adam Smith or Hayek in that it regards notions such as public as ‘spooks’, phantom abstractions devoid of content.  All that is real is the individual (and their families). The symptoms of the failures of this worldview are everywhere – in a disintegrated social sphere in which teenagers shooting themselves has become commonplace, in which hospitals incubate aggressive superbugs – what is required is that effect be connected to structural cause.  Against the postmodernist suspicion of grand narratives, we need to reassert that, far from being isolated, contingent problems, these are all the effects of a single systemic cause: Capital.

Despite initial appearances (and hopes), capitalist realism was not undermined by the credit crisis of 2008. The speculation that capitalism might be on the verge of collapsing soon proved to be unfounded. It quickly became clear that, far from constituting the end of capitalism, the bank bail-outs were a massive re-assertion of the capitalist reality insistence that there is no alternative.  Allowing the banking system to disintegrate was unthinkable and what ensued was a vast haemorrhaging of public money into private hands.  Nevertheless, what happened in 2008 was a collapse of the framework which has provided ideological cover for capitalist accumulation since the 1970’s. After the bank bail-outs neoliberalism has, in every sense, been discredited.   

But even if it is now evident that the credit crisis will not lead to the end of capitalism all by itself, the crisis had led to a relaxing of a certain kind of mental paralysis. We are now in a political landscape littered with…‘ideological rubble’.

What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion over worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labour… This is a struggle that can be won…

The long dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity.  The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist reality means that even glimmers or alternative political and economic possibilities can have a disproportionately great effect. The tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction, which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist reality. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.