Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher, published in 2009, was one of the founding books of the Zero books imprint. Short (only 80-odd pages), well written, and full of cultural references, it was by far the most read cultural theory book of that time. It was the first book that a reading group of ex- and anti-PPEists I joined decided to read. It’s also one of a short number of books that I think I’ve given to multiple people as a gift (a list that also includes The Communist Manifesto, Mark Greif’s Against Everything, and Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond).What is the argument of Capitalist Realism? Fisher starts with the now-iconic phrase (attributed to Fredric Jameson) that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”. Capitalism has, in other words, in its ‘late’ or ‘neoliberal’ incarnation, not only colonised the physical world, but also the world of political possibility and the world of the imagination. As Fisher puts it, ‘Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable.’ (P. 8.) The clearest, and most succinct, slogan of capitalist realism was Thatcher’s: “there is no alternative”.
Fisher explains that his notion of capitalist realism differs from Jameson’s definition of postmodernism as the ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ in three main ways:
- In the 1980s, when Jameson developed his analysis of postmodernism, there were still political alternatives to capitalism. Following the defeat of organised labour, the mid-2000s instead presented a pervasive end of exhaustion — an ending of something without it properly moving into something else.
- Postmodernism, in Fisher’s account, depends on a relationship to modernism that showed through in many facets of 1990s and 2000s culture, such as the regular presence of surrealist tropes in advertising. Capitalist realism, on the other hand, takes the death of modernism for granted.
- Capitalist realism is a term that is, in many ways, directed towards the generation of (then) young people brought up after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For these people, Fisher contends, the idea of precorporation fits their experience: ‘What we are dealing with now is not the incorporation of materials that previously seemed to possess subversive potentials, but instead… the pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture.’ (P. 9.) Even cultural rebellion seems anticipated, pre-emptively emptied of truly subversive potential.
This third point seemed to explain politically the extreme cultural pessimism and retromania of the early 2000s — and particularly resonated with me as someone who studied politics in the 2000s. While social theory (Marxism in particular) was exciting, British politics was stultifying — ‘something else than human life’ in Blake’s phrase. Politicians of centre-left and centre-right accepted the same basic Fukuyaman premise: liberal capitalism is the end of history, and the issues of politics all now concern how to ameliorate its worst effects.
Part of the influence of Capitalist Realism surely comes from its linking of a range of aspects of life under neoliberalism to the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ in the political sphere. From the privatisation of stress to the late capitalist health agenda that prizes “looking and feeling good” rather than cultural improvement or intellectual progress, from the account of “depressive hedonism” among young people to the bureaucratization of everyday life by neoliberal governments that have represented themselves as anti-bureaucratic, Fisher’s account compellingly links capitalist realism to the lived experience of everyday life under late capitalism. In a number of ways, Fisher’s project is similar to Herbert Marcuse’s in One Dimensional Man (1964) — he is looking for the cultural explanations and consequences of the seeming impossibility of radical political change. The result is an account that seems — like Marcuse’s — to offer few ways out, such is the extent to which the dominant ideology has pervaded our consciousness and our actions.
The major question that arises from Fisher’s account reading it in 2018 is: what age are we now living in? Is it a continuation of capitalist realism, or a deepening? Alternatively, have we flipped to an age of “capitalist surrealism” where reality, satire, and hyperreality are increasingly indistinguishable? While it will only be in retrospect that we will be able decisively to see the point at which capitalist realism ends, there is a third possibility — namely, that capitalist realism belongs to an era that came to an unexpected end when Brexit and Trump decisively punctured the idea that there is no alternative. These events are, though, not usually seen as events of the Left. The question, then, is whether the Left has the possibility and the inclination to break free of capitalist realism. In the British context, this puts forward the Left’s generalised turn against Brexit as a crucial, historical mistake.
Nevertheless, one shift can be identified is an increasing preoccupation among the commentariat with fake news and general falsity in social media. These fears, simply and crudely an updated version of the fear of the masses, reflect the real condition that there is again a spectre of mass participation in politics. The period that Fisher describes was marked, in contradistinction, by a preoccupation among the commentariat with apathy and disengagement; schemes and prescriptions to encourage (particularly young) people to get more involved in politics abounded. The shift is significant. Elites once worried about apathy because they wanted a minimal level of participation to create legitimacy; now, the fear is that people may choose ‘wrongly’, and that another type of politics may (in theory at least) be possible. It is clear that capitalist realism has not decisively finished, but it seems less plausible to argue that there is no alternative when the idea world of liberal politics is riven by a wide range of catastrophic thinking all stemming from an intuitive sense that things have changed. It’s much less clear the Left has caught up to the significance of these changes; it’s still accurate to describe Brexit as ‘a revolution without the Left’. Perhaps Fisher’s analysis is valuable in showing why, the Left having fully assented to capitalist realism, it could not have been otherwise.
Ultimately, I think that Capitalist Realism comes across on re-reading as an invaluable document of a specific historical moment in British politics that has now passed. It is an open question what the Left is able to do with this situation; mainly socialists seem, potentially disastrously, to have turned against Brexit, perhaps forgetting that the route to socialism is only ever through expanding democracy into more and more aspects of life, and putting faith in the people. For the Left, the choice is clear: embrace the energy and transformative potential of the re-entry of the polity onto the political stage, or actively struggle to re-install a new form of capitalist realism.