June 15, 2020

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

At only 81 pages, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher is a short read, but packed with lots of food for thought.

As ever, here are the sections I highlighted while reading it, to give you a flavour of it...

Page 1

For all that we know, the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic.

Page 7

[Fredric Jameson] argued that the failure of the future was constitutive of a postmodern cultural scene which, as he correctly prophesied, would become dominated by pastiche and revivalism.

Page 9

Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled 'alternative' or 'independent' cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time. 'Alternative' and 'independent' don't designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact the dominant styles, within the mainstream. No-one embodied (and struggled with) this deadlock more than Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew that he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realizing it is a cliché.

Page 14

[...] since the form of [Corporate anti-capitalism's] activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn't expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005's Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

Live 8 was a strange kind of protest; a protest that everyone could agree with: who is it who actually wants poverty? [...] one of the successes of the current global elite has been their avoidance of identification with the figure of the hoarding Father.

Page 16

Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism's ostensible 'realism' turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Maybe that's what we're seeing now with its failure to cope with the needs for basic necessities on the shop shelves, or PPE for healthcare professionals.

Page 19

[...] we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The 'mental health plague' in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

Page 28

In any case resistance to the 'new' is not a cause that the left can or should rally around. Capital thought very carefully about how to break labor; yet there has still not yet been enough thought about what tactics will work against capital in conditions of post-Fordism, and what new language can be innovated to deal with those conditions. It is important to contest capitalism's appropriation of 'the new', but to reclaim the 'new' can't be a matter of adapting to the conditions in which we find ourselves — we've done that rather too well, and 'successful adaptation' is the strategy of managerialism par excellence.

Page 42

What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement.

Page 49

The frustration of dealing with bureaucrats often arises because they themselves can make no decisions; rather, they are permitted only to refer to decisions that have always-already been made (by the big Other). Kafka was the greatest writer on bureaucracy because he saw that this structure of disavowal was inherent to bureaucracy. The quest to reach the ultimate authority who will finally resolve K's official status can never end, because the big Other cannot be encountered in itself: there are only officials, more or less hostile, engaged in acts of interpretation about what the big Other's intentions. And these acts of interpretation, these deferrals of responsibility, are all that the big Other is.

Page 63

As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centers, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything ever 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 the call center? Even so, the universality of bad experiences with call centers does nothing to unsettle the operating assumption that capitalism is inherently efficient, as if the problems with call centers weren't the systemic consequences of a logic of Capital which means organizations are so fixated on making profits that they can't actually sell you anything.

Page 69

At this point, suddenly, the causes of abuse or atrocity are so systemic, so diffuse, that no individual can be held responsible. This was what happened with the Hillsborough football disaster, the Jean Charles De Menezes farce and so many other cases. But this impasse — it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic — is not only a dissimulation; it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? How is it possible to chastise a corporate structure? Yes, corporations can legally be treated as individuals — but the problem is that corporations, whilst certainly entities, are not like individual humans, and any analogy between punishing corporations and punishing individuals will therefore necessarily be poor.

Page 79

As Badiou has forcefully insisted, an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitalism must oppose Capital's globalism with its own, authentic, universality.


the left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy. What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion of worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labor (such as the excessive auditing which has become so central feature of work in post-Fordism). This is a struggle that can be won — but only if a new political subject coalesces; it is an open question as to whether the old structures (such as the trade unions) will be capable of nurturing that subjectivity, or whether it will entail the formation of wholly new political organizations.

Posted by Adrian at June 15, 2020 12:19 PM | TrackBack

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