Book Review

Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

without a call to violence, this is fantasy

The subtitle to Mark Fisher’s seminal and deeply influential 2009 80-page book of political/social theory/philosophy, Capitalist Realism, is “Is There No Alternative?”

Despite Fisher firmly believing that there should be, I came away from this text with no cohesive idea of what he thinks that alternative should be.

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As with the other book of Fisher’s writing that I’ve read, his absolutist critique of capitalist society does not necessarily come across as ill-reasoned, stupid or – inarguably – cynical, but it does present a deeply bleak evocation of the reality we live in, which in many ways has been borne out by the political developments of the decade since the book was published.

Yes, the world isn’t great (particularly mid-pandemic), Mark, but Capitalist Realism closes without any concrete suggestions, recommendations or methodologies as to facilitating societal change. The book, essentially, falls victim to the ideology it is trying to expose. Maybe this is deliberate and the book is super clever, actually. I’ll never know.

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Fisher uses his subtitle – “Is there no alternative?” – to direct the reader towards the phrase attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson that forms a central point of the thinking in Capitalist Realism, that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.

Yes, like many (but not all) cliches, this phrase has become clichéd because it makes sense. It is hard to envision the end of capitalism. It is.

It’s also hard to envision an alternative, but what Fisher never does here (even when he suggests disjointed policies such as high culture on the BBC, no student loan debt (which is considerably higher for the average UK student now than it was while Fisher was writing), nationalised utilities and publicly-owned public transport, an end to economies tied to volatile financial markets that periodically require government bail-outs to continue functioning) is hypothesise how we go from the capitalist “now” to any other society.

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What is Fisher against?

To my understanding, capitalism itself, because – he argues – it inevitably turns towards oligarchy, with tiny groups of people controlling the media and politics and finance/business and these same people wandering, aimlessly but to great personal (financial) betterment, between these “sectors”. This state of affairs has only gotten worse since 2009, particularly as regards the deeper integration of popular newspapers/news channels and right wing politicians.

I’m not defending the status quo, but Fisher offers no suggestion, or hint, as to how we go from what we have to what would be better.

I’m sure his supporters would argue that as an academic and philosopher, it wasn’t Fisher’s responsibility to do so. But, for me, the only way the super-rich and the rich, the powerful politicians and the bankers and the heads of industry and the owners of newspapers and whoever else… the only way these people are going to let go of their power, influence, money and assets is if they are taken from them by force. Which isn’t going to happen, unless the October Revolution happens again, and it’s a lot harder to get people to rally around a cause when the advanced technological and data-driven society/ies we live in mean that the numbers of people close to starvation are concentrated in particular parts of the world: the quality of life of working class Europeans may not be idyllic, but it is far better than was the average worker’s life [t]here 100+ years ago.

Maybe this will change, though, in the reformation, the restoration, whatever, of work and working in however many seasons it takes for the lockdown to end.

Maybe there will be space for change.

Or maybe there will not.

Of course there fucking won’t be.

Yes, I have bought into the myth of capitalist realism: I do not believe there will be any significant societal change within my lifetime, certainly not for the better.

Who will build the guillotines? No one will build the guillotines, because anyone ordering the materials for a guillotine from Amazon while WhatsApping out pdfs of Das Kapital to all their contacts will be disappeared (“detained indefinitely without trial”) by “anti-terrorist” police.

Technology offers no solution, no hope, only the risk of greater repression.

Technology, though – let’s not forget – does allow us swifter access to meaningful art, in particular cinema, television, literature and music. And this blog. We’re observed, but we’re entertained.

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Fisher’s Capitalist Realism demands a reader ask:

Would most countries be better if healthcare, education, public transport, electricity, water, etc, were run not for profit but in the manner that best provides every individual with what is necessary for survival [and comfort]?

Yeah, of course they would.

Would people be more productive in workplaces if there was less workplace bureaucracy?

Yeah.

Would people be more productive in their day-to-day lives if they were not considering themselves “constantly training”?

If jobs were less precarious?

If there was UBI?

If houses weren’t built on floodplains but instead were built in places where people actually want to live?

Yeah, it would all be great.

But, Mark Fisher, how do you stop it? How do you stop it without lots and lots and lots and lots of bloodshed?

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I read the book and wrote most of the above almost a full calendar month ago. Yet, it is more relevant now as the lockdown extends like a colonial power.

This is a nightmare.


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