Some Notes on Capitalist Realism

This evening I read through Capitalist Realism again and it’s still as brilliant as on my first read, and I just wanted to jot down some off-the-cuff thoughts about it. The text deftly navigates and stitches together a wide range of topics and ideas, which is one of its many merits. One of the early issues it raises, and one which I think remains incredibly important ten years on, is on the material substance of ideology and Capitalism’s overvaluation of belief. Irony or cynicism do not in any way undermine Capitalism; indeed, distancing oneself in this way allows for its smooth functioning. Capitalism doesn’t need you to ‘believe in it’ subjectively, just that your actions continue to demonstrate your belief objectively.

“The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief.” (pp. 12-13) I think this is definitely one of the most interesting upshots of a fundamentally Althusserian approach to ideology and its materiality. While ideology certainly operates on the symbolic and unconscious levels (though not merely as ‘false consciousness’), it also functions on the material level of our practices, rituals and habits. Irony and cynicism as a mode of ideological disavowal are definitely something I’d like to explore more in the future, here and elsewhere.

The musical genre of Vaporwave, for example, appears to represent a critique of nostalgia and commericalism under Late Capitalism; by raising to the level of consciousness and confronting us with our obsession with nostalgia (itself a result of Capitalism’s inability to deliver the future) and the ‘cancellation of the future’, it seems to represent a sort of immanent critique of that very nostalgia. But Capitalist Realism is not remotely threatened by such moves: whether you’re purchasing the music, or whether you’re only listening to it ‘ironically’ doesn’t matter. Critiquing Capitalism’s commodification of nostalgia by… commodifying nostalgia (‘ironically’) doesn’t remotely threaten the dominance of Capitalist Realism.

The conclusion of the book represents a kind of aporia in Fisher’s elaboration of Capitalist Realism, and I think it’s interesting in and of itself. The theoretical and political impasse both described in Capitalist Realism (between old forms of ‘resistance’ to Capitalism and the embracing of the ‘precuperated’ new), and demonstrated in the ambivalence of its own conclusions, is one of the reasons I’ve recently become so interested in Deleuze & Guattari, particularly de- and reterritorialization as intrinsic to Capitalism’s development, as well as so-called ‘accelerationist’ philosophy and its concern for the conditions of possibility for the emergence of the ‘new’. It isn’t desirable to return to Fordist Capitalism, and it’s not enough to simply hope to hold back the tide and maintain the current order; so where does that leave us in envisioning a new, better society, when Capitalism has not only already prefigured so much of our cultural ideas of what it looks like but is fully capable of pre-emptively incorporating and recuperating such ideas almost prior to their articulation? Fisher appeared unsure himself, hence the aporia; torn between the pessimistic finality of his own analysis and the practical necessity of pressing onwards with hope in the properly Messianic sense.

Go watch Simon Obirek’s video on Capitalist Realism, it’s brilliant.

One of the earliest points in the book has stuck with me ever since I first read it: “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.” This obviously relates to ironic/cynical disavowal, but it also points to our cultural and subjective relation to history and historicality as such. I would tentatively suggest that in many ways, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘The end of history’ with the triumph of Neoliberalism was in many ways a supremely perceptive diagnosis. ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.’ It seems inherently incongruous to quote Heidegger in a post about critical theory, but here he appears to anticipate Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation:

“…when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Being of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for? — where to? — and what then?”

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics

Consider how Fisher accurately captures one of the most important aspects of the utter meaninglessness of Late Capitalist life in his notion of ‘depressive hedonia’, characterised precisely by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that something is missing, but in Fisher’s words, “no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle.” (p. 21) Late Capitalism not only represents the collapse of beliefs at the symbolic level, it represents a total flattening out of reason itself (best captured by Horkheimer in Eclipse of Reason) and with it the impossibility of conceiving of happiness on any register but the hedonic. In such a situation, what else could there be except the means-ends, Utility-maximising rationality of Homo Economicus? No wonder the proliferation of mental illness Fisher so powerfully examines in this book.

One of the less obvious areas this relates to, but one which I think speaks to these broader issues, is tourism as one of the central modes of experiencing both ‘the other’ and the past; what better description for tourism in the 21st century than “the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics”? History as an artifact, the ruin as a hyperreal simulacra, and tourism as the ideological search for the authentic: ‘I’m not like the other tourists, I’m searching for the ‘real’ Tibet’ as an example of the search for ‘authenticity’ as the ideological mystification par excellence. Authenticity is a PR tactic, and as long as you believe it’s out there somewhere there’s always going to be ways selling it to you.

And, of course, on the level of the culture industry, so much of our western cultural notions of authenticity are already intimitately bound up with nostalgia; what else is the ‘Rockist’ obsession with ‘retro’ rock bands if not a pining for the past, for the authenticity that supposedly once existed, now placed out of reach by rampant commodification? What clearer contemporary example of the utter vacuousness and superficiality of the music industry today than that simulacra called Greta Van Fleet?

A final point: One of the central phenomena Capitalist Realism attempts to capture as a concept is the widespread feeling that there is no realistic alternative to Capitalism. But there’s a certain problematic ambivalence in the concept depending on how we are supposed to read it: In one light, it doesn’t seem to add much to the more developed theories of Ideology and therefore appears redundant; and if it’s got a kind of descriptive sociological character (‘we just can’t, as a society, imagine a non-capitalist future’) then it seems to have been fairly quickly falsified in the last 5 years by the emergence of an organised Socialist mass movement in Britain (though the extent to which this really represents a break with Capitalist logic is questionable.) While much of the rest of the analysis can stand by itself, I’m unsure how to evaluate the central concept after which the book itself is named. Perhaps it is to be best understood as a more detailed elaboration on the specific form of ideology under late capitalism.

Post-Capitalist Desire

Out of all the many authors whose books and papers I have read, Mark Fisher’s have long held a place close to my heart. His book Capitalist Realism has had a profound effect on the way I see the world, and I’m certainly not alone in that. However, in this post I want to use this post to draw attention to a piece he wrote called ‘Post-Capitalist Desire’ and to draw a few comparisons with other pieces of literature I’ve been interested in recently in order to make a few general points about where the left currently stands in 2019.

Fisher’s argument is this: That one of the central challenges for the left is to disarticulate desire from Capitalism. Fisher arrives at this point in a roundabout way, but particularly through an engagement with the work of Nick Land. He correctly points out that much of the left occupies an ambivalent position towards technology and the mass production of consumer goods – but it is precisely this which allows those on the right to make the (of course ridiculous) argument that it’s hypocritical for the left to enjoy using smartphones when Capitalism created them, characterising the left as either Primitivist or hypocritical. He draws on Deleuze & Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus to argue that “As desiring creatures, we ourselves are that which disrupts organic equilibrium.” Desire is a pandora’s box which cannot be shut.

This is precisely why we need a theory of Post-Capitalist desire.

Instead of the anti-capitalist ‘no logo’ call for a retreat from semiotic productivity, why not an embrace of all the mechanisms of semiotic-libidinal production in the name of a post-capitalist counterbranding? ‘Radical chic’ is not something that the left should flee from—very much to the contrary, it is something that it must embrace and cultivate. For didn’t the moment of the left’s failure coincide with the growing perception that ‘radical’ and ‘chic’ are incompatible? Similarly, it is time for us to reclaim and positivise sneers such as ‘designer socialism’—because it is the equation of the ‘designer’ with ‘capitalist’ that has done so much to make capital appear as if it is the only possible modernity.

Mark writes in his paper Terminator vs Avatar that “Capitalism has abandoned the future because it can’t deliver it. Nevertheless, the contemporary left’s tendencies towards Canutism, its rhetoric of resistance and obstruction, collude with capital’s anti/meta-narrative that it is the only story left standing. Time to leave behind the logics of failed revolts, and to think ahead again.”

The only way out of Capitalism is through it. Marx is unequivocal on this point, particularly in Capital Vol. 3. Vincent Garton provides a brilliant account of this in his blog post ‘Accelerate Marx‘. He quotes Marx’s argument that at a certain point in the development of Capitalism, “[Capital] becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power. The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable…” Garton adds,

Marx’s whole analysis on this point, in fact, is accelerationist to the core. What Marx is saying is that if there is a postcapitalism, it consists precisely in the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation. Two further conclusions result from this sequence of passages—and I admit this is a deliberately biased selection, and that it is worth reading the chapter in full—which ought to shake any ‘postcapitalist’ praxis to its foundations.
Firstly, the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism are precisely its strength as a productive force: crises are a way for capitalism to overcome the declining rate of profit, and this is not a sequence of decay where with each crisis capitalism becomes weaker and weaker but quite the opposite: it is a process of exponential expansion.
Secondly, the road to ‘postcapitalism’ is over the corpse of nonalienated humanity. Now this, precisely, is the root of Marx’s inhumanism…

Capital must be entirely alienated from Capitalism as a contingent economic system before the groundwork for Communism is ready. Even returning to just the Communist Manifesto, we can already find there Marx demanding that the proletariat “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Marx & Engels, Communist Manifesto (London: Penguin Books, 2002), p. 243)

I think this reading of Marx (which is one I’ve shared for a long time, and which, incidentally, Lenin also shared) poses serious questions for left-wing praxis, in particular what the role of the left ought to be. The standard rallying cry is for the need to ‘Resist’, ‘Undermine’ or ‘Defeat’ Capitalism; but this seems to render the left a fundamentally reactionary, conservative force in modern politics. What can such tactics achieve? Can socialism really be established upon anything but the corpse of Capitalism taken to its limit – or Capital completely alienated from Capitalism? Presumably the idea is that we ought to return to being simple farmers living in straw huts in a thoroughly de-alienated existence, or, for Nick Land (whom Fisher quotes), “a line of racially pure peasants digging the same patch of earth for eternity.” For Fisher, attempt to suppress desire itself “would therefore involve either a massive reversal of history, or collective amnesia on a grand scale, or both.” And as he goes on to argue,

At the moment, too much anti-capitalism seems to be about the impossible pursuit of a social system oriented towards the Nirvana principle of total quiescence—precisely the return to a mythical primitivist equilibrium which the likes of Mensch mock. But any such return to primitivism would require either an apocalypse or the imposition of authoritarian measures—how else is drive to be banished? And if primitivist equilibrium is notwhat we want, then we crucially need to articulate what it is we do want—which will mean disarticulating technology and desire from capital.

If Capitalism maintains an ideological monopoly on desire, and on the expansion and multiplication of forms and expressions of desire, then the left becomes an anti-modern, conservative force. What is needed is a way for the left to challenge this monopoly, to embrace desire and its creative and emancipatory possibilities. The yearning for a return to a life of simple sustenance, ‘honest work’, producers meeting distributors face-to-face, a deeper connection with nature and so on; these seem to represent a fundamentally reactionary perspective and one which has nothing at all do with Marxism, certainly nothing to do with what Marx himself wrote, instead having more to do with Heidegger’s nostalgia for the Black Forest.

Fisher’s paper was published in 2012, and since then some work has been done by those on the left to respond to this challenge. Most notably, in my view, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who in 2013 published the Accelerationist Manifesto and then in 2015 the book Inventing the Future. One of the strongest sections of the latter is its opening critique of ‘folk politics’, a tendency amongst much of the left towards reducing politics down to ‘the human scale’ which ends up as a purely reactive political force – one hospital might be saved from closure due to an occupation in protest, for example, but nevertheless dozens will still be shuttered across the country. What the left needs is an alternative to Neoliberal Capitalism which as at least as sophisticated as the current system, if not more so. If leftists continue to be distracted by Anarchistic naivete and ‘local action’, with no room for large-scale, hierarchical organisation, then there is no hope. Anti-Capitalism is rendered as anti-modernity and fundamentally primitivist. Fisher goes on to argue that what is needed is

the construction of an alternative modernity, in which technology, mass production and impersonal systems of management are deployed as part of a refurbished public sphere. Here, public does not mean state, and the challenge is to imagine a model of public ownership beyond twentieth-century-style state centralisation.

We cannot return to a pre-capitalist society. The only way out is through. We might conclude with a quote from Lyotard which Fisher quotes in Terminator vs Avatar:

in this way you situate yourselves on the most despicable side, the moralistic side where you desire that our capitalize desires be totally ignored, brought to a standstill, you are like priests with sinners, our servile intensities frighten you, you have to tell yourselves: how they must suffer to endure that! And of course we suffer, we the capitalized, but this does not mean that we do not enjoy, nor that what you think you can offer us as a remedy – for what? – does not disgust us, even more. We abhor therapeutics and its vaseline, we prefer to burst under the quantitative excesses that you judge the most stupid. And don’t wait for our spontaneity to rise up in revolt either.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. l. H. Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 116.

If Capitalism is allowed to maintain a monopoly on desire – as long as the ideological commitment to the idea that only under Capitalism can we express ourselves, experiment creatively and multiply with our desires and to embrace and fulfil it, the left has no chance. The future envisioned by much of the left all too often resembles the past. It’s time to move beyond that.

Questions of praxis remain: if the goal is to ‘Accelerate Marx’ (as Garton puts it), what is it that distinguishes the radical left from the Anarcho-Capitalist right in pragmatic terms? Mark Fisher’s own programme seems to provide some options here, as his critique of Capitalism remains trenchant: critiquing Land, he writes that “The actual near future wasn’t about Capital stripping off its latex mask and revealing the machinic death’s head beneath; it was just the opposite: New Sincerity, Apple Computers advertised by kitschy-cutesy pop. This failure to foresee the extent to which pastiche, recapitulation and a hyper-oedipalised neurotic individualism would become the dominant cultural tendencies is not a contingent error; it points to a fundamental misjudgement about the dynamics of capitalism. […] The fact that capitalism tends towards stagflation, that growth is in many respects illusory, is all the more reason that accelerationism can function in a way that Alex Williams characterises as ‘terroristic.'”

We might say that much of the supposed innovation or creativity of Capitalism is in fact illusory. This is best exemplified by the music industry: total stagnation disguised beneath a cheap veneer of newness. The whole thing is carried along by sheer the sheer velocity, the pace of new songs, albums and artists. But the overwhelming reliance on nostalgia and fake authenticity (better: authenticity as a marketing tactic) belies the lack of any real movement beneath the surface. Where Land (or, perhaps, D&G) wants to argue that the future is a radical expansion of the productive process driven by an explosion of libidinal energy, we thinking along with Mark Fisher we can perhaps see through this facade to the stagnation beneath.

Fisher draws on Fredric Jameson (a brilliant writer, whom everyone should read) who argues that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx:

“proposes to see capitalism as the most productive moment of history and the most destructive at the same time, and issues the imperative to think Good and Evil simultaneously, and as inseparable and inextricable dimensions of the same present of time. This is then a more productive way of transcending Good and Evil than the cynicism and lawlessness which so many readers attribute to the Nietzschean program.”

Further questions remain. Can we really conceptualise desire in a non-ideological way, given the overwhelming influence of advertising, marketing, social conditioning etc. on our preferences and desires; or is Marcuse (drawing on Freud) right to delineate between true and false needs? How does ideology fit into this picture? And what might a post-capitalist future look like? I don’t know the answer to these questions yet, but I think they’re some of the key ones which arise out of this reading of Marx and Fisher’s programme for the left.