The Future is Not What it Used to Be

Banksy's 'Housekeeper' (2008).

Few writers in the Anglosphere have written about the situation of modern capitalism, and its cultural consequences, than British scholar Mark Fisher. Whether in books, in Wired and New Statesman, or on his own blog, Fisher prose cuts to the chase, capturing subtle nuances without feeling the need to drown the reader in verbiage.

What follows will be a two part appreciation of Fisher’s diagnosis of modern capitalism. The first part, following below, I will examine his analysis of modern capitalism in his Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009). In the second, I’ll look at his most recent book, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology, and Lost Futures (2014).

Each of these books addresses the cultures of capitalism in slightly different ways, but taken together, they combine astute analysis and clear-eyed prognoses. If, on this basis, it is not necessarily possible to see one’s way out of the current conjuncture, at the very least Fisher allows one to perceive it with unaccustomed clarity.

Fisher’s Capitalist Realism reads like the Cliff Notes to a longer, more impenetrable book by Slavoj Žižek. All the main features are there: Marx, Freud, Lacan, the playful analysis of popular culture, even references to Žižek himself (a favorite tactic of Žižek as it happens). The great virtue of Fisher’s approach is not only the wealth of concrete examples, but that these examples (such as those drawn from his teaching in post-secondary education) are a bit more relatable than Žižek’s tend to be.

Fisher’s analysis has two major components: the objective, acephalous structures of modern capitalist society, and their consequences in terms of subjective development. Fisher, as noted above, starts from the point of questioning why it is that the existence of capitalist society is generally accepted, even among many on the left, as an unalterable, temporally unlimited condition. “There is no alternative,” Margaret Thatcher used to love to intone, so much so that even wags in her own party apparently nicknamed her “Tina”. But it was the collapse of actually exiting socialism that transformed this from a conservative nostrum to part of the furniture of modern life. This has resulted in an ideology which Fisher terms capitalist realism, a term that he prefers to postmodernism as a conceptual designation for present conditions.

Taking Frederic Jameson’s seminal analysis of postmodernism as his point of reference, Fisher grounds his preference for ‘capitalist realism’ as a descriptive rubric on three points. The first is the manifest failure of alternatives bound up with the rise of neoliberalism, and the failure of the trade union movement in the 1980s. When Jameson conceptualized postmodernism in this period, these struggles were still in progress, at least in their final phases. Now they appear as quaint, the last gasps of an outdated mode of labor force organization that disappeared, not because of the political machinations of capital, but because they had failed to conform to the impersonal economic rationality of the era.

London, December 2010.
London, December 2010.

Second, and closely related to the first point, was that Jameson saw postmodernism as connected in some fundamental way to modernism. Up until the last third of the 20th century, modernist culture tended to be viewed, even by its critics, as embodying the potential for revolution. Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism saw it as engaged in a confrontation with modernism as it attempted to digest useful elements of modernist style and content. Under the current systemic conditions this confrontation no longer exists. Rather, Fisher argues, capitalist realism takes the vanquishing of modernism as an accomplished fact: “[M]odernism is now something that can periodically return, but only as a frozen aesthetic style, never as an ideal for living.”

Finally, as noted above, when Jameson began writing about postmodernism there were still, at least ostensibly, systemic alternatives to capitalism. Although it was common knowledge that conditions under actually existing socialism bore little resemblance whatever to the socialist utopias on which they were notionally based, the very existence of a political space external to capitalism constituted and an implicit challenge which demanded a response, at least to some degree. The collapse of that space left capital free to dispense with spaces for artistic creativity and the welfare state as mechanisms necessary for systemic stability, safe in the knowledge that the spaces of capital now subsumed the real. No longer needing to integrate influences from the outside, the capitalist culture industry now generates little more than pastiche and retro styles. And at least in this respect Fisher is right on the money.

At a personal level, the elevation of neoliberal capitalism to an inescapable reality has been facilitated by the a number of human consequences. At the level of the psychological, the patternless existence foisted on human beings by capital’s need to be free to restructure and redirect at a moment’s notice has resulted in a massive increase of the incidence of depression. This is not new, and in fact has been a feature analyses of modern capitalism from the work of Deleuze and Guattari to Wolfgang Huber’s Sozialistisches Patientenkollektiv (granting that the latter was a uncomfortably close to the actual lunatic fringe).

As second consequence is what Fisher calls ‘reflexive impotence’: a realization among students (which Fisher draws from his work in Britain’s post-secondary educational system) both that things are bad and that nothing can be done about them. The response, so Fisher argues, is what he terms depressive hedonia. Rather than depression vitiating pleasures, the simultaneous recognition of the aporias of the system, and the lack of alternatives, leads to the serial search for low level pleasures (consumption, video games, etc.) as a means of resolutely looking away from the nullity at the base of modern culture.

At the same time, the educational system, which had functioned as both a means of promoting humanistic culture, and as a means of hibernating, waiting out adverse phases of the job market, has now beeen neoliberalized with catastrophic consequences. Fisher’s analysis centers on the increase of bureaucracy and “objective” evaluations, to which one could add administrative hyphertrophy, the spread of the ideology of education solely (or primarily) as part of perfecting oneself as capital, and the creation of students as indebted subjects.

Future debtors, Uncut demo. London, March 2011.
Future debtors, Uncut demo. London, March 2011.

Fisher’s statement of the problem, of which these points are only the most prominent, is compelling and takes up most of the important points made by figures like Žižek and Maurizio Lazzarato (about whose The Making of the Indebted Man more will be said in a subsequent post). But his final summation illustrates one of the frustrating points about this work (as well as those of others named above):

The long dark night of the end of history has to be grasped as an enormous opportunity. The very oppressive pervasiveness of capitalist realism means that even glimmers of 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 realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.

This statement, obliquely hopeful as it is, is jarringly out of plumb with practically everything else said in the book. It is (trivially) true that things could always be in the verge of massive transformation. But there is, by the same token, no reason necessarily to think that humanity won’t go on living as specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart until the resource hunger of capitalism burns the planet to cinder.

Further, although the events of the Arab Spring have shown that popular mobilization can effect profound political transformations, subsequent developments raise very troubling questions. To take the example of Egypt, while the movement in Tahrir Square was profoundly moving, the lack of systematic political analysis and organization to a great degree vitiated the struggle. While the lack of a uniform program was viewed as necessary to facilitate unity in the face of a government crackdown, the lack of a discreet plan for change, and an organization to accomplish it, meant that already prominent forces (principally the Muslim Brotherhood and the technocratic militarists of the former governing clique) were able to reassert their control over Egyptian society.

All this not to say that Fisher does not have a profound and important analytical contribution to make. But stating the problem is one thing and thinking seriously about concrete steps to fix it (as opposed to waiting for holes to spontaneously form in the fabric of the system) is another. In my next post, I will look at Fisher’s more culturally-oriented writings to see if it is possible to tease out from these a more plausible account of how culture might free itself from the iron cage of neoliberalism in which it is now ensconced.

Photographs courtesy of Martin Bull and Joel Schalit.