K-Punk Politics

The cultural studies band: One-time Marxist heartthrobs Gang of Four, playing in 2011.

Cultural theorist Mark Fisher died last week. He was just 48 years old. Ideologically committed to the ethos of Punk Rock, Mark Fisher was an influential music critic and blogger at K-Punk. Unlike liberal critics, Fisher did not engage with pop culture without recourse to critical theory and politics. And by politics, I mean radical politics.

From what we know, Fisher committed suicide after a lifelong struggle with depression. I hesitate to use the dreadful cliche ‘struggle’ together with depression. This condition requires greater nuance, and he himself wrote a lot about the politics of depression and what he called ‘depressive hedonism’, the cycle of pleasure and sadness enforced and regulated by social media and other forms of enjoyment. The inability to escape from the relentless treadmill of desires brings us to despair again and again.

He was right to see depression as a key figment of the era. It’s not just that the capitalist system has produced an alienated working class, the new threat is an all encompassing gloom – feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. This takes subtle forms. Fisher talks about ‘magical voluntarism’, which he describes as “the belief that it is within every individual’s power to make themselves whatever they want to be”.

After all, if you are a truly free individual then you have only yourself to blame for your problems. It’s not just right-wing politicians pushing this idea. It’s in Reality TV, CBT and the popular guff of self-help therapy, ‘positive thinking’ and ‘mindfulness’. We’re rendered still by ‘reflexive impotence’, Fisher argues, but it’s not an individual matter. It’s political and socio-economic in the end. It’s about the induced decline of class consciousness. And this is where it gets interesting.

There is an alternative

The politics of depression fit neatly within a broad political analysis of our predicament. This brings us to the notion of ‘capitalist realism’. In his book of the same name, Mark Fisher attempted to encapsulate the ideological field which prevents us from seeing beyond the horizon of the capitalist system. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism itself.

As a term, ‘capitalist realism’ is an obvious play on socialist realism – the stultifying aesthetic and cultural policies of the Soviet Union that snuffed the life out of the Russian avant-garde in the 1920s. This is itself a wonderfully subversive tactic of appropriation. In an interview with Ceasefire Magazine, Fisher summed up his analysis:

Put simply, capitalist realism is the view that it is now impossible even to imagine an alternative to capitalism. Capitalism is the only ‘realistic’ political economic system, and, since this is the case, all we can do is accommodate ourselves to it. This leads to the imposition of what I have called ‘business ontology’ – a version of social reality in which every process is modeled on corporate practices.

‘Business ontology’ is Fisher’s name for the incapacity to see the world outside of business and corporate terms. This is probably a play on Alain Badiou’s phrase ‘market ontology’. Even leftists struggle to see the world outside of market forces and the structures of business, big and small. In this sense, capitalist ideology – in the domination of culture, not just the economy – shapes the limits of thought and discourse, not just practical action.

Fisher was adept at coining such terms. ‘Market Stalinism’ was another great invention, referring to the enforced practices of companies. He singles out examples like employees being obliged to wear items expressing their individuality. Later, Fisher would use the phrase ‘liberal Stalinism’ to refer to the increasing tendency of the left towards moralism on social media. He would use this to dissect the Twitter mob as a new puritanical force.

Far from a conservative, Fisher was concerned by the decline of left-wing political experiments as a loss to revolutionary politics. Note, this was before Occupy Wall Street broke out in 2011. He wanted the left to avoid the drift into purely theoretical discourses, but not move towards action for the sake of action. This is not a desperate call for the Black Bloc to save us. And it’s not a diversion into the obscure corners of academia.

Instead, the focus is on the system and how it ensnares us. Capitalist realism dissolves agency and politics as we know them. It leaves, in its wake, the notion of individual responsibility and guilt. If you can’t find a job, that’s your fault. It’s not down to the structural functions of the economy, and its need for cheap labour and unemployment as a pressure for keeping wages low. All the while, we’re told we can do anything and be anybody.

Much like Slavoj Zizek and other thinkers, Fisher was responding to the ‘end of history’ and its almost universal acceptance. This led Mark to question the stagnant, managerial politics of the New Labour era. His work called into the question one of the fundamental assumptions of neoliberalism, namely the idea that “there is no alternative” to a liberal market economy. Fisher was not alone in his efforts to tear down the limits being foisted upon the human imagination. But, at the same time, he was not uncritical of the contemporary left.

The retreat into identity

In Exiting the Vampire Castle, Mark Fisher attempted to diagnose the ailments of the modern left, singling out its fetish for social media and the growing trend towards so-called ‘identity politics’. The loss of a sense of organisational form, instead drifting into petty bourgeois moralism about personal conduct and individual virtue. He takes the posh left’s animosity towards Owen Jones and Russell Brand as key instances of this.

Taking issue with ‘call out culture’, Fisher sees the fixation on moral failings (whether real or imagined) as a return to a new puritanism on the left. He points us to the abusive outbursts of Twitter mobs, and he is right. Ultimately, he argues, this shift serves to paralyse us – feeding back into the hopelessness endemic to the system. In short, petit-bourgeois moralism isn’t a substitute for political theory and action, in fact, it might actually be a hindrance to it.

Mark Fisher speaking at MACBA in 2011.

At the same time, Mark is careful to make clear he does not think straight white guys should be treated with reverence. Nor does Fisher dismiss the struggles of queer people, women and people of colour. Rather he takes issue with the creeping influence of petit-bourgeois moralism, which appropriates these struggles and ties them to liberal reformism. He detects this influence in university life, and suggests it deters working people from getting involved.

Of course, Fisher was not alone in his scepticism of the shift towards identitarian politics on the left. He was very critical of what he called ‘neo-anarchism’, a name for a specific breed of anarchism espoused by privileged millennials – who have never known life before neoliberalism. The neo-anarchists fall back into the ditch of neoliberal thinking, as they hold twentieth century social democracy and communism in contempt, but refuse to concede parliamentary or state politics ever achieved any good at all.

It sounds like a close cousin to what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call ‘folk politics’. They argue that the organised left has fallen by the wayside and become enamoured with spontaneous local action over organised, hegemonic projects for universal emancipation. Instead, the collective focus is on localism and the immediacy of particular struggles rather than vertical, hierarchical attempts to restructure the world and build a far-reaching alternative.

This may be why horizontalism and anarchism are in vogue. Yet Fisher doesn’t see any hope in a return to old leftist ‘economistic’ notions of class. He sees the limitations of social movements at present, but does not see salvation in past models. In this regard, Fisher sounded like most other so-called postmodern theorists, but he was not necessarily wrong in this emphasis. The post-capitalist future is in the present, and the struggle is not just to defeat the present system but to bring about that future.

Photographs courtesy of Amy Hope Dermont and MACBA. Published under a Creative Commons license.