Speculating Capitalist Realism

Capitalist Realism is the name of a rather new book by Mark Fisher, author of the K-Punk blog. Between the book’s quite stylish covers and in a relatively small number of pages Fisher outlines the pervasive, totalising power of capitalist realism, a political economy that says “Capitalism may not be the best, but there’s nothing better”. Built into the system is an inherent anti-capitalism that on-the-ground, that is, where it affects real people, makes the acknowledgment that “yeah, capitalism causes lots of problems but there’s nothing we can do about it”. Accordingly, that has become a realistic fact-of-life and no one is to blame since, after all, “Who really is it that actually wants poverty?”

Capitalist realism’s decentered existence (there is no-one to blame when it fucks up) deflects the issue from one of systemic failures and onto issues of personal responsibility; onto “What we can practically do”. It’s only suggestion is that if we bought the right products, like Bono’s product Red brand, then we could solve the world’s problems. It’s not capitalism’s fault that we’re so selfish!

In his final two chapters, Fisher points out that the political left needs to undertake a massive re-imagining or reinvention of a “collective will” to replace the methodological individualism that is a cornerstone of Capital with a big C. One of capitalist realism’s great successes has been in making the “alternatives” (note the deliberate use of scare quotes) appear untenable and unworkable, rather than replacing capitalism with a system that actually works, the end result being the current situation where we have a system that doesn’t work but we all have to pretend that it does.

Cynicism and pragmatism are the abiding dispositions of capitalist realism because it has embedded itself in our imaginations as the new natural order – as just the way things have to be done now. Fisher points to Lacanian psychoanalysis’s principal of “The Real” which “is not synonymous with reality” for our first warning that this is not the case. When we protest the failures and excesses of capitalism, we acknowledge the real-existing-reality and it’s incongruity with the vision of The Real as presented by capitalist realism. But for ‘the system’ to work, someone (or something) has to believe in its convenient fiction, and this is what Fischer describes as the big Other (another Lacanian term).

About a third to half-way into reading Mark Fishers incredibly thought provoking and quite punchy little book, I felt myself getting more and more depressed by capitalist realism’s pervasive irresistibility and it’s accepted position as natural or inevitable. The inability to resist capitalist realism’s seduction is a further amplifying affect, and I began to spiral into a kind of despair that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seriously faced the impossibility of the end of their own existence. To escape the spiral of despair, I got to thinking about alternatives, of which Fisher seems to only hint at in his final two chapters.

A lot of the books I’ve been reading lately about culture and technological change talk about artists and artisans pioneering ideas before philosophers come in to neatly colonise the ground they’ve ploughed with their tools (and that’s not meant as a criticism of philosophers). As a bit of a self-styled artist, working primarily in the medium of words, I thought I’d employ a little bit of bricolage as an attempt at a new strategy to figure out the name for an alternative to replace/supersede/expose capitalist realism before actually nailing out what it will actually do. So here are a few quick ideas and notes on them:

– Capitalist Absurdism
In this absurd political economy we would value (perhaps value is not the right terms here for it carries connotations of money) the most outrageous, the most provocative and the most absurd. This could even be a part-time political economy where we occasionally throw everything up in the air and go “to hell with it all”. While there is no doubt this political economy contains the potential for catastrophe, so does capitalism so we’re about even.

– Equality-nomics
Perhaps in this economy we could banish the profit motive and instil a rigid commitment to equality of income. No one earns any profit from their work above and beyond an arbitrarily decided amount which everyone everywhere receives equally. Neoliberal economists would most shrilly decry; “But no one would have any motivation to do anything!” to which we reply, “You don’t even believe your own axioms about the relationship between money and motivation, so why should we?”

This political economy has the added benefit of disestablishing the protestant work ethic which has proven so exceptionally and comprehensively destructive to individuals, families and communities for at least the past hundred years or so. If Art for Arts sake was the slogan of Modernity, Work for Works sake is certainly capitalist realisms. The social stigmatization of the unemployed and fetishisation of the figure of the “dole bludger” in Australian society is proof enough of this. While the unemployed get railed against for being freeloaders, not once do the railer’s themselves stop to consider whether the unemployed should participate in an economy that by all accounts is environmentally unsustainable (let alone whether they could – I would have thought that the dream of employment for all should have been recognised as such long, long ago).

– Dada Capitalism

Political economy for its own sake. Despite the fact that I called out ‘Work for Works sake’ earlier, this is perhaps the one I’d be most interested and perhaps the one with the most potential for implementation (not least of all by artists). Self-organising communities of artists could resolve to act (purchase?) based on Dadist ideals of being “anti-war… anti-bourgeois and anarchistic in nature.” If you’re noticing a trend in that these are all starting to look a bit the same, you’re right, and that perhaps speaks to my lack of imagination. Dada capitalism may also look quite similar to the next political economy called…

– Capitalist Nihilism
Think Fight Club and destroying or undermining all the capital you can possibly get your hands on – think also of The KLF burning £1m in the 1980’s, itself perhaps the most grand send off for the pre-neoliberal era imaginable.

– Capitalist Denialism
Think refusing to acknowledge the existence of money and living as such. Granted, capitalist realists will say “you won’t get far living like that!” but that close-minded inability to even consider alternatives to capitalism, that acknowledgment that it’s “the only game in town” is precisely what I’m trying to transcend. In actual fact, there is a man in the UK who has lived most excellently for a year without having anything to do with money.

And before you go thinking (and I know you’re thinking it, because I am too – it’s symptomatic of our conditioning to capitalist realism that we self censor like this) “none of this is realistic” or “we couldn’t all live like that” or any number of other thoughts about the relative plausibility of these or other political economic alternatives – just stop and realise that you’ve probably become complicit in capitalist realism.

We can un-think these kinds of thoughts, we can transcend the tendency to put so much stock in them that we fear to even consider the possibility of alternatives to capitalism. We just need to have a little bit of faith and imagination.