Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? by Mark Fisher.
My rating: four stars
Well, this year’s been enough of a bummer so let’s do this thing.
I have wanted to read some of Mark Fisher’s longer writing – having been acquainted with his blog for ages – for some time, and I figured, given that 2020/21 had pretty much clocked the woe-meter, it was time. So I settled down for an afternoon of anticapitalist invective.
The most Gothic description of Capital is also the most accurate. Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie-maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.
First things first. The writing is taut and, unusually for both the subject and theory in general, pretty fucking funny. I haven’t kept up with economic theory since I learned the term ‘stagflation’ in high school, but that didn’t really stop me from getting most of what was going on here. True, I was a little more in the weeds when the author dove into the work of a range of theorists, but I found that while there was a bit of a suggestion that the reader may have read the people mentioned, it wasn’t necessary in order to follow the points Fisher was making.
‘Being realistic’ may once have meant coming to terms with of a reality experienced as solid and immovable. Capitalist realism, however, entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment.
Through the nine chapters of the title, the author uses cultural touchstones – films, TV shows, music, historical events and more – to bring into focus something which shapes the world we live in, which influences most of us way more than religion or sports allegiance, but about which we are more than likely none too informed about or engaged with. He eviscerates bureaucracy, and explains how impotence shapes reaction to the pressures put on us by capitalism. Surveillance, PR, the scapegoat of big government and – most interestingly, from my point of view – the rise of mental illnesses as a side-effect of the capitalist system, are all examined among other topics.
The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.
Look, I’m not going to lie. It’s heavy going. Not in terms of the way it’s written – it’s not a chewy, dense text. But in terms of the food-for-thought angle? It’s a full belly, a laden plate. There’s a lot of stuff to consider here, and it certainly exposed a lot of gaps in my own knowledge. But there was also a sort of humour, albeit gallows, which made it easy to keep going.
As a consumer in late capitalism, you increasingly exist in two, distinct realities: the one in which the services are provided without hitch, and another reality entirely, the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centers, a world without memory, where cause and effect connect together in mysterious, unfathomable ways, where it is a miracle that anything ever happens, and you lose hope of ever passing back over to the other side, where things seem to function smoothly.
For all the darkness within, however, Fisher does end this work on a positive note. He seems to leave room for the hope, however remote, that the Left may stop having pissing contests over theorists past and fins a new way to grapple with the situation at hand and thus move out of the ‘ideological rubble’.
(Ultimately, it wasn’t hopeful enough for the author. Fisher died in 2017, and his incisiveness is still missed.)
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