Capitalist Realism

I recently read a captivating book by Mark Fisher called Capitalist Realism, which seeks, I think, to synthesize ideas thoughts culture and technology in the “late-capitalist” era with a political economy understanding of the current state of capitalism. Essentially this means that Fisher looks closely at various cultural productions (films, advertising, TV, etc.) and uses them to help to analyze the broader state of the world today. The outcome of this synthesis/analysis is an elaboration of the concept of “capitalist realism”. “Realism” is a term that has many uses (e.g. socialist realism; realism in paining; philosophers use it in a unique way; etc.) but I think that the basic underpinning of the terms is that it realism is concerned with ‘how the world actually is’, as opposed to how the world could be in the future or might be in the present in less perceptible ways. So, ‘capitalist realism’ is an ideological or political position that sees capitalism as the the way the world is and cares not about understanding its historical development or its potential demise. Capitalist realism encourages us to accept the current state of affairs and to lower our expectations; “Lowering our expectations. we are told, is  small price to pay for being protected from terror and totalitarianism” (5). This brutal realism is captured in a quote from Badiou:

“We live in a contradiction, a brutal state of affairs, profoundly inegalitarian—where all existence is evaluated in terms of money alone—is presented to us as ideal. To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible. Sure, they say, we may not live in a condition of perfect Goodness. But we’re lucky that we don’t live in a condition of Evil. Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.” (5)

A key point of departure for Fisher is the idea from Zizek that it is becoming impossible to imagine what a future without capitalism could even look like. “For most peope under twenty in Europe and North America, the lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable” (8). True or defeatist? Rather, there has always been, since the post-war period anyway, a mainstream majority that does not challenge capitalism. Perhaps the global scale of this majority is new (although I know that Capitalism is less entrenched in the so-called developing countries).

A, or maybe the, challenge for Fisher is to be able to imagine an alternative to capitalism that is not born out of, and therefore co-optable by, capitalism and that is not just a rehashing of previous non-capitalistic societies. He writes about the former in relation to the anti-globalization struggles in Seattle (see ch.2, “What if you held a protest and everyone came?”). The latter  it seems to me must not be totally what he is saying, as Polanyi and any economic historian would easily point to the existence of pre-capitalistic societies. Also relating to Polanyi, and I think Fisher would like this, culture would seem to be crucial; cultural creations that are non-capitalizable are crucial if only because they would signal the embedding of the/an economic system in society and not visa versa. In the few pages of the last chapter of the book Fisher starts to lay some of his ideas about how to effectively challenge “late capitalism”.

“It’s well past time for the left to cease limiting its ambitions to the establishing of a big state. But being ‘at a distance from the state’ does not mean either abandoning the state or retreating into the private space of affects and diversity which Zizek rightly argues is the perfect compliment to neoliberalism’s domination of the state.” (77) So we don’t want to focus on capturing and running a big state, but we also don’t want to ignore the importance of the state and leave it do be dominated by neoliberal ideals. This dual concern comes out of for one thing Fisher’s concern about what he calls ‘reflexive impotence’, which occurs when people “know [upon reflection that] things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it.” (21) This feeling of impotence, of ‘passive observation’, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. This idea also brings to mind another striking passage from Fisher. He, apparently following Zizek, sees a distinction being drawn between internal and external beliefs, and that “Capitalist ideology in general…consists preceisely in the overhauling of belief–in the sense of inner subjective attitude–at the expense of beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behaviour. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.” (13) And, interestingly, Hollywood films that appear to be anti-capitalist and/or anti-corporatist like Wall-E, Blood Diamonds, Syriana, etc. actually “exemplify what Robert Pfaller has called ‘interpassivity’: the film[s] perform our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.” (12)

There is an interesting section in the book about not blaming corporations for their misdeeds, but blaming government instead. In this way we treat the state as the nanny? We still expect everything from the state, so individualism does not carry over and apply to corporations even though they are treated as individuals in certain contexts. Corporations exploit this state of affairs in order to avoid blame, accountability, and mass backlash.

Does Bolivarian Latin American present an actually existing alternative to capitlism, and therefore, in contrast to Zizek and Fredric Jameson, the possibility of imagining a different world that isn’t just the end of the world? Fisher (7) claims that the end of actually existing socialism is a premise of his preferring the term “capitalist realism” to “postmodernism”. Is Bolivarianism not good enough, for him, to be a counter to “cultural and political sterility”(7)? is this Eurocentric?

pomo vs cap realism p7

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3 Responses to “Capitalist Realism”

  1. September 28th, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    Orion says:

    Thanks for writing this up.
    Tell me more about Bolivia. I don’t know enough of what’s going on there to ponder whether i think its a counter to cultural and political sterility.
    I’ve hear Zizek say similar things about the Zapatistas and south america, as Fisher says about anti-capitalist movies, that us in the rest of the world let them be anti-capitalist for us.
    I’ve also heard it derided as ‘state-capitalism’, not gonna last, paternalistic etc.

    yeah I also want to re-visit that supernanny conclusion — I forget what he was saying. Does it have to do with the thought: BP shouldn’t be cleaning up their spill. The government should be (not worrying about costs – perhaps using BP’s assets) and BP should be put in jail.
    This thought is in my head, maybe it came from there.

  2. September 30th, 2010 at 8:53 am

    admin says:

    About bolivia, yes i want to read more. I think there was a recent Znet or SocialistProject essay about it. I’ll try to dig it up. Essentially though, in Bolivia there seems to be a challenge to capitalism that is not as easily co-optable because it is still intricately tied to a pre-capitalistic time/culture, i.e. the crucial role of indigenous peoples in the labour-indigenous front that has gained control over the Bolivian state.

    Are you talking about venezuela, re: ‘state-capitalism’?

    Yes I think the supernanny idea involved the BP oil spill case, or a similar one, the main point being that we hold government accountable but let the corporation (i.e. the true perpetrator) off free. there is more to it than this…maybe i will try to find it in the book…

    thanks for the comment!

  3. October 1st, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Orion says:

    oh yeah ooops … was definitely thinking of venezuala.

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