Thursday, 24 March 2011

“BOTH HORROR FILM AND FARCE”: NOT A PROPER REVIEW AT ALL OF MARK FISHER’S ‘CAPITALIST REALISM’


 ”After 1989, Capitalism has presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system. What effects has this ‘Capitalist Realism’ had on work, culture, education and mental health? Is it possible to imagine an alternative to capitalism that is not some throwback to discredited models of state control?”

...which is, you must admit, a pretty good question. If you wanted to reduce Mark Fisher’s ’Capitalist Realism’ to a crude soundbite, you could call it neoliberal economics in ideological form, the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” He concedes at one point that postmodernism might have sufficed as a term. (He would probably counter, however, that the need to reduce the term to a soundbite is itself an example of Capitalist Realism in action!) The book begins by utilising Cuaron’s ’Children of Men’ as an indicator: “In its world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.”

What follows will not be a proper review of Fisher’s book (about which you could say much, both pro and con), but an initial focus on one aspect of it which then flies off on its own trajectory. (You are probably used to this sort of thing if you’ve been here before.)

Fisher could be seen as holding a double vision of Capitalist Realism. At one point he compares it to “the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.” It manifests itself as an ungraspable, unslayable foe, always one morph ahead of any opposition.


 Yet it is also characterised as an absurd, even farcical, state of affairs; obsessed with appearance over content, run by over-eager management gurus generating a tangle of meaningless ‘targets’ which merely clog any purposeful activity. Fisher asserts that Kafka, rather than Marx, was the true prophet of all this. But let’s make a more lowbrow comparison - to the “middle sort of people” in Douglas Adams’ ’Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ who (rejected by their home world as “useless”) come to colonise the Earth. Made up only of marketing men and documentary makers, they are unable to invent the wheel because they can’t decide what colour it should be, and in general precipitate planet-wide disaster.


 Neither is it suggested that Capitalist Realism has some schizo existence, shifting between these two conditions. For Fisher to be correct it must be both horror film and farce. One might predominate at certain times, but the other is never absent. We are talking about two heads for one monster – one ravenous beast, one hapless bureaucrat.

The title’s skit on Socialist Realism is of course deliberate. Fisher’s comparison of all this to Stalinism may initially seem mere mud-slinging, but actually proves to be unerringly accurate. Indeed, some of his hardest-hitting passages come in the chapter ‘All that is solid melts into PR: Market Stalinism and bureaucratic anti-production’, where he accounts his own experiences negotiating target culture while a Higher Education tutor.

“What we have is not a direct comparison of workers’ performance or output, but a comparison between the audited representation of that performance and output. Inevitably, a short-circuiting occurs, and work becomes geared towards the generation and massaging of representations rather than the official goal of the work itself...This reversal of priorities is one of the hallmarks of a system which might be characterised without hyperbole as ‘market Stalinism’. What late capitalism repeats from Stalinism is just this valuing of symbols of achievement over actual achievement... In a process that repeats itself with iron predictability everywhere that they are installed, targets quickly cease to be a way of measuring performance and become ends in themselves.”

He compares this to Stalin’s Five Year Plans, quoting Marshall Berman on the high death toll and poor productive results of “a brutal farce in which real people were killed by pseudo-events.”

With this “brutal farce”, Stalin could perhaps be described as the figure to pull Fisher’s two faces of Capitalist Realism together. After all, he was both monstrous tyrant and instigator of a thousand black farces. Fisher actually makes little attempt to reconcile this apparent contradiction, which might tempt the reader to conclude that it marks some kind of failure of his analysis. But what if he is actually correct, is pinpointing a genuinely paradoxical characteristic of our times? What if this disjunction is actually that of late capitalism itself?

It seems astonishing the speed at which neoliberal economics have colonised the ideological terrain. As Fisher points out “ what is currently called realistic was itself once ‘impossible’: the slew of privatisations that took place since the 1980s would have been unthinkable only a decade earlier... Conversely, what was once eminently possible is now deemed unrealistic.” The most egregious example must be the term ‘free schools’, which used to mean schools run along non-authoritarian lines and now means schools ‘free’ to be run for profit by private finance.

But what makes this shift so astonishing is that the facts on the ground are so often the very opposite of its innovative dreams. As Fisher says, “with the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life.”

Yet it’s notable that, when you argue this point with people, they will insist quite the opposite. I have worked for private corporations with people who did nothing but complain, day in and day out, about the excess bureaucracy and consequent inefficiency that we endured. But when asked how they squared that experience with their continuing belief in private enterprise, they would simply ignore the contradiction and reassert the mantra that “everybody knows” that free markets work best.

Capitalism sells itself as both rational and dynamic, a system where everything is tested and verified, and the best new ideas inherently rise to the top. But of course it’s not necessary for this to actually happen. What’s necessary is for this to be said to be happening. (Even if it was happening, it being said would still be more important.)

While the trickle-down theory of wealth has a poor basis in proof, the trickle-down theory of ideology is much more successful. For such workplace or pub arguments simply mimic public debates on the subject, merely in a less polysyllabic way. Currently, the British Medical Association is opposing the next wave of NHS privatisations on the grounds that previous examples have failed to make the intended improvements. (And in fact in many cases have made things worse.)

Of course such objections will not be countered so much as disregarded. Any positive results of privatisation will be heralded, any negative results will be at best trivialised, because “everybody knows” what the result would be before the experiment was conducted. (And of course this doesn’t even begin to cover the way in which ‘targets’ are skewed towards the desired results.) Similarly, Fisher comments that Blair’s “equality of opportunity” has resulted in not even a decrease in but a cessation of social mobility and an exponential increase in the wealth gap.

A Capital which is always ahead and infinitely mobile, yet simultaneously strangling itself with red tape, both horror film and farce. A proletariat brutally beaten back, in a permanent state of precarity, yet less class-conscious than ever and revelling in apparent consumerist affluence. How can this all be squared?

First, we should point out one flaw in Fisher’s (otherwise excellent) reading of Capitalist Realism as Market Stalinism. Socialist Realism forbad discussion of its failings, with gulags awaiting those who broke such strictures. But the facts which prove the lie of Capitalist Realism are, if anything, more available than at any other time in history. They are never further away than a mouse click or two. Yet, rather than my being put on trial for writing this blog entry, it is unlikely the authorities will even bother to monitor it.

Of course response to those who determine to do something about the state of affairs is increasingly harsh, with police insistence on crushing demonstrations leading to the death of Ian Tomlinson and the injury of many more. Yet the overall psychological effect is that of a champion boxer not even bothering to raise his fists in the normal defensive stance. It conveys the message that it would be pointless to tackle him.

But more importantly, we should not fall into the trap of taking Capitalist Realism on its own terms. If it did not succeed in delivering better product and services to the consumer, then that was never its aim. Its true purpose, of course, was to break organised labour and it was brought in on the back of a series of class struggle victories Capital achieved in the Eighties. (Principally the Miner’s Strike.) Arguing otherwise is like saying that the Greeks beat the Trojans on the battlefield, so must have had a better system of accountancy.

Capitalism styles itself an innovator, unshackled to tradition, unafraid of (in Blair’s phrase) the “forces of conservatism.” But whenever it made this claim, we’d counter that the motor of innovation was in fact class struggle. Perhaps the core of Marx comes from the introduction to the Communist Manifesto, that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Examples are legion; for example, the Fordist production line was not some inevitable step in the linear passage of ‘progress’, but was devised with the specific aim of breaking the power of the craft unions in the car plants.

Marx developed this argument by distinguishing between the formal and the actual subsumption of labour by Capital. At first Capital merely houses the proletariat in its workplaces, in effect stealing what they have made as soon as it rolls off the production line, like free range chickens and their eggs. But over time every second, every inch came to be controlled and regulated. Moreover, this continues outside of the workplace. Pretty soon there are no zones left autonomous from it - from free range chickens to battery hens. Of course these zones may still be contested, but that is the very point.

Traditionally, though disagreement raged about when this happened, there was agreement about what it meant. With no more spaces outside of it’s control, Capital inevitably becomes centered in the proletariat’s sight and they must go on to fight it in its entirely. It must be submitted to or destroyed.

Yet the reality has been quite different. As Fisher asserts, “class war has continued to be fought, but only by one side: the wealthy.” Of course, to the Capitalist Realist, that is the development that has made their world possible. Having defeated organised labour they can go on to pick off all their other opponents, such as labelling environmental protestors terrorists and temporarily imprisoning them as soon as they show up anywhere. Having remade society in their image they can now turn to the natural world. GM foods and the patenting of DNA go beyond defining nature as plunder, fit for grabs, and re-render it into one big machine – one which, if not performing efficiently enough for profits, is to be taken apart and tampered with.

But is this apparent victory their very moment of defeat? Will it turn out they needed us all along? Was our opposition actually propping them up? Did our struggle keep their wilder excesses on track, almost literally ground them? Are they like a brawler who lands a killer blow, but then tumbles himself through the swing of it? Target culture is a classic example. In the old, unionised days, targets could only be implemented after lengthy negotiations. This protracted process would force the bosses to consider which targets were most important, and focus on them. Nowadays targets are free to proliferate like weeds. Of course capitalist innovations continue – ‘better’ MP3 players emerge, blu-ray DVDs, HD TVs and i-Pads appear and quickly become desired commodities. But they themselves are symptoms of this over-reach, as capitalism exceeds itself.

In a way, the litmus test of this was the War. While unrest within Iraq soon became an unpullable thorn, there were few domestic consequences. After the biggest protest march in British history, the demonstrators were proved entirely right - but it was as if there was not a single general lesson to be learnt from this story. The buzzword of the political class became “move on”, in every sense except for the occupying troops (who were to stay put). Labour even went on to win the next election.

And of course, the banking crisis almost exactly followed this template, merely on a larger scale. Conceptually it pulled the threadbare rug from under the feet of neo-liberalism, exposing its rotten floorboards. But it’s as if they’re the only floor manufacturer in town. The only question left open is how quickly and how deeply the rest of us will be asked to pay for bailing out the bankers’ excesses, through public spending cuts.

But perhaps the real sign of the future happened within Iraq itself. A hamfisted, ideologically driven attempt to impose a ‘free market’ in Iraq merely brought chaos. Over eight billion dollars flown in to stimulate ‘enterprise’ simply went missing, while basic commodities such as electricity became scarce or unavailable. An infrastructure, damaged by years of sanctions but still high by the standards of the region, was decimated. Iraq was not reconstructed but deconstructed.

If the corrupt volatility of post-Saddam Iraq is the true face of Capitalist Realism, if it is both harbinger and microcosm of our future, then this prognosis is far from a cheery one. It will turn out that Capitalism did carry the seeds of it’s own destruction after all, but failed in it’s other main task – to create it’s gravediggers. The result would not be anarchy of the kind sought by anarchists (self-organised groups federating to co-ordinate production) but in the way feared by Capitalists – chaos, disorder and destruction. Capitalism collapsed will not lead to the same outcome as Capitalism overthrown.

In this way, Fisher’s book makes for an interesting comparison with Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 agitational classic ’The Revolution of Everyday Life.’ They share the sense that the current phase of Capital is the final one, that having left itself nothing to eat it must now devour itself. Of course Fisher is far more cautious than Vaneigem in his prognosis. (At one point, Vaneigem recklessly predicts that capitalism will not outlast the millennium. Most commentators now contend that it did.) But this point of departure is in fact the point. Vaneigem was still talking about those gravediggers, predicting proletarian overthrow. Though he makes a few cautious suggestions for opposition, Fisher talks as though we are witnessing the end of the line.

So is this our inevitable doom? Such a fate is possible, perhaps even likely, but not necessarily inevitable. Firstly, ‘Stalinism’ eventually collapsed in the USSR, but took the best part of a century to do so. Moreover, the conditions it collapsed in are not necessarily comparable to the ‘world market’ of today. It is not the case that, as Stalinism collapsed, so inevitably must all forms of capitalism. As the banking crisis proved, capitalism has proved adept at surviving tremors and its collapse does not seem immediate. (Those who saw in it Capitals’ Armageddon are already looking pretty foolish.)

And of course there’s signs to prove the contrary notion, that the cuts hitched onto the back of the crisis will rekindle the class struggle. Fisher himself, previously somewhat sniffy about the direct action scene, has even participated in education cuts protests and compared their emergence to coming out of a depression.


 This is merely a thought experiment following one possible scenario. Yet it is not a scenario we tend to look into. Our forebears, writing at a time when Capital was weaker, did not have to consider it – and we follow obligingly in their wake. Like Holmes, we struggle without thinking that Moriaty could pull us off the Reichenbach Falls with him as he goes...

Further reading: My review of 'Inception' was heavily influenced by Fisher's book, on how contemporary cinema was reflecting the ideological terrain of neoliberalism.

4 comments:

  1. Interesting review Gav. I feel reluctant to discuss a book I haven’t read, even more so because my reaction is probably unfashionable, but here goes.

    The initially quoted “pretty good question” is certainly one that vexes me. Like many people I get frustrated by the received view that there is no alternative to capitalism. In trying to understand this I’m drawn to the event that marks the boundary between the world we grew up in and this one - the end of the Soviet Union. Looking back I get the feeling that for all its faults the very existence of the USSR made a huge difference to the opportunities of the Left.

    While the Soviet Union was always vilified as the “Enemy” and the “Evil Empire” by the Right, the simple fact that it existed as a functioning state in which people were born, got married, and lived successful lives rendered the claim that there is no alternative to capitalism impossible to make. The debate amongst the Left was only about whether the USSR was actually “Evil” or merely “Betrayed” or possibly “Quite Nice”. There was never any discussion about whether an alternative to capitalism was possible, merely what sort was best.

    Things would have been very different if there had never been a Soviet Union (and by extension any of the twentieth century’s Communist states). In such a counterfactual world the lack of non-capitalist states would have made such it easy to dismiss any talk of State Socialism as an impossible and unrealistic Utopian dream, just as it tended to be before the Russian Revolution.

    Of course it’s now impossible to claim that the USSR never existed, so a different myth has to serve. I well remember the arguments put forward by the Right when the USSR ended. It was claimed that the Soviet government’s downfall was a result of actions by Western nations - outspending it in the Arms Race, denying it access to new technology and so forth. Such hubris had the disadvantage that it required the premise that the Soviet Union was actually Evil. This became difficult to maintain as the secrecy behind Soviet posturing was lifted and it was revealed that the USSR was a state with quite ordinary social and economic conditions and with a desire to avoid getting embroiled in foreign wars. This difficulty was reinforced when Russia went on to undergo terrible economic conditions and internal wars once it embraced capitalism.

    So a new myth was born. The Right denied any responsibility in bringing down the Evil Empire. Instead the Soviet Union “collapsed” because its economic system made governing it impossible. Socialism contains an intrinsically unstable economic programme and hence it isn’t an option for us. The fact that the USSR maintained seventy years as a functioning state is conveniently disregarded, despite the fact that it is probably longer than the age of most of the world’s modern nation states.

    And so the Right now reduces the whole history of the twentieth century to a triumph of capitalism with a few failed alternative experiments thrown in along the way. In this way it’s quite easy to return to a Victorian view that anti-capitalists are no more than pipe-dreamers.

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  2. ”While the Soviet Union was always vilified as the “Enemy” and the “Evil Empire” by the Right, the simple fact that it existed as a functioning state in which people were born, got married, and lived successful lives rendered the claim that there is no alternative to capitalism impossible to make. The debate amongst the Left was only about whether the USSR was actually “Evil” or merely “Betrayed” or possibly “Quite Nice”.”

    In brief, I think the opposite!

    In the world we grew up in (70s and 80s), the biggest Left group was the Socialist Worker’s Party. I think no small part of this was due to the fact that they called the Soviet Union what it actually was – State Capitalist. The majority of people rented themselves out to survive to a handful of bosses, and whenever they tried to self-organise the bosses responded with suppression. The only difference was that the bosses were formally banded together. (The only flaw I can find in this description is that it overlooks the fact that private enterprise was actually widespread in the USSR; the massive black market was ostensibly illegal but in practise tolerated and perpetuated by bribery.)

    Though they claimed to be Trotskyist, this was a massive departure from the orthodox Trot view that it was (in your words) “betrayed,” or, in their buzz-phrase, a “degenerate worker’s state.” (The flaws of calling it “quite nice” being fairly self-evident.)

    Though their guru Tony Cliff risibly claimed to have come up with this description, he was actually copying what left-communists and anarchists had been saying almost since it’s inception. (He also reworked it and watered it down to the point where it didn’t really make sense any more, but let’s not go into that now.) I think the reason he did it was the same reason the SWP did everything – opportunism.

    During the Second Cold War, any criticism of any aspect of Western economics was met by the retort “go back to Russia.” A seller of some other paper would then be forced to stammer something about Lenin never officially sanctioning Stalin to succeed him, or the virtues of command economies even if they existed in a distorted form. A Socialist Worker seller could simply say “We oppose Russia too.” In fact the strapline of their paper was ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow.’

    In short I’m saying they got so big precisely because they opposed the Soviet Union – it was a strategy which gave them a market lead. The failure of the Russian Revolution was an obstacle to challenging Western capitalism which they managed to shrug off themselves and impose upon their competitors.

    ”The fact that the USSR maintained seventy years as a functioning state is conveniently disregarded.”

    True, but that also raises the question of why it collapsed when it did. Up to the Seventies, there hadn’t really been that much difference in the economic models. Here in Britain many major industries were nationalised. I think it was the move to the post-Fordist era, from heavy industry to micro-production, that the Soviet Union couldn’t keep up with. Also, the West had moved its colonial policies from formal empires to strings of economic dominance. If there was too much resistance in one area, they could simply switch to dealing with another.

    (Though they didn’t happen at the same time, the combination of the two is important. The Soviet Union’s collapse started by uprisings in its colonies.)

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  3. ”Russia went on to undergo terrible economic conditions and internal wars once it embraced capitalism.”

    Yes, and I think this rather adds to my view. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western free market economists rushed to predict an “economic miracle” for Russia where newfound competition would raise living standards to Western levels. In fact living standards plummeted as the black market racketeers effectively took over, then stole and flogged off everything they could. College Professors started selling cabbages at roadsides to survive. Things got so terrible that most people started to figure Stalinism hadn’t seemed so bad after all. You might get stuck in a gulag, but at least you got fed. A large part of Putin’s popularity came from cracking down on the oligarchs and promising the old days back.

    Russia thereby displays quite openly the failure of both the main models of capitalism – central planning and free markets. Adherents of one will inevitably point to the other as the only alternative in town. “Look, they messed up, so you should support me!” Not likely.


    ...incidentally, I have avoided posting too much stuff about politics on this blog, normally putting in just enough to folks to figure what my angle is. Simply put, its somewhere I go to stick up things that I have thought. But something like the Soviet Union being capitalist is not something which has occurred to me recently, and anyway it’s not really my theory to begin with. I tend to just take it as a given.

    So anything I post about politics rests on a set of underlying assumptions which not all readers will be familiar with. Yet people tend to take a universal interest in politics in the way they might not about other subjects I blog about – say, Modernism. Will Doctor Who fans be familiar with libertarian communism? Perhaps not necessarily.

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  4. BTW, I hope my comments above didn't sound too trenchant. I've obviously got a strong view of the effect the Soviet Empire had on the possibility of communism elsewhere, but it doesn't mean I'd just dismiss any alternative ideas.

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