Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (2009)


Bracing but also nimble – a level stare and a panoptic one. Its urgency creates an unsettling disjunction between possibility and failure, both in terms of his diagnosis and in relation to the global events since its publication eight years ago. Frequent regret that his voice will no longer reach us tempered by realisation that we had seven more years of his work, which I need to explore.

The idea

Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics. (4)

Here glossing Communist Manifesto on capitalism resolving all forms of freedom into the single form of Free Trade; thereby replacing veiled forms of tyranny (religion etc) with direct tyranny. MF productive on idea of capitalism as “what is left”: speaks to a degenerational / devolutionary trend apparently opposing the growing complexity and abstraction of capitalism’s development. A paradoxical formation both central to and exemplary of his critique, which begins the process of resistance that he advocates:

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasising the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. (16)

Initiates a process of illuminative focalisation: the diverse problems covered in CR are all at root politico-economic, a point he brings home in the conclusive chapter.

Frequently taking off from Žižek. On Live Aid, ProductRed: “It is necessary to act straight away, we were told; politics has to be suspended in the name of ethical immediacy.” (15) Development of Z on Starbucks; ‘ethical capitalism’ as an MO is ‘justifiable’ because most direct. Tessellates interestingly with Z: “Don’t act, just think.” Refreshingly level sense of difficulty.

Difficulty arises through the hydra-like mercuriality of the target, which is often counter-intuitive. See eg. systemic diffusion of responsibility: 

…It is a mistake to rush to impose the individual ethical responsibility that the corporate structure deflects. This is the temptation of the ethical which, as Žižek has argued, the capitalist system is using in order to protect itself in the wake of the credit crisis – the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those ‘abusing the system’, rather than on the system itself. … This impasse – it is only individuals that can be held ethically responsible for actions, and yet the cause of these abuses and errors is corporate, systemic – is not only a dissimulation: it precisely indicates what is lacking in capitalism. What agencies are capable of regulating and controlling impersonal structures? (69)

Interesting that ‘meritocratic’ critics of the welfare state will happily put blame on “the system itself” instead of “pathological individuals” yet only when punching downwards. MF also here drawing attention to the 2008 financial crash, but chilling to read after Saville: investigation’s vigorous enthusiasm for dismantling the legacy of the individual, but inertia in addressing the systemic conditions that allowed such abuse to thrive and (given the number of abusers uncovered) proliferate (this at the BBC).

Education, time, mental health

MF’s targets for attacks of systemic “inconsistency” – firstly mental health:

Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather. … In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political category. But what is needed now is a politicisation of much more common disorders.

This is astute, and shows potential for implementation (but also appropriation), with apparently increased focus on mental health issues since the 2010s started (Mary agreed and wondered if MF had a direct contribution).

…Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. … I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatisation of stress [EH] that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? (19)

To me this is a vital, direct and somewhat unexpected line. Boiled down to an eminently quotable bald/bold truth: “To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces moods of populations.” (35)

Writing from his perspective as a university lecturer; education and time:

Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many – and these are A-level students mind you – will protest that they can’t do it. [EH] The most frequent complaint teachers here is that it’s boring. [EH] It is not so much the content of the written material that is at issue here; it is the act of reading itself that is deemed to be ‘boring’. What we are facing here is not just time- [24] honored teenage torpor, but the mismatch between a post-literate ‘New Flesh’ that is ‘too wired to concentrate’ and the confining, concentrational logics of decaying disciplinary systems. To be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand. (23-4)

Here evoking (Philip) Fisher on modernist attack on the “boredom of an inhabited world,” Beckett on cessation of habitual action as a moment when “the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being” – now “boredom” is the condition of “suffering”, of cessation of habitual (subconscious) activity-consumption. Difficulty of not looking at phones for a few seconds; situation of workspace and educational space at the same technological site.

Walked back from the park holding CR and thinking about the first half that I’d read that afternoon, particularly the mental health/education angle. What experiences are most accessible to me? Self-assessment is very difficult. May seem obvious to say that university friends who have confronted problems are made most aware of them (presumably ie. feel the worst effects) during the run-up to examination period, but I think CR illuminating on temporal disjunction: external enforcement of a definite/linear scale, maximum conflict with internalised/present/repetitive stream. T short-term, brief panic under pressure is all I know. But it’s more about what I don’t know. “How has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?”

Mental health and habit

…Indeed, in expanding the critical adoption of the conceptual and linguistic framework of psychological conditions, MF edges closer to modernist psychological discourses:

It is not surprising that memory disorders should have become the focus of cultural anxiety – see, for instance, the Bourne films, MementoEternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Bourne’s “transnational nomadism is rendered in an ultra-fast cutting style which functions as a kind of anti-memory, pitching the viewer into the vertiginous ‘continuous present’, which Jameson argues is characteristic of postmodern temporality.

We see it above in the “communicative sensation-stimulation matrix.” MF continues:

The complex plotting of Ludlum’s novels is transformed into a series of evanescent event-ciphers and action set pieces which barely cohere into an intelligible narrative. Bereft of personal history, Bourne lacks narrative memory [IEH], but retains what we might call formal memory [IEH]: a memory – of techniques, practises, actions – that is literally embodied in a series of physical reflexes and tics.

Perhaps Bergson more appropriate here, on the difficulty of enacting active “representation,” cutting through generative and predictive “habit memory”.

Here Bourne’s damaged memory echoes the postmodern nostalgia mode as described by Frederic Jameson, in which contemporary or even futuristic reference at the level of content obscures a reliance on established or [59] antiquated models at the level of form. On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate – the extirpation of the long term extends backwards as well as forwards in time (for example, media stories monopolise attention for a week or so then are instantly forgotten); on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection, incapable of generating any authentic novelty. (58-9)

Clearly Bourne’s habit memory is, while constitutive of the kind of psychological splitting that Fisher identifies as an actually prevalent and even definitive state under CR, nevertheless itself a largely symbolic stand-in for the real split (skeptical of the comparison between cultural “formal” retrofetishism and Bourne’s own “formal memory). Still, similarities with modern period seems worth probing, especially because of investigation of “normal” psychological conditions. Chiming with O’Toole on new habitual, technological rhythms in the 21st century:

…Spinoza shows that, far from being an aberrant condition, addiction is the standard state for human beings, who are habitually enslaved into reactive and repetitive behaviours by frozen images (of themselves and the world). Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can be achieved [EH] only when we can apprehend the real causes of our actions, when we can set aside the ‘sad passions’ that intoxicate and entrance us. (73)

Self-diagnosis, non-habitual self-awareness (though not sure about the situation of this in relation to Sp’s reading of Genesis).

Education and dissemination of responsibility/authority

Sticking with distortion and fragmentation of norms in educational environments:

Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. … Ironically, the role of disciplinarian is demanded of educators more than ever at precisely the time when disciplinary structures are breaking down in institutions. With families buckling under the pressure of a capitalism which requires both parents to work, teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, instilling the most basic behavioural protocols in students and providing pastoral and emotional support for teenagers who are in some cases only minimally socialised. (26)

Sort of observation that is eminently apparent; throughout CR despite vaulting tonal deviations. As more responsibility is loaded onto schools and universities re developing the individual, they are likewise burdened with postmodern (or CRist) responsibilities of authority. Transition from “heavy inspection” which comprised “many lesson observations and a large number of inspectors present in the college,” to “light inspection”, which outsources “surveillance and monitoring … from OFSTED to the college and ultimately to lecturers themselves,” rendering them “a permanent feature of the college structure (and of the psychology of individual lecturers).” Maps onto distinction between Kafka’s “ostensible acquittal”  (“you petition the lower court judges until they grant you a non-binding reprieve”) and “indefinite postponement” (keeps your case at the lowest level of the court, but at the cost of an anxiety that never ends.”) (51) Foucault’s “technologies of the self.” Broad social political mission begins with students: “What must be discovered is a way out of the motivation/demotivation binary, so that disidentification from the control program registers as something other than dejected apathy.” (30)

Liberalism and doublethink

Good on Lacan’s notion of the “big Other” (“a collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead, we only ever confront its stand-ins.” 44) Elsewhere explicitly taking over from Orwell, here evoking doublethink: “division … between, on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.” (46) This a stinging attack on resultant liberal preference for critique over action (Mao: Liberalism is: “to indulge in irresponsible criticism in private instead of actively putting forward one’s suggestions to the organization. To say nothing to people to their faces but to gossip behind their backs, or to say nothing at a meeting but to gossip afterwards. To show no regard at all for the principles of collective life but to follow one’s own inclination.”) The weird illogic of this cognitive dissonance – Ratners jewellery: “Customers might previously have known that the jewellery Ratners sold was poor quality, but the big Other didn’t know; as soon as it did, Ratners collapsed.” (47)

…doublethink and habitual self-deception: “Capitalist realism … entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment.” Cites his line manager, who, re OFSTED self-inspection, had, while “extolling the virtues of the new, light inspection system … told us that the problem with our departmental log-books was that they were not sufficiently self-critical.” Yet he urged that “any self-criticisms we make are purely symbolic and will never be acted upon…” (52) Here the manager

asserted with full confidence a story about the college and its future one day – what the implications of the inspection were likely to be; what senior management was thinking; then literally the next day [EH] would happily propound a story that directly contradicted what he previously said. There was never a question of his repudiating [EH] the previous story; it was as if he, only dimly remembered there ever being another story.

This man is a model of health in CR: “such cheerfulness can only be maintained if one has a near-total absence of critical reflexivity and a capacity, as he had, to cynically comply with every directive bureaucratic authority.” (55) Though dependent upon disjunct between internal feelings and external actions , as liberalism, still evocative of The Secret Agent‘s Assistant Commissioner:

It is only when our appointed activities seem by a lucky accident to obey the particular earnestness of our temperament that we can taste the comfort of complete self-deception

Doublethink, hauntology and technology

Tending towards MF’s later interests: discussion of UKLG story about a man whose dreams come true, and are enacted upon others, who “accept the incommensurable and the senseless without question,” a strategy which

has always been the exemplary technique of sanity as such, but … has a special role to play in late capitalism, that ‘motley painting of everything that ever was’, whose dreaming up and junking of social fictions is nearly as rapid as its production and disposal of commodities. (56)

Describes Gordon Brown’s transition from Glaswegian socialism to New Labour neoliberalism as representative of Labour’s development: “gutted, and gutless, its insides replaced by simulacra which once looked lustrous but now possess all the allure of decade-old computer technology.” (58)

Depressing diminishment of Fisher’s own vision of technological basis for change: disputes Adam Curtis’s notion that the internet

facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each others’ assumptions and prejudices. Instead of having to confront other points of view in a contested public space, these communities retreat into closed circuits. (75)

Suggests (here vaguely) instead that “blogs can generate new discourse networks that have no correlate in the social field outside cyberspace,” that “some zones of cyberspace offer resistance to a ‘critical compression’ that is elsewhere depressingly pervasive.” k-punk (and Zero Books) – but tumblr, facebook and news bubbles, fake news 2016.

Like the focus on student mental health, CR is often eerily prophetic: destructive notion of “flexibility” of “casualised” workforce evokes later row on 0 hours contracts (33). Elsewhere MF visions sadly perverted: populism (less so Trump, more so NF, UKIP-Conservatives) has stepped in to a space that MF identifies as a pitfall for new progressivism:

…an effective anti-capitalism must be a rival to Capital, not a reaction to it; there can be no return to pre-capitalist territorialities. Anti-capitaliism must oppose Capital’s globalism with its own, authentic, universality. (79)

MF advocates an austerity of resources and consumption that was instead seized upon (a year later with the election of Cameron) as a tool for Neoliberal ‘recovery’:

…the proliferation of certain kinds of mental illness in late capitalism makes the case for a new austerity, a case that is also made by the increasing urgency of dealing with environmental disaster. Nothing contradicts capitalism’s constitutive imperative towards growth more than the concept of rationalising goods and resources. Yet it is becoming uncomfortably clear that consumer self-regulation and the market will not by themselves avert environmental catastrophe. There is a libidinal, as well as a practical case, to be made for this new ascesis. … Rationing of some sort is inevitable. The issue is whether it will be collectively managed, or whether it will be imposed by authoritarian means when it is already too late. (80)

Again though, like I said, we had another seven years from MF. He isn’t just a ghostly voice from the past. Will be returning to this.

Today hospitals around the country and NHS computer systems were hit by a cyber attack demanding ransom payment in bitcoin.


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