Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism comes up so often in conversations these days I at the same time (a) kind of felt I knew what it was about and (b) still felt it was worth a read.
It is worth a read – and it’s a very quick read.
One of the key arguments I think is important in this book is this: proponents of capitalism (or neoliberalism / leaning hard into capitalism as a means of organizing society) often present it as a solution to the bureaucratic state. Fisher points out many examples of modern society in the private sector that are just as much a bureaucratic quagmire (ie, the call center) as the overgrown state.
I don’t necessarily think he lands the argument that we should necessarily revert to a strong state in favor of capitalist organization – just that maybe the problem is one of scale of organization, not a public vs private tendency.
Here are some of my favorite bits:
According to Deleuze, Control societies are based on debt – here, Fisher is critical of student debt. But I also wonder to what extent debt is a useful concept for a society – in a sort of “you did not build this” type of framing. I am not responsible for my genetic predispositions, my cultural and educational inheritance (a vast amount of human knowledge accumulated by hard work of previous generations lies at my disposal), or even my habits and behaviors (I must have learned to value a “work ethic” and “compassion” from someone). The idea of a debt to past generations seems useful in some way for conveying the shared, multi-generational endeavor attributes of human civilization (though, I also understand how it could be easily transformed into an inescapable constraint on freedom).
It is worth stressing that none of the students I taught had any legal obligation to be at college. They could leave if they wanted to. But the lack of any meaningful employment opportunities, together with cynical encouragement from government means that college seems to be the easier, safer option. Deleuze says that Control societies are based on debt rather than enclosure; but there is a way in which the current education system both indebts and encloses students. Pay for your own exploitation, the logic insists – get into debt so you can get the same McJob you could have walked into if you’d left school at sixteen…
324 The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.
This passage warning about feedback and surveys as a mechanism of control that allows the controlled to feel they are in control mainly talks about reality TV / game shows / consumer enterprises, but you could say the same thing of democracy / voting. It’s not clear what the alternative is at scale.
369 Much of Baudrillard’s work was a commentary on this same effect: the way in which the abolition of the Symbolic led not to a direct encounter with the Real, but to a kind of hemorrhaging of the Real. For Baudrillard, phenomena such as fly on the wall documentaries and political opinion polls – both of which claimed to present reality in an unmediated way – would always pose an insoluble dilemma. Did the presence of the cameras affect the behavior of those being filmed? Would the publication of poll results affect the future behavior of voters? Such questions were undecidable, and therefore ‘reality’ would always be elusive: at the very moment when it seemed that it was being grasped in the raw, reality transformed into what Baudrillard, in a much misunderstood neologism, called ‘hyperreality’. Uncannily echoing Baudrillard’s fixations, the most successful reality television programs ended up fusing fly on the wall documentary elements with interactive polling. In effect, there are two levels of ‘reality’ in these shows: the unscripted behavior of the ‘real life’ participants onscreen, and the unpredictable responses of the audience at home, which in turn affect the behavior of the onscreen participants. Yet reality TV is continually haunted by questions about fiction and illusion: are the participants acting, suppressing certain aspects of their personality in order to appear more appealing to us, the audience? And have the audience’s votes been accurately registered, or is there some kind of a fix? The slogan that the Big Brother TV show uses – ‘You decide’ – captures perfectly the mode of control by feedback that, according to Baudrillard, has replaced old centralized forms of power. We ourselves occupy the empty seat of power, phoning and clicking in our responses. TV’s Big Brother had superseded Orwell’s Big Brother. We the audience are not subjected to a power that comes from outside; rather, we are integrated into a control circuit that has our desires and preferences as its only mandate – but those desires and preferences are returned to us, no longer as ours, but as the desires of the big Other. Clearly, these circuits are not confined to television: cybernetic feedback systems (focus groups, demographic surveys) are now integral to the delivery of all ‘services’, including education and government.
This little section on “who is supposed to recycle” is exactly the kind of collective action problem and responsibility shirking that is so prone to occur in a free society. We need a better answer for this sort of thing if we want to retain our freedom.
471 This problem is addressed from another angle in a paper by Campbell Jones entitled ‘The Subject Supposed To Recycle’. In posing the question, ‘who is the subject supposed to recycle?’ Jones denaturalizes an imperative that is now so taken for granted that resisting it seems senseless, never mind unethical. Everyone is supposed to recycle; no-one, whatever their political persuasion, ought to resist this injunction. The demand that we recycle is precisely posited as a pre- or post-ideological imperative; in other words, it is positioned in precisely the space where ideology always does its work. But the subject supposed to recycle, Jones argued, presupposed the structure not supposed to recycle: in making recycling the responsibility of ‘everyone’, structure contracts out its responsibility to consumers, by itself receding into invisibility. Now, when the appeal to individual ethical responsibility has never been more clamorous – in her book Frames Of War, Judith Butler uses the term ‘responsibi-lization’ to refer to this phenomenon – it is necessary to wager instead on structure at its most totalizing. Instead of saying that everyone – i.e. every one – is responsible for climate change, we all have to do our bit, it would be better to say that no-one is, and that’s the very problem. The cause of eco-catastrophe is an impersonal structure which, even though it is capable of producing all manner of effects, is precisely not a subject capable of exercising responsibility. The required subject – a collective subject - does not exist, yet the crisis, like all the other global crises we’re now facing, demands that it be constructed. Yet the appeal to ethical immediacy that has been in place in British political culture since at least 1985 – when the consensual sentimentality of Live Aid replaced the antagonism of the Miners Strike – permanently defers the emergence of such a subject.
– from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism