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thoughts on Fisher's Capitalist Realism

I had intended to go through Mark Fisher’s Ghosts of My Life talking about the concepts in it, particularly hauntology, but I made a detour through his Capitalist Realism so I thought I’d jot down some notes on that first. I’ve been in some conversations about Ghosts and hauntology in relation to music and have become unsure if I want to dig into that further or not. I’m going to sleep on that for now. I might also write something on his remarks about mental health as political and a lot of the talk around it as depoliticizing. I've marked some of the sources he cites on that to follow up on, as I think Fisher's very suggestive here and the present seems absolutely lousy with that stuff. But anyway, for now, my impressions of Capitalist Realism.

As with Ghosts, Fisher is an enjoyable commentator on cultural objects and user of those objects to think with. I appreciate that and I think there’s a kind quiet dignifying move to it - it’s not just Hegel and whatnot that we can validly think with. We can think with songs, films, TV hows, etc. That said, I did sometimes get a little impatient as I wanted him to state the points rather than illustrate them and I think some of the time he’s largely drawing analogies and making points that should be prefaced with “sometimes, to an extent” instead of making them so definitively and in a generalized way. I also found the book’s theoretical toolkit frustrating. This may be just a matter of being a different sort of hobbyist - I felt like a theater nerd who accidentally went to French club - but I also think a lot of Fisher’s points could be made better with, frankly, better and more marxist thinkers.

Capitalist realism is a sort of air, a malaise, in which Margaret Thatcher’s famous “there is no alternative” feels true to a degree that no one would ever need to say it. (Reading Fisher I once again strongly regret never having read systematically though Raymond Williams's work; I think his idea of a structure of feeling could be productively put in dialog with - or used to better formulate - Fisher's ideas.) Richard Rorty once said something to the effect that a truly atheist society would not be one where everyone consciously thinks “there is no god” but rather where no believes in god and no one notices such belief, therefore there’d be not need to consciously think that. Capitalist realism is sort of like that, a kind of atheism about social alternatives, but it’s not so fully accomplished as that. It’s fairly fully accomplished but there is still some occasional sense that something has gone wrong (that’s tied to his writings on hauntology and loss of futurity), and some dissent, even if ineffectual, from people on the left. For Fisher capitalist realism manifests in lots of areas of life ranging across popular culture to workplaces and politics, perhaps above all New Labour. We might think of it as a pattern of ideas, affects, and experiences that all have a kind of centripetal force, encouraging people’s ideas, aspirations, and actions to remain system-compatible. I will say, I think Fisher equivocates a little (or maybe I just misunderstood) between capitalist realism being a thing everyone is enrolled in, including himself and others of us on the left, and a thing that sort of weighs on us - taking up most of our cultural, affective, and mental space and resources, so to speak - but which we don’t necessarily consistently believe.

Fisher’s a little ambiguous (or again, maybe I misread) on belief, as to capitalist realism being something people actively hold - ‘capitalism is as good as it gets!’ - vs capitalist realism as a lack of belief, wherein people just imagine iterations of the current world rather than any real alternatives. He describes Tony Blair, for instance, as never having had any beliefs. (57) This condition is as much affective as cognitive. He describes feelings of exhaustion, distraction, boredom, fear, forgetfulness, ‘depressive hedonism’ (a sort of empty and relatively thoughtless pursuit of sensation) and a shallow cheerfulness (imagine a manager smiling while greeting the employees they manage, addressing them as “partners” or “team members”). For Fisher the category of capitalist realism expresses the truth of descriptions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries as postmodern while specifying better the realities of the era.

I have some reservations that I’ll get to but I want to note there are some real gems here, like his observations about people who mistakenly believe that good people going into management can make any meaningful differences while doing so (and can remain good people...!), his remarks on mental health (made in some more detail in Ghosts and even better in some pieces in the posthumous anthology), his observations about the proliferation of nostalgia (dealt with at more length in Ghosts Of My Life), the quip that Tony Blair never had beliefs at all, his point that anti-capitalism means something very different when it’s a reaction capitalism vs when it’s a competitor with capitalism, and the point that Thatcher said “there is no alternative” as an aspirational or programmatic statement, while later it became an almost ontological condition, one in which it would not occur to anyone to voice that statement. I think the book could make for a productive frame for rereading Daniel Rodgers’s Age Of Fracture (the gist of Rodgers’s book as I recall it is that over the mid to late 20th century lots of US academics across lots of disciplines, especially the leaders of and dominant ideas in fields, got worse at conceptualizing power and institutions).

I think Fisher’s claims could be made less impressionistically and more rigorously through a theory of ideology. I’m thinking in particular of Goran Therborn’s short but effective book The Power Of Ideology And The Ideology Of Power. Like Fisher, Therborn emphasizes schooling as a key social institution. For Therborn what schools and universities do to people consists in qualification and subjection. I’m not totally sure I followed all the ins and outs of the argument, but as I recalled it, qualification means being legible and credentialed as someone able to play some social role, while subjection means being made into the kind of person who will play that role relatively reliably. A qualified, subjected person would be, for instance, someone trained for a job who wants to do that job. A qualified but unsubjected person would be someone who can do the job but doesn’t want to or can’t be counted on. An unqualified but subjected person would be someone who is not permitted to do the job despite being able to do so and wanting to do so. I believe I’ve got that right, I’d like to revisit the book eventually. Therborn suggests that when qualification and subjection become decoupled, society gets relatively more volatile. In any case, capitalist realism would be in part an ensemble of modes of subjection.

Therborn also discusses different kinds of interpellation, which he sees as subject-making, a process as much affective as cognitive. I would now say, having read Fisher’s book, that cognitively it’s as much a matter not-thinking — constitutive omissions — as it is a matter of active, conscious holding of specific positions. Therborn identifies three fundamental axes, so to speak (I forget his exact term) that ideology acts upon: what is or is not a) good b) possible c) existent. Capitalist realism then would include a world where interpellation is skewed massively toward non-possibility above all else. As he discusses, there isn’t much ‘capitalism is good!’ There’s also a kind of cultivation, at least among managerial personnel, of a capacity for both blinderedness and cognitive dissonance.

Therborn uses those three fundamentals of interpellation to spin out six basic types of subject positions - again a mix of cognitive/propositional and affective. I forget what they all are but they include an acceptance that the present order is good, a sense that one is recognized and represented effectively, and more negative orientations like fear, deference, and resignation. Therborn notes that a resigned person doesn’t so much think their situation or the social order is good, as think that nothing else can be done. (I remember a long time ago in my brief forays into organizing, a mentor told me that the two main obstacles to an individual taking action with their coworkers are fear and futility, and anything else tended to reduce to one of those two. It never failed to be true in my experience.) What Fisher emphasizes above all are forms of resignation. I think in the present, and more so among liberal than conservatives, we’ve seen a growth of deference of a technocratic variety - leave things to the experts in the intelligence community or to scientists, I don’t have to understand it or be part of the decisions, let the best be best and make the necessary calls. (My wife tells me this is a middle class thing from way back and may not be increasing in the present.)

Fisher talks a fair bit in the book, and moreso in some talks I’ve watched on youtube, about fear - specifically due to economic insecurity - and about a mix of exhaustion and depressive malaise that builds up from multiple sources - insecurity, unrelenting suffering, overwork, and a sense of pointlessness that Fisher in particular associates with bureaucratic audit practices (some of them internalized by individuals) inflected on employees in educational institutions. The exhaustion and depression do a kind of ideological work. They may be modes of resignation or related - I’m not sure if they’re in Theborn’s schematic typology or not. In any case, I think Fisher can be read as providing a concrete account of a set of processes of interpellation in a specific time and place, and in turn that Therborn’s concepts could enrich Fisher’s account.

Another idea I find helpful to think with generally and that might help clarify Fisher is a a riff on an analogy from Erik Olin Wright’s book Understanding Class. Wright argues that different approaches to the sociology of class can be analogized to game play. We can dispute any of the following: what game to play at all, what modifications to make to the game, and what move is best for a play to make in a particular situation. The first is analogous to marxism - what kind of society we should have, while the other two are analogous to non-marxist approaches to class - social liberal or liberal egalitarian reformers who ask what law we should pass or revise, and Human Resources and human capital enrichment types who ask what people need in order to best navigate society and the economy as it exists. In capitalist realism as Fisher presents it, only that third option is possible - conversations are at best about how to play the brutal social game that is all we’re allowed to imagine, and in some cases, there isn’t even conversation about how to play the game so much as there is conversation about how to feel while playing the game.

One thing that Fisher argues in passing is that there are forms of opposition within capitalist realism that are not opposition to capitalist realism. In effect, they are flavors of capitalist realism against other flavors. This seems right to me. What Nancy Fraser called progressive neoliberalism would be one example. This point also applies to Fisher’s own framework and its limits, though. This is fundamentally a book about neoliberalism, not about capitalism. Everything begins in roughly the 1970s and, despite Fisher’s intentions, there’s a fairly loud subtext of either nostalgia for Keynesian or social democratic versions of capitalism, or for where we’d be today if we’d had more of that from 1970 to present without taking the neoliberal turn.

Worse yet, there’s not any clear recognition that before neoliberalism there was still capitalism. That seems to me a version of capitalist realism of a kind Fisher doesn’t recognize in his text, I think because he was afflicted with it. To use Wright’s gameplay metaphor, Fisher is unhappy that we can only talk about how to play the game or how to feel while playing the game and wants the left to get serious about ending neoliberalism. That’s all important stuff, but Fisher has little to say about how that’s a change in the rules of the game of capitalism, rather than an end to the game per se, or about how that project of (admittedly pretty major) revision to capitalism’s current rulebook relates to specifically revolutionary change.

I think this is a classic problem on the left that has often led to leftists putting in a lot of work for institutions that don’t really live up to their values and run by people who don’t share leftists social vision and with leftists doing so while not realizing this was the case. The result over and over again has been what John L. Lewis predicted. Lewis famously hired people on the left as staff of the CIO. When pressed about this he replied “who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?” People on the left have often been dogs for hunters like Lewis, and haven’t gotten many birds. Fisher’s relative conflation of anti-neoliberalism and anti-capitalism seems to me to foster that role. It’s no surprise, then, that there was a later connection of Fisher’s politics to Corbynism, and an uptake of Fisher among Sanders supporters in the US.

Another criticism I will make is that Fisher tends to talk about capital in general as a conscious, planning subject with a will, such as “capital thought very carefully about how to break labor” (28). That does happen. But a great deal also happens through what Marx talked about in terms of processes occurring behind people’s backs. The emphasis on conscious subjects I think ties to the social democratic politics of the book - we need a good-willed Jeremy or Bernie to get the bad-willed capitalists and put them in their places. I’ll add that I really like Fisher’s remarks about how a good person with an agenda to do good by taking a job in management will likely not accomplish much of that agenda - unless it’s already a very limited one, I suppose and isn’t likely to stay as good of a person. In my view this also applies to people who take on serious state power - Bernie and Jeremy in power would likely not remain quite so Bernie and Jeremy, so to speak.

These last points are in part to say that Fisher seems to me right about neoliberalism being terrible and a loss and as involving a constraining of people’s political imaginations, but Fisher’s own political imagination (at least in this book, I’ve not finished the anthology or his “Acid Communism” writing) wasn’t as expansive as I’d have liked. I think anti-neoliberalism is more like what he talks about as reactive anticapitalism than it is as competitor project to capitalism. Obviously in the present any such competitor - ie, the more robust anticapitalism Fisher wants to see take place - would have to take on neoliberalism, but there are significant difference in goals between installing social democracy on the on a hand and communization on the other.

One last gripe here. Fisher argues that “an “alliance between neoconservatism and neoliberalism” is what “constituted the American version of capitalist realism up until 2008.” (60.) That seems to entirely skip over the Clinton presidency, unless Fisher means Clinton was a neoconservative, and leave out entirely what Nancy Fraser has written about under the heading progressive neoliberalism, which seems to me at least equally relevant to capitalist realism in the US as neconservatism. Michael Pierce has a good article at LaborOnline on Clinton that’s relevant here.

To be fair, Fisher is paraphrasing a Wendy Brown essay called “American Nightmare,” which I’ve only skimmed. A find in the document doesn’t turn up the word Clinton. It was written at the height, or rather the lows, of the Bush 2 years, so I can see why Brown might emphasize the right rather than also-right of the Democrats, but even so it seems a mischaracterization of social reality on Fisher’s part.

So far anyway, my sense is that Fisher is far and away at his best as a close reader of specific objects and phenomena contemporary within his life which he then links (often imprecisely but always) suggestively to larger themes. These are fruitful, as with his discussions of mental health as a rhetoric of privatizing and depoliticizing distress, and with the selective invocation of individuality and structure as ways corporate heads avoid responsibility for harms they inflict. That makes him worth reading - and given that he’s an admirable writer, his prose reads fast and has a kind of vibrant energy to it. I’m told that a lot of people have found Capitalist Realism in particular a gateway into critical theory and left political perspectives. That’s a good thing though I think people would do well to move on from the specific theoretical and political positions in Fisher’s work (off the top of my head I’d recommend to anyone newly fired up by Fisher’s book that they read Tony Smith’s Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism, Michael Heinrich’s introduction to Marx’s Capital, and Werner Bonefeld’s Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy), while trying to keep the specific observations he makes and embed them in a more thoroughly critical perspective.

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