Preoccupying: Mark Fisher

May 3, 2012

Mark Fisher is an author, political and cultural theorist and a visiting fellow at Goldsmiths. The OT asked Mark about the concept behind his book ‘Capitalist Realism’, his thoughts on the culture of neoliberalism and his assessment of the global unrest that has sprung up over the last two years.

The Occupied Times: Paul Mason recently commented that the uprisings of 2011-12 have brought the curtain down on capitalist realism. Can you briefly outline what you mean by the term ‘capitalist realism’? And do you believe that the financial crisis and the subsequent popular fightback have signaled a new beginning?

Mark Fisher: Capitalist realism can be seen as a belief – that there’s no alternative to capitalism, that, as Fredric Jameson put it, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Other systems might be preferable to capitalism, but capitalism is the only one that is realistic. Or it can be seen as an attitude of resignation and fatalism in the face of this – a sense that all we can do is accommodate ourselves to the dominance of capitalism, and limit our hopes to contain its worst excesses. Fundamentally, then, it’s a pathology of the left, nowhere better exemplified than in the case of New Labour. Ultimately, what capitalist realism amounts to is the elimination of left wing politics and the naturalisation of neoliberalism. I think it’s too quick to talk about the end of capitalist realism, though what we have been seeing for the past couple of years is a challenge to this naturalisation of neoliberal concepts. In some ways, the austerity measures that have been implemented have constituted an intensification of capitalist realism. Those measures couldn’t have been introduced unless there was still a widespread sense that there is no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. The various struggles that have blown up since the financial crisis show a growing discontent with the panic neoliberalism that has been put in place since 2008, but they have yet to propose any concrete alternative to the dominant economic model. Capitalist realism is about a corrosion of social imagination, and in some ways, that remains the problem:  after thirty years of neoliberal domination, we are only just beginning to be able to imagine alternatives to capitalism. But at least now we can imagine imagining such alternatives.

OT: What have you made of the global Occupy movement’s role as part of the mass mobilisation against the politics and economics of austerity and neoliberalism? From what you’ve seen can Occupy and other movements mount a sustained opposition to the ruling status quo, continuing with the global actions planned throughout May?

MF: The short answer is that this remains to be seen. There’s no doubt the Occupy movement has played a major role in the shifting of ideological atmosphere that has happened in the last year or so. You’re right that the question of sustainability is crucial. In Capitalist Realism, I argued that the anti-capitalist movement had become background noise to capitalist business as usual – something that it was by and large easy for capitalism to ignore. The question is, can Occupy provide the basis for a sustainable antagonism? The broad problem we’re facing here is, how can this antagonism be sustained now that the Communist Party has disappeared and trade unions have for the most part become quiescent? The party and the union structure provided sustainability, continuity and institutional memory. Now, it’s not that these are the only institutions that could provide such things, or that those older institutions would be fit for purpose, even if they had survived into the 21st century. But a genuinely new force that is capable of struggling against 21st century capitalism must be able to fulfil those functions. I think we also need to recognise the importance of building hegemony – and this means stepping outside the activist universe. There’s a danger of the activist’s world become very self-contained. We need to reach beyond those intensely engaged with politics to those who don’t look to politics at all to explain the misery of their lives. It’s those people who have been most affected by capitalist realism, and who could be mobilised against it, if they could be reached.

OT: What was your reading of the riots last August? The epitome of neoliberal materialism or further evidence of a system built on greed breaking down?

MF: I think those involved in the riots were largely exactly the kind of people I was just talking about – those for whom ‘politics’ means absolutely nothing. I’m not saying that the riots weren’t ‘political’, that they were an inexplicable upsurge of criminality, as the right did. The riots were political, but in a negative sense – they were a massive symptom of a failure of politics, an expression of discontent which lacked political goals or strategy. These are the signs of a system verging on collapse; people took part because they felt radically excluded. The invisible wall that prevents people from acting like this had collapsed – there was so little on offer that there was almost no incentive not to riot. It’s to be hoped that the discontent that exploded so powerfully, and, in many cases so tragically, in the riots, can be harnessed. Shortly after the riots, I went to a screening of the Black Audio Film Collective’s 1986 film Handsworth Songs, an essay-film about the 1980s riots. The film’s director, John Akomfrah, said that, if these rioters can bring the British state to its knees for three days, they will also be able to organise themselves. That is my hope.

OT: In the sections of the book where you cover the culture of work, you describe the combination of marketisation and maddening bureaucracy as “Market Stalinism.” This evokes the excellent US television series The Wire where the police, the politicians, the teachers, etc. are all shown to be focused, above all else, on “juking the stats.” Can you describe how Market Stalinism works and how we can hope to get rid of it?

MF: I hadn’t actually seen The Wire at the time I wrote Capitalist Realism, which is why there’s no mention of it in the book. But you’re right, The Wire exemplifies so much of what I wanted to say in Capitalist Realism. In fact, if you want to know what capitalist realism is, watch The Wire! Market Stalinism was my term for the kind of bureaucracy which was typical of Blairism, but which, as The Wire demonstrates, was by no means confined to Blairism, or to Britain. The neoliberal claim was that marketization obviates the need for the state and for bureaucracy. But the result of imposing ‘marketization’ on public services is always a crazed proliferation of bureaucracy, via target setting, league tables, performance reviews etc. Just as under Stalinism, everything becomes geared towards the production of appearance. In these conditions, gaming the system is inevitable. How to get rid of Market Stalinism? We need to expose one of the biggest lies in neoliberalism: the idea that it is an anti-bureaucratic force. This will involve a struggle against managerialism, and towards a workplace based on the collective autonomy of workers.

OT: You write in Capitalist Realism “This battery of bureaucratic procedures is by no means confined to universities, nor to education: other public services, such as the NHS and the police, find themselves enmeshed in similar bureaucratic metastases.” Now that the police want to strike, do you think they should be seen as just another public service, or does their role of enforcing the government’s agenda mean we shouldn’t oppose cuts to the police force in the same way we do the NHS, education or welfare?

MF: It’s a difficult question, but one that should be answered pragmatically and strategically. If we are involved in fighting the police – either literally or at some other level – then the police are playing their role as ideological enforcers. Which isn’t to say, I must emphasise, that we should ignore police brutality and corruption. What happened to Alfie Meadows and others is appalling, and needs to be exposed. But we have to remember that the police aren’t the enemy, they are the servants of the enemy, and if all of our energy is taken up struggling against them, then they are doing their job for their masters very effectively. Ultimately, it must be far better if the servants are turned against their masters.

OT: A lot of what you write in the book comes from your experiences of working as a further education teacher. Where do you believe the Coalition, and New Labour before them, are going wrong with their education policies?

MF: The broader agenda here is the imposition of what I have called business ontology: the idea that only outcomes recognised by business count. It’s gradually become accepted that the principal – if not the only – role of education is to turn out the kind of compliant individuals which ‘business’ wants. As systems from the private sector are increasingly introduced into education, the influence of managerialism grows, and the status of the teacher is downgraded.  The pretext for the battery of bureaucratic and self-surveillance techniques that have been implemented by successive governments is that they ‘increase efficiency’, but their effect is to spread anxiety and erode the autonomy of the teacher. This isn’t an accident: it’s the real aim of these measures. Education has been corralled into naturalising and intensifying capitalist competition; it’s easy to forget, for example, that league tables were only introduced relatively recently. League tables produce the kind of Market Stalinist distortions I was talking about earlier. Teaching becomes a matter of training students for examinations; anything else is a luxury. Contrast this with the much-praised education system in Finland, which is fully comprehensive, has no league tables or inspectorate, and is based on trust in teachers.

OT:  A predominant theme of the book is the issue of mental illness in capitalist societies. You write, “what is needed now is a politicisation of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS.” It seems that with mental illness scarring the lives of so many sufferers and their loved ones in the UK, it should be towards the top of the political agenda. How can we begin to reduce the stigma, isolation and shame that our society still attaches to the issue of mental illness? How can we convince people that its cause has roots in the collective, not just the individual?

MF: This is a crucial question. The way in which social and political problems are converted into individual pathologies, to be explained via chemical imbalances or family history, neatly sums up so much of what has happened under capitalist realism. It’s what I’ve called the privatisation of stress. Depression has been described as a pathology of responsibility: you feel intensely responsible for the state that you’re in. The excruciating paradox is that, while you feel that only you can get yourself out of depression, the condition consists precisely in your inability to act. There’s more than an analogy with the political hopelessness and fatalism that have characterised capitalist realism. Depression, after all, is a pathology which centrally involves a sense of realism (indeed, there’s a phenomenon called depressive realism): the depressive thinks that they are being realistic, that they have perceived the real state of things, denuded of illusion. This describes the post-utopian tenor of capitalist realism perfectly: other societies had their illusions, their dreams of something beyond capitalism, but we have come to terms with the inevitability of competition and precariousness. Yet depression shows the extent to which people – even during the boom years – could not come to terms with this. With precarity increasing and welfare programmes eroding, it’s not surprising that there should be an increase in depression and anxiety. But this increase in distress has been pathologised, neuroticised and commoditised over the past thirty years.  Instead of looking to unions when our workload becomes unbearable, we’re invited to look for a medical solution. Stressed by too many working hours? Take this medication, which will restore the balance of your brain chemistry. Worried about losing your job? Tell me about your mother. This is a major example of the naturalisation process I talked of earlier. What we need is a denaturalisation (and consequent politicisation) of mental illness. I think the formation of a dedicated pressure group could work towards this. We need something like a revival of the Anti-Psychiatry movement of the 60s and 70s. Well, not so much a revival as a re-occupation of the terrain that Anti-Psychiatry fought on; you could argue that the receding of Anti-Psychiatry correlates very closely with the rise of capitalist realism.

OT: With neoliberal economics being so globalised, so strongly enforced by powerful entities on a national, international and supranational level, does this not make it that much harder for any one nation-state to adopt a new economic paradigm? Would there not be credit-rating downgrades from the ‘objective’ agencies who missed the Enron and sub-prime scandals, a hysterical frenzy among the corporate media, veiled threats from the IMF and OECD and, quite possibly, stampeding capital flight? Couldn’t there even, depending on the extent of the country’s departure from the consensus, be hostility from the other neoliberal countries?

MF: Of course, that would happen, and this kind of threat plays a large part in the current mode of capitalist realism. In fact, this is pretty much a statement of what capitalist realism is at this time. But it presupposes that capital is the most powerful force on earth, and it’s this presupposition which needs to be undermined. How? By constituting a counter-force capable of disciplining capital. We’ve become used to a world in which workers fear capital, never the reverse. Capitalist realism has never been about direct ideological persuasion – it’s not that the population of the UK were ever convinced of the merits of neoliberal ideas. But what people have been convinced of is the idea that neoliberalism is the dominant force in the world, and that, consequently, there is little point resisting it. (I’m not suggesting that most people recognise neoliberalism by name, but they do recognise the policies and the ideological narrative which neoliberalism has so successfully disseminated.) This perception has arisen because capital has subdued the forces acting against it – most obviously, it has crushed unions, or forced them into being consumer/service institutions within capitalism. But you’re right – the situation has changed since the heyday of social democracy, and one of the principal ways in which it has changed is the globalisation of capital. Indeed, this is one way that unions were outmanoeuvred: if your members won’t work for these rates, we’ll go to a place where workers will. One of the strengths of Occupy is that it is a transnational movement. But the challenge for Occupy is whether it can constitute a force capable of inducing fear into capital. My suspicion is that it won’t be able to do that on its own, and that it will need other institutions and groups – probably including unions – if it is to succeed in being a counter-force to capital. Capital isn’t actually global, but it is sufficiently global, and therefore any effective opposition to it needs to be sufficiently global also. The concrete question – somewhat obfuscated by many of the debates about centralization versus networks – concerns co-ordination. How are disparate groups to be co-ordinated? We can we learn lessons from neoliberalism here: its success was based on building a patchwork of heterogeneous groups, often with different, even conflicting agendas.

OT: The book ends very optimistically, saying that there is a sense that anything was possible again. That was two or three years ago now. Still optimistic? More or less than before?

MF: Well, I think that the optimism has somewhat been borne out by what’s happened since I wrote the book. As I said, I think it’s going too far to say that capitalist realism is over, but the fact that Paul Mason could make such a claim shows how much has changed over the past couple of years. Just before the student militancy blew up in the UK at the end of 2010, I spoke at a conference, making the – in retrospect – mild claim that there would be shows of public anger against austerity, and I was accused of “revolutionary nostalgia”. The point is, that it was my accuser that seemed to have the most (hah!) realistic handle on things then. But surely there’s not anyone now who thinks that public discontent in the UK is at an end. Things have got better and worse since 2009: worse, in that panic neoliberalism has further attacked the welfare state, NHS, education etc; better in that opposition is coalescing, and the ideological climate has shifted.

OT: You’ve written a lot about how popular culture has reinforced Capitalist Realism. You show how commercial pop and hip hop music and films like Children of Men and Wall-E, even when purporting to critique authority and the system, in fact leave only a message of its inevitable perpetuation. Do you feel that there is much in the way of popular culture that does successfully subvert Capitalist Realism? What subversive music, films and books can you recommend to OT readers?

MF: I’m not saying that there are no political potentials at all in the popular culture I discuss in Capitalist Realism. What I was pointing to, though, was the fact that anti-capitalism at the level of a film’s message does nothing in itself to disrupt the super-hegemony of capital. Anti-capitalism – or at least anti-corporatism – is utterly standard within Hollywood films: consider something like Avatar, for instance. This is the objective irony of capital: nothing sells better than anti-capitalism. Or, even more bleakly, late capitalism’s culture is anti-capitalist. There is an asymmetry: we struggle against capital, but part of capital’s defeat of us is that it can sell our books. This isn’t a completely closed circle, though. The issue is how culture connects up with struggles, and you can’t second guess that. It’s possible that any of the films I talked about could contribute to the development of class consciousness or inspire people to engage in struggles. Conversely, it’s possible that even those films or television programs which inventory the features of capitalist realism end up reinforcing it. Take something like The Wire: yes, it exemplifies practically everything I say about capitalist realism, but, for that very reason, you could say that it supports, rather than subverts, capitalist realism. You could very easily take away the message that struggling to change things is pointless; the system wins in the end. But one film I would recommend to people, if they haven’t seen it, is Mike Judge’s Office Space, which I briefly discuss in Capitalist Realism: I’ve seen no film which better captures the bureaucratic immiseration of late capitalist managerialism labour.


 Follow Mark Fisher on Twitter: @kpunk99