Finished reading: Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher 📚

Christmas tree in the Pearl

I don’t think I can write a review of this book so much as note that I read it and acknowledge that I’m going to spend a lot of time thinking about it. I made a lot of notes with which I hope to exercise my Readwise subscription.

I can comment a little on the overall shape of the book. I wish I had known something like it when I was much younger and the political camps I was moving between suggested that you had to either choose some form of Trotskyite cosplay or sign up with the anarchists. I don’t think there could have been something like it, though: The socialist left was still reeling from the collapse of the Soviet Union, constantly defensive and deflecting, clinging to Leninism and “democratic centralism,” unable to contend with identity politics or consumerism. For the former of those two, I find myself wondering what would happen to former comrades if they woke up in 2022 and tried to run the anti-identity-left playbook on this generation. The circles I ran in wouldn’t have cited Focault or Baudrillard. That was for anarchists, many of whom were committed anti-socialists, or recent refugees from the socialist left.

Plenty has changed. Fisher is willing to draw from postmodern thinkers even as he acknowledges the unfortunate connection of postmodernism and neoliberalism. People seem to be okay with that these days and that is fine with me. It’s exciting, even.

In lieu of a real writeup, a few quotes that stuck with me:

💬 Over the past thirty years, capitalist realism has successfully installed a ‘business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business. As any number of radical theorists from Brecht through to Foucault and Badiou have maintained, emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.

💬 … even before its momentum was stalled by the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, the so called anti-capitalist movement seemed also to have conceded too much to capitalist realism. Since it was unable to posit a coherent alternative political-economic model to capitalism, the suspicion was that the actual aim was not to replace capitalism but to mitigate its worst excesses; and, since the form of its activities tended to be the staging of protests rather than political organization, there was a sense that the anti-capitalism movement consisted of making a series of hysterical demands which it didn’t expect to be met. Protests have formed a kind of carnivalesque background noise to capitalist realism, and the anti-capitalist protests share rather too much with hyper-corporate events like 2005’s Live 8, with their exorbitant demands that politicians legislate away poverty.

💬 The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labor power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions), even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other).

💬 Foucault famously observes there that there is no need for the place of surveillance to actually be occupied. The effect of not knowing whether you will be observed or not produces an introjection of the surveillance apparatus. You constantly act as if you are always about to be observed.

💬 As Old Media increasingly becomes subsumed into PR and the consumer report replaces the critical essay, some zones of cyberspace offer resistance to a ‘critical compression’ that is elsewhere depressingly pervasive. Nevertheless, the interpassive simulation of participation in postmodern media, the network narcissism of MySpace and Facebook, has, in the main, generated content that is repetitive, parasitic and conformist. In a seeming irony, the media class’s refusal to be paternalistic has not produced a bottom-up culture of breathtaking diversity, but one that is increasingly infantilized.

💬 If neoliberalism triumphed by incorporating the desires of the post 68 working class, a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy. For example, the left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy. What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion of worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labor (such as the excessive auditing which has become so central feature of work in post-Fordism).

Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher 📚

Mike Hall @pdxmph