Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The New Social Realism

Review of Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher

Our position, says Mark Fisher, is like that of a depressive for whom any hope is a dangerous illusion. We take comfort in the security of the old, the familiar. Nostalgia and revivalism reign. Through focus groups and market research what we want is given back to us but we remain unsatisfied. Though fashion changes outward appearances constantly, underneath everything is standardised and remains the same. We might not acknowledge it openly, but unconsciously we recognise that history has reached a “terminal beach”.

Fisher’s term for this malaise is ‘Capitalist Realism’. “Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable,” he writes. But this is more than a sense of exhaustion because there are no real political alternatives to the way of things. Culturally we are sterile, mere spectators, unable to produce any genuine novelty.

But Fisher’s short book is not a grim catalogue of the consequences of defeat. Through staring without illusions at the state we’re in, he hopes to find a way out - that the Left can become a rival to, not just a reaction to, capitalism.

This begins by an awareness that what is thinkable is not eternal and naturally given, but the result of politicisation. Our current political dispensation, that all public services should be run as businesses, and public utilities like the railways should be in private hands, would have been considered impossible in 1975. Now it is obvious and natural. To believe in it is to be realistic.

But, says Fisher, this capitalist realism can’t be overcome by pointing to its moral consequences, horrible though they are. The reaction is just that the results are the way the world works and to be against it is like being against getting old. To be undermined, capitalist realism has to be shown to be untenable, that what appears realistic is nothing of the sort.

Environmental catastrophe is one example. To be realistic is now to think that capitalism is the only way of organising an economy. To think otherwise is to have missed the train of history or to have faith in incoherent daydreams. But capitalism, the investment of money to make more money, the recycling of profit to produce more goods, the inevitability of constant expansion, is itself the problem. It is profoundly unrealistic. This is “the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends” Fisher writes, “a presupposition that that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like used skin”. Far from being the only viable economic system, “capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment”.

Another example is mental health problems. To be realistic is to treat mental health as a natural fact that is the responsibility of individual who has the problem, says Fisher. But mental health is anything but a natural fact. Citing Oliver James, he argues that there is an obvious link between rising mental distress and neoliberal capitalism. Instead of being the only system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional. If it “works” its cost is extremely high.

Then there are outcomes that, if neoliberal ideology is taken at face value, should not happen. One instance is reliance on the state. Despite market ideology disparaging it, the state is actually indispensable. Who is else is around when you need a £1.2 trillion banking bailout? Another, Fisher shows, is bureaucracy. Bureaucracy was supposed to be bane of state socialist regimes, which would disappear when they were dismantled. Actually under the new capitalism bureaucracy has proliferated. A former further education lecturer, Fisher details the ways that college lecturers, in a sector at the vanguard of public service ‘reforms’, have to produce reams of data on their performance and that of their students. But it is not just in the public sector. According to the Economic and Social Research Council over half of all employees in the UK are subject to computer surveillance at work. “Everything is logged so people become much more accountable” notes one enthusiast.

But Fisher is most illuminating in noting how capitalism, which is supposed to produce a “society of risk”, actually produces cultural stagnation. The end of paternalism does not lead to diversity but infantilisation. “The reason what focus groups and capitalist feedback system fail, even when they generate commodities that are extremely popular,” says Fisher, “is that people do not know what they want.” Actually, more than that, he says, they want what they don’t know. They have a craving for the unexpected and the strange but a marketised media can’t take risks to meet that need because the risks might fail to pay off.  What results, in film and TV, is conservatism and a “cult of minimal variation”. The innovations of the BBC in the ‘70s and ‘80s “are unthinkable now that the public has been displaced by the consumer”.

But a return to Fabian paternalism, an elite telling people what is good for them, is not possible or desirable so is there any way out? We now turn to the Left, or what amounts to opposition to the effects of capitalist realism. Fisher is particularly good in showing how the belief in that caring individuals could save the world, which reached it’s apogee in Live 8, has replaced the antagonism of the Miners’ Strike. But it is precisely through prolonged antagonism, not the fantasy that we’re all in it together, that progress is made.

Since the ‘60s Fisher says, left-wing protest has been about demanding concessions from the “malevolent father”. “It is not capitalism but protest itself that depends upon this figuration of the father,” says Fisher. The feeling of being slightly uncomfortable, which must have struck most people who have attended protests, is not due to any awareness that the issues are more complicated. It is due to the fact that demonstrations, and by extension the Left, demands concessions from those “in power” without ever wanting to take responsibility itself.

It is the lack of responsibility that is at the heart of the problem. The logic of trade unionism is syndicalism or workers’ control but this is forever evaded. Unions can get a better deal for members by securing resources that would otherwise have gone to managers or owners, but ultimately that they are merely trying to amend the behaviour of others. And where does this behaviour have its roots? In a competitive economic system over which nobody has any control.

As Fisher shows so well, the absence of any human control and our complicity in the system, are two sides of the same coin. “What is being disavowed in the abjection of evil and ignorance onto fantasmatic Others is our own complicity in planetary network of oppression,” he writes. “What needs to be kept in mind is both that capitalism is a hyper-abstract impersonal structure and that it would be nothing without our co-operation.”

There is an urgent desire to hold people personally responsible for problems from mental health to climate change, because real responsibility is so elusive. Even the CEO of a corporation can say he/she was merely serving the interests of shareholders by maximising profits, as they are legally required to do. As Fisher demonstrates, everyone is held to be responsible for climate change and should do their bit, but the real problem is that no-one is responsible. “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,” he writes.

But an assumption of genuine responsibility is difficult to achieve because the current passivity – the transference of blame to an economic system over which nobody has any real control – is so seductive. It gives, in Saul Alinsky’s words, the “dark security” of a dependency in which people are spared the burden of making decisions.

The Left, as Fisher shows, is stuck in “immobilisation” – resisting changes that will make the situation worse for countless numbers of people. The failure to move beyond resistance, to be genuinely creative, is partly down to an intellectual timidity conditioned by thirty years of defeats. But it is also the result of fear of success, of what it would mean, to replace a blindly accumulative, competitive system. If control were taken away from a economic mechanism that is 'structurally amoral', in Murray Bookchin’s words, people would become genuinely responsible and that is what is so frightening. But if, as Fisher says, problems that appear isolated have, at root, one single cause, Capital, what happens when Capital-ism, is taken for granted as unalterable?

Fisher’s answer is the emergence of a “Marxist Supernanny” (from the TV programme) who would lay down limitations and act in our interests “when we are incapable of recognising them ourselves”. The perennial question though remains. Who would do this, why would any new enlightened elite would prove better than the one which ran Fabian or Communist versions of state socialism? They failed, not just because the elites that controlled them proved to be self-interested, but because economically the systems were flawed.

Fisher’s argument, after writing this book, that the sudden emergence of a British student movement is a standing challenge to capitalist realism is moot. Yes, it is a massive dent in the “reflexive impotence” he talks about, the self-fulfilling prophecy that because you believe that nothing will ever change you don’t even try. But ideological opposition will eventually wither without the creation of counter-institutions to give it ballast. It is here that libertarian socialism, historically derided by authoritarian socialists as utopian and unrealistic, is actually profoundly realistic. Without real-world institutions, the practice of genuine deliberative economic and political democracy, what will happen to the attitude of ideological opposition? It will be channelled into the cul de sac of political parties, retreat into anarchist irrelevance, or fade away into careerism.