Reviewed by Steven Sherman
In Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative? Mark Fisher riffs in the fashion of Slavoj Zizek (i.e. drawing on an eclectic range of examples and metaphors, taken from movies and tv shows, historical examples, literature or philosophical concepts), with the hope of identifying tensions in contemporary culture which can be fruitfully politicized. For Fisher, ‘capitalist realism’ refers to the end-of-history sensibility that it is simply unrealistic to ponder alternatives to capitalism, that, to put it another way, imagining the end of the world is easier than imagining the end of this mode of production (as both Zizek and Fredric Jameson have commented). Fisher argues that the ‘capitalist realism’ mentality must be given its due, and that simply dismissing it will not move us forward. In particular, the dizzying ability of contemporary capitalism to fully incorporate various cultural formations and empty them of their critical or utopian content must be registered. In this context, he rejects two sorts of critiques — a ‘moral’ critique that emphasizes the inequalities produced by contemporary capitalism, and the critique of the anti-globalization protesters. He believes the former fails to be sufficiently immanent in demonstrating the contradictions of the present state of capitalism, while the latter, by replacing political organization with protest, simply adds to the noise of establishment pie-in-the-sky ‘protests’ like Live Aid or Make Poverty History.
His alternative focuses on two aspects of contemporary capitalism. First, he wants to politicize, by identifying the social roots of, certain contemporary mental health phenomena — depression, addiction, attention deficit disorder. Although for the most part these are increasingly associated with brain chemistry, and sometimes with genetics, he suggests they should be understood as the byproducts of the capitalist imperative to enjoy the new world of digitized consumer goods. Constantly shifting between web sites, video games, text messaging, etc. we find ourselves simultaneously wearied and searching for the next fix. He notes that this imperative runs afoul of older, but still relevant, disciplinary strategies. For example, as a college professor, he tries to teach students alternatively slumped over in their chairs or engaged by their iphones or other devices. The TV show Supernanny scolds parents who let their children run wild with the ‘enjoy yourself’ ethos promoted everywhere in contemporary culture, instead insisting on the need for displays of patriarchal backbone within the house. This turns a cultural contradiction into the failing of individual parents.
The second focus of Fisher’s critique is on the role of bureaucracy in contemporary capitalism. Since the emergence of ‘post-fordism’ roughly thirty years ago, we have heard a great deal about flexibility, networks, lean, just in time production, etc. The image is of an agile, dynamic contemporary capitalism, in contrast to the rigidities both of state socialism and older forms of industrial capitalism (the traditional factory, for example). Yet, Fisher argues, this rhetoric obscures an expansion in bureaucratic procedures, particularly audits evaluating employee behavior. He draws again on his own experience teaching. In Britain, even more than in the US, the ‘post-fordist’ era has seen universities impelled to account for themselves, and demonstrate ‘learning outcomes’ and research achievements. This has led to a constantly shifting deployment of standards to be met, and the accumulation of work to demonstrate that one is meeting those standards. He mentions some specifics about this with regard to universities and other schools, but this phenomenon is recognizable in many other workplaces as well. Evaluators proliferate, while work becomes specifically geared to meeting the formal standards, rather than achieving broader goals.
Fisher argues that this dynamic truly deserves the name ‘market Stalinism’, given the parallels with Stalinism’s obsession with appearing successful (i.e. Potemkin villages built to impress visitors, or strict control over dissent within the party, lest the admission of any failures unravel the whole project). One can, indeed, recognize this phenomena all over contemporary society. For example, the measure of ‘consumer confidence’ is routinely discussed more closely than the actual ability of consumers to pay for goods. Or think of all the work that goes into impression management as companies report their earnings, now under the continuous and searching gaze of both investors and 24/7 business news media. Far from smoothly and efficiently working to meet needs through the market, the ‘new’ capitalism seems to promote a society wide obsession with impression management.
As is often the case with these sorts of critiques, the diagnosis is clearer than the prescription. Fisher notes that while contemporary society is rather obsessed with health, and discourages people from doing bad-for-you things like smoking, a line is never crossed wherein mental or cultural health is included. He suggests politicizing cultural weaknesses. I am inclined to agree. Although most educated people are now aware that a diet of corn-syrup derived products is malign, there is no consensus (or even any real discussion) around the mental effects of the constant barrage of advertising, short term stimulation, perfect bodies, faked emotional drama, contrived reality show contests and such that constitutes our typical cultural diet. Just as there is much talk about the virtues of slow food, we need to insist on the virtues of slow culture—culture that embraces the contradictions and realities of life, is historically (and even scientifically) grounded, rather than geared towards escapism; culture that deepens, rather than undermines, our ability to understand and empathize with others. Still, just as the movements around food have to date led more to improvements of personal habits than a frontal assault on the junk food industrial complex, so one can imagine a push for a healthier cultural diet leading to enclaves of interest rather than broad societal transformation. With both culture and food, the question of whether everyone can obtain a healthy diet within the current structures needs to be vigorously debated.
Regarding the question of bureaucracy, Fisher calls for new struggles around the control of work and autonomy from management. Strikes by teachers are dismissed as counterproductive, and Fisher slights gestures of solidarity with far away causes like Palestine. Instead, he suggests teachers stop doing the work that is demanded by management, but unnoticed by everyone else — the endless audits, evaluations, and such. Schools should not be run as businesses, and if we can reverse the trend there, perhaps it will reverberate elsewhere, since even in most business enterprises the audit culture has come to substitute for, rather than enhance, productivity. Fisher optimistically notes that any tear in ‘the grey curtain of reaction’ might have explosive effects.
On balance, I was impressed by his critique, but uncertain about why he wanted to throw out the ‘moral’ critique of inequality under capitalism. It reminds me of a joke Woody Allen once told, where two women in a restaurant are complaining: “The food here is terrible” says one. “Yes, and the portions are so small” replies the other. Theorists like Fisher tend to emphasize the bad taste of the ‘food’ of capitalism, but the small size of the portions for most of humanity is by no means therefore irrelevant. For them, systemic transformation is an urgent matter. Furthermore, just as it is Americans who acquire food entirely through the market who are most addicted to the junk food diet, so it is the case that those who are most embedded in the culture of the new forms of bureaucracy that will likely find this way of work most natural and difficult to question (similarly, it is those who can most readily avail themselves of consumer society who will be most addicted, and likely least able to imagine a shift in priorities). In other words, the inequalities of capitalism still provide many tears in the ‘grey curtain’ which might be opened up.
Although Fisher is right to highlight the addictive nature of consumerism, it should be noted that it is not the only social addiction prevelant in the US and UK (and elsewhere). Consumerist addictions oscillates with other addictions, notably accumulation and militarism. The addiction to accumulation might find its reductio ad absurdum in the figure of the capitalist who has already put hundreds of millions in the bank, yet continues to work eighty hours a week in pursuit of more. But it is in fact much more widespread. Take a look at how many books suggesting ways to get rich quick are available at any bookstore. Few will accumulate riches following the advice of Jim Cramer or Robert Kiyosaki, but, like gambling (which it closely resembles), trying to find the path to wealth provides an absorbing escape from the world. And when consumerism and accumulation prove disappointing, there is always militarism, embracing a ‘noble’ cause that involves bombing some far away land (many global justice activists complain about how 9-11 and the War on Terror ‘changed the subject’ just when global capitalism was coming under scrutinity, but one might just as easily argue that state managers ‘changed the addiction’ after the let down of the dotcom crash). Although consumerism, accumulation, and militarism are all addictions which remove participants from the complexity of understanding the social world they are grounded in, they are also the foundations of that social world itself. Cultural critiques like Fisher’s would be stronger if they attended a bit more to the global architecture of that world. From this perspective, those faculty voting to boycott Israel might be seen as pulling at a thread in the curtain of militarism. And the inflation of bureaucracy, audits, and public relations may well be the effort of Anglo-American capitalism to convince itself (and the world) that all is well, notwithstanding the encroachments of more efficient forms of capitalism based elsewhere, most notably China.
16 July 2010