Capitalist Realism: Is Art the Alternative? Dialogue between Mark Fisher and Mike Watson

Mar 22nd, 2017 | By | Category: Articles, Zero Squared



The following dialogue was first published in 2010 on Freize.com and subsequently reposted on conceptualmilitancy.com, a wordpress blog which was opened to coincide with the publication of Mike Watson's Towards a Conceptual Militancy (Zero Books, May 2016). Following a (targeted or untargeted) hacking incident which bought down thousands of wordpress blogs the dialogue is being republished here on the Zero Books blog. This coincides with Mike's signing of a contract for his second publication with Zero, entitled This is So Contemporary: 21st Century A e s t h e t i c s (projected for a 2018 release).



A dialogue on the role of art in confronting the worst excesses of global capital.

MIKE WATSON: Your 2009 book, Capitalist Realism, as well as lamenting the state of a world in which capitalism has become apparently the only societal option, upbraided the left for its lack of viable strategies. A lot has happened since then and – for a moment late in 2010 – it genuinely seemed as if the traditional left was resurgent, a point that at the time I felt to be worrying. It appeared unlikely that any viable challenge to capital would come from that quarter – not least as it would be unlikely to gain public backing. Therefore such an engagement was only ever likely to squander an opportunity for social transformation. For the capitalist class this arguably presented a useful diversion of counter-capitalist resources. A year on from widespread protests in Italy and the UK, and despite recent unrest on the streets of London – and the Wall Street and St Paul’s Cathedral protests – the machinations of power seem unmoved in their support of the rich, whilst ignoring the needs of the poor. At this point, what viable and positive alternatives are you seeing emerging, if any? And with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ presenting a kind of rightist Anarchism (or ‘libertarianism’) would a suitable response be some kind of anti-statist option from the left?

MARK FISHER: I don’t see the issue as one of developing a leftist anti-statism, just as I don’t think the goal should be taking over the State in the way that the old left wanted to. Part of the problem is that there has been a tendency amongst certain areas of the ‘radical’ left to concede the state – along with mainstream media – to the right . The consequences of that are now horribly apparent. The bank crises have triggered a major crisis of legitimation for capital, but there is simply no-one in mainstream politics capable of taking any advantage of it. Parliamentary politics is given over to capitalist realism, but, at the moment, no other area of the left has sufficient power or influence to propose a serious alternative. The issue isn’t control of the State per se; it is the forces outside the State that are brought to bear on it that are crucial. With the decline of trade unions, the State is now subject only to the influence of capital and its agents. The ideologues of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ are correct when they argue that it is the terrain between private space and the state which is important – we need to occupy this terrain. Unions, if transformed, could still occupy it; but more than likely we will need to invent new kinds of organizations and institutions. This will require imagination, but then so did the invention of the trade unions and the labour movement in the first place. But we have to recognize that the old base of the left – industrial workers – have largely disappeared in the global North. The focus now needs to be on organizing precarious workers.

The right has successfully associated the left with what it has characterized as a superseded ‘top-down’, ‘authoritarian’ and ‘bureaucratic’ mode of politics. It has commandeered critiques and concepts that originally came from the left – hence David Cameron’s right-wing autonomism. But this shouldn’t tempt us to return to the strategies of the old left – there is no way back to them, and they failed, for good reasons, the first time around. What we need is a left that has responded to the anti-authoritarian critiques made since the ’60s. We have to resist the idea that these critiques had to lead to something like New Labour.

I didn’t see the ‘traditional left’ rallying at the end of 2010. The student protests in the UK involved whole groups of people who had not been active in politics before. In 2011, we’ve seen another incredible series of events in the UK – the whole ruling class coming under pressure with the phone hacking scandal (which has by no means finished yet) and then the riots (which, again, are not the last displays of anger and disaffection which we will see). I believe that we are seeing a major shift in the ideological atmosphere, but we can’t quite grasp yet what form the new left will take. But that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening.

MW: Well, we agree at least on the need for things to change in a way that we cannot yet fully grasp. Of course, one runs up against the problem of precisely what can be done when capitalism is so far ingrained, and here it is easy – but not excusable – to seek refuge in the past. For if we now live – as is often suggested – in a world that is completely capitalist then it must be supposed that everything opposed to capitalism is part of that capitalist whole. Though it would perhaps be more accurate to say we live in a social whole in which injustice and domination are ingrained. And I think it is important tactically to admit of this inherent total lack of freedom. To believe that we are free when we are completely unfree (naivety) would jeopardize any chance of finding freedom, yet to think we are completely unfree when we are in fact free (paranoia) would render us unfree in any case. Finally, to think we are completely unfree when we are indeed completely unfree (resignation) would impede permanently any chance of achieving freedom. We are left only with the option of assuming that we are completely unfree and then feigning freedom in response, as a means of enabling a fightback against that same unfreedom, should the conditions ever arise.

This feigning of freedom I consider to be an artistic statement in that only art can deliberately feign something and maintain its credibility. In this way I feel that art and its institutions should be used to mimic social and political institutions in order to leverage some space in which to think a viable alternative to capitalism. Something akin to the perfect crossover of art into political discourse as seen in Oliver Ressler’s What is Democracy (2009), in which activists at locations across the world talk about social participation, with the final product being a documentary presented as art. The question posed ultimately by this work is how to make a similar concrete political intervention.

The book I am working on for ZerO books (Towards a conceptual Militancy) will propose that a tertiary level humanities education (obviously limited in intake initially, and in terms of subjects offered) could operate at low cost or free from a network of art spaces, with initial accreditation provided by disgruntled professors. The point of such an education would be to foster the conditions to develop further similar initiatives in other fields. Precedents do exist, such as Tania Bruguera’s long-term project Immigrant Movement International (2010-2015), which operates from a centralized location in Corona, Queens, but aims to foster awareness of immigrant issues worldwide, employing a network of artists and institutions worldwide. The aim similarly, is to utilize the existing network of art institutions and spaces to create an international social alternative.

This is to be worked out in full – obviously a funding model is needed – but for now, disregarding our disagreement on the nature of the current opposition to capitalism, I’d be interested to know how you approach the status of ‘art’ in terms of this opposition, considering your personal engagement with the arts, which runs parallel to your political activity?

MF: Well, I agree that it’s crucial to move beyond what my comrade Alex Williams calls ‘Canutism’ – with the left continually in the position of seeking to roll things back. Capitalist realism lurks beneath this model of resistance, obstructionism and immobilization, because it implicitly concedes that history is only going in one direction – capital’s – and all we can do is delay its further progress. We urgently need to recapture modernity, and we won’t ever have a better opportunity than we do now. Art and culture will play a crucial role in this. Their poverty in recent years is both a reflection of capitalist realism and a means by which capitalist realism has perpetuated itself. Their political importance will not primarily be to do with any didactic intervention, but the power of denaturalization. By its very nature, capitalist realism depends upon a very circumscribed account of what reality is. Art’s political role will be to reject this, to break the paradoxical spell of capitalist realism’s supposed ‘demystification’.

MW: OK, but do you see art as being particularly equipped for rejecting the false but widely held notion that capitalism is the only viable form of society? Should we be somehow appending art to politics, in the sense that politics could benefit by incorporating elements specific to art, or ought we to politicize art? There is a problem in both cases, for if politics takes on art’s flippancy it would further excuse it from intervening in any concrete way against social injustice, but if art were to take on the concrete demands of politics it would lose its critical distance. The political capacity of art risks presenting yet another distraction from positive social change, for its inefficacy.

MF: Yes, both are dangers. My own work as a cultural practitioner – rather than as a theorist – deals with ‘political’ themes only in a glancing way. My cultural practice has taken the form of audio-essays, which I’ve co-produced with my collaborator Justin Barton. The first, londonunderlondon, was broadcast in 2005 on Resonance FM. My friend Kodwo Eshun of the Otolith Group called it ‘part theoretical fiction, part audio-essay, fictional collage, sampladelic montage, dream-text, sonic portal’. A section of londonunderlondon was about the ‘finance necropolis’ of Canary Wharf. The current project I am collaborating on, On Vanishing Land, is about the Suffolk landscape, and it touches upon the role that containerisation plays in contemporary capitalism. But these themes are part of a wider delirial mosaic, other elements of which aren’t obviously political.

But we can’t say in advance what political effects art and culture will have. There’s certainly an aesthetic dimension to the struggle – part of the reason we’ve lost is that leftism has become associated with the dreary and the de-libidinizing. We need to reclaim concepts like ‘designer socialism’, arguing that a left-wing world would be one that was better designed and more alluring than capitalism! At the same time, we have to remember that not everything has to be hyper-libidinized – political organization is not always exciting. We need to think about what conditions are necessary for art and culture to flourish in – and that involves thinking about what kinds of bureaucracy would be desirable. Neoliberalism has made us all self-surveilling bureaucrats at the same time as it injected a rhetoric of ‘creativity’ into work. It’s just as Fredric Jameson has argued – neoliberal culture is full of the language of innovation and novelty, but culture has never been more standardized and homogenous. If generalized insecurity produces conservatism in culture, as I believe it does, then the question is: what forms of stability, what forms of security, might allow culture to become adventurous again?

MW: This is an important question. I would add that we must not to be content with the obscure hinterland that the link between art and politics presents. We have an opportunity to eke out the potential of art-as-politics. In fact people working in the arts are, I believe, obligated to explore this territory, utilizing the available human and physical resources to provide socially useful services. Though if it doesn’t work, if these possibilities were to be closed down by the powers that be, we could at the least say we tried, whilst – with a network of galleries and institutions in place – a more aggressive form of resistance might be possible.

Mike Watson is an art theorist and curator based in Italy. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College and has curated for Nomas Foundation and at both the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale. He published ‘Towards a Conceptual Militancy’ for ZerO books in May 2016 and has written regularly for Artforum, frieze, Art Review, Radical Philosophy and Hyperallergic.

Mark Fisher's writing put Zero Books on the map in 2009. His book Capitalist Realism continues to define our mission. The world lost a radical thinker when Fisher left us in January of 2017.

He was highly respected both as a music writer and a theorist and wrote regularly for frieze, New Statesman, Sight & Sound and The Wire, where he was acting deputy editor for a year. He was a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths, University Of London, and maintained one of the most successful weblogs on cultural theory, k-punk (http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org).

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