I often joke that, as I was completing Capitalist Realism in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, it felt as if capitalism might be finished before the book was. Yet it was very soon clear that the crisis had not ended capitalism, nor had it ended capitalist realism. Far from capitalist realism ending in 2008, it has in many respects intensified. The austerity measures that western governments implemented could not 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 what Franco Berardi has called 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.
In 2010, New Labour was replaced by a government led by old Etonian David Cameron. Cameron’s proclamation that “we are all in this together” set the tone for the new mode of capitalist realism. Prior to the bank bail-outs of 2008, capitalist realism assumed an ebullient and bullying form – anyone who denied that neoliberal capitalism was the best possible form of governance was in a state of denial; they were attached to a form of class politics that had been made obsolete by a move towards meritocracy and pluralism. After 2008, the message was no longer that neoliberal capitalism was part of an irresistible historical tide, but that any deviation from the neoliberal programme would be disastrous – allowing banks to fail could only end in a catastrophic social collapse. It wasn’t just that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, it was that the end of neoliberal capitalism would itself effectively mean the end of any imaginable social world. Yet Cameron was actually responding to a catastrophe that had already happened – the fatal undermining of neoliberalism’s legitimacy. After the financial crisis, Martin Wolf wrote in the Financial Times, “[t]he assumptions that ruled policy and politics over three decades suddenly look as outdated as revolutionary socialism”. Neoliberalism, Gopal Balakrishnan argued, was in “dilapidated state” and its “former pretensions to intellectual superiority and realism will no longer be sufferable”. Deprived of any forward momentum, neoliberalism was now a zombified mode of power – but as any aficionado of zombie films recognises, zombies can be far harder to destroy than living people. According to Naomi Klein’s famous analysis in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberalism had succeeded by taking advantage of moments of traumatic rupture, when social systems fell into crisis. Now, neoliberalism was facing its own moment of ungrounding shock; but, with a breathtaking perverse audacity, neoliberals didn’t hesitate to use this very trauma to impose more of the measures that had produced the crisis in the first place: restricting welfare provision, privatising public institutions, lessening the tax burden on the rich. Although the situation had changed completely from how things had seemed before 2008, the appeal was still to ‘realism’. Now that governments were massively in debt as a result of the bank bail-outs, it wasn’t ‘realistic’ for them to continue to fund a ‘bloated’ public sector.
It gives me little pleasure to say that the acceptance of this preposterous ruling class gambit confirms my analysis in Capitalist Realism. It’s important to stress, here, however, that the fatalistic acquiescence does not mean that many are persuaded by the neoliberal rhetoric which has justified austerity. They weren’t persuaded by pre-2008 neoliberalism either. What people were convinced of, however, both before and after 2008, is that neoliberalism is the dominant political force in the world. The ‘realism’ of capitalist realism consists in large part in this recognition – a recognition that, along the lines of the ‘reflexive impotence’ I analyse in the book, functions as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. It remains the case that, five years after the bank crisis, there is still no leftist organisation worth the name that yet exists which is in a position to challenge the super-hegemony of zombie neoliberalism.We are still in a world in which workers fear capital, not the reverse. For the most part, trade unions have failed to rise to the challenge that Deleuze described in “Postscript on Societies of Control”. With a few exceptions, they remain either antiquely Fordist in their assumptions, or else supinely submissive to capitalist realism, meekly offering themselves up as delivering ‘services’ to their members. In other words, unions fit the criticisms of them made by autonomist groups in the 1970s. Autonomists derided unions as bureaucratic organizations whose role was to stabilize capitalism by transforming revolutionary activity into demands that could be managed within capitalism. But autonomist thinking – whose “horizontalist” attack on hierarchical political organization was widely influential in the Occupy movement, as well the UK student movement of 2010 – has failed to yield anything which could even match, still less outdo, the role that unions once played. The fact that the working class lacks any effective agent that even notionally represents its interests is one reason that capital has been able to push through the austerity programme so easily. Discontent with the financial elite may be massive, but, in the lack of an agent that could make focus or marshal this disaffection, such disaffection has so far been easily ignored.
In the UK, the chief challenges to capitalist realism came in the anti-cuts student movement at the end of 2010, and the Occupy London Stock Exchange encampment, and the riots of 2011. None succeeded in causing capitalist realism any serious damage, and none were capable of the kind of modern leftism for which Hall called so long ago. Which is not to say that they were insignificant: there are no doubt potentials in these uprisings, but those potentials have yet to be fully realized. One of the problems with movements based on affect is that affect waxes and wanes, so the danger is that groups become swept away by an enthusiasm that quickly degenerates into disappointment and pessimism. What is needed is some kind of sustainable infrastructure – which of course need not be a party along the old Leninist lines – that is capable of soberly assessing why revolts have not succeeded. A movement that cannot remember cannot learn. Some theorists like to quote Beckett’s aphorism “fail again, fail better” but there is rather too much tolerance for failure on the left. Zizek, one of the theorists who likes to cite the Beckett phrase, is nevertheless right that the left needs to give up “the sublime beauty of uprisings that are doomed to fail”. But that will involve also giving up the rarefied “evental” politics pushed by Zizek’s sometime inspiration, Alain Badiou, and a re-engagement in the apparently more banal business of building hegemony in parliament and mainstream media. I stress parliament and mainstream media because the post-68 left –and this no doubt includes Capitalist Realism itself – has increasingly tended to disdain them. Everyone from old Maoists such as Badiou to young neo-anarchists maintains that mainstream politics is corrupt and impotent. Yet, if what has happened – or failed to happen – since 2008 has taught us anything, it is that political change still entails shifts in parliamentary politics and mainstream media. Bottom-up movements, actions in the streets, the transformation of everyday life: all of these are necessary to shift hegemony, but they are not sufficient.
Capitalist Realism – An analysis of the ways in which capitalism has presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system.
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After 1989, capitalism has presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system. What effects has this “capitalist realism” had on work, culture, education and mental health? Is it possible to imagine an alternative to capitalism that is not some throwback to discredited models of state control? Lets not beat around the bush: Fishers compulsively readable book is simply the best diagnosis of our predicament that we have! Through examples from daily life and popular culture, but without sacrificing theoretical stringency, he provides a ruthless portrait of our ideological misery. …
Event: March 13th 7pm
Waterstones Trafalgar Square and Zero Books present a stimulating discussion on the nature of modern capitalist times, how we got here and how we can get out again. Highly acclaimed authors Alex Niven, Mark Fisher and Peter Fleming explore the capitalist culture of today and challenge the audience to see beyond it to a different future.
£5 including a glass of wine, available in-store