Reflections on Mark Fisher's Essay on "Capitalist Realism"

Reflections on Mark Fisher's Essay on "Capitalist Realism"

Fisher's book on Capitalist Realism remains a popular reference point for many would be anti-capitalists in the UK. As such, we have decided to translate this new review from our comrades in Italy, where the book has only recently been published. See also our reviews of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work and Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future by authors from a similar milieu.

We’ve noticed that Mark Fisher's text Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? is creating a lot of interest amongst the younger generation in Italy. Written in English in 2009, but only translated into Italian last year, the booklet aims to be a manual for the perfect anti-capitalist of the new millennium. Motive enough for us to provide the reader in search of a real anti-capitalist perspective with a small critical re-reading of the work. We won’t dwell on the biography of the author who committed suicide in January 2017 (it is available online).

Getting to the point, from a revolutionary point of view, the text makes some interesting observations but also contains some remarkable weaknesses. We will try to show both by retracing the author's narrative of "capitalist realism" following him chapter by chapter.

1. It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism

The film The Children of Men serves to launch a reflection about totalitarianism which is still on the increase today despite, and even through, the persistence of the democratic form: “the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic.“

The critical reader therefore understands that this is about us, about our era. “The normalization of crisis produces a situation in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable.” For the author, capitalist realism is defined as “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” Blimey! This is precisely the point. It is necessary to overturn the narrative of the dominant ideology to affirm that this is not the only possible world, but also the worst of all worlds. OK, but let’s continue. In the film Children of Men, still taken as a key to understanding the present, “there is no withering away of the state, only a stripping back of the state to its core military and police functions.” Exactly, yet on the other hand this is an essential starting point for us Marxists: the state is always the institutional expression of the oppression of the ruling class over the dominated class. The emergency issue resonates even more loudly today, in light of the Covid-19 crisis. It is here that revolutionaries usually analyse causes and consequences, in order to bring a possible revolutionary strategy to light.

Fisher, on the other hand, makes a different choice. He avoids analysis and strategy and focuses on the experience of anguish that this situation induces in the individual, aware that “the future harbors only reiteration and re-permutation” (?) of what already exists. OK Fisher, then let's throw ourselves into this abyss of despair and nonsense produced by capitalism in order to draw from it pointers which could be mapped out in a revolutionary way!

For the author, the anxiety produced by this distressing perspective (or rather absence of perspective) produces a sort of bipolar oscillation between messianic hopes and the belief that nothing new will ever seriously happen. Well, we pass over the only quotation from Marx, from the Manifesto, in the book and go to the Monster definition, because capitalism is for Fisher a Monster like The Thing of John Carpenter: “monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.” Okay, but maybe we can characterise capitalism a little better as a system based on class exploitation, money, private property ... but no, there is nothing of that sort. Capitalism is never defined, yet it would have been useful.

Let’s be patient and carry on with the journey into the existential anguish produced by the Monster that engulfs everything by projecting us into an eternal and indisputable present. The comparison with Fukuyama’s The End of History is inevitable. Not because history really ended in 1989, but because “this idea ended up being accepted, even integrated, on an unconscious cultural level.” It is from the 1980s that Fisher traces the assertion of capitalist realism, which can largely be imposed on what others call neoliberalism ... but therefore ... Fisher, isn't it that in the end you theorise an "unrealistic capitalism"? Like the critics of neoliberalism who only want a capitalism with a human face? Let's hope not as we carry on reading.

We have now arrived at the turning point of 1984. Thatcher defeated the British miners by affirming the doctrine of TINA (“there is no alternative”). Then Socialist Realism collapsed and Capitalist Realism turned out to be the sole ruler of the world. Well, a couple of words might be needed here to explain that the USSR was not socialist but state capitalist, and you could add imperialist and anti-proletarian too. It is no accident that capitalism professes to be a unique and insuperable system precisely because of its claim that the communist opponent has been defeated, but we could clarify all this by stating that communism had nothing to do with it. But he doesn’t. Especially since “it is true that for most people under the age of twenty the absence of an alternative to capitalism is not even a problem any more: capitalism simply occupies the whole horizon of the thinkable.” Of course, if we anti-capitalists also turn our backs on the gigantic falsification that was the USSR ... but here Fisher has already gone off in another direction. He goes on to reflect how, at a cultural level, “this occupation by capitalism of the whole imagination means that ‘alternative’ and ‘independent’ do not denote something foreign to official culture; if anything, they are simple styles internal to the mainstream or, better, they are at this point, the ‘dominant’ styles of the mainstream.” Fisher thus now makes it clear. Anti-capitalism developed through a counter-culture that had grown up inside the system in the post Second World War period. In fact, the first chapter ends with Kurt Cobain's suicide: “Cobain's death confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock's utopian and promethean ambitions.”

Ah. We might have total respect for rock. But we don't believe that the Pink Floyds or the Rolling Stones, with their large bank accounts, ever wanted to represent an example of anti-capitalism. In fact, we need to look elsewhere for an anti-capitalist stance. Let's see how the book goes on.

2. What if you held a protest and everyone came?

Capitalism, Fisher notes, is capable of absorbing any anti-capitalism.

"The role of capitalist ideology is not to make an explicit case for something in the way that propaganda does, but to conceal the fact that the operations of capital do not depend on any sort of subjectively assumed belief. ... capitalism can proceed perfectly well, in some ways better, without anyone making a case for it."

We are now into the all-pervasive nature of the contemporary dominant ideology, on the impersonal (because it is financial) character of capital as well, even if that could be better explained, but we now move on to the analysis of the anti-globalisation movement. The author identifies the reasons for it’s failure in that “it was unable to posit a coherent alternative political economic model to capitalism”, and ended up just trying to mitigate its worst excesses. Agreed, even if it should have been added that the anti-globalisation movement also failed because it missed the opportunity to revive class conflict as a central factor in any possible anti-capitalist change. Fisher does not even mention this while claiming that the anti-globalisation conflict model had been dominated by the idea of the spectacle on the Live 8 model. Fisher's criticism seems moralistic. That is, he always refers to the aesthetics of the problem, yet we need to analyse the material cause of the social phenomena from which the problem emerges. In this superficiality, there is of course no blame for the individual because “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.” That is also true, but if we don’t emphasise that it is the producers, the workers, the proletarians who must leverage this dependence of capital on its workforce, we are wandering in a desolate landscape with no prospects. In fact, it is here that Fisher goes on to define capitalism as an abstract parasite, infected zombie etc. Never as a social relationship based on the exploitation of labour-power by capital itself, that is, by its holders, personal or impersonal (i.e. financial). If you don't focus on the fact that capital is a given social relationship determined by the relationship between two social classes and that it is this relationship between classes that allows capital to exist as the most powerful productive force that has ever existed, Fisher, you don't take us very far and eventually you risk falling into depression.

3. Capitalism and the Real

We then move on to what should be the ideology of capitalist realism or a kind of “’business ontology’ in which it is simply obvious that everything in society, including healthcare and education, should be run as a business.” Here, and throughout the work, the author seems to identify capitalist realism and neoliberalism, and we have already pointed out the dangers of this. But let’s go on. Where do we locate criticism of all this? In reality, the realism of capitalism does not coincide with the real general interest: “So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real(s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.” We have to denounce the false propaganda of bourgeois ideology. We have to contrast reality with capital’s false picture of it. All right. There are three fundamental themes that are proposed here.

1. The environmental catastrophe and the need to politicize the ecological battles because “the relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital's 'need of a constantly expanding market', its 'growth fetish', mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.”
2. Mental health and the need for “a politicization of much more common disorders”, talk about the depression that is spreading, especially among the younger generations, stress (anguish). Rather than accepting the privatisation of stress in vogue (you're stressed out, it’s your fault, take a tablet) one should criticise the capitalist origin of these disorders.
3. Bureaucracy, with the example of a progressive bureaucratisation of a whole series of tasks such as teaching, bureaucratisation that goes in exactly the opposite direction to the supposed efficiency that it should also pursue.

Although the first two themes are of some interest, the third one is less interesting (would we have to criticise a bureaucracy that does not actually make the system more efficient?). There is no mention of the falsification inherent in others, and at least equally dangerous ideologies, such as nationalist ones, that we are all in the same boat, the disappearance of social classes, etc... Politicisation of the environmental and mental health issue, that's fine. But what politicisation? This Fisher still does not make clear. You have to wait for the last two pages of the book.

4. Reflexive impotence, immobilisation and liberal communism

Writing about the general disengagement of the younger generations, Fisher introduces the category of “reflective impotence”. The awareness that “things are bad” and the future black, is accompanied by the equally clear awareness that “they know they can't do anything about it.” Starting from this bleak condition, mental health problems, learning difficulties and depression are rampant. For Fisher, the response of many is a depressive hedonism, that is, the continuous and desperate search for pleasure to escape this state of anguished awareness. Its complement is hedonistic inertia, the soft narcosis of the PlayStation, of the nights of television and marijuana. “Ask students to read for more than a couple of sentences and many will protest that they can't do it … that it's boring.” A post-literate younger generation “too wired to concentrate.” The metaphor remains the earphones, with their ability to isolate you from the world, filling the void. The teachers find themselves trapped in the role of facilitators-entertainers, but in a world where disciplinary structures have gone into crisis: while families are fragmented by the fact that everyone must work, the teachers are also delegated the educational role before the family. This phenomenon is part of the phenomenon – extremely widespread in the Anglo-Saxon world – of student indebtedness, linked in this way by a double thread to capital.

Well, we share the phenomenology of modern desolation that afflicts the younger generations. However, not connecting everything to the most serious and prolonged capitalist crisis in history to the defeat suffered by the working class and to its possibilities for recovery, and without understanding the ideological role played by the collapse of the USSR, we do not have the tools to identify an exit perspective, which is, to summarise it in two words, the anti-capitalist class struggle.

Without these references, Fisher continues to wander without ideas in the desolation of the present. He affirms: in capitalist realism the protesters oscillate between immobilists (those who oppose this or that law in the name of the preservation of the precedent) and liberal communists – but why defile the term of communism which he has already murdered by comparing it with Soros or Bill Gates, who do charity to mitigate the excesses of the system? Here a new puzzling conclusion falls on the reader: “any opposition to flexibility and decentralization risks being self-defeating, resistance to the 'new' is not a cause that the left can or should rally around.”

From this we discover:

1. That the social reference point of Fisher is not the working class, the exploited etc. but "the left";
2. That battles to resist capital attacks are not a cause that can be embraced;
3. That we must accept, under good vouchers, flexibility and decentralisation;
4. That any hypothesis of linking immediate resistance battles to the prospect of revolutionary struggle is inconceivable to Fisher.

We could stop here, but let's continue, not without pointing out that we internationalists do not believe we belong to the "left": right and left are just different parts of the bourgeois political alignment. We are communists, internationalists, revolutionaries or anti-capitalists, certainly not part of the left of capital.

Unable to return to the class struggle, Fisher believes that the real problem of the left is that it has not developed a “new language”. Having said this, the category of "class struggle" that has been fought and won by the "rich" has finally made its appearance (but only in a quote from David Harvey): “the ratio of the median compensation of workers to the salaries of CEOs increased from just over 30 to 1 in 1970 to nearly 500 to 1 by 2000 And that’s all.”

Since 1984 (the defeat of the British miners) the class struggle has suffered something of a defeat and is being lost. This is the impression the reader gets. We fought the class struggle and we lost it, so let's leave it alone and go back to the pathological mechanisms of capital to look for another way. This is the logical thread that the author seems to follow.

5. October 6, 1979: 'Don’t let yourself get attached to anything'

Comparing the gangster films of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese between 1971 and 1990, and Michael Mann’s Heat from 1995, Fisher points out how the values that keep criminal gangs together in the 70s, namely family, roots, traditions, etc., are exactly those that are deemed to be obsolete in 1995. Contrary to Fordist rigidity, post-Fordism is flexibility, “just in time”.

For Fisher, it is the conflict between wanting reassuring stability of old forms of work organisation on the one hand, and modern job insecurity on the other, which massively produces bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, phenomena actually increasingly widespread among workers. But while we identify "the origin of evil" in class defeat and the only possible medicine in the resumption of class struggle until the revolutionary instance, Fisher merely observes that it is capitalism itself that is bipolar with its leaps between expansion and crisis and this can only be reflected in the minds of the workers. Depressed capitalism, depressed workers, expanding capitalism, happy workers. Okay, but this is close to banality.

Fisher identifies some factors actually acting today, such as blaming the suffering subject: “you are sick because of your brain chemistry”, not because the system is rotten, “you are the only one to blame.” He rightly observes that all this brings good business to the pharmaceutical multinationals, but what does he propose? “Repoliticizing mental illness.” We also agree, but if the prospects of revolutionary anti-capitalism and the class struggle that must support it do not develop, what repoliticisation are we talking about? It is not yet known.

6. All that is solid melts into PR: market Stalinism and bureaucratic anti-production.

Post-Fordism brings with it new "guilty" models of worker evaluation – which we will not describe here. These models would underlie many of the pathologies expressed above:

"Really Existing Capitalism is marked by the same division which characterized Really Existing Socialism, between, on the one hand, an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring, and, on the other, a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc."

Still no criticism of Soviet state capitalism! Indeed, it seems to him that it is real socialism and therefore does not work ... the whole tirade against the bureaucracy that follows, drawing on Kafka, thus has a liberal aftertaste. It is all well and good to criticise the psychology of the controlled who in turn become controllers, but the author proposes no alternative. You can see that he too, in reality, is not able to see beyond capitalism, and to suggest it can be overcome. This puts a doubt in the reader’s mind that Fisher, in reality, is also a victim and, therefore, part of capitalist realism.

7. '...if you can watch the overlap of one reality with another': capitalist realism as dreamwork and memory disorder

In capitalist realism, there would be no other possible form of life than the acceptance of the existent, without questions that, if asked, would expose the subject to madness:

"what begins to emerge as some deeper and more fundamental constitution of postmodernity itself, at least in its temporal dimension – is henceforth, where everything now submits to the perpetual change of fashion and media image, that nothing can change any longer." (Fisher quoting Fredric Jameson)

Fisher seems to denounce this horror here, but in reality, on closer inspection, he has already taken it as an immutable fact.

"... meanwhile, neoconservatism's strong state was confined to military and police functions, and defined itself against a welfare state held to undermine individual moral responsibility."

In closing, the author, instead of looking for openings of perspective and criticisms of meaning capable of revealing possible paths towards an anti-capitalist action, difficult by definition precisely because it is destined to develop amid a thousand difficulties, instead of doing that, what does he do? He returns to the totalising despotism of The Children of Men. After so much meandering he still has found no possible way, not just of attack, but also of resistance (indeed, resistance seems to be avoided due to immobility!). The black curtain is about to fall.

8. There is no central exchange

The system presents itself as deeply impersonal, “the blame will be put on supposedly pathological individuals, those 'abusing the system', rather than on the system itself.” Companies and corporations are themselves expressions and products of “the ultimate cause-that-is-not-a subject: Capital.” In a nutshell we are victims of impersonal capitalism, of a dense plot that takes away reference points and, this is the message between the lines, probably every battle is destined to end in defeat and even then the System will make us feel that, even in defeat, “it's our fault”.

9. Marxist Supernanny

So what now? Please Fisher, we've followed you so far, tell us something usefully revolutionary! We need to look “at the structural causes which produce the same repeated effect.” Okay, we agree. “So let's go back to Spinoza.” Spinoza?!

"Freedom, Spinoza shows, is something that can be achieved only when we can apprehend the real causes of our actions, when we can set aside the 'sad passions' that intoxicate and entrance us."

No, sorry Fisher, but what sad passions, life is really difficult here, precariousness, unemployment, crisis, coronavirus, we ask: what is to be done?

"A certain amount of stability is necessary for cultural vibrancy, the question to be asked is: how can this stability be provided … It means recognizing that the goal of a genuinely new left should not be to take over the state but to subordinate the state to the general will … reviving and modernizing – the idea of a public space."

The subordination of the bourgeois state to the general will? But you said earlier that the shapeless monster engulfs everything! Modernise the idea of a public space – obviously without going through a revolution which is never even mentioned in the entire book – and you have just described a dynamic that goes exactly in the opposite direction! And as to “stability”, it is obvious that, in the capitalism of the permanent crisis, no stability is possible any more. The author replies:

"All that is real is the individual (and their families). The symptoms of the failures of this worldview are everywhere .... we need to reassert that, far from being isolated, contingent problems, these are all the effects of a single systemic cause: Capital."

Okay, we are proposing the anti-capitalist class struggle, also because the crisis is advancing, the system could soon falter and we have over two centuries of experience of the class struggle to draw on in order to emerge victorious, this time.

No, Fisher replies: “We need to begin, as if for the first time, to develop strategies against a Capital which presents itself as ontologically, as well as geographically, ubiquitous.” But what strategies? “… what needs to be left behind is a certain romantic attachment to the politics of failure, to the comfortable position of a defeated marginality.”

What are you doing? You haven’t got a shred of proposal to offer and now you insult us? He answers:

"It is crucial a genuinely revitalized left confidently occupies the new political terrain … 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 … What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management."

As to an anti-capitalist perspective? Only a deafening silence.

We put ourselves in the heads of young readers who bought the booklet, among other things, well laid out, looking for a perspective to fight against capitalism and they find it in their hands and wonder, but now what do we do?

If you have not understood it we will tell you better, with an extract from an interview with Fisher himself:

"But I think we can be confident that these ... things are related, there is now a new wave, there would not have been Corbyn without Syriza, and if Corbyn is crushed, something else can emerge later. There is a new wave and we can now start to ride it towards post-capitalism." (Speech by Mark Fisher, 23 February 2016, London, eleven months before his suicide,

Vote for the least bad option in order to move towards post-capitalism. That’s Fisher’s perspective, an author who, together with his bard, Žižek, offers nothing as a revolutionary. No materialist analysis, no definition of capitalism, of the class struggle, of the structural crisis we are experiencing, no anti-capitalist perspective and, indeed, a certain snobbish contempt for those who instead have identified revolutionary and anti-capitalist militancy as the only real medicine for the evils induced by capitalism.

Let’s end it here.

If “Cobain's death confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock's utopian and promethean ambitions”, Fisher's suicide reaffirms the real powerlessness of any perspective of criticism of capitalism that is not based on solid pillars such as criticism of political economy, the materialist conception of history, the experiences of past class struggles and the communist revolutionary programme that derives from them.

Marx had already warned us, in his XI thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways [very often badly – ed]; the point is to change it.”

April 2, 2020

Translator’s note: The quotes from Capitalist Realism retain their original US spellings but the rest of the text uses UK spellings

Posted By

Jun 16 2020 15:35


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R Totale
Jun 16 2020 19:05

I think it would probably have been better if you'd ended the review where it says "Let’s end it here" and not included the bit about "Fisher's suicide reaffirms the real powerlessness of any perspective of criticism of capitalism that is not based on solid pillars such as criticism of political economy, the materialist conception of history, the experiences of past class struggles and the communist revolutionary programme that derives from them", which seems a bit unneccessarily nasty - maybe an Italian audience might be a bit more detached from it, but something circulated among a UK readership is more likely to be seen by people who knew him? Fwiw, I'm certainly not a "Fisherist", but I think anything that can be interpreted as gloating at his relatively-recent suicide is not going to be well received.

Jun 16 2020 21:08

There is no gloating there. Unless by that same token you think Fisher was gloating at Cobain's suicide?

R Totale
Jun 17 2020 20:26

I did add the caveat about "can be interpreted as" to try and express that I wasn't saying that was the intention, just you should be aware of the possibility that it can be read that way. Having thought about it, there are a few quite important differences to the Cobain thing.
First of all, you and Fisher are/were in a much smaller pond together - I can't say if Courtney Love or Dave Grohl have ever read Capitalist Realism but it seems quite unlikely; on the other hand, you and Fisher, and the organisation Fisher was a member of, both, for instance, do stalls and talks at UK anarchist bookfairs, I don't know if Fisher ever had an account here but I think that there's probably at least a 90% chance that there are some people who have posted here who knew him personally and so on. Also Cobain's suicide must have been about 15 years before Capitalist Realism was written, whereas the loss of Fisher is a lot more recent. All of which, imo, means that it would be better to err on the side of tact and sensitivity when dealing with this stuff.
Also, you may or may not be aware that there's a certain amount of bad blood following on from his death itself - in the aftermath, some people said some very tactless things, and there are some people who've been quite vocal about their belief that the criticisms Fisher received from his political opponents (admittedly, left communists were hardly the most important or visible of these) were a contributing factor in his death. I would like to think those people are wrong, but I don't really have any way of being sure. Now, the readership for this article is likely to be quite small, so it's fairly unlikely that anyone will circulate it with lurid captions about "grim joyless left communist vampires sink their teeth into Mark Fisher's corpse" or whatever, but it's not impossible, and I don't think it would be a good thing if it did.

I also think the main body of the review is a bit weak - I don't think it puts the book into proper historical context, which would be a worthwhile thing for a historical materialist critique to do, and it skips over Fisher's strong points, which means that it can't really account for his appeal. But this comment is quite long enough already.

Red Marriott
Jun 18 2020 14:41
article wrote:
If “Cobain's death confirmed the defeat and incorporation of rock's utopian and promethean ambitions”, Fisher's suicide reaffirms the real powerlessness of any perspective of criticism of capitalism that is not based on solid pillars such as criticism of political economy, the materialist conception of history, the experiences of past class struggles and the communist revolutionary programme that derives from them.

What’s this, theoretical choices as measures of psychological health & purity? The decades of rabid left-comm infighting, splits, insular sectarianism and paranoia surely cast doubt on that. So belief in basic marxist categories innoculates one against mental health issues and delusions? I don't think so - this mystical claim refutes itself. Using a suicide – while being ignorant of the many possible contributing factors - to speculatively associate it with theoretical failings and to try to score sectarian political points indicates one’s own psychological insecurities. Of course mental health is ‘political’ and social too, as Fisher acknowledged - but not in such a crude cause & effect way as the ICT article claims;

The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.
... Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? ― Fisher, Capitalist Realism

Nor can depression be explained by lack of marxist categories in one’s life – marxism as a 12-step programme to individual mental sobriety? What next, left-communism cures cancer?

There is no gloating there. Unless by that same token you think Fisher was gloating at Cobain's suicide?

Fisher appears to be saying that Cobain's death was symbolic of the impossibility of any genuine radical content within rock music and the arts generally; the political equivalent/”same token” would be to say that all theory is similarly recuperated and unrecoverable for genuine subversion. While the musical equivalent of your comment would be 'he just chose the wrong musical style’. So the analogy used as a defence doesn't work.

Jun 18 2020 15:54

No one's claiming depression can be cured by good analysis... (though voting for Syriza or Labour in order to move towards "post-capitalism" seems like a pretty depressing outlook!). Indeed both Fisher's comment on Cobain, and the reviewer's comment on Fisher are symbolic (hence the latter directly alludes to the former...).