Capitalist Realism

Capitalist Realism

Is there no alternative?

An analysis of the ways in which capitalism has presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system.


It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. After 1989, capitalism has successfully presented itself as the only realistic political-economic system - a situation that the bank crisis of 2008, far from ending, actually compounded. The book analyses the development and principal features of this capitalist realism as a lived ideological framework. Using examples from politics, film (Children Of Men, Jason Bourne, Supernanny), fiction (Le Guin and Kafka), work and education, it argues that capitalist realism colours all areas of contemporary experience, is anything but realistic and asks how capitalism and its inconsistencies can be challenged It is a sharp analysis of the post-ideological malaise that suggests that the economics and politics of free market neo-liberalism are givens rather than constructions.

"A quick and entertaining read."
Socialist Standard

"A provocative and necessary read, ...for anyone wanting to talk seriously about the politics of education today. "
Times Higher Educational Supplement


I've reviewed "Capitalist Realism" and put it front of store (it started to sell pretty much instantly, not surprising considering how great it is!) and intend on doing so with more of your Zero books. ~ Terry Thomson, Senior Bookseller, Waterstones Trafalgar Square

Finally, an analysis of contemporary capitalism that combines rigorous cultural analysis with unflinching political critique. Illustrating the deleterious effects of 'business ontology' on education and 'market Stalinism' in public life, Fisher lays bare the new cultural logic of capital. A provocative and necessary read, especially for anyone wanting to talk seriously about the politics of education today. ~ Sarah Amsler, lecturer in sociology at Aston University, in The Times Higher Education Supplement

One of the most exciting publishing events of 2009 was the emergence of the new imprint Zero Books. It publishes short, intelligent polemics on politics and culture, packing a lot of punch into about 80 pages and they are masterclasses in hhow supposedly tough theory can be made accessible and help us to understand society. The latest of these is Capitalist Realism by leading radical blogger Mark Fisher who has been blogging under the name k-punk for the past few years. It's a sharp analysis of the post-ideological malaise that suggests that the economics and politics of neo-liberalism are givens rather than constructions. "It's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism", Fisher spits, and his book takes in film, Baudrillard, Kurt Cobain, science fiction, mental health, bureacracy and economics. Zero Books are ... must reads ~ Rowan Wilson, Verso Publishing and ReadySteadyBook blogger

One might be tempted to assume that a book that so devastatingly diagnoses the abysmal conditions of the present would be heavily laden with nostalgic melancholy, perhaps full of bitter condemnatory memories about a different, better world that once was. However, you would be very wrong to make such an assumption. Fisher’s book is not at all a work of nostalgia or mourning for such a lost world, and probably shouldn’t even be described as simply just another piece of critical diagnosis. In short it is a rich, passionate, militant and wholly optimistic polemic that is all too aware of the excremental machine of capitalism that spreads its banal ontological coordinates across virtually every aspects of our daily lives, thoughts, desires, dreams, hopes and beliefs. ~ Darren Ambrose,

Following the biggest financial collapse since the 1930s, the apparent relief that astronomical government bailouts have returned us to ‘business as usual’ is surely proof that the expression ‘there is no alternative’ – once an extremist ideological battle cry – is now an accepted mainstream orthodoxy. This is a paradox, expressed in the somewhat desperate-sounding subtitle of Mark Fisher’s book: on the one hand, the neoliberal faith in markets has been spectacularly discredited before the eyes of the world, together with the notion that obscene personal wealth – exemplified by banker’s bonuses – is a sign of general economic health; on the other hand, the only available response to such a monumental failure appears to be the most cautious, ameliorative regulation to get the old system up and running again. Fisher defines ‘capitalist realism’ as ‘a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning … the production of culture … the regulation of work and education’, something which acts as an ‘invisible barrier constraining thought and action’. The reality certainly exists – vouched for by the symptomatic analysis Fisher performs on a multitude of cultural phenomena; and yet, crucially, a ‘reality’ that always includes, and depends upon, our implicit acknowledgment of it as delineating the realms of the possible. ‘Being realistic’ is often a case of ‘reflexive impotence’: seeing as we are helpless to change anything, why bother trying? This attitude is evidently true – think of the Iraq War protest – but nevertheless self-fulfilling. With this in mind, Fisher’s book is, despite the oppressive diagnosis, a much-needed plea that the present economic crisis be seized as an opportunity; a tipping point that allows us to build an alternative to this increasingly intolerable and ultimately unsustainable mode of living. The book both introduces (illustratively, through films, novels etc) and is grounded in postmodern theory, from which two ideas are of particular significance for the more specific analysis. First, Slavoj Zizek’s notion that we believe (eg in capitalism) through our actions, not our inner convictions. Second, the idea that we have definitively moved beyond an age of traditional authority: from a disciplinary regime to a control society, in Gilles Deleuze’s terms; from a prohibitive paternal function to one that, in Zizek’s terms, compels us to enjoy. Fisher’s critical approach is to focus not on the exploitation or class division which capitalism is predicated upon, but on those areas where it is demonstrably dysfunctional according to its own criteria. Neoliberal apologists can hardly claim that free market capitalism promotes equality; but our consumerist economy does promise pleasure and happiness, above all else. Why, then, are we in the UK suffering from epidemic levels of depression? Fisher’s other test case is bureaucracy: it was the one thing even those on the left would expect the dynamic, ruthlessly efficient business model to have all but eliminated in those areas where it replaced the ungainly apparatus of centralised control. The reality, in our deregulated, subcontracted and globally outsourced economy, is just the opposite, as any encounter with ‘the crazed Kafkaesque labyrinth of call centres’ will testify. These inconsistencies are examined within the field of education. In one of the most revealing sections of the book, Fisher speaks of the ‘depressive hedonia’ he encountered among his FE students, who were defined in post-disciplinary terms as consumers, brought up on instant sensation-stimulus gratification and seemingly unable to pursue anything except pleasure. Fisher also has much to say about the auditing culture which has infected education, and lead to a virtual world of data generation and manipulation where targets become ends in themselves in the race to improve not teaching and research, but public image. In what is a more widespread characteristic of capitalist realism, Fisher points to how market thinking becomes internalised – self-assessment turning workers into their own auditors. For Fisher, the initial political task is to expose the structural causes underlying these common experiences. The competitive assessment culture that dogs education is a result of the concerted efforts to artificially turn the provision of public goods into markets. Likewise, against what Fisher aptly describes as the ‘privatisation of stress’, it is essential to link the extraordinary rise in mental health problems to the deregulated, flexible job market and its impact in terms of work insecurity, longer working hours, competition, and lack of status and respect. Cure the system, we might say, if the individual patient is to get well. (Or, as The Invisible Committee provocatively put it in its manifesto The Coming Insurrection: ‘We are not depressed; we’re on strike.’) Attention to the prosaic seems the right approach for any anti-capitalist endeavour. Yet there is a further, ontological dimension to the book. At some fundamental level we humans need the new: experimental forms, fresh visions and ideas for living. The most upbeat prognosis for liberal democracy and market-driven technological progress cannot disguise the sense of exhaustion and sterility, of things never fundamentally changing, of conformity and ‘the end of history’. The transformation of everything into exchangeable commodities, or into purely aesthetic objects, is a form of living death. The triumph of neoliberalism may have altered our world but, as others have insisted, it represents a massive restoration of wealth and power. For Fisher, if a left alternative is to be put forward as a rival rather than a reaction, it cannot return to the old ‘disciplinary’ structures beloved of trade unions (Fisher’s advice to them: get immanent); rather it must ‘build on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy’. After all, who wants ‘inflexibility’ and a return to fordist routine? The most profound desire which Fisher picks up on, following comments by the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis, is the desire to get beyond the self. This is something that a market-based approach, with the imperative to ‘give people what they want’, is constitutionally incapable of satisfying. Audience-focused broadcasting – and there are parallels here with ‘relational’ or ‘participatory’ approaches to art – is by nature consensual and risk-averse. In other words, suffocating. More politically, escaping the self, and the incapacitating ideology of individualism, equates to what is also the basis for any serious challenge to capitalist realism: the emergence of the collective – something Fisher emphasises at several points. Without collective action, such as refusing to participate in auditing exercises, the most illuminating critiques are doomed. Finally, if exceeding the self, in a narcissistic consumer culture built around it, implies sacrifice, then this chimes with Fisher’s all-too-brief suggestion that we embrace the ‘new austerity’ that ecological disaster compels – at a libidinal as well as practical level. The reverse of reactionary anti-modernism, it is an invitation to take the future into our own hands. ~ Dean Kenning, Art Monthly

I've been an avid reader of Mark Fisher's blog K-Punk for over a year now and its cultural, philosophical and political writing is the sort I love. He pushes the mind into zones of thinking way above the tired nostrums of the mainstream and the dull backward looking left, both liberal and so called radical. This is his first book and it packs more original ideas in its 81 pages then a year's worth of issues of The Guardian newspaper or New Left Review. It deals with a subject that has frustrated and haunted me all my adult life-the seeming social, economic and cultural totality of late capitalism and the corresponding impossibility of offering any alternative to the system without hitting a brick wall of 'being practical' or 'realistic,' translated as 'there is no alternative to the market.' Mark Fisher calls this totality 'capitalist realism' and the book could not come at a better time, when neoliberalism has at its most basic, material level been shown conclusively not to be working. Into this philosophical analysis of total absorption by capital-for instance the subsumption of the protest ethic itself into the Live Aid phenomenon and various ethical and green life style choices (see Chapter 2:What if you held a protest and everyone came?)-he weaves his own personal experiences and many references from popular culture-the film Children of Men and Kurt Cobian, etc. But he exposes three cracks in the overwhelming ideological structure of capitalist realism, climate change of course, but also an increase of mental illness and depression in the more advanced neoliberal societies and paradoxically considering that new right thinking aimed to overthrow red tape and inefficiency, a proliferation of bureaucracy-auditating culture (he draws from his own workplace experiences of teaching in a further education college) and the Kafkaesque nightmare of the call-centre: "The call center experience distils the political phenomenology of late capitalism: the boredom and frustration punctuated by cheerily piped PR, the repeating of the same dreary details many times to different poorly trained and badly informed operatives, the building rage that must remain impotent because it can have no legitimate object, since-as is very quickly clear to the caller-there is no-one who knows, and no-one who could do anything even if they could. Anger can only be a matter of venting; it is aggression in a vacuum, directed at someone who is a fellow victim of the system but with whom there is no possibility of communality. Just as the anger has no proper object, it will have no effect. In this experience of a system that is unresponsive, impersonal, centerless, abstract and fragmentary, you are as close as you can be to confronting the artificial stupidity of Capital in itself." The above paragraph is a brilliant example of the type of writing contained in Capitalist Realism; deeply intellectual but not abstract, giving concrete examples from everyday life and the popular culture of western societies. It's this that differentiates Mark Fisher from many writers of the left, who tend to look pityingly or voyeuristicly elsewhere (Palestine, South America) and bypass the 'mundane' and 'ordinary' frustrations and struggles of work and leisure, situated in the very society most of these worthy and sometimes moralistic writers come from. The only weakness of the book, if it is a weakness and not a valid description of the difficulties we face, is the impression that you get of a system so total that it enters your dreams, making it difficult to see any future post-capitalist world. But he ends with a brief account, again taking from his own experiences working in education, of new ways of struggle that might contest the new bureaucracy and a hoped for formation of a political subject (agent) that can revitalise the left and vice versa ~ Underground Man,

A quick and entertaining read.

~ SPW, Socialist Standard

Let's not beat around the bush: Fisher's 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. Although the book is written from a radically Left perspective, Fisher offers no easy solutions. Capitalist Realism is a sobering call for patient theoretical and political work. It enables us to breathe freely in our sticky atmosphere. ~ Slavoj Zizek

What happened to our future? Mark Fisher is a master cultural diagnostician, and in Capitalist Realism he surveys the symptoms of our current cultural malaise. We live in a world in which we have been told, again and again, that There Is No Alternative. The harsh demands of the 'just-in-time' marketplace have drained us of all hope and all belief. Living in an endless Eternal Now, we no longer seem able to imagine a future that might be different from the present. This book offers a brilliant analysis of the pervasive cynicism in which we seem to be mired, and even holds out the prospect of an antidote. ~ Steven Shaviro, Author of Connected and Doom Patrols

Mark Fisher
Mark Fisher 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 radic...
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