By Andrew Coates (from his blog Tendance Coatesy):
Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017)
On Saturday, on the anniversary of her friend’s death, Nina Power circulated a beautiful tribute, In Memoriam. She wrote, “Since you have gone I find it hard to go back to your writing. I think it is because there is still so much life in your words, but so much ghostliness too. And it was just so good, it just is so good. You captured exhilaration in writing like nobody else.”
This is also a contribution to Mark’s memory, written since our paths crossed at an Suffolk People’s Assembly meeting in Ipswich (Exiting the Vampire Castle), and because this recent reader of Capitalist Realism. Is there no Alternative? (2008) is deeply impressed by the work he left behind. (1)
Mark Fisher was a radical cultural critic. This expression barely covers the career of talented man whose research in the writings on the K-Punk Blog were marked by keen radical political feeling.
Capitalist Realism was, and is, a landmark study. It hits you from the first page with its quality. The book hooks the reader by an account of the film The Children of Men (2006), less a “cinematic dystopia” than a permanent state of emergency. Fisher reflects that it reminds him of a phrase attributed to Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, “that is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” This captured the meaning of “capitalist realism”, “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (Page 2)
The scenario of The Children of Men, which revolves around mass sterility, the end of public space and where nihilist religious eschatology is all that is left for the masses wandering in camps to cling to, is striking in itself. While the state had yet to be reduced to the military and police, Fisher extended the plot to capitalism, a world now where, “all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and relics.” (Page 4).
Jean Baudrillard wrote of the French Socialist governments of the 1980s, well before the collapse of Communism, of the “end of the dialectic” “the end of history” and above all the “power of simulation”. (La Gauche Divine. 1985). Fisher evokes other French theorists, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, whose Capitalisme et schizophrénie. L’anti-Œdipe (1972) to him saw capitalism as a “dark potentiality” and “unnameable thing” which has only begun to be deterritorialised through finance. One might suggest that something of this complex work, which is, amongst many things, a critique of psychoanalysis remains in Fisher’s concern with the link between the new forms of capitalism and mental illness, though the relation with Guattari’s own therapeutic practices remains to be discussed. (2)
Fisher captures these themes in the sense of “sense of exhaustion, of cultural and political sterility”, preferring capitalist realism to the term “post-modernism”, an expression, he justly noted, loaded with ambiguities, ranging from politics, economics and cultural trends. Perhaps more significantly the idea that that there is “no alternative” focuses on the propositional nature of the expression. That is it can be contested, without succumbing to the belief of theorists of the Baudrillard school, that the world has been absorbed in the “hyper-real” in which nothing beyond trivia happens any more.
Capitalist Realism indeed describes the effects of free market liberalism; an iron cage of its own imposed in the area he knew best, education. Managerialism, targets, a bureaucracy that “invades all areas of work” (P 51). The Big Other, the “bewildered frustration of the individual in the call centre labyrinth” is an “expression of the ultimate cause-that-is-not a subject capital. (Pages 65 and 70) If the latter seems a reflection of an Althusserian subjectless process commentators have been more struck by the expression of ‘hauntology” – the individual’s nostalgia for “lost futures”.
New Political Terrain.
This reader was more impressed by Fisher’s effort to think beyond these limits. The final chapter of Capitalist Realism ends with a defence public services, what is slightly tongue in cheek called a ‘Marxist supernanny”. Not that he was anything but critical of defensive politics. “It’s well past time for the left to case limiting its ambitions to the establishing of a big state. But being ‘at a distance from the state’ does not mean either abandoning the state or retreating into the private space of affects and diversity”. (page 77)
If capitalist realism survived the credit crisis of 2008, and the end of capitalism was not in sight, a “new political terrain” remains to be conquered. With its own authentic universality, a term he understands in Alain Badiou’s ‘ontological’ that is foundational, sense), This implies, “resurrecting the very concept of a general will, revising – and modernising – the idea of a public space that is not reducible to an aggregation of individuals and their interests.”(Page 77) He defended ‘worker autonomy’. How the General Will can subordinate the state, at a time when the People has emerged in some left circles as a substitute for the working class, remains to be seen. (3)
Mark Fisher’s Exiting the Vampire Castle begins with a description of his dispirited state, looking at the left, and squabbles on the Internet, which was rendered acute by attacks on Owen Jones. It continues,
One of the things that broke me out of this depressive stupor was going to the People’s Assembly in Ipswich, near where I live. The People’s Assembly had been greeted with the usual sneers and snarks. This was, we were told, a useless stunt, in which media leftists, including Jones, were aggrandising themselves in yet another display of top-down celebrity culture. What actually happened at the Assembly in Ipswich was very different to this caricature. The first half of the evening – culminating in a rousing speech by Owen Jones – was certainly led by the top-table speakers. But the second half of the meeting saw working class activists from all over Suffolk talking to each other, supporting one another, sharing experiences and strategies. Far from being another example of hierarchical leftism, the People’s Assembly was an example of how the vertical can be combined with the horizontal: media power and charisma could draw people who hadn’t previously been to a political meeting into the room, where they could talk and strategise with seasoned activists. The atmosphere was anti-racist and anti-sexist, but refreshingly free of the paralysing feeling of guilt and suspicion which hangs over left-wing twitter like an acrid, stifling fog.
I was one of the organisers of that meeting and can say that this passage cheered me up immensely. There are people on the left who have “exited” the Vampire Castle of ‘identities’ (perhaps code for an academic cultural left) that Fisher described, although our own fortresses are no doubt just as daunting. It is of interest that many of the people at the Fore Street Co-op Education Centre were active in the Labour Party at the time, and many more are today, from the present Ipswich MP, councillors, to trade unionists.
We are trying to make real if not the General Will, at least Left politics, and have a good stab at the ‘capitalist realism’ comrade Mark Fisher so brilliantly described, and for which we will remember him.
Thanks to Roger for sending me a copy of Capitalist Realism.
(1) We may well have directly met. I recall a conversation in Ipswich with somebody about post-modernism and Derrida – not one may imagine a frequent topic in the town.
(2) See Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari. Biographie croisée. François Dosse. La Découverte. 2009. This book contains a wealth of details about their lives and theories. Guattari was a supporter of a version of ‘anti-psychiatry. Some consider that Mille plateaux (1980) is more useful for its description of how states “capture” people and territories.
(3) Ed Rooksby’s review of Capitalist Realism in Historical Materialism, Vol 20 No 1. 2012, asked how literally we could take these suggestive ideas.